Why Mobile Matters: take 1

I’ve been working on a short statement explaining why mobile learning technologies matter so much to academic libraries.

I want this statement to be clear, concise and compelling.

I would welcome your comments.

Why Mobile Matters

Learning doesn’t only happen in classrooms. Truly transformative learning reaches outside the classroom to connect new ideas to our daily lives. This isn’t radical. This is how people learn. Learning requires a person to actively do something with new information to connect to their own experience and assimilate into their understanding. That’s what makes knowledge.

Libraries are often referred to as information centers. We want to be knowledge centers. We want to work with our faculty to develop and deliver extraordinarily rich resource collections that encourage intellectual curiosity and inspire exploration. This is about books, but it is about much more. TBR Libraries provide eBooks, journals/eJournals, video/eVideo and other learning objects. This includes mobile apps.

Apps represent a new kind of learning resource. The best mobile apps blend text-based learning with other modes of learning. Consider the rich potential of new books which blend text, video and interactive animation in a focused way to make a thesis more than understood.

Many of our students carry smartphones, eReaders and tablet computers. As mobile technologies proliferate on our campuses, our faculty are excited about the potential for using these commonplace devices to increase student engagement and extend learning outside the classroom.

The rise of smartphones is not about voice and text messaging. It is about ubiquitous internet connection. Many students and faculty now live our lives with a constant, direct access to the internet wherever we go. We are always connected. We are always communicating. We are always learning.

Library resources need to be as easy to discover and use as Google and Wikipedia. We imagine a college where library books, journals, videos and other collections are available “on demand” when and where they are needed.

We want to partner with our faculty who see the huge learning potential of mobile teaching technologies. We want those faculty to have access to the resources, tools and best practices required to develop powerful new ways of teaching.

We want our administrations to understand their libraries as active partners for creativity, knowledge and innovation.

We want our students to trust their libraries to be available when and where they need them and to think of their librarians as learning guides who can make their learning easier and more effective.

We are committed to creating mobile-friendly library environments that are useful, relevant and convenient. We are committed to understanding the desired learning outcomes of our institutions and delivering library services that support those outcomes.

We are TBR’s mobile-friendly libraries, and we are ready to help.

My latest training fail!

People who love new technologies need to be careful when teaching others how to use them. We need to remember that technologies should solve problems, not create them.

I get excited and lose sight of this basic idea sometimes. I get my reminders several times a day. The reminder is always painful.

My most recent reminder came when doing the first staff training session for downloading eBooks to eReaders.

The problem we face is pretty complex: getting library books distributed easily and immediately to our students, staff and faculty at 8 teaching locations plus online. eBooks are the technological answer.

The problem is eBook downloads are, by design, not easy. Here’s the nutshell: two product platforms; a proliferation of eReaders which use different file types, three different passwords (library authentication for off-campus use, product login for download, Adobe ID for DRM authentication) and a separate download of Adobe Content Manager to drag the book through to receive its DRM christening. For tablet users, don’t forget the need to download the app and the app store password you will need to get the app if not already loaded. BTW, if you have Kindle Fire and are wanting a non-Kindle compliant title, you will need an entirely different set of instructions to go outside the normal Kindle app process, modify your device settings and then download the reading app while ignoring your devices warnings that the app you are downloading may not be safe.

Sounds bad, yes? It is. At least, the set up is. Once past the initial set up, downloading eBooks works great and solves a pretty significant problem: how to get library books where I want them, when I want them.

Here’s how to train staff on this process: give them step by step written instructions, give them laptops that have not yet been associated with ACM software and have them walk through the proccess step by step for themselves and then discuss what and why.

Here’s what I did: explain the difference between “dumb” eReaders (non-cloud based) vs. “smart” tablet eReaders; touch on why authentication is required and, if possible, a bit about how that works; describe what DRM does and why publishers want to ruin their own products with it; gush about all the technical things going on behind the scenes that make eBooks possible. Then, do a demo and then have them do one on the device of their own choice.

