SiLLé Library Engagement

I want to tell you about this concept – the Self Initiated Life Long Learning Experience. This is a new acronym created by me a few months ago. It is a way that people use the library that is currently not described in any way. This to me is one of the backbone features of the library. It is something I have called SiLLé

Self – it is about the individual; not your parents or your school or your workplace.

It is initiated by the individual; not by a curriculum, or a government organisation, or a rigid course.

The double ‘l’’s stand for Life Long Learning; that is self-explanatory I think. It could have been three ‘I’’s but that would have been silly.

Public Library, Nice, France

Public Library, Nice, France

é – because it is an experience. ‘e’ also represents the electronic medium of the virtual and digital world that libraries are part of. The French accent I put in just to give the acronym some French flair, but also because the French appreciate the value of the silly idea. This public library in Nice France is proof of that.

Here is an example of the self initiated lifelong learning experience.

A few years back I read this library book. The Buddha, Geoff and Me by Edward Canfor-Dumas. I enjoyed it immensely. The book introduced some things that I had not heard about before:

  • SGI Buddhism
  • A chant that featured heavily in the story But I was curious to know how to pronounce the chant and what it sounded like.

So I listened to an audio copy of the book and enjoyed the story once again. I heard the pronunciation – “nam-myoho-renge-kyo” – but sadly no chant. So I hopped online to research these things. I found various versions of the chant on YouTube. And I found that the chant means “Devotion to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra”. I also found out that SGI Buddhism stands for Soka Gakkai International and this is a Japanese branch of Buddhism.

You could do all of this without the help of the library, however this is where the library catalogue serves as a precision tool for the masterful library users. Using the library catalogue I can bring up the record of the book I enjoyed and then cross-reference by subject to find more books on the topic, or by that author to see what else this guy has written, or by the narrator because I enjoyed hearing the gorgeous English accent of Nicholas Bell.

So the self-initiated lifelong learning experience continues… It is a truly unique intellectual wandering specific to me, and my random interests; as it is for everyone. Through this process we learn new things, our knowledge increases, and some of these pursuits might lead to something like a job; but not necessarily. However the impact that is has on improved literacy is immense. And we know that improved literacy helps with freedom of expression, civil liberty and a democratic society.

Now let me tell you a story about this man Og Mandino. Augustine Mandino was born in 1923. After schooling he joined the U S Air Force where he became a military officer and a jet fighter pilot. He flew during World War II. After his military duties, Mandino became a door to door insurance salesman. But he was really bad at it. He became an alcoholic, failed his family, and became destitute. He wanted to commit suicide. He went to a gun shop to get a gun and end it all. But the gun shop was closed.

Next door there happened to be a library so he went in to wait until the gun shop opened. He browsed through the books in a library, and it was the books about self-help, success and motivation that captured Mandino’s attention. He began reading and found himself there at the end of the day, having forgotten all about the gun. He read hundreds of books that dealt with success, a pastime that helped him alleviate his alcoholism.

He found W. Clement Stone’s classic, Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, and this book changed Mandino’s life. He wrote the bestselling book The Greatest Salesman in the World. His books have sold over 50 million copies and have been translated into over twenty-five different languages.

Mandino eventually became a successful writer and speaker. This was before the Internet and before TED talks. He died in 1996.

The library saved his life. Because…

  • It was there
  • It was open
  • It was free to enter
  • It was inclusive
  • Full of many books on a vast array of topics
  • He was not answerable to anyone
  • His personal SiLLé experience with the library saved his life.

How does your library grow?

In keeping with the National Year of Reading, I continue to write about the monthly themes, and for September it is “grow”. My focus is on public libraries.

Many people assume that public libraries keep all of their books, and when not being borrowed, they sit on the shelf or are kept in storage somewhere. However this is a myth. In reality public libraries have very limited space and books don’t often remain in any one spot for very long at all. It is a dynamic process of purchasing, processing, sorting, shifting, distributing, displaying, shelving, re-shelving, retrieving, loaning, issuing, returning, re-shelving, repairing, evaluating, sorting, boxing, and at the end of its use – selling in a book sale or sent on to some other need. There is often not a mysterious “stack” of old books preserved for prosperity, unless the library is the National or State Library.

