Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: February 2008

Design and the Elastic Mind, currently on display at the MOMA is without question the best design show I’ve actually been to in person. There was a review in the NY Times which had one sentence I’d like to expand upon a little bit:

“As revolutionary in its own way as MoMA’s “Machine Art” exhibition of 1934, which introduced Modern design to a generation of Americans, the exhibition is packed with individual works of sublime beauty.”

I really believe that we are now entering this “information age” where technology, art and design are cooperating and informing each other in much the same way that they were in 1934. We are on the verge of a technosocial shift, a pivotal moment when the way that human/object and human/human interactions are redefined by the technologies we have created. Curator Paola Antonelli cites the Eames film “Powers of Ten”as an influence in this exhibit, and I would take that a step further to suggest that “Powers of Ten” is the lens through which we have gone from a macro-investigation of natural geometry in design (1934 Machine Art exhibition) to our new micro-investigation of natural geometry in design (2008 Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition). Computing power has magnified scientists, engineers, designers, and artists ability to harness the power of natural organization for constructive uses. The excellent essays in the catalog expand upon this, but to better illustrate the comparison of these two shows,

Here’s an excerpt from the 1934 Machine Art catalog:

“Machines are, visually speaking, a practical application of geometry. Forces which act in straight lines are changed in direction and degree by machines which themselves are formed of straight lines and curves. The lever is geometrically a straight line resting on a point. The wheel and axle is composed of concentric circles and radiating straight lines. The watch spring is a spiral. Sphericity and circularity are the geometrical characteristics of a ball bearing. Screws, bearing springs, and propellers are various- and variously beautiful- applications of the helix and helicoid.”

Here’s an image from the 1934 Machine Art catalog:

img011.jpg

Here’s an excerpt from the 2008 Design and the Elastic Mind catalog:

“Biomimicry is the strategy that designers and engineers use to observe and learn from nature’s sophisticated designs and implement these lessons in artificial objects. The lilly impeller is a mixer ‘designed using the elegant and effective geometries found in natural fluid flow,’ explains the designer. Its shape, based on the logarithmic curve known as the Fibonacci spiral and found in such objects as the nautilus shell and whirlpools, allows liquids to flow centripetally through it with little friction. As a result the device is capable of circulating millions of gallons of water with a minimal amount of energy. Used in municipal reservoir tanks, the mixer prevents drinking water from stagnating, reducing the need for disinfectant additives.”

Here’s picture from the 2008 Design and the Elastic Mind show:

img_0384.jpg

Go see this show. I’ve been twice and I’m not done yet. Better yet, get the catalog, read it, then go look at what is there- there is a LOT to digest in this exhibition.

Found this absolutely beautiful booklet the other day at a junk store. $6. Cover design by John Milligan. Wow.

img009.jpg

Found this great book at the Salvation Army upstate. 

img008.jpg

I had a crazy busy week and I wasn’t able to blog all of the fun stuff that’s been going on.  Here is an attempt at catching up.

Recap Pt. 1

1)

On the User Experience tip, I’ve been rereading Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things”.  He might be talking about objects and products, but it is not too much of a leap to apply the concepts to entire service ecologies like the public library offers.  I haven’t yet read his book “Emotional Design”, which I believe will have a good bit of insight into how we can create “empathic-driven” services (a snazzy way of expressing our need to really identify our user’s feelings that I picked up on here).  I have also been thinking more about the guys Live|Work in the UK and their service design practice. Theirs appears to be the only comprehensive, forward thinking service ecology analysis practice out there and I think libraries could learn a lot from what they are doing.  Further, on the emotional design end of things, I’ve revisited the work of Christian Nold after I was introduced to it at Rhizome’s NextCity event.  Nold is engaging in bio-mapping, in which he attaches a sensor to a human and as they walk around the human generates datasets that correspond to their mood at any given time.  The data can then be mapped geo-spatially and you can determine where along their journey an individual was having positive and negative experiences.  Imagine how this could be used to reconsider service points or an entire architectural program.  Sounds like sci-fi now but I suspect it’ll be commonplace in the next 10 years.

