One Shocking Tool Plus Two Simple Ideas That Will Forever Chage How You Share Links

The Click Economy

The economy of the web runs on clicks and page views. The way web sites turn traffic into profit is complex, but I think we can get away with a broad gloss of the link economy as long as we acknowledge that greater underlying complexity exists. Basically speaking, traffic (measured in clicks, views, unique visitors, length of visit, etc.) leads to ad revenue. Web sites benefit when viewers click on links to their pages and when these viewers see and click on ads. The scale of the click economy is difficult to visualize. Direct benefits from a single click or page view are minuscule. Profits tend to be nonexistent or trivial on any scale smaller than unbelievably massive. This has the effect of making individual clicks relatively meaningless, but systems that can magnify clicks and aggregate them are extremely valuable. What this means for the individual person on the web is that unless we are Ariana Huffington, Sheryl Sandberg, Larry Page, or Mark Zuckerberg we probably aren’t going to get rich off of clicks. However, we do have impact and our online reputations can significantly influence which articles and posts go viral. If we understand how the click economy works, we can use our reputation and influence responsibly. If we are linking to content we think is good and virtuous, then there is no problem with spreading “link juice” indiscriminately. However, if we want to draw someone’s attention to content we object to, we can take steps to link responsibly and not have our outrage fuel profits for the content’s author. 1 We’ve seen that links benefit the site’s owners in two way: directly through ad revenues and indirectly through “link juice” or the positive effect that inbound links have on search engine ranking and social network trend lists. If our goal is to link without benefiting the owner of the page we are linking to, we will need a separate technique for each the two ways a web site benefits from links.

For two excellent pieces on the click economy, check out see Robinson Meyer’s Why are Upworthy Headlines Suddenly Everywhere?2 in the Atlantic Monthly and Clay Johnson’s book The Information Diet especially The New Journalists section of chapter three3

Page Rank

Page Rank is the name of a key algorithm Google uses to rank web pages it returns. 4 It counts inbound links to a page and keeps track of the relative importance of the sites the links come from. A site’s Page Rank score is a significant part of how Google decides to rank search results. 5 Search engines like Google recognize that there would be a massive problem if all inbound links were counted as votes for a site’s quality. 6 Without some mechanism to communicate “I’m linking to this site as an example of awful thinking” there really would be no such thing as bad publicity and a website with thousands of complaints and zero positive reviews would shoot to the top of search engine rankings. For example, every time a librarian used martinlutherking.org (A malicious propaganda site run by the white supremacist group Stormfront) as an example in a lesson about web site evaluation, the page would rise in Google’s ranking and more people would find it in the course of natural searches for information on Dr. King. When linking to malicious content, we can avoid increasing its Page Rank score, by adding the rel=“nofollow” attribute to the anchor link tag. A normal link is written like this:

<a href=“http://www.horriblesite.com/horriblecontent/“ target=”_blank”>This is a horrible page.</a>

This link would add the referring page’s reputation or “link juice” to the horrible site’s Page Rank. To fix that, we need to add the rel=“nofollow” attribute.

<a href=“http://www.horriblesite.com/horriblecontent/“ target=”_blank” rel=“nofollow”>This is a horrible page.</a>

This addition communicates to the search engine that the link should not count as a vote for the site’s value or reputation. Of course, not all linking takes place on web pages anymore. What happens if we want to share this link on Facebook or Twitter? Both Facebook and Twitter automatically add rel=“nofollow” to their links (you can see this if you view page source), but we should not rely on that alone. Social networks aggregate links and provide their own link juice similarly to search engines. When sharing links on social networks, we’ll want to employ a tool that keeps control of the link’s power in our own hands. donotlink.com is an very interesting tool for this purpose.

donotlink.com

donotlink.com is a service that creates safe links that don’t pass on any reputation or link juice. It is ideal for sharing links to sites we object to. On one level, it works similarly to a URL shortener like bit.ly or tinyurl.com. It creates a new URL customized for sharing on social networks. On deeper levels, it does some very clever stuff to make sure no link juice dribbles to the site being linked. They explain what, why, and how very well on their site. Basically speaking donotlink.com passes the link through a new URL that uses javascript, a robots.txt file, and the nofollow and noindex link attributes to both ask search engines and social networks to not apply link juice and to make it structurally difficult to do ignore these requests. 7 This makes donotlink.com’s link masking service an excellent solution to the problem of web sites indirectly profiting from negative attention.

Page Views & Traffic

All of the techniques listed above will deny a linked site the indirect benefits of link juice. They will not, however, deny the site the direct benefits from increased traffic or views and clicks on the pages advertisements. There are ways to share content without generating any traffic or advertising revenues, but these involve capturing the content and posting it somewhere else so they raise ethical questions about respect for intellectual property. So I suggest using only with both caution and intentionality. A quick and easy way to direct traffic to content without benefiting the hosting site is to use a link to Google’s cache of the page. If you can find a page in a Google search, clicking the green arrow next to the URL (see image) will give the option of viewing the cached page. Then just copy the full URL and share that link instead of the original. Viewers can read the text without giving the content page views. Not all pages are visible on Google, so the Wayback Machine from the Internet Archive is a great alternative. The Wayback Machine provides access to archived version of web pages and also has a mechanism (see the image on the right) for adding new pages to the archive.

screengrab of google cache

Screengrab of Google Cache

screengrab of wayback machine

Caching a site at the wayback machine

Both of these solutions rely on external hosts and if the owner of the content is serious about erasing a page, there are processes for removing content from both Google’s cache and the Wayback Machine archives. To be certain of archiving content, the simplest solution is to capture a screenshot and share the image file. This gives you control over the image, but may be unwieldy for larger documents. In these cases saving as a PDF may be a useful workaround. (Personally, I prefer to use the Clearly browser plugin with Evernote, but I have a paid Evernote account and am already invested in the Evernote infrastructure.)

Summing up

In conclusion, there are a number of steps we can take when we want to be responsible with how we distribute link juice. If we want to share information without donating our online reputation to the information’s owner, we can use donotlink.com to generate a link that does not improve their search engine ranking. If we want to go a step further, we can link to a cached version of the page or share a screenshot.

Notes

  1. Using outrageous or objectionable content to generate web traffic is a black-hat SEO technique known as “evil hooks.” There is a lot of profit in “You won’t believe what this person said!” links.
  2. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/12/why-are-upworthy-headlines-suddenly-everywhere/282048/
  3. The Information Diet, page 35-41
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PageRank
  5. Matt Cuts How Search Works Video.
  6. I’ve used this article http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/28/business/28borker.html to explain this concept to my students. It is also referenced by donotlink.com in their documentation.
  7. javascript is slightly less transparent to search engines and social networks than is HTML, robots.txt is a file on a web server that tells search engine bots which pages to crawl (it works more like a no trespassing sign than a locked gate), noindex tells bots not to add the link to its index.

#libtechgender: A Post in Two Parts

Conversations about gender relations, bias, and appropriate behavior have bubbled up all over the technology sector recently. We have seen conferences adopt codes of conduct that strive to create welcoming atmospheres. We have also seen cases of bias and harassment, cases that may once have been tolerated or ignored, now being identified and condemned. These conversations, like gender itself, are not simple or binary but being able to listen respectfully and talk honestly about uncomfortable topics offers hope that positive change is possible.

On October 28th Sarah Houghton, the director of the San Rafael Public Library, moderated a panel on gender in library technology at the Internet Librarian conference. In today’s post I’d like to share my small contributions to the panel discussion that day and also to share how my understanding of the issues changed after the discussion there. It is my hope that more conversations—more talking and more listening—about gender issue in library technology will be sparked from this start.

Part I: Internet Librarian Panel on Gender

Our panel’s intent was to invite librarians into a public conversation about gender issues. In the Internet Librarian program our invitation read:

Join us for a lively panel and audience discussion about the challenges of gender differences in technology librarianship. The topics of fairness and bias with both genders have appeared in articles, blogs, etc and this panel of women and men who work in libraries and gender studies briefly share personal experiences, then engage the audience about experiences and how best to increase understanding between the genders specifically in the area of technology work in librarianship. 1
Panelists: Sarah Houghton, Ryan Claringbole, Emily Clasper, Kate Kosturski, Lisa Rabey, John Bultena, Tatum Lindsay, and Nicholas Schiller

My invitation to participate on the stemmed from blog posts I wrote about how online conversations about gender issues can go off the rails and become disasters. I used my allotted time to share some simple suggestions I developed observing these conversations. Coming from my personal (white cis straight male) perspective, I paid attention to things that I and my male colleagues do and say that result in unintended offense, silencing, and anger in our female colleagues. By reverse engineering these conversational disasters, I attempted to learn from unfortunate mistakes and build better conversations. Assuming honest good intentions, following these suggestions can help us avoid contention and build more empathy and trust.

