Luddites, Trumpism and Change: A crossroads for libraries

“Globalization is a proxy for technology-powered capitalism, which tends to reward fewer and fewer members of society.”
– Om Malik

Corner someone and they will react. We may be seeing this across the world as change, globalization, technology and economic dislocation force more and more people into the corner of benefit-nots. They are reacting out of desperation. It’s not rational. It’s not pretty. But it shouldn’t be surprising.

Years ago at a library conference, one of the keynote speakers forecast that there would be a return to the analog (sorry my Twitter-based memory does not identify the person). The rapidity of digitization would be met by a reaction. People would scurry back to the familiar, he said. They always do.

Fast forward to 2016, where the decades-long trends toward globalization, borderless labor markets, denationalization, exponential technological change and corresponding social revolutions has hit the wall of public reaction. Brexit. Global Trumpism. Call it what you will. We’re in a change moment. The reaction is here.

Reacting to the Reaction

People in the Blue Zones, the Technorati, the beneficiaries of cheap foreign labor, free trade and technological innovation are scratching their heads. For all their algorithms and AI, they didn’t see this coming. Everything looked good on their feeds. No danger could possibly burst their self-assured bubble of inevitability. All was quiet. It was like a clear blue, September 2001, morning in New York City. It was like the boardroom in the Federal Reserve in 2006. The serenity was over in an instant.

Since Brexit, and then Trump’s election, the Glittery Digitarians have initiated a period of introspection. They’re looking up from their stock tickers and gold-plated smart watches to find a grim reality: the world is crowded with people that have lost much ground at the expense of the global maelstrom that has elevated a very small, lucky few to greatness. They are now seeing, as for the first time, the shuttered towns. The empty retail stores. The displaced and homeless.

Suddenly their confident talk of personal AI assistants has turned from technolust to terror. Their success suddenly looks short-sighted.

Om Malik wrote in his recent New Yorker op-ed, that Silicon Valley may soon find itself equated with the super villains on Wall Street. He posits that a new business model needs to account for the public good…or else.

I recently read Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity by Douglas Rushkoff. If you haven’t read it, now would be a good time. Like Bernie Sanders and others, Rushkoff has been warning of this kind of reaction for awhile. The system is not designed for the public good, but only around a narrow set of shareholder requirements. All other considerations do not compute.

My Reaction

Let me put this in personal perspective.

In my work, I engage the public in “the heart of Silicon Valley” on what they want from their community and what’s missing. What I hear is concern about the loss of quiet, of connection to others, of a pace of life that is not 24/7 always a click away. This is consistent. People feel overwhelmed.

As one of the chief technologists for my library, this puts me in a strange place. And I’ve been grappling with it for the past few months.

On the one hand, people are curious. They’re happy to try the next big thing. But you also hear the frustration.

Meanwhile, the burden of the Tech Industry is more than inflated rents and traffic. There’s a very obvious divide between long-time residents and newcomers. There’s a sense that something has been lost. There’s anger too, even here in the shadow of Google and Facebook.

The Library as a Philosophy

The other day, I was visited by a Eurpean Library Director who wanted to talk about VR. He asked me where I thought we’d be in ten years.

I hesitated. My thoughts immediately went back to the words of despair that I’d been hearing from the public lately.

Of course, the genie’s out of the bottle. We can’t stop the digital era. VR interface revolutions will likely emerge. The robots will come.

But we can harness this change to our benefit. We can add rules to heal it to our collective needs.

This is where the Library comes in. We have a sharing culture. A model that values bridging divides, pooling resources and re-distributing knowledge. It’s a model that is practically unique to the library if you think about it.

As I read Rushkoff, I kept coming back to the Librarian’s philosophy on sharing. In his book, he contends that we need to re-imagine (re-code) our economy to work for people. He recalls technologies like HTTP and RSS which were invented and then given away to the world to share and re-use. This sounded very ‘librarian’ to me.

We share knowledge in the form of access to technology, after all. We host training on new maker gear, coding, robotics, virtual reality.

Perhaps we need to double-down on this philosophy. Perhaps, we can be more than just a bridge. Maybe we can be the engine driving our communities to the other side. We can not just advocate, but do. Have a hackathon? Build a public alternative to the Airbnb app to be used by people in your town.

Know the Future

In the end, libraires, technologists and digitarians need to tell a better story. We need to get outside our bubbles and tell that story with words that resonate with the benefit-nots. And more, we need that story to be backed up with real-world benefits.

