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Category Archives: media ecology

After reading and passing around Wendy Lukehart’s excellent article “What’s Our Story” published on ULC2020, I asked her if it would be OK to copy and paste it in my own blog, along with my vaguely relevant response.  I think Lukehart is really on to something here with this “mission envy” she is feeling.  Does the public library mission get confused and suffer from dilution because of emerging technologies and media formats?  If so, how can we clarify it?  Enjoy this:


What’s Our Story?

Published by Wendy Lukehart at 8:39 am CST under Focal Questions

What’s Our Story?

Following the thought-provoking ULC “Fast Forward” conference in Anaheim, I happened to be waiting for an elevator with Martín Gómez. When I commented on how intellectually stimulating the day had been, he thanked me and replied: “I keep coming back to the question we posed at the very beginning [of the Foresight 2020 project]: “_____ is to Public Libraries as Education is to Public Schools.” Indeed.

This analogy exercise that we all recognize from our standardized test days has so many possible answers that it would probably shut down the Princeton Review if they had to grade it. What word would you insert? “Learning?” “Information?” These concepts are accurate, certainly, but not big enough. We exist for recreation and story as well. “Fun?” Yes, but libraries are also places where we go for tax assistance. “Transformation?” That’s intriguing. Given the popularity of television shows where people improve or trade their spaces, bodies, children, and spouses, the idea would resonate with many, but it might not speak to all. “Connection?” That term has loomed large in our promotions for the last decade. People can connect to ideas or other people in libraries, virtually or physically (and I’m not referring to the teens behind the stairwell, but leave it to teens to create an interpretation we hadn’t intended). Even that doesn’t seem to say it all. Conference speaker Omar Wasow suggested that “curiosity is the coin of the realm.” We’re getting warmer. What if our mission were to arouse curiosity? What do you think? Is it really impossible to narrow the library’s mission to a single word, or are we too conflicted or hesitant to articulate it?

As I experience the free-floating anxiety permeating our professional literature about the future of libraries, bookstores, and publishing, I find myself drawn to organizational models that exude a strong sense of purpose and confidence, one might even say faith in their mission. What sets these institutions apart, other than a great deal of money? I’ve been following the back story of Washington D.C.’s latest museum—the Newseum—which opened this spring (on Pennsylvania Avenue, no less) to much acclaim. How did this organization move from a modest site in Rosslyn, Virginia into a $450 million piece of real estate with 14 interactive galleries and 15 theaters and studios on “America’s Main Street?” One thing is clear: it has a skilled leader with a passion for and clarity about his organization’s mission: to teach people about the First Amendment. The words are even etched into a 74’ marble slab on the façade—controversial as that decision has been. CEO Charles Overby dared to dream big, and yes he was able to procure the large-scale financing, but he also faced formidable obstacles. The Washington Post, 4/12/08  describes his savvy at building consensus and developing community advocates for his cause.

Overby functions collaboratively within the institution as well. Meeting daily for “story meetings” with his senior managers, the leader sees his role as “chief encouraging officer,” providing support in every sense of the word, ready to try something different when things go wrong. Visiting the Newseum is both an entertaining and informative experience. Even my jaded twelve-year-old wanted an annual pass, so she could return frequently. Exhibits include a page from the Gutenberg Bible; the charred, melted antenna from the World Trade Center; a 4-D film on the history of journalism; video clips from vintage SNL and Laugh-In programs; a “newsroom” where you can be filmed as a broadcaster and then link to the segment from home. You can step outside on the balcony and soak up the sun and the view of your political and cultural setting—the Capitol dome, the Smithsonian, the avenue that leads to 1600 Pennsylvania–or dine on Wolfgang Puck’s fabled cuisine. I was filled with mission envy—and fascination, as I explored this amalgam of archival documents and cutting edge multimedia experiences in a hospitable, inspiring environment.

Another visionary leader with a mission of great interest to libraries is publishing entrepreneur Lisa Holton, founder and CEO of the brand new Fourth Story Media. (Publishers Weekly, 6/18/08) Known for significant projects, i.e., Cheetah Girls, Baby Einstein, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows–to name a few, Holton is creating “an innovative studio that brings a fresh perspective to the development of children’s properties.” While her enterprise has the obvious distinction of being a for-profit company, I urge you to look at her complex Venn diagram with its narrative core and overlapping hexagons labeled: social networking, interactivity, communicating, and games. Many of the concepts branching out from the shapes are functions with which libraries are involved, and this may well be a useful model for us to react to and see how our own diagram would compare and contrast. See Fourth Story Media.

