Libraries, Google, and Space

At the Letters to a Young Librarian blog, Jessica posted today about the reason she’s not worried that Google is ringing the closing bell for libraries. To quickly summarize, she says that Google can’t compete with libraries because a library is a physical place. People get together there. You can’t get together at Go read her post, and then come back.

Here’s why I’m not as comforted by this thought than I’d like to be: Google’s not a place, but it’s in other ways an every-place. Google is in the coffee shop or cafe or wherever community life is happening. Some people will accept the lesser information and assistance of Google if they can choose the place to use Google services. I think that’s a poor trade-off when it comes to doing good work, but I can understand why people might make that decision.

When I’m in coffee shops near campus, I always see students at work on their laptops with headphones plugged in. The coffee is part of the pull, but it’s not all of it. I chose coffee shops to work in myself, sometimes, to get away from the too-quiet of studying by myself at home or in the library. I wanted a hello and half-conversation with the barista. I wanted the opportunity to run into a classmate for a friendly interruption.

It’s not that libraries don’t offer this kind of community, but there are an awful lot of people walking past the front desk. A lot of times there may not be an interaction until the person has a question or is ready to check out–very late, compared to buying a coffee when you enter a cafe–assuming they aren’t using the self-check-out scanner. It’s a challenge to make personal connections, and I’m not sure those connections rank highly on library priority lists.

Community connections like this are vital to coffee shops. Without a vibrant community, a coffee shop will close. This happened in my neighborhood. Our corner coffee shop quickly became the central hub of the community. We’d see friends while walking to it, catch up with friends and meet new people when we were there. It was open early, but little parking made it difficult for the morning crowd, and it was never open late enough for the college crowd. Despite lots of traffic, volunteer workers, and love, it couldn’t stay open. It’s been closed a couple years now, and although people from the community still meet to try to reopen it, it still hasn’t happened.

It’s not that libraries aren’t under cost pressures. Certainly they are. But it doesn’t seem that they’re under the same month-to-month risk of running in the red and closing their doors for good. Libraries don’t have the same pressure to build community, or at least it seems that they don’t feel that their lives depend on it. Having a space isn’t enough.

Having an espresso bar isn’t enough either. But having open doors doesn’t mean that a community will adopt it as their space. I don’t think libraries should replace coffee shops as a Third Space, but I do think they’re often have the same audience. If it were vital to get college-age students into libraries, the coffee shop challenges would be familiar: what hours are the doors open, what events take place there, what room is available for interaction and study, what vibe does it have?

Libraries can take on Google any day of the week when it comes to useful information. But with Google available every place that has a WiFi network, libraries and Google aren’t just competing for ideas. They’re competing for space. And that puts libraries into competition with unlikely contenders.

You’re not really a librarian

The K-M The Librarian blog comments on a recent discussion between a school librarian and student. Here’s how it begins:

“The other day I got into an ‘argument’ with a student about whether or not I was really a librarian. His position was that I wasn’t a librarian–I was actually a teacher who happened to have an office in the library.”

K-M says she thinks the student was trying to wind her up a bit, but librarians sure feel the friction of people who don’t really understand what librarians do. I don’t think librarians themselves are having a crisis of identity by a long shot, but I think public perceptions of librarianship are more important than ever.

I have a crazy friend who likes to tell me that libraries are on their way to extinction. He says it partly to wind me up, too, but I don’t think he’s kidding. To him, libraries and books are almost synonymous. As the importance of physical books declines, he argues, so do libraries. Ask a librarian for help? What could librarians offer him, a PhD candidate? He says this with a straight face.

Libraries are about a lot more than books on shelves. But let’s be honest, there are a lot of books on shelves. A lot-lot. It does take a fair amount of effort to keep all those books in the right order. But what can creep in is a perception that a library is like a stable, with books instead of horses. Librarians keep books well groomed and in the right stall, and now and then they let the books out to get some air and exercise on the condition that they’ll come back soon. But there’s also a lot of wheeling carts around.

This is nonsense. It’s turning a library into a hotel that’s run exclusively by housekeepers. Or a Starcraft match of teams that are only made up of workers. But it seems clear that people don’t really know what librarians do. Or they know some of what librarians do–some of what goes on in libraries–but not all, and certainly not how librarians really spend their times.

As our information continues its shift to digital, I think public misperceptions of librarianship have increasingly dire implications. Images of the shushing librarian aren’t positive, but images of an irrelevant librarian are much more damaging.

We do tell people what libraries are about. We need to do it a lot more. We have to give lots of examples. We have to share those stories everywhere, and we need those stories to be current. That probably means sharing work that isn’t as highly polished as we might like it to be, or work that’s a little more personal than we might prefer.