 

2)

Had coffee w/ Adam Greenfield, author of Everyware and Prof. of Urban Computing @ NYU ITP.  Great conversation that really dealt with a lot of the usability issues I just mentioned, but we spoke more specifically about technologies in the library and how we use them.  We walked through the Williamsburgh Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library and talked a good bit about the library catalog and different ways we could make it more fun to interact with.  Imagine a giant, projected catalog interface that used some of the tactile computing technologies that exist now, like the multi-touch screen?  Adam showed me a Youtube video of the Bloomberg Ice in Tokyo, as well as some interesting interface possibilities.  It also reminded me of something the Playful Librarian showed me:  the National Institute for Play.  He and I agreed that we’d like to see public libraries embrace some of the ideas that the NIP defines as their core mission.  Check out their shtick:
 

The National Institute for Play believes that as play is woven into the fabric of social practices, we will dramatically transform our personal health, our relationships, the education we provide our children and the capacity of our corporations to innovateWe see play as an un-realized power that can transform our social and economic lives.

Adam and I also talked at length about the idea of creating an electronic device made specifically as a service point for libraries.  According to the Pew Internet/American Life study, 2/3 of public library patrons come to use the computers.  How can we ignore that?  I’ve already ranted about how foolish it is for libraries to try to use the Amazon Kindle as one of their service points.  I don’t think we need to create an ebook reader for library patrons.  I do think that if we could provide patrons with internet access, or a device that simulated connectivity by updating firmware and caching viewed pages every time you were within a library wifi zone, we would essentially have created a municipal wifi work-around and THAT is useful to everyone.  More on this topic soon I hope- I know I didn’t really spell it out completely here. 

3)

On Thursday I went to Cooper Union and hear Steven Holl give a lecture.  The guy is building some absolutely phenomenal stuff in China, I really suggest taking a look.  He is living the architect’s dream: he’s got clients who believe that everything he does is right on, and they have an unlimited budget.  I hesitate to criticize the guy, I imagine that if I had unlimited resources to make public libraries super-wicked-awesome-enormous I’d have an awful lot of fun doing it and I wouldn’t apologize for a thing.  At the end of the lecture there was a Q&A and Holl was asked if he thought that any of the poetry was lost in his work, since it has become so massive and since much of what he does now comes off more as a feat of engineering than as thoughtfully considered, beautiful architectural, um, “poems”.  I was disappointed that Holl kind of defended himself instead of just saying straight out “I am building big, awesome buildings and having fun doing it.”  It seems pretty clear that’s what it is all about, I wish he would have just said so.

I’m not going to go too deep with it or anything, but that did give me a chance to think for a little while about how a tight budget forces innovation and creativity.  It is sort of a glass-half-full way of looking at things in public libraries as we move into this trend of “design thinking” and “user-centered-design”.  Desperate times drive us to innovate, create new service models, re-think our tired ways. 

Recap pt. 2

The other things worth mentioning from this week:

1)

On Friday I served as part of an alumni panel at Pratt.  Students from the School of Library and Information Science had the opportunity to question two public librarians, an academic librarian, a corporate librarian, and an art librarian about how we got our jobs, what we do, and anything else that came to mind.  It was a remarkably well attended event considering it took place at 5:30 on a snowy Friday.  The question that I found the most interesting and the one I’d like to expound upon a bit now came from Judy Nylen of Pratt’s Career Services.  She asked each of us to describe what part of our skillset gave us the most opportunity to innovate and have creative influence in our fields.  As an advocate of this design-thinking movement in libraries, I take that question seriously, and I believe that the most important skillset for anyone interested in implementing change is to build their communications skills. 

NOBODY is going to care how good your ideas are if you cannot convey them in a concrete, legible manner, using the mode of communication that the audience is most comfortable with.  Sometimes, despite the fact that Powerpoint sucks, you will have an audience who is used to receiving information that way and so you will have to use Powerpoint.  Sometimes you’ll send an important email to an individual 5 times, never get a response, and then realize that the only way you can communicate with that person is by phone.  Don’t talk about XML and APIs with people who don’t understand them.  Don’t bother to use a wiki to organize a project if 3 out of the 20 people on your team actually know how to communicate and collaborate that way.   Think of communication skills as internal user-centered design if that helps, similar to the way large companies have internal customer service practices between their departments.  Always know your audience, always know the best way to address them so that they feel comfortable, listen a lot, and shut up when you don’t know what you are talking about. 

Admittedly, I don’t always shut up when I don’t know what I’m talking about.

2)

Another question came up on Friday at the same panel that needs to be addressed. Toward the end, a gentleman stood up and asked: “What do you think of John Berry’s controversial Library Journal article, in which he wrote about the deskilling of librarians, and what do you think of the reaction and fuss surrounding this article?”

The briefest possible answer: I thought the article was off base (but not ENTIRELY), and rather than add to the already three page long list of comments I wrote John directly and told him a little bit about why I was “disturbed” by the whole thing.  First off, I am an advocate of the “new” service models we are seeing pop up all over the country and world.  I’m not sure that I look at the circulation desk as the service point at which the core competencies of librarianship are being or should be practiced, and because of that I really have no problem with self check machines augmenting and *not replacing* that part of library operations.  Further, I think it is important to recognize that the “classic” public library is based on an archaic definition of literacy.  Literacy is no longer about just reading text in books. We live in the “information age”, a time defined by complex cultural and media literacies.  We need new buildings and new service models to address the new literacy needs of our patronage and our potential, unrealized patronage.

Look for a full blog entry in response to this LJ article soon.  It may be late to compete with all the hype and hubbub surrounding the article now, but the issues will remain important even once the noise dies down.  Thanks to John for writing me back and being willing to engage in further argument.

3)

There was an article this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Aaron Swartz’s project, Open Library.  Open Library is basically a wiki-style, WorldCat / LibraryThing hybrid, so “while librarians maintain WorldCat, the public would maintain Open Library”.  Pretty sweet. 

Obviously OCLC is sweating this:

“Should all those connections (Wikipedia, Internet Archive, LibraryThing, and anyone else who donates their records to the project) help increase Open Library’s holdings close to the 72 million unique book records in WorldCat, Mr. Swartz’s enterprise could upend the way libraries maintain records. Librarians could choose to bypass WorldCat and contribute catalog data to Open Library, jeopardizing OCLC’s membership of more than 60,000 libraries and threatening a big chunk of its $235-million annual revenue.

It would be an amazing feat, especially since, at the moment, Open Library is struggling to get libraries to contribute.”

My thoughts?  Go Open Library!  Information wants to be free, right?  I’d love to see public libraries all over start contributing to this.  I’d love to see more of our records and material visible on the web, for free.  Again, libraries need to start recognizing and promoting their roles as educators and facilitators of knowledge in a new era of media literacies rather than the definition of literacy associated with Ye Old-Tyme Book Shoppe. 

I am pleased to announce that my proposal was accepted for a paper/presentation at the Communications and Space/Place 2nd Annual Postgraduate Conference at the University of Leeds – Institute of Communications Studies. This is my first shot at writing and presenting a piece of this nature, so I’m really excited to go for it!  I’m so happy to be taking the public library mission out of its comfort zone to talk about what we do with a different audience!

Unless I disprove my assertion while I write, which does happen from time to time, my goal is to describe personality-making as a place-making activity in virtual architectures on the social web.  This all revolves around a central, ongoing investigation into how public libraries can or cannot use social web technologies as community building tools.  I want to investigate the relationship between community building in the real world and community building on the web.  I intend to draw case studies from New York City’s three public library systems, so if you are reading this and have an interesting example of how your patrons, most likely teens (but any age group is acceptable), are using the social web as a true community-building tool drop me an email. 

I’ll update the blog w/ my progress.  Lots to do.

I’ve been putting a lot of thought into user experience and service ecologies at the public library lately. The very nature of what public libraries do necessitates a much more complex investigation than a normal “customer service” scenario would. Developing empathy-driven service for a population of stakeholders as diverse as the entire borough of Brooklyn is a daunting task! Anyways, I’ve been doing a lot of research/reading, so I think that for a little while my blog entries will speak mostly to this subject for a little while.

Marshall McLuhan speaks of technologies as extensions of the human body or mind that modify one or more of our physical or mental abilities. A telephone is an extension of the voice and the ear. A hammer is an extension of your arm and hand. A skateboard is an extension of your feet and thus your ambulatory abilities. McLuhan also points out that every extension also creates an amputation. I like to think of Newton’s 3rd law of motion here, paraphrased as every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This phrase that has been drilled into our heads since elementary school science class really does a nice job illustrating the effects of a technology on a larger information ecology. This is really the basis for ecology thinking in general: anything you add to one part of an ecology subtracts from another. Ecologies are always shifting to maintain equilibrium. Here are a few examples of amputation I pulled from someone’s website:

“An example of an amputation would be the loss of archery skills with the development of gunpowder and firearms. The need to be accurate with the new technology of guns made the continued practice of archery obsolete. The extension of a technology like the automobile “amputates” the need for a highly developed walking culture, which in turn causes cities and countries to develop in different ways. The telephone extends the voice, but also amputates the art of penmanship gained through regular correspondence.”

