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The definition of literacy has changed.  This afternoon while I was working in the Education and Job Information Center at Brooklyn Public Library’s Central building I was struck by a concrete example of the redefinition of literacy.  Consider the different skills a job-seeker would need for a successful employment hunt in 2008.

In 1975, a person interested in creating a resume for an administrative assistant position would have looked through books of sample resumes and then sat at a typewriter to build their resume in a directional, linear fashion, from beginning to end.  In 1995, that same person might have had the luxury of using a halfway decent word processor on a computer.  That word processor would give them the ability to track forward and backward as they create the document, enabling text editing in a two-directional linear fashion.  Now, with internet connectivity, resume writing tutorial software or layout programs like Quark, Adobe InDesign, writing a resume becomes a simulated spatial experience.  The writer can edit in any order and manipulate the “page” on the computer screen in much the way they would manipulate a piece of paper.

What about the way a person would actually look for employment listings?  In 1975, an individual looking for an administrative assistant position via their local public library would have picked up the classified section of the local newspaper, browsed, found some phone numbers and addresses and made contact with another human.  In 1995, that same person would have more opportunities if they looked for their job via a local paper on the internet, emailed their resume to a person and eventually made contact.  Now, in 2008 separate services offer job-seeking guides, and the public library does its best to conglomerate all of these resources by creating pathfinders and guides that link to the many individual services.

“Computer literacy” is no longer computer literacy, it is just plain LITERACY. 
This presents a challenge.  With computer literacy comes a whole new rhetoric, essentially a series of vocabularies, literacies and grammatical structures that nobody can be expected to just guess or intuit any more than they can be expected to just guess and intuit Moby Dick. It comes naturally to anyone reading this that the icon in your browser that is shaped like a little house is a metonym for “home”, but what is home, what does that mean?  It is part of the 21st century public library’s mission and responsibility to see to it that everyone in this country has access to the tools they need to answer these questions. The library mission is not just to provide access electronic texts on the computer, it is to provide an understanding and context for the access itself.  Not understanding the grammar of computing in 2008 is like not being able to read in 1975.

Our patrons know this!  This is why they come to us in droves to use our free, publicly available internet access.  Libraries will always be in the book business, but the masses have spoken. People come to the public library to use the computers: electronic content is the book of the future.  A teenager in 2008 indulging in an afternoon of goofballetry and knuckleheadedness on myspace is the same thing as a kid in 1975 reading a Marvel comic book. Each one is unconsciously honing his or her literacy skills; only literacy means something a little different.  So how can we, the librarians, maximize the number of people who benefit from all of the information and content that exists on the internet, all of the vetted content that we offer through our databases, and at the same time assist people in gaining the skills needed to understand the intricacies of access?

Offering mile-long tables of PCs is not the answer.  We need to go mobile, so that everyone can take their little piece of the library, customize it, and bring it with them.  I don’t believe that it is sustainable to simply make ourselves easily available through peoples’ portable devices (though I absolutely support efforts to create library Facebook apps, iPhone-ready catalog interfaces, and anything else that works on the device-a-la-mode this week).  Libraries need to create a wireless, loanable, library-content device.  Librarians have caught on to the fact that we need to design our own software tools.  I think we need to take the next step and design and build our own hardware, something specifically made for our mission and vision.  A lot of people read my last piece about the Library Outpost as a smaller service node within our larger network of physical spaces; a different means by which we can effectively deliver physical content without storing everything on-site.  Now I’m suggesting that a loanable mobile device is the content delivery model of the future.  Lets build a prototype.



  1. Have you seen Microsoft’s marketing campaign “Stay At Home Servers”?
    The white suburban focus alone is disturbing, it’s pretty glaring, I don’t think I need to go into explaining how I feel about it! The public library (I would be happy with any public entity actually) needs to have the funding to set up a free nationwide wireless system much in the vein of TV broadcasting.

    Your job search example is a striking example of the need for more free internet access in the public sphere. I’ve stood in line at the NYPL Main, job searching, waiting for my hour slot of internet access before, it’s not a good system. I remember at the time (2003) that Chick-fil-A had the cheapest at-cost public internet access at something like .99 cents an hour and your session was limitless.

    So, yeah, what about the device? What could it be? We’ve seen Bill Gates simplistic green one intended for the “third world,” but I’d really like to see a device that wasn’t coming from private funding, but is that inevitable? Kindle is the big one at Amazon, and I’ve seen many librarians speak about Amazon’s business model as being their biggest competitor.

  2. The device. Here we go:

    1) It needs to be CHEAP, virtually disposable, yet “green”.

    2) It needs to have a loan period at the end of which all service is completely terminated. It should almost literally self-destruct when it is overdue, in order to encourage the return.

    3) It needs to cache all content that is viewed on it while in a library WiFi zone, so when a patron accesses a database while in the libraery, they can use their device to go back and refrence that which they saw before. I’m an iPhone user, and the fact that it needs to refresh a website I’ve previosuly viewed each time i open Safari is outrageous.

    4) What about firmware updates of something like Wikipedia every time the device passed within a library wireless zone? I can’t take credit for that obne: this idea came from Adam Greenfield, urban computing guru.

    5) The device has to be about media content, not just books. Think of an iPod touch that is a service point within a library service ecology.

    6) unlike the OLPC, it needs an operating system that is not totally unique- like I was saying in the post, this is as much about learning and understanding the vocabulary of electronic devices as it is about the content. A child who learns on an OLPC’s OS is going to be screwed the instant they go to public school and have use a PC.

    hmmm there’s a lot more. I’ll add them as i think of it. I hope iother readers will too.

  3. I doubt the technology to produce a machine that satisfies all of your criteria exists, if only because of the “cheap” requirement. If it did, everyone would be picking up similarly powerful devices at the corner store. However, I’m willing to bet that in as little as five years, people will be able to just that. They’ll just call the devices “phones,” though.

    This makes me question whether focusing on a combined hardware/software solution is the best way to approach the problem. Cheap, powerful hardware and wireless Internet access are going to be ubiquitous without any help from us folks at the library. Educating people about how to access the content they need on the devices they’ll already have seems like a better tack. A 5-gigabyte iPod was $500 dollars when the device debuted seven years ago. Today, an iPod touch costs half as much and is considerably more powerful and versatile. Can the library keep up?

    As a side note, I believe the current size of the English edition of Wikipedia contains around 3.5 gigabytes of data, and that’s just the text without structural markup or supporting images (not to mention change logs, which for Wikipedia are a necessity). Pushing static updates of its content would not only take a long time, but ignore how and why Wikipedia exists in the first place.

    I don’t mean to be a naysayer. Perhaps more of a devil’s advocate! I find your ideas very thought-provoking and look forward to reading more.

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  1. […] in broken English since its a new idea… but I think its worth developing.  My earlier post, “Lets build a prototype” received some worthwhile criticism.  But I think I have a new and improved idea… […]

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