Balance and Unity
The idea that particularly excites me about Holton’s vision is her ability to hold multiple formats in the balance. Her “studio” will thread story across books, web sites, games, DVDs, downloads, social networks, and surely whatever new media come along. Libraries have the capability of doing this type of thing as well—and more, plus we can offer the physical space. What can we learn from the balance and connection between formats as conceived by Fourth Story, while adding our value as a “Third Place,” so that our customers can engage with our materials and each other virtually—and then inside our doors? Whom do we need to hire, what do we need to do differently to present our content and services in such a dynamic, appealing, and unified manner? In addition to the obvious—drawing on the talents of graphic designers, information architects, and computer programmers within the context of a 2.0 world–and encouraging collaboration across departments/generations/ethnicities (Holton managed Harry Potter by making “everyone part of everything”), I would suggest that we need to start by overcoming one obstacle: our current attitude toward the book.

The B Word
The OCLC survey tells us that when people across the country think of libraries, they think of books. OCLC Report: Perceptions of Libraries. Titles recommended by Oprah, Nancy Pearl, and Al Rokker are in great demand, and NPR just hired six new book reviewers for their website. Aaron Swartz, the young man who helped write the RSS feed format at age 14, is now designing a free online book catalog called “Open Library,” because “wandering through the stacks of my local library, I noticed I kept coming across all sorts of fantastic books I’d never heard of.” (American Libraries, April 2008). The New York Public Library was a recent test site for the Espresso Book Machine, a print-on- demand service. Why? Presumably, because a lot of people like printed books. This is confirmed by the latest  Random House / Zogby Report: 82% of the respondents prefer the printed version to the electronic one.  A recent study by Scholastic found that 62% of kids of all ages “prefer to read books printed on paper rather than on a computer or handheld device.” A majority of kids “like to read books for fun” and they know it is important. What is their biggest hurdle? Finding books they like. Scholastic Reading Report 

This information is something we can all use, build on, respond to—and some of us already do. Yet, at “Fast Forward,” I was struck by the irony that it was the speakers (and especially the younger ones—a technology analyst and a game designer/critic) who were waxing enthusiastic about books and their availability–for free–at their local public libraries. My sense at this and other recent meetings with fellow library administrators is that we are embarrassed or ashamed of the public’s association of libraries with books and that only by downplaying them and uplifting technology will we….what? Be perceived as cutting edge, cool, valuable? When was the last time we celebrated the fact that we are the only game in town that offers free books—in lots of different formats, including print?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am really proud that my library, D.C. Public, was the first in the nation to offer downloadable books in an MP3 format. What could be more cool than offering books to listen to on iPods and cell phones? A book-on-CD kept my family of four riveted as we listened to Sherman Alexie, Jr. narrating The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Recorded Books, 2007) on our long journey to a family reunion over the weekend. That particular format allowed us to share an amazing experience in a way that would not have been possible with the printed version. I am equally thrilled, however, when I watch children’s eyes widen and bodies move closer to the source when seeing Robert Sabuda’s cyclone twirl and spin in his pop-up version of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Simon and Schuster, 2000) at a library program. For so many of the children in our community, the library is the only place where they will experience the wonder and delight—and therefore the motivation to read—elicited by fabulous books, ones that are professionally designed and printed in living color on gorgeous paper. It is this type of experience that is endangered, if we forget to check our mission, chart our direction thoughtfully, and provide the infrastructure necessary for the balance.

Creating the Library Story
As we scan other business models for inspiration, what if we figured out how to not be a bookstore (although there are lessons about merchandising and customer service to be learned from the retail world), but how to be a really amazing library, with all the richness of our retrospective and current print and multimedia collections, our dazzling digital possibilities, and the threads that connect them—to each other and to the public, helping people of all ages find treasures and fellow treasure hunters. This is one of the points discussed at our conference table: what are the “white spaces of need” that only libraries can fill? Some of the answers are identified in the aforementioned studies; others will be found only in our communities. Once we identify the spaces, we will be able to better offer, in J. C. Herz’s words “a community connected to itself.” Maybe we will even be able to finish the analogy.