It starts with asking the community what kind of world they want to live it? What obstacles keep them from living that way? And then how the library and technology can help make change.

We have the philosophy, we have the spaces and we have public permission. Let’s get to work.

Is 3D Printing Dying?

Inc.’s John Brandon recently wrote about The Slow, Sad, and Ultimately Predictable Decline of 3D Printing. Uh, not so fast.

3D Printing is just getting started. For libraries whose adopted mission is to introduce people to emerging technologies, this is a fantastic opportunity to do so. But it has to be done right.

Another dead end?

Brandon cites a few reasons for his pessimism:

  • 3D printed objects are low quality and the printers are finicky
  • 3D printing growth is falling behind initial estimates
  • people in manufacturing are not impressed
  • and the costs are too high

I won’t get into all that’s wrong with this analysis, as I feel like most of it is incorrect, or at the very least, a temporary problem typical of a new technology. Instead, I’d like to discuss this in the library maker context. And in fact, you can apply these ideas to any tech project.

How to make failure a win—no matter what

Libraries are quick to jump on tech. Remember those QR Codes that would revolutionize mobile access? Did your library consider a Second Life branch? How about those Chromebooks!

Inevitably, these experiments are going to fail. But that’s okay.

As this blog often suggests, failure is a win when doing so teaches you something. Experimenting is the first step in the process of discovery. And that’s really what all these kinds of projects need to be.

In the case of a 3D Printing project at your library, it’s important to keep this notion front and center. A 3D Printing pilot with the goal of introducing the public to the technology can be successful if people simply try it out. That seems easy enough. But to be really successful, even this kind of basic 3D Printing project needs to have a fair amount of up-front planning attached to it.

Chicago Public Library created a successful Maker Lab. Their program was pretty simple: Hold regular classes showing people how to use the 3D printers and then allow those that completed the introductory course to use the printers in open studio lab times. When I tried this out at CPL, it was quite difficult to get a spot in the class due to popularity. The grant-funded project was so successful, based on the number of attendees, that it was extended and continues to this day.

As a grant-funded endeavor, CPL likely wrote out the specifics before any money was handed over. But even an internally-funded project should do this. Keep the goals simple and clear so expectations on the front line match those up the chain of command. Figure out what your measurements of success are before you even purchase the first printer. Be realistic. Always document everything. And return to that documentation throughout the project’s timeline.

Taking it to the next level

San Diego Public Library is an example of a Maker Project that went to the next level. Uyen Tran saw an opportunity to merge startup seminars with their maker tools at her library. She brought aspiring entrepreneurs into her library for a Startup Weekend event where budding innovators learned how the library could be a resource for them as they launched their companies. 3D printers were part of this successful program.

It’s important to note that Uyen already had the maker lab in place before she launched this project. And it would be risky for a library to skip the establishment of a rudimentary 3D printer program before trying for this more ambitious program.

But it could be done if that library was well organized with solid project managers and deep roots in the target community. But that’s a tall order to fill.

What’s the worst thing that could go wrong?

The worst thing that could go wrong is doubling down on failure: repeating one failed project after another without changing the flawed approach behind it.

I’d also add that libraries are often out ahead of the public on these technologies, so dead ends are inevitable. To address this, I would also add one more tactic to your tech projects: listening.

The public has lots of concerns about a variety of things. If you ask them, they’ll tell you all about them. Many of their concerns are directly related to libraries, but we can often help. We have permission to do so. People trust us. It’s a great position to be in.

But we have to ask them to tell us what’s on their mind. We have to listen. And then we need to think creatively.

Listening and thinking outside the box was how San Diego took their 3D Printers to the next level.

The Long Future of 3D Printing

The Wright Brothers first flight managed only 120 feet in the air. A year later, they flew 24 miles. These initial attempts looked nothing like the jet age and yet the technology of flight was born from these humble experiments.

Already, 3D printing is being adopted in multiple industries. Artists are using it to prototype their designs. Astronauts are using it to print parts aboard the International Space Station. Bio-engineers are now looking at printing stem-cell structures to replace organs and bones. We’re decades away from the jet age of 3D printing, but this tech is here to stay.

John Brandon’s read is incorrect simply because he’s looking at the current state and not seeing the long-term promise. When he asks a Ford engineer for his take on 3D Printing in the assembly process, he gets a smirk. Not a hotbed of innovation. What kind of reaction would he have gotten from an engineer at Tesla? At Apple? Fundamentally, he’s approaching 3D Printers from the wrong perspective and this is why it looks doomed.

