Category Archives: info*nation

Librarians and Code

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New librarians, or librarians still in school, often ask me how they can get a job like mine. I think this is probably a question all librarians get, but mine comes with an extra question: “should I learn to code?”

My answer to this has always been something along the lines of: “Well, no.” I know many people would say the opposite.

I don’t think code is important to my job because I do not write code. I shouldn’t write code, actually…I have colleagues who are responsible for any code that might come near me. Code is not my territory. So no: you don’t need to code to be a librarian who works in tech. Content management systems handle the HTML. You won’t be the one messing around with CSS, probably. If you work in larger library, in any case. Librarians are usually not the best qualified people to tweak stylesheets or write software. Those things are halmarks of a whole other profession, actually. If you learned a tiny bit of code, the truth is, you’d be a terrible coder anyway.

But still: there’s something there. Lots of folks in my shoes would say the opposite: yes! Dear god, yes, please learn to code! I genuinely have no idea who’s right and who’s wrong here.

My feeling on this is that librarians who picked up code learned a lot by doing so, and think that others will learn the same things if they too pick up code. And that might be true. But in the end, the code isn’t the thing. The code is a catalyst for the thing that’s really valuable for a librarian. Somehow the process of learning even a tiny bit of code might be the easiest way to understand the basics of how the internet works, and that understanding helps you to ask better questions, form better plans, make more realistic requests, and integrate your services and your collection more thoughtfully into the wider digital world. But the code isn’t what does it: the code is just the catalyst. Right?

My fear, I suppose, is that in this drive to learn code, someone will actually just focus on the code and will miss the catalytic moment. Because we’re not being very clear about what we actually need you to learn. We haven’t specified. I’m not even sure I know how to articulate it all even now. We need you to understand what’s possible, and what’s impossible. How data travels and is taken up into new places. You need to know that it’s not magic, it’s just content drawn out and drawn upon. You need to really understand what “database-driven” means, and be able to apply that knowledge. You will probably get that from learning some code. But I think it might be more efficient to be clear about the kinds of lessons we need you to learn from it.

And I suspect it’s possible to learn those things without code specifically. I think learning by doing, by figuring things out, is probably going to work for most people, but what are you figuring out? It’s a set of problem-solving skills, it’s not a skill at coding, necessarily. And some people get that understanding it other ways altogether. I know several outstanding library leaders who never learned code at all, but can make rational, thoughtful decisions around tech. I think they just listen to the people they hire, to be honest. They trust the people who understand it better than they do.

But I suspect code will get the majority of folks where they need to be. I suspect that’s true. But it might be the hard way. I’m not sure. Either way, it’s true they need to get there, one way or another.

Maybe I’ve been giving bad advice all along. Or good advice. I have no idea.

Reading, Paper, and e-readers

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I’m frustrated by the current state of research that claims that we read better and retain more from paper than from an ereader, and that this is because of the form, that somehow we need the permanency of paper in order to form memories of the plot of a novel. This makes zero sense to me, but I’ve heard this argument enough times at this point. Fortunately Spark did an episode that investigated this, and came to a better conclusion.

If you gave someone a short story and told them to read it in an empty library, you’d probably get a better result than taking someone to an empty carnival and telling them to read a short story there. Not because the empty library is quieter than the empty carnival, or because libraries are just naturally better places for reading. It would be because the person walking into a carnival isn’t prepared and primed for reading while the person walking into the library is. We already know this is true; this is why they tell you not to bring your computer to bed with you to finish up some work, because if you do work in bed on a regular basis, when you go to bed your head will be primed for work rather than sleep.

So I have doubts that these experiments with ereaders and books are telling anyone which form is better for the reading experience per se. It’s only telling us that people are currently primed to think of computers/tablets/screens as things to watch movies on, or play games on, or browse the internet on. Most people are not primed to consider a screen a reading surface.

But some people are. Some people read on screens all the time, for academic work or for fun. For books that don’t and won’t exist in paper, there are audiences who have already made the switch. They must have other cues that prime them for reading from the same screen they use for other tasks. Of course, readers of online books are always sitting in the bookstore as they read. If they don’t like the turn a story takes, I suspect they will back-button out quicker than a paper-book reader will give up on a book they’ve borrowed or purchased. With online novels, there is always a universe of other stories waiting if the current one doesn’t suit.

I would be interested to see studies like this done with more context. How do those who read fiction on a screen all the time fare against people who don’t? As ereaders get into the hands of more and more people and reading ebooks becomes just as common as reading any other kind of book, do the results change? If a person starts reading an ebook and has poorer comprehension results, do those results improve after a month of reading ebooks? A year?

I remember in the late nineties there was some discussion about how to talk about interaction with the internet. Browse won, but I remember someone on the news talking about “looking at the internet,” or “watching the internet.” As someone who was already far beyond “watching” or merely “looking” at digital material, I cringed. You can watch things online, that presenter wasn’t wrong. You do look at stuff on the internet. That guy saw a screen that looked a lot like a tv, and transferred the language and the modes of thinking to it. He was a passive viewer of internet content, and that’s how he framed his experience.

