The G-word

G-word

In case I need to spell it out, today’s topic is Google. Not satisfied with being only a noun (in the proper sense), it has been verbed in much of the global Internet consciousness. According to one source, “googling” accounts for 2/3rds of all U.S. Internet queries. The remaining 30-ish percent is a tug-of-war predominantly between Microsoft and Yahoo, with Ask and AOL in the low-single digits.

In the age of information, this places Google into a unique role of deciding how to match your standard end user with the information she or he seeks, something traditionally performed by research librarians. It does so with a measure of austerity, for its algorithms are above question (and certainly, its popularity speaks for itself). For the most part, librarians have seemed to embrace this particular change, adding Google to their reference repertoires.

But should librarians be concerned?

It’s not just reference over which Google’s shadow looms. Earlier this week, the (in)famous Google Books case was thrown out of a U.S. district court. The judge ruled that the benefit to the public outweighed any of the rights of the authors whose books were scanned and added to the massive digital library that Google has been creating. For many libraries, this is a good thing: free access to information that would otherwise be virtually impossible to acquire otherwise. Except, not all of it is free. In a settlement brokered back in 2007, Google now possesses “various legal rights to scan, index, display and sell all books in print online.” Not to mention the concerns of privacy, for which Google may not always maintain the highest integrity.

Speaking of integrity, Google has made a decision to censor some (admittedly illegal and obscene) results. Once again, most librarians would and will applaud such gestures, even if in opposition to a strict stance against censorship. Google has opposed censorship in the past, but from a librarian’s perspective, Google is a corporation, and like any corporation, strongly motivated by profit. If there were profit in it, it could be argued that Google might lean further in an orthogonal direction from the ethics of librarians and free speech.

Another recent addition to the roster of Google services is Google Helpouts, a way to request expert information directly from an expert. Google acts here as a marketplace, connecting experts with the Internet at large, and allowing those experts to set the price of their knowledge (provided through live online videoconferencing or pre-recorded sessions). Many sessions are free, so that’s a nice feature, but libraries are already doing the same thing (such as the Human Library or Check Out an Expert)! Google simply has the resources to globalize the idea and, of course, make a profit.

Connected Classrooms lets users go on virtual field trips through the Google Hangouts videoconferencing service. Connecting with organizations like NASA, the American Museum of Natural History and National Geographic, they’re providing an experience of bringing the world to the classroom or the library. For libraries with videoconferencing capabilities, this sort of thing is already happening, but it seems like Google is yet again one step ahead.

I spoke earlier of the potential concerns that librarians might have over Google and its ever-expanding influence. Obviously, this is not meant in the sense of Google as the Vishnu of libraries. There are concerns that Google’s interests do not match those of libraries or librarians, of course. As the winds of profit change course, what does it mean to us for a corporation like Google to be so firmly in control of the flow of information? By subscribing to Google’s services, do we make ourselves willing inmates to a Panoptic prison? Can we, as librarians and citizens, steal the fire and not be burned?

Go wild with our zoo!

Orangutan and tablet

Apologies to subscribers to this blog: in my previous post on the 7th, I said I would be absent the following Monday (the 14th) due to the holiday. I was away at the New England Library Association conference on the 21st, and was doing my best not to share my copious supply of germs during my time there, and did not provide an article. So it’s been two weeks since I’ve shared with you, my adoring followers.

Something that I did share while I was there as an exhibitor for the Maine State Library was the debut of our long-awaited technology petting zoo. What’s a technology petting zoo? As we’ve envisioned it, it’s a selection of e-readers, media devices and tablets that represent the bigger names in each category, from which a library may selectively borrow for purposes of digital literacy education, either for their staff or patrons.

It’s all based off of the initiative that began almost a year ago, when Janet McKenney (my supervisor) and I traveled around Maine to several different locations, informing libraries of upcoming national initiatives such as the EveryoneOn Ad Council campaign. It was also our chance to take the pulse of what librarians throughout the state wanted for training in digital literacy training.