  1. Listen generously. Context and perspective are vital to these discussions. If we’re actively cultivating diverse perspectives then we are inviting ideas that conflict with our assumptions. It’s more effective to assume these ideas come from unfamiliar but valid contexts than to assume they are automatically unreasonable. By deferring judgement until after new ideas have been assimilated and understood we can avoid silencing voices that we need to hear.
  2. Defensive responses can be more harmful than offensive responses. No one likes to feel called on the carpet, but the instinctive responses we can give when we feel blamed or accused can be worse than simply giving offense. Defensive denials can lead to others feeling silenced, which is much more damaging and divisive than simple disagreement. It can be the difference between communicating  “you and I disagree on this matter” and communicating “you are wrong and don’t get a voice in this conversation.” That kind of silencing and exclusion can be worse than simply giving offense.
  3. It is okay to disagree or to be wrong. Conversations about gender are full of fear. People are afraid to speak up for fear of reprisal. People are afraid to say the wrong thing and be revealed as a secret misogynist. People are afraid. The good news is that conversations where all parties feel welcome, respected, and listened to can be healing. Because context and perspective matter so much in how we address issues, once we accept the contexts and perspectives of others, we are more likely to receive acceptance of our own perspectives and contexts. Given an environment of mutual respect and inclusion, we don’t need to be afraid of holding unpopular views. These are complex issues and once trust is established, complex positions are acceptable.

This is what I presented at the panel session and I still stand behind these suggestions. They can be useful tools for building better conversations between people with good intentions. Specifically, they can help men in our field avoid all-too-common barriers to productive conversation.

That day I listened and learned a lot from the audience and from my fellow panelists. I shifted my priorities. I still think cultivating better conversations is an important goal. I still want to learn how to be a better listener and colleague.  I think these are skills that don’t just happen, but need to be intentionally cultivated. That said, I came in to the panel believing that the most important gender related issue in library technology was finding ways for well-intentioned colleagues to communicate effectively about an uncomfortable problem. Listening to my colleagues tell their stories, I learned that there are more direct and pressing gender issues in libraries.

Part II: After the Panel

As I listened to my fellow panelists tell their stories and then as I listened to people in the audience share their experiences, no one else seemed particularly concerned about well-intentioned people having misunderstandings or about breakdowns in communication. Instead, they related a series of harrowing personal experiences where men (and women, but mostly men) were directly harassing, intentionally abusive, and strategically cruel in ways that are having a very large impact on the daily work, career paths, and the quality of life of my female colleagues. I assumed that since this kind of harassment clearly violates standard HR policies that the problem is adequately addressed by existing administrative policies. That assumption is incorrect.

It is easy to ignore what we don’t see and I don’t see harassment taking place in libraries and I don’t often hear it discussed. It has been easy to underestimate the prevalence and impact it has on many of my colleagues. Listening to librarians.

Then, after the conference one evening, a friend of mine was harassed on the street and I had another assumption challenged. It happened quickly, but a stranger on the street harassed my friend while I watched in stunned passivity. 2 I arrived at the conference feeling positive about my grasp of the issues and also feeling confident about my role as an ally. I left feeling shaken and doubting both my thoughts and my actions.

In response to the panel and its aftermath, I’ve composed three more points to reflect what I learned. These aren’t suggestions, like I brought to the panel, instead they are realizations or statements. I’m obviously not an expert on the topic and I’m not speaking from a seat of authority. I’m relating stories and experiences told by others and they tell them much better than I do. In the tradition of geeks and hackers now that I have learned something new I’m sharing it with the community in hopes that my experience moves the project forward. It is my hope that better informed and more experienced voices will take this conversation farther than I am able to. These three realizations may be obvious to some, because they were not obvious to me, it seems useful to clearly articulate them.

  1. Intentional and targeted harassment of women is a significant problem in the library technology field. While subtle micro aggressions, problem conversations, and colleagues who deny that significant gender issues exist in libraries are problematic, these issues are overshadowed by direct and intentional harassing behavior targeting gender identity or sex. The clear message I heard at the panel was that workplace harassment is a very real and very current threat to women working in library technology fields.
  2. This harassment is not visible to those not targeted by it. It is easy to ignore what we do not see. Responses to the panel included many library technology women sharing their experiences and commenting that it was good to hear others’ stories. Even though the experience of workplace harassment was common, those who spoke of it reported feelings of isolation. While legislation and human resources polices clearly state harassment is unacceptable and unlawful, it still happens and when it happens the target can be isolated by the experience. Those of us who participate in library conferences, journals, and online communities can help pierce this isolation by cultivating opportunities to talk about these issues openly and public. By publicly talking about gender issues, we can thwart isolation and make the problems more visible to those who are not direct targets of harassment.
  3. This is a cultural problem, not only an individual problem. While no one point on the gender spectrum has a monopoly on either perpetrating or being the target of workplace harassment, the predominant narrative in our panel discussion was men harassing women. Legally speaking, these need to be treated as individual acts, but as a profession, we can address the cultural aspects of the issue. Something in our library technology culture is fostering an environment where women are systematically exposed to bad behavior from men.

In the field of Library Technology, we spend a lot of our time and brain power intentionally designing user experiences and assessing how users interact with our designs. Because harassment of some of our own is pervasive and cultural, I suggest we turn the same attention and intentionality to designing a workplace culture that is responsive to the needs of all of us who work here. I look forward to reading conference presentations, journal articles, and online discussions where these problems are publicly identified and directly addressed rather than occurring in isolation or being ignored.

  1. infotoday.com/il2013/Monday.asp#TrackD
  2. I don’t advocate a macho confrontational response or take responsibility for the actions of others, but an ally has their friend’s back and that night I did not speak up.

Getting Beyond Library Assessment Fatigue: or how SEO taught me to stop whining and love the data

This post is a bit of a thought-experiment. It grew out of a conversation I had with a colleague about something I like to call “assessment fatigue.” I believe we need quality assessment, but I also get extremely tired of hearing the assessment fad everywhere. My fatigue with assessment-speak has been making it difficult to engage with the real work of assessment, but a recent conversation about Search Engine Optimization and Web Analytics (of all things) is helping me get beyond this. I’m hopeful that by sharing and exploring this thought-arc with you, we can profitably move beyond assessment-speak and assessment-fatigue and on to the thoughtful and intentional work of building library services informed with data.

TLDR: Jump to the list of three rules from SEO that can apply to library assessment fatigue at the bottom of this article.

Assessment Fatigue

Assessment fatigue is the state of not wanting to hear another another word about measuring, rubrics, or demonstrating value. I am a frequent sufferer of assessment fatigue, despite the fact that I am convinced that assessment is absolutely necessary to guide the work of the library. I don’t know of a viable alternative to the outcomes-assessment model1 of goal setting and performance evaluation. I think there is great work out there 2 about how to incorporate assessment into the work of academic libraries. I’ve seen it lead libraries to achieving amazing things and thus I’m a believer in the power of outcomes and data driven planning.

I’m also sick to death of hearing about it. It is frighteningly easy to turn talk of assessment into a dry and empty caricature of what it can be. So much so, that I’m usually hesitant to get on board with a new assessment project because they can turn into something out of a Kafka novel or Terry Gilliam movie at the drop of a hat. This gives me a bad attitude and my internal monologue can resemble: “Oh yes, let’s reduce the complexities of academic work to the things that are most easily quantified and then plot our success on a rubric.” or “Let’s reduce information literacy to a standardized test and then make our instruction program teach to that test.” I also hear Leonard Nimoy’s voice from Civilization IV in my head saying “The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.” These snarky thoughts are at best unhelpful and at worst get in the way of the work of the library, but I’d be lying if I denied indulging them from time to time. Assessment is undeniably necessary, but it can also be tremendously annoying for the rank and file librarians required to add gathering data to their already over-full workloads.

Happily, I’ve discovered something that rescues me from my whining and helps me engage in useful assessment activities. It comes from, oddly enough, what I’ve learned about Search Engine Optimization (SEO). This connection may appear initially to be tenuous, but using it has been profitable for me and helped both my attitude and my productivity. To help make this all a little more clear I’m going to begin by explaining what I’ve learned through teaching SEO to undergraduates and then I’ll demonstrate that SEO and library assessment share some key characteristics, namely they both have suffer from a bad reputation among those who carry them out, they are both absolutely required in order to do the highest quality work in their respective fields, and both are ultimately justified by the power of data-driven decision making.

Teaching SEO

I include a unit on Search Engine Optimization in a course I teach on information architecture. In the class we cover basic organization theory, database structures, searching databases, search engine structure, searching the web, SEO, and microdata markup. I was reluctant at first to add the SEO unit, because I understood SEO as a largely seedy and underhanded marketing affair. Once I taught it, however, I realized that doing SEO the right way requires a nuanced understanding of how web search works. Students who learned how to do SEO also learned how to search and their insights on web search bled over and made them better database searchers as well.

