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Monday, July 18, 2011

Strange Horizons 23: The Larger Library Battle

Here's the next installment in my ongoing development of Strange Horizons Retrospective, Volume 2, which starts each chapter with one of my previously published column pieces and then updates it with a modern look at the topic. You can download Volume 1 for free from Barnes & Noble or Smashwords, or you Kindle lovers can snag it for 99 cents.

Strange Horizons 23: The Larger Library Battle
Original publication: February 1999

Some of my earliest memories are of the public library. On occasional overcast weekend afternoons, my dad would take me down to the local book repository and turn me loose in the children’s section. My passion in early grade school was biographies. I read about the lives of Lincoln, Edison, John Paul Jones (the naval hero, not the Led Zeppelin drummer), even Nicoli Tesla. And whenever I needed help, there was always a smiling librarian with the information I required.

Over the years, I developed a deep appreciation for the library and its resources. When computers came along and replaced card catalogs, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. All those books, all that knowledge, beckoned at my fingertips like a pharaoh’s freshly exposed treasure. It was greatly due to the library’s help that I thrived in school and, in my post-school years, became a professional writer.

One of the library’s latest boons is free Internet access. As I have unlimited broadband, though, I’ll pillage the library’s many magazine and journal subscriptions from my home office, searching for the pieces I need and emailing them back to myself by the dozens, all for free. In reality, this new capability forms the backbone of my writing research, and without it both my work and income would greatly suffer.

Sometimes, though, I actually do need library materials that can’t be had online, and, during this research, I’ll often bounce back and forth between the physical book stacks and the library’s online resources. My favorite place to do this is the recently renovated Multnomah County Central Library. It’s a gorgeous building, with vast swaths of engraved marble, stylized chandeliers, and stunning artwork. A few months back, I was in Central’s periodicals section, elbow-deep in research on some article topic, and I needed more materials from the online journal resources. I hit the Send button to email myself twenty or so items. And waited. And waited. The network was clogged, and my system had just locked up, thereby flushing my last half-hour of work.

I ground my teeth in frustration, then heard a rustle of paper to my left. Looking from the corner of my eye, I caught a swarthy looking young man, probably in his late teens, with ripped pants and a badly stained sweatshirt. In his hands was a print-out from the nearby color printer ($.10 per copy, please) of a naked woman. Unsatisfied, the young man grumbled, bunched up the picture, and through it in the waste can. He turned back to his screen and proceeded to the next image.

This episode greatly disturbed me, but not because he was looking at porn per se. I’m a firm supporter of freedom of speech and have no trouble with online nudity. (My trouble with abuse and exploitation, however, is a subject for another day.) But that was not the issue here. What I was seeing was the consumption of limited public resources on a wholly frivolous and unproductive task. My hard work was being flushed at the expense of megabytes of cheap skin.

I said nothing at the time, but in the following weeks, I spoke with several librarians and spent many hours discussing the issue with library aid Baron Schuyler, who has worked in the Multnomah County Library system for seven years. The topic is complex, largely unaddressed, and touches on several broader issues present in contemporary controversies.

The first has to do with free speech. Even though librarians are increasingly hampered by such abuse of computer systems, most agree that the answer is not to censor access. According to Schuyler, “We feel that the library has an ancient tradition of providing information of any kind to anyone, regardless of content or the type of recipient. It’s completely unbiased and we want to keep it that way.” Another librarian I interviewed supported the belief that filtering content posed too much of a threat to children’s access of certain legitimate topics, like breast cancer. But without hampering information content, other ways of restricting abuse must be found.

At present, the library offers two types of access stations. Express stations are limited to 15 minutes of use per patron, and patrons must sign up for a turn at the closest information desk. Regular stations request that patrons limit their usage to an hour when other patrons are waiting. While well-intentioned, the system is consistently ignored. “I’d say a quarter to a third of all public access time is done in excess of what our policies allow,” says Schuyler. The figure could be even higher. He says it’s common practice for abusers to get kicked off one machine then hop to a department on another floor, on and on, for an entire day. “It’s really bad when regular patrons stick their heads in the door, see that all the terminals are occupied, then turn around and leave, never knowing that the staff could easily kick three or four people off for having exceeded their allowed time.”

How is this excess time being spent? Of course, the majority of public access time is being used as it was intended, for research and learning. When I’ve become engrossed in a topic under deadline, I lose track of the time and go over my hour. Every once in a while, a librarian will pass behind me, glance at the screen, and move on. But the list of other applications is extensive. Apart from the much-hyped viewing of pornography, some visitors use the library to hang out in virtual chat rooms, catch up on lengthy email correspondence, and play online games. “We have one guy,” says Schuyler, “who spends entire days playing Solitaire and Blackjack. When we close and tell him that he’ll have to leave, he ignores us. When we force the issue, he becomes verbally abusive. Cases like this, over and over, become very emotionally stressful and demoralizing for the staff.”

Schuyler also points out that it’s difficult to be prejudiced against specific applications. Where is the line between Solitaire and an educational children’s game? How do you tell if a teenager is doing historical research on World War II or fanning some burgeoning obsession with Nazism?

There is also the point of who is conducting much of the abuse. While library representatives would not give estimates about percentages, a large number of the abusers are homeless and mentally disabled. In the absence of public programs which would provide shelter, employment, and/or daytime activity to these groups, many seek refuge in the libraries. Adults will typically wander in singly, but there are also large groups of homeless children which arrive en masse then disburse throughout the building to attract less attention.

“We don’t want to kick people out,” says Schuyler, “but sometimes it’s necessary. Kids can become disruptive. Sometimes, adults can become furious and threatening when you ask them to move on, and then security has to be called. But they’re not all bad. Some of the homeless people are very nice. I had this one homeless man, just minding his own business, come to the desk, and very politely ask us to do something about the patron sitting next to him. As it turns out, she was a large, scantily dressed prostitute surfing for porn, masturbating in her chair.”

So that’s the bad news. What can be done about it? There are few solutions which don’t hamper individual rights or interfere with the Library’s public-minded mission. It is within the Library’s rights to ban individual offenders from the county library system for specified amounts of time. One man, according to Schuyler, was banned because he smelled so terribly and refused to bathe. But enacting such restrictions takes valuable staff time from the pages and clerks and even distracts upper management, which must handle the paperwork. Again, this is salary time funded by taxpayers, meant for more constructive use.

Another option is to close down individual terminals. When librarians notice an abuser who refuses to cooperate, one call to the material resources department will shut down that visitor’s specific terminal. While few hints could be more direct, nothing is to prevent the individual from moving to another department. And, once more, the whole process takes staff time from other patrons.

The best apparent course, now under development with several software contractors, is to institute a “time out” plan. Access to each terminal would be allowed by password, most likely the patron’s library card number. This would allocate the patron 15 minutes at an express terminal and one hour at a standard terminal, or 75 minutes total per day. A small timer would be displayed on-screen. If additional time is needed, case by case extensions could be arranged with a librarian. Few legitimate tasks would require more than an hour, and without curtailing anyone’s right to the Library’s resources, this appears to be the best compromise.

A new observation among roadway engineers is that the amount of traffic rises proportionately to the number of available roads. (So much for alleviating congestion.) The same might be inevitably true of Web traffic. As we continue to provide more access to greater numbers and types of people, the congestion will rise proportionately—unless better methods are found to regulate usage. To stretch the metaphor, perhaps this would be like instigating mass transit online.

Like any public resource, the Library and the Internet as a whole must be tended to responsibly by each of us. The Library is not in a position to dictate right and wrong, but we all recognize waste when we see it. Perhaps a gently whispered “Do you really think that’s necessary here?” on my part will ultimately save hours of staff effort down the road, not to mention bandwidth used for the general good. While I can’t condone the practice for everyone, I plan on speaking out to those next to me who squander publicly-funded access. Will you?

~   ~   ~


Every once in a while, things work out. I met with Baron Schuyler last night and asked him about the issues raised in this article. He’s a librarian at Multnomah Central now, having worked his way up from an entry-level page (the library’s equivalent of a dish washer) over two decades. Multnomah did institute a “time out” plan, with a maximum of 60 minutes per patron divisible between express (15-minute limit) and standard terminals. Adjacent Washington County, where I now live, implemented the same time limit. Both counties have children’s computer stations that use filtering software to prevent the viewing of “objectionable content.” Additionally, Multnomah implemented the following age-based criteria:

  •         Adults (18 years and older) may choose filtered or unfiltered searching at each login.
  •          Teens (13-17) have the choice of filtered or unfiltered Internet access unless their parent or guardian designates filtered access.
  •          Children (12 years and younger) have filtered Internet access unless a parent or guardian designates they may choose between filtered and unfiltered access.

Ultimately, though, this has become a non-issue because so many patrons now bring in their own laptops, tablets, and smartphones and connect using the library’s free Wi-Fi. Librarians rarely have to kick anyone off of a county-owned computer because they are being used less and less often. Sure, there’s still some abuse. Every once in a while, Multnomah staff have to call security on a particularly troublesome patron. According to the librarian I spoke with at the main library branch in Washington County, which is a smaller library system, a third-strike threat of calling the police has always been sufficient to make offenders go away.

The reality is that abuse of public Internet access simply isn’t the hot button topic it was in the late ‘90s. Why is this? Have we all grown used to online porn, violence, hate speech, and all the rest? Or has unlimited broadband access now become so pervasive that most people who frequent such content are keeping such habits behind their own closed doors?

My guess is the latter, but this prospect raises another question, and it’s one that I’ve addressed previously in my Behind the Lines blog. We don’t need library computers anymore. Nearly all of the electronic resources they provide are now available to any library card-holding patron over the Internet. As I sit here logged into the Washington County system, I have full access to over 1,000 newspapers, 1,000 popular magazines, 12,000 journals, World Book (among dozens of other reference sources), WorldCat (over 41 million bibliographic records), and much more. All of the resources I would spend hours culling in person I can now access from...anywhere.

The same is going to be true for books. Already, you can check out thousands of ebooks, audiobooks, and videos from many libraries, most of which use the OverDrive system. Again, all it takes is a library card number. There remain several hurtles left on this front, not the least of which is a willingness for libraries to license more than a smattering of any given e-title (a real bother for me now that most of my reading is done via electronic rather than paper media). Publishers also need to do a much better job of embracing what is clearly the future and making more works available at more reasonable price points.

Nikon D1, the first commercial digital SLR camera,
released in 1999.
Paper books will remain viable for many years to come, but their popularity will steadily recede. Consider film and digital cameras. Kodak finally suspended manufacturing film only at the end of 2010—roughly two decades after the advent of consumer digital cameras. I remember in the ‘90s how professionals would always argue that film delivered a better quality image, just as audiophiles (correctly) maintain that phonograph recordings are superior to compact disc, never mind MP3. In the end, measurable quality is not the determining factor for market success. Convenience will defeat quality in the market every time, as any fast food manager will attest. The product just has to be “good enough.” Hopefully, as in the case of digital photography, market forces will continue to improve quality until it is at least on par with the preceding technology.

This is why ebooks will soon dominate the market and why libraries will find themselves increasingly under pressure to reduce floor space. If people no longer demand paper books, counties won’t want to pay for all of that shelf space and the staff needed to maintain physical collections. Some folks are already predicting the demise of the library system as we know it. I don’t necessarily think this will happen.

Using my Washington County patron access, I see in the World Book Online Reference Center that the Latin root for library is librārium, meaning a chest for books. Given this, yes, I think the conventional concept of a library is in its waning days, and I will be very sad to see it go. Anticipating this, I take my young boys to the library and large bookstores as often as possible so they will have memories of them. I love books and libraries dearly, but not as much as I love the knowledge and stories contained in them. In the end, it’s the content that matters, not the physical form it takes. As someone who has “read” probably ten times as many audiobooks as paper books over the last decade, I’m perhaps more open to this idea than the average library patron.

One of World Book’s definitions (3b) defines a library as “any room or building where such a collection is kept.” This gets us closer to what we could call next-generation libraries. The library system will be less about maintaining a bunch of physical real estate and assets and more about sharing content among patrons. Most of this sharing will happen online. The few libraries that specialize in physical media, such as the Library of Congress, will really be museums. Eventually, it will make sense for county libraries to consolidate their physical holdings into a single location, even a warehouse, and then dispensed titles on request to patrons at local branches. Baron Schuyler tells me that library branches rarely bother to make shelf space for new DVD releases because they never actually make it to shelves. The hold queues for new releases are so long that discs merely ship from one reservation pick-up spot to another. While he didn’t have specific stats for me, Schuyler says that the number of movie and music check-outs considerably exceed the number of book check-outs. You see, digital media is winning already

As for local branch libraries, I expect they will become community centers. This is happening already. My local library hosts movie nights, author readings, a children’s play room, cultural passes to community venues with great learning potential, classes and workshops, and much more. Next-generation libraries will be places where people gather to share learning rather than pull it from a shelf. Does this overlap with the mission of community colleges? Somewhat. I sure wouldn’t be surprised if states and counties someday perceived this overlap and consolidated the two systems. No doubt, colleges will soon be facing their own unneeded real estate quandaries as online learning replaces the traditional lecture hall.

Perhaps those early battles over patron usage of library computers were only harbingers of the much more sweeping change to come. The adoption of new media and shifting public services was only beginning. Library-oriented debates are far from over, and bibliophiles will no doubt raise hell about shrinking shelf space, protesting all the way that screens provide an inferior reading experience. Officials will have no choice but to listen patiently, nod with sympathy, and act according to their shrinking budgets. The challenge will not be how to preserve experiences of the past but anticipate the needs of the future.

In Multnomah County Library’s lengthy Mission & Philosphy statement, the word “book” appears only once, and it appears in the very first statement: “We will provide books, programs and other library resources that present a wide range of views on current and historical issues for the interest, information and enlightenment of the community.” Enlightenment. What nobler social service could there be?

The next statement is no less inspiring: “We will not exclude materials because of their origin or background or the views they express, nor will we remove materials because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” At a time when censorship can be accomplished with a few keystrokes, we desperately need advocates of our intellectual freedom. Increasingly, the press is bought off by commercial interests and economic necessities. Marketers surely aren’t known for their unbiased presentation of facts. We need libraries to continue in this role and keep the doors open to all information of any stripe. This is vital to us as a free people.

My greatest fear is that the libraries will be at the mercy of the content aggregators to which they subscribe. With no shelves, there are no more immutable copies of newpapers and magazines sitting in archives, waiting to be cross-referenced by researchers. When some school in Texas decides that science is wrong and religion is right and moves to make it so in textbooks, those changes will move from the publisher to aggregators such as OverDrive, from which the libraries will get all of their “virtual” holdings. In fact, there will be no more holdings, only licensed media, and the libraries will be powerless to stop such content change.

So in a sense, the battle I began describing in 1999 hasn’t changed. Censorship and free public access to whatever material people please is still of paramount concern. If people choose to view rubbish, it’s not the library’s job to keep them from it. We can only trust that there will be at least as many publishers of rational fact and worthwhile material to help overshadow the tripe. Perhaps the library’s true job going forward will be in helping give people the tools they need to tell one from the other.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Formatting Matters

Wow, what a difference. Some weeks ago, I alluded to a story I was working of for Tom's Hardware about Wi-Fi technology. The first piece in what became a two-part series, "Why Your Wi-Fi Sucks and How It Can Be Helped," went live in what we call a picture story format. The idea from the beginning had been to focus on informative graphics, each backed with a couple hundred words or so of supporting text. We'd used picture stories on articles like this in the past and done quite well with them.

However, Tom's has recently undergone a site formatting update, and the picture story format changed with it. The editor and I didn't appreciate how the look and feel of the story would be impacted until after the article published, and the backlash from readers was horrendous. One person even offered up a new title: *Why Your Article Layout Sucks And How It Can Be Helped* After pouring weeks of effort into this story and feeling more proud of it than any article I've written in a long time, this was a pretty harsh blow.

A week later (yesterday), we released Part 2. This time, we used a conventional review article format, and the reader results were 180 degrees opposite from the first story. Many readers gushed about it being one of the best online articles they'd read in a long time. In my mind, the quality of the content across both pieces was similar, but all it took to destroy public perception was a lot of unnecessary clicking. Lesson learned.