Ipads are not about being looked at, they’re about being interacted with. An ipad in particular is the first device to fit into that strange niche between smartphone and computer, a device driven entirely without a proxy roller ball or mouse or stylus or keyboard. You touch the content and it reacts. It’s an engagement device, not a device to be looked at or watched (though you can look at and watch things on ipads, too). It doesn’t really surprise me that giving a bunch of people ipads or ereaders doesn’t yet prime people to sink into deep contemplative thought. People are still primed to look at how their physical touch is interacting with digital activity.

Likewise, I wonder if anyone’s done any experiments on audiobooks. Read a page, hear a page: is one better than the other? I suspect it’s what you’re used to.

For many years I’ve been painfully aware of the anti-ebook league who are extremely keen to point out how inferior ebooks are. I know there was a similar group who objected to the written word in the first place (“if you don’t need to memorize it, everyone will become a gibbering idiot!”), and then to the printing press (“Bad! Cheap! Sloppy!”). While I still have a too-steady stream of paper books coming into my house, I’m glad books are going digital. To me, the story, the information, the content is the most important thing. Digital text isn’t limited by its font size. It can be read aloud by a screenreader. It can be translated by a braille display. I can twist it, add more notes to it than it contains in the first place. Like Dickens did it, it can be delivered serially. Digital text might mean more text, and to me that’s a plus.

Fear and Metaphors

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Being the odd sort of academic librarian that I am, with no real connection to books, I end up spending perhaps more time than most thinking about what academic librarianship is at its core. I don’t have a lot to take for granted as markers of my librarianship (reference, collection development, instruction, for instance, none of those), but you can find the roots of the profession in what I’m doing nonetheless…as long as you’re prepared to let go of the obvious, and consider what the obvious actually means.

Early on I learned that academic librarians are, more often than not, the layer between the patron and the complicated, ever-changing tools and resources they have to wrestle with in order to get their work done. We stood as the interface for scholarship for a long time, the door through which any academic or student would need to pass through in order to find and use scholarly literature. We made it easier to sift though. We gave advice about sources and materials. We connected patrons with a need with the resource that would fill (or overflow!) it. When computing arrived on the scene, we were often the layer between the patron and the technology, too. Libraries (academic and public) have long been a sure place where patrons can get access to new technologies and get help using it.

I think that’s a really powerful way to view librarianship, and one that I find personally very inspiring. Librarianship if often the liquid that fills up the spaces between two things that need to fit together but often don’t quite do so as intended.

As a librarian who works exclusively with online tools as opposed to publishers or physical media, I’ve taken that idea to heart. Not only do I see myself as a kind of gateway between the wild world of collaborative and communication technologies and the faculty who need them, but I also see it as my role to give patrons the tools they need to approach that world and put its innovations to good use in their teaching and their research.

The natural answer to this problem is to provide training, but that’s not where I think this work starts. Jumping to training and writing instructions is skipping two fundamental steps along the way. If it’s my job to be the layer between online technologies and patrons who need them, to communicate between one and the other in the languages they both understand, I need to prepare both sides for each other, and I need to invent a language to help them understand each other. I need to create the circumstances that will foster effective innovation and meaningful change.

Is that training? Knowledge? To some degree, sure. But as I say, I think we’re making too many assumptions when we jump straight to training and skill-building, as if that’s the gap to fill.

The first real hurdle to overcome isn’t a lack of knowledge. It’s fear.

Tools designed to be used by the general population are, in general, not all that complicated. Anything can be difficult before you understand how it works, but none of it is really that hard, and i think everyone knows that. The difficulty of using tools isn’t the thing that prevents innovation and change. Fear is.

Fear of what? Of getting it wrong; of looking stupid; of making a mistake that breaks everything; of not knowing all the answers; of being embarrassed in front of colleagues, TAs, students; of not know how to help students use the tool you’ve asked them to use; of creating too much work for yourself; of failing to think through all the consequences of using a tool, and having to scrap months and months or work because you dug yourself into an impossible hole; of having to do it all over again; or it vanishing, crashing, falling off a table and bursting into flames. All kinds of things. This is low-level fear, a niggling kind of fear that, if spoken aloud, is often easily dismissed. But it doesn’t get spoken aloud, and instead it festers and prevents patrons from taking risks. We don’t talk about fear in the context of library services, and we don’t tend to think of ourselves as alleviating fear. Sometimes we do the work of fear reduction quite by accident, without realizing that that was the great value we offered. But other times we don’t address the fear at all, and often we make that fear worse.

