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Category Archives: space and architecture

So. You are walking down the street on hot summer afternoon in Brooklyn, when you see a fire hydrant gushing water with a gang of happy kids playing in it. “Good times,” you reflect nostalgically as you dodge the spray and keep strolling down the block. You remember what it was like being a kid yourself doing the same thing in the dead of summer. Your mind wanders and you start to think about fire hydrants themselves and their history and the laws strictly prohibiting people from wastefully opening them up like that. When you round the next corner you see another hydrant, and this one hasn’t been opened for recreational purposes. On the side of it you are pleased to find a small sticker placed there by another citizen, because that sticker will enable you to access more information about fire hydrants, their history, and the laws about opening them up for play. You snap a picture of that sticker with your phone and it immediately links you to the appropriate Wikipedia article “fire hydrant”, while the GPS determines your location and the appropriate location based information to push to you.

OK, the fire hydrant is a slight bizarre example, a bit of a stretch, but its been hotter than hell in NYC lately and this story illustrates what does.

Visit the site, it’s a really cool idea- filling out a form on their website will create 2D barcodes for you that correspond to any Wikipedia article. It gives you a pdf of that barcode and then you can print stickers that you attach to a real world artifact “once you have permission”. Part two of the venture is installing a 2D barcode reader on your phone, which taps into the camera function (some phones come with them already installed, others you’ll have to sort out on your own). Then snap a picture of any 2D barcode and it will take you to the appropriate URL. Here’s a link to a project at Columbia where someone built a 2D barcode reader for the iPhone that can recognize URLs embedded in QR codes. Unfortunately, because Apple is all about driving you to their not so mom-and-pop App Store for everything, with the 2.0 upgrade I haven’t figured out how to install a 2D barcode reader on my phone. If any readers can help, please email me.

But wait, is hyperlinking the world’s objects an appropriate end game? I don’t think so. I went to a publisher’s showcase at New York Public Library this afternoon and decided to walk all the way back home to Greenpoint, Brooklyn from 42nd st. The urban hike is a beautiful thing, don’t knock it- even if some fools try to turn it into a networking experience. Along my way I was snapping pics on my phone and sending them to FaceBook mobile, documenting my path and my thoughts as I passed through the city. I love the graffiti aspect of the Semapedia project: literally “tagging” things with information. But what if you customized your own version of this technology and made the barcodes you place on objects link not to Wikipedia but to your own site. You could “virtually” slander or promote a physical target via one tiny barcode. You could create your own narrative of your urban hike, based on fleeting memories, random nostalgic associations, déjà vu, ANYTHING. While I appreciate the “information commons” aspect of Semapedia, the first thing I think of is customizing and personalizing the thing and making Sema-Nate-O-Pedia so that I can create my own narratives of the city and my daily journeys through it. I’d put those damn stickers everywhere! I’ll add that I think this is part of what the artists are experimenting with in the Marfa webring project proposed on Rhizome, but I’d love to see that taken to the next level and made individual rather than awkwardly pseudo-municipal.

Bottom line: I’m less interested in a physical-computing encyclopedia of the world’s objects than I am in a physical-computing encyclopedia of the world’s object versus me. That’s not vanity, that’s just the way individuals interact with the world, as individuals. The collectives will form by themselves later.

Update: looks like this is easy enough to do with this QR code generator!  Awesome!  Now i just need a reader for the iphone…

Update again:  I got a datamatrix decoder to work on my iphone!  awesome! 


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”.

In the study of decorative arts, furniture is often referred to as microarchitecture. Perhaps one of the most literal examples of furniture emulating an architectural style is the “skyscraper furniture” of Paul T. Frankl. I had the good fortune of buying a Frankl-attributed piece some years back, and sadly the time just came to pass on this amazing bookshelf to a new owner. Below I’ve posted a picture of this exceptional piece of microarchitecture (in order to publicly immortalize it before it becomes a treasure in someone else’s private collection), a scan from the cover of Frankl’s 1928 classic book “New Diemnsions”, and links to a few resources about Frankl.

1) Christopher Long’s book about Frankl from Yale University Press

2) A collection of images of Frankl’s work from Architonic

3) Search Abebooks for Frankl’s writing, New Dimensions (1928), Space for Living (1938), and Form and Reform (1930). Space for Living is a real treasure in terms of modernist graphic layout- this book is a piece of design history in and of itself.

