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Wednesday
Jul252018

What the Public Library Could Learn from Barnes & Noble revisited

An editorial in Forbes magazine (now withdrawn), suggested quite seriously that public libraries be replaced by Amazon bookstores in every community:

Amazon should open their own bookstores in all local communities. They can replace local libraries and save taxpayers lots of money, while enhancing the value of their stock. 

The article was countered by a lots of fervent public library advocates and users. (Nate Hoffelder on The Digital Reader, for example.) And quite rightly so - it was an ill-conceived editorial and Forbes should be embarassed for lowing their standards for having published it - even as click bait.

The article did remind me of an editorial I wrote for the local paper way, way back in 1996, soon after a Barnes & Noble bookstore opened in our community. While I would have never suggested that this shiny commercial bookstore replace our somewhat dysfunctional and underfunded public resource, I did believe then, as I do now, that public services can learn from the business community.

Oh, I got a lot of heat for this piece, especially from the retiring library director who was our guest speaker at Kiwanis the day it was public. Talk about good timing - not.

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What the Public Library Could Learn from Barnes & Noble
Mankato Free Press, June 3, 1996

My 10 year old son gave me pause the other day. He asked to if I’d take him out after supper to see if the latest book in his favorite Goosebump series was out. Normal kid-type request. 

But then he added, “While we’re at Barnes & Noble, I want to ….”

I don’t think it even entered his mind that the first place to check for a book would be his public library. In fact, it didn’t occur to me either until we on our way home full of cookies and cappuccino, and twenty bucks or so lighter in the wallet.

What has happened that this career librarian (and life-long library lover and supporter) would head to a bookstore instead of the public library to satisfy his family’s reading needs?

Maybe a comparison between Barnes & Noble and the local library would be useful?

1. Hours
My son wanted to get his book on a Sunday. B&N is open in Mankato every evening in the week - Sunday’s included - 95 hours a week. The public library is only open until 8PM four nights a week and on Sundays not at all. 38 hours less than B&N. Sort of convenient having a place to get a book beyond the workday.

2. Selection
If I want old stuff (which is sometimes exactly what I want), I’ll hit the public library, no hesitation. But try to find anything new at the library:
    Best sellers - out, and a long waiting list. 
    Travel guides - 3 to 4 years old. 
    New video tapes, audio-books, computer games - forget about it! 
B&N not only has plenty of the newest stuff, they promote it. They revel in it. And when it gets old and stale, like bread, it gets discounted and never comes back to clutter the shelves. At B&N, I don’t have to wade through 8 old copies of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide to get to this year’s edition.

My next experiment is to request a book inter-library loan on the same day that I order an out of stock item from B&N. Who will get the material to me the fastest? Oh, and I have to fill out my own loan form at the library; B&N requests the book for me.

3. Service
I’ve got to admit most of our public librarians know their stuff. And they are friendly, tenacious and willing to help. The fact that only a couple may be on duty during busy times does tend to diminish their effectiveness. B&N clerks are nice enough, and since they tend to be readers themselves, can sometimes recommend a romance or thriller. They can usually get you to the cookbook or auto repair section, but they have difficulty when you don’t know if the book might just as easily fall under the category of education, current issues, or political science. And they don’t do reference either.

The one terrific thing that the B&N could learn from the library is its catalog. Big bookstores really need public terminals which serve as guides to their stock. I get jealous when the clerk gets to use the computer, and I don’t.

4. Costs
Ah, you’re saying, now the real advantage of the library will shine through. Those books at B&N are at least $20 a piece, even $10 or more for a paperback. Library books are free, or more accurately, paid for indirectly by my city, county, state and federal taxes.

Library books are free when they are available (see above). What the public library really ought to do is charge patrons about $3 a week to read the latest pot boilers, and take that revenue and buy (here’s a concept) multiple copies. Sort of like at the videotape store. After the newness wears off, the novel goes back to the free shelves.

Library books aren’t free unless you return them on time. I hate due dates on books. Once upon a time I had a life which allowed me the leisure to read two or three recreational books a week. I never got a fine. Now I am lucky to get through one “pleasure” novel a month, and I am always getting fines. Still cheaper than shucking out a Hamilton, right? Yes, but along with the fine comes a little humiliation, a feeling that you just aren’t quite the citizen your momma raised you to be. If my novel of the month costs $20, so be it. I’ll be careful not to dogear it so I can give it to my brother-in-law for Christmas.