Wendy Lukehart
Youth Collections Coordinator
D.C. Public Library

This post was submitted by Wendy Lukehart.

One Response to “What’s Our Story?”
  1. # Nate Hillon Jul 13, 2008 at 12:06 pm CST

    I’m not sure that I can offer a one-word mission for the library, and I don’t know that I feel terribly guilty about that. There’s nothing wrong with being a complicated institution with many facets and goals, as long as we can still clearly market and advertise all of those facets and goals. McDonald’s (admittedly a repulsive example) is to hamburgers as the library is to books. Still, you can get an awful lot of stuff other than just hamburgers at McDonalds, and plenty of people do.

    Myself being a champion of public libraries promoting and providing not just traditional “book literacy” but new media literacy as well, I do feel like I can address your final paragraph “creating the library story” with some thoughts.

    Just to be clear, I don’t believe that media literacy is peripheral to the public library’s mission, I believe it is at its core. The whole point of reading and writing is to be able to communicate complex thoughts and ideas specifically and effectively with other humans. Reading and writing text is not sufficient in this capacity any more; media that leverages text, audio, video, and participatory literacies is so culturally embedded at this point that we need to incorporate that into public library programming through and through. A simple example: I spent some time not too long ago working the reference desk at the Education and Job Information Center at Brooklyn Public Library. The librarian’s job in that context is not just to help that person find a job using the appropriate resources; it is to teach that person how to help themselves to find a job using the appropriate resources. In 1975, that would have involved teaching the patron how to use the NY Times classifieds and a typewriter (for their resume). In 2008 it involves software, websites, databases. There are new skills involved, but they all build on some familiar skills.

    Different media literacies build upon themselves; they sort of “compost” their predecessors and mimic them until they find their own stride and identity. Think of the way that early television programming mimicked radio programming, or look at the way that an Amazon Kindle imitates a physical book. I pretty much use my computer as my home media center now, but that doesn’t mean I threw my television, radio, or shelves of books out the window. If it weren’t for my love affair with books, radio, and television I wonder how much sense my computer would make to me? The internet is a lot more fun if you know how to read, wouldn’t you agree? It is for this reason that Lukehart is absolutely right about the library being a place where children need to “experience the wonder and delight- and therefore the motivation to read- elicited by fabulous books, ones that are professionally designed and printed in living color on gorgeous paper. If the library is to champion new media literacy, books are the first place to start, especially in a developmental context, for children. Let’s be proud of that particular facet of our mission at public libraries, especially if the general public impression of libraries is that we are about books. Books can be our hamburgers, but maybe when people arrive they will select chicken sandwiches, pizza, whatever….

    All that said, I think we need to keep finding ways to leverage technologies to make books work harder and better for us. I like Lukehart’s examples of Aaron Swartz’s Open Library Project and the Espresso Book Machine as attempts at just that. I think you could add Sofie, a project at Institute for the Future of the Book to that list, and many others as well. There is a tremendous love of the book worldwide. Everyone and their brother and their brother’s cousin would like to aid the book’s transition into the digital era. I just picked up on another potential project that I’m particularly fond of because it preserves the book’s physical nature while augmenting it with digital information.

    Bob Logan of the Beal Institute of Strategic Creativity released his paper proposing the SmartBook on the Media Ecology Association listserv a few days ago. He is “proposing a book that has been “smart tagged” and as a result is readable, searchable and smart.” Basically, the idea is to “embed a “smart tag” into a standard printed codex or folio… that has the text of the book in a searchable format”.

    You can access the entire paper at, and you should.

    At the public library in the 21st century, we will have to work harder to inspire in children the wonder and delight Lukehart describes in the presentation of the pop-up Wizard of OZ book. Innovations like the one Logan proposes can help. The other day I left the Central Library at Brooklyn Public Library via the youth wing, and when I stepped out onto the sidewalk a mother was about to enter the building with her two young children. The eyes of one of those children lit up with excitement and he started jumping up and down. “I LOVE the computers! I LOVE the computers!”, he cried. No lie: I’m not making this up. Its going to be a tough job selling the Wizard of OZ pop-up to this kid, with other media formats as seductive and accessible as they are. Should that child learn to read on the computer? I don’t know- maybe- he was awfully jazzed about the interface…. perhaps we should respect that. Difficult questions like that keep me happy with the complexity of the public library mission and vision, but if I were forced to distill everything we do down into a few words I think I’d say:

    Cultural/Media Literacy is to Libraries as Education is to Schools.


