Tiny Free Libraries are Cabinets of Wonder

I love libraries. I love the side-by-sideness of the books. I love the shelves lined in obedient rows, ordered by deceptively simple yet gloriously arcane rules of Dewey and LC. The mystical arts of description and classification for which there are endless logic trees branching out in every direction, a craft worthy of master wizards and other magical types. I love, too, the absolute heaping bounties of books arranged on carts and end-caps by the pixie whim of whoever happens to be building the day’s thematic display. Placed, with great care, to appear haphazard. Nothing is haphazard in a library. Everything has a logic. The game is finding that logic out.

This goes with that. And, no matter what they try to tell you, so much judgment of books by their covers. Every book deserves to shelved face out so it can present the face of its beautiful self, the dust jacket.

Libraries have been my world since I was 15 years old. Twenty years as an academic librarian with another ten years working in a public library before that. You might even consider the 6 weeks I worked as a retail bookstore manager, but I don’t like to think about that. Those six weeks were the Dark Times. I’m not a book seller. I’m a book lender. Which is to say, I’m a book giver because we all know that one must always lend books with the expectation of never getting them back again.

It is a strange feeling to no longer be working in libraries, after so much time. I was welll-prepared for the change, wondering what it might feel like to no longer think of myself as a librarian and yet, still to be a library person. Unfortunately, pandemic timing has kept me out of libraries since I left my office in mid-March 2020, almost 10 months ago. I haven’t stepped foot inside a library for 10 months. No longer being a librarian was my plan. No longer spending time in libraries was never supposed to happen.

So, it was my great surprise and relief to discover a tiny, free library in my neighborhood. A well-made, glass-fronted cabinet mounted roadside and full of free books. It sits curbside three or four blocks from my house. I’d seen it in passing several times but had never taken time to consider its wonders until during a run two week ago. I’ve been reading my way through Margaret Atwood and was getting ready to order a copy of The Blind Assassin online. Having books delivered by mail is a nice service but it seems a sad way to receive books. I prefer to find them on their selves, free them from their rest and bring them home into fellowship with my life and my books.

Jogging past the entrance to the road where the tiny, free library sat, I thought “wouldn’t it be cool if I found the Margaret Atwood books I need right there?” I jogged on for a bit but couldn’t shake the idea and circled back to peer inside. Waiting, of course, on the middle shelf at face level was a perfectly nice paperback copy of The Blind Assassin. Exactly the book I needed. It was magical. I had discovered a cabinet of wonders.

I thought about taking the book and continuing my run but that didn’t seem sporting. The principle of the free library is give one, take one. So, I asked fate to hold tight just a little longer, long enough for me to finish my run, grab a few books from my own read pile, get into the car with my wife and make the drive back. Fate held. The Blind Assassin was waiting for me along with two books by two other authors I enjoy: Bill Bryson and Celeste Ng.

And so, an obsession was born. My wife and I drove around town, noting all the other tiny, free libraries scattered about like spiritual life lines, emergency phone booths, totems to shared culture in a time when we cannot share space.

There are quite a few of these in town, maybe a dozen. I’ve already learned which few are my favorite. I will be making a map so I can make a regular route, checkin in on what my neighbors have been reading and share some books from my own collection. It is a kind of conversation, a communion of sorts, this impromptu, anonymous book-taking and book-leaving.

It has been a little bit of magic in a very unmagical year. I am most grateful and most happy to join the community. These friends I do not know have given me something rather special. They have given me back my library.

A Reader’s Communion

Being a librarian, I often enjoy deeply delightful conversations about the love of books as objects. Places with books are places of power. Thoughtful people often try to describe the joy they feel at simply standing in a library or bookstore, surrounded on all sides by so many books. They can sense the psychic thrum of books waiting to be read, which is to say they feel a keen awareness of their own curiosity and native weirdness.

I often remind people that a library’s books are meant for borrowing. They can find them, use them, take them home at no cost. It may surprise you the number of people who recoil in a kind of horror at the thought. Oh no. I couldn’t. I prefer to own my own books.

I get it. Books are precious. Brand new, first-owner books are a powerful fetish. Used books found in a used book shop are like mysterious treasure bottles washed randomly, wonderfully on your personal shore. Ebooks ward against the boredom of grocery store lines. Audiobooks fold the time-space continuum, transmuting the experience of a 35 minute commute into a momentary jaunt, a kind of teleportation.