We can’t wait for people to ask us what we do (Hint: If they aren’t asking, they think they already know the answer). We have to tell them. We have to show them. And we can’t wait for the ALA or another nation-wide group to start a campaign. A librarian is a teacher? Absolutely, and lots more. Let’s keep writing the new definition of librarianship, but let’s do that where everyone can see.

So I says to the survey

The SWON 2012 Teen Reading Challenge is up and running. Right now we have over 180 participants. Since Wednesday, they’ve reported having read a combined 16,000 pages already. Not a bad start.

We’re expecting to collect several thousand Reading Reports from Challenge participants, so we had to interview several survey applicants before choosing one. In past Challenges, SWON used a SWON-built MySQL database to collect information on the books people read. In terms of the Challenge, it collected everything it needed: book information (including number of pages) and the reader’s rating of the book as a bonus.

When I sat down in front of that data, there seemed to be an opportunity to collect information that would improve its usefulness for Readers’ Advisory users. Adding their opinions about the book could help others discover books they’d like to read. So I wrote a short-list of questions and got some feedback from Actual Readers’ Advisory Librarians. I’m no DBA, though. Modifying the current MySQL database is more than I know how to do, and a short timeline meant I needed to find a different solution.

So I looked at a couple different survey tools. The first was Survey Monkey. We have a Basic (read “free”) account there. That only allows for 100 responses. There lots of situations where that limitation would be fine, but the Reading Challenge isn’t one of them.

Next I looked at Google Docs. You can build your own survey there, which is linked to a spreadsheet that you can use or download to Excel. I built a quick survey there, including a question about genres. It seems like genre is the king of subjectivity. Put a couple CDs into your computer and watch with horror the genre names that come up. (Sure internets, I have 40 CDs that match “Alt. Country/Folk”) To be useful info, people need to be able to select multiple matching genres. So that’s what I built in my Google Docs survey.

That’s what broke my Google Docs survey. When I added some sample data, which selected multiple genres, Google put all that data in one cell. For example, let’s say that I chose to enter a book with the genres Historical, Mystery, and Science Fiction. Google’s spreadsheet would record that in one cell as “Historical, Mystery, Science Fiction” under the column heading “Genre.” If I want to create a formula that counts how many books matched the genre “Mystery,” I’m going to have to write some fancy scripts to discover Mystery in the middle of a text string. I’d rather not.

It’s much easier if the spreadsheet creates a column for each genre. You end up with a lot more columns, but who cares. A very simple formula will tell you how many books matched the genre “Mystery.” It’s also easy to find how many books matched “Mystery” and “Historical,” or “Mystery” but not “Science Fiction.” I didn’t quickly see how to set up Google’s spreadsheet this way, so I moved on.

We have a paid account with Constant Contact, which includes a survey builder. A quick test build there confirmed that selecting multiple genres was no problem–each genre is given its own column. I’m not a huge fan of Constant Contact’s WYSIWYG tools, and that counts for the surveys as well as their emails. Look at the HTML they generate to see what a mess it is.

The formatting for the survey was screwy too, with lots of blank paragraphs making for long pages of blank space. When I emailed their tech support about it, their fix was to edit the survey questions in IE or Firefox 3. Uh, okay. There’s evidently no HTML editor for surveys as there is for emails. In IE, I had to edit each question twice. The first edit removed some paragraph breaks and added others; the second edit finished the job. Yikes.

Constant Contact won’t let me update the questions once a survey has been published. This makes sense in some ways, but it means I can’t update the list of teams in the survey, which is too bad. It’s up and running, though, and I’ve exported data from it to make sure it works (and get that 16,000 pages number). Are there other survey tools you’ve used that are worth considering?

SWON 2012 Teen Reading Challenge

SWON 2012 Teen Reading Challenge logoThis morning we lit the fuse on the SWON 2012 Teen Reading Challenge. We have 160 participants and counting this year, all reading young-adult-oriented books for fame and glory. Okay, the fame would be pretty local. The glory…. They’re doing it because they love to read, and we’re excited to host the Challenge again this year.

I’ll be writing some posts here about the Challenge. It’s about the reading, for the participants, but here at the blog is about the tech behind the Challenge. As I’m in touch with Challengers, and as data starts to roll in, I’ll share the view from SWON.

For example, I was included on an internal team email (nothing covert, it was their idea). The person who sent the email mentioned that she’s recording the books she’s reading this year on Pinterest. With several people on the team already using Pinterest, it will be pretty easy for them to see what other people on their team are reading. Plus, those book covers will pop up for other Pinterest users. It’s a pretty low-energy way to share what you’re reading. Shoot, it says you read books period. That’s no bad thing.

Anyway, more updates as events unfold.