5. Ambiance and location
Here’s the place that the public library needs to sit up and take notice! Where do you go not just to read, but to sit in fine comfortable, clean chairs? Sip a cup of coffee and eat a cookie while reading? Hear a live string quartet softly play in the background? It ain’t my library! No food, no drinks, no noise, no nothing. Would it kill those librarians if I brought in my own thermos of coffee or can of pop? B&N owns its books. Why does its manager trust me not to slobber or spill there?

Our B&N is close to our Walmart, K-Mart, discount grocery store,and shopping center - places I get near to at least a couple times a week. Our public library is in our rather dead downtown - where I go on purpose once or twice a year. The library requires a special trip. B&N is handy.

6. Programming
Well, the public library still has a story times for children, I believe, but I don’t know exactly when. B&N, the flyer they send out tells me, this month alone has children’s stories, a children’s play, poetry readings, author signings, a singer, a storyteller, a book discussion group, and experts talking on subjects as diverse as women aviators and divorce. The technology side of the store holds computer game days, a Q&A session on Windows 95, and seminars on connecting to the Internet. 

One of the primary missions of the public library in this country has been adult education. The public library, like the public schools, has been an educational equalizer between the economic haves and have-nots. B&N seems to taking on an educational mission as well - and the opportunities it provides are relevant, valuable, and (gasp) fun! And it doesn’t do it passively - it reaches out and grabs the public. Take notice, public library - just letting the books sit on the shelves until a patron is motivated to come and learn doesn’t cut it anymore, if it ever really did. You need an active, exciting, educational program, and offer, not just resources, but skills if you want to stay viable in this information-glutted society.

Poor financing is only one reason our public libraries have lost their eminence as the cultural and education hub of the community. Other reasons may include a lack of vision, imagination and willingness to serve the public in critical ways. Maybe the library board doesn’t need to do a nation-wide search for a new administrator. Maybe it only needs to see if it can recruit the manager from Barnes & Noble.

_______________________________________________________________

Is the contest for user now between the public library and Amazon? What could libraries learn from Amazon? Data-driven readers advisory? Readily available best sellers on a subscription basis? 

I use our fine Dakota Country Library quite a lot, but I rarely darken their doors. It's their electronic resources, especially downloadable audio books, that I take advantage of. Good job. Now let's do more.

Sunday
Jul222018

This too shall pass - not

Long, long ago in a district far, far away (actually 5 years ago and about 75 miles away), I help kick off my first 1:1 program. Since that time, I have helped plan and implement two more 1:1 initiatives in my current district. And we are undertaking another ambitious project to dramatically increase the access to our elementary students to technology resources by adding significant numbers of Chromebooks and Chrome Tabs this fall.

I've learned a lot from these experiences, thanks mostly to the incredible technology staff who are far better organized and detail oriented than I am. I've learned that one cannot over communicate with parents and the community. I've learned that many teachers would prefer highly prescriptive direction in the use of devices. I've learned adults can't control, only guide, how kids use devices. I've learned that true equity in a district for all learners cannot be achieved without allowing kids to communicate and participate socially online, regardless of the discomfort it may cause adults. I learned that technology is not a silver bullet in improving education. Well, maybe I've always know that.

Anyway, I found the post in which I reflected on advice to teachers I wrote just before my first 1:1 launch. I think has stood the test of time...

__________________________________________________________________

Over the next couple weeks our district will start its first 1:1 initiative. I don't think I've ever been as excited about a technology initiative in my 37 year career. Or as anxious. Our middle school teachers are being asked to undertake some seriously large learning experiences - new technologies, new teaching strategies, new resources, and new classroom management techniques. But we stand to also make some huge improvements in achievement, engagement, and climate.

This is a biggie.

The curriculum director and I have been tapped to give a short "keynote" to start off the first day of professional development next week. I think I get 5 minutes. Here is my pitch:

As a veteran classroom teacher I dreaded my administrator going to a conference. Invariably she would return with a new educational “silver bullet” for improving teaching and learning and expect us teachers to implement it. This usually meant a ton of additional work despite being already very, very busy actually teaching. And unfortunately, these new processes, techniques, and plans were abandoned when the next “silver bullet” rolled around. Yesterday it was Outcomes Based Education. Today it is probably Essential Learning Outcomes.

A survival strategy that many of us adopted was to keep doing what we’d always been doing but use the vocabulary of the new thing. We’d keep quiet during staff development sessions and quietly pray, “This too shall pass.” It was difficult not to become cynical about any change effort in school because we knew there would be another initiative coming before we could finish implementing the first one.