This is going to be slightly 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…

Here’s the basic premise- like this Kuniavsky guy says, devices are service avatars.

  • phone > phone service
  • ipod > itunes store
  • kindle > amazon store

This train of thought is what originally led me to think we need to build a library device. But that is wrong. We already have a device, it just lacks embedded information processing power. Its the library card.

(actually many have information embedded already in a magnetic strip, it just needs to be expanded upon)

There’s no reason that content needs to be delivered and dispalyed on your device in a physical computing environment. Instead, your library card contains your profile, which has preferences (even information content- ebooks, mp3s, whatever) that are updated either manually or automatically every time you use it to access library content. This could mean that you offload your information profile and preferences- you keep it on you, physically on your library card- and then you reload it to the library system when you are using the library, in a library facility or remotely. You own your information shadow and keep it privacy protected, physically. You can display it or share it at will, when you are logged in via your card.

This of course requires building a social aspect into library OPACs, and integrating that w/ any database access. But its all doable.

Its time for the library card to evolve and have increased funtionality. Lets make it a worthy service avatar.

  1. update:
Just wanted to note that adding functionality to a library card doesn’t need to get all deep and social-networky and whatnot to be useful and important. What if the card could just function as a disk or flash drive, just so that patrons could store docs on it? If nothing else this increased functionality justifies taking the issuing of library cards a little more seriously. It even makes a library card desirable in a whole new way, perhaps the first step to creating library “service envy”?

Another update:
I was talking about library “cards” in this post, really just because of our familiarity with this object and its design mappings.  But it should be clear that when you change the function of an object, you change the form of the object.  If we add functionality to library “cards”, they no longer need to be card-shaped, right?  The “card” takes on another form, maybe a keychain, a flash drive, a bluetooth device, or some other library-specific, branded device or service avatar.

Well, it’s been a long journey but I am back to the blog. I had sort of thought that my first entry when I got back would be a little some thing about the road trip to the PLA conference in Minneapolis, but I think I’m over it at this point. 9 states. The House on the Rock. The birthplace of water skiing. Fried cheese curds. I may elaborate with some pictures at some point, but suffice to say that the ride to and from Minnesota was incredible.

Let me quickly mention that there have been some great comments while I was away, and I promise to respond to all of them, particularly the good critical ones…

The PLA conference was great, but there was some kind of underlying “we can’t do our jobs that well, so lets outsource it” feeling that really irked me. It wasn’t something that was really there in just one presentation, rather it was an overall feeling, something of a sense of doom, a feeling that indeed librarians are really just voyeurs while real-life innovation goes on in other industries. I hope I can lose this feeling that librarians are innovation voyeurs, fixated on interesting books and new business strategies outlined in interesting books. I hope I can get past this feeling that public service is inherently reactive, thanks to librarians’ willingness to just read books and hire the authors to fix problems. I was told once that in interviewing librarians if they say they want the job because they like to read then you shouldn’t hire them: all they will do is read on the job and not get any work done. Maybe the proliferation of consultants is the result of too many librarians just reading books and not doing any work. Let me recap and try to explain the problem. I really don’t believe in bitching and moaning without presenting potential solutions, so maybe I’ll be able to offer a little something constructive at the end. Even better some comments will provide solutions.

I wrote briefly in the PLA blog about the Envirosell presentation. Envirosell is Paco Underhill’s consulting firm, and Paco Underhill is the author of “Why we Buy”. The workshop was titled “Why we Borrow”, and it was the story of how Envirosell adapted their methodology to understand and then improve upon the way libraries “do business”, i.e., distribute library materials effectively to their legal service communities. I didn’t have anything great to say about the presentation in the PLA blog, and now that I’m on my own little chunk of interweb I’ll be even less nice. Less nice to the librarians that hire these clowns, that is. What: you read a book about how someone else distributed products for a profit in a “branded environment” and you couldn’t learn a thing or two from the book, you had to hire THEM to use THEIR brains and put together a plan for a library. Great. Envirosell had plenty of legitimate methodology and slick presentation for the show; they understood how to make sexy graphics and present results in a coherent manner for the digestion of executives and laypeople alike. Why librarians, people with MASTERS DEGREES, people with EXPERTISE in our mission and vision, (which is NOT simply the distribution of product) should need a consultant to understand library users is beyond me.

