Thursday, 30 January 2014

Technology in Libraries: don’t throw out that PC – yet

Where old computersAny news article on technology today, talks about tablets, mobile and wearable devices.  Attending a major exhibition on education and technology, I expected to hear about learning taking place through the use of teleports and hover shoes.  However, one session I visited, on learning in universities urged us to take a more cautionary approach.

At the BETT Show 2014, there was a session called “Creating Flexible Learning Spaces for the Future Student”. I went along hoping to get some tips and ideas for one of my libraries which will soon undergo redevelopment. The emphasis was upon HE libraries but they obviously have a relevance further education and even more so if we are expected to support more HE courses in the near future.

The first part of the session was delivered by Dr. Graham Walton of Loughborough University who surveyed students at his own university as well as York University.  They asked learners some simple questions such as:

What technologies do you bring into the Library?


Conclusions from the survey were:
  • Tablets seem to be the preserve of staff rather than learners in universities.
  • Learners prefer laptops because of the Microsoft Office applications.
  • Security and weight are important obstacles for students wanting to bring in laptops to University.
  • Learners prefer to use their smartphones for social media and fixed PCs for work. This balance is expected to change over the next few years as students learn to use their smartphones for educational purposes.
  • The demand and need for fixed PCs shows no signs of slowing.
The second part of the session was delivered by Liz Waller of the University of York. Liz looked at the results of SCONUL statistics from 23 universities over a 3 year period. Her conclusions were:

Learning Spaces
  • Learning space has to be totally integrated with teaching and learning strategies.
  • Create open spaces don’t create rooms.  The flexible approach can be managed with portable screens etc.
  • Good redevelopments don’t stop when the redevelopment finishes.  Learning spaces should constantly evolve to meet students’ changing needs and demands.
Technology in Learning Spaces
  • Wireless spaces MUST also be with power. Wherever you place wireless (libraries, common rooms, canteens etc.) you must make sure that power points are also numerous and readily available.
  • Network connections without fixed PCs are dead.  There was a fall in use of this service by about 77%.
  • Laptops are still important to learners because they offer a full range of functions not available from mobile devices.
  • Students still demand fixed PCs even if the “battery hen” approach to fixed PCs is not always desirable.
I was surprised at these conclusions: learning spaces in HE don’t sound exactly cutting edge but this is where HE learners are at the moment.  Perhaps younger learners currently in FE will soon make different demands on HE services and space but for the moment it may be important to take a more measured approach to planning our learning spaces whilst at the same time incorporating flexibility to ensure we can meet that change.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Mary, Queen of Libraries?

Anyone unfortunate enough to miss the latest series of Mary, Queen of Shops (BBC) missed a treat. You also missed several lessons that all librarians could heed.

For those who know nothing of the series, retail guru, Mary Portas visits ailing local shops in the hope of turning their fortunes around and being able to prosper in an age of retail giants such as Tesco, Sainsbury's etc. What has this got to do with libraries? Well, quite a lot.

In the first programme Mary takes on a feisty old baker who has "been in the business 36 years, darlin." Her inability to move her business on since the 1970's sent shudders of recognition down my book spine. Be honest, how many libraries have you been in (or more likely walked past) because they looked like something from "Life on Mars"? (Oh come on, I don't have to explain this programme as well do I?).

Of course most libraries these days have had some form of refit in recent years but this is no reason to get complacent. As the series illustrates, this is not just about a new shop front and new interior, it is also about product. What services are we offering today that we were offering 30 years ago and have they changed in any way? As I watched this particular episode my mind jumped to the many books on our shelves which never get borrowed or used but we are required to keep by lecturers because they are "classics".

Indeed all episodes have a salutary lesson for us: whether it is knowing our customers; ensuring we are meeting customer needs rather than our own; the importance of drawing up a business or strategic plan; discovering our unique selling point; or simply not cluttering up our shelves with unwanted junk just in case someone, one day, may pop in thinking they need it.

