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Is Technology Changing Our Brains? The Wednesday Keynote

Josh Hanagarne

Josh Hanagarne

Josh Hanagarne, Librarian, Salt Lake City Public Library, and Author, The World’s Strongest Librarian, returned to IL after his inspiring closing keynote last year to keynote the final day of IL 2014, asking the rhetorical question, “Is technology changing our brains?” He then immediately answered it with another question: “Who wouldn’t say that technology has changed our brains?”

He has spent a lot of time learning to have an attention span because of his Tourette’s syndrome affliction.  For nearly 20 years, Hanagarne read 200 to 300 pages every day.  Then in 2008, he enrolled in an MLS program, completing two years worth of courses in one year. During that year, he spent more time online than he had ever spent before. He found that after his college study, it became harder to read what he wanted to for leisure. His brain had changed; suddenly he had to pay close attention to everything. He also noted that TS Eliot observed a similar effect:

TS Eliot Quote

This is an example of technology changing a brain.

If you can, think about what your brain does. When you wake up in the morning, everything is recognizable because of your brain. It stores our past and is our decision-making machine. We do well to pay attention to it when it changes. Most of us do not feel that our memory is as good as it used to be. If our memory deteriorates, what do we do? Working memory is what you hold in your head to get something done. Long-term memory is like a file cabinet. The ability to remember is dependent on getting as much working memory into the cabinet as possible.

What characterizes the brain of an addict? Addiction is a hyper-association with something that makes you feel better than it should. It is an unwillingness to be uncomfortable, once you get to the point where you need it. Internet addiction is real. You can log in to Facebook wishing you were doing something else. What would fighting Internet addiction look like? If you feel loneliness and jealousy more frequently (one result of Internet addiction), that is a change in your brain. Does it change our habits? Of course it does! Does it change the way we think about ourselves? What do we mean by that? What if technology limits the way we can think about ourselves? Does it change the nature of experience? It can. Do you go on a hike just to share a photo of going on a hike? Do you get excited because something is happening or because you can share it?

If you strip images out of conversations you rob them of their emotional power. If we are scanning documents we lose the power to generate images in our heads. The most important question we can ask ourselves is how something works, which is necessary to solve any problem.

What does it mean to know something? Knowing where an answer is can feel like knowing an answer. Shame on us if that means you do not know anything besides where the answer is. You must be able to engage with ideas.

What might this mean for libraries? Is something useful if it’s not being used (such as books)? What are libraries for? What is actually at stake is freedom in our mental environments. A library exists to be a symbol of unasked questions and to make people free to ask them. It is a chance to encounter all the questions we may not have the opportunity to ask. There is no off switch to adaptation. By asking questions, you will get better. Our mission is to keep as many minds in the game as possible, both personal and professional.

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Libraries and the Internet of Things: The Tuesday Evening Session

Lee Rainie

Lee Rainie

Lee Rainie, Director, Pew Research Internet & American Life Project and Co-Author, Networked: The New Social Operating System (MIT Press, 2012), spoke on the Internet of Things (IoT) at the popular Tuesday evening session.  He began with the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the IoT:

“Development of the Internet in which everyday objects have network connectivity, allowing them to send and receive data”

The big change with the IoT is that our connected stuff will be helping us: machines interacting with machines.

Here are some of the effects of the IoT on libraries:

  • It is the 4th digital revolution in libraries (after mobile, social, networking).
  • It will reshape who librarians are and what they do.
  • Everything will have an IP address, which will reconfigure library spaces and media.
  • It redefines the role of libraries in their communities.

The Aspen Institute recently issued a report, Rising to the Challenge, which describes the re-envisioning of public libraries.  Pew Research has also issued a similar report presenting the results of a survey in which 2,800 experts gave their opinions on the greatest effects of the IoT on society in general.

Major Effects of the IoT

Major Effects of the IoT

Rainie showed a fascinating video from Corning Glass showing some of the far-reaching effects of the IoT.

In a new Pew Research survey, one question asked what would be the most significant effects of our uses of the Internet on humanity between now and 2025.  The general conclusion was that the Internet will become like electricity–less visible but more deeply embedded in people’s lives for both good and ill.  And when asked whether the IoT will have widespread and beneficial effects on everyday lives of the public by 2025, and overwhelming majority (83%) of the respondents said that it would.  The upsides will be enhanced health, convenience, productivity, safety, and vastly more useful information.  Downsides include privacy challenges, over-hyped expectations, technical complexity, and lagging human adaptation to new realities.