Next, lets talk about James Keller, the admittedly badass marketing guru from Queens Public Library. Here’s a little cut from my PLA blog post/review of his talk:

Librarians, we have to remember that these marketing bigwigs work for us- not the other way around. When Keller started talking about how to create a marketing plan it sounded frighteningly like the overall strategic plan an executive director might want to come up with for their library system. Marketing and communications departments exist to help public service folks do their jobs. Don’t be fooled by glossy flyers or hot air balloons with logos on them. We run the show, not them.

Here we go again: only this guy isn’t a consultant, he’s a top-level full time employee. I don’t want to sound like some kind of control freak. I don’t want to give the impression that I believe all aspects of librarianship are secret ninja skills learned deep in the bowels of a branch library or in a classroom tower at some library school. What I do want to make clear is that in James Keller we have yet another example of a person highly skilled in some other industry honing in on and perhaps even trying to take over one of the most important skills a librarian has: understanding user needs. What happens when user needs are measured by a marketing team for the sake of positive public image rather than by librarians for the sake of positive service impact? We stop getting the right things done. Or, we get highly hailed “successes” like the Idea Stores of the UK, 90s-looking transitional architectures that mimic the feed-the-machine style retail environments that Envirosell would have us build. Keller closed with a statement about how he’d love to partner the Queens Public Library with McDonald’s. Keller said there’s more Queens Library branches than there are McD’s in the borough. He’d like to offer bookmarks that give a free Big Mac when you check out a book. Gross James. Change the Queens tagline from “Enrich your Life” to “Enrich your Life and Destroy your Body”.

The Idea Store. I really wanted to be blown away by some kind of beautiful library innovation here, and sadly I really wasn’t. No kidding, I wanted it SO BADLY, and it just didn’t happen. The panel for this particular event was really solid: Jerome Myers of Tacoma Public Library set it up (Jerome is a former colleague from Brooklyn Public Library), and sitting on the panel was Ginnie Cooper of DC Public Library as well as Martin Gomez of Urban Library Council. Maybe they were just being polite, but none of the panelists spoke of what was going through my head. The Idea Store is in my opinion the soulless, transitional learning space associated with the turn of the century, a husk that simulates service innovation in the way that a candy-store vending machine offers you a bit of *bling* in a little plastic egg for 25 cents. The Idea Store represents the manipulative possibilities associated with user-centered design, it teases and entices the patron by appealing to their inner shop-a-holic. The Idea Store is the library equivalent of putting corn syrup in every piece of library content we deliver in order to make it taste better and sell better. James Keller would love to attract people to Queens Public Library by feeding them free Big Macs, and if he fed them free Big Macs I can guarantee that circ stats would skyrocket in Queens. The Idea Store is basically offering a Big Mac. Eat it up, suckas. Sure, the usage doubled at the Idea Store when you opened up, but there’s something fundamentally wrong with equating government sponsored, democratic style, individually initiated education with capitalist consumption, isn’t there? Isn’t there?

So is this some kind of call for good ol’ fashioned library buildings? Absolutely not. Flexible architectures and flexible architectural programs are the future of libraries, no doubt about it. Agility, both in physical presence and in core services are the future of libraries. Embracing technologies judiciously as our users demand them, that is the future of libraries. Good design as a communication tool (gotta hand it to the Idea Store here: exceptional graphic design coming out of that place), attention to retail trends, marketing strategies: all of this important. BUT pandering to people’s weaknesses: not the future. Listening to our users and giving them what they want is the future, but simply looking at what they already like and buy is not the way to evaluate what they want out of a library. Libraries are about encouraging self-initiated continuing education, we want to build in our patrons the desire to learn, the desire to help themselves. This is not accomplished through trickery.

This is a long posting, but its the most important thing you are going to read on my blog. So read it, OK?

Earlier this week, The New York Daily News ran a story describing how budget cuts are preventing Brooklyn Public Library from opening an innovative new service point in DUMBO, Brooklyn. I developed this new service model with BPL over the past two years; it began as a project while I was student at Pratt Institute and became my job to pursue and develop it at the library. While the project remained an active pursuit for Brooklyn Public Library, it made sense not to discuss the details of the service model, the potential locations, and the incredible impact it could have by bringing library service to communities that have been largely neglected. Now, in light of the alarming lack of funding support from the city, and in recognition of the fact that building a 21st century public library is neither a closed nor a proprietary act, I feel compelled to share the details with the greater library community in hopes that this work can be used anywhere, by anybody. With any luck, a stand-up community figure in Brooklyn will recognize the importance of this venture, and perhaps they can find it in themselves to donate the necessary funds to support these efforts and build social capital in their neighborhood. New York Public Library received a 100 million dollar donation last week. WHAT ABOUT BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY???  We are NOT the same system!!!  10 million dollars, or even 3 million dollars given to Brooklyn Public Library could open up and staff quite a few library Outposts. Each of these Outposts would have a tremendous positive impact on their immediate community; each of these Outposts would serve to strengthen Brooklyn as a whole.

So what is this Library Outpost model I speak of all about, anyways? Here it is in bullets:

• Strategic location. The Outpost is a small space in a commercial area, a business improvement district, or a transportation hub. Rather than bring the patrons to the library, the Outpost brings the library to the patrons.

• Extended service hours. The Outpost will be open from 8AM until 10PM, giving the community access to library materials, exhibitions, and programs during the times most convenient to them.

• Collection available via online holds system. Rather than providing a localized browsing collection, the Outpost will connect users to all library materials via the catalog.

• Reference service. Outpost staff will provide exceptional reference services using online databases and internet searching strategies. All reference sources will be electronic.

• Wireless access and digital library content. The Outpost will be a comfortable WiFi zone to work in from a table or play in from a lounge chair. Through patrons’ portable devices they can access digital content via the library website.

• Programming and Exhibition space. The Outpost will feature exhibitions that pair the library’s collection and services with art related to community interests. The space will also be flexible enough to accommodate performances, lectures, concerts, discussions, even meals during evening hours.

Now the longer explanation:

Library Outposts are storefront library service points, no more than 1500 sq. ft. in size, centrally located in busy commercial districts or near transportation hubs. The storefront presence makes the Outpost agile and adaptable to the particular features of each community, providing fundamental library service and serving as a gateway to the full range of programs, classes, and events offered throughout the larger service ecology. The space is easily transformable; one moment a silent reading room, another moment a performance art space, another moment a forum for a community group meeting. Storefront library facilities have been attempted in the past with limited success, but the Outpost model takes advantage of emerging technologies to reconsider the distribution of library content and materials (you know, like books, DVDs, etc.) and invent itself as something entirely different. Presently a few libraries offer similar services: Houston Public Library has a few small, tech-heavy locations, Contra Costa Public Library offers material vending machines in the BART stations, and with the generous help of the Gates Foundation, New Orleans Public Library has opened some storefront facilities that have been received enthusiastically by the community. The Outpost model combines these practices and takes them to the next level.

With the rise of the Internet as the primary public information transfer medium, library patrons have a new set of expectations. Just as clothing shoppers size up their potential new outfits in an online environment, just as antiques enthusiasts scour eBay for the bargains they once found at flea markets, library patrons now browse online catalogs for the materials they once hunted for on miles of shelves. For many library patrons the browsing experience has already become a virtual phenomenon rather than a physical reality. While this shift emerged slowly at first, library catalogs are quickly becoming more and more user friendly. Online reserve statistics collected across the county support the popularity of this virtual browsing trend. Between open source products like LibraryThing for Libraries,, and the Google Books API, virtual browsing is becoming simpler, access to catalog records is getting easier, and physical collections are being exposed and utilized in more ways than ever. Libraries need to embrace and welcome this change as an opportunity to provide new, unique service delivery, and we need to adjust our physical spaces accordingly.

So I’ll explain the biggest mental leap associated with the Outpost concept first, the piece that really makes it unique: the Outpost has NO LOCAL COLLECTION. Every single piece of print material (with the exception of magazines and newspapers, and those can be eliminated digitally in a different manner) is an item that was requested online for pickup at the Outpost location. This in turn frees up 1500 sq. ft. of library space for programs, exhibitions, classes, movies, concerts, community meetings, serving coffee, and virtually any community-building, social capital-creating activity. The library of the 21st Century has to maintain a physical presence, but that presence cannot always be in the form of a well-organized, publicly accessible book warehouse.