There are any number of ways to reduce fear. What I’ve found in my own work is that if I demonstrate my competence with the tools in question (often just by seeming knowledgeable, or passing on information, or being helpful), by showing interest in and respect for their skills and knowledge, by not being judgmental, and then make sure patrons know that I am here to help them no matter what, that’s a good start. I tell them what they need to know when they need to know it instead of waiting for them to hit a bump in the road. I put up the signposts and draw them maps so they always feel sure when they put their feet down on the ground. And should the worst happen in spite of all our best efforts, I will personally dig them out of whatever kind of hole they manage to fall into. Knowing all this, and seeing that it’s all true,patrons will take risks. They will innovate, they will experiment. If they know the ground beneath their feet is solid, they will start to run.

I didn’t know I was in the fear reduction business until I started to really look hard at what was happening in my daily work. Where innovation is occurring on my watch, it isn’t always because the instructor now has better tech skills or more technical knowledge. But they certainly have more confidence in using the tools available. They are more willing stretch.

Reducing fear is critical; but the other piece of being the layer between the patron and the big complicated thing (whatever it is) is coming up with a language so that the patron can make sense of it. It’s a matter of making the affordances of a system or tool or technology plain. Again, the standard answer to this is often training and skill-building, but I’d hesitate. You can’t jump right to training, that’s not enough. I think the answer starts in metaphor.

If you don’t know what a tool thinks it is, you won’t know how to use it. Email is as successful as it is, I would argue, in large part because of it’s watertight metaphor. It’s just system messages sent to a particular registered user, but once you call it mail, everyone who’s ever seen a mailbox full of letters and newspapers knows what it does. You send it and receive it; you open it, you read it, you store it or throw it out. You can get packages that contain things. Your mailbox is only so big and can only fit so much stuff in it. Calling it mail provides an insight into the affordances of email, and helps everyone understand what it is and use it. I think this is why many people who are afraid of online technologies usually have no fear of their email. They tend to use their email for everything. You’ve met those folks who send themselves email as a kind of task list, right? They “read” each message when the task done. The people I know who do this don’t tend to be hugely tech savvy, but they understand how this one tool works, they get its metaphor, and they’re ready to twist it into any shape to suit their needs. That’s good innovation! But it only happens if the metaphor is solid.

Many of the tools and systems our patrons need to use don’t come along with such helpful metaphors. So part of the work of being the layer between them is to come up with the language for them so that patrons understand them and innovate their practice using them.

It’s like a giant whiteboard. It’s like a file folder. It’s like a rolodex. It’s a blank piece of paper you can pass around the room. What’s going to make sense to these people, in this place, with the backgrounds that they have? Librarianship has the capacity to be an incredibly creative profession if you take it as read that metaphor construction is a key part of the job. Our role is to help our patrons see the affordances of new tools, to help them find a way to be creative using them, and very often that requires a good, solid, relatable metaphor. If you know that a wiki is a blank note book anyone can write in, it’s much easier to imagine what you might use it for.

We used to be the layer that connected patrons with resources that would be impossible for them to find otherwise. Now we can be the layer that provides the metaphorical scaffolding that unlocks functionality for our patrons and allows them to be creative. While we used to hold the literal keys to resources, we can now unlock resources that are already available by housing them in a metaphorical framework that will make sense to our community. And by reassuring them that we’ve got their back.

The Power of Data Visualization

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Today the UK officially observed Remembrance Day. As a Canadian, I’m very familiar with Remembrance Day. The ceremony itself is pretty much the same in the Commonwealth countries as it is here. As a Guelphite (Guelph being the birthplace of Lt. Col. John McCrae), I know In Flanders Fields off by heart, and have been part of an eery choir reciting it in unison. I’ve even once held a rifle on my shoulder pointed up into the air and fired it three times as part of a Remembrance Day ceremony when I was an army cadet (don’t ask, long story). I felt like I’d seen Remembrance Day from every possible angle.

Except for one.

Remembrance Day is all about veterans past and present. That I understand: I’ve always understood it that way. War is hell. I get it in that way that you do when you hope you never really get it, if you know what I mean. Canada lost 45,000 young lives to WWII alone. Worthy of noting, certainly. Worthy of the ceremony, I think. I understand why the UK and the rest of the Commonwealth mark Remembrance Day with so much solemnity.

But for Canada, the loss of those soldiers’ lives is the biggest and most devastating element of the World Wars. Not to say that life in Canada wasn’t impacted by the wars in many other ways, but by and large, honouring military personnel once a year to remember the wars makes sense. London had a very different experience.

Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 4.25.20 PMThis is a map of London with a red pin marking the site of every bomb dropped on it during the Blitz.  I’m familiar with the history of World War II, of course. I knew London was bombed in a concerted manner over an extended period of time. It’s one thing to have that knowledge; it’s quite another, I find, to see it mapped out like this. It’s one thing to know exactly how many bombs were dropped on London, and know how many days of constant bombing there were, and quite another to see it like this.