Recently participatory culture and the philosophies pertaining to the FOSS / FLOSS movement have been making themselves impossible to ignore in both my reading and my plain old everyday life.  It seems everyone wants to model everything from architecture to beer production based on this.  My next few entries will be about all that, but I’ll start w/ something positive that is directly related to libraries and learning.

First, I want to mention this Clay Shirky article.   I haven’t read his book “Here Comes Everybody” yet, so I can’t speak to it.  This article does a good job describing the rise of participatory culture.  The basic argument is that the world has been faced with a great cognitive surplus in the 20th century since we’ve industrialized in a manner that saves us basically saves us time and headspace.  So we have a lot of free time, and we’ve chosen to fulfill our cognitive surplus by watching a ton of TV and becoming complacent read-only media consumers.  His argument, which I like, is that this was all a brief transitional phase and that we are well on our way out of this lump-like couch potato era.  Shirky says that via networked technologies individuals are already empowered to be great creators, remixers, and organizers.  It is no longer satisfying to just digest material, it becomes part of the norm to process and redistribute it.  While in the past media consumers have been “readers”, now they are “read/writers”.

As a creative person and as a person working in education (that’s librarianship, right?) I find this realization and transition encouraging, but I begin to wonder about the effectiveness of our educational tools.  I’m part of a generation steeped and brewed in books, radio, and television, all of which are read-only media.  Shirky tells a story at the end of his article about a four year old girl investigating the back side of a television for a mouse because she couldn’t even comprehend the idea of NOT interacting with media.  Frankly his story sounds like bullshit, but the point is ripe for the plucking.  So how do we engage and teach this child?  The interaction of recreational video games is seductive, and schools can make organic chemistry or environmental science just as seductive by employing gaming style learning systems in classrooms.  But what about engaging kids outside of the classroom, what about exploring knowledge, information and media in their free time?  That is where the public library comes into play.

It sounds to me like the people at Illinois Institute of Technology are addressing just this with the ThinkeringSpace project.  The best way to really understand the project aside from spending some time on the site and admiring their research, is to read the following posts from the Shifted Librarian blog in order.

The ThinkeringSpace project encourages content creation in the library, it exposes paths between information entities, it bridges the physical and digital worlds, it is portable, and all around awesome as far as I can see.  I think my only real issue with it as of thus far is that it is focused on using the physical library as “third place” and doesn’t consider bridging into digital “third place” by pushing content to mobile devices.  Much has been written about how mobile devices can be seen as extensions of space- for example if I start text messaging one friend while I’m at dinner with another, I am redefining my spatial parameters and orientation.  It seems inevitable at this point that the act of “checking out” library material in the future will involve some kind of device, most likely a phone.  When content becomes mobile it changes the definition of a “third place”.

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.

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????

I’m going to go ahead and post my paper proposal in its entirety since I’ve had so many hits on my other entry. Again, the thumbnail image at the bottom will link to a larger more readable pic.

American public libraries exist to promote self-initiated lifelong learning and to build an informed democracy. Parks, town squares and public libraries are the only public spaces in the United States; spaces free to everyone provided they adhere to basic rules of socially acceptable conduct. Ample public space promotes a healthy community ecology; it facilitates the cross-pollination of ideas and conversations between individuals. How are public libraries to extend this same community building, conversation-facilitating, discourse-enabling paradigm to the virtual world? How do the rules of engagement differ, and what are the challenges, similarities, and differences associated with community building on the social web?

Successfully transforming a physical public space into a public place requires a leap of faith on the part of the administrators who oversee that space, because place-making is user driven. A public space is built with a specific programmatic projection, but the space only becomes place when the patronage re-enforces the programmatic function of the facility though use. This is the appropriation of space. The appropriation of physical space is an instinctive, intuitive, self-organizing activity, taking place both at an individual level and as a collaborative, intuitive effort on the part of multiple participants.