Public libraries attempt to manage this dynamic process with a Collection Management Plan that addresses the demographic of their users to try to predict demand. This plan offers guidelines to manage donations, weeding, purchasing, and when used in conjunction with a clever Marketing Plan, should maximise the collections full extent.

Often people generously offer their pre-loved books thinking the public library will cherish them as much as they have, whilst in reality they are often boxes of dog-eared, smoke-saturated, food-stained paperbacks that only add workload and obstacles to an already jam-packed library work space and work load. The local public library does not have the capacity to “grow” to this extent. There are exceptions of course, and sometimes the books donated are real treasures.

Direct request from customers for popular books and other resources proves to be a useful way to grow the collection while responding to local demand. But it can’t be the only driver because often there are fantastic things that exist that people aren’t aware of, or know that they want – yet. This is where the librarians craft comes into play and they can shape the collection with their expertise, worldly knowledge and creativity.

The Long Tail is a concept coined by Chris Anderson in 2005 and when applied to the library collection is easy to understand. If a library were to buy copies of the latest popular release in quantities to supply the demand and responded each time to every best seller, the shelves would soon be lined with multiple copies of last year’s bestsellers and little else, and look like a short stumpy tail. It would be like a drinks refrigerator filled with one brand of beer, or just beer. Which might be fine for beer drinkers, but not so for those who prefer champagne or tea or green smoothies. The Long Tail theory shows that by offering an array of many different titles on a diversity of subjects that often the quirky niche subjects get a space on the shelf that will be justified when it is inevitably matched with the diverse and quirky interest of a customer. And to paraphrase Tim Flannery, “The continued existence of the species depends on diversity.” When you apply this to humans then our existence depends on a diversity of attitudes, interests and knowledge that can only be gained by offering a wide range of topics for investigation. A browse along the shelves of the non-fiction section  will show books about beekeeping, how to work a room, bushcraft, Hagar, heavy metal music, the cats pyjamas, work abroad, survival, ideas, Shakespeare (of course), Henry Lawson, travel, art, architecture, computer help, languages, pregnancy, health issues, etc, etc.

The serendipity of browsing library shelves is a well-known and enjoyable pastime and many have commented on this human behaviour. Bryan Loar of Brave New World says that by using the online catalogue and reserving items ahead of time then “self-directed discovery has been lost”. Professor Todd P. Olson of Berkeley in California values the experience of browsing the library’s shelves so much that he has launched a fundraising campaign towards the “continuation of library collections to ensure that the joy of discovery will continue for generations into the future”. Steve Penn talks about how “you walk around the shelves and suddenly find something that you weren’t looking for but seems just right for you.”  Maria Popova of Brain Pickings worries “that we are leaving little room for abstract knowledge and for the kind of curiosity that invites just enough serendipity to allow for the discovery of ideas we didn’t know we were interested in until we are, ideas that we may later transform into new combinations with applications both practical and metaphysical.” And I could go on…

So eBooks and other electronic resources seem to offer a solution to the problem of relieving limited physical spaces in libraries, but restrict the valuable and enjoyable experience of browsing for the serendipitous find. Again I try to imagine the library space where much is only available as an electronic file or online. An electronic collection can grow beyond imagination, storing and preserving every book forever! Of course the preservation of electronic files is another complex issue altogether. But as Seth Godin tells us “Librarians who are arguing and lobbying for clever ebook lending solutions are completely missing the point. They are defending library as warehouse as opposed to fighting for the future, which is librarian as producer, concierge, connector, teacher and impresario.”

Well Seth Godin doesn’t have to convince me that libraries are not just warehouses for books, but if our buildings are not growing with new physical materials, and our collections are “hidden” in the “connected” cyber-world, then who and what is in the building? And how can the average Joe Blow discover, develop and grow with that serendipitous ah-ha moment of stumbling across that book that will change his life? I think it was Og Mandino who told the story about how he was destitute, homeless and was on his way to buy a gun to kill himself when he stumbled into a public library and this “saved” him and turned his life around. That weird unkempt, smelly, apparently homeless person who visits your public library every day might just stumble across his/her saving grace.

