March 2004
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Month March 2004

pop culture and technology

Yesterday’s Odyssey on Chicago Public Radio was about the politics of popular culture. While I didn’t necessarily agree with the conclusions drawn by the show’s guests, they did do a fine job of mentioning a mid 20th century debate in political philosophy. Two thinkers, Benjamin and Adorno, took opposing views on pop culture. Benjamin saw it as a (potentially and in many cases actually) liberating and progressive force. For instance, he liked the idea of movie theaters because the masses and culturally elite could convene and enjoy themselves together. His essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is worth a read and has much to say, as you may be able to guess by the title, about current issues surrounding P2P file sharing, copyright, and creativity. More on that later.

While Benjamin realized that Hollywood (or Nazi propagandists) weren’t progressive or liberating forces, he still understood pop culture and the means by which it is produced to be good things. Adorno, though, loathed the entirity of pop culture, mainly because of the mechanisms of induction found in television and movies.

Anywho, you’re expecting to read about libraries, technology, and library users, but I think that this stuff is germane. Very similar things have been said about computer and web technologies. You know, some think it is bad for us humans, others see it as a democratizing force. Although I agree with Adorno more on the pop culture issue, I take a Benjamin-esque stance on technology. I think that these technologies are potentially (and in many cases actually) liberating things. And it so happens that some libraries are a great example of this. When we use an online database to find an article for a student, we’re using the web (and technological means of reproduction) in a positive way. When we make it simple for students to tap into the library on their own and get the article, we’re using the web in a very positive way. Why aren’t more public libraries doing this? It has become unsurprising, and saddeneing when I’m at a library’s website and they’re don’t offer a high degree of remote connectivity. Clearly this is due to financial, technological and time constraints in many cases, but not all of the time. Benjamin uses the term “aura” in his essay to talk about art, but it is useful in explaining why libraries are perhaps afraid of exploiting the web for all that it can do.

Let’s take a step back and hash out some of this aesthetic theory. Before things could be reproduced easily, pieces of art functioned as authoratative things. High Art was mysterious, and understanding of it came from contact with this aura. He thought that new forms of art, like photography and film, were interesting because there is no original physical piece of art, only copies. Mechanical reproduction made art available to everyone, conversations could be had, and people could derive their own meanings from the art. No more authority, no more aura.

Benjamin states that the desctruction of aura, “is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art.” Certainly it points to libraries and information. Historically libraries have been the keepers of information and in a certain sense, we were the Information Authorities. Technological reproduction, though has changed the public’s perception of this and it makes libraries nervous. By not guiding their patrons though the web as they should be, perhaps libraries are grasping on to the last bits of aura they feel they, or their buildings, have. This is short sighted, and confused because the authority of the library has little to do with its physical space. Does it matter if users access the library while in their skivvies at home? I’d much rather have people use the library from their homes, or mobile devices than have them use a search engine and still not visit the library building. Through actions like providing remote access of online resources, libraries provide more resources to more people while dispelling the myth of the authority of the library’s space.

Food for thought.

virtual reference issues

One of the most important aspects of reference work is the development of relationships. Libraries, through the individual actions of librarians, need to form a bond with their patrons. This isn’t terribly difficult to accomplish because people coming to the reference desk have a problem to solve. When a librarian helps them solve a problem, there is the potential for a connection to be made. This should be evident through examples from our daily lives: Aren’t problem solvers useful people? Do you feel loyal to the last institution from which you received good service? Will you return to the institution when a similar need arises?

Virtual Reference, as conceived by many projects, makes it nearly impossible to create this bond. The absence of this possibility isn’t a function of the fact that the transaction is virtual, it is a function of how there’s no steady or repeated connection. To get more coverage, one of the VR projects we’re working for has welcomed libraries from very disparate areas. Joining forces makes sense for this reason, but I don’t think it takes into account that it causes patrons to have seemingly random reference encounters. Throughout the week, there are many, many individuals with whom patrons may come into contact. In essence, these transactions are reference one night stands.

Another thing to note is that the librarians working for this VR project, including us, have made it standard practice to use pseudonyms for our online presence. This is a barrier perhaps not recognized by the patrons, but a barrier nonetheless.

Another problem with VR is that current programs still aren’t meeting patrons in a convenient place. Simply having some presence on the web isn’t good enough. Patrons surfing the web either do or do not presently use a major instant messaging service (AIM, YIM, MSN, etc…); this is a fact. Those that are already chatting would find it more useful if libraries were present in one of these services. As simple as it may be, it is still an extra few steps to navigate to a VR website and enter in a zip code to log in. Those that don’t already chat are perhaps even less likely to consult a VR service. (Thinking to consult a service, navigating to the site, logging in and then chatting can all be big hurdles).

A possible solution to both of these issues would be to simply meet the patrons where some of them are, the major IM services. Librarians would be at the fingertips of their patrons if they would have an IM program running. There would be no navigation for users. We would be integrated into their lives. Patrons would be familiar with whom they were chatting, and they’d chat with the same library, the library that they visit in person, on a regular basis. A relationship would be formed.

Michael Stephens made a serious but somewhat offhand comment advocating the adoption of using a major IM service for VR instead of expensive vendor software. People took note and blogged about just that one comment because it makes common sense. VR software from vendors is bloatware.

Some libraries are indeed using AIM for VR. I’d love to hear how it is going. Does having an IM name out on the web flood librarians with questions from random netizens any more than having a telephone or fax number out there? I’d guess probably not. Even if it did, imagine the possibilities.

I recently registered a new AIM name, one for the library. Soon there will be business cards with this name to be handed out to the young adults in the library. The name will also go on our website. I bet we’ll get more response from this than we have from our current VR project.

technology and etiquette

Besides staff and patron training, which are major tasks sprouting from the implementation of new technology at a library, something else presents itself: a new type of etiquette. Minding one’s Ps and Qs is always good practice, and this includes when your virtual space might interfere with someone’s meatspace. Although no one was upset, once whilst printing wirelessly I started using special paper that someone had loaded in a printer. Oops. Now I find myself phoning the Reference Desk whenever I’m about to remotely print from a laptop. Wireless technology, while making printing quite convenient for me, comes with the mandate of etiquette. This mandate could be releaved with more technology (a dedicated printer) but certainly that would have some implications as well, like space and money.

the right question

I’m teaching the reference course in the local LTA program this quarter. In our discussion today a student said that she was surprised about some of the questions that reference librarians receive, and asked if many patrons are too demanding. I mentioned that different libraries have different policies which indicate how far a librarian is to go in answering a question, etc… and that I probably would have answered the particular question in question.

It was later that I thought of something else I might have mentioned. It really isn’t the question of what information we’re giving patrons that should be concerning us, but rather how we are giving it to them. Obviously we need to be providing them with quality information, but if we’re not giving it to them in formats they want, or will be wanting, they might forget about us.

blowing their minds

“Keeping your Computer Clean” was the title of a class I held at the library tonight. Interestingly enough, many of my patrons came even though they thought their computers were doing “okay.” However, I made sure they left with the fear of God put into them. While I didn’t feel comfortable making a direct recommendation about any tools, I did show them what I use at the library for the staff computers.

I run these computers through a gauntlet of Spybot, SpySweeper, and AdAware. Pretty typical for computer types, but only one of them had heard of any of these. I also mentioned ZoneAlarm,, and the security check on Symantec’s site. Also I made sure they knew how to clear out the cookies and cache from their browsers.

If you’re in the position, hold such a class. Their heads were spinning, but they loved it.