One of the most resounding ideas was the ability to have a collected pool of devices that represented the breadth of technology librarians were confronted with by patrons and asked to instruct on their use. Many libraries don’t have the resources to afford such devices, and even those that could found themselves needing to “catch up” with newer versions. Could the Maine State Library, our librarians wondered, support such a collection?

This is our emphatic reply: yes. In the form of six different types of devices: the Amazon Kindle PaperWhite, the Nook SimpleTouch, the Amazon Kindle Fire, the Nook HD+, the Apple iPad Mini, and the Google Nexus. The first two are pure e-readers, meant for consumption of e-books. The next two are what I have termed “media devices”, somewhere between the specific nature of e-readers but also shy of full tablet status. The last two are tablets, representing both the Apple and Android ecosystems.

Devices alone do not constitute training, and so we’ve taken another step: these devices come with objective-based training pamplets, detailing basic operation of the devices as well as an overview of some of the primary tasks a beginning user might need to know, such as connecting to a wireless network. We’re also offering education in the form of a trainer to accompany the zoo and train either the staff or provide an event for patrons to attend.

We’re very proud of the petting zoo, and have already had a successful deployment, courtesy of Kate Pickup-McMullin at Southwest Harbor Public Library. They borrowed five of each of our iPad Minis and Google Nexuses, deployed them to their staff, and offered events for patrons to learn about the devices from the staff.

Further details about the zoo can be found here, including the links to the use policy, schedule, request form and feedback form. We’re hoping many Maine libraries will take advantage of the zoo. How about your library?

Technology skills at the push of a button

e-training

I’ve talked about online learning in a previous article in terms of more traditional learning (and not-so-traditional learning), but haven’t really approached the resources that exist for technology training, whether the learner is a library patron or staff member. So let’s take a quick minute and catch up on these (mostly free) sites:

First, if you’re in Maine and haven’t heard of Learning Express, do yourself a favor and pay it a visit. It’s an amazing resource for a lot of reasons, but specifically for anyone just starting out using the computer or the Internet. It’s also a place to learn the ins and outs of Microsoft Office and Adobe productivity software, or the most common operating systems, Windows (including 8) and Mac OS X. These are comprehensive courses, and so can take a while to complete, so Learning Express tracks your progress from session to session.

Similarly, Goodwill Community Foundation has a similar portal for computer basics. They go beyond the Learning Express offerings with such things as iPad basics, Google Drive, and a couple additional “tech savvy” courses that promote good behaviors when using computers and the Internet. They also are fairly comprehensive in the basics of social media, including courses in LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Skype. (Sites with other basic training include Digital Learn and EveryoneOn.)

Let’s take it up a notch. For users that are already fairly familiar with the Internet, and want to find training in the many forms of social media or cloud resources out there, get a free account with Grovo. Now, you’re finding resources that show users about stuff like Etsy, Kickstarter, Prezi, SurveyMonkey, and so on. Even for the free user, there are hundreds of short video tutorials on these topics, including quizzes to help your users retain the knowledge.

Another resource for more sophisticated users is Alison. Courses in Alison range on topics from basic digital literacy to computer programming and network security, with plenty in the middle for intermediate computer users. Likewise, Woopid offers similar selections of training videos, albeit specific to a device (such as an iPhone), website (like eBay) or operating system (including Ubuntu).

Finally, Lynda offers a wide selection of video tutorials for graphic design and website software. They have an in-depth series on WordPress and many other website technologies, and break them into “skill levels”, so even basic users can start here and progress at their own pace. Not all of the training videos available at Lynda are free, but enough to allow any user to decide if they’d like to buy a subscription.

Do you see your library using this for your patrons or staff?

Games, gaming and gamification

Image of Go board

“Genius is play, and man’s capacity for achieving genius is infinite, and many may achieve genius only through play.”
― William Saroyan

(Please assume that the word “man” in the above quote refers to all humanity. Ladies are not excluded.)

