Monday, December 8, 2008

Learning? Commons

One of the latest trends in academic library spaces across the United States is the creation of Learning Commons. These spaces are generally created by renovating portions of existing libraries in an effort to efficiently serve the student patrons they serve. These spaces are designed to bring together multiple services in one central location where students can go in the pursuit of their studies.
Most Learning Commons (LC) spaces are designed with specific areas and services that meet the needs of the student patrons that use the academic library and Learnig Commons (LC). Most LCs contain spaces for quiet independent study and for collaborative group work and study. A large portion of the LCs will be made up of computer terminals and workstations, where students can come to study, write, e-mail, or search through the library’s resources. They also always integrate multiple service desks that cater to student needs: Technology help desks, Reference desk, Writing assistance desks, career services, and ILL desks. The entire design and service model is focused on the needs of the students and aims to aid them in their studies.
While these spaces are extremely useful for the patrons, some LC designs have recently been going too far. One of the ideas behind LCs is connecting students with the latest technologies to help further their education and ultimately their careers. This means the libraries spend a great deal of money and resources on newer technologies, including the many new computer workstations that go into the LC. The technologies are seen as necessary tools in the information gathering and education of the students. This all makes complete sense in the library setting; however, there are some technologies that seem out of place.
Some academic library LCs have been adding technology that does not seem to exactly fit into the library setting. There are a few libraries that have set up large HD televisions in their LCs along with “stylish” furniture. They proudly proclaim that students can come to the LC and sit back and watch CNN. Instead of utilizing technology to efficiently meet the students’ education needs, these libraries are utilizing technology to simply bring in more students. It seems the management teams of these libraries are more worried about driving up gate counts than with providing students with access to information and with the proper help in their education. In this case, it seems they have ended up creating a new student center where students can go to unwind rather than study. Someone should remind these places that gate counts are not everything. If more libraries continue to follow this trend, they could eventually lose their identity as efficient sources or access points to information. Technology can be a powerful tool in the process of learning and libraries are wise to utilize new technologies; however, libraries need to stick to the technologies that enable patrons with efficient access to information if they hope to maintain their identity as important information sources in the 21st century.

Omnipotent OPAC

With the proliferation of digital technologies and the advent of OPACs in many libraries around the world, there has been a dramatic increase the amount of somewhat personal information being gathered and stored. This pattern inherently leads to ethical questions of privacy and potential conflicts with patrons. This situation is not new; there are many companies that tract the websites an individual visits, stores the data, and attempt to use it by catering advertisements to their particular interests. The worst part of this trend is that during most of the instances that this information is being stored, it is being performed behind the scenes and unbeknownst to most people. As the cost of digital memory has decreased and the number of library institutions using OPACs has increased over the recent years, this trend has even spread to many people’s local library.
In order to use some OPACs, or at least in order to use certain services provided by the OPAC, many individuals need to log-on using their personal library card. After logging onto the system, any search or transaction that is made can be recorded in a database. The most typical use is to simply keep a record of what the individual has checked out to serve as a reminder to that individual of what he or she has read. While this may seem like harmless information, it does represent personal information that some people would rather not be kept. What is worse, most people are completely unaware of the potential for the recording of the information. This data gathering has taken on increased importance in recent years as any information stored by the library could be legally seized by the government under the Patriot Act. The question is how libraries should handle gathering this information.
One option would be to allow the OPAC system to automatically record and store the information for future use. If a particular patron decides they do not want this information stored on account of their privacy rights, they can notify the library staff, who can then turn off that option in the OPAC. The OPAC will then not record the data for this particular patron. Another method would be to allow this information to be gathered, but only store it for a short amount of time. This means that the library would protect all of its patrons’ privacy rights; however, this also means no one can enjoy the potential conveniences provided by the services based on the stored data.
Another option would be to initially turn off this feature on every patrons account so that there is no information automatically recorded or stored. The library could then make it known to their patrons that they have the option of allowing certain information about their accounts to be stored, which brings them certain conveniences and additional services. If they decide that they want this service and approve of that information being stored, they can opt into the service. The library staff can then turn on that feature to those who notify that they want to take part in it. This method has the benefit of protecting the privacy rights of patrons while allowing for those who are unconcerned with the privacy issues to take advantage of the conveniences offered by the service. This not only protects the patrons of a library, but also protects the library itself from any ethical dilemmas.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Free Ride Wi-Fi

