April 30, 2010

Broken Boxes

This has been one of those weeks in which everything I’m reading seems related and is clicking for me. It’s got my mind churning, and I’m still not sure what to think of it all.

The first is from Will Richardson and is titled The End of Books (At Least, For Me?), a provocative statement to be sure. Don’t panic – it’s not really about the end of books, just print books for his own use.

“Turns out my iPad Kindle app syncs up all of my highlights and notes to my Amazon account. Who knew? When I finally got to the page Ted pointed me to in my own account, the page that listed every highlight and every note that I had taken on my Kindle version of John Seely Brown’s new book Pull, I could only think two words:

Game. Changer.

All of a sudden, by reading the book electronically as opposed to in print, I now have:

  • all of the most relevant, thought-provoking passages from the book listed on one web page, as in my own condensed version of just the best pieces
  • all of my notes and reflections attached to those individual notes
  • the ability to copy and paste all of those notes and highlights into Evernote which makes them searchable, editable, organizable, connectable and remixable
  • the ability to access my book notes and highlights from anywhere I have an Internet connection.

Game. Changer.

I keep thinking, what if I had every note and highlight that I had ever taken in a paper book available to search through, to connect with other similar ideas from other books, to synthesize electronically?…”

Honestly, I didn’t know about this, either, and I’m now seriously considering going back to reading nonfiction on my Kindle, something I had stopped doing when I couldn’t get at my highlights and free them. As far as I was concerned, they were bricked text. But I logged in at http://kindle.amazon.com and sure enough, there were the highlights from the three nonfiction books I’d read on my Kindle.

On the one hand, this is incredibly appealing, to have all of the excerpts I’ve highlighted as interesting to me accessible, searchable, and remixable. Really appealing, and the fact that I can now get text out of Kindle books makes it a platform I may be more willing to deal with again, although the inability to share a book with a friend is still causing some hesitation.

As I began contemplating this, I read Steven Johnson’s recent post, The Glass Box and Commonplace Book. It really resonated with me on a number of levels. First, Johnson revives the idea of the “commonplace book.”

“Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters—just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. In its most customary form, ‘commonplacing,’ as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. It was a kind of solitary version of the original web logs: an archive of interesting tidbits that one encountered during one’s textual browsing.”

He then goes on to talk about a major problem with the iPad, the way it locks down text (including public domain works) in a way that prevents users from creating their own commonplace books.

“[when you try to copy a paragraph of text] …you get the familiar iPhone-style clipping handles, and you get two options ‘Highlight’ and’“Bookmark.’ But you can’t actually copy the text, to paste it into your own private commonplace book, or email it to a friend, or blog about it. And of course there’s no way to link to it. What’s worse: the book in question is Penguin’s edition of Darwin’s Descent of Man, which is in the public domain. Those are our words on that screen. We have a right to them.”

Johnson then goes on to describe (in a much more articulate way than I’ve been able to) what bothers me so much about the iPhone and iPad.

“We can try to put a protective layer of glass of the words, or we can embrace the idea that we are all better off when words are allowed to network with each other. What’s the point of going to all this trouble to build machines capable of displaying digital text if we can’t exploit the basic interactivity of that text?… Yes, the iPad makes it easier to carry around a dozen books and magazines, but that’s not the only promise of the technology. The promise also lies in doing things with the words, forging new links of association, remixing them. We have all the tools at our disposal to create commonplace books that would astound Locke and Jefferson. And yet we are, deliberately, trying to crawl back into the glass box.

…When your digital news feed doesn’t contain links, when it cannot be linked to, when it can’t be indexed, when you can’t copy a paragraph and paste it into another application: when this happens your news feed is not flawed or backwards looking or frustrating. It is broken.

The force that enables these unlikely encounters between people of different persuasions, the force that makes the web a space of serendipity and discovery, is precisely the open, combinatorial, connective nature of the medium. So when we choose to take our text out of that medium, when we keep our words from being copied, linked, indexed, that’s a choice with real civic consequences that are not to be taken lightly.”

And that’s a huge dealbreaker for me. Make no mistake – apps are just software. I’m lucky enough to have the entire internet at my fingertips, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to buy an interface to it for which one company controls what software I can use to access the great, big, beautiful web (in this case, Apple, but there are other products with this same problem). I don’t take that lightly at all, especially when I read things like David Lankes’ brilliant take on what networked text could be like. Of course, your mileage may vary, and you may not have the problem with these closed systems that I do (and it’s not just with Apple), but that’s my personal value. Johnson would fully support Will Richardson’s right to create his commonplace book, as do I.