We’re about two months away from International Games Day, so bringing attention to this ALA-sponsored event can’t happen too soon! But let’s assume that you are a librarian who doesn’t subscribe to the notion of games in libraries. Let’s start with the basics:

Why should libraries promote games or gaming? As addressed in the link, there are a few reasons. First: games attract people. We think of games as being purely for children, and bringing children into the library (and the attending parents / guardians) is never a bad thing. But it’s more than that: there are plenty of games (this last was said to be a favorite of Kennedy and Kissinger) that engage adults as well. Pew Internet studies have found that over half of adults play video games! The Wii has demonstrated a following with older adults, especially with games like bowling, tennis and exercise (Wii Fit). There really is no age at which people stop playing games. So games can be a way to appeal to anyone in your community.

Secondly, there is the aspect of learning and literacy. These are the days when it’s possible to teach yourself to play guitar or drums, even piano by playing games. Traditional literacy is also made more accessible with the right games. Digital literacy and the use of new technologies can occur even without any prior instruction. (Best part of that article: “… within five months, they had hacked Android.”) Games inspire learning and creativity, and are an essential piece to lifelong learning.

Something else to consider: toys and games can change behaviors for the better. For example, the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital has a library with toys and games to assist in treatments for children with disabilities. Other games can help stroke victims with rehabilitation. Pew Internet has found that teens who play games with civic qualities (defined as “simulations of civic or political activities, helping others, and debating ethical issues”) are more likely to be engaged in real civic events and decisions. Games can be social, cooperative, educational, even cathartic.

Gamification is something that is being explored as a new way of improving not just education or knowledge, but even organizations. To gamify a process means to change the process so that it resembles a game, including elements like rules, competition, rewards, etc. Games can alter behaviors, stimulate and motivate learning and learners, and connect people, both locally and globally.  Ann Arbor Libraries have devised an extremely popular approach to teach how to use the library, as well as to encourage attendance at its summer programs. MIT is heavily invested in game theory and structure, especially as it pertains to new technologies. Businesses are benefiting from this idea. Maybe your library is next!

If you’re asking yourself why you should start adding games to your services, I’d ask: seeing all the potential benefits, why haven’t you already? And here are some resources to help you along that path!

Living on the LibraryEdge

LibraryEdge logo

March 2011 is when it began: an effort on the part of a number of organizations to create a set of technology-related benchmarks for libraries. This coalition and its efforts are known as the LibraryEdge. Several states have already participated in a “soft launch” of the LibraryEdge benchmarks, and in January 2014, the full suite of resources will be made available to all public libraries.

The obvious question is, why should I care? What impact does this have upon my library? Fortunately, the answer is a simple one: as much of an impact as you want. Let me be clear. This initiative is NOT intended to be applicable to any and every library, and it carries no weight with regard to the Maine Public Library Minimum Standards. It can be thought of as a structured set of goals, even ideals, that may be helpful when it comes to developing a long-term vision for your library’s technology, services and staff training.

Fortunately, this is not purely an intellectual exercise. When January hits, a number of tools will be made available, including instructional webinars, self-assessment tools, resource guides and more. TechSoup, one of the partners, maintains a LibraryEdge blog describing the Edge at work in public libraries. Libraries will be able to track their progress and compare other libraries within the state and nationally, not competitively but to see how other libraries are being successful in making technology and digital literacy a reality for their communities. There are already a couple case studies showing how libraries large and small (though not as small as many Maine libraries) have fared taking on the Edge Initiative.

As I said earlier, these benchmarks are definitely not meant to be held as the standard for all libraries. Instead, libraries may want to review them with an eye for thinking about the next small step to take in staff training, long-term goals around technology maintenance, or how to engage their community in new ways. When January 2014 is upon us, it will be interesting for libraries to self-assess and really begin to take advantage of the resources of this national effort.

How do you think your library measures up? What is your next technology-related goal?

Ahhhh! It’s a MOOC!

MOOCs & Librarians Poster. (Image Credit: Valerie Hill)

MOOCs & Librarians Poster. (Image Credit: Valerie Hill)

They’re out there, with millions of people already in their thrall and more each day. Soon, it could be you (if the MOOC hasn’t got you already). But don’t start packing your loved ones into suitcases just yet. A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course, and by “course” I’m talking about the sort that you normally find kept behind the walls of colleges and universities. These are the ones that have broken free, and are seeping onto the Internet.

Last November, the New York Times described 2012 as “The Year of the MOOC“, with organizations like edX, Udacity and Coursera putting classes from MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Brown, CalTech, Johns Hopkins, and dozens of other universities all around the world up for grabs to anyone who might like to sit in. Education that had previously been sequestered behind rigorous entrance requirements, high tuitions and ivy-robed edifices is now available to anyone with a computer and Internet connection. And you thought Khan Academy was pretty cool.

(True story: a long-time friend fresh out of the Army began furthering his education through an online degree program. One of the classes in the program was a basic calculus course, for which he sought my assistance. I pointed him to Khan Academy, which he claims made up for the fact that his teacher wasn’t doing the teaching part of the job.)

It’s not just calculus that’s on the roster. Check Class Central or CourseBuffet for subjects and you’ll find things like jazz improvization, technology enterpreneurship, historical methodology, even philanthropy among the standards. Also, here’s a relatively recent list of MOOC providers to browse, some from other countries and in other languages.

Of course, this is something that intersects with the role of librarians and deserves some consideration. One problem is the question of certification and cost. Not all classes are free, and many that are will only provide certification of course completion if a fee is paid. Another issue is the digital literacy required to engage in such classes. It’s great for those already familiar with many of the technologies needed to participate, but learning such technologies is a course unto itself. Plus, there’s the concern of isolation and the student-teacher ratio. When you open a course up to an unlimited number of viewers online, how can any one teacher be expected to answer follow-up questions from a class of thousands? These are questions as yet unanswered for MOOCs as a whole, but are being addressed as the platform itself matures.

Do you think MOOCs have a place in our public libraries? If so, how can libraries as a whole integrate MOOCs into their services?

The White House invited to a meeting at nation’s libraries

President Barack Obama visits a classroom at Yeadon Regional Head Start Center in Yeadon, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

President Barack Obama visits a classroom at Yeadon Regional Head Start Center in Yeadon, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

The Obama administration is moving forward on initiatives that naturally dovetail with the mission of libraries, and two are especially prominent over the past few weeks:

First, the ConnectED initiative. Here is a challenge and promise to the nation to make high-speed Internet access available almost ubiquitously within five years. Doing so will bring America into the 21st century (we currently rank 15th in broadband subscriptions per capita worldwide – Excel spreadsheet behind this link), opening doors for students and engaging them in a modern way of learning. President Obama’s speech singled out Mooresville Middle School in North Carolina as one of the schools embracing technology in the classroom. Due to their innovations, they rank number two in their state in performance, but are in the bottom 10 for the amount spent per student.

This approach does not pertain only to schools, but also to libraries. If libraries are going to adequately support their local students, they need to be adopting some of the same ideas and innovations. For Maine libraries, offering broadband access is pretty easy — Networkmaine has that part covered for most — but keeping pace will be harder. How many libraries are offering training on search skills, use of databases or Internet safety? (Hint: there are resources out there to help you.)

Secondly, at ALA this past weekend, President Obama thanked libraries and librarians in helping Americans enroll in the Affordable Care Act. He intends for libraries to act as gateways where citizens can walk in off the street, learn more about the Act and actually submit the necessary forms online right from the library, starting October 1st of this year. This is another opportunity for us to demonstrate our value to our communities, particularly the underserved, in making this process as effortless as we can.

Hopefully, we can recognize these as boons to promoting our value. Along with DigitalLearn, Connect2Compete and EveryoneOn, this is a time for libraries to truly shine. Do you think these national initiatives will make an impact in your library and community?