Libraries, like corner shops are struggling for an identity in a rapidly changing world. Even so, Mary Portas offers some solutions.

If we consider the library as the struggling local shop in the high street and Google as Tesco then we have a workable parallel. What do we offer that people can't obtain from Google or online? This is our value. It is here that we should concentrate services and activities. Stop trying to compete with the giants at their game and start considering our differences as our unique selling point.

In some respects we have it easier than local shops who have to compete with the professional customer service of the retail giants: all we have to compete with is a search box. This is not to say, of course that we do not need to provide the very best in customer service to our students/readers etc. Far from it. The lessons from this series are that shops, like libraries, can survive and prosper by offering what the giants cannot: service, specialism and the whole social experience of entering and being part of a library or shop.

In the current economic climate, libraries of all types are have to demonstrate their value to their parent organisation and the importance of their product. Failure to do so will see us ignored like the run-down, boarded up shops of the old high street. As the focus of cuts turn to the public sector, there are question marks above the heads of all public services not just libraries.

With this in mind, I am starting a one man campaign: that the fourth series of "Mary, queen of..." examines the role of public sector services in general and includes a library as part of its remit. Mary Portas may know nothing of libraries or other services but then again as the last episode illustrated, she knew nothing of hardware shops yet she was able to make a difference. The campaign starts here for "Mary, Queen of Libraries."


Sunday, 28 March 2010

Information Literacy's new fan: David Mitchell not Hitler

It seems that information literacy has a fan in no less a person than comedian David Mitchell. In his column for the Observer “Before you start mouthing off about Hitler, you’d better know your Nazis” Mitchell highlights the perils of unedited, unauthorised comments found on the internet.

The title of the article refers to Godwin’s Law which states that: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." This “law” was created by Mike Godwin as far back as the early 1990’s although I had never heard of it until I read David Mitchell’s article and (shame) looked it up in Wikipedia. The truth of the law will, I am sure, be familiar to anyone who follows a controversial or even innocuous thread that spirals out of control on any internet forum.

David Mitchell however, makes the point that “to know if a Hitler comparison is apposite, you have to know more about Hitler than that he wasn't a nice guy” but with people increasingly reliant on the internet for their information, the librarian in Mitchell emerges. He states:

"The wearying truth about the internet is that it requires readers to scrutinise the authorship, bias and reliability of everything they read more than ever before….The shortcuts to reliability that the old established more or less responsible media provided are being closed off. In the online future, we'll be on our own, in a whirl of conflicting assertion and opinion. It's going to be easy to be bamboozled and lied to. We're going to wish we'd spent more on education."

Sunday, 31 May 2009

New staff uniform?

I saw this T-shirt in Amsterdam (I've censored it a bit) and thought it would be perfect for any library. Some staff may take a bit of persuading, though.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Review: Tara Brabazon, "The University of Google"

My decision to review this book arose out of my frustrations at finding a decent review prior to buying this book. Tara Brabazon is professor of media at Brighton University. Her book, The University of Google was published in late 2007. Most reviews focus on Professor Brabazon's quote that "Google is white bread for the mind" (p.57). This then opens the door to all sorts of commentators who haven't even bothered to read the book to depict Brabazon as some kind of digital Luddite trying to turn the information tide back to the good old days of analogue. This is at best unfortunate and at worst downright wrong. Far from ignoring the information thick (note she uses the word thick rather than rich) world, Brabazon highlights the diversity and complexity of information which is available to the student and argues that each format, digital or analogue, deserves its own literacy to decode its message.

The University of Google is written against a fluctuating and demanding backdrop: In the world of information, there is an explosion of different media, each competing for our attention, each demanding a separate way of understanding or reading; in the higher education world, however, there is an explosion of students from diverse backgrounds, cultures and expectations and a corresponding decline in financial and teaching resources to assist these students in their learning.