Now, before any librarians freak out and scream, “NO! People still want to browse through stacks of books!” I want to make it abundantly clear that the goal is NOT to replace all traditional libraries with library Outposts. An Outpost is just one node in a network of different physical service points. Just as the car-culture era bookmobiles didn’t replace library branches, neither will Outposts. The important thing is getting these little service nodes into the community in the right places, and giving people as much as we possibly can out of them. Location is everything in the urban environment. When I began developing this idea I was using Brooklyn as a case study, I’ll continue to do so here, and I am confident my readers will see how this can be implemented in any urban public library system.

It is also important to understand that urban communities are in a constant state of flux. Demographics in Brooklyn change rapidly and it is difficult to provide needed services with a limited budget and aging facilities in fixed locations. This presents a challenge for the library. Many of BPL’s branches were built in the first two decades of the 20th century; since then entire communities have moved, disappeared, shifted, and grown. Library facilities have not been able to follow the people as community centers and business districts migrated to new areas. Many large, beautiful public libraries are located in desolate and remote corners of their neighborhoods. Regrettably, the working adults who live and labor in the rapidly developing communities have moved out of reach of the Brooklyn Public Library. They have become potential patrons rather than active patrons. This is unacceptable; the public library’s mission as a democratic institution supporting universal self-initiated education demands a highly visible central location.

At the same time that our neighborhoods have changed physically, Brooklynites’ expectations of service hours have rapidly altered in recent years (I believe this is a safe assertion nation-wide, particularly in urban areas, as well). When banker’s hours still meant something, citizens were accustomed to waiting in line to receive necessary services. Today, we expect stamps, cash, train tickets, Metrocards, even groceries to be available whenever we want them and with minimal human interaction.

I’m going to show you a few maps of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods to use as examples of urban shift, but I’ll use DUMBO as the primary example. These communities are unique but they have each experienced dramatic demographic and physical changes in the last ten years. All lack accessible library services in their revitalized areas. It is crucial that the public library tracks these changes and serves these people, and it is crucial that the library is provided with adequate funding so that we can do so properly.


DUMBO, for those not familiar with Brooklyn, is the area Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. It is a fascinating neighborhood known for its arts community, particularly architecture and design, but everything else as well. Just 10 years ago DUMBO was a drastically different place, filled with empty warehouses, industry, and many, many rats. The rats are probably still there, but there isn’t much empty space in DUMBO now after the enormous urban renewal effort that has occurred. DUMBO is literally a different place, and you know what their community lacks? A library. There is no library in DUMBO, and to hike to another library requires navigating through highway and bridge ramps and a solid 25 minutes of your time. An Outpost in DUMBO would give the community immediate access to the library’s entire collection, AND it would serve as a program and exhibition space for a specific audience.

Another interesting example is the area that the real estate folks are calling “Greenwood Heights”. Greenwood Heights is the fastest growing Mexican community in Brooklyn. The streets are always packed, and a major express subway hub makes for quite a bit of foot (and auto) traffic. New schools are being built. The nearest libraries, as you can see on the map are farrrrr awwwway. This is another perfect opportunity to provide a new service to a new community. Perhaps the Outpost is reconsidered as a computer center in this location? I quote this figure in every other blog entry I write, but AGAIN, the Pew Internet study concluded that 2/3 of all people coming to the library come to use a computer. A Greenwood heights technology center, combined with Outpost-style material delivery could actually give users what they need. It’s a perfect exercise in user-centered design: listen to what the users want and then provide it for them.


Finally, what about Kings Plaza mall? Other libraries, for example King County in Washington State, offer services in shopping malls. What if we offered an Outpost or computer center here? Again, we go to where the people are.


I hope this all makes sense, if you got this point in reading you may have recognized that some of the text was cut-and-paste from the many, many iterations of this concept I’ve gone through. I really believe that this model, or similar versions of it represent one aspect of the future of public library service. I’m not even going to pretend this represents some kind of all-encompassing holistic solution to the many challenges faced by urban public libraries, but it is a start. The operating cost of one of these facilities is a fraction of the cost of operating a full-sized branch library: that alone is a solid argument for efficiency. Potential benefactors: donate to the Brooklyn Public Library, demand innovative services. The librarians have the solutions but we simply cannot afford to put these ideas into action. Brooklyn deserves the best.

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:


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:


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.

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


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.



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. 


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:


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.


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.


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.


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 🙂