I honestly find it strange to observe Remembrance Day in London without any mention the suffering this city endured. Not just civilian loss of life, though that’s hardly insignificant, but what was certainly civilian terror night after night, the loss of neighbourhoods, and the loss of a tremendous amount architectural history. On this map I discovered that a bomb landed across the street from me. (That, I assume, explains the one 1950s structure across the road in a sea of Victorian terraces.) It’s so close it would have shattered all our windows, at least. My bedroom window overlooks where that bomb must have fallen. I can’t imagine the terror of waiting, night after night, to see if a bomb is going to fall on your house, or your neighbours’. And you look at that map and realize that everyone in London would have had the experience of a hearing a bomb that was heading for them. It would be hard to not being within close proximity of the spot where one (or more) fell. I have now learned that I even on a very slow and lazy day, I pass at least 6 different bomb sites just walking to a tube station or sauntering down the street. But there’s no mention of that trauma in the ceremonies. “Stiff upper lip,” they tell me. “The soldiers had it worse.” Okay. Sure. Maybe. It’s not a zero sum game, though. Look at that map. There are so many pins in that map you can’t even tell what you’re looking at.

This is the power of data visualization. It allows a human brain to make sense of information in a very human way. In a very personal way, sometimes, as I’m experiencing it.

I’m finding it challenging to be in this city, and love this city as I am increasingly doing, and not have strong feelings about how terribly it’s suffered in the recent past. It suffered before that, of course. There’s the conquests, the plagues, the fires that intermittently burned the whole place down. It was abandoned at one point in it’s history, then later reclaimed and rebuilt. But there’s also this damage, the Blitz, mapped out and modern, inarguable. I’m having a retroactive emotional reaction to the Blitz, is what. As if it just happened. All because of well-presented information.

This image is a screenshot of a completely fascinating project called Bomb Sight. It merges the 1940-1941 bomb census held at the National Archives with geographical information in public view. It’s amazing how bringing streams of publicly available data together seems to add a whole other dimension; it’s as if there’s something new being stated, even though the components are all well-known. I’m not sure how to characterize that new dimension, exactly; in some ways it seems like well-illustrated context, but there’s got to be more to it than that. Maybe it’s just the act of letting you hold a large amount of information in your head at the same time, letting you get a bird’s eye view of it in a way you can’t without the help of an accurate visualization. A table of dates and locations wouldn’t explain itself as well as this map does. It lets you see the forest in spite of the trees. It lets you make sense of it all in a very visceral way. I can work with this information, I can apply it and use that knowledge immediately; maybe that’s the extra dimension. It’s allowing me to take the next step without as much labour. It makes the reality of that data easier to see.

This is a plug for big data, for providing access not just to streams of information, but to the tools that allow people to combine them and work with that data in ways that make sense, without having to be an expert on the systems. It’s also an acknowledgement that data can change the way you understand a place, or an idea, or a ceremony, in a very heartfelt and immediate way.

You are indomitable, London. We won’t forget that, either.

Space and Audio

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I feel like this is a bit of a tangent, but I keep noticing these things, and I keep thinking they’re interesting. It’s my research leave, right? So I should investigate the things that strike me as worthy of observation, shouldn’t I?

The thing I keep noticing, and keep being intrigued by, is how various services and spaces make use of audio to provide  critical information.

As I’ve expressed before, I’m very impressed by the signage on the London Underground. I will have to delve into this again more thoroughly, because I still find it very inspiring. The thing I immediately liked best about it was that it delivers small pieces of information to patrons exactly when they need it, and not a second before. It also works to provide “confirmation” signage, the sole purpose of which is to reassure the patron that they’re in the right place. I’m generally excited to see any acknowledgment of the emotions associated with an experience built right into the placement and content of signage; fear is always a key factor, in public transit as in library services. With the pressure to keep people moving along platforms, through long tunnels and up stairs in crowded and busy tube stations, it makes sense that the London Underground would place so much emphasis on answering patron questions exactly in the places where those questions get asked so that no one has to stop, block traffic, and figure out whether to turn right or left.

That’s not the end of the information-giving. Once on the train itself, there are maps on the walls of the entire line, so you can watch your  progress. There are digital signs telling you where you are and where you’re going. This is surely enough, but on top of all this, there’s a voice that tells you where you are, which stop is next, where the train terminates, and, famously, to mind the gap.

It’s overkill, surely. I can see the map, I can see the station names on the walls of the stations as they appear, I can see it on the digital sign. Is it there purely for those with visual impairments? Possibly. But it also infuses the space with very reassuring information that’s frankly easy to ignore if you don’t need it, and easy to cling on to otherwise. Even if I know where I’m going, it marks my progress and punctuates a relatively dark journey with no real views (most of the time). It supports the written information and pins it not in space, but in time.