Recently, I had opportunity to read a borrowed book from the library. This, for me, is no uncommon thing. This particular borrowed book, however, happened to have one of the old stamped date due pockets in back. The book itself was first checked out to someone three months after I was born.

Understanding that this book and I were roughly contemporaries, I became curious to know about its life. Not the title but this very book, specific.Stamped date due pocket for borrowed library book

The pocket was a parade of dates: 5/31/1974; 9/4/1975; 6/3/1976; 2/4/1977; 5/23/1980; 8/6/1981; 8/20/1981; 5/10/1982; 5/22/1982; 6/4/1982; 8/12/1982; 5/26/1983; 1/29/1985; 10/19/1989; 7/20/1992; 2/1/2002.

What hands had held this very book while I was still learning to focus my eyes and grasp objects? What secret places — living rooms, bed rooms and apartment balconies — had this book seen? Where had this book gone and been?

I wondered about the reader who read this book a few months before Star Wars lit across its first screen. Did they know how much movies would come to embody our mythology? Did they care?

A sequence of three dates in May – June of 1982 where, perhaps a slow reader wandered casually through the pages, not finishing, stopping by to beg renewal for another few weeks at a time. Or maybe this was a time in their life interrupted by catastrophe and distraction. The illness of a loved one. An illness of their own.

Or, instead, during those same six weeks, a bevy of readers waiting impatiently to have their turn at that month’s hard-to-find book discussion group selection. There was no Amazon. People waited for things.

There is the mystery of the book’s resurgent popularity between 1980 and 1983 and then three year rest between 1989 and 1992, which was a mere nap compared with the long hibernation between 7/20/1992 and 2/1/2002.

And how did it feel for this book to be lifted from the shelve on February 1, 2002? I imagine it would have seemed a kind of liberation, as if waking anew to one’s purpose after a long, dusty dream.

And, finally, the mystery of whatever checkouts we cannot see beyond 2002, an event horizon in reverse, an interregnum between present and past that we cannot imagine because the library no longer stamps date due slips.

As I am reading, all of this serves to remind that books are all infused with holy and mystical purpose, but borrowed library books, perhaps more than all others, connect us to the unseen community of other eyes, hands and minds. A date stamped library book is a talisman of time travel, connecting us in communion with the readers who came before and the readers who will come after.

This is not a thing I can easily tell people in a casual conversation standing in a hallway. So I am telling you, so you can understand and, perhaps, yourself reach for a dusty date-stamped book to borrow.

Market Less. Partner More.

I’ve spent the last two days at a summer workshop for the Tennessee Electronic Library (TEL). TEL is a collection of article databases, eBooks, and other online resources available free of charge to all Tennessee state residents. TEL helps people find jobs, research their family history, learn languages, practice for college prep and career certification tests and do all the kinds of research needed by students from kindergarten through college.

If you live in Tennessee, you should take a look. If you don’t live in Tennessee, I hope you live somewhere with a state government willing to put money into funding the intellectual infrastructure of your community.

TEL is terrific, but this post isn’t about TEL. It is about the ways we talk about our libraries. The theme of this year’s workshop was “Go TEL it on the Mountain”, a bit silly, yes, but focused right at the heart of something I have been thinking a lot about lately. Marketing.

My library is terrific. We have great stuff. We have comfortable spaces. We are friendly. We like to help people learn things, and we are pretty good at it. How do I make people understand how terrific their library is and make them want to use it more?

I’ve been stressing on this question for a while. Wondering if I had the right bookmarks, posters and other promotional knick-knacks. I’ve been thinking about our website design to see if it communicates fully what we are about. I do surveys. I follow up on requests and invite users to serve on a library experience panel. These are all good things, but, it turns out, aren’t the only things.

Like most librarians, I’m good at doing library. I’m bad at marketing.

The workshop keynote and other presenters crystalized a few key things I’ve been thinking about but kept trying to wrap in too many words. (Shout out to Amy Pajewski, Heather Lambert and Erin Loree.)

So here it is. The advice I needed someone else to say aloud so I could get it all to fit inside my head.

