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.

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.

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.