As libraries struggle to remain viable institutions and aim to increase their gate counts, they often turn to technology to bring people back in. Many people view libraries as outdated sources of information; however, with technology costs declining, there are a number of things libraries can do to turn those views around. One such method is by providing patrons and the public with Wi-Fi access.
Wi-Fi is the most popular system for setting up a wireless network and has been set up in many locations, such as at malls, hotels, coffee shops, and schools. At many of those locations, patrons can pay a small fee or log on to access the wireless network and through it the Internet. Many libraries are realizing the use of these networks and have been setting them up for their patron. In many locations, the patrons need a library card and with that information they access the network by logging on. While this does provide the patrons with a valuable service, it seems that these systems could be put to better use.
There are some libraries that are offering free and unimpeded access to their Wi-Fi network to the public who come to their facilities. This decision to provide the public with free access to the internet without logging on could in fact be used as a sort of marketing tool for the library. Offering free and unimpeded access to their wireless network and the internet, the library could provide the public with an appealing deal. Instead of paying for Wi-Fi access at other sites or even paying for expensive Internet access at home, people might be willing to go down to the local library and access the Internet through their wireless network. Setting up the system like this could help attract people down to the library and help drive up the gate count. Then these institutions could set up the Internet access so that people using their Wi-Fi would be sent to the library’s website when they open up their browser. By developing a creative website that quickly showcases other services the library offers, the libraries could turn these people into regular patrons, helping them remain viable institutions.
In addition this service follows the mission statements of libraries and does it in a cost effective manner. Libraries are meant to provide their patrons with easy and unrestricted access to information no matter what the medium may be. Offering free access to the Internet through their Wi-Fi network, libraries are setting up a system that gives patrons free and easy access to the information found on the Internet. Fortunately, this can even be done relatively cheaply. The Orange County Public Library system in California was able to set up free wireless Internet service in all their branches for under $20,000. This makes this service a very affordable service for the library that also can be used to attract more patrons to the library itself. By putting down a relatively small sum of money, libraries are able to provide the public with a valuable service and attract new people to their institution at the same time. By tying this service with a sleek website, the library in effect implemented a cost effective marketing tool that can potentially drive up gate counts and help them remain viable institutions in their communities.

Transcending Authentication

While technology and computers are great, keeping them secure has become somewhat of a nuisance. In order to provide users with privacy protection, computers and software are increasingly in need of authentication with usernames and passwords in order to limit access. Over the years the Internet and other networks have allowed more and more companies to provide their patrons with remote access to their information and files. These websites include ones like Amazon, retail company sites, banks, financial trading systems, and medical insurance providers. As these companies utilize the Internet and provide their patrons with access from the Internet, large amounts of personal and private information have become accessible via this computer network. In order to ensure the security of this data, these companies require patrons to set up usernames and passwords with specific requirements. Many times, these requirements vary from company to company resulting in one person having a myriad set of usernames and passwords that are needed to access their information. Now, frankly, my memory sucks, so I am constantly forgetting my passwords and which one I use at which site. This unfortunately means that I am all too familiar with that “Forgot your password?” link, and it probably takes me just as long to log onto the website as it would to travel to the company’s nearest site.
It would be wonderful for everyone (OK, mainly for the likes of me) if computer security could move past all these troublesome passwords and offer other means of authentication. This is why my jaw dropped when I saw a description of Transcend’s JetFlash USB with fingerprint readers. These little gadgets, which are the same size as normal thumb drives and cost a comparable amount, read and analyze fingerprints as a means of verification. Instead of remembering a bunch of passwords, it would be amazing if I could just walk around with this little thumb drive, and when I am required to access secure information on a computer or over the internet, I could whip out my thumb drive, plug it in, and put my finger on it. It would then verify that I am actually me and allow me access to my information. There. No more wasting time over failing to remember passwords. Heck, I’d even carry around a retina scanner, if it would mean that I did not have to remember any more passwords. There seems like there are so many possible ways that could be used to provide authentication in the place of the old password system. Why haven’t they caught on yet? If they want to develop DNA readers for authentication, I will gladly submit to the bloodletting each time I log in as long as there are no passwords. I know many people will see these measures as an invasion of privacy or as some government conspiratorial plot. However, they should not stand in the way of progress, and if they want to remain tied to passwords, they will have that choice available. But for the rest of us that are simply hindered by this infernal passwords driven society, allow that progress to be made. Hopefully these biometric identification systems continue to come down in price and are eventually accepted by society. When done right, they represent a very secure authentication system that will have a much higher convenience factor, but they will still offer powerful protection of our personal information that needs to stay private.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Future IT Librarians

I believe I have mentioned before that technological advances have in fact created the need for librarians specially trained in using the technology effectively find pertinent information from the seemingly insurmountable amount of information and data present in modern society. I still believe this is true for today even as some believe that technology has negated the need for librarians. However, those pessimists might not be quite as wrong as I had previously thought. While technology has created a need for specially trained librarians in contemporary society, it seems possible that the current trends in technological advances points us in the direction of a situation or society that in fact does not need librarians in the sense that we think of today. Even if one argues that librarians will still exist, it seems that the characteristics of the job will have changed so much that a new job title would be warranted.
The current and historical trend in technology, including computer technologies, is to simplify the tasks and even the lives of humans and the current task of many librarians has developed into something similar, albeit more focused. Modern librarians generally make it their job to provide aid to patrons in their search for information, or in other words they strive to simplify the patrons’ searches for information. In most cases librarians are able to accomplish this by utilizing new and powerful computer technologies and databases. Librarians are in a constant search to find technologies that improve both the access to information and the efficiency of searching through that information. As it stands now, the technology is useful but generally still needs to be used by or have input from trained information specialists such as librarians, but this may not always be the case. Projecting these trends into the future highlights the potential dramatic changes that could develop out of those trends. If computer technologies continue to develop so there are very simple to use and simplify human tasks and lives and if librarians continue to seek out and use these increasingly less complicated but more powerful technologies, the need for specially trained librarians and information specialists could eventually dwindle to nothing. As future generations of databases and search tools become more powerful and effective and at the same time less complicated to use, the need for librarians as we understand them today will decrease. Projecting further into the future, as these technologies implement the use of artificial intelligence to aid in information searches, librarians will need to help those patients less and less.
However, as everyone is probably well aware, technology does not completely replace humans, especially when it comes to the maintenance of that technology. Technologies, including computer technologies, are not perfect and eventually break down in some way, which generates the need for specially trained humans to troubleshoot and fix them. In the case of computer technologies, specially trained IT professionals maintain the computer systems under their watch. This is in fact the direction the librarian profession seems to be on. As computer technologies increasingly enable patrons to search for information themselves, librarians increasingly are focused on maintaining and troubleshooting that technology. As they work more and more with the technologies in libraries and less with the patrons, they become something akin to IT professionals trained to maintain the sophisticated information search tools that may exist in future libraries.
Gulp. Looking ahead, I’d better take more Technology courses in LIS school.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The PRS-700 is here!

So who is the newest publisher on the block? Care to guess? Well, guess what…. It’s Sony! That’s right, Sony, the electronics giant. Alright, they are not technically a publisher but more like a digital book maker. Last week they announced the release of their new Reader Digital Book, the PRS-700 (sounds exciting, doesn’t it?), which will be available sometime in November. According to an article in the October 8, 2008 USA Today Section B by Marc Saltzman, this third-generation digital reader “is a svelte, 10-ounce e-book reader with a 6-inch gray-scale screen” that offers readers the ability to flip through pages by “swiping a finger horizontally across” a touch-screen. Apparently it is also equipped with an “impressive ‘e-ink’ technology” that “resembles real ink on paper.” This means that Sony has produced a digital book that closely resembles the older technology or traditional book, which is an interesting move that combines state of the art technology with centuries old technology. This combining of technologies can serve as a new model for libraries, which many people believe are becoming antiquated as a result of technological advances.
Sony’s new Reader Digital Book can offer libraries with a new avenue to reaching new patrons that may not have looked towards libraries for their digital book needs. In addition to traditional library holdings, libraries could purchase access to selections of digital books and then offer their patrons an alternative and cheaper access to this form of digital media. The library could have a relatively small number of these digital book units on hand to check out, and after deciding which e-book they would like to borrow or rent, they would take the unit to one of the special digital book kiosks in the library and download the digital book. They could then take the unit home and read the book in the exact same manner that they would have if they had checked out a traditional book. This would also work if certain patrons had their own PRS-700 units; these patrons either could visit the library and use the kiosk or could download a book from the library’s website. The library’s units could also be readily protected with software that limits the unit’s use with any system outside of the library’s. The issue of due dates could also easily be dealt with by programming the digital books to “expire” after a certain amount of time. These units paint a new picture of what future libraries might look like. So let’s buy them… how much are they?
One’s excitement for these digital books might drop after reading their $399.00 asking price. That rather hefty price-tag quickly makes this an unviable option for many libraries. Perhaps it would be possible to acquire less sophisticated units like the hypothetical PRS-700b version that doesn’t come with as many perks. This version could come without the large built-in memory that can store up to 350 digital books. It could also do without the fancy search buttons that allow you to “find words or phrases” and without the ability to “make notes via fingertips or the bundled stylus pen and soft keyboard.” Whether the library gets these cheaper models or whether they wait for the prices to come down, if the price of this technology were slightly cheaper, the Reader Digital Books could have a tremendous impact on libraries. For one, this digital media and hardware would not take up a lot of space in the library’s facilities. Also, as stated before, this could easily open up new ways for the library to reach out to tech savvy people who may not have otherwise even considered the library for their digital needs, thereby helping to ensure that libraries remain important and exciting institutions well into the future.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Vicious Technology Circle for Libraries