Librarians love library stuff, but nobody else cares. Stop talking about your stuff. Nobody cares about your stuff. They only care about what they can do with your stuff and how your stuff makes them feel. Talk about that instead.

Stop shooting random library stuff into the world through untargeted, unspecial emails, tweets, and signs. Nobody reads them. You are just making people feel tired. You are making yourself feel tired.

Think about your community. Think about your neighborhood. Think about your teams. What do they need? What are they about? What are they trying to accomplish? How can you help them do that? Talk about how you can help them. Find ways to help. Offer partnerships.

This is going to make you uncomfortable. It is going to get awkward. You are going to need to go where your people are.You are going to need to get outside the library. You are going to need to listen. You are going to find out what your people really want and need. Some of it will be easy to provide. Some of it will be inconvenient. Library service should meet people at the point of their need, not the point of our convenience.

And let’s be real, okay? I get all inspired talking to the all the super-smart people at the workshop. I get the big ideas. I bring them back to work with me and they collapse upon first contact with reality. Being successful requires a plan. Success requires organization and focus. You can’t tell everyone everything. You’ve got to be selective and consistent. You’ve got to spend some money and time. On day two, we learned some practical tips for planning a strategy and organizing the steps into specific, achievable goals. We learned to find an audience and tune our voice to that audience. It takes time. It takes practice. I am ready to get started.

Librarians are missionaries. We keep trying to save the world. We should start by saving our own neighborhoods first.

Why SEO Matters to Librarians

I spent last Friday at the Knoxville-based Social Slam, an annual one day conference about social media as a tool for business marketing and communication. As usual, I found myself powerfully inspired by ideas from a bunch of folks in professions outside my own. This is how professional development is supposed to happen. Toss yourself headfirst into a gathering of smart people with adjacent but different interests from your own and start talking.

As an educator and librarian, I found a lot to learn from small business owners, marketing reps and social media mavens. I will post some of those lessons along the way.

I arrived late, missing the morning keynote. My first session was a primer on search engine optimization, or SEO. SEO is a series of skills, design practices and habits intended to improve a website’s ability to be found.  Information is not scarce. Attention is scarce. Getting found is as important as having something unique and useful to offer. If you can’t get yourself, your business or your cause found online, you might not exist. There are several essential habits to make your online presence more findable. The panel talked about the importance of clear, accurate metadata. They discussed the usefulness of well-crafted headlines and tagged images. All of these SEO-related suggestions are habits of good web design. They shouldn’t surprise anyone, least of all librarians. They make websites, including library websites, findable.

Librarians care about SEO because we need our sites to findable. Students Google my library pages more often than they click to them from college pages.  I have seen members of my own team Google to our page rather than use browser bookmarks. Google (okay, and maybe Bing) are the gateway to getting found and being used.

Nothing shocking. That did not catch me off guard. Librarians should care about SEO because we need to market ourselves and be found.

Then the conversation turned to the social graph and the work Google and others are doing to personalize search results based on shares, clicks and other social metrics. Wonder why Google Plus exists? Google needed to get access to lots of social information about web user behavior and most of the best data was locked up in Facebook. Google Plus exists to shape what users find when they search. Google wants to learn enough about your interests and patterns of web use to predict which 2 or 3 sites will be most useful from a search results page of 23,000,000. They give you thousands of pages of results but really only care about the first few on that first page. They want those to be right, accurate and contextually relevant. They are getting better at it.

Search is getting personalized. As social interactions are folded into search algorithms, the social media footprints of a business or individual becomes more important. The panelists demonstrated how tools like Google Author can lift a blogger up search results and how Google Business listings can create a strong initial landing page in Google results. Well-focused content on Google Plus, Twitter and other sites can tie users to your site and create a kind of gravity toward your pages. Better yet, their check-ins and mentions can create a kind of gravity to bend their friends and their friends’ friends search results toward your site. This is important to librarians for a few reasons.

Librarians must understand and help others to understand how search works. It isn’t only about keywords anymore. Things are more complex.

Librarians need to know how content providers can shape their rankings to become more visible in a targeted market.

Most interestingly, SEO in the age of social search means that search results are personalized. Two people logged into their Google accounts can search for the same topic at the same time and get very different results. The age of one-size fits all library instruction is going away. Search is personalized; the results are custom-tailored.