Here are some examples of applications of the IoT:

  • Wearable monitors for babies
  • Smart medicine dispenser caps to remind you to take your medicines
  • Get the most of your medicines–pill sensor
  • Monitor family members
  • Make sure the oven is off–smart outlets
  • Track down lost keys
  • Avoid disasters–monitor remotely
  • Water plants to keep them alive
  • Trash bins signaling when they’re full
  • Pollution warnings
  • Share your findings–“aircasting”
  • Monitor pollution
  • Track water quality
  • Help protect wildlife
  • Advanced warning of mudslides etc.
  • Know the variables (tweeting bumblebee) in other locations
  • Monitor trees to detect illegal movement

Potential applications of the IoT for libraries center around three major areas: people, place, and platform, as follows:

  • People: technology experts, visionaries for the knowledge economy, experts in sense making and context, curation of relevant material, monitors of algorithms and lifelong learning.
  • Place: physical space is changed, artifacts are connected with data, test beds, community information and media stewards (server farm operators).
  • Platform: Community Resources: trusted institution and privacy watchdogs, advocates for free and open information and for closing digital divides, maintenance of data and collection repositories, enablers for entrepreneurs, civic specialists, issuers of credentials.
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Make Your Website User Experience Rock

David Lee King

David Lee King

David Lee King presented some easy to implement tips and tools to improve the user experience of a website.  He uses the “3 Cs”: construction, content, and customers.

  1. Construction
    Mobile: Almost 3/4 of the population of the US (our audience) owns smartphones. Over 1/2 of the older generation owns a smartphone. Will our website confuse them? On the average, people spend 130 minutes/day using a smartphone. So first design your site for a mobile display and then for a larger screen.
    Consistency: Have a site build that is consistent with good websites today. Use white space, put a navigation bar at the top, and full address and phone information in the footer.
    Measure: Use analytics to guide training and improvements. Quanatities to measure include the number of users, time spent on the site, and specific conversions (what users found out about on the site).  Measurements should match what is going on in the library and its goals.
    Ease of use: Make your websites as easy to use as a light switch.
  2. Content
    Make sure your content is conversational. (Type like you talk.) Think like a reporter and use the pyramid style: put the most important concept at the top so people can get information at a glance. (The BBC does good headlines.) Stress benefits,not features. (Librarians tend to talk about features.) Put prominent buttons to direct the customer what to do next. Increase focus by removing clutter.
    Social media: Let people share on your website. People using social media are our direct customers. Make sure your sites have solid social connections. Use share buttons, provide ways to comment, give buttons telling customers how to connect with you.
    Destination: Our websites should also be considered destinations. The site must have things for customers to do, just like a physical library. Where is the only place you can find the full collection of everything in your library? It’s in your catalog, i.e., your ILS system, which is why our websites are so important. We spend so much money on digital stuff that we must make it easily accessible.
  3. Customers
    Put customers first. If you are designing your site for everybody, you are probably designing it for nobody! Know your users. Don’t treat all of them like beginners! Add visual elements so people know what’s going on. Gather user feedback. Ask questions–use surveys, Facebook, focus groups, etc. The best three questions to ask are what’s working well, what seems clunky, what’s missing.

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Engaging Stories Info Blitz

This session featured four librarians presenting rapid-fire descriptions (pecha-kucha style) of how they have reached out to their communities to engage library users.

Why Teach Coding

Gabrielle Doyle from the Calgary Public Library made a case for teaching kids in the library to write code using the Coder Dojo model. Libraries are a good environment for this because they are involved with digital literacy. Coding allows us to get involved in how information is presented and how it comes to us (see the quote above). Many online resources are available and some of them can be used face to face, which is important because it helps kids learn how to interact and socialize.

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News & Information, Community Curation, and “Data Alchemy”

Kenn Bicknell

Kenn Bicknell

Kenn Bicknell, Digital Resources Librarian, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), described how he used aggregation, curation, and “data alchemy” to provide information services to MTA employees, executives, and the public from his small library staffed by himself and his supervisor, who spends half his time in the library and the other half on records management.

The Los Angeles transportation system had fallen into disuse as the city grew and highways began to traverse it.  But as interest in the downtown area grew, a resurgence occurred, which was spurred by a 2008 tax increase to reinstate the system. This, coupled with the emergence of social media, provided the impetus for the library to launch a variety of information services.