The social web is not actually space. The social web is a self-organizing metaphor for space, a simulation of space, and while the rules of engagement in this virtual space originate in the established context of physical space, they are embedded in a digital mediation which lacks the complexity and intricacies of interface that our physical body has evolved in order to interact with real space. Social web participants create place via their virtual personalities, profiles, or avatars. They customize their profiles in the way we decorate our apartments in the physical world. Efficient place-making then becomes relative to the usability of the particular social web platform; place-making as a practice is reinvented by the social web medium as personality-making. A public library’s place-making potential on the social web lies in enabling and facilitating the creation of patrons’ personalities, not in trying to recreate itself, the library, as a personality. Personality is regularly re-appropriated on the social web when html code is cut and pasted from one personality to another, much the way a skateboarder re-appropriates a set of stairs as a recreational obstacle in the physical world.

A complete paper will further examine personality-making as a place-making practice in virtual architectures, investigate the ways in which physical public libraries can or cannot support these efforts, and anticipate useful programs for virtual public spaces as community-building enterprises in the future. It will present case studies of successes and failures of attempts at community building via social web architectures in public libraries. It will explore best practices for bridging the gap between digitally mediated virtual space and the real, flesh and blood individuals that make physical communities.


I’ve been doing some research on how public space becomes public place at public libraries, in both physical architectures and virtual architectures.

I just submitted an abstract as a proposal to present a full paper on this topic at a conference. Fingers crossed. I hope to be writing a lot more about this topic in the future. In the meantime, I wanted to share with my readers a graphic that sort of explains my train of thought. Click on the thumbnail to be directed to a larger image.


Too many things to write about! Here’s a list of things I’ve read today or recently that have been kicking around in my mind.


From the ifBook blog, an exciting new project that:

“represents a bold step by a scholarly press — one of the most distinguished and most innovative in the world — toward developing new procedures for vetting material and assuring excellence, and more specifically, toward meaningful collaboration with existing online scholarly communities to develop and promote new scholarship.”

The Institute for the Future of the Book created CommentPress, a paragraph by paragraph means of commenting on blog entries. It sort of reminds me of the track changes feature in MS Word, but of course the implications are far greater. It seems that Noah Wardrip-Fruin will be posting his book, Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies, piece by piece on the Grand Text Auto blog and we will be able to comment as it comes. The big deal is that the MIT Press are the ones who “gave it the green light”. Read more at ifBook, this is an important development in scholarly publishing.


I’m really excited about this video-in-the-making called “A Renaissance Computer” that states that the current migration to digital publication is historically paralleled only by the invention of the printing press. The creator of the video called it his “toe-in-the-water” of the media ecology field, and its one hell of a big toe in a relatively small puddle if you ask me. I’m excited to see where the video will go when it is done. Unfortunately it is not on YouTube so I wasn’t sure how to embed it, so to watch it you’ll have to follow the link. It is worth your time, the research is pretty amazing.


I posted the other day and referenced “Better Together: Restoring the American Community”, Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein, and I wanted to revisit that book and complain about a piece of terminology. The entire book is about building “social capital”, a term that I suddenly realized is kind of gross: it commodifies community building and its participants, rather than promoting healthy activity within an ecology. Why has everything got to be about “capital”? Aren’t they really talking about building some kind of network, building trust and strengthening mutually beneficial relationships?


Finally, I’m totally bummed out that there are people commenting fervently on the Annoyed Librarian blog about the “death of the book” and the “death of the public library”. I’ve been working in public libraries for about 8 years now, but only recently raced through an MLS degree, and one of the things that really got me down in school was this same kind of discussion. I don’t even believe that people in our field don’t recognize just how important this institution is in our country, and just how important it is to work really, really hard to keep our doors open and keep our services relevant to the needs of our communities. WTF people??? Can we stop with the doomsday stuff and get on with it???

Thank you to Andrea Mercado for the kind words she wrote about Catch and Release in her blog. Heads up: her entry “Librarians: practice social networking anthropology” has in it one of the most important concepts associated with participatory librarianship and social networking that I’ve considered. Andrea, as a matter of reciprocated respect, I am going to dive into this issue at length because I believe it is of the utmost importance, and hats-off to you for identifying it so clearly.

Andrea says:

“I find that even librarians who get the idea of social networking sites, social media creation, mashups, sharing, gadgetry, don’t quite have the cultural understanding behind the technologies in discussion.”