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I’m a fan of Westminster chimes. I grew up with them; my parents had (and still have) a mantel clock that chimes every fifteen minutes, day and night. Lots of people find that horrifying, but I don’t. It’s reassuring to me. I don’t especially trust my internal clock; sometimes three minutes feels like ten, and an hour feels like five minutes. When you wake up in the night you feel like you’ve been lying there awake for hours. But the Westminster chime grounds you in reality: I’ve only heard it go off once since I’ve been awake, so I’ve only been awake for fifteen minutes, tops. I like how the chime infuses space with the knowledge of how time is passing. The sound changes from chime to chime; you can tell from the chime which part of the hour you’re in. It’s an audio version of a physical object. It’s an ancient means of providing ambient information.

I think the voice on the tube is similar. It’s providing me with ambient knowledge that I can half ignore.

There was a documentary, or news piece some time ago, about the unlock sound on an iPhone. The sound is gone from OS7, but until recently, there was a very specific, very metallic sound always accompanied the action. You can’t feel it unlocking, since an iPhone uses only software keys. But there had to be a sound so we could understand what was happening, and to be assured the action was successful. In place of a sensation, a sound for reassurance. A sound to make a digital action feel real.

Libraries are generally aiming to be silent spaces. Having things announced is a nuisance to most people. I think it’s possible that audio cues have a place in the good functioning of a library; it’s just a matter of being supremely thoughtful about it and determining what kinds of ambient information is valuable to patrons, and what kinds of audio cues would be comforting rather than annoying. There’s also the question of placement; there are no voices telling me things when I’m walking through tunnels and following signs, but there are when I’m heading up an escalator, or sitting inside a train waiting for the right moment to head for the door.

My parents have been visiting me for the last few days, so we went on a few city tours on open-topped double-decker buses. I seem to recall seeing these kinds of buses drive past me, with a tour guide shouting into a microphone. Those days are gone. Now they give you cheap earphones, and you plug into the bus to hear a pre-recorded tour in the language of your choice.

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This struck me as kind of genius. The pre-recorded tour told me stories and history about the places I was looking at; it wasn’t ambient information, it was a packaged lecture based on my choice of language and volume, and the location of the vehicle I was sitting in. Initially I assumed it was hooked up with GPS so that it would play based very specifically on location, but I discovered when we got cold and came inside the bus that the driver was pressing a button to advance the script. I found that oddly disappointing. I liked the idea of a system tracking traffic and our location and giving me stories based on it. It’s a shared experience, but it’s personal. It’s utterly silent to the people around you, but immensely informative for the people listening. It’s carefully planned and thought out, and no piece of the story is forgotten. The recorded tour goes on all day, and you can jump on and off the bus where you like. That means you can listen to the tour over and over again and pick up the things you missed without asking a human tour guide to be at your disposal. That got me thinking too. How can we help pace information to keep it in line with the place a patron finds herself?

I’ve seen similar things on a different and more self-driven scale. The Murmur project in Toronto placed ear-shaped signs all over to Toronto with phone numbers on them which played stories about that spot to the caller. We can do better than that now with QR codes or just URLs, since smart phones have become so ubiquitous.

One of the very best examples of audio in libraries I’ve seen is the pre-recorded audio push-cubes in the Rama public library. You know those teddy bears with audio buttons in their hands? Or cards with audio that plays when you open them? You can buy those devices empty now, with 20 to 200 seconds of space for audio. They’re cheap, and they’re even reusable. In an effort to expose children to the Ojibwe language in order to preserve it, the brilliant Sherry Lawson of the Rama Nation uses the cubes to record words and phrases, and places them in relevant areas in her library. A patron can approach an object, see it’s written Ojibwe name, then press the cube to hear it spoken. She is providing ambient exposure to the children of the reservation by inserting her voice and her language in places where they can easily interact with it.

Perhaps it’s Mike Ridley’s fault for introducing me to the concept of a post-literate world, but there’s something about getting audio information in situ that really appeals to me.  Where it provides new information, I think it’s fascinating, letting people lift up the dog ear on a place and see a whole new world underneath. Where it focuses on reassurance, I think it provides a critical service in allowing people to feel found and safe. This is technology that isn’t infrastructure; it’s a bolt on, an ambient addition, and a simple and cheap one at that. Letting audio form a feeling: that’s the kicker, for me.

Navigation is Dead: Long Live Navigation

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For the last year or so I’ve been toying with the idea that website navigation is basically dead. Not to say that it’s not still important, but I’ve come to think about a website’s internal navigation structure (by that I mean tabs and dropdown menus, side navigation, that sort of thing) as the absolute final, last ditch, if-all-else-fails means by which the average internet user will find content on your website.

It’s possible I’m jumping the gun, but here’s why I’m increasingly thinking this way.

When was the last time you went to the front page of a newspaper’s site? Most of us read articles from newspapers online, but I suspect most of us don’t do so by navigating to the front page of their site. The latest navigation for newspapers and news organizations generally is probably Facebook, Twitter, and/or Tumblr. You don’t visit the front page, you follow a link someone’s posted in your path that strikes you as interesting, and read it there. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen the front page of the Guardian, for example (I certainly can’t conjure up an image of it), but I read Guardian articles all the time. I go in through side doors that directs me exactly where I want to be.