While synthesizing my reactions to both of these posts, I started reading Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. I’m only a few chapters into it, but it’s already extending how I think about Facebook (a subject for another post) and the iPhone/iPad.

One of Lanier’s concerns is how decisions made in the design of our digital tools lock us in to behaviors that reduce – and even remove – our humanity. For the ebook context, an alternative title for his book could have been “You Are Not an App.” It’s really tough to quote excerpts from the book without losing a lot of context and his supporting arguments, but the following excerpts are a glimpse.

“We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence. (p.5)

Lock-in makes us forget the lost freedoms we had in the digital past. That can make it harder to see the freedoms we have in the digital present. Fortunately, difficult as it is, we can still try to change some expressions of philosophy that are on the verge of becoming locked in place in the tools we use to understand one another and the world.” (p.14)

Lanier takes an opposite approach to where Richardson is headed. Will is going to end up with Johnson’s commonplace book in digital form, and that’s extremely appealing to him. I totally understand why, and it’s great if that works well for him. However, it’s interesting to read how Lanier worries about this kind of future and the impact it will have on all of us and our very humanity. What might we lose in the process of digitizing every book and making the content available as unanchored bytes?

“If the books in the cloud are accessed via user interfaces that encourage mashups of fragments that obscure the context and authorship of each fragment, there will be only one book. (p.46)”

It’s not an argument for a closed system, just better and more thoughtful options, interactions, delineation of authorship, etc., and I can’t disagree with that. What will the civic consequences be of Richardson’s commonplace book (or mine, if I go down that path)? Can text be too networked? Are there any clues to this in how we currently use our full text databases, where we’ve already digitized every bit and made it remixable?

Overall, I don’t agree with 100% of anything any of these gentleman have written (although I come pretty close with Johnson). They’ve all contributed to a very thought-provoking week for me and I really appreciate that. I’m still trying to work through a lot of this in my own mind, and other than the fact that I’m against devices that lock me in to their vision of the internet, I’m still not sure where I really come down in this whole thing.

And what’s the significance for libraries? I’m not sure how much Will Richardson uses libraries now, but what does it mean when he can network the text from his Kindle but his library can’t circulate any content to it? That’s also a design decision (made by publishers) with very specific civic consequences.

Johnson ends his post by calling on journalists, educators, publishers, and software developers to fight for common places (not glass boxes) and connections. What responsibilities do libraries have to prevent the civic consequences he describes? In the pages I’ve read so far, Lanier encourages developers to think carefully about the behaviors their products lock people into – does that include libraries? How can we help maintain commonplace books in a world of digital text while still maintaining the edges of authorship? Do we as librarians really want to promote the iPad’s lock-in, especially if we’re not explaining those civic consequences to the next generation of readers and content generators?

At this point, I have a lot more questions than answers.


September 15, 2009

How Librarians Helped Get Out the Vote… in 1952

I love serendipity. While I was preparing for my ACPL Library Camp presentation about libraries and civic engagement, I saw a post on the Civic Engagement blog in which Nancy Kranich pointed to a fascinating article on the topic.

“Promoting Citizenship: How Librarians Helped Get Out the Vote in the 1952 Presidential Election,” Libraries & the Cultural Record 43 no1 1-28 2008 (Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be online in its entirety, but you can get the full text through Gale’s Academic OneFile.)

I think this fascinating article pinpoints the moment in time when libraries became known for providing high-quality, accurate, authentic information about all sides of an issue. Its certainly the point at which libraries became outlets for information about voting. In a fascinating look back, author Jean Preers chronicles the efforts made to civically engage Americans and increase voter turnout in the 1948 and 1952 elections.

It starts with an initiative by the American Heritage Foundation in 1947, which results in the booklet Good Citizen: The Rights and Duties of an American, a conference, and the Freedom Train, an actual train that traveled across the country exhibiting “original documents that that established the nation’s democratic tradition, from the Bill of Rights to the Emancipation Proclamation.” The booklet is a wonderful artifact – I highly recommend it as a historical snapshot, and thankfully it’s available on the Internet Archive, thanks to the University of Florida’s George A. Smathers Libraries.