I believe that what librarians hope to achieve as we blunder around and clumsily attempt to apply social computing tools to random aspects of patron experiences is a new type of not-home, not-work, not-Third Place, but a new virtual space in which the cultural rules are differently defined. In “The Great Good Place” Ray Oldenburg describes the “’Third Place’: a place that is neither work nor home where people can spend time together.” Home, work, and Third Places are physical, concrete, tactile architectures. Social networks are not. Social networks are the Second Life libraries, the online book discussion groups, the MySpace groups: and the rules of etiquette and discourse are unique to these virtual environments. I’d like to call these environments the Fourth Space, space rather than place because it is a matter of a metaphorically specific, dimensional environment. The rules and the laws within the Fourth Space are defined by the users or participants, just as they are in physical spaces.

The standards of interpersonal communication in a physical space are determined by architecture and the participants in the architecture as well as long established, cultural context. The rules of engagement in a virtual space originate in the established context of physical space, but they are embedded in the mediation and a metaphor for physical space. The two are drastically different scenarios. Marshall McLuhan, in his most famous and overquoted quote, says the “medium is the message”; when the medium is actually a metaphor for space, interaction itself, conversation, discourse, knowledge sharing: they are all determined by the medium, by the context. To treat other people in a social web environment the way you would treat them in a physical, architectural space is laughable, yet a natural mistake. If you ever sit and look at a radio while listening to a broadcast or talk back at your television you are doing the same thing. You are applying a social standard associated with a different mediation to your current mediation. It can make you look pretty stupid.

In “Better Together: Restoring the American Community”, Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein set out to address the state of the American community through a series of anecdotes. The book was published in 2004, and the social web was in a very different state back then, but Putnam & Feldstein did have one vignette about the community. Here’s an important excerpt from the book that addresses the media ecology issue I just laid out:

“these discussions (on craigslist) are like conversations with friends at the local café, but of course they are different, too, and different in ways that are important to community and social capital. Written messages lack the physical expressions and gestures that are such an important part of face-to-face conversation, clarifying and deepening the meanings of the words while adding their own unspoken meaning and providing instantaneous response to what is being said. That combination of spoken language and body language helps us understand the tone and substance of what is being communicated and also helps us to judge whether we should trust the person we are speaking to, and to what degree.”

Gesture and expression, for now, are lost in the spatial metaphor provided by the web, be it 1.0, 2.0, or 8.6. The plea for trust-building physical, gestural interactions is just the icing on the cake, just one example of you sitting around talking back to your television. If librarians are going to build or promote these Fourth Spaces responsibly, just as Andrea quotes from David Lankes, don’t “define your mission by cool features, do it by core principles”. Don’t find nifty new technology tools and look to apply them to a need. Determine a need and choose the appropriate tool to address it. If you innovate using this model, you will never misunderstand cultural context in creating a Fourth Space because the culture determined, requested, and created the need in the first place.

I found another 1970s crackpot genius to read about, and I’m pretty excited about it. I got turned on to Stafford Beer through Matt Webb’s blog, which I found through Adam Greenfield’s blog. I’m not even sure who this Matt Webb guy is but he’s clearly a genius and totally worth reading. Right now I have “Platform for Change” via Brooklyn Public Library’s trusty Interlibrary Loan Department, and this book is blowing my mind, particularly in the context of my last post.

I wrote yesterday about Luis Von Ahn’s interest in “’human computation,’ the art of using massive groups of networked human minds to solve problems that computers cannot.” I wrote that it freaked me out that from a media ecology perspective this implies that social computing is building a giant collective superbrain. Stafford Beer had a really interesting way of regarding everyone’s brains as individual computers, and I wonder what his thoughts would be about harvesting their collective power via social computing.

From “Platform for Change”:

“The brain is a computer we begin to understand. Like any computer, it has a blueprint to which it was constructed. For the brain as the ‘family nose’, the blueprint is fixed in the genetic code laid down by mother and father in equal clumps of genes. We all live with this limitation. We cannot hire more storage; we cannot install extra peripheral equipment; we cannot commission a fresh set of initial orders”

The quote really points toward a need for the creation of this superbrain; it anticipates Web 2.0. If you cannot add storage to or edit individual brains, we need to upload them all to one place and create something more powerful. I’m excited to read more of this book; I’ve really only just started it. It is full of off-the-wall ideas. One of Beer’s other accomplishments, or near accomplishments that I have to mention was the creation of Cybersyn, a computer network that was supposed to run the Chilean economy. Check out his “lair”, this control room is amazing. Read more about Cybersyn here. Could this be another example of looking to the past to solve the future’s problems?