Bicknell identified these opportunities and strategies for library professionals:

  • News aggregation and dissemination. An online clipping service using Blogger was originally created to deliver news to mobile platforms, but it had to be changed in 2008 to cope with the surge of interest in transportation. A Blogger-based service is like a newsstand, where readers cannot look at more than the cover of a publication. So the clipping service was migrated to paper.li, which allows people to create their own online newspapers based on Twitter feeds. (The MTA’s Twitter account is used only for disseminating news. The library pays for a premium account so it can have a customized background and a branded product.) The clipping service now has 4,000 subscribers every day. Featured content is provided so subscribers do not have to go to the paper.li account but can receive content that is directly hyperlinked to source.Creating Your Own Newspaper
  • Community curation allows partnering with other entities to preserve history. The MTA has a Flickr account containing historical images that were extracted from documents.  It has received 8.1 milllion hits over time. The images create conversation and storytelling opportunities.
  • Calendaring capabilities are used to modernize time lines from old newspapers (such as “This Date in History”). The online calendar has been responsible for the heavy usage of the Flickr collection. Entries have links to underlying documents or YouTube clips.
    Online calendarTiki-Toki was used extensively to create interactive timelines of small independent transportation companies that existed in the era before government operation, and PeoplePlotr was used to create an interactive “family tree” view of the data.
  • Mapping from photo metadata can be done using Historypin, which has an augmented reality component that interacts with Google Street View. A user can use a fade button to hide the historical image and see the contemporary view. It now takes video and documents as input. It also has a Tour option to lead people through a story in a particular order (The 1984 Olympics was used as an example). Collaborative opportunities include bonding with others and people telling their stories.
  • Digital data alchemy. Up to 2003, humans created 5 exabytes of data, but in 2010 we created that much data every 2 days. 10% of all photos ever taken have been in the last 2 years. There is a lot of data coming out of local communities, which is an opportunity for libraries to integrate themselves into them. GIS data layers show undetected spatial trends and relationships. and Infographics and data visualization software allows users to cherry pick the data they want to work with and create compelling graphics. Interactive transit kiosks to print maps, local information, instructions on how to buy a ticket, etc. were created. One of the first things Binn did after arriving at the library was to digitize all historic traffic plans and put them up on a website. The Getty Center expressed interest in this project and created an Overdrive exhibit which was recognized by the National Building Museum in Washington DC.  The museum created a large poster for its entrance hall from this data.
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Unifying the User Experience: Consistency With Content

Mark Noble and Jordan Fields

Mark Noble and Jordan Fields

Fields is Digital Services Librarian at the Garfield County Public Library in Rifle, CO  and Noble is Senior Developer of the Marmot Library Network which hosts an integrated library system and provides related services for public, academic, ad school libraries in Colorado.  They described how they solved problems that users were having locating materials, particularly e-books, in the libraries.  The best way to do that was to just start asking people where they were having problems.

Usability studies are very interesting and enlightening to find problems.  The main solution was to simplify the user interface wherever possible and integrate the catalog into the library’s website.  Here are two screenshots showing the resulting interface

New user interface

New User Interface

Note the book scroller down the left of the upper photo.  It was added so that users would not need to leave the website. Simplification makes it easier to find titles by presenting only one search result per title (each edition is a separate result). Most patrons don’t care what edition they get. For those who do care, they have the option of choosing a specific copy. If they are accessing the catalog from a specific branch, results from that branch are shown first.

Records are grouped by putting all the different formats of a work together and listing them all.  This display was created using Overdrive APIs. (They no longer load MARC records.) Users can place a hold or check out a book directly from the display or, in the case of an audio book, they can listen to a sample of it directly from catalog listing. The catalogs have a “More Like This” display (photo) and show similar titles even if they’re not in their catalog.

"More Like This" display

“More Like This” display

Staff love this because it serves as an instant readers’ advisory. Displays of similar authors, or published reviews can also be shown. After a book is checked out, APIs let the user see it in their account, download an audio book in desired format, and return it when finished.  Similar displays have been developed to present the data on mobile devices.

Keys to success include:

  • An institutional commitment is important before embarking on the project to ensure that it will get completed.
  • Small responsive teams are better.
  • Use professional graphic designers.
  • Have the development task force guided by usability and analytics.
  • Train the staff first on the new system before the public launch, and do individual training at each branch library.
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