Quick Primer on Web Search & SEO

What makes students who understand SEO and web architecture more effective database searchers has to do with a little known detail of full-text keyword searching: by itself, keyword searching doesn’t work very well. More finely put, keyword search works just fine, but the results of these searches, by themselves, aren’t very useful. Finding keyword matches is easy, the real challenge is in packaging the results of a keyword search in a manner that is useful to the searcher. Unlike databases with well-organized metadata structures, keyword searches don’t have a way of telling what keywords mean. Web content has no title, author, or subject fields3. So when I search for “blues” the keyword search doesn’t know if I’m looking for colors, moods, music, jeans, cheeses, or the French national football side.

Because of this lack of context, search engines create useful results rankings by treating HTML tags and web structural elements as implicit metadata. If a keyword is found inside a URL, <title> or <h1> tag, the site is ranked more highly than a site where the keyword appears only in thet <body> tag. Anchor-link text, the words underlined in blue in a web link, are especially valuable, since they contain another person’s description of what a site is. In the following example, the anchor-link text “The ACRL TechConnect blog, a site about library technology for academic librarians” succinctly and accurately describes the content being linked to. This makes the content more findable to readers using search engines.

<a href="http://acrl.ala.org/techconnect/">The ACRL TechConnect blog, a site about library technology for academic librarians.</a>

Thus, when we code a site or even make a link, we are, in effect, cataloging the web. This is also why we should never use “click here” in our anchor-link text. When we do that we are squandering an opportunity to add descriptive information to the link, and make it more difficult for potential readers to discover our content. The following is the WRONG way to write a web link.

<a href="http://acrl.ala.org/techconnect/">Click here</a> for the The ACRL TechConnect blog, a site about library technology for academic librarians.

In this example, the descriptive information is outside the link (outside the <a></a> tags) and thus unrecognisable as descriptive information to a search engine

Search companies like Ask, Bing, Google, and Yahoo! don’t organize the web, they just capture how users and content creators organize and describe their own and each others’ content. SEO, very basically speaking, is the practice of putting knowledge of web search architecture into practice. When we use short but descriptive text in our URLs, <title> tags, <h1> tags, and write descriptive anchor link text–when we practice responsible SEO in other words–we are performing the public service of making the web more accessible for everyone. Search engine architecture and SEO are, of course, much more complicated than these short paragraphs can detail, but this is the general concept: because there is no standardized way of cataloging pages, search engine companies have found workarounds to make “a vast collection of completely uncontrolled heterogeneous documents” [Brin quote] act like a database. Using that loose metaphor, SEO can be seen as the process of getting web designers to think like catalogers.

SEO’s Bad Reputation

When viewed from this perspective, SEO doesn’t seem all that bad. It seems like a natural process of understanding how search engines use web site data and using that knowledge to maximize public access to one’s site data. In reality, it doesn’t always work so cleanly. Ad revenue is based on page views and clicks, so practically speaking, SEO often becomes the process of maximizing revenue by driving traffic to a site by any means. In other words, all too often SEO experts act like marketers, not like catalogers. Because of these abuses SEO is commonly understood as the process of maximizing search ranking regardless of relevance, user intent, or ethics.

If you want to test my hypothesis here, simply send a tweet containing the letters SEO or #seo and examine the quality of your new followers and messages. (Spoiler: you’ll get a lot of spam comments and spam followers so don’t try this at home.)

Of course, SEO doesn’t have to be shady or immoral, but since there are profits to be made off by shady and immoral SEO ‘experts’, the field has earned its bad reputation. Any web designer who wants people to find her content needs to perform fundamental SEO tasks, but there is little talk about the process, out of fear of being lumped in with the shady side of things. For me, the best argument for doing SEO is to keep the reason for SEO in the front of my mind: we need to bother with the mess of SEO because SEO is what connects our content to our audience. Because I care about both my audience and my content, I’m willing to do unpleasant tasks necessary to ensure my audience can find my content.

The Connection Between Library Assessment and SEO

It seems clear to me that library assessment suffers from some of the same reputation problems that SEO has. Regardless of how quality assessment is integral to library performance, the current fad status of assessment can make it difficult for librarians in their daily work to see any benefits behind the hype. Failures of past assessment fads to bring about promised changes (TQM anyone?) make librarians wary of drinking the assessment Kool-Aid. I’m not focusing here on grumpy or curmudgeonly librarians, but hard-working professionals who have heard too many assessment pep-talks to get excited about the next project.

This is why I find SEO to be a useful analogue for library assessment. Both SEO and library assessment are things that are absolutely necessary to the success of our efforts, but both are also held in distaste by many of the rank and file who are required to engage in these activities. One key to getting beyond the initial negative reaction and the bad reputations of these activities is to focus on the reasons we have for engaging in them. For example, we do SEO because we want to connect users with our content. We do assessment because we want to make decisions based on data, not whim. We do assessment because we want to know if our efforts to serve our users are actually serving our users. In other words: because I care deeply about providing the highest quality service to our library patrons, I am willing to do underlying work to make certain our efforts are having the desired effects.

Keeping the ultimate goal in mind is not only helpful for setting priorities, but it also helps us govern the potentially insidious natures of both SEO and assessment. By this I mean that if we keep in mind that SEO is about connecting our intended audience to our quality content, we are much less likely to be tempted to engage in unsavory marketing schemes, because those are not about either our intended audience or quality content. In the same vein, if we remain mindful that library assessment is about using data to improve how we serve our users, we are unlikely to take shortcuts such as teaching to a standardized test, choosing only easily quantifiable measures, or assessing only areas of strength. These shortcuts will serve only to undermine that goal in the long run.

Moving Forward

Returning to the conversation with my colleague that sparked this post, after I finished whining about my assessment fatigue, I was explained why I felt it was necessary to add a section on web analytics to my SEO course unit. My students worked on a project where the analysed a website for its SEO and made suggestions to improve access to the content. Without the data provided by web analytics, they had no way of knowing if their suggestions made things better, worse, or had no effect. She replied that this is the precise reason that librarians need to collect assessment data. Without assessment data, we have no tools to tell if our work choices improve, worsen, or have no effect on library services. She was, of course, absolutely right. Without quality assessment data, we have no way of knowing whether our decisions about library service lead to increased access to relevant information and improved patron experience.

Three SEO Rules that Apply to Library Assessment

In conclusion and in continuation of the metaphor that library assessment is a lot like SEO, here are three rules from SEO that can speak to our library assessment efforts.

1. Know how search engines function. (Know how accreditation functions.)

If you want people who use search engines to successfully find your site, you have to know how search engines function and incorporate that knowledge into your site design. Similarly, if you are assessing library performance in order to demonstrate value to stakeholders such as accreditors or campus administrators outside the library, you need to know what these bodies value and write your assessment to measure for these values.

2. Know your content and your audience. (Know your library and your users.)

The most common error in SEO efforts is designing to generate maximum traffic to your site. If successful, this approach can generate a large quantity of traffic, traffic that is collectively annoyed to find themselves at your site. The proper approach is to know your content and design your SEO to attract genuinely interested traffic. A similar temptation applies to library assessment. It is possible to skew your analytics to show only amazing success in all areas, but this comes at the cost of gathering useful about actual library services and at the cost of being able to improve services based on that data. Assessment data is valuable because it tells us about how the library serves our users. Data skewed to show only positive results is useless when it comes to helping the library achieve its mission.

3. Design for humans, not for machines. (Assess for library users.)

This rule sums up the law and the prophets for SEO: design for humans and not for machines. What it means is don’t let your desire for search ranking tempt you into designing an ugly page that your audience hates. Put the people first. When you have a choice to make between a design element that favors human readers and a design element that favors search engines crawlers, ALWAYS choose people. While SEO efforts have a real impact on search ranking, a quality web site is more important for search ranking than quality SEO effort. Similarly, if you find yourself tempted to compromise service to patrons in order to focus on assessment, always err on the side of the patron. Librarian time and attention are finite resources, but if we consciously and consistently prioritize our patrons ahead of our assessment efforts, our assessment efforts will uncover more favorable data than if we put the data ahead of the people we are here to serve.


