Friday, November 30, 2007

The future of reading?

"The vision is that you should be able to get any book—not just any book in print, but any book that's ever been in print—on this device in less than a minute"
Jeff Bezos, Amazon
Oh yeah. There's a vision...but sorting out the implications will take awhile. What does this mean for libraries? for newspapers? for bookstores?

The device in question is, of course, the Kindle, the latest and far away the greatest thing in ebook technology. It represents a quantum leap forward, marrying convenience in use with convenience in purchasing.

Simply put, take the best ebook device yet marketed and virtually hardwire it into the world's largest bookstore and you have an unprecedented knowledge distribution tool. Questions of how electronic books will affect library services are not new. But they just became a bit more real and pressing, because at first blush, the Kindle is that good.

After a quick straw poll of library staff, I decided we needed to purchase, and play with, a Kindle of our own. After a couple days of using it, I'm reluctant to pass it on. While some things are still clunky -- this is an imperfect technology -- the core experience of reading a book sure works well for me.

Quick and dirty reactions:

  • ability to quickly purchase from the Amazon store, using search and browse features -- 88,000 titles does not include everything I'd like but it's a lot -- the time from wanting a book to having & reading it is very short
  • the screen -- easy to read electronic paper
  • the user interface -- big "next page", "previous page", and "back" buttons, and a pretty intuitive and fairly sophisticated click-wheel menu system for most other things
  • light and easy to hold
  • you're online all the time, via a cellphone not wifi, connection
  • Amazon answers reference questions, and not too badly, via their nownow service
  • battery life - quite decent and charges pretty quickly
  • automatic daily delivery of newspapers
  • newspapers are awkward to read, with the click-wheel menu feeling more intrusive & less intuitive
  • annoying screen flash when you turn a page
  • no backlight
  • grey scale is 4-bit -- photos look like poor photocopies
  • menus & content manager system are a bit clunky & non-intuitive
  • more difficult to share information with others (from the bookseller's viewpoint, this might be a positive)
  • $399 is steep (but they said iPods were too expensive to succeed in the mass market, too)
It's too early to understand all the technological, economic and educational implications and impacts, but the Kindle deserves our attention. Now I've got to stop writing about it and let somebody else try it. More later!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Of books, bytes, buildings & budgets

As we approach the turning of the year, we celebrate many things and have just kicked off the holiday season with Thanksgiving. As always, I’m thankful for the community support our library receives. This year that support was manifest in our City budget for next year.

We’re a part of the City of Appleton. Although the financial support provided by our Foundation and Friends group is critical, although the reimbursement from counties and the support of the system are essential, and although the work of our volunteers is indispensable in keeping our heads above water, the City budget is still our fiscal core. A vast majority of our funding comes from City property taxes, so the budget process and decision loom large for us every year.

This year the City Council adopted the Mayor’s proposed budget for the library unchanged, and the Mayor’s budget was very similar to the Library Board’s request. The good news is that we will see a 10% increase in the materials budget after three years of no change. We’ll also be able to address some staff training needs; the training budget had eroded in the past few years and the recently adopted Long Range Plan identified this as a priority. Our increasing volume of business and increasing dependence on technology mandates a well-trained staff.

But the controversial part of the budget was our building study. For the past three years, the Library Board has requested we study our facility needs, but until this year, the Mayor was not ready to support the study, considering all the other facility concerns for the City. The need has grown more pressing as we’ve grown more crowded and the increased use exacerbates some of the difficulties of the current building. We’ve done some “make do” remodeling, but it’s better to address the needs in a serious and systematic way.

Our building is critical. Books and other library materials may be our lifeblood, and our virtual and online services may be increasingly important. But the library is still a place, a place for the whole community. The facility should make everyone feel welcome. It should be efficient to operate and should sustain the library services delivered: not only getting library materials, but doing research, attending programs and meetings and bringing children to story hours. Our current facility is functional, but less so every year and not adequate for the growing library service needs of a growing community. We need to look at some tough questions.

Some of our alderpersons were not ready to support the study. I suspect their reasons were diverse: some may have been concerned about the cost of implementing recommendations; some may have felt the study was too undefined; some may have felt that conclusions are foregone. From where I sit, the study is needed and timely, neither are the conclusions known. And though we had a close vote in including our study in the budget, it is there.