We are just at the beginning of this new kind of search. I wonder what it will mean for phone-based reference consultations. “Go to Google, type this, visit the third link down” type information won’t work anymore.

We have to let people know how this kind of searching works. We need to advise them on the benefits, which are many, and help them opt out if they wish to do so.

I did a quick search on librarians and SEO and didn’t come up with much. Most people, like me, have been coming to the topic from the perspective of marketing their sites. SEO is how we get found.

I left the session realizing that my profession keeps getting more and more interesting. SEO is about how search works. If we can’t master that concept, we can’t be effective.

Libraries Help People Get Better Questions

Last week, I wrestled a bit with articulating what libraries contribute to the college, school or community to which they belong. As usual, I overgeneralized a bit, ramped up the enthusiasm and tossed in a double dash of hyperbole. That’s just how I roll. I had some really get conversations with people, librarians and not librarians, about those posts.

For me, everything comes back to curiosity. Libraries are places that should promote and reward curiosity. And so, the treat of the library as a knowledge place isn’t only about finding answers, it is about learning to ask the right kinds of questions. John Spencer writes about this in his recent post, “In Defense of Librarians“. He writes about his school age son, but his observations might apply to all librarians, I think. You should take a look.

Here’s the question for conversation: Should librarians be more about the questions or the answers? Which is more important? How does a library that values excellent questions look? What does a question-centered library do differently?

The Problem with Librarians

You may noticed I have using the blog to work through some ideas about libraries, what libraries are for and what libraries need to do next. This whole series of post is not born from existential dread. Some of my colleagues across the profession are freaking out about the pace of change and the emerging service models that may be necessary to serve our patron-base well. I don’t feel that concern. I hope my recent posts don’t contribute a defensive tone to the conversation.

Libraries do not need to be defended. They do, however, need to be explained. This is the work librarians need to be doing. Librarians need to stop justifying the continued existence of our services and start finding ways to articulate what those services are about in ways that people actually understand.

Librarians are the problem. Many of us became librarians because we love to search. We had professional training that taught us how to search. We build every system and service around the idea of search and then, incredibly, when talking to our patrons we evangelize about the joys of search and forget that they are there for discovery.

I serve in a community college library. For the most part, my patrons are faculty and students. Most of my faculty don’t do research. It isn’t part of their professional program and it isn’t required for promotion. My faculty are there to teach. Most of my students have never done scholarly research, don’t know how to do scholarly research and will likely never have to do scholarly research in any professional capacity. Most courses don’t even require a research paper or project.

How strange then that, when I celebrate the value of their college library, I wax rhapsodic about the joys of research. I extoll the moral virtues of time spent prizing through the wealth of human knowledge using a panoply of tools and devices to find the absolute best sources for their particular need.

This is madness. Their needs, for the most part, are not particular. They don’t need to devote hours to exquisitely refined search strings and terms. They need to discover. They need to get curious. They need to explore.

Librarians worship the search process. We want to help our students focus and refine their search strategies. This may be madness too. Most of my students come to me with no clear sense of what their research project is about or why they are being asked to do the research. Asking them to find focus is a non-starter. We should spend more of our time helping them find connection to the work they are doing in class.

Students cannot meaningfully focus their research before they have connected to the purpose of that research. This is true of everyone. All professional or amateur researchers come to their search with a deep sense of connection. They are compelled by an urge to know or understand some specific thing.

Librarians are deeply connected to the experience of search. It is our professional joy. We need to stop forcing that joy onto others. They will never love it as much as we do. They shouldn’t need to. What we believe to be the joy of search is actually the joy of making connections. We should share that joy instead.

We live in a post-search world. Just a few years ago, a curious person needed to dig deep and develop complex search rituals to have their curiosity rewarded. That is no longer entirely true. Information now comes to us more than we go to it. Through news media, blog feeds, podcasts and automated search strings, we can bombard ourselves with highly-personalized streams of relevant, interesting information.

The trick is knowing what to do with that information. Students have a very hard time with this. They have a hard time connecting the literary analysis of “Young Goodman Brown” with their own lives. When asked to write about a major social issue, they struggle to decode the latest geopolitical buzzword while ignoring the question they actually care about, which is something like “why aren’t there more small businesses in my hometown”.