Adventures with Raspberry Pi: A Librarian’s Introduction

Raspberry Pi
A Raspberry Pi computer

A Raspberry Pi computer (image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Raspberry Pi, a $35 fully-functional desktop computer about the size of a credit card, is currently enjoying a high level of buzz, popularity, and media exposure. Librarians are, of course, also getting in on the action. I have been working with a Raspberry Pi to act as a low-power web server for a project delivering media-rich web content for museum exhibits in places without access to the internet. I’ve found working with the little Linux machine to be a lot of fun and I’m very excited about doing more with Raspberry Pi. However, as with many things librarians get excited about, it can be difficult to see through the enthusiasm to the core of the issue. Is the appeal of these cute little computers universal or niche? Do I need a Raspberry Pi in order to offer core services to my patrons? In other words: do we all need to run out and buy a Raspberry Pi, are they of interest to a certain niche of librarians, or are Raspberry Pi just the next library technology fad and soon to go the way of offering reference service in Second Life? 1 To help us answer this question, I’d like to take a moment to explain what a Raspberry Pi device is, speculate who will be interested in one, provide examples of some library projects that use Raspberry Pi, and offer a shopping list for those who want to get started.

What is Raspberry Pi

From the FAQ at raspberrypi.org:

The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard. It’s a capable little PC which can be used for many of the things that your desktop PC does, like spreadsheets, word-processing and games. It also plays high-definition video. We want to see it being used by kids all over the world to learn programming.

This description from Raspberry Pi covers the basics. (H2G2 has a more detailed history of the project.) A Raspberry Pi (also known as a Raspi, or an RPi) is a small and inexpensive computer designed to extend technology education to young students who don’t currently have access to more expensive traditional computers. The Raspberry Pi project counteracts a movement away from general-purpose computing devices and toward internet appliances and mobile devices. The Pew Internet and American Life Project notes that: “smartphone owners, young adults, minorities, those with no college experience, and those with lower household income levels are more likely than other groups to say that their phone is their main source of internet access.2 Access to the internet today is pervasive and less expensive than ever before, but also more likely to come from an appliance or mobile device and without the programming tools and command-line control that were standard for previous generations of computer users. This means a smaller percentage of computer users are likely to pick up these skills on their own. Raspberry Pi offers a very-low cost solution to this lack of access to programming and command-line tools.

In addition to the stated goal of the Raspberry Pi organization, a lot of adults who already have access to technology are also very excited about the possibilities enabled by the small and cheap computing platform. What sets the Raspberry Pi apart from other computers is its combination of small size and low price. While you can do very similar things with a re-purposed or salvaged computer system running Linux, the Raspberry Pi is much smaller and uses less power. Similarly, you can do some of these things with a similarly-sized smart-phone, but those are much more expensive than a Raspberry Pi. For the technology hobbyist and amateur mad scientist, the Raspberry Pi seems to hit a sweet spot on both physical size and cost of entry.

The heart of the Raspberry Pi (or RPi) Model B is a Broadcom system-on-a-chip that includes a 700mhz ARM processor, 512mb RAM, USB and Ethernet controllers, and a graphics processor capable of HD resolutions. According to the FAQ its real-world performance is on par with a first generation Xbox or a 300mhz Pentium II computer. In my personal experience it is powerful enough for typical web browsing tasks or to host a WordPress based web site. Raspberry Pi devices also come with a GPIO (general purpose input and output) port, which enables an RPi to control electronic circuits. This makes the RPi a very flexible tool, but it doesn’t quite provide the full functionality of an Arduino or similar micro-controller3.

Out of the box, a Raspberry Pi will require some extra equipment to get up and running. There is a shopping list included at the bottom of the article that contains known working parts. If you keep boxes of spare parts and accessories around, just in case, you likely already have some of these parts. In addition to a $35 Raspberry Pi model b computer, you will definitely need an SD card with at least 4gb storage and a 5 volt 1 amp (minimum) micro-usb power supply. An extra cell phone charger looks like the right part, but probably does not put out the minimum amperage to run an RPi, but a tablet charger likely will. You can read the fine print on the ‘wall wart’ part of the charger for its amperage rating.  If you want to use your Raspberry Pi as a workstation4, you’ll also need an HDMI cable, a digital monitor and a USB keyboard and mouse. Any USB keyboard or mouse will work, but the monitor will need to have an HDMI input. 5 Additionally, you may also want to use a USB wifi adapter to connect to wireless networks and since the Raspberry Pi has only two USB ports, you may also want a powered USB hub so you can connect more peripherals. The Raspberry Pi unit ships as a bare board, so you may want to keep your RPi in a case to protect it from rough handling.

Who is the Raspberry Pi for?

Now that we’ve covered what kind of kit is needed to get started, we can ask: are you the kind of librarian who is likely to be interested in a Raspberry Pi? I’ve noticed some “enthusiasm fatigue” out there, or librarians who are weary of overhyped tools that don’t provide the promised revolution. I love my Raspberry Pi units, but I don’t think they have universal appeal, so I’ve made a little quiz that may help you decide whether you are ready to order one today or pass on the fad, for now.

  1. Are you excited to work in a Linux operating system?
  2. Are you willing to use trial and error analysis to discover just right configuration for your needs?
  3. Do you enjoy the challenge of solving a living problem more than the security of a well-polished system?

If the answer to all three of these questions is an enthusiastic YES, then you are just the kind of librarian who will love experimenting with a Raspberry Pi. If your enthusiasm is more tempered or if you answered no to one or more of the questions, then it is not likely that a Raspberry Pi will meet your immediate needs. RPi are projects not products. They make great prototypes or test-boxes, but they aren’t really a turn-key solution to any existing large-scale library problems. Not every library or librarian needs a Raspberry Pi, but I think a significant number of geeky and DIY librarians will be left asking: “Where have you been all my life?”

If you are a librarian looking to learn Linux, programming, or server administration and you’d rather do this on a cheap dedicated machine than on your work machine, Raspberry Pi is going to make your day. If you want to learn how to install and configure something like WordPress or Drupal and you don’t have a web server to practice on (and local AMP tools aren’t what you are looking for) a Raspberry Pi is an ideal tool to develop that part of your professional skill set. If you want to learn code, learn robotics, or build DIY projects then you’ll love Raspberry Pi. RPi are great for learning more about computers, networks, and coding. They are very educational, but at the end of the day they fall a bit more on the hobby end of the spectrum then on the professional product end.

Raspberry Pi Projects for Librarians

So, if you’ve taken the quiz and are still interested in getting started with Raspberry Pi, there are a few good starting points. If you prefer printed books O’Reilly Media’s Getting Started with Raspberry Pi is fantastic. On the web. I’ve found the Raspberry Pi wiki at elinux.org to be an indispensable resource and their list of tutorials is worth a special mention. Adafruit (an electronics kit vendor and education provider) also has some very good tutorials and project guides. For library specific projects, I have three suggestions, but there are many directions you may want to go with your Rasberry Pi. I’m currently working to set mine up as a web server for local content, so museums can offer rich interpretive media about their exhibits without having to supply free broadband to the public. When this is finished, I’m going to build projects two and three.

  • Project One: Get your RPi set up.

This is the out-of-the-box experience and will take you through the set up of your hardware and software. RaspberryPi.org has a basic getting started guide, Adafruit has a more detailed walkthrough, and there are some good YouTube tutorials as well. In this project you’ll download the operating system for your Raspberry Pi, transfer it to your SD card, and boot up your machine, and perform the first time setup. Once you’re device is up and running you can spend some time familiarizing yourself with it and getting comfortable with the operating system.

  • Project One-Point-Five: Play with your Raspberry Pi

Once your credit card sized computer is up and functional, kick the tires. Check out the graphical interface, use the command line, and try running it headless. Take baby steps if baby steps are what is fun and comfortable, or run headlong into a project that is big and crazy; the idea here is to have fun, get used to the environment, and learn enough to ask useful questions about what to do next. This is a good time to check out the Adafruit series of tutorials or elinux.org’s tutorial list.

  • Project Two: Build an Information Kiosk to Display Local Mass Transit Information

http://blog.bn.ee/2013/01/11/building-a-real-time-transit-information-kiosk-with-raspberry-pi/

I found this on the elinux list of tutorials and I think it is great for libraries, provided they are in an area served by NextBus or a similar service. The tutorial walks users through the process of building a dedicated information kiosk for transit information. The steps are clear and documented with photographs and code examples. Beginning users may want to refer to other references, such as the O’Reilly Book or a Linux Tutorial to fill in some gaps.  I suspect the tricky bit will be finding a source for real-time GPS telemetry from the local transit service, but this is a great project for those who have worked through basic projects and are ready to build something practical for their library.

  • Project Three: Build a Dedicated OPAC Terminal.