The consultants can help clarify our choices and understand costs, so the Library Board, the Mayor and Council, and ultimately the community, can decide what they want and will pay for. Choices include doing nothing, remodeling or relocating the central library, and whether to build a branch or branches – and if so, where.

Library services and our building may be under the authority of the Library Board, but our building is one of many city facilities. We’re glad that our study is going forward even while our city is looking at other facility needs. We’re also benefiting from the expertise of Dean Gazza, the City of Appleton Facilities Management Director, who had helped draft our Request for Proposals and will work with us on every step. We hope to send out our RFP in January, and then buckle down to do some work taking a good look at our options.

Monday, November 26, 2007

We love a parade!

From the Post-Crescent website: "The Appleton Public Library offers cards through the years in the 37th Annual Downtown Appleton Christmas Parade on Nov. 20, 2007. Post-Crescent photo by Steve Kabelowsky"

Several staff members, family and library supporters -- undaunted by drizzle and sleet -- carried large blow-ups of library cards from the 1930s to the present as well as historic and current photos of the library.
Young library supporters in the parade.

After the parade, children were treated to a Santa Story hour at the library. Miss Kathleen, aided by her husband Ty Westbrook, played songs shared stories and welcomed the Jolly Old Elf.
Ty & Kathleen Westbrook entertain the kids.

Miss Kathleen supervises Santa in placing a book atop the tree.

Library photos by Michael Kenney

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Our local paper reads the state's reports

Posted November 23, 2007

Appleton, Neenah libraries see big circulation increases
By Ben Jones
Post-Crescent Madison bureau chief

MADISON — A slow economy could be the catalyst of a boom at some Fox Valley libraries.

Circulation at the Appleton Public Library rose more than 10 percent last year to 1.3 million items circulated, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

Terry Dawson, the library's director, said there are probably many factors contributing to the increase, but a slightly slowing economy could explain part of the increase.

"People use libraries rather than buying books (and) people that can't afford to buy books are more reliant on the library for books and other media," Dawson said.

Dawson said other factors also could be driving circulation. He said the publishing business is booming and, locally, people pick up books while they are in the library for other events and meetings.

Dawson said circulation is up among different types of materials.

"It's not just adult materials, not just children's materials, we've seen increases in both of those," he said. "It's not just media, although it is rising quickly, it's also books, we are circulating more books than ever before."

Dawson said that in general, Fox Valley libraries are doing well. Circulation varies among area Fox Valley libraries, although state statistics show Kaukauna, New London and Oshkosh libraries saw small circulation declines.

In Neenah, the public library's circulation grew by more than 8 percent last year and is up another 8 percent this year, Director Stephen Proces said.

"We have at least 750 people a day in here," he said. "It's a good cross-section of the community."

Debra Cronmiller, executive director of the Community Shelter of the Fox Valley, said libraries mean more to low-income people than people with greater means.

"If you are making $100,000 a year, you are probably still going to Barnes & Noble," she said.

Dawson said circulation increases are good news for libraries. "It's the first law of library science," he said. "Books are for use.
With all due respect to Debra Cronmiller, who does wonderful work with the homeless in our community, if you're making $100,00 a year and going to Barnes & Noble, you're probably still going to the library. There's no doubt that poor people have fewer choices and are thus in some ways more dependent on public libraries. But there's lots of stuff that even people of means will not find in a bookstore or online.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

YouTube marketing

"London Public Library: it's time to take another look!" is an interesting YouTube video from the London Ontario Public Library. I like the fact that while they're promoting their new website and cover a lot of 2.0 stuff, they also emphasize plenty of traditional services.

Read about this on John Miedema's blog -- which has been in my Bloglines list for quite awhile. John's new blog emphasizes the Slow Reading movement, and is worth viewing as a balance to all the 2.0 influences of the biblioblogosphere.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Reading at the intersection

In a Nov. 5 New Yorker article, "Future Reading: Digitization and its discontents", Anthony Grafton looks at Google Book Search and the Google Library Project, balancing their claims and promise with a look at how we read and process information and ideas.