The answer to this situation, according to educational managers is to transfer more learning materials online thus creating a flexible solution to the diverse nature if the students. Brabazon uses her book to destroy this argument. She counters that the diversity of students (whether they are working-class; foreign; part-time or just plain lazy) mean that they actually require more support not less; and that the diverse nature of the forms in which information can now be communicated means that critical literacies need to be learnt and understood.

Following a dense introduction, the proceeding chapters form a steady and coherent argument consisting of a challenging polemic supported by very detailed footnotes and testimonies from her students.

The University of Google draws upon the failures (and successes of the past) to illustrate the present. The failure of flexible learning, distance and correspondence courses was a result of massive assumptions: the assumption that students could take notes; follow an argument; regulate their own learning and manage their time. The need to make these assumptions explicit is paramount to Brabazon, in much the same way as we assume that today's "Google generation" can search effectively, assimilate and evaluate this information.

Brabazon is clearly a good teacher who cares about her profession. For non-teachers like myself, there is much to recommend this book in introducing pedagogical methods: for instance, as already stated, the need to acknowledge assumptions "and teach them overtly" (p.148). Similarly, to start where the student is, rather than where we would like them to be; using popular cultural references as a start and then take students on a journey from passive consumers to more critical appreciations. The chapter on podcasting could easily be removed from the book and used as a stand-alone essay on the use of sound in education. Throughout, Brabazon gives considered comment to many education standards such as VLEs, Powerpoint, and even overhead transparencies - "cheap, flexible, mobile and can be very effective" (p.175).

The references to Google itself are not all bad. She recognises the extraordinary way Google attempts to bring order to the world of internet information. Yet she is aware of its limitations - of delivering out of date, trivial, unauthorised, irrelevant and misleading information. Her critique of Google's ranking system, based on popularity not relevance will surprise many and act as a warning to others. The lesson here (and throughout the book) is not to dismiss Google but to use it as a starting point - to take students from information to knowledge. Google Book Search for instance can be the starting point for a literature search using library catalogues; similarly Google Scholar can lead students to e-journals and journals held by our libraries - if our own infrastructure allows space for such instruction. In Professor Brabazon's own words:
"To repeat: the problem is not Google...the concern is that teachers and librarians are not being given a chance to instruct the literacies required to transform Google from a leisure application and into a starting point for a critical and reflexive research process" (p.145).

There is plenty to recommend this thought-provoking polemic, not least Professor Brabazon's championing of librarians. Any librarian who has to challenge preconceived notions in academic board or senior management meetings, would do well to be armed with some of the arguments from this book. It is rare to find a champion of librarians from outside the profession who can articulate the challenges we face. This is far more than the usual "libraries are a good thing" sympathy vote we often receive.

The book is punctuated with testimonies from her students. At first I misinterpreted this as vanity - "look what a good lecturer I am". Yet as the book's argument begins to gather pace, these quotes are more than illustrations of Professor Brabazon's beliefs; they are confirmations of good pedagogy. All good teaching and learning must start with one thing - the student. As I begin work on preparing materials for next year's student inductions, I have a feeling that Professor Brabazon will play an important part in their construction.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Social Networking, Bereavement and Grief

Last month my stepson Andrew, who I had the pleasure of knowing since he was 5 years old, died at the tender age of just 21. The grieving process for the loss of one so young and with so much potential is often slow and painful. Many adults find it difficult to approach the parents who have lost children, so it was no surprise that visits to us from Andrew’s friends were few. They too were struggling to come to terms with what was probably their first loss of a friend their own age.

However, comfort came from an unexpected source – Web 2.0 or to be more specific, Facebook, instant messaging and tagging.