The use of information technologies in schools is a different matter. As we look at society in general, technology has had and continues to have a powerful impact on the way things are being done. To think that medical CAT scans, online banking and shopping, or computerized diagnostics of motor vehicles is a “passing fad” is erroneous. And to think that the use of technology in schools is a “passing fad” doesn’t make any sense either.

Classroom teachers have a finite amount of energy and time to devote to change. So why not invest in effective changes to our teaching practices that will stay with us, not until the next “silver bullet” comes along, but for the remainder of our careers?  (from The Classroom Teacher's Technology Suvival Guide)


Here are three guiding strategies I have found helpful:

  • Keep in mind that technology does not increase student achievement. Technology used in supporting best practices increases student achievement. Think best practices, not best technology.
  • Integrate technology in activities and units with which you are not satisfied, not your great lessons. Use technology to solve problems and meet challenges - not cause more.
  • Use technology that personally empowers you as a individual and learner. If you don't use a technology, don't ask your students to use it. It's like trying to teach a novel you don't like.

Even if we try to ban or ignore or minimize student use of technology in our classrooms, it will still have an impact. Our children live in a technology-rich world and their habits, their learning styles, and their expectations are all being shaped by non-school environments. Do we stay relevant in kids lives?

OK, I am over my five minutes....

What would you say in five minutes to teachers embarking on a voyage to unknown places?

Friday
Jul202018

Back up - let's talk about backups

Among the saddest situations in technology support is being unable to recover a user's data when a file is corrupted, a drive fails, or a document is accidentally deleted - and no backup was made. Whether a study guide or a doctoral thesis or a treasured photograph, such a loss makes one doubt whether technology is a boon or bane to humanity.

Backups are a tired old topic, I will readily admit. Since the days of saving data on cassette tapes and 5 1/4 floppy disks, I have been admonishing others to:

  • Accept that the responsibility for having additional copies of digital materials is one's own. Period.
  • Remember to store the second copy on separate media - a second hard drive, online, even on a flash drive. Two copies on a single storage medium (a computer hard drive for instance), doesn't do much good.
  • Try to automate backups when possible. I like both Apple OS's Time Machine and/or using DropBox which syncs files on both your computer hard drive and on the DropBox site. And there are plenty of other solutions as well. With GSuite, I personally have not felt the need for a second copy, but maybe I am playing with fire.

Technology departments have long been tasked with keeping backups of institutional data. Thankfully, much of this responsibility has moved to external companies or organizations that host the applications that create/use the data. Our student information system, learning management system, and HR/Finance/Payroll systems are all hosted and backing up data is a part of the contract we have with these vendors. I believe companies can do this more effectively than we can with our limited financial and technical in-house resources. Our staff is more likely to use GSuite to store self-created documents than our old U and K drives on in-house servers. Increasingly schools are moving to online file storage products like Azure rather than replying on physical servers. Yes!

A relatively new responsibility for technology department is having disaster recovery resources and processes in place. Should there be a major failure of a computer systems due to fire, mechanical breakdown, or cyber attack, we now consider not just whether data can be recovered, but whether we have the resources to bring the full functionality of critical systems back online in a short period of time. Again, hosting companies deal with many major applications with contractual expectations for availability, but some of our smaller, but still important, applications run inhouse - security, food service, transportation, active directory, print servers, etc.. The tricky question becomes how to balance the cost of full redundancy with the loss of productivity experienced while acquiring new hardware, rebuilding servers, and restoring applications. Were money no object, we'd have two of everything with automatic failovers. But, I am afraid, money will always be an object.

Finally, the most important backup a school may need is human, rather than digital. Should a manager or technician or administrator in the technology department be out sick, go on vacation, quit, or be abducted by aliens, is there other warmware in place who can do the mission-critical tasks performed by this person? Our department has identified primary technology support responsibilities, lists primary and secondary people who own those responsibilities, and records information about outside companies/support services who can be called on in a pinch when needed. For a whole raft of reasons (people being what they are), this may be the most challenging backup plan to create.

This kind of planning is not the favorite part of my job. Library school in the 70's did not cover disaster recovery plans. The importance of technology in people getting their jobs done - including educating small children - grows increasingly important each year. It may not be fun, but it's important.

Oh, one last backup plan - if you are in charge of system that cannot be restored in a timely manner if there is a disaster, it's best to have a career backup plan as well.