He has some conclusions which should hearten, but not surprise us in the trade:

For now and for the foreseeable future, any serious reader will have to know how to travel down two very different roads simultaneously. ... Sit in your local coffee shop, and your laptop can tell you a lot. If you want deeper, more local knowledge, you will have to take the narrower path that leads between the lions and up the stairs. ... The narrow path still leads, as it must, to crowded public rooms where the sunlight gleams on varnished tables, and knowledge is embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books.
It is not coincidental that we're hearing about the slow reading idea and Walt Crawford's Balanced Libraries. Even as we undertake exciting changes that help us become more interactive, deliver service with new tools and remind our patrons of our relevance in a digital world, our core values and services are essentially unchanged.

In marketing terms, reading is our brand. OK, but contrast with the public image of library stodginess. The trick here is to show off the new and glitzy without abandoning -- or ever appearing to abandon -- that core. Nor try to be all things to all people.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

That's that, now what?

Well, our building study is in our budget, on a narrow vote in the City Council. But narrow or unanimous, we go forward. Now the work starts: we have a plan for our service priorities, and we'll work with some consultants and the community to better understand our facility options and take forward some priority recommendations.

We'll thank those Council members who voted for the library, and ask our supporters to do likewise. We'll keep talking with those who voted against the library, to understand their concerns and help them understand ours. And we'll keep telling the library's story to the community, because a well-informed community will give us better input as we study our building choices.

The long range planning at our neighbor's place in Menasha reinforces the need to keep telling our story. Tasha notes some concerns in her blog:
  • Intelligent people in your community are not using your library.
  • Even more so, they have no idea what a modern library is.
  • They see us as conservative institutions.
  • They see us as insular and unresponsive in the extreme.
  • They believe every librarian fits the stereotype because they don't know or interact with librarians in real life.
  • They believe we don't care, don't want to serve, don't understand society.
While Menasha's concerns are going to be nearly identical to neighboring Appleton's in respect to these perceptions, they're broader than that. This public image fight is one for all of us, touching the whole public library community. It comes home to roost in local planning and local government voting.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Libraries and Social Networks

There's been a lot of conversation online about the new report from OCLC, Sharing, Privacy and Trust in Our Networked World (.pdf download, 280 pp.). There's a lot to digest, but it's plenty interesting.

The report studies the way that Internet usage has evolved and matured, focusing on
...four primary areas:
  1. User practices and preferences on their favorite social spaces
  2. User attitudes about sharing and receiving information on social spaces, commercial sites and library sites
  3. Information privacy; what matters and what doesn’t
  4. Librarian social networking practices and preferences; their views on privacy, policy and the potential of social networks for libraries
And it comes to conclusions which some may find reassuring, but others see as concerning. The good folk at the Libraries Build Communities blog note the following highlights:
  • this data shows the distinction between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” to be almost non-existent; we’ve all been online for long enough
  • the shift from users simply reading the web (in 2005) to authoring it (in 2007) is startling; library web site use decreased by 33% during this same period
  • people who use social networking sites (drum roll please) read more than people who don’t. HA!
  • social networking is qualified by interaction; social media is qualified by content creation, publishing, and sharing - more than a quarter of the general pop surveyed had used either (28%), making them more likely to participated in the social web than to have searched or borrowed from a library web site (20%)
  • people participate in social networking for interaction; users believe that it helps maintain current relationships (42%) or develop new ones (47%)
  • the general public (13%) and US library directors (14%) generally don’t think there’s a place for the library in the social web; when they do, they think we should host book clubs.
What does this mean for our future? As has been said before, books are our brand. Will library websites always be marginal in the social web? Is the community conversation in libraries essentially limited to face-to-face, though virtual elsewhere? Is this a problem or an opportunity?

Part of the report's conclusion notes:
Brand creates an important and useful set of expectations of what the organization should deliver, and conversely, brand often puts boundaries around what users believe an organization can deliver.

The library brand has put boundaries around the expectations of libraries on the social Web. Overwhelmingly, neither the general public nor librarians see a role for libraries as providers of social sites. Offline, libraries are vibrant social spaces. They are hubs of community activities and provide a venue for open exchange and dialogue. Yet, neither users nor librarians can
see such a role for libraries online.
Are we self-limiting or wisely recognizing our capacity and role? Some may read this with relief and others with sadness. This report deserves to be widely read, and we should consider the conclusions as we plan our websites and online catalogs.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Information R/evolution

Thanks to Tasha Saecker of the Menasha Library & Sites and Soundbytes for pointing out this one! Another good one from Michael Wesch in Digital Ethnography at Kansas State U. -- similar to his "The Machine Is Us/ing Us".