While dedicated OPAC terminals may no longer be the cutting edge of library technology, our patrons still need to find books on the shelves. Library Journal’s Digital Shift blog and John Lolis from the White Plains public library describe a project that uses the Raspbian OS to power a catalog-only public terminal. The concept is straight-forward and working prototypes have been completed, but as of yet I do not see a step-by-step set of instructions for the beginner or novice. As a follow up to this post, I will document the build process for TechConnect. The gist of this project is to set up a kiosk-type browser, or a browser that only does a set task or visits a limited range of sites, on the Raspberry Pi. Eli Neiberger has raised some good questions on Twitter about the suitability of RPi hardware for rough-and-tumble public abuse use, but this is the sort of issue testing may resolve. If librarians can crowd-source a durable low-cost OPAC kiosk using Lolis’ original design, we’ll have done something significant.

Raspberry Pi Shopping List

As mentioned above, you may have many of these items already. If not, I’ve purchased and tested the following accessories for a couple of Raspberry Pi projects.

Basic Kit: (parts sourced through Amazon for ease of institutional purchase. Other sources may be preferable or less expensive.)

Accessories:

Raspberry Pi kits (Some vendors have put together full kits with a wide range of parts and accessories. These kits include breadboards and parts for arduino-type projects.)

Notes

  1. Good and necessary work is still being done in Second Life, but it has become a niche service, not a revolution in the way we provide library services.
  2. http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2012/PIP_Digital_differences_041312.pdf
  3. Check out this forum thread for a basic distinction between Arduino and Raspberry Pi.
  4. The alternative is to run it ‘headless’ over your network using SSH.
  5. Monitors with DVI input will work with a small and cheap HDMI to DVI adaptor. Analog monitors–the ones with blue VGA connectors–will work if you purchase an HDMI to VGA converter-adapter which start around $20.

The Mobile App Design Process: A Tube Map Infographic

Last June I had a great experience team-teaching a week-long seminar on designing mobile apps at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI). Along with my colleagues from WSU Vancouver’s Creative Media and Digital Culture (CMDC) program, I’ll be returning this June to the beautiful University of Victoria in British Columbia to teach the course again1. As part of the course, I created a visual overview of the process we use for app making. I hope you’ll find it a useful perspective on the work involved in crafting mobile apps and an aid to the process of creating your own.

topological map of the mobile app design process

A visual guide to the process of designing and building mobile apps. Start with Requirements Analysis in the upper-left and follow the tracks to Public Release. (Click for full-sized image.)

Creating the Tube Map:

I’m fond of the tube-map infographic style, also know as the topological map2, because of its ability to highlight relationships between systems and especially because of how it distinguishes between linear (do once) and recursive (do over and over) processes. The linear nature of text in a book or images in slide-deck presentations can artificially impose a linearity that does not mirror the creative process we want to impart. In this example, the design and prototyping loops on the tube-map help communicate that a prototype model is an aid to modeling the design process and not a separate step completed only when the design has been finalized.

These maps are also fun and help spur the creative process. There are other tools for process mapping such as using flowcharts or mind-maps, but in this case I found the topological map has a couple of advantages. First and foremost, I associate the other two with our strategic planning process, so the tube map immediately seems more open, fun, and creative. This is, of course, rooted in my own experience and your experiences will vary but if you are looking for a new perspective on process mapping or a new way to display interconnected systems that is vibrant, fun, and shakes things up a bit the tube map may be just the thing.

I created the map using the open source vector-graphics program Inkscape[3. http://inkscape.org/] which can be compared to Adobe Illustrator and Corel Draw. Inkscape is free (both gratis and libre) and is powerful, but there is a bit of a learning curve. Being unfamiliar with vector graphics or the software tools to create them, I worked with an excellent tutorial provided by Wikipedia on creating vector graphic topological maps3. It took me a few days of struggling and slowly becoming familiar with the toolset before I felt comfortable creating with Inkscape. I count this as time well spent, as many graphics used in mobile app and icon sets required by app stores can be made with vector graphic editors. The Inkscape skills I picked up while making the map have come in very handy on multiple occasions since then.

Reading the Mobile App Map:

Our process through the map begins with a requirements analysis or needs assessment. We ask: what does the client want the app to do? What do we know about our end users? How do the affordances of the device affect this? Performing case studies helps us learn about our users before we start designing to meet their needs. In the design stage we want people to make intentional choices about the conceptual and aesthetic aspects of  their app design. Prototype models like wireframe mock-ups, storyboards, or Keynotopia4 prototypes help us visualize these choices, eventually resulting in a working prototype of our app. Stakeholders can test and request modifications to the prototype, avoiding potentially expensive and labor intensive code revisions later in the process.

Once both the designers and clients are satisfied with the prototype and we’ve seen how potential users interact with it, we’re ready to commit our vision to code. Our favored code platform uses HTML 5, CSS 3, jQuery Mobile5, and PhoneGap6 to make hybrid web apps. Hybrid apps are written as web apps–HTML/JavaScript web sites that look and performlike apps–then use a tool like PhoneGap to translate this code into the native format for a device. PhoneGap translates a web app into a format that works with the device’s native programming environment. This provides more direct and thus faster access to device hardware and also enables us to place our app in official app stores. Hybrid apps are not the only available choice and aren’t perfect for every use case. They can be slower than native apps and may have some issues accessing device hardware, but the familiar coding language, multi-device compatibility, and ease of making updates across multiple platforms make them an ideal first step for mobile app design. LITA has an upcoming webinar on creating web apps that employs this system7.

Once the prototype has been coded into a hybrid app, we have another opportunity for evaluation and usability testing. We teach a pervasive approach that includes evaluation and testing all throughout the process, but this stage is very important as it is a last chance to make changes before sending the code to an app marketplace. After the app has been submitted, opportunities to make updates, fix bugs, and add features can be limited, sometimes significantly, by the app store’s administrative processes.

After you have spent some time following the lines of the tube map and reading this very brief description, I hope you can see this infographic as an aid to designing mobile web apps. I find it particularly helpful for identifying the source of a particular problem I’m having and also suggesting tools and techniques that can help resolve it. As a personal example, I am often tempted to start writing code before I’ve completely made up my mind what I want the code to do, which leads to frustration. I use the map to remind me to look at my wireframe and use that to guide the structure of my code. I hope you all find it useful as well.


From Cool to Useful: Incorporating hobby projects into library work

Cool or Useful? A guide to incorporating hobby projects into library work

Sometimes I have trouble creating a clear line between geeky hobby projects I do on my own time and professional tasks for MPOW (my place of work.) This time, the geeky-thing-I-think-is-cool is a LibraryBox. LibraryBox is a hardware hack created by Jason Griffey.  What I’m currently trying to work out is, is this project a viable solution to a practical work-place problem? Of course, I have to watch out for Maslov’s Law of the Instrument which can be paraphrased: “To a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” These days I’m seeing a lot of LibraryBox-shaped nails. I’m eager to find potential applications for my new toy tool. My project in today’s post is to describe the LibraryBox project and describe a method of determining whether or not it has a work-related application.

What is a LibraryBox?

A LibraryBox is a very portable pocket-sized device that serves up digital content to wifi devices. It is designed to provide free ebooks to readers with wifi devices but without access to reliable Internet or power. The best introduction to LibraryBox may be found on the LibraryBox site. Jason Griffey has done an excellent job with the site’s design and has written comprehensive instructions for building and deploying LibraryBoxen. The site describes the project as: “an open source, portable digital file distribution tool based on inexpensive hardware that enables delivery of educational, healthcare, and other vital information to individuals off the grid.”

The LibraryBox project was designed to solve a very specific kind of problem. It is useful in scenarios involving all of the following conditions:

  • Either no access or sporadic access to Internet and electrical utilities
  • a need to distribute digital content
  • users that have wifi enabled devices

In order to meet these objectives, the LibraryBox

  • uses inexpensive parts and hardware.
  • runs off of batteries and is highly portable.
  • uses open source software. (The code is both kinds of free; both libre and gratis.)
My LibraryBox

Building the LibraryBox was fun and easy. I bought the necessary parts: a mobile router, a large usb flash drive, plus an optional battery. (I’m using a Sony Cycle Energy CP-EL I found on sale at the grocery store for $13). Then I went through the instructions. The process is easy and straightforward. A friend of mine completed them while his baby daughter was down for a nap. I took a little longer because I didn’t read the instructions through before starting and did some steps out of order. If you more diligent with following directions than I am, Jason’s instructions will get you from start to finish easily and without a hitch. Once I had my LibraryBox up and running, I filled the flash drive with some free and creative commons licensed content. I tested it out and was happy to see that I could use it to download ebooks onto my phone, laptop, and tablet. Once I demonstrated that it worked, I began to look for practical applications where it could be more than just cool, I wanted my hobby project to be useful.  To keep myself honest and keep my project enthusiasm in check, I’m using a series of questions to help determine whether I’m being blinded by the new shiny thing or whether it is, in fact,  an appropriate tool for the job at hand. These questions help with the tool/toy distinction, especially when I’m under the spell of the law of the instrument.