When I come home from work, I catch up on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. They’re on too late for me to watch live, so I watch the online versions via the Comedy Network or CTV. I have never once gone to the Comedy Network or CTV’s main site to find them. It’s way too many clicks that way. I just type “Daily Show Canada” into my Google search box and it takes me right there. I don’t even care if I’m watching it via the Comedy Network or CTV’s interface; I just click one of the links and get the content I was looking for.

There are some sites that are staples of people’s every day, and in that case, there are things you want on the page that make it easy for you to navigate around. For instance, your email: I don’t want to have to use a Google search to find my inbox and my sent mail. I want links to those. Functional links to things I use every day. Likewise, Twitter needs to put up clear links to my @replies so I don’t struggle to find those. But that’s inching into application design decisions rather than strictly navigation, I’d argue. And applications I use all the time every day are different than websites I use from time to time for information when I need them.

When I’m looking for this Historical Studies department on the UTM website, I don’t go to the main UTM front page. I don’t, even though I work there. I look at a lot of sites every day, and there is no one true classification method we can use that will always be clear to everyone. Every site is different, every site uses different metaphors to organize their content; how can I be expected to remember how any site has decided to arrange content to make it easy for me to find? I don’t remember what navigation decisions UTM made in it’s site design. I could take a moment to look at the site, scan it’s existing top level nagivation terms, use my critical thinking skills to work out where the department might be, or I could just type “UTM historical studies” in my Google search box and be done with it. Type and enter, and click. That’s way easier on the brain than trying to understand someone’s thoughtfully-designed navigation structure.

When I say things like this, people remind me that I’m in the rarefied world of academia, for one (true), and that my job title includes the word “technologies” (also true), so my perspective on browsing the internet based on my own experience and habits is highly unlikely to be universal (absolutely true). However, let me show you some  statistics:

Three Years of Web Stats

This is a graph of web traffic for the months of August and September for one page on our library’s website (http://library.utm.utoronto.ca/faculty/blackboard). It’s the front page for frontline support for courseware for instructors at UTM, and the portal to all our how-tos and instructions on using all the courseware tools available to faculty at UTM. We are a busy service, and get lots of questions and phone calls, so we know our instructors want and need this information. There has always been clear navigation to arrive at this page. We printed it on brochures, inside documentation we handed out, had it on business cards, etc. That clear navigation’s utility can be seen as the blue line in that graph, which is our data for 2010. Very low traffic, in spite of the fact that it’s a busy service. Those are the stats when we just put good content up and wait for people to navigate to it if they need it.

The red line in that graph is our data from 2011. That’s the year we stopped expecting people to navigate to the site, and instead emailed out short messages (we call them “protips”) when the questions are likely to come in. For instance, instructors usually ask us how to add TAs to their course websites somewhere around 5 days before the first day of class, so 6 days before the first day of class we send out an email to this page with instructions on how to add TAs to a course website. For the last week in August and the first couple of weeks in September, we send out nearly one message a day, with a tiny amount of information in it, and a link to this page. See what happened? That’s something like an 8000% increase in web traffic. This page became the second or third most hit page on our site. The internal navigation was exactly the same.

The green line in the graph is our data for 2012, and we were extremely surprised to see another 50% increase from the year before. We learned from our faculty that some of them had started to forward our messages on to colleagues on other campuses, which might account for some of it.

It’s not a revelation to say that publicizing a web page gets you more traffic; it’s probably the most basic of basics from web communications 101. We pushed content, therefore we got traffic. But it made me realize that, like me, other people are much more likely to dive into the interior of a website from the outside (in this case, from email) rather than trying to navigate through from the front page. Being directed to the one thing you need is way more attractive than wading through lots of useful but not immediately needful things in order to find the one thing you want. Obviously the need for the content in question is there; if our instructors weren’t interested, they wouldn’t be clicking on the link in the first place. They would just delete the message and move on. So the interest is clearly there and our traffic is growing.

At this point I think I could probably remove this entire section of our website from the main navigation and see absolutely no dip in traffic. I’m tempted to do that as an experiment, to be honest. I have a feeling no one would even notice.

So I’ve started to really question the basic utility of top level navigation. In a pinch, if you’re really lost and don’t even know what’s available or where to start, I can see it being useful. But for our client base, people we know and we know how to contact, I don’t expect my thoughtful navigation decisions to ever even register. I am building navigation for them through a variety of media, not just through our website as we traditionally think of it. Their interface to our website happens to come through email messages; it’s current, topical, and ephemeral. Their interface, essentially, is us. We dole it out over time and place it in the places where their eyes already are, much like my librarian colleagues and friends do when they post messages on Twitter and I click on them.

glass whiteboard calendar

It’s a weird way to think, but it’s where I’m sitting just now. I don’t want web traffic for the sake of web traffic; I want our patrons to have this information when they need it, and I realize I can’t change their behaviour to make that happen. I can’t rely on their need to bring them to me and muddle through my navigation to find it.  I can’t sit behind a desk/website with all the good news and wait for them to come see me. I want to answer questions before they have to be asked; I want to be on the path of their success, and that’s something they define. So I find and build up the navigation that demonstrably works for them, even if it’s unorthodox. In this case, the navigation that appears to work best for this kind of information and for this kind of audience is us, outlook, and our calendar of needful topics, and a series of targeted email messages sent out like clockwork every year.