Libraries should not make this mistake. The world is changing ever more quickly and the public needs us to help them navigate the new frontier. We need to do this methodically, with careful planning and a good dose of optimism.

The State of the Library Website

T’was a time when the Library Website was an abomination. Those dark days have lightened significantly. But new clouds have appeared on the horizon.

Darkest Before the Dawn

In the dark ages of Library Websites, users suffered under UX regimes that were rigid, unhelpful and confusing. This was before responsive design became a standard in the library world. It was before search engine optimization started to creep into Library meetings. It was before user experience became an actual librarian job title.

We’ve come a long way since I wrote The Ugly Truth About Library Websites. Most libraries have evolved beyond the old “website as pamphlet” paradigm to one that is dynamic and focused on user tasks.

Public libraries have deployed platforms like BiblioCommons to serve responsive, task-oriented interfaces that integrate their catalogs, programming and website into a single social platform. Books, digital resources, programs and even loanable equipment are all accessible via a single search. What’s more, the critical social networking aspects of library life are also embedded along the user’s path. Celebrated examples of this integrated solution include the San Francisco Public Library and Chicago Public Library. Queens is also hard at work to develop a custom solution.

In the academic realm, libraries have turned to unified discovery layers like WorldCat Discovery and EBSCO Discovery Service to simplify (Googlize) the research process. These systems put a single-search box front and center that access resources on the shelf, but also all those electronic resources that make up the bulk of academic budgets.

And while there are still many laggards, few libraries ignore these problems outright.

The Storm Ahead

While the general state of online library interfaces has improved, the unforgiving, hyperbolic curve of change continues to press forward. And libraries cannot stay put. Indeed, we need to quicken our pace and prepare our organizations for ongoing recalibration as the tempo of change increases.

The biggest problem for library websites, is that there is little future for the library website. That’s because people will get less and less information through web browsers. Indeed, consider how often you use a web browser on your phone versus an app. Developments in AI, Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality will compound that trend.

If you’re like Chris Milk, videographer and VR evangelist, you see the writing on the wall. The modes of how we experience information are about to undergo a fundamental revolution. Milk likens the current state of VR to the old black and white silent films at the dawn of motion pictures.

I’d extend this line of thinking to the web page. Within a decade or two, I expect people will look back on web pages as a brief, transitory medium bridging print information to linked data. And as our AI, VR and AR technologies take off, they will liberate information from the old print paradigms altogether.

In short, people will interact with information in more direct ways. They will ask a computer to provide them the answer. They will virtually travel to a “space” where they can experience the information they seek.

Get Ready to Re-invent the Library…again

So where does the library fit into this virtualized and automated future?

One possibility is that the good work to transform library data into linked data will enable us to survive this revolution. In fact, it may be our best hope.

Another hope is that we continue to emphasize the library as a social space for people to come together around ideas. Whether its a virtual library space or a physical one, the library can be the place in both local and global communities where people meet their universal thirst for connecting with others. The modes of those ideas (books, ebooks, videos, games) will matter far less than the act of connecting.

In a sense, you could define the future online library as something between an MMORPG, Meetup.com and the TED conference.

So, the library website is vastly improved, but we won’t have long to rest on our laurels.

Ready Player One? Put on your VR goggles. Call up Siri. Start rethinking everything you know about the Library website.

 

 

Virtual Realty is Getting Real in the Library

My library just received three Samsung S7 devices with Gear VR goggles. We put them to work right away.

The first thought I had was: Wow, this will change everything. My second thought was: Wow, I can’t wait for Apple to make a VR device!

The Samsung Gear VR experience is grainy and fraught with limitations, but you can see the potential right away. The virtual reality is, after all, working off a smartphone. There is no high-end graphics card working under the hood. Really, the goggles are just a plastic case holding the phone up to your eyes. But still, despite all this, it’s amazing.

Within twenty-four hours, I’d surfed beside the world’s top surfers on giant waves off Hawaii, hung out with the Masai in Africa and shared an intimate moment with a pianist and his dog in their (New York?) apartment. It was all beautiful.

We’ve Been Here Before

Remember when the Internet came online? If you’re old enough, you’ll recall the crude attempts to chat on digital bulletin board systems (BBS) or, much later, the publication of the first colorful (often jarringly so) HTML pages.

