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If we challenge each other; we all win February 18, 2010

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Those that read my last post know that I recently attended a lecture where the speaker more or less told me that my question was not important.  This obviously did not make me happy and I came home and quickly sent an email to this individual as well as making a post that addressed the issue.  I then wrestled with whether or not it was politically a good idea to call someone out by name when disagreeing with their position on an issue.  After some time for reflection, I decided that while I thought it was clear that I was not engaging in any sort of personal attacks it was just a better decision to leave names out and focus solely on the content of my argument.

I just want to provide some additional details that may have lead to this speaker dismissing my question.  I am doing this to create a segue to another point so please do not feel that this is just going to be a continuation of the topic I discussed last time.  That being said, the additional details have to do with a lecturer beforehand asking us to think up really tough questions because apparently this speaker liked tough questions.  So, I went out and read like crazy and found a book where this speaker is quoted saying that new names for libraries are fine and then a few chapters later saying that libraries need to hold on to the name ‘library’ because it is a strong brand.  As a result, I presented the speaker with what seemed like a contradiction and asked if he could clarify which position best reflected his actual belief.  If that seems like a hard question, it’s meant to be; partially because that was what we were asked to do and partly because this speaker said that there is no such thing as maintaining a neutral position and anyone who tried to do so actually had no position.

Afterward, I wondered if I would have been better served lobbing up a softball about government bureaucracy’s affect on the public library agenda.  Then, I remembered this speaker’s call to action.  This individual asked us to rise up to the level of other professions.  The speaker continued by saying that students of medicine, law, and business come into school with big aspirations but library students, relatively speaking, do not.  If you look at the world of medicine, law, and business it is full of people asking each other the hard questions because when they challenge each other then everybody becomes stronger; everybody wins.

Here is the problem that I have with this speaker telling me that my question on library branding is not important.  In my case, I am challenging this person’s position (or, in this case, lack of one) but in the case of the speaker, this individual is simply devaluing the topic that I brought up.  To take this a step further, I have taken a clear position on the Amazon Kindle as well as e-readers place in libraries.  If someone disagrees with me, I would welcome a discussion where we could both present evidence to back up our opposing views and see if we can change the opinion of the other person.  What I am getting at is that because I have decided to publish my opinion then I feel that I have an obligation to back that up.  In the world of social science, where librarianship sits, there are no absolute correct answers and everything is debatable so all we have is the data, research and evidence to try and show that an idea is relatively better than another idea for a given situation.  It is really the best that we can hope for.  Therefore, if we are going to get to the best solutions to problems that we face then we have to be willing to ask the hard questions of each other and we have to equally be ready to back up our positions.  To finish with my example, what I don’t feel is an option for me now is to just say e-readers aren’t important, there are more important issues, don’t ask me about the Amazon Kindle, don’t challenge my position.  At the end of the day, we all really just have opinions backed up with varying degrees of evidence.  If we challenge each other and look at evidence that supports another point of view it adds to our knowledge base even if it doesn’t change our opinion.  In short, we gain from these types of debates, we are more able to add content to the general knowledge base that benefits from being more clear and robust, we all win.  However, when we just dismiss each others questions, we contribute to the stagnation of the knowledge base and perpetuate the peddling of stale, tired ideas.

Compare the novel, cutting-edge research that comes out of the medical and business sectors with the mostly safe, uninspiring reports being issued from the library sector.  (I’m speaking relatively of course, I know there is some extremely cutting edge ideas coming out of the library world.)  I don’t think this is because there is a lack of new and interesting ideas in the library sector but I think it is because we are not challenging each other enough.  If we follow this speaker’s words, and not his actions, we can aim our sights higher and aggressively pursue new ideas that will benefit our users, and then we can all win, not just those of us who work in the library sector but those who could benefit from libraries, and that includes everyone.

Do e-readers really have a place in libraries? February 4, 2010

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I have to give credit to Wayne Bivens-Tatum for writing an awesome post about how libraries should deal with new technologies.  I think that people do expect libraries to look current and up-to-date to a degree but I don’t think they expect libraries to be ahead of the curve.  While relaxing a bit on trying to make use of every technology could take some of the thunder out of the next emerging issues themed conference (or unconference as the case may be) it actually leaves libraries in a good position as they can let the market have its say first before just jumping in to uncharted waters.

I do think some new developments do lend themselves to early adoption or at least consideration but I think at this time I am ready to say that the e-reader is no such development.

First, the market is just way too unstable right now and there is still a lot of tweaks that every producer needs to work out.  I know that I can be really hard on the Kindle but the fact is they were the first and let the hype get ahead of them and now they are capitulating every other minute and they just don’t seem to be in control at all anymore.