Good Citizen: The Rights and Duties of an American

During this time, the American Library Association (disclaimer: my employer, although I wasn’t even born back then) “undertook its own program to promote the discussion of current issues in public libraries. This was a direction long-favored by its Executive Director Carl Milam, and, as part of its “Four Year Goals” in 1948, ALA had initiated a program called Great Issues, which urged librarians to highlight such topics as U.S.-Russian relations, civil rights, and world government in their collections and programs.”

Librarians started creating bibliographies for these topics and encouraged community organizations to form reading and discussion groups around them.

“Ruth Retzen, chair of ALA’s Adult Education Board, saw this as an opportunity for libraries to take the lead in their communities, directing their programs towards wider circulation of pertinent information: ‘Let us make our libraries active community centers for the spread of reliable information on all sides of this vital issue and for the encouragement of free discussion and action.’ “

Unfortunately, none of these efforts really succeeded, and voter turnout for the 1948 election was “surprisingly low.” To celebrate its 75th anniversary in 1951, ALA changed direction and used a $150,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to help libraries implement reading and discussion groups themselves. [Ironically, “this nationwide adult education program began in the fall of 1951 just as National Library Day observance in Phliadelphia on October 4 effectively concluded the seventy-fifth anniversary celebration.” All Philadelphia libraries are currently set to close on October 2, 2009, unless the Pennsylvania Legislature acts to save them.]

As ALA began to ramp up its program, the AHF continued to work on increasing voter turnout for the 1952 election. The folks behind the AHF program realized that guilting people into voting wasn’t working (and wasn’t likely to start working anytime soon), so they also changed direction to simply “provide adequate information and materials to implement the will of the people.” An enhanced focus on civic and nonprofit organizations brought ALA and libraries into the effort as the central source citizens could go to in order to find unbiased information. ALA agreed, in part because this meant the AHF and other organizations would promote this new role and encourage their members to seek out libraries specifically for unbiased information that could then be used to register local voters. According to Preers, this is also when libraries take on the mantle of library adult education, another new role.

It truly is a thought-provoking article (there’s a lot more to it, so you really should read the whole thing), and it highlights one of the themes that’s resonated with me personally during the last 12-18 months, that when we talk about how the library “used to be,” we have to be very specific about which era we’re referring to. As I’ve noted in the past about gaming, children’s services are a relatively recent addition to libraries, as are fiction, multimedia, and even public access (see my brief post about D. W. Krummel’s The Seven Stages of Librarianship for more about this).

More importantly, it helps show how proactive civic engagement is not a new role for 21st century libraries. We’ve done this before – successfully – and we can do it again – successfully – if we focus on specific areas. For example, studies show that gaming in libraries could include civic engagement experiences. I’m also interested in the “Great Issues” program to offer the library as a portal to civic discourse around many of the “great” issues that aren’t easily accessible to the average person. Privacy, digital identity, online reputation, media literacies, transparent government… there’s a wide range of topics that need addressing.

The question is can librarians (and not just public librarians) still provide this type of service? I question if there’s anyone else who can.


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September 9, 2009

Libraries and Innovation Journalists

One of the points I tried to emphasize in my talk about libraries and civic engagement (PDF) at last month’s Allen County Public Library’s Library Camp is that this isn’t a new role for us. The easy, soundbite way to explain this is to note that at the turn of the previous century, one of our major roles was to help immigrants assimilate into American society and learn how to be U.S. citizens. At the turn of the current century, there’s a similar need for us to do the same thing for digital immigrants, in no small part because there really isn’t anyone else to help those folks who are past high school age.

libraries teaching immigrants

I’ve been gravitating towards this topic lately because I see so much potential, for both libraries and society, and the following idea makes total sense to me.

From the 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning site, New Civic Literacies:

“David Nordfors, who runs the innovation journalism program at Stanford, stays studens are moving towards a journalisatic method of learning – finding knowledge, assesing it, and then connecting the dots to build a story.”

Sadly, like the 2006 MacArthur report about participatory culture, the 2020 effort includes libraries in that future only as afterthoughts, no more than potential support resources, rather than central, driving figures. While I applaud efforts like MacArthur’s digital learning in education initiative and the 2020 Forecast, I remain convinced that as a society, we’ll have a much greater impact on civic life for a greater range of people by focusing on libraries as the primary change agent, not schools.

We’re already well-positioned in our communities to be the conveners for this type of activity, we have a library ecosystem for lifelong learning that includes adults (not just K-12 students), we have supporting resources (not just technology, but context), we teach how to navigate information, and we’re the last, safe, non-commercial space that’s open to anyone without any barriers. In fact, quite a few sections of the 2020 site scream “libraries” to me, and I encourage you to read through the various sections.