In the past I have thought that perhaps the library could display images or video on large screens of these hidden resources. Libraries do this now and have been for some time. And although it might create visual interest, it is just another screen in a world where screens proliferate. And the images would be limited and could not portray the full extent of the collection. And these have tended to be rather static displays even with the inclusion of video segments. Library catalogues could be (and perhaps are being) developed whereby the screen is used to display current catalogue items in a way that is more dynamic and interactive, uses multi-media, and has the ability to display at random or by selection, when not in use by a customer.  Perhaps the items displayed could be recommendations that respond to the person who passes by based on their past loans. I am sure the current technologies in Library Management Systems and RFID could already do this, however then we get into the murky waters of intrusion and privacy.

Question: Libraries in 2030?

The theme for August from the National Year of Reading 2012 is “question”.

So my questions relate to “What will the library look like in 2030?”

What will a library look like when all the books are eBooks? Will physical books survive the tsunami of eBooks?

Will the prophesized vision of the library from the original Time Machine movie be our reality? I recently tried to remind some colleagues about the scene from this movie where the dusty books in the Grand Old library disintegrate at the Time Travellers touch, and they all looked at me with blank stares alarmingly similar to the blank stares of the future human race in this movie!

When searching YouTube for a clip I found this Lego version:

How will serendipitous discoveries occur?

How will the curious readers find great reading material unfettered by firewalls, logins, advertising, and Big Brother watching?

Will the “library as haven” as quoted by Alan Bennett become a quaint memory of a bygone era? This article reports Alan Bennett and others campaigning against library closures in the UK last year.

The Library Book is a collection of short stories about libraries offered by Alan Bennett. One story The Defence of the Book by Julian Barnes provides a vision of one possible future if library closures occurred.

This image from The Time Machine of the library of the future has always stuck in my mind:

The weight of words

As a lifelong lover of books I can list many good reasons to support printed books as opposed to electronic books: the beauty of the printed book as an object is a view shared by many; the musty smell; the weight in your hand; the perfect size; the tangible delight of anticipation and discovery as you flick through the pages seeing sentences, thoughts and images at first glance; the sound of the pages turning. A whole library of these wondrous creations can keep your attention for days.

But I am being nostalgic. This may well be a vision from our past. Coffee-table books are more suited to these attention-deficit times. A quick flick through a glossy work of biblio-art is all our brief leisure time can afford.

Reading books is a lot more complicated now with the evolution and availability of ebooks and ereaders. Many of the things we love about the freedom of reading a book has finally been translated successfully to the ebook device: portability; visual ease of reading on a screen; choice of font size; finger-flick to next page; the sound of pages turning. Where once you might have carried one or two books in your bag for reading on trains, or in waiting rooms, or on the beach, your ebook device can carry that whole library of musty old books in the palm of your hand. Can it really? Theoretically – yes, but what books and how?

It depends! It depends which device you have, which distributor you choose, what format your device likes. Apple make it easy for even the most technologically- challenged amongst us – but at a price. You will be a slave to the proprietary nature of Apple products. Ipods, ipads, and iphones can do it all simply and quickly through the itunes software that connects your device with their software via the internet. But their software must be loaded onto your own pc initially for this all to work seamlessly. Apple has world domination in this field in the palm of their hands – apple-sized.

There are other devices suitable for ebooks but they also all have some kind of proprietary nature and problems associated with formats. If you try for a freely available format like PDF you will need further software that will reformat the PDF to be readable, scrollable, page-turnable, to suit your device. Software such as Adobe Digital Editions or Epub. Eyes glazing over now?

So the advantages of ebooks such as: portability, accessibility, immediacy, weight in hands (propability?), screen light, font size, library in your pocket; these advantages seem just out of reach for many. It’s easier to buy the book – if you can find the one you want in print.

Or go to the public library and borrow the book – for FREE! Now there’s an idea!! But chances are the latest new release by your favourite author is out on loan and you will have to reserve it and wait to be notified of its arrival for you. By then you might have bought it, or borrowed it from a friend. It might just be worth the cost of a quick download to your ereader afterall. Immediate gratification is sometimes not met well by public libraries. Whereas if you have your ebook/ereader format and subscription dilemmas sorted then you will be able to download that book you desperately want NOW.