They seemed to want to stick to this whole e-ink idea and support that format by really archaic accessories like the Kandle.  Then, it seems they have decided to abandon the e-ink and move to a touchscreen.  They seemed to want to stay in control of pricing their products and as we have all seen they lost that battle as well.  In a moment of panic they even went back in and removed content remotely from user’s device again (same link as preceding) after admitting what a terrible move it was last time.

By turning a critical eye to the Kindle’s latest set of problems, I am not endorsing the new Apple iPad.  Though some have already run rampant with visions of futuristic library filled with a wall of tablet computers, the iPad has its own set of issues not least of which being the price.  The other issue is with EPUB the e-book format supported by Apple.  While EPUB, which is a free, open standard is an improvement on the proprietary format Amazon was licensing it still needs to be worked on to better support graphic novels and technical manuals.

Still, after all of these issues, I think the biggest problem right now is the restrictive licensing for most products with DRM at the moment.  I have mentioned before that I feel libraries more or less had to give up full ownership rights to journals but they shouldn’t give up the fight on books so easily.  Publishers as well can hopefully see the market in selling works with no DRM.

I do think the day of the e-reader in libraries will come but I don’t think there is any rush to get there.  In the meantime, librarians need to be actively involved in the conversations surrounding e-books and e-readers to try and influence decisions so they work on the library’s favor.  When libraries assemble and speak with one common message they can be a powerful force.  So, on one hand libraries should give some new technologies time to mature a bit before buying in they should also make their voice clear.  Libraries need a product that is accessible to all and fully supports all manner of material and libraries need to have some sort of control or ownership over digital files.  They need to fight for more open systems like BBC writer Bill Thompson has been advocating recently.  As of right now, even with all the excitement and media attention, I have to agree with Yale Librarian Joe Murphy; e-readers have no place in libraries… for now.

When is the right time for libraries to jump into new technology? January 12, 2010

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I just want to follow up on yesterday’s post.  I still think that e-ink solves a problem that never existed.  I think that most people didn’t like reading on computers or phones because they were too big or small to be convenient.  I don’t think anyone said “What I want is less colours and functionality.  I wish I had an electronic device that exploited the latest in etch-a-sketch technology.”

Yet a number of new devices are entering the fray.  Some of which, like the Spring Design Alex, are smart enough to at least use a hybrid design with an LCD and e-ink display that sync together.  The best of which are skipping e-ink all together.  Lenovo has a hybrid device pictured above which is a netbook that has a pop-out tablet device.  I think this is the direction these devices need to move in.

Further bad news piles up for those who jumped in to the e-reader market too soon.  Blindness groups just settled a suit with Kindle because it is very difficult to use for those with disabilities affecting their vision.  Furthermore, there is still the problem that libraries do not own their Kindle titles.  I have heard comparisons between Kindle loans and journal licensing however, I think in the case of journals there really isn’t any choice anymore because of pricing but there is no imperative to outsource a library’s fiction collection just to accommodate a trend.

The first link in this article is to a video that ends by saying that with all these new e-reader devices the biggest loser is paper.  I understand this journalist needed a punchy, clever, conclusive statement to end his piece but I think even if a device does emerge from all this infighting to dominate for a generation or two in the long run all these devices will end up in the Pacific trash island and all their device-dependent content with them and back on the mainland someone will walk into their public library and pull a paper book from the shelf just like their grandparents before them and their grandparents before them.

How long can the Kindle remain relevant? January 11, 2010

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With all the rumours surrounding the imminent release of an Apple-branded tablet computer, how long will the Amazon Kindle remain relevant?  I recently did some group research into ebook readers and we found that a large number of users don’t think that e-ink is worth the inconvenience of dragging around another device; a one-purpose device at that.  We found that many ebook readers instead chose to use the Stanza app for the iPhone (citation forthcoming).  Since users do not seem to mind reading on an LCD display, the only issue with the iPhone is its size.  This rumoured tablet computer seems to fix that problem and it doesn’t seem like the Kindle will be able to compete against the Apple tablet if it is even half as amazing as everyone is expecting it to be.

I really feel sorry for all the libraries that divided head first into the Kindle market especially the school that converted its entire collection over to Kindles.  It reminds me of last week, I was at my library and I was looking through the collection of VHS and cassette tapes and all I could think was these are already not being used and soon they won’t even be able to be used.  By contrast, we pulled out this book from the 1600’s and we could still open it and read it.  We have to really think about these barriers we put to materials when we make them device-dependent.  I think libraries do need to stay ahead of the curve but they also need to be able to analyse a market in order to differentiate between technologies that will shape the future and those that are just a passing fad.