So while I’m intrigued by and fully support the idea of schools encouraging “innovation journalists,” those programs won’t reach their full potential – nor will the students – without libraries to support them. And when those students get out into the real world, libraries can facilitate their non-school efforts. And we can bring them together with the rest of the community to put those new civic literacies into practice for everyone.

And don’t get me started on the participatory divide….


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September 24, 2008

Gaming Is Not Bowling Alone

Back in May, I was invited to give a presentation to a group at the MacArthur Foundation about four opportunities for libraries. The fourth opportunity I discussed was gaming, highlighting the social interactions that we’re seeing happen in libraries and explaining how they provide a unique context for this type of activity. I noticed they had bemused smiles on their faces as I finished but didn’t realize why until they told me they’d just finished conducting a study with the Pew Internet folks and that the preliminary data supported my claims that videogames have become a very social activity for kids today. They were still processing the data so they couldn’t share specifics with me, but they promised everything would be available in a few months.

Luckily, that report, Teens, Video Games, and Civics, finally came out last week as a PDF you can download for free. The subheading on the main page gives you a general idea of what they found: “teens’ gaming experiences are diverse and include significant social interaction and civic engagement.” Gamasutra has a great summary of the report , so I’m just going to highlight a couple of the statistics I found most interesting.

  • “97% of teens ages 12-17 play computer, web, portable, or console games. 99% of boys and 94% of girls play video games…. Understanding the nature of game play is vital to understanding how nearly every American teen spends at least part of many of their days.”
    This is a great summary of why librarians need to understand gaming and offer programming around it.
     
  • “The 5 most popular games played by American teens are Guitar Hero, Halo 3, Madden NFL, Solitaire, and Dance Dance Revolution…. The range of genres spanned by the most popular games played by teens indicates they are not simply playing violent first person shooters or action games…. The two most widely played game genres were racing and puzzle games, played by nearly three-quarters of teens in the sample.”

I could go on and on, and I was going to in this post, until I read the accompanying report, The Civic Potential of Video Games (PDF), from the Civic Engagement Research Group at Mills College. In fact, this second report literally *screamed* “LIBRARIES” as I was reading it, and I’ve written that word in many places in the margins. While the first report has the great statistics, the second one delves deeper into those numbers and takes some guesses at what it all means. It actually makes a very strong case for gaming in libraries, even though it doesn’t mention us at all anywhere in the text. Some highlights from the Mills College report, along with some commentary.

  • “Although public debates often frame video games as either good or bad, research is making it clear that when it comes to the effects of video games it often depends. Context and content matter.”
    This is where libraries come in – we provide context and content, because traditionally these are two of our greatest strengths. We do this in so many of our existing services – reference, literacy, recreational reading, etc. – and we can do this for gaming, too.
     
  • “Furthermore, interactions in video games can model [John] Dewey’s conception of democratic community – places where diverse groups of individuals with shared interests join together, where groups must negotiate norms, where novices are mentored by more experienced community members, where teamwork enables all to benefit from the different skills of group members, and where collective problem solving leads to collective intelligence.”
     
  • “Civic participation requires that young people develop confidence in their own abilities (sometimes referred to as a sense of agency) to act as leaders and to work productively for change. To the extent that youth have the opportunity to practice articulating their own point of view, debate issues, and help others in their own communities, they are likely to develop confidence in their ability to do so in the larger civic and political arenas. Finally, civic and political activity is largely a group activity. Youth organizational membership is believed to socialize young people to value and pursue social ties while exposing youth to organizational norms and relevant political and social skills that make maintaining those ties more likely.”
    Combined with the Thinkering Spaces model, offering more of these opportunities is one of the most powerful visions of the future of the public library for me, and it certainly creates the “transformational experience” referred to in the OCLC report that they believe causes taxpayers to vote yes in support of libraries.
     
  • “These results suggest that the frequent concerns in the media and elsewhere about the ennui and disconnection among those who play video games for long periods of time may be misplaced…. Teens who play games socially (a majority of teens) are more likely to be civically and politically engaged than teens who play games primarily alone. Interestingly, this relationship only holds when teens play alongside others in the same room.”
     