Questions:
  1. Does this tool or technology offer a solution to an existing problem?
  2. If the answer to #1 is yes, does it solve the problem better (more efficiently, cheaply, etc.) than alternate solutions?
  3. Does this tool or technology introduce unintended consequences or side-effects that are worse than the original problem?
Applying the Questions:

There are two ready applications for a LibraryBox at MPOW. Neither directly involve the library, both involve faculty projects in our Creative Media and Digital Culture (CMDC) program. Both are interesting projects and both project leads have indicated interest in using a LibraryBox to solve a problem. The first case involves using a LibraryBox to allow visitors to a remote historical site the ability to download and install a mobile app. My colleague Brett Oppegaard is leading development of a mobile app to provide visitors to a historic site access to interpretive materials. The location is somewhat remote and mobile broadband coverage is spotty at best and varies depending on the cell provider. My thought was to provide visitors to the site a reliable method of installing and using the app. Applying the three questions from above to this project, I learned that the answers to the first two questions are an unqualified yes. It solves a real problem by allowing users to download a digital file without an active net connection. It does so better than alternate solutions, especially due to its ability to run off of battery power. (There are no utilities at the site.) However, the third question reveals some real difficulties. I was able to successfully download and install the app from its .apk file using the LibraryBox. However, the steps required to achieve this are too convoluted for non-technical end users to follow easily. In addition, the current version of the app requires an active Internet connection in order to successfully install, rendering the LibraryBox workaround moot. These issues may be able to be resolved with some hacking, but right now the LibraryBox isn’t a working solution to this project’s needs. We’ll keep it in mind as the project develops and try new approaches.

Fortunately, as I was demonstrating the LibraryBox to the CMDC faculty, another colleague asked me about using it to solve a problem he is facing.  John Barber has been working on preserving The Brautigan Library and re-opening it to submissions. The Brautigan Library is a collection of unpublished manuscripts organized in the spirit of  the fictional library described in Richard Brautigan’s novel The Abortion. The Brautigan Library manuscripts currently are housed at the Clark County Historical Museum and we tested the LibraryBox there as a source for providing mobile access to finding aids.  This worked, but there were speed and usability issues. As we tested, however, John developed a larger plan involving a dedicated tablet kiosk, a web-app template, and a local web server connected to a router in the building. While we did not choose to use LibraryBox to support this exhibit, it did spark useful conversation that is leading us in promising directions.

Next Steps:

After learning that the LibraryBox isn’t a turn-key solution for either project, I still have some productive work to do. The first step is to install a light-weight web server (lighttpd) on the hardware currently running LibraryBox. (Fortunately, someone has already done this and left directions.) It’s possible, but unlikely, that will meet our needs. After that we’re going to test our plans using more powerful hardware in a similar setup. I’ve acquired a Raspberry Pi to test as a web server for the project and may also try running a web server on a more powerful router than the TL-MR3020 LibraryBox is based on. (Some open-WRT capable routers have as much as 128mb of RAM, which may be enough.) There is also work to do on the Ft. Vancouver project. The next steps there involve working on-site with the design team to more clearly articulate the problem(s) we are trying to solve.

In both cases my hobbyist tinkering is leading to practical and productive work projects. In both cases the LibraryBox has served as an excellent kluge (jury-rigged temporary solution) and has helped us see a clearer path to a permanent solution. These solutions will probably not resemble my early amateur efforts, but by exercising a little discipline to make certain my toys tools  are being employed productively, I’m confident that my hobby tinkering has a place in a professional workplace. At very least, my leisure time spent experimenting is benefiting my professional work. I also think that the kind of questions used here have application when considering other library toys fads innovations.

 


Hacker Values ≈ Library Values*

* The ≈ symbol indicates that the two items are similar, but not equal, to each other.

Disambiguation

Hacker is a disputed term. The word hacker is so often mis-applied to describe law breaking, information theft, privacy violation, and other black-hat activities that the mistake has become permanently installed in our lexicon. I am not using hacker in this sense of the word. To be clear: when I use the word hacker and when I write about hacker values, I am not referring to computer criminals and their sketchy value systems. Instead, I am using hacker in its original meaning: a person who makes clever use of technology and information to solve practical problems. 

Introduction

With the current popularity of hackerspaces and makerspaces in libraries, library hack-a-thons, and hacking projects for librarians; it is clear that library culture is warming to the hacker ethic. This is a highly positive trend and one that I encourage more librarians to participate in. The reason I am so excited to see libraries encourage adoption of the hacker ethic is that hackers share several core values with libraries. Working together we can serve our communities more effectively. This may appear to be counter-intuitive, especially due to a very common public misconception that hacker is just another word for computer-criminal. In this post I want to correct this error, explain the values behind the hacker movement, and show how librarians and hackers share core values. It is my hope that this opens the door for more librarians to get started in productive and positive library hackery.

Hacker Values

First, a working definition: hackers are people who empower themselves with information in order to modify their environment and make the world a better place. That’s it. Hacking doesn’t require intruding into computer security settings. There’s no imperative that hackers have to work with code, computers, or technology–although many do. Besides the traditional computer software hacker, there are many kinds of crafters, tinkerers, and makers that share core the hacker values. These makers all share knowledge about their world and engage in hands-on modification of it in order to make it a better place.

For a richer and more detailed look into the hacker ethic than provided by my simplified definition I recommend three books. First try Corey Doctorow’s young adult novel, Little Brother 1. This novel highlights the hacker values of self-empowerment with information, hands-on hacking, and acting for the public good. Little Brother is not only an award-winning story, but it also comes with a bibliography that is one of the best introductions to hacking available. Next, check out Steven Levy’s classic book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution 2. Levy details the history of hackers in the early 1980s and explains the values that drove the movement. Third, try Chris Anderson’s Makers: The New Industrial Revolution 3. Anderson tells the story of the contemporary maker movement and the way it is combining the values of the traditional do-it-yourself (DIY) movement with the values of the computer hacker community to spark a vibrant and powerful creative movement across the world.

In the preface to Hackers: Heroes of the Computer revolution,  Levy observed a common philosophy that the hackers shared:

It was a philosophy of sharing, openness, decentralization, and getting your hands on machines at any cost to improve the machines and improve the world.

The Wikipedia entry on the hacker programming subculture builds on Levy’s observations and revises the list of core hacker values as:

  • Sharing
  • Openness
  • Collaboration
  • Engaging in the Hands-on Imperative. 

These values are also restated and expanded on in another Wikipedia article on Hacker Ethics. Each of these articulations of hacker values differs subtly, yet while they differ they reinforce the central idea that there are core hacker values and that the conception of hacker as computer criminal is misinformed and inaccurate. (While there clearly are computer criminals, the error lies in labeling these people as hackers. These criminals violate hacker values as much as they violate personal privacy and the law.)

Once we understand that hacking is rooted in the core values of sharing, openness, collaboration, and hands-on activity; we can begin to see that hackers and librarians share several core values and that there is a rich environment for developing synergies and collaborative projects between the two groups. If we can identify and isolate the core values that librarians share with hackers, we will be well on our way to identifying areas for productive collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas between our cultures.

Library Values

If we are going to compare hacker values with library values, an excellent starting point is the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights. I recently had the pleasure of attending a keynote presentation by Char Booth who made this point most persuasively. She spoke eloquently and developed a nuanced argument on the topic of the narratives we use to describe our libraries. She encouraged us to look beyond the tired narratives of library-as-container-of-information or library-as-content-repository and instead create new narratives that describe the enduring concept of the library. This concept of library captures the values and services libraries provide without being inextricably linked to the information containers and technologies that libraries have historically used.

Library bill of rights

Char Booth’s distillation of the 1948 Library Bill of Rights into five core values

As she developed this argument, Char encouraged us to look to library history and extract the core values that will continue to apply as our collections and services adapt and change. As an example, she displayed the 1948 Library Bill of Rights and extracted out of each paragraph a core value. Her lesson: these are still our core values, even if the way we serve our patrons has radically changed.

Char distilled the Library Bill of Rights into five core values: access, freedom, advocacy, inquiry, and openness. If we compare these values with the hacker values from above: sharing, openness, collaboration, and the hands-on-imperative, we’ll see that at least in terms of access to information, public openness, freedom, sharing, and collaboration libraries and hackers are on the same page. There are many things that hackers and libraries can do together that further these shared values and goals.

It should be noted that hackers have a traditionally anti-authoritarian bent and unlike libraries, their value of open access to information often trumps their civic duty to respect license agreements and copyright law. Without trivializing this difference, there are many projects that libraries and hackers can do together that honor our shared values and do not violate the core principles of either partner. After all, libraries have a lot of experience doing business with partners who do not share or honor the core library values of freedom, openness, and access to information. If we can maintain productive relationships with certain parties that reject values close to the heart of libraries and librarians, it stands to reason that we can also pursue and maintain relationships with other groups that respect these core values, even as we differ in others.