Reserving library materials online for localized pickup has been a huge tech-enabled access triumph for public libraries over the last 10 years. I feel pretty comfortable saying that the number of materials patrons access in this manner continues to climb every year at all public libraries, but if there are exceptions out there please tell me. I’ll add that I think this is great: anything libraries can do to make their collections more accessible is desirable. But if every action does have an equal and opposite reaction, if every technological extension has its amputative counterpart, then we need to be aware of and reactive to such a scenario.

A library website is very much a service extension for the institution, and any services made available via the web can also be regarded as extensions of “traditional” library service. Consider the amputations that run counter to the library’s extended presence on the web. Decreased foot traffic (which we then offset by creating a “push” to physical services from the website). Decreased foot traffic also means decreased physical browsing (we are trying to offset that amputation by creating browsable OPAC interfaces). It means less peer-to-peer interaction as well (we try to offset this one with 2.0 web tools). All of that said, if it becomes ubiquitous for people to reserve their books online, where in our carefully collected statistics will we see the amputation or decrease reflecting the extension or increase in that type of material circulation?

I am a strong advocate for responsibly implemented new technologies in public libraries, in fact I think our future relevance depends on it. A thorough analysis of our complex service ecologies, considering both quantitative and qualitative data is becoming increasingly urgent so that we can better understand the relationship between our extensions and amputations. Further, a thorough analysis is not enough: we need to be prepared to react to our findings and actually change based on the results. The Pew Internet project, which is more data gathering than a thorough service ecology analysis, found that 2/3 of all public library users come to the library for internet access. Great. Happy to hear it. Are we going to DO anything about it????

Brooklyn Vanguard presents:

The Library After Dark

With DJ Rich Medina, Saturday March 8. from 8:00 until late.

Brooklyn Public Library, Grand Army Plaza.

“The Brooklyn Vanguard at Brooklyn Public Library is a dynamic group of library patrons between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-something committed to expanding the role of Brooklyn Public Library in the intellectual life of the city of New York.”

This event is going to be awesome. $60 before March 1, or $75 at the door, so get your tix now! Better yet, JOIN the Brooklyn Vanguard!  Did I mention the OPEN BAR? Yeah. There’s an OPEN BAR.

click on the flyer to download a pdf version.

img006.jpg

img007.jpg

Just a brief note.  Today I was driving to work in the pouring rain and I saw a lit sign warning me of “inclement weather”.  I almost ran off the road when I did a doubletake checking out that sign.  In a country where we can’t even use apostrophes properly, is it really a good idea to choose the word “inclement” to describe lousy driving conditions to people who are travelling at 55 miles an hour?  Please don’t misunderstand, I’m neither the grammar police nor a language snob.  I just think that sign would have communicated better if it had said “bad weather.  drive safely.”

Take note of the fact that I didn’t hit the brakes, pull out my phone and snap a picture of that sign.  I’ll bet you someone else did though…

Last weekend I had the pleasure of taking home an Amazon Kindle, a SONY Ebook reader, and an OLPC laptop to play around with. I’m not going to give a longwinded review of any of the three products, there have been enough of those. They all have good points and bad points. I am going to talk a little bit about public libraries and their misplaced desire to adapt these technologies as service or access points within their larger service model.

I had a great conversation the other morning with Linda Braun and Andrea Mercado via Skype. I won’t give away all of the fun stuff that we talked about because the conversation will be made available as a podcast in a few different places once it has been edited. We did talk further about understanding both media-specific cultures and institutional cultures though, and that is directly related to these gadgets that I was playing with. To be clear: when I say media-specific cultures, I am referring to the behavioral patterns and roles that become norms when individuals are interacting with any information medium (a book, a television, a web application, a telecommunications device). When I say institutional culture, I am referring to the behavioral patterns and roles that become norms when individuals are simply doing their jobs. The two might not seem so intertwined, but just as policy should reflect organizational structures, an organization full of people who can’t comprehend media-specific cultural parameters gives rise to a flawed, confused, directionless institution with a negative culture. A simple, low-tech example: email etiquette. Imagine an organization where nobody understands the media-specific rules of what can be said and done in an email message. Everyone would communicate poorly and the place would be in shambles immediately; the workplace culture would go sour. Innovation and creativity would suffer first and then eventually if people didn’t figure out a workaround the whole place would collapse on itself. Media-specific cultures and ecologies determine institutional culture because they are vehicles for communication.