Andrew was on Facebook but of course his parents were not included as his friends! One of Andrew’s friends kindly gave us his own e-mail and password and so we were able to access Andrew’s profile and messages. The messages his friends posted on Facebook were of enormous comfort to us: they wrote to him directly, as if Andrew was able to read the messages. Many messages were short (“RIP Bruv”, etc) and were sadly repeated a few days later in messages left for youngsters killed in London. However, others were longer and more intimate. Andrew’s friends were clearly hurting and were at ease in expressing their loss and praising his life.
Examples of the sort of messages left for Andrew can be found on the dontstayin website which crops up later under the heading of "Tagging".
Interestingly, when we met some of this “Google generation” face to face they were far more guarded in their expressions of loss.

Instant Messaging
Andrew’s account on MSN opened automatically when the PC was switched on. This gave us our first opportunity to use instant messaging and provided us with our first chance to talk directly to Andrew’s friends. Again this was an enormous comfort as friends reluctant to come to our house were more than happy to talk about our son and ask about our well-being. I’m poor when it comes to the text speak of young people but they were patient as I demonstrated that I was as about as cool as Ken Barlow when it came to MSN. Again, their messages of sympathy and stories about Andrew were heartfelt and very touching.

What a source of comfort this turned out to be! One of Andrew’s favourite sites is a forum for dedicated dance music enthusiasts or ravers. It contains announcements of events, forums and photos. Those who had uploaded photos onto the site had also tagged them with the names of the people in the photos (called "spotters"). Andrew had probably spotted and tagged himself on many of the pics. All we had to do was enter Andrew’s nickname into the search box and behold, dozens of photos of Andrew and a side to him we hardly ever saw. The sight of him having such a good time in so many photos undoubtedly contributed to the positive way we are trying to assess his life. It may have been short but God it was full. You can see for yourself here.

Young people are exceptionally sensitive and thoughtful and are far more comfortable expressing themselves via a pc than face-to-face.
If people communicate in text speak who cares? It is the message which is important.
Web 2.0 applications are every bit as legitimate to the “google generation” as a means of communication as the telephone was to our generation.

As a grieving couple we are so thankful that these applications exist as they have been a real source of comfort to us through what has been and still is a terrible time.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Blogs in Libraries

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a few librarians who said they would like to get into blogging but couldn’t see what use they could have in a library setting. I had a similar conversation again this week which made up my mind to post an entry in my own blog about where to start.

3 Sources of Ideas:

First of all, as an introduction read chapter 3 of Phil Bradley’s book “How to use Web 2.0 in your library” probably not available in all good bookshops but can be purchased via Facet Press – just get your Cilip membership cards out for that discount. Phil covers the obligatory “what is a weblog?” bit but then places it in a library setting. Here he describes the publicity angle of a blog: promoting exhibitions, events and new stock.

The beauty of this medium is that you can use your smaller displays to easily tie in to wider and much larger events on the net. Similarly, one of the conventions of a blog, the comments page allows your readers or students to let you know exactly what they think. If they make recommendations for new stock, they are doing half of the work for you!

Secondly, I would recommend Week 1 of “Five Weeks to a Social Library”. There are plenty of presentations here but if you only watch one I would recommend Anne Welsh’s screencast “From Writer’s Block to Library Blog”. Although Anne writes from a very specific point of view as information officer at DrugScope, she talks about very universal themes. This presentation gave me loads of ideas. Her basic theme is to think about the things we do anyway and just do them differently. All we are doing through our blogs is repackaging what we already do but in a way that makes it more interesting to us and to our audience.

Thirdly and finally, I would highly recommend you read Roddy MacLeod’s guest article (there’s another idea for you!) UK Library Blogs - What Do We Think We're Doing? on Brian Kelly’s UK Web Focus. Roddy’s university, Heriot Watt’s Library produce a blog called “Spineless?” (gedditt??!!). Halfway down the article Roddy lists the purpose and suggested posts for the blog. There are loads of ideas here.

Make sure you also read the comments to Roddy’s article. Again there are plenty of ideas and encouragement, particularly from Phil Bradley (that man again!). Those who worry that they need to get everything right first time will be put at ease by Phil’s comments.

If anyone has any other good places librarians should start, or ideas librarians could put in practice, please feel free to comment.