Technology & libraries & children… oh dear?

I am not a librarian catering to babies and small children.  However, I am a mother of a young child and deeply supportive of / interested in / engaged with libraries, so when a mother-friend asked me a question yesterday about children, libraries, and technology, I just have not been able to get it out of my mind.

The question

My friend goes regularly to a public library with her two children (one six months and one three years).  The children’s section of this library recently got computers and placed them on very low tables in the area catering to the under 4 crowd (e.g. board books are nearby).  Her older son now, understandably, zooms in and becomes entranced by the glowing screen of wonder.  When they move to look at books, the inevitable bloops and beeps emanating from the row of enticing screens call to him and make it hard to focus on the books.  She asked me if there was anything she could say or do to avoid this exposure to screens for her young kids.  Her dread and discomfort were palpable as she explained that she heard the library was soon to start using iPads in the same section.  She doesn’t want to stop going to this library as it’s got wonderful programming and is a convenient location, but she is committed to minimizing screen time.

My first reactions

Well, my gut reactions at the time were:

  1. Libraries are universally excited about implementing technologies of all sorts (I cited our 3-D printer and the makerspace movement).
  2. This library probably got some grant to do this and really feel it fits with their mission; and there’s probably not much she can do.
  3. That said, since she was nervous about approaching the librarians at that library (for fear they would label her ‘that outraged mom’ – I assured her, if the librarians are at all ethical and good at their jobs, even if they felt that way about her they’d never let on :-P), she could go to our local library which does not use technology to this extent in the children’s section and inquire about what is happening at the other library, why, and what kinds of questions or requests she could make (and how to make them) so that this point will resonate with them.

This suggestion felt highly unsatisfactory, and the issue started to get me annoyed as well.  I did a little more thinking and a little digging and here are some things that are floating around in, as Hercule Poirot calls them, my little grey cells.

My thoughts 12 hours later

Public (and all) libraries are constantly thinking about relevance, new and exciting services, and how best to meet patron needs and desires (both known and unknown to the patrons).  There is a lot of energy around reinventing library spaces with a primary focus on building and doing.  These are common refrains when accused of being irrelevant in the face of “everything being online” (everything is not online, and libraries now do so much more than provide print books but those are other stories for others to tell).   Lots of good is coming from this, especially with regard to offering technological workshops and gadgets, and of course free internet – all of which serve to minimize the digital divide; a deep, systemic, socioeconomic problem that public libraries have been a part of tackling.

All of this energy can be contextualized, too, against a backdrop of a long-standing philosophical conversation around providing what the people want (Fifty Shades of Grey! Romance novels! Cookbooks!) versus providing what’s good for them, what’s educationally, morally, and ethically valuable for the community (this book by Wayne Bivens-Tatum has a nice chapter talking about the history of public libraries).

Alright, but what if what people want is in some way bad for them?

The American Academy of Pediatrics says (my emphasis added),

Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.

They also say,

The AAP recommends that parents establish “screen-free” zones at home by making sure there are no televisions, computers or video games in children’s bedrooms, and by turning off the TV during dinner. Children and teens should engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day, and that should be high-quality content. It is important for kids to spend time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies, and using their imaginations in free play.

I just see such a conflict with these statements and all the energy and excitement around integrating technology into the children’s sections of libraries.  A few brief searches of the Association for Library Service to Children’s blog posts suggests an overwhelming excitement and enthusiasm for exposing children of all ages to technology.  I don’t think that’s inherently bad, but I feel very very unhappy about posts like this one which argues that only passive screen time is bad screen time and that rich experiences (like learning a programming language or creating something on an iPad) are great.  I think learning programming languages and playing with iPads can be rich learning experiences, but there’s nuance too:  how many hours a day is a child glued to their minecraft game?  How old are they?  Again, as the AAP states,

Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity.

The ALSC does have some posts addressing this age question.  Here’s one advocating for screen-free story time that I really like as it grounds its points in the AAP recommendation.  I love how Kleckner closes:

The new screens and screen uses are in many ways exciting and even amazing. They are part of a very new and enormous cultural change in how technology is used today. Still, screen use is not appropriate and beneficial everywhere, for everyone, at every occasion. Like at the family dinner table or while driving, story times at the library are best without it.