Enter the Kindle. I’ll just pick on it because it is such an easy example of libraries not understanding the media-specific culture and the larger service ecology surrounding a new technology. Quite a few libraries have tried or are trying to figure out a way to use the Kindle as a means of distributing library materials. I beg all of you, (unless you’ve figured out how to hack your Kindles) don’t try to use the Kindle or any other device that was designed and engineered as a service point for a totally different content delivery model (in this case Amazon) at your library! It is like watching an inept carpenter struggle to drive a screw into a board with a hammer. We need to create and select tools, devices, and service points that fit our service delivery models at libraries. If libraries started using Amazon’s Kindle as their content delivery system, we’d be ignoring all of the media-specific culture that is associated with that device. We’d be using hammers on screws. Imagine what happens to your institutional culture when you have patrons asking you questions about accessing library content and you, the librarian, don’t have the knowledge or access to even answer their question and try to solve the problem. Crisis.

picture-1.jpg

Last Friday I went to Nextcity: The Art of the Possible, a Rhizome event at the New Museum. Eric Rodenbeck of Stamen Design, artist/designer/educator Christian Nold, and artist/architect J. Meejin Yoon of Howler & Yoon all spoke with Adam Greenfield of NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. This was their agenda:

“Emergent digital technologies are rapidly changing both the face of our cities and our daily experience of them, whether invoked in the production of architectural form, the representation of urban space, or our interface to the locative and other services newly available there. Dynamic maps update in real time; garments and spaces deform in response to environmental, biological and even psychological conditions. We find our very emotions made visible, public, and persistently retrievable. Somewhere along the way, we find our notions of public space, participation, and what it means to be urban undergoing the most profound sort of change.”

Though I get pretty excited about emerging technologies, particularly when they are approached from a philosophical stance, I was most interested in how this panel would address public space. It seems clear that public space will be defined differently in the rapidly approaching era of ubiquitous computing. Adam spoke briefly of Starbuck’s business model being based on Ray Oldenberg’s concept of “Third Places”: places that are neither home nor work, but places where people can publicly interact. Christian came right out and said we don’t really have many true public spaces left at this point. I, the public librarian, sat in the audience, squirming in my seat when the conversation turned in this direction.

Public Libraries are the best examples of public space (or public place, if you want to get technical) in America that I can think of. Public libraries are places of information exchange, places where knowledge is created, shared and dispersed. Libraries are the front line, they are cultural centers where anyone can bring any query and they can be answered or directed appropriately. I find it fascinating to listen to developers of open source software and data visualization projects talk about the way their work makes publicly available information accessible, manipulable, and usable for anyone and everyone. Those developers really work with the same mission public libraries do, yet somehow they represent “the future” and libraries are stuck with this archaic image as book repositories. We really need to coordinate these efforts and work together. Previously, technologies have  challenged the public library as a relevant institution because it has been so costly to invest in the flavor-of-the-month. The dramatic shift away from the home PC, the move of processing power into portable units and the environment, and the shrinking costs of memory and connectivity suggests that public libraries are in a very good position to offer information access to more people in better ways than ever before. How does these changes redefine public space? How do our behavioral patterns associated with these technologies reshape public space?

I’m excited as hell to meet with Adam next week and to talk with him about where the urban public library fits into the Nextcity. I had a forward-thinking professor at Pratt institute, David Walczyk, who said at one point to a classroom full of soon-to-be librarians that if we don’t take a strong creative roles and define the direction in which our libraries are going to grow, then some consultant will get the job and you’ll just be stuck doing what you should have told the library to do years before. I’m convinced that librarians need to look outside their profession to find the future of their libraries. We need to get off our reference-desked asses. Lets take those creative roles and define the Nextlibrary. I’m not going to let a consultant do it*.

*parties interested in hiring me as a consultant feel free to email me with offers :)
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.