Monday, August 30, 2004

Games, Chat and E-mail: Legitimate for public library computers

I was reminded recently that many public libraries continue to restrict the use of public access computers to "legitimate research" -- thus religating email, chat and games as "illigitimate". Such policies and practices are proposed as ways to meter out the limited computers. I wonder if its not really just to minimize the complaints by traditonal library service users that see virtual pool as a waste of resources; to appease those who consider such use as not worthy of library financial support at the polls or at the statehouse.

It reminds me of those who think libraries should not have videos. Most people have gotten past that hurdle, just like fifty years ago when their grandparents got past the concept of libraries buying paperbacks and that library collections containing entertainment titles are legitimate. I don't know why people think that lending out the video "Kill Bill" is okay but playing the flash game of the same title on a library computer as inappropriate or a waste of taxpayers money.

Part of the public library service mantra of the past decade has been to assist those less fortunate in bridging the digital divide. Internet access is promoted by libraries as a way to ensure a better educated citizenry. What some forget is that the Internet is not just a big encyclopedia, it a conduit for communications. To be digitally saavy requires us to use the Internet as medium for interacting with others.

As the Internet matures the range of activities conducted over the Internet will continue to grow wider and wider. Value-based restrictions on use of library computers will become more and more arbitrary. If we want to maintain our image of impartial facilitators in the information economy, we need to forgo attempts to control it.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Virtual Reference and the deep Internet

The State of Ohio is funding an expanded virtual reference service that starts up on September 7th. Under the name KnowItNow anyone can engage in an online chat session with a real librarian to help them find information from a wide variety of sources. This service is in place at some libraries already, but is being expanded statewide, with access offered twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week. During the day individual librarians working from libraries all of the state will be tied together in a virtual call center. At night, free-lance librarians will work with patrons from their homes.

Certainly these librarians will use traditional print sources like reference books and Internet tools such as Google to answer the queries, but there is a deeper Internet that many people aren't aware is available. I am referring to the online database available only through subscription.

Ohio public libraries spend approximately $5,000,000 per year for "premium" content that they access over the Internet. These sources include general reference and magazine titles. One such service called EbscoHost is available today from the OPLIN (Ohio Public Library Infromation Network) web site. EbscoHost has the full text and often PDF images of over 2000 magazines and journals. With sophisticated indexing and output options it offers authoritative articles not often found through a simpel Google search. The back files aren't as extensive as what most libraries have, but most tiles go back at least three years and others go back considerably longer.

Other databases offer access to materials ranging from poetry to physics and from auto repair to alternative medicine. OPLIN has scores of databases available for searching and many individual libraries have even more to offer. I often tell people that these databses are the biggest secret libraries have.

Virtual reference service help libraries exploit these databases for patrons. Using sophicticated "co-browsing" technology, librarians can do more than chat with someone online, they can also take them to the sources, showing them the databases, the search strategies, and e-mail them the resulting documents. If necessary, the librarain will scan from a traditional reference book and email the scanned pages.

The Dayton Metro Library will be going through a learning curve during the early part of September as its reference librarians become acustom to providing virtual reference at the same time they are answering traditional telephone reference calls. One of the biggest hurdles is getting used to multi-tasking. They may be finishing up a virtual reference session with one patron, taking a phone call from a second patron and seeing a new virtual query come in from a third. This may seen daunting at first, but as other consortiums have found, the collective force of networked reference librarians can keep up with the demand.

Oh by the way... Do you need an opinion on that next novel to read? Try ReadThisNow to chat with a reader's adviser.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

My Slate PC/PDA/Phone

I keep waiting for PC industry to design a Tablet PC for my needs. What's being offered in the marketplace isn't getting me excited. I don't need a desktop PC that I can carry. What they forget is that they need to keep it simple and keep it cheap. Here is what is on my spec sheet:

First of all, eliminate the moving parts. We don't need a hard drive, CD or DVD. Put enough flash RAM to keep a gig or two of stuff on the device. I see the networking connections providing the primary means of bringing content into the device. Keep it light and low power.

Make the screen large enough to read but don't feel it needs to be a bulletin board. Somewhere in the 5x7" up to 8x11" inch screen size. The thing has to usable as a web browser, so support at least a 800x600 resolution. Of course it needs to be pressure-sensitive for stylus input, but I still think there has to be a better way of interacting with these devices than with handwriting recognition and chicklet keyboards.

WiFi and Blue tooth will be the way to import/update/export data and synchronize calendars and address books. Bluetooth is for my telephone headset. Phone functions are on the tablet.

Keep all edges smooth, rounded and sealed. I want to be able to through it into my backpack with my climbing gear antique it to the crag with me.

What the people who make Tablet PCs don't seem to appreciate is the is that batteries are the bane of techno-existence. I image a charging pad using the same technology found in my Sonicare toothbrush -- no electrical contacts. I never have to think about whether my toothbrush is re-charged. I'd like set the tablet down on charging pad when done for the day and the battery would be recharged without any second thoughts. I don't to snap it in. I just want to toss on the pad.

Design my tablet so I would want to crawl up in bed with it. Or at least sit in from of my TV and control the remote for my TIVO while I surf related web-sites.

Apple Computer has always been a leader in industrial design. I would have thought they would have taken the Palm PDA to the next step. But I guess they got so burned with their Newton PDA back in the 1990s, that they are now a bit gun shy. Too bad. The world needs a Slate PC/PDA for the rest of us.

Finally, don't bog me down with a full blown PC operating system. No Windows needed here. Palm's minimalist operating system, a suite of Office compatible applications and a web browser is all I need.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Mandatory HTML tags won't protect kids from porn

Did you catch Lawrence Lessig's suggestion in Wired Issue 12.09 | September 2004?

He's suggesting a new mechanism for protecting kids from porn by mandating adult content vendors to place a meta tag self-identifying their sites as <porn>. The hope is that with such tags embedded in each site's pages a parent's web browser could be configured to block them from displaying undesirable materials.

What he described reminds me of the all-but-defunct PICS Content Filtering standard that has been around since the late 90s. In PICS various rating systems can be defined. One rating system that was proposed by the software publishing industry allowed sites to be rated for sex, violence, language, etc. Not too much different that the MPAA ratings for films.

Why did PICS fail? First and foremost PICS is voluntary. With only a very small fraction of web sites using it to self rate their own content, it was marginally better than parents attempting create their own list of sites to filter! Think of the Titantic with screen doors and open windows.

Even though Lessig suggests making these labels mandatory, everyone knows that the U.S. Congress cannot mandate good behavior on the web. Didn't Congress try to outlaw SPAM? If only US-based adult content are labeled billions of unrated foreign-based web pages would still be available to threaten the morals of our children.

But the failure of Lessig's suggestion goes much deeper than compliance.
It comes down to value judgments about what material is appropriate for which consumers. Even if the producer self-rates their own content, others will disagree with these self-ratings. A parent in rural Ohio may not have the same definition of pornography as Larry Flint.

Each month I have at least one adult complain that a book or film should be removed from our collection because he or she thinks it is inappropriate for children or even for other adults. In many cases these are classic works of literature. In each of these cases it is someone telling the Library what is inappropriate for someone else to read or view. What we buy for our library is pretty mainstream and is pretty popular on most main streets, and yet we have regular challenges. There certainly isn't an objective way to identify and label a web page let a lone a web site whose content many change daily.

Reading Lessig's article reminded me that I experimented with PICS technology back in the late-90s. My interest was to see if a less-biased filter could be constructed than what was being used in public libraries at the time. Back then as today, the differing world views of the information consumer dooms any attempt to label content to the satisfaction of everyone.

At our library we empower parents to monitor and control the borrowing habits of their children. We recommend that they take an active role in suggesting what their children read and watch. In the educating their children for life in an online world parents need to raise their children to respect their own values and hope they make the right choices. No technology can do that.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Thoughts on RFID in public libraries

Last Friday I met with a number of chief technology officers and technical services managers at from the major public libraries in Ohio. We got together to discuss the desirability of proceeding with RFID at this time. Among the topics and issues were RFID's applications and uses within the general library and public library environments; the status of standards; and the implications for materials security and patron privacy.

Patron privacy is something library value but in our discussion it didn't come up as being a the Achillies heel that some present as a problem with this technology. Privacy concerns are manageable and Ohio libraries implementing RFID may want to establish their own best practices to ensure patron privacy and to minimize public concerns.

Suprisingly it was economic factors that led to a concensus opinion that the the risks are such that a 2004 or 2005 implementation schedule would be ill-advised.

The lack of standards and high personnel costs associated with barcode-to-RFID conversion were cited as the most compelling risks. The cost of conversion risk is particularly obvious if one calculated the costs of having to change RFID tags due to a change in technology. As libraries continue to form resource sharing cooperatives, it will be more important that RFID systems wouldinteroperate.

Even if the all above risks were mitigated with a maturation of the product in the library market, a critical costs/benefits analysis would probably support my feeling that this technology's time hasn't come.

One reason is that the high volume write-once-read-many RFIDs such as what might be used at a Wal-Mart may never have an application in the public library environment. They just don't have the durability for reading hundreds of times. The re-writeable RFID tags found in current library applications are still in the $0.50 range in large volume purchases. That alone will continue to challenge the cost effectiveness of RFID particularly within libraries that that have adopted or plan to implement a high volume self-serve circulation strategy.

The long standing problem of security of materials, particularly CDs and DVDs were definitely seen as a bigger problem than any solved by RFID. Attempting to use RFID for materials security may be a bigger problem as RFID-based security is much easier to disable than what most of us are using currently to secure materials. The most sensible experiment in RFID may be for capital assets management.

Here is what I told a member of my management council on Friday when I returned from our meeting, "If somebody wants to be the first kid on the block to implement RFID, then let them go at it. It may get them a headline, but I don't know what else."