There are of course many such solutions; or me, the key part of this whole experience was rethinking what navigation is and what it means, and to stop thinking in such two-dimensional terms. As creatures of the internet, as the majority of us now are, we find information in a wide variety of ways; top level navigation has got to be somewhere down at the bottom of the list.

Makey Makeys in the Library

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We’ve been experimenting with moving into Maker territory, and wanted to start introducing library staff to some outside-the-box computing. We struggled a bit with how to accomplish that until we stumbled upon Makey Makey. Not as complicated as a straight up arduino, and not requiring any specialized equipment, we thought the Makey Makeys could help staff understand how flexible computing can be, and how we can turn anything into an interface. Including apples, pennies, and each other.

Some video from today’s staff session:

Selling Identity: What Libraries Can Learn from Online Perfume Retailers

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I have never liked perfume. People tend to wear too much, it smells chemical and fake, and I figure we’re slathered in enough scent-bearing things (laundry detergents, shampoos, soaps, deodorants, moisturizers, and so forth) that I hardly needed to seek out another one. I mentioned this to a friend one day recently. I said, “I don’t like perfume.” And she said, “Really? I do.”

Not that I’m easily swayed or anything (I absolutely am), but I thought, huh. Have I considered this opinion in the last ten years? Maybe I should rethink my stance. I’ve been doing that a lot lately, rethinking my opinions of things.

It’s about this sabbatical I’m taking. (Seriously: it is.) I feel like my entire identity is up for grabs because of it. I mean, in part that’s the point. To look at everything with new eyes. Look at the world as if I’ve never seen it before. Question everything. My sabbatical involves spending three months living in London (not the one in Ontario). In order to live for three months in a foreign city, I’m going to need to pack my entire life into a suitcase, my entire identity, as it were, and go somewhere where almost no one knows me. I will be kickstarting myself. No expectations, no old rules. Everything I do will be deliberate. I’ve taken the concept of a sabbatical as a rarefied opportunity to start myself over, to decide afresh who I am and what my life is about. I know who I’ve been; without the comforting railings of the assumptions and judgements I’ve allowed to be built around me, who am I now?

The first thing I did was learn to make a soufflé. I know, I know. It’s odd. I’m just going with it.

So the question of perfume came up, and I decided to rethink my opinion. I did some research. I thought about it. I opted for oils over alcohol-based spray products. I discovered Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab.

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What’s interesting about BPAL is that what they’re doing is practically impossible. They have no bricks-and-mortar shop. They are entirely online, and they sell hand-blended, handcrafted perfume oils. How do they survive and be successful? How did something like this ever take off? How do you sell a smell over the internet?

But they do. That’s the interesting bit: they do. And I think the way they’ve managed to do it is an important lesson for librarians. (Bear with me here.)

BPAL makes and sells perfume oils, but they work only from very tight concepts. Their oils are in themes, and those themes resonate very deeply with their customer base. For instance: they have a series of perfume oils based on Alice in Wonderland and The Last Unicorn. These are the kinds of stories that we read when we were very young, when our senses were far more open; you read Alice in Wonderland and we can all but smell the mad tea party, the Red Queen, and the white rabbit. So BPAL creates scents in keeping with textual descriptions. The Bread-and-Butter Fly is made of thin slices of bread with butter, and it eats sugar and weak tea. (Guess what BPAL’s “Bread-and-Butter Fly” oil smells like?) They have another series called “Wanderlust,” and have created oils for a variety of cities, real and imagined. They have another series called “Sin and Salvation,” and have a perfume oil for each of the seven deadly sins. The concepts resonate, so people buy.  They created a catalogue of scents, but they also created a mirror; everyone searches through it looking for themselves. People want to find scents that mark them out as the people they feel they are (or want to be).

BPAL sells something ephemeral and incorporeal (scent) by tying it tightly to a strong concept, and we naturally seek out concepts that support our perceived (or aspirational) identities. I know it’s true for BPAL; you can read all the reviews of these unique scents, and lots of people will report liking the smell of one of them, but will say, “it’s not me.” They sell perfume oil, but what they’re really selling is identity markers. Identities.

They are hardly the first to do this, of course: most successful businesses apply something of this identity marketing. Starbucks clearly does; they sell an experience more than they sell coffee. They sell us the opportunity to be the sort of people who sit in a Starbucks with our laptops, thinking deep thoughts and staring out the window with a tall white paper cup in our hands. They have a tight concept, and either you buy in or you don’t. But it’s not about coffee, it’s about us.

There is a part of me that’s always thinking like a salesman. Not because I want to shill things, but because I see good things being misused and ignored out of habit. Things like library services, library spaces, and (let’s be honest) even librarians. They get taken for granted and misunderstood. Traditional library services, like reference, have been around for so long no one needs to justify its existence anymore. To its detriment, I feel. Good services that have a lot to offer need to be re-articulated from time to time to keep them valuable and visible. I think like a salesman in that I try to refashion the metaphors around good, solid, existing ideas in order to help people see them in new ways, and understand how to approach them. In order to help people understand how these services fit into their lives. So my fascination with selling a smell over the internet forces me to consider how what they’ve done applies to us.

Libraries build identities too, don’t they? Being the sort of person who goes to libraries, who supports libraries, who thinks big thoughts and knows how to seek help and get it. The sorts of people who spend their afternoons in the library, working hard. Working with others. Finding information. Getting a good grade. that’s an identity too. How can we let our patrons use us to define themselves? How can the process of our patrons relating us to their identities help them to understand our services better? A smell, in the end, is just a smell; the concept is only its carrier. What concept is carrying library services? Does that concept resonate on such a deep level that our patrons can’t help but understand how those services are relevant to them?

BPAL doesn’t cater to just one kind of person or personality. They have oils called “Old Demons of the First Class,” and “Hellfire.” In a section dedicated to fairy tales, they have one called “The Lights of Men’s Lives,” and smells like “the wax and smoke of millions upon millions of candles illuminating the walls of Death’s shadowy cave: some tall, straight, and strong, blazing with the fire of life, others dim and guttering.” They also have scents that smell like sheets hanging on a line in the sunshine. So many personalities can find their identity in that catalogue. Surely libraries are at least that rich.

Gamification and Education

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I’ve been hovering on the edges of “gamification” in the realm of education for a while now, sort of constantly on the verge of deep diving into the literature and the projects, but then I seem to be constantly getting dragged away by a million other things. I’ve wanted to be able to say more about it, because it feels very close to my own drives when it comes to tech in higher ed, but it’s markedly different in interesting ways.

I’ve been of two minds about the gamification movement from the start, though I feel under-qualified to actually state an opinion. My feeling about it, from the casual reading I’ve done so far, is that the concept has its heart in the right place in trying to replicate the engagement games engender in a formal learning environment, but that I’m not convinced we’re entirely clear on why games engender that engagement the way they do, or even that it’s one single thing that’s the same factor from game to game. But what do I know; maybe I’m just over-complicating things. I’m not a gamer myself, really, but I’ve been engaged in a pretty significant number of online communities that also exhibit the level of determined commitment that gamers do. If you can remove the game and still see the same behaviour, maybe the key to what we’re looking for isn’t strictly inside the game.

Then I found this:

In a recent blog post speaking out against the term ‘gamification’, [Margaret] Robertson wrote, “What we’re currently terming gamification is in fact the process of taking that thing that is least essential to games and representing it as the core of the experience. Points and badges have no closer a relationship to games than they do to websites and fitness apps and loyalty cards. They’re great tools for communicating progress and acknowledging effort, but neither points nor badges in any way constitute a game.”

“Gamification is the wrong word for the right idea. The word for what’s happening at the moment is pointsification. There are things that should be pointsified. There are things that should be gamified. There are things that should be both. There are many, many things that should be neither.” Margaret Robertson

You may be tempted to jump on board and trade your grades in for badges and call it a game. But this simple act doesn’t dramatically change the learner’s experience. Take some time to really understand what makes a good game great. Create a compelling narrative to pull your students through the course. Set up mentoring and collaboration opportunities such as those you encounter in games to enable learners to share what they know. And frequently chime in with feedback. Use those badges to chart progress, but meaningful instructor feedback is what will truly propel the learner forward.

On some level, higher education is already a game. The points are grades, and students are expected to gain as many of them as they can to level up and win. Many games have elements of grinding (where you do dull and not very challenging or inspiring tasks over and over in order to gain a level, set of skills, or gold that will unlock the next segment of the game experience); I suspect grinding is the part of gaming we have most successfully adopted at this point. We give students lots of activities they aren’t particularly engaged in and expect performance on them. That’s how education has worked for a long tim. We have a general motivation problem.

We attribute that motivation problem to all kinds of things; the classes are too large, faculty teaching loads are too high, too many students enter higher education simply for the certification of it rather than any desire to learn. I’m sure all of these things are true, but there are assignments that work in spite of all that, and students who get engaged even if there are 1000 students in the class with them.

Any work in examining motivation in any learning environment, formal, informal, gaming, affinity group of any kind, is valuable in the end to the end, I think. I don’t think there’s one answer here; I suspect there are a million answers.

I should schedule that deep dive now, shouldn’t I.