FAIL! We all came away a bit dispirited and thinking that maybe eBooks cause more problems than they solve. That isn’t true, of course. eBooks are a useful, practical solution to a real and significant problem: getting library books to patrons where they need them, when they want them. The process isn’t as elegant as it needs to be, yet, but is still a real improvement over the need for patrons to search the catalog, request a book and then wait one or two days for the book to be sent to a campus they will physically visit to receive the item.

eBooks are great. They work and will help our students, staff and faculty. That isn’t what I taught my team on Friday.

It wasn’t a total loss. Any time I can get reminded to make training simple, direct and practical, the better I become at training. I should be a training superhero pretty soon!

The takeaway:

When teaching others how to use new technologies, the focus has to be directly centered on what the particular tool at hand can do for them. Presumably, the use of appropriate tools makes part of our work easier so we can focus on more complex matters at hand and achieve bigger things. Forget this and you’ve got a recipe for failure.

How my iPhone helped a blind student

Here’s one of those small daily miracles that comes from having ubiquitous internet access in your pocket and ready for action.

A blind student came into the library today. He asked for someone patient to help him scan his chemistry lecture notes into Word using OCR so the text to speech reader could parse his instructor’s notes for him. We talked about this a bit, and I told him I thought we could help.

I quickly discovered that our lab scanner is not currently equipped with OCR capability. You scan a document and can only get JPG, TIFF and PNG files. No good for text to speech readers.

Turns out there isn’t a single public use OCR scanner at the entire college. That’s a problem I intend to fix pretty quick. In the meantime, this student was out of luck and his chemistry notes were inaccessible.

Then I remembered the document scanner app I recently downloaded onto my iPhone (ImagetoText). A 25 page document. I snapped a picture of each page with my phone, let the app translate the image into text and then emailed the file to myself so the txt file could be pasted into Word. Somewhat labor intense but worked pretty well. I was impressed by how well the text rendered. His notes are complete since the chemistry diagrams are non-textual but a pretty great solution in a pinch.

First World Problems?

While I’ve been busy blogging about my frustrations with upgrading to iOS5, Sarah Houghton (Librarian in Black) has been busy telling the world how librarians got screwed by the recent deal between Overdrive and Amazon. Basically, Amazon has agreed to make Overdrive eBooks super simple for registered library patrons. In exchange, library patrons’ reading histories and other personal data will become property of Amazon. Amazon users should already be familiar with this practice as it is a standard aspect of the Amazon EULA (you do read those, right?).

Library patrons will also have the chance to purchase the borrowed books they especially enjoy.

Nothing sinister on the surface, perhaps. I like getting book recommendations from Amazon based on what I bought that others bought.

But LiB is correct in her righteous fuming to chastise us librarians for being so willing to turn a blind eye to the privacy concerns so quickly in order to catch the eContent we need to satisfy demand. We need to have a conversation about this, even if, at the end of the day, we sign on to the deal anyway.

Watch the video and let me know what you think of her arguments. BTW, parts of her rant are NSFW.

More than a few comments suggest that privacy is such a 20th century idea. At least one person calls Sarah’s privacy concerns a “First World problem”. Having to get more memory so I can upgrade to iOS5 is the very definition of a First World Problem. Not wanting to easily surrender the idea that “free people read freely” and privately may be a First World problem of sorts. If so, it is the underpinnings of our First World way of life.

What libraries are for.

I had a fascinating conversation with a librarian friend today. We were talking about ongoing collection development projects, the role of eBooks and emerging modes of media. Flashpoint: “But really. Don’t you really think that in a few years people will stop needing us since everything is online?”

In his defense, he was feeling a bit overwhelmed and bewildered by the pace of change. In his defense, there is much to feel overwhelmed and bewildered about.

The idea took me a bit by surprise. It was unsettling to hear a librarian speak the words “everything is online”. That was the kind of talk that used to rile me up in library school back in the early 2000’s. The speaker, usually a politician of some type, would get rewarded by a list of the many things that were, in fact, not online — encyclopedias, newspaper archives, scholarly journal articles, video, contemporary books.