At the end of the day, library values and hacker values are more alike than different. Especially in the areas of library work that involve advocacy for freedom, openness, and access to information we have allies and potential partners who share core values with us.

Library Hackery

If my argument about library values and hacker values has been at all persuasive, it raises the question: what do hacker/library partnerships look like? Some of the answers to this have been hinted at above. They look like Jason Griffey’s LibraryBox project. This wonderful project involves hacking on multiple levels. On one level, it provides the information needed for libraries to modify (hack) a portable wifi router into a public distribution hub for public domain, open access, and creative-commons licensed books and media. LibraryBoxes can bring digital media to locations that are off the net. On another level, it is a hack of an existing hacker project PirateBox. PirateBox is a private portable network designed to provide untraceable local file-sharing. Griffey hacked the hack in order to create a project more in-line with library values and mission.

These partnerships can also look like the Washington DC public library’s Accessibility Hack-a-Thon, an ongoing project that brings together, civic, library, and hacker groups to collaborate on hacking projects that advance the public good in their city. Another great example of bringing hacker ethics into the library can be found in TechConnect’s own Bohyun Kim’s posts on AJAX and APIs. Using APIs to customize web services is a perfect example of a library hack: it leverages our understanding of technology and empowers us to customize and perfect our environment. With an injection of hacker values into library services, we no longer have to remain at the mercy of the default setting. We can empower ourselves to hack our way to better tools, a better library, and a better world.

An excellent example of hackery from outside the library community is Audrey Watters’ Hack Education and Hack [Higher] Education blogs. Just as computer hackers use their inside information of computer systems to remake the environment, Audrey users her inside knowledge of education systems to make positive changes to the system.

  1. Doctorow, Cory. 2008. Little brother. New York: Tom Doherty Associates. http://craphound.com/littlebrother/download/
  2. Levy, Steven. 2010. Hackers Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Cambridge: O’Reilly Media, Incorporated. http://shop.oreilly.com/product/0636920010227.do
  3. Anderson, Chris. 2012. Makers the new industrial revolution. New York: Crown Business. http://worldcat.org/oclc/812195098

eBook Review – Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines

Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines

This is a review of the ebook Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines and also of the larger project that collected the stories that became the content of the ebook. The project collects discussions about how technology can be used to improve student success. Fifty practical examples of successful projects are the result. Academic librarians will find the book to be a highly useful addition to our reference or professional development collections. The stories collected in the ebook are valuable examples of innovative pedagogy and administration and are useful resources to librarians and faculty looking for technological innovations in the classroom. Even more valuable than the collected examples may be the model used to collect and publish them. Cultivating Change, especially in its introduction and epilogue, offers a model for getting like minds together on our campuses and sharing experiences from a diversity of campus perspectives. The results of interdisciplinary cooperation around technology and success make for interesting reading, but we can also follow their model to create our own interdisciplinary collaborations at home on our campuses. More details about the ongoing project are available on their community site. The ebook is available as a blog with comments and also as an .epub, .mobi, or .pdf file from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy.

The Review

Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines 1

The stories that make up the ebook have been peer reviewed and organized into chapters on the following topics: Changing Pedagogies (teaching using the affordances of today’s technology), Creating Solutions (technology applied to specific problems), Providing Direction (technology applied to leadership and administration), and Extending Reach (technology employed to reach expanded audiences.) The stories follow a semi-standard format that clearly lays out each project, including the problem addressed, methodology, results, and conclusions.

Section One: Changing Pedagogies

The opening chapter focuses on applications of academic technology in the classroom that specifically address issues of moving instruction from memorization to problem solving and interactive coaching. These efforts are often described by the term “digital pedagogy” (For an explanation of digital pedagogy, see Brian Croxall’s elegant definition.2) I’m often critical of digital pedagogy efforts because they can confuse priorities and focus on the digital at the expense of the pedagogy. The stories in this section do not make this mistake and correctly focus on harnessing the affordances of technology (the things we can do now that were not previously possible) to achieve student-success and foster learning.

One particularly impressive story, Web-Based Problem-Solving Coaches for Physics Studentsexplained how a physics course used digital tools to enable more detailed feedback to student work using the cognitive apprenticeship model. This solution encouraged the development of problem-solving skills and has to potential to scale better than classical lecture/lab course structures.

Section Two: Creating Solutions

This section focuses on using digital technology to present content to students outside of the classroom. Technology is extending the reach of the University beyond the limits of our campus spaces, this section address how innovations can make distance education more effective. A common theme here is the concept of the flipped classroom. (See Salmam Khan’s TED talk for a good description of flipping the classroom. 3) In a flipped classroom the traditional structure of content being presented to students in lectures during class time and creative work being assigned as homework is flipped.  Content is presented outside the classroom and instructors lead students in creative projects during class time. Solutions listed in this section include podcasts, video podcasts, and screencasts. They also address synchronous and asynchronous methods of distance education and some theoretical approaches for instructors to employ as they transition from primarily face to face instruction to more blended instruction environments.

Of special note is the story Creating Productive Presence: A Narrative in which the instructor assesses the steps taken to provide a distance cohort with the appropriate levels of instructor intervention and student freedom. In face-to-face instruction, students have body-language and other non-verbal cues to read on the instructor. Distance students, without these familiar cues, experienced anxiety in a text-only communication environment. Using delegates from student group projects and focus groups, the instructor was able to find an appropriate classroom presence balanced between cold distance and micro-management of the group projects.

Section Three: Providing Direction

The focus of this section is on innovative new tools for administration and leadership and how administration can provide leadership and support for the embrace of disruptive technologies on campus. The stories here tie the overall effort to use technology to advance student success to accreditation, often a necessary step to motivate any campus to make uncomfortable changes. Data archives, the institutional repository, clickers (class polling systems), and project management tools fall under this general category.

The University Digital Conservancy: A Platform to Publish, Share, and Preserve the University’s Scholarship is of particular interest to librarians. Written by three UM librarians, it makes a case for institutional repositories, explains their implementation, discusses tracking article-level impacts, and most importantly includes some highly useful models for assessing institutional repository impact and use.

Section Four: Extending Reach

The final section discusses ways technology can enable the university to reach wider audiences. Examples include moving courseware content to mobile platforms, using SMS messaging to gather research data, and using mobile devices to scale the collection of oral histories. Digital objects scale in ways that physical objects cannot and these projects take advantage of this scale to expand the reach of the university.

Not to be missed in this section is R U Up 4 it? Collecting Data via Texting: Developing and Testing of the Youth Ecological Momentary Assessment System (YEMAS). R U Up 4 it? is the story of using SMS (texting) to gather real-time survey data from teen populations.

Propagating the Meme

The stories and practical experiences recorded in Cultivating Change in the Academy are valuable in their own right. It is a great resource for ideas and shared experience for anyone looking for creative ways to leverage technology to achieve educational goals. For this reader though, the real value of this project is the format used to create it. The book is full of valuable and interesting content. However, in the digital world, content isn’t king. As Corey Doctorow tells us:

Content isn’t king. If I sent you to a desert island and gave you the choice of taking your friends or your movies, you’d choose your friends — if you chose the movies, we’d call you a sociopath. Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.[2. http://boingboing.net/2006/10/10/disney-exec-piracy-i.html]

The process the University of Minnesota followed to generate conversation around technology and student success is detailed in a white paper. 4 After reading some of the stories in Cultivating Change, if you find yourself wishing similar conversations could take place on your campus, this is the road-map the University of Minnesota followed. Before they were able to publish their stories, the University of Minnesota had to bring together their faculty, staff, and administration to talk about employing innovative technological solutions to the project of increasing student success. In a time when conversation trumps content, a successful model for creating these kinds of conversations on our own campuses will also trump the written record of other’s conversations.

 

  1. Hill Duin, A. et al (eds) (2012) Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines at the University of Minnesota in 2012, An Open-Source eBook. University of Minnesota. Creative Commons BY NC SA. http://digital-rights.net/wp-content/uploads/books/CC50_UMN_ebook.pdf
  2. http://www.briancroxall.net/digitalpedagogy/what-is-digital-pedagogy/
  3. http://www.ted.com/talks/salman_khan_let_s_use_video_to_reinvent_education.html
  4. http://bit.ly/Rj5AIR

Tablets in Library Workflows: Revolution & Healthy Skepticism

 
Tablet Revolution: Healthy Skepticism

Tablets and mobile computing have been the subject of a lot of Internet hype. A quick search for “tablet revolution” will confirm this, but if we’re appropriately skeptical about the hype cycle, we’ll want to test the impact of tablets on our library ourselves. We can do this in a few ways. We can check the literature to see what studies have been done. 1 We can check our web analytics to see which devices are being used to access our web sites. 2 We can also walk the public areas in our libraries and count patrons working on tablets. These investigations can tell us how and how often tablets are being used, but they don’t tell us how or if tablets are revolutionizing library use.

In order to better answer this question, I started a little project. Over the last year, I’ve been using informal methods to track the effects that tablet use have on my work. I secured some equipment funding and acquired an Apple iPad 2 and an Android tablet, the Asus Transformer Prime. I started doing my work on these devices, keeping an eye on how they changed my daily workflow, how suited they were to my daily tasks, and whether or not they increased my productivity or the quality of my work. Over the course of the year I can report that tablets have changed the way I work. Most of the changes are incremental, but there are at least a couple cases of genuine revolution to report.

Deploying Tablets in my Workflow

As I spent some time doing my work using the tablets, I discovered there were three possible results to my efforts to integrate them into my daily work. Some tasks simply did not translate well to the tablet environment. Other tasks translated fairly seamlessly to the tablet environment; what I could do on a computer I could also do on a tablet. Finally there were a few cases where the affordances of the tablets: touch interface, networked portability, and app environment enabled me to do my work in new ways, ways not possible using a traditional workstation or laptop.

The first sort of task, the kind in which tablets failed to produce positive results, tended to involve heavy processing requirements, the need to connect peripheral devices, or involved complex software programs not ported to mobile apps. Examples included editing image, sound, or video files; analyzing datasets; and creating presentation slides. The tablets lacked the processing power, peripheral interfaces, or fine interface control to make them adequate platforms for the editing tasks. Statistical analysis software shares the same heavy processor requirements and I was unable to find mobile apps equivalent to SPSS or Atlas TI. In the case of presentation slides, all the necessary conditions for success seemed to be present. Keynote for iOS is a great app, but I was never satisfied with the quality of my tablet-created presentations and soon returned to composing my slides in Keynote on my laptop. As a general rule of thumb, I found tasks that require lots of processing power, super-fine input control (fingers and even styli are imprecise on touch screens), or highly-specialized software environments to be poor candidates for moving to tablets.

The majority of my day-to-day work tasks fell into a second set of tasks, these tasks enabled me to easily replace my traditional computer with a tablet. I discovered that after a little research to discover the proper apps and a little time to learn how to use them, a tablet was a good as a computer, most of the time. At first, I experimented with treating the tablet as a small portable computer. I acquired Apple’s Bluetooth keyboard and the keyboard dock accessory for the Transformer and was able to do word processing, text editing and coding, email, instant messaging, and pretty much any browser-based activity without significant adjustment. I found text entry without a keyboard to be too clumsy a process for serious work. Tablets also are ideal for server-administration, since the computer on the other end handled the heavy lifting. There are SSH, FTP, and text editing apps that make tablets perfect remote administration environments. I also found text-based tasks like writing, email, chat, reading, and most things browser-based or whose files live in the cloud or on a server can be done just as well on a tablet as it can on a workstation or laptop.

The limitation to this general rule is that in some cases the iPad presented file management difficulties. The iOS defaults push users into using iTunes and iCloud to manage documents. If you like these options, there is no problem. I found these options lacking in flexibility, so I had to engage in a little hackery to get access to the files I needed on the iPad. Dropbox and Evernote are good examples of cloud storage apps that work once you learn how to route all your documents through them. In the end, I found myself preferring apps that access personal cloud space (Jungledisk) or my home NAS storage (Synology DS File) in my workflow. The Transformer Prime required fewer document-flow kluges and its keyboard accessory includes a USB flash-drive interface which is very useful for sharing documents with local colleagues and doesn’t require a fancy workaround.

A second limitation I encountered was in accessing web video content. Not frequently, but often enough to be noticed, certain web video files (Flash encoded) would not play on the iPad. The Android tablet is Flash capable and suffered fewer of these problems. Video isn’t a key part of my workflow, so for me this is mearly an annoyance, not a serious hindrance to productivity.

Touching Revolution

Of course, simply duplicating the capabilities of traditional computer environments in a smaller form-factor is not revolutionary. As long as I was using a tablet as if it were a smaller computer, then my work didn’t change, only the tools I was doing it with changed. It was when I started working outside of the keyboard and mouse interface model and started touching my work that new ways of approaching tasks presented themselves. When I started using a stylus to write on the screen of a tablet the revolution became apparent.

As an undergraduate, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book 3 was a required reading and their lesson on annotation while we read stuck with me. When it comes to professional development reading, annotation is absolutely necessary to comprehension and integration of content. Thus Amazon’s Kindle reader app for Android and iOS became my favorite ebook platform, due to its superior system for taking and sharing reading notes across platforms. I rely so heavily on annotations that I cannot do my work using ebook platforms that don’t allow me to take notes in text. In the same vein, I use personal copies of printed books for my research instead of borrowed library copies, because I have to write in the margins to process ideas.

Tablets revolutionized my reading when I discovered PDF annotation apps that allowed me to use a stylus to write on the top of documents. Apps like Notetaker HD and iAnnotate for iOS and ezPDF Reader for Android give readers the digital advantage of unlimited amounts of text without the bulk and weight of paper printouts. They also give the reader analog advantages of free-hand highlighting and writing notes in the margin. Combine these advantages with Zotero-friendly apps such as Zotpad, Zotfile, and Zandy that connect my favorite discovery tool to my tablet and I found myself reading more, taking better notes, and drawing clearer connections between documents. The portability of digital files on a mobile wirelessly connected device combined with the stylus and touch-screen method of text input enabled me to interact with my reading in ways impossible using either printed paper or a traditional computer monitor and keyboard. Now, my entire library and all of my reading lists came with me everywhere, so I carved out more time to read each week. When I opened a text, I was able to capture my thoughts about the reading more accurately and completely. This wasn’t just reading in a different medium, it was reading in a different method and it worked better than the way I had been doing before.

Tablets with reading annotation apps revolutionized the way that I read and organized my reading notes, but they had an even bigger impact on the way that I grade student papers. I love teaching, but grading essays is a task that I dread. Essays are heavy and hard to carry around. When I have essays with me, I have a constant and irrational background fear that someone will steal my car and I’ll lose irreplaceable student work. When I started using the tablet, I had my students submit their essays in PDF format. Then, I read their work in a similar manner to my professional reading. I read the essays on a tablet, using the stylus to highlight passages and write feedback in the margins. When I was finished, I could email the document back to the student and also keep an archived copy. This solved a number of paper distribution and unique copy problems. The students got better feedback more quickly and I always had a reference copy if questions arose later in the term.

A Personal Revolution

Taken by themselves, these reading and grading innovations may sound like incremental changes, not revolutions. For example, laptops are quite portable and we’ve had the ability to add notes and comments to PDF documents for a long time. There is no reason I couldn’t adopt this workflow without buying an additional expensive gadget, except that I couldn’t. I tried electronic reading and grading workflows before I had a tablet and rejected them. Reading on a computer monitor and typing comments into a PDF didn’t result in interesting thoughts about the reading. I tried grading by adding comments to PDF documents on a laptop and found my feedback comments to be arid and less helpful than the remarks I wrote in the margins of paper essays, so I switched back to colored pen on paper. These experiences are all anecdotal and personal, but accurately describe my experience. With a tablet, the feel of touching a screen and writing with a stylus enabled an organic flow of thoughts from my brain to the text. I can list the affordances of mobile computing that make this possible: ubiquitous wireless broadband networking, touch interface, lightweight and portable devices, a robust app ecology, and cloud storage of documents. The revolution lies in how these technical details combined in my workflow to creates an environment where I did better work with fewer distractions and more convenience.

Next Steps

One requirement to justify the time and expense of this project is that I share my findings. This post is an effort in that direction, but I will also be offering a series of faculty workshops on using tablets in academic workflows. I’m planning a workshop where faculty can put their hands on a range of tablet devices, a petting zoo of tablets. There will also be a workshop on reading app for tablets and one on grading workflows. One challenge to presenting what I’ve learned about tablets is that most of what I have learned is personal. I’ve spoken with scholars who do not share my preference for hand-written thoughts; my workflows are not revolutionary for them. What ultimately may be the most beneficial result of my project is uncovering a method for effectively communicating emerging technology experiences with non-technologically inclined colleagues.

 

  1. Pew. Tablet and E-book reader Ownership Nearly Double Over the Holiday Gift-Giving Period. Pew Internet Libraries. http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2012/01/23/tablet-and-e-book-reader-ownership-nearly-double-over-the-holiday-gift-giving-period/.
  2. Wikipedia contributors. 2012. Mobile web analytics. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., September 13. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mobile_web_analytics&oldid=510528022.
  3. Mortimer Adler, How to read a book, Rev. and updated ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972).