Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Reading Devices / Selling Devices

Despite my unpatriotic attitude about reading devices, during the past few weeks I have been experimenting with different tablets, as a staff development project. I have been exploring and comparing an iPad, a Kindle Fire, a Nook Tablet, and a no-name tablet running an older version of android.

First I needed to find a wireless signal. The wireless signal in the library building does not saturate everywhere, so I found myself not entirely mobile, restricted to certain areas. In my office, for example, I got no connection at all, but a colleague's office was a veritable hotspot. Luckily the service desk was also a hotspot, because I soon realized that everything moved quicker if I could use a personal computer (in particular the keyboard) simultaneously with the tablets. 

Next there was making sure all of the batteries were charged, and then I needed to create new accounts on them (in preference to using my own personal profiles). So I created a Google account (for the Android apps), an Apple ID, an Amazon account, and a Barnes and Noble account. In order to test our library products, I needed SciVerse and ebrary accounts.  

Each tablet has its own interface and quirks, so then I needed to learn the basics of each one. This is not as difficult as learning four new computers, but it's along those lines.

And now I'm getting comfortable with them. The biggest surprise so far has been realizing how inescapably commercial they all are. By commercial, I mean they are as much selling devices as reading devices. The iPad is tied to Apple and iTunes; the Kindle Fire is tied to Amazon; the Nook Tablet to Barnes and Noble. To engage in activities outside of those respective bubbles is like pushing against gravity. We found a work-around for iTunes, but I currently cannot download free e-books from Amazon to the Kindle Fire because I refuse to enter a credit card, and One-Click, which the Kindle Fire uses, requires one.

It's true that I'm using these devices as a librarian and not a normal customer, but I'm surprised a normal customer would be so ... gullible? Is that the right word? Technology news stories depict a future where there are no internet browsers, only apps, and I can confirm that extended use of the browsers on any of these devices is not a great user experience. Some apps are free, but others are not. And frequently the free apps have a commercial or promotional orientation.

I'm thinking this is just another step on a continuum: First we had the wild west of the internet, which was great for the public but not great for business, and now we have these devices as a response -- great for business but not great for the public. Will a compromise come next?


update 8/2/12: I just got an email from Amazon promoting streaming videos for the iPad, and I also learned that with a microSD card I can install Android on the Nook Tablet. So I should have included a paragraph about collusion here as well.

Monday, July 23, 2012

On-Site Support for Online Students

During summers at the college, we see an interesting array of students at the library. Some are at home for the break and are taking a course or two. Others are working on projects unrelated to this particular college but need somewhere quiet and cool. Lots of people are taking online courses and need a reliable internet connection, computer and/or printer.

I'm always amused to find myself helping someone who is taking an online course. Frequently I'm not even assisting with a technology problem -- I'm helping with a library question about journals or databases. I think this type of support is left out of calculations that tally up the costs and cost-savings of online classes. Yes, online classes are asynchronous and don't require a physical classroom. But I think they end up requiring more in-person assistance than is initially obvious, and it's important to make this point as education moves online.

This is an easy thing to theorize about, but I wonder if anyone is investigating it. It would mean studying students who are taking online courses to discover their preferences and needs. Actually, this may be just the type of interdisciplinary research topic that our new discovery service ("EasySearch" on our library home page) is ideally suited for. My first few searches brought up hundreds of thousands of results, so this may take some time, but I'll post here if I find anything noteworthy.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Weeding the Print Periodicals

Again this week, I've been pondering a post from Wayne Bivens-Tatum's Academic Librarian blog. This time it's about weeding printed serials, which is a different beast at a research library like Princeton University than at a community college library. Yet somehow we find ourselves engaged in the same task: Looking at the print periodicals with an eye on the space they are inhabiting. Mr. Bivens-Tatum thoughtfully worries about his impact on the work of scholars who use the periodicals for their professional research. I'm still trying to figure out whom I need to be worrying about impacting. The bulk of our printed periodicals are sadly underused, and we have already canceled print subscriptions when online subscriptions are viable alternatives. This means that the bulk of our print periodicals are not merely historical relics, but they are also duplicated electronically. Even if online subscriptions mean relying on inherently unstable commercial vendors, the periodicals in our collection that have moved from print to online are unlikely to slip away unnoticed -- they were the big-name, established journals in the first place.

In a way, because the community college is not a research institution and because the library's mission does not include supporting faculty research, the decision to get rid of most of our printed periodicals should be laughably easy. So why do I feel a twinge? I think it's because at a community college, although we are serving primarily first and second year college students, it seems like a worthy aspiration to be more like PUL than less. Mr. Bivens-Tatum is agonizing about moving materials merely off-site; we are considering discarding them completely. This is how the gulf between the types of academic libraries widens.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Making an Efficient Process Out of Something That Is Not

One of the great things about community colleges is that they give people a second chance. Community colleges offer opportunities for people who did not succeed previously -- for whatever reason. This is a valuable, important, and rightfully celebrated service. But when translated into an operation, it is not terribly efficient when it comes to enrollment, retention, and graduation. Efficiency would mean using past performance as an indicator of motivation and likelihood of future achievement, and then investing resources into those students, to help them continue to be successful.

So in order to be true to a major institutional goal, community colleges cannot always be efficient. Community colleges must -- must! -- treat all comers as if they exhibit an equal level of potential. Community colleges must be blind to past screw-ups. They must not stop helping students when they fail. Unfortunately, this can seem frustratingly sloppy from an administrative perspective. Community colleges provide a service that is noble but inefficient, and the inefficiency is intrinsic. While certain details can be tweaked and improved, they should not be altered radically at their core, at the risk of abandoning the underlying mission.

Ultimately a library collection is also inefficient. Over the years, a library collects resources that unfortunately go unused, despite the best judgements of highly-degreed professionals. Sometimes the library purchases something and nobody looks at it immediately, but after time it becomes highly sought-after. Or not. There are techniques that can limit how often this happens, such as patron-driven acquisitions, but even a collection based exclusively on stated curriculum goals might not see 100% usage. We are stuck with some intrinsic inefficiency, and from an administrative perspective this should not be regarded as something wrong with the library. (Unless we're going to characterize all inefficient processes as problems. Which is irrational, right?)

A community college library is certainly no research library, nor am I advocating becoming a book museum, but part of our mission is still to maintain materials relevant to our patrons.We can teach information literacy until we turn blue, but what are we recommending if the library doesn't have what students need?