It’s the Hello World! moment for VR now. People are just getting started. You can tell the content currently available is just scratching the surface of potentialities for this medium. But once you try VR and consider the ways it can be used, you start to realize nothing will be the same again.

The Internet Will Disappear

So said Google CEO Erik Schmidt in 2015. He was talking about the rise of AI, wearable tech and many other emerging technologies that will transform how we access data. For Schmidt, the Internet will simply fade into these technologies to the point that it will be unrecognizable.

I agree. But being primarily a web librarian, I’m mostly concerned with how new technologies will translate in the library context. What will VR mean for library websites, online catalogs, eBooks, databases and the social networking aspects of libraries.

So after trying out VR, I was already thinking about all this. Here are some brief thoughts:

  • Visiting the library stacks in VR could transform the online catalog experience
  • Library programming could break out of the physical world (virtual speakers, virtual locations)
  • VR book discussions could incorporate virtual tours of topics/locations touched on in books
  • Collections of VR experiences could become a new source for local collections
  • VR maker spaces and tools for creatives to create VR experiences/objects

Year Zero?

Still, VR makes your eyes tired. It’s not perfect. It has a long way to go.

But based on my experience sharing this technology with others, it’s addictive. People love trying it. They can’t stop talking about it afterward.

So, while it may be some time before the VR revolution disrupts the Internet (and virtual library services with it), it sure feels imminent.

W3C’s CSS Framework Review

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 3.19.41 PMI’m a longtime Bootstrap fan, but recently I cheated on my old framework. Now I’m all excited by the W3C’s new framework.

Like Bootstrap, the W3C’s framework comes with lots of nifty utilities and plug and play classes and UI features. Even if you have a good CMS, you’ll find many of their code libraries quite handy.

And if you’re CMS-deficient, this framework will save you time and headaches!

Why a Framework?

Frameworks are great for saving time. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel for standard UI chunks like navigation, image positioning, responsive design, etc.

All you need to do is reference the framework in your code and you can start calling the classes to make your site pop.

And this is really great since not all well-meaning web teams have an eye for good design. Most quality frameworks look really nice, and they get updated periodically to keep up with design trends.

And coming from this well-known standards body, you can also be assured that the W3C’s framework complies with all the nitty-gritty standards all websites should aspire to.

Things to Love

Some of the things I fell in love with include:

  • CSS-driven navigation menus. There’s really no good reason to rely on JavaScript for a responsive, interactive navigation menu. The W3C agrees.
  • Icon support. This framework allows you to choose from three popular icon sets to bring icons right into your interface.
  • Image support: Lots of great image styling including circular cropping, shadowing, etc.
  • Cards. Gotta love cards in your websites and this framework has some very nice looking card designs for you to use.
  • Built-in colors. Nuff sed.
  • Animations. There are plenty of other nice touches like buttons that lift off the screen, elements that drop into place and much more.

I give it a big thumbs up!

Check it out at the W3C.org.

 

 

AI First

Looking to the future, the next big step will be for the very concept of the “device” to fade away. Over time, the computer itself—whatever its form factor—will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day. We will move from mobile first to an AI first world.

Google Founder’s Letter, April 2016

My Library recently finalized a Vision Document for our virtual library presence. Happily, our vision was aligned with the long-term direction of technology as understood by movers and shakers like Google.

As I’ve written previously, the Library Website will disappear. But this is because the Internet (as we currently understand it) will also disappear.

In its place, a new mode of information retrieval and creation will move us away from the paper-based metaphor of web pages. Information will be more ubiquitous. It will be more free-form, more adaptable, more contextualized, more interactive.

Part of this is already underway. For example, people are becoming a data set. And other apps are learning about you and changing how they work based on who you are. Your personal data set contains location data, patterns in speech and movement around the world, consumer history, keywords particular to your interests, associations based on your social networks, etc.

AI Emerging

All of this information makes it possible for emerging AI systems like Siri and Cortana to better serve you. Soon, it will allow AI to control the flow of information based on your mood and other factors to help you be more productive. And like a good friend that knows you very, very well, AI will even be able to alert you to serendipitous events or inconveniences so that you can navigate life more happily.

People’s expectations are already being set for this kind of experience. Perhaps you’ve noticed yourself getting annoyed when your personal assistant just fetches a Wikipedia article when you ask it something. You’re left wanting. What we want is that kernel of gold we asked about. But what we get right now, is something too general to be useful.

But soon, that will all change. Nascent AI will soon be able to provide exactly the piece of information that you really want rather than a generalized web page. This is what Google means when they make statements like “AI First” or “the Web will die.” They’re talking about a world where information is not only presented as article-like web pages, but broken down into actual kernels of information that are both discrete and yet interconnected.

AI First in the Library

Library discussions often focus on building better web pages or navigation menus or providing responsive websites. But the conversation we need to have is about pulling our data out of siloed systems and websites and making it available to all modes like AI, apps and basic data harvesters.

You hear this conversation in bits and pieces. The ongoing linked data project is part of this long-term strategy. So too with next-gen OPACs. But on the ground, in our local strategy meetings, we need to tie every big project we do to this emerging reality where web browsers are increasingly no longer relevant.

We need to think AI First.

Google Analytics and Privacy

Collecting web usage data through services like Google Analytics is a top priority for any library. But what about user privacy?

Most libraries (and websites for that matter) lean on Google Analytics to measure website usage and learn about how people access their online content. It’s a great tool. You can learn about where people are coming from (the geolocation of their IP addresses anyway), what devices, browsers and operating systems they are using. You can learn about how big their screen is. You can identify your top pages and much much more.

Google Analytics is really indispensable for any organization with an online presence.

But then there’s the privacy issue.

Is Google Analytics a Privacy Concern?

The question is often asked, what personal information is Google Analytics actually collecting? And then, how does this data collection jive with our organization’s privacy policies.

It turns out, as a user of Google Analytics, you’ve already agreed to publish a privacy document on your site outlining the why and what of your analytics program. So if you haven’t done so, you probably should if only for the sake of transparency.

Personally Identifiable Data

Fact is, if someone really wanted to learn about a particular person, it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility that they could glean a limited set of personal attributes from the generally anonymized data Google Analytics collects. IP addresses can be loosely linked to people. If you wanted to, you could set up filters in Google Analytics that look at a single IP.

Of course, on the Google side, any user that is logged into their Gmail, YouTube or other Google account, is already being tracked and identified by Google. This is a broadly underappreciated fact. And it’s a critical one when it comes to how approach the question of dealing with the privacy issue.

In both the case of what your organization collects with Google Analytics and what all those web trackers, including Google’s trackers, collect, the onus falls entirely on the user.

The Internet is Public

Over the years, the Internet has become a public space and users of the Web should understand it as such. Everything you do, is recorded and seen. Companies like Google, Facebook, Mircosoft, Yahoo! and many, many others are all in the data mining business. Carriers and Internet Service Providers are also in this game. They deploy technologies in websites that identify you and then sell what your interests, shopping habits, web searches and other activities are to companies interested in selling to you. They’ve made billions on selling your data.

Ever done a search on Google and then seen ads all over the Web trying to sell you that thing you searched last week? That’s the tracking at work.

Only You Can Prevent Data Fires

The good news is that with little effort, individuals can stop most (but not all) of the data collection. Browsers like Chrome and Firefox have plugins like Ghostery, Avast and many others that will block trackers.

Google Analytics can be stopped cold by these plugins. But it won’t solve all the problems. Users also need to set up their browsers to delete cookies websites save to their browsers. And moving off of accounts provided from data mining companies “for free” like Facebook accounts, Gmail and Google.com can also help.

But you’ll never be completely anonymous. Super cookies are a thing and are very difficult to stop without breaking websites. And some trackers are required in order to load content. So sometimes you need to pay with your data to play.

Policies for Privacy Conscious Libraries

All of this means that libraries wishing to be transparent and honest about their data collection, need to also contextualize the information in the broader data mining debate.

First and foremost, we need to educate our users on what it means to go online. We need to let them know its their responsibility alone to control their own data. And we need to provide instructions on doing so.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an opt-in model. That’s too bad. It actually would be great if the world worked that way. But don’t expect the moneyed interests involved in data mining to allow the US Congress to pass anything that cuts into their bottom line. This ain’t Germany, after all.

There are ways with a little javascript to create a temporary opt-in/opt-out feature to your site. This will toggle tags added by Google Tag Manager on and off with a single click. But let’s be honest. Most people will ignore it. And if they do opt-out, it will be very easy for them to overlook everytime without a much more robust opt-in/opt-out functionality baked in to your site. But for most sites and users, this is asking alot. Meanwhile, it diverts attention from the real solution: users concerned about privacy need to protect themselves and not take a given websites word for it.

We actually do our users a service by going with the opt-out model. This underlines the larger privacy problems on the Wild Wild Web, which our sites are a part of.