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Building study issues in the press

Editorial reactions from selected writers on the Post Crescent's online forum, with some of my thoughts in response in italics:

I agree we are changing and the use of how one uses the library system is also changing.We have an explosive movement in the North. I would like to use OWLS and see if they can freely provide the same information that a $50,000 study will provide. We have the knowledge...Go north young readers.
This refers to how Appleton is growing to the north, with two fairly new high schools and some major annexation miles from the downtown. Northern considerations should be a major part of this study.

OWLS certainly has expertise, but not in building design or construction -- for that you need professional expertise, likely from an architect. That will allow service needs to be translated into building concepts with some associated cost projections. And while OWLS has the ability to do many things, they are already doing many things -- this is a major project and OWLS staff does not have lots of spare time on their hands.

Seems to me the librarians are getting short shrift in this deal in favor of fattening the pockets of outside consultants. Who would be more expert in the library's needs, a consultant or the people that run the library? As I see it it should be a fairly simple and straight forward proposition. Look at the needs of the library over all then look at the city's demographics to determine if the existing building should be added to or a new building elsewhere in town is needed. To me it looks like the city is just trying to avoid taking any responsibility for any decisions.
From this librarian's perspective, our librarians are not getting short shrift, they're asking for help. I would certainly expect that any consultants hired would be responsive to library staff and Board, so that our expertise will be taken into account.

But I disagree that the proposition is either simple or straightforward. Since this story broke in the press, I've had people tell me that it's obvious we should build branches, I've had people tell me it's obvious we should expand our current building, I've had people tell me it's obvious we should relocate to a new building with modern design, allowing us to build some new efficiencies into operations.

I know what I think, but that doesn't give me alternatives with costs. And it's the people of this community, through their input and representatives on the Library Board and Council -- maybe even through referendum -- who get to choose. What do you, the people, collectively want? What will you pay? Not simple questions at all.

All I know is that the library needs a bigger parking lot.
I can sure argue for that, but I've had other people tell me it's obvious the library needs a smaller parking lot so more people will use nearby parking ramps. Seriously. This issue alone could generate a long discussion.

Outsiders are brought for the following:

1. A knowledge of what other communities are doing.

2. The existing staff can have tunnel vision and not be aware of alternatives.

3. To minimize conflicts of interest. There are people in the community who would question large expenditures proposed by the staff.

There's no doubt that the staff could analyze the situation and propose changes but bringing in outsiders has the appearance of impartiality whether or not the impartiality actually exists.
I mostly agree -- one additional reason is particular expertise, such as civil engineering, architectural planning and cost-estimating. It's everybody's job to keep an eye on that impartiality thing, though outside consultants are less likely to have a local or hidden agenda. Not that my agenda is hidden, but it's sure possible I have tunnel vision. You could also argue that any proposal from staff is self-interested (like we would want the headaches this entails).

Monday, November 5, 2007

Newspaper editorial spot on

This opinion piece appeared in today's Post-Crescent, and indicates a good understanding of the value of public libraries, as well as current community needs. Thanks, Post-Crescent!

Posted November 5, 2007

Editorial: Library study needed to best serve city

A public library is a vital part of any community. It's a gateway to reading, but it's much more than that. It's a gateway to learning, through all sorts of media. It's a gateway to technology. And it's a community center — a place to meet, a place to be, where all are welcome.

The Appleton Public Library is no exception. It's one of the centers of the city. But the time has come to explore whether the library is meeting the needs of city residents.

Appleton has grown a lot since the library was built, in 1981, and slightly expanded, in 1996. More people are using the library, and the library has more to offer people. As a result, space in the building has become a problem.

The city's 2008 budget proposal includes $50,000 for a space needs study of the library — an idea we heartily endorse.

The importance of the study is not so much what the space needs are today, but what they'll be in the future. Expansion of some sort will be needed someday. But what kind of expansion would be best to serve the changing community?

Since any proposal, realistically, wouldn't become a reality for several years, the time is right now to conduct the study.

The library's long-range plan maps out a course. This study is needed to determine what kind of building is needed to follow that course.

The Common Council should keep the library study in the 2008 budget.