While ebooks are cheaper per unit by comparison to the printed copy, you must factor in the other costs associated with your ebook convenience: the ereader, the internet access, the device plan, the credit card fees, etc.

The notion of the experience being “special” is also worth due consideration. The anticipation of waiting for that particular book is not to be dismissed. If I have immediate access to all and every book I want to read then not only am I swamped with too many things for my mind to manage, but that one special book loses some of its appeal if it is available to me straight away. This is a very fuzzy concept and needs further investigation, but book-lovers will know what I mean I’m sure. It’s like eating chocolate: if you eat it every day then you might get a bit sick of it, and it becomes common place and not the luxury special occasion item that it should be. Immediate impulsive download robs you of any anticipation. You are poorer for it. An article I read recently, “Can the book survive?” in the Good Weekend section of The Age on 15th January 2011, touches on this notion.

Further on in the same article is the idea that the “voice” of the author changes depending on the medium on which the text is being read. The layout of the text on the ereader screen can detract from the potency and importance of that text; while other books are more suited to being read on an ereader. I noticed this too when I read a free copy of Alice in Wonderland complete with old illustrations that I had downloaded onto my ipad. The artistic beauty of the serif-font laid out on the page was missing, and yet the small “original” illustrations were lovely captured on the small screen. This is where the book as beautiful object is most obvious, and in this case, lacking as an ebook.

This idea needs further research and I have the perfect title for a thesis – “The weight of words and how text and meaning are affected by format, display and availability”. Go for it.

So the advantages of ebooks and ereaders are disadvantages also. What they offer us in terms of portability and access robs us of the quality of the experience of reading in some obscure way. The delight of browsing, serendipity of discovery, and being exposed to a broad range of subjects that you might never have considered, amidst the shelves of books, narrows the experience to obtaining just the one book you seek. You might get what you want right now, but not what you don’t know that you might want.

Public libraries are the losers in this battle of the ebook/ereader formats. Publishers have tied up the ebook market into a knot. Ask at a public library if they have ebooks and you will get a bold “Yes” in response, followed by an uncertain “but…” What device? What format? Which book? Sorry but you can’t get fiction FREE in ebook format at a public library for download to your personal device. Well you probably can somewhere, but the latest titles? You will probably be able to easily read an ebook on the library pc or on your home pc if you are a library member. But ebooks mean portability, so what is the point of reading an ebook on your pc? Electronic notebook? Well maybe.

Most librarians will tell you about the many ebook collections available online, such as Project Gutenberg, Safari books, ebooks at the National Library of Australia, the ebooks supplied by Adelaide University, and many more. But this is not answering the problems associated with being able to borrow the latest novel for free from your library, or perhaps buying the ebook outright then being able to pass it on to a friend.

It is too soon for a conclusion of thoughts. These are uncertain times for book lovers. It is still evolving. Optimistically I think that public libraries and freedom of access will prevail. Fearfully I envision half empty shelves with old pre-loved books decomposing and awaiting the arrival of H. George Wells in his Time Machine. (Remember that scene from the classic movie where he is relieved to find the public library only to have the books fall to dust in his hands?)

Ultimately literacy, creative endeavour, the need to express ourselves, the desire to share our ideas, and discover new ones, and the pure and simple love of books as objects will ensure that public libraries continue to be valued as places for community narrative, history, wealth of knowledge, ideas, learning, gathering, sharing and for the free inclusive access for all.

Travel with a twist

What is your favourite genre for reading? Romance novels? Crime thrillers? Biographies? Cook books? Sport? Chick Lit? Vampire Romance? History?

The genre I most like to read does not fit easily into a cute sticker-size description or book shelf. You will find these books interspersed amongst travel, self help, culture, adventure, biography, geography, fiction, poetry, health and well-being. I like to read personal accounts about people who set out from their known, safe worlds, and travel off with some purpose in mind – a quest perhaps. It is done with a spirit of adventure, challenge, and personal discovery. The single word that comes closest to describing this would be “exploration”. Or perhaps “journeys” – although the word “journey” has been cheapened in popular colloquialism.  Exploration of the world, life, culture, the individual.  It is travel with a twist.

In no particular order here is a list of some books I’ve read and loved that I think fit into this genre: