Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Computer Programming for Librarians

 beech leaves

This post has been on a back burner for a while, but I remembered it when I read Will Manley's November 22 entry that developed into a discussion about what library school does and does not teach you.

Looking back, a library school course I would have taken in a heartbeat was "Computer Programming for Libraries." It would have been unrealistic to expect to learn programming from scratch, but it could have been an introduction to various languages, and there could have been a sandbox for trying out different projects, all related to libraries.

I would have loved to take this class for a variety of reasons. I know that systems change, but many of them are built using similar design principles and programming languages. In many instances in my career so far, a basic familiarity with some of the languages and applications would have been really helpful. I did take classes that covered database design and networks, and they have proven helpful but weren't enough.

People who have experience coding and then decide to go to library school are few and far between, and I would guess that most of my classmates would have found this course valuable too. From what I've seen, libraries that have computer programmers on staff tend to hold on to them tightly. A nice piece in Computers in Libraries back in June by Marshall Breeding covered a lot of this.

And I do realize I can learn basic programming on my own. Plenty of librarians teach themselves programming on the job. I know there are a variety of opportunities to roll up my sleeves and get my feet wet, and I know there are a lot of great online programming communities. Plus I did take an introductory programming class at the college where I worked a few years ago.

At the same time, I'm currently stretched thin at my job, and I'm not required or expected to do this. Usually by the time the thought "Gee, I bet this task could be automated with a clever computer program" crosses my mind, I'm already waist-deep into the project and don't have time to go down the rabbit hole of learning the fundamentals of C++, or Java, or PHP, or whatever that particular project would require. This is why I think "Computer Programming for Libraries" would have made a valuable library school class: Some exposure to library-related programming would have been a nice starting point for whatever project I find myself working on.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Academic Library Buildings

 Bradford pear, on campus. It looks much prettier in person.

It's possible I have been reading too much technology news, but these days I'm feeling pessimistic about the future of academic library buildings. (Note that I'm specifically talking about academic library buildings, which I believe have far less of a role as community centers and gathering places than public library buildings.)

A library building is the kind of thing that people love to support in theory, but it is expensive to properly maintain both a print collection that justifies the space as well as an electronic collection. I wonder if a college that was to be built tomorrow would include a library building when online access to digital collections is starting to make coming to the college library unnecessary. I know the latter is a good thing, and I know I should feel optimistic about what our online services and collections enable people to do. On certain days I'm really excited about what's going on with digital libraries - look at this, for example - but as someone who has always enjoyed library buildings, I also feel wistful. Yet, as overwhelming as the shift from a print world to a digital world can be, it does seem like progress. Technology promises progress for many endeavors, and often it does not deliver, but in searching for, acquiring, and storing information, the benefits are clear.

But if we don't have to use academic library buildings, and if we remove the physical presence of libraries from a campus, the next logical step is to whittle down the library's collection budget and pass the fees for subscriptions to students. And then where would we be?

Perhaps some national digital library would spring up, with a netflix-like model that students and researchers could subscribe to a month at a time and customize as needed. Is this is WorldCat's vision? Or is this subscription google?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Unrealistic Expectations of Community Colleges?

oriental bittersweet berries

Aside from the question of whether community & junior colleges exist primarily to educate or to provide job training is the question of what a college with open enrollment is reasonably able to do.

The idea of a college without an admissions application is wonderfully democratic. It means that college is in reach for anyone who takes an interest. Optimistically, I always imagine enthusiastic and determined students who for whatever reason cannot afford or are unable to attend a traditional institution. I think hopefully of this type of student whenever I think of the community college's purpose.

But the elephant in the room at community colleges is student ability. It's nice to say that everyone should get a college degree, & that America needs more college graduates, and thus community colleges should increase their retention levels and number of graduates. However, community college graduates should be expected to be able to read, write, and do basic math, right? Yet how are community colleges supposed to increase their graduation rates when a shockingly high percentage of those enrolling require some form of academic remediation? Allowing standards to slip is an easy fix in the short-term, but it does no-one any favors in the long-term.

It is fashionable right now to blame public institutions for society's failures, including failures in education. When a person is still unable to read, write, or do basic math as an adult, what are her options? A community college is one, but is it fair to then blame the community college when she drops out after two years of remedial classes? What are the causes of this situation? Is this a parenting failure? Is it the proud anti-intellectual streak in American culture? Is it due to bad teachers, and bad K-12 schools? Can any blame be assigned to those individuals themselves who haven't mastered basic skills they've surely been told repeatedly are important?

If community colleges are to be part of a serious solution, this has to be an acknowledged starting point.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Design Redunancy in Support of Accidental Discovery

The woods in Blackwood. I took a very similar picture last year.

We might not have considered ourselves designers when we became librarians, but we end up making a lot of design decisions. We make decisions about physical space, our web pages, how patrons should navigate our services, etc. And one thing I'm starting to notice about effective design is that it's redundant.

Here's what I mean: Think of a roadway going from point A to point B. Several other roads run basically parallel to it. When there's an accident or roadblock on the main road, travelers are not prevented from getting to point B. Or here's another example: When a user's computer dies, she can still accomplish many of the same tasks using the phone.

A lot of redundancy is accidental, left over from a previous way of doing things. A new way becomes the standard, but the old infrastructure is still left in place. It is difficult to justify the expense of building redundancy just to provide a safety net for an unlikely possibility. So when faced with designing something from scratch, it may be easier to justify redundancy by trying to imagine all of the different ways a user might interact with the design, and planning for them. This takes some imagination, but if you build something that can direct user behavior effectively, the user experience overall is bound to be less frustrating and more engaging.

In fact, when I'm the user I notice that consistent, clear information ends up teaching me more than how to get from Point A to Point B. It's true that when I'm trying to accomplish a task I'm not openly interested in stopping to smell the roses, but when first learning to do that task, I'm in high learning mode. The more ambient information I'm exposed to as I navigate the task, the more I absorb. I notice this a lot when using computer software -- I'll try to figure out how to do something, whether that means learning terminology or a simple function, and meanwhile I encounter various other functions. Often, the next time I need to do something new, I already have some understanding because of the previous exposure. (How else would I have learned to animate PowerPoint slides?)

I am completely fascinated by how people use computers. This might sound weird, but I really enjoy observing people's idiosyncrasies during tasks as simple as navigating a web page. From watching myself and patrons, and from helping students in classes, I think redundancy is one answer to supporting the most number of possible users.