  • “Among teens who write or contribute to websites or discussion boards related to the games they play, 74% are committed to civic participation compared with 61% of those who play games but do not contribute to these online gaming communities. They are also more likely to raise money for charity, stay informed about political events, express interest in politics, try to persuade others to vote in a certain way, and attend protests or demonstrations.”
    What this says to me is that the combination of teens in a social gaming space, mentored by information guides (librarians) who provide scaffolding for a positive civic experience, combined with the availability of free internet access, is a constructive gaming experience for promoting civic engagement in today’s youth. Public libraries are uniquely qualified to provide that experience, and it’s almost “low-hanging fruit” for us, as we have fewer barriers to that experience than schools do.
     
  • “Approximately one-half of teens, for example, have played games that led them to think about moral or ethical issues. However, relatively few teens (typically under ten percent) report ‘often’ having particular civic gaming experiences.”
    Realistically, it will be years before civic gaming experiences are fully integrated into the classroom, a process stunted by No Child Left Behind because it de-emphasizes civics and social studies. This is yet another digital divide libraries can help bridge by providing the types of civic experiences gaming in a social context promotes.
     
  • “Most of the group-gamers (49%) play with friends in person, with 77 percent of group-gamers reporting playing games with others in the same room…. Overall, 76 percent of youth play games with others at least some of the time.“
    So if there are benefits to playing games together, is it better for kids to play with a small circle of friends at home or to bring them together with a diverse group of peers from their community, surrounded by the knowledge of the world, with information guides standing at the ready to help them?
     
  • “Civic education research leads us to suspect that parents, peers, teachers, and mentors can significantly increase the impact of civic gaming experiences by helping adolescents reflect on those experiences.”
    Note that the Pew gaming report doesn’t even mention the word “libraries” anywhere in it. Seriously. How can that be? In addition, MacArthur reports constantly refer to afterschool programs but don’t specify libraries. If we want to sit at the table of this discussion, we need to assert our unique position to address the issues these reports raise.
     
  • “Civic and political participation among youth is quite unequal. The voting rate of 18-29-year-olds who had attended college was fully three times greater than the voting rates of 18-29-year-olds who had not…. By equalizing civic learning opportunities, we may be able to help to equalize civic and political participation – a fundamentally important goal in a democracy…. Civic gaming experiences may be a means of more equitably developing teens’ civic skills and commitments…. Increasing the frequency of such experiences is likely necessary to effectively tap the civic potential of video games.”
    Again, I don’t see schools being able to increase the frequency of such experiences across the board in the current environment. Libraries, on the other hand, are well-suited for this.
     
  • “Both within games and in their offline lives, it is clearly important that youth have space to develop their own ways of engaging civically and, along with such opportunities, that they receive guidance and support from those with more civic and political experience.”
    See what I mean about how this report has “libraries” stamped all over it? One of the things we need to consider is how we can create optimal spaces and experiences to encourage these types of interactions, because we provide a unique set of conditions that the structured, time-limits of the school day just can’t provide.

So in addition to the diverse range of social interactions that take place around gaming in libraries, the relationships it helps build between librarians and users, the literacies kids inherently learn playing many videogames, and the draw to the library so kids learn more about the services we have to offer them, we can now add civic engagement to the list of benefits. The ROI on offering gaming just keeps getting better and better.

If all of this feels foreign to you, it may be that you’re not a gamer or you don’t interact with kids who are gamers, because anecdotally, I hear what these numbers say all the time from librarians offering gaming. I hear it most loudly from Eli Neiburger at the Ann Arbor District Library, someone who has fostered an online and physical community of kids who are passionate about the Library because of its gaming programming. In his book Gamers…in the Library??, he talks about how you can level up the discourse by engaging kids around content they care about. In fact, back in May, he presciently submitted a proposal to talk about civic engagement at GLLS2008 (which he’ll be giving on November 3). In addition, I’m happy to say that Amanda Lenhart, Senior Research Specialist at Pew/Internet and the lead on the gaming and civics report, will be presenting a ssion on this data at the gaming symposium, so this is going to be a hot topic.

If you haven’t witnessed this type of behavior in person, I encourage you to attend a library gaming event and/or talk to librarians offering this service yourself. I hear the comments week in and week out, usually unprompted, but don’t take my word for it. Obviously I feel pretty strongly that there’s a big role here for libraries to play if we just recognize and grab it, but you should learn more so that you can decide if gaming is right for your library. There’s also a lot more in both of these reports, including information about parental education/ involvement and implications for school libraries, so I highly recommend them as food for thought.


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