As libraries struggle to retain current and attract new patrons, one of the most effective means available to them is by purchasing and offering the newest technologies. Many libraries invest in these new technologies to keep people coming to their institutions in order to remain viable libraries. However, this strategy seems like it could easily become a vicious cycle that in essence traps libraries into spending large portions of their budgets technology that can quickly become outdated.
In a time when libraries are increasingly competing for attention in a world saturated by a wide variety of media and entertainments, libraries are always searching for ways to attract new and old patrons to their doors. This search often leads libraries to the decision to purchase new and exciting technologies to help generate interest or excitement in local libraries, which in turn helps libraries maintain higher traffic numbers. While this may in fact attract some people to the libraries, it also starts to place the priorities of libraries in different places. By focusing on providing new technologies, these libraries are placing technology over the information libraries can provide people. In a general exaggeration of what is going on, some libraries are beginning to provide access to new technologies rather than providing access to information, which has always been their default mission statement. This is in essence changing the libraries’ mission or raison d’ĂȘtre to one that puts more emphasis on newer technologies than on information and information access. These technologies include new hardware and a wide assortment of software, which includes operating systems, security packages, database systems, and some entertainment applications. While I am not saying providing people with access to newer technologies is wrong, I am somewhat afraid at what the cost of that access is taking away from other aspects of the libraries.
Even though technology is extremely important and helps drive our species forward, it has one large drawback in that it can cost quite a bit of money and then quickly becomes outdated. The pace of technological innovation in our society is simply astounding, and what is seen as new and exciting today very quickly becomes old news and outdated in a relatively short amount of time. One can purchase the most up to date computer with the newest software for a large chunk of change, and within one or two years, that equipment is no longer considered advanced and can even be inadequate in many circumstances. While this is the reality of the technology scene and is something we all accept, it can prove to be problematic for institutions like libraries. Many libraries operate on very limited budgets and as many places deal with dwindling patron visits in these uncertain economic times, those budgets may shrink even more in the near future. In order to attempt to drive up their gate counts, many libraries use their budgets to invest in certain areas that will help drive up their patron traffic, and this often leads libraries to invest in the newest technologies, which can be attractive to the general public. While this may help at first, that technology can quickly become outdated, leaving the libraries in the same position they were in a couple years ago. At this point some are driven to spend more of their budgets to make themselves appealing to the public again (at least for another couple of years). This obviously can become a vicious circle quite quickly and can easily tie up a large percentage of libraries’ operating budgets. This money being repeatedly spent on updating technology to bring in more people takes away money from acquiring more books, information, and access to other form of information, which has always been the main focus of libraries. While it would be wrong to say libraries should refrain from investing in new technologies, it is important that library directors remain aware of the potential pitfalls are and seek to reach a balance between new technology and new information and information access. In this way libraries can remain an important and exciting part of our communities without falling into the trap of continuously paying out money to obtain the newest technologies which can quickly become obsolete.