Librarians have the skill, knowledge and tools to help these students connect with their own learning but we must stop doing a few things first.

  • Stop worshiping search. Enjoy the process. Share that joy with others but don’t expect them to enjoy search as much as you do. Search is your fetish. People don’t need to share it.
  • Stop talking so much about research. It doesn’t mean what you think it means and it usually sounds like a painful obstacle to climb before discovery.
  • Stop organizing libraries and webpages around the tools of discovery. Normal people don’t know what to do with it. Organize those pages around the process of discovery. Make the tools available where they are needed. Don’t expect people to reach into a deep, dark toolbox and spend hours thinking up ways they can use each.
  • Stop using the word “database” so much. There has got to be a better word. If you figure out what that word is, let me know.
  • Promote curiosity. Our collections are fascinating. Make connections from those collections to real life.
  • Be specific. Don’t say that the library is a place to learn. Everybody gets that, but nobody really knows what that even means. Say instead, “the library is a place to learn about math or science or politics or health or…”
  • Don’t just say the library is a place to learn about x. Show them. Make connections visible.

Librarians needs to stop thinking and talking about libraries as primarily being places for information. The world is awash information. Our patrons are seeking relevance. That’s what libraries are really about. It is time to start talking about them that way.

What libraries are for. (take 3)

Last night, I posted my attempt to sort through a few ideas about the role college libraries play for students and faculty. I went to bed bothered and woke up bothered. That post was well-intended but missed the actual points. I went too far in some areas and not far enough in others. I created the wrong impression that most information is easily available online. This may or may not be true. What I did not say is that, increasingly, the best information (timely, reputable, accurate, quality-reviewed) is not available for free online. More and more often, the information and cultural content we expect to be free is locked up behind pay walls. You have to pay to access. Sometimes, you have to pay to discover. This is a problem libraries help solve.

Consider this post as third draft of an evolving essay on what libraries are about. The first two iterations are here and here.


I serve as library director for a community college in Tennessee. The work is fun, challenging and, at present, a bit bewildering. Models of library service are quickly changing. The internet has matured and now underpins pretty much everything we do. The internet provides the plumbing for how we work, learn, communicate, socialize and entertain ourselves. Our daily lives are exponentially richer with information.

Information is a loaded term. What we call “information” is usually a mental short cut used to discuss a bunch of processes, experiences and feelings for which there is no good language. Information isn’t a thing. Information is a lot of things. Think books, articles, essays, stories, documentaries, data, code and conversation. It makes the head swim. All of these things and much more get packed together as information. This is where problems set in.

Librarians have been trained to believe that our primary job is to provide information. This is only true in a minimal sort of way. Librarians who still believe their primary function is to provide information are freaking out right now. Providing information is what Google does. Google does that much faster and much easier. Google still doesn’t always provide some kinds of information as well as library collections but that is often beside the point because faster and easier almost always trump better.

People are lazy. Don’t get upset. I’m not just talking about you. I include myself here. If I can find something quickly and easily that meets my need “well enough”, I don’t dig deeper. I stop with Wikipedia or the first 5 links on Google. Librarians who still believe we are competing with Google are at loose ends. The war is over. We lost. Come back home.

It turns out, we were never actually really at war. Librarians have adopted the tools of the information revolution and are using them in incredible ways. It is time to stop despairing and hand wringing. Librarians have never before had access to such powerful, efficient and effective tools. We can pick up these tools and use them to begin a library renaissance, but first we need to understand what it is we need libraries to do. Here a few suggestions:

  1. We need for the information that is available today to also be available tomorrow.
  2. We need to lower the cost barriers of information getting and sharing.
  3. We need to curate collections that create context so that resources are available in ways that speak to each other and contribute to a broader, more accurate understanding. This is done partly through our decisions about what we collect. Maybe more importantly, this is done through decisions about what we don’t collect.
  4. People seek relevance. Information now comes to us. We don’t often expect to have to go to information. The ease of getting “informed” tricks our minds into believing that all information is created equal. The problem is that information comes to us randomly and may or may not contribute anything useful. Lots of signals create lots of noise. Libraries can reduce the noise by selecting a few signals to spark good ideas.

This last point gets to what I want to say. I work with college students. Most of them have grown up in the world where the internet has always been available. Sometimes I get depressed because they don’t seem curious. This is baffling. We live in an unprecedented age of knowledge creation and sharing. As a species, we are using incredible information technologies to learn faster, share that learning and increase the human body of knowledge at an exponential pace. Why aren’t my students more curious?

I see two reasons. First, many are survivors of a drill-and-kill educational system that trained them to suppress their natural curiosity. Curiosity slows things down. Curiosity is the enemy of the highly structured lesson plan. They come to college stunted by a kind of intellectual PTSD. They are master gatherers of information but they choose the information they gather selectively according to one major critieria: “is this going to be on the test?” If yes, they capture the information in notes, review and regurgitate. If not, they omit and move on.

This isn’t really their fault. Like all traumatic stress survivors, they need counseling, perspective and time.

There is a second problem, and it effects all of us. We treat our information streams like an all you can eat buffet. I’ll take a little of this and little of that and make a crazy meal of sorts that may or may not nourish me properly. Our minds are stressed by the speed at which we are required to assimilate new information. We have trouble making time to find meaningful associations. We are ridiculously well-informed but often feel like our minds are out of our control. We stop putting things together. We stop having new ideas. We are overwhelmed. We are bored and restless and seek endless entertainment to distract ourselves from our ennui.

Libraries should promote and reward curiosity. This may be the most important contribution my library can offer my college. How do we do this? I’m still working through that. I need your ideas.

We need to think of the library less as a research paper tool shed and more as an intellectual supplement, something that amplifies the teaching and learning that occurs in the classroom.

We have the tools. We can develop the expertise. It is definitely time to stop moaning about the lack of curiosity and engagement inside our students’ minds. The college library is not an antiquated artifact of pre-internet society. The college library, the real college library, might just now be getting born. A kind of mind laboratory where new ideas are made, tested, and improved. A safe haven that rewards curiosity and encourages deeper exploration.  A relevance factory where information is just raw material, not an end product, and where ideas get connected with experience. That is how relevance gets made. That is how learning happens.

Libraries are Relevance Machines

Note (11am on 23feb2013): I was frustrated with some of the ideas in this post and took another pass on this. See it here.


I had a fascinating conversation with my teacher friends today about what libraries are for. More specifically, we talked about what they need their library to do for them.

I have written about this before, but today’s conversation placed things in a new light for me. Not so long ago, libraries were places for information. Libraries collected the best information, kept it organized and ready for use when needed. This was the information warehouse model. Libraries collected the best books and housed them in buildings organized by myriad, fetishized principles that made information discovery a pretty efficient endeavor, once a person understood how the systems worked.

The Internet changed all that. We no longer expect to have go someplace to discover information. Information comes to us. Lots of information, in fact. Floods of information. So much information that our world is a noisy, busy, sometimes terrifying place. For the most part, we don’t have to dig too hard to find basic facts, get data or discover opinions.

We have a new problem. Since most information seems so easy to get, it is difficult to compare multiple pieces of information and assign meaning or value to it. Put another way, now that information is so easy to get, all information appears equal. It is far more challenging to discern which information is likely to be most useful or relevant to a particular need. It is more difficult to take that information and create useful knowledge.

Here’s the part where I tell you that I work and teach in a community college library and that this gives me permission to overgeneralize about “kids these days”. Here goes. College students are still smart, but they aren’t curious. Many don’t naturally invest themselves in their own learning. They expect learning to be something that is given to them by a teacher, probably through a series of lectures with accompanying Powerpoint lecture notes. They do not ask questions. They prepare themselves for the project, paper or exam without ever really wondering why they are doing this. Many of these students grew up believing that curiosity was bad because it interfered with the transfer of content required to get them ready for the next standardized assessment.

They don’t see connections, and they are not alone. Many of us are drowning in the information we encounter as random, unrelated factoids or tidbits. Watch a newscast sometime, and then ask yourself, “What am I supposed to understand from this about the world?”

We need to encourage students to be curious. We need to connect them to their own learning. It seems to me that the library is a place that can reward curiosity and foster connection. We can do this by showcasing connections between abstract concepts and everyday life. We can do this by curating collections of books, articles and video to tell a story. We can do this by focusing less on the mechanics of information discovery tools and focusing more on helping people identify and solve problems that matter to them.

Libraries should continue to collect resources, objects and artifacts that best address information needs. Libraries should continue to preserve the integrity of the scholarly and cultural conversations for the benefit of generations to come. We should do these things and do them well. But we should be always mindful that we do these things as a way to gather the tools to meet our true obligation. Our real work is rewarding curiosity and helping people create their own connections.

Small ironies from my TLA 2012 conference presentation

I had the privilege of presenting yesterday afternoon at the Tennessee Library Association’s 2012 conference in Knoxville. The topic was “TBR Libraries on Any Screen: Creating Mobile Libraries”.

I co-presented with Sally Robertson from Nashville State Community College. The main focus of our presentation was that Tennessee Board of Regents Libraries should build an infrastructure to share progress and problems with our various, individual mobile library projects so that we can all build our pilots faster, learn from each other and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Two major elements of any presentation on mobile libraries: availability of wireless internet access and eBooks.

So here’s the irony part. The hotel conference wireless worked really well in every room except for the one room in which we were presenting. Sally discovered this the day before when her presentation was crippled a bit by the lack of internet access. Our work around for her was to find someone willing to let her tether the laptop to their phone wireless. It worked well. Object lesson: be creative and ask people for help.

He wouldn’t tell us exactly how much that particular act of kindness would cost him. We knew we couldn’t ask that same person to allow us to tether two days in a row.

Much of my yesterday morning was spent testing my laptop’s antenna, borrowing laptops from friends to test their access in the same room. It all came to nought. And then we had the fortune of meeting Rusty, who isn’t exactly the hotel IT guy since the hotel doesn’t exactly have an IT guy. Rusty is the friendly person at the hotel who helps set things up for conferences, knows where they keep the ethernet cables and is willing to help. If anybody needs to come up with a name for their next child, please consider Rusty.

Irony #1: we presented about the importance of strong, reliable wireless internet access in our libraries by using a laptop physically wired to the ethernet.

By the way, a side observation: despite all our fannish raving about the miraculous iPad as a teaching/learning device, you cannot plug an iPad directly into the ethernet cable. If we had been presenting with iPad only, as we considered doing, we would have been DOA.

Okay. So, no real problem. You roll with things and people help you figure them out.

Irony #2: We wanted an easy way to give attendees the URLs to our project website. Being good librarians, we created bookmarks. While handing them out, it occurred to me that anyone who reads primarily on an eReader has absolutely no use for a bookmark. We can keep giving them out, but at some point we might consider not calling them bookmarks and just call them long, skinny handouts and let the people who need a bookmark make the leap.

It was a fun presentation. I learned more from giving the presentation than people listening likely learned from me. That’s why I agree to present.

Open community access to wireless is no longer optional for quality library service

I had a peculiar experience today. A community patron called, asking if they could come to the Roane State Community College library to use our wireless to buy books for her 9 year old granddaughter’s Nook. She bought the Nook for her granddaughter because she loves to read, but the grandmother lacks the home internet access required to download eBooks.

She contacted a local public library and was informed that current policies do not allow community guests to access their wireless network with personally owned devices.

The grandmother contacted us to ask if we had freely available wireless access for guests. We do. I told her we would be glad to help her connect and purchase eBooks for her Nook. However, if she just needed free wireless access, she might consider McDonald’s as another convenient option.

She’s coming to visit us, and I am glad. It was a peculiar feeling to suggest that the local McDonald’s might be more conducive place to obtain eBooks than her local public library.

This is not a criticism of our local public libraries. They are doing the best they can with the resources at hand. Just a bit disorienting to ponder this one as a hint of what 21st century librarianship has become.

Open access to wireless internet is no longer an optional add-on for quality library service. Easy, reliable wireless access has become the backbone of everything we do.


Note: This entry is cross-posted at TBR Mobile Libraries, a new blogging project I am sharing with other Tennessee Board of Regents librarians. That blog is focused primarily on TBR efforts to establish mobile-friendly library collections and services. Occassionally, posts there intersect with concerns of  Ubiquitous. Quotidian., which remains my own personal blog-child.