Of course, all of that has changed. Which is to say, all of that is online now.

So here’s the point: that doesn’t matter. Librarians need to move beyond the old idea that our job is to provide a stronghold of printed information as authority against the less reputable, fadish online information sources. This was a dumb battle. We didn’t stand a chance. Mostly because there was nothing there to fight against.

The idea that libraries exist as some kind of print island oasis in a choatic ocean of digital resources is wrong-headed.

Everything is pretty much online now and libraries are more important than ever. Why? Because the companies that have made every aspect of our culture available and accessible to us online, want to sell that culture back to us.

I love Apple, Amazon and Google. They have pushed the information ecosystem forward in a big way. I love all three because they make information easy to locate, obtain and use. But they scare me a little, too. They scare me because they think of information in terms of consumption, as something that is consumed.

Apple’s iPod, iPhone and iPad are the 3 major vehicles for how I interact with my friends, my music, and my news. I love the iPad as an eReader. At the moment, I only read free, public domain or creative commons licensed books on the iPad because I don’t want to pay for my books.

Our library is working on implementing free download of EBSCO eBooks to the iPad and Nook with Overdrive access on the Kindle and iPad to follow. Still, I worry that the logistics of moving an eBook from the library collection to a personal eReader will not be as easy as the process of moving a purchased book from the Amazon or iBook stores to the native eReader apps. Will our patrons be willing to endure a little inconvenience to save money or will convenience win out? History places the chips on the side of convenience.

And so, we work diligently to explore, implement and develop eBooks plans and services that are highly convenient. Not because we are competing with Amazon for book customers or with Netflix for video watchers. We do this because we believe people shouldn’t have to pay tolls to access the products of their own culture.

I love to buy books. People should be free to buy books, but people shouldn’t have to buy them.

Apple, Amazon and Google are helping make sure everything is online. That’s their business model. It is a very effective business model.

Libraries are there to ensure that business models aren’t the only factor shaping the tools and terms of our cultural production. That’s what I find so fascinating about the work librarians should be doing.

For a long time, we worried that the Internet would somehow co-opt us, render us irrelevant and sweep us away. Now, librarians are learning to co-opt the tools of the Web to drive cultural production forward and keep the resources needed for good learning available to all.

In which I wax rhapsodic about having the best job in the world

I have the best job in the world. I’m a librarian.

There’s a lot to love about being a librarian. People think you’re smart. You get to hang out with people who like books. You meet the best students. You help people do things that are either useful or important for them to do. You are always learning and you try to inspire other people to be always learning.

That’s just the getting started list. So, here’s the irony. I have never been so inspired and so enjoyed my work more than ┬áright now when everything the library has been assumed to be stands in question.

Right now, when the printed book starts to seem a little quaint beside eBooks and mobile eReaders.

Right now, when libraries everywhere, including my workplace, are incompletely funded.

Right now, when the presumed purposes and foundations of higher education are called into question and Open Source video lecturers like Salman Kahn are being hailed as the wholesale future of learning.

Right now, when long established models of library service and collection development are falling apart and being reinvented and nothing is entirely comfortable and we never entirely feel like we know what we are doing.

It’s fun.

Here’s why. I am working with groups of people (librarians, faculty and students) who are passionately interested in teaching and learning.

We are building better ways of doing things. We are picking up new tools (cellphone, anyone?) and trying to figure out how to help students reach deeper involvement in their own learning.

We are improvising a bit and sharing what works.

And we are failing together. Failing in new and interesting ways and, hopefully, sharing these failures with each other to get beyond the 10,000 failures that don’t matter toward the one success that does.

Part of this enthusiasm is probably just personality. Maybe I’d be writing this very same blog post if I were a bus driver or a scuba instructor or a mechnical engineer. Maybe. Possibly. Hopefully.

One thing I know for sure: I am at my best when everything is in a little bit of flux and nothing is completely certain. Not your traditional job description for an academic librarian.

What’s not to love?