Yes.  Agree.  100%.  And I’m surprised the ALSC doesn’t have any statements to this effect at all.  What advisories I did find on their website related to helping young patrons avoid stumbling onto explicit and dangerous content online (and even this was written 15 years ago at this point).  Real missed opportunity in my opinion.

There is a sense that if children don’t get on the tech bandwagon, they’ll be at a disadvantage.  And again, that digital divide across jarringly unequal socioeconomic lines is real.  But, where does this leave us?  Are the children’s sections of public libraries talking about this?  Are they and the AAP connecting?  Are parents just clamoring for tablets and other technologies and therefore libraries are simply providing services that are being asked for?  What’s the ethically right thing to do in this case?  Is this just an extension of whatever reasons a public library will stock Fifty Shades of Grey?  Or is there something more here that should make us pause and think again about the technology we are offering to our youngest among us?

What say you, children’s library workers??


On brainstorming & committing

Be warned – this is a self reflection post so it feels very “me” focused.  There are “I”s scattered all over the place!  Hopefully you, dear readers, get something out of it or feel there’s something to respond to.  Otherwise, sorry!  🙂

I am an enthusiastic brainstormer.  Especially when I get excited about some idea, a common occurrence.  I feed off that wisp of energy emanating from a person who is beginning to work through something in their mind.  My first instinct is to say “Yes yes! Tell me more!  How can we make this happen?”

This is a blessing and a curse, I tell you.  For the most part this is, as I say, a blessing:  I enjoy these conversations, I feel happy about my day when I have them, I feel good about myself when I think I have helped someone accomplish something creative or new, and usually learn quite a bit from them.  When can it be a curse?  When I over-commit.  Oh and I am an over-committer.  I am a very bad offender of this egregious issue and always have been.  I get so excited by brainstorming with people that I often volunteer to do things: oh yes!  I will help you write that up; I will look into that data for you; I will… etc.  This is fine – it’s very good to be a team player, but if it gets in the way of other work that’s a problem.

Thankfully, this year, however, our professional goals process here at the library are helping me acknowledge that I have this tendency AND helping me realize what my true priorities are.

So for example, a few months ago I saw someone write a post on an email list whose name I recognized.  I had cited him in a paper I wrote!  So I wrote him to say “Cool paper, we cited you!”  To which he responded something to the effect of “Thank you!  Also, would you be interested in being on more papers on this topic unrelated to the topic of the paper you mentioned?”  I was thisclose to saying “um, SURE!” and then I had an epiphany moment:  no no no.  This topic is very interesting but I have ways to plug into that work here at my library.  I do not need to sign up for something that will result in a publication because that’s just not one of my goals at the moment.  I do not need to sign up for something that will take away from the other more important uses of my time (e.g. developing a plan for integrating information literacy into our psychology curriculum).  So, I declined.  It felt good.

Unfortunately, I’m still not there yet.  Another “for example”:  I found myself on a college-wide committee that is turning out to be more work than I anticipated and I’m not feeling like I am doing it justice.  I’m not sure exactly how to fix this:  once our big thing is written I can scale back my volunteering within the committee or attempt to leave it entirely?  There’s no set term limit that I can see.  We shall see – this one may be a wait it out.

Now what?  Well, I have definitely started to label moments of brainstorming (verbally!) as they are happening.  This is a good start.  From here, I have started to say to myself – alright, this is a brainstorm.  Do you really want to commit to anything coming out of this?  If so, what limits might you place on that?  Maybe none?  Maybe a lot?  In general, I think it’s okay to be wrong about “hey, this seems like one of those times I can say no!” because just the practice of saying no is hard to get into for me.  Still, I never want to go overboard towards the other direction:  it’s still fun to say yes and try new things.

In some ways, there is a connection to be drawn between this kind of back-and-forth in my brain about small and medium commitments that add up to a lot of time for maybe not the best overall wise use of my time with the tension between scheduling a lot of one-shot instruction sessions and lamenting the fact that there is no time or energy left to infuse a department’s curriculum with higher quality information literacy work.  I think it’s a matter of scale – we’re (I’m?) looking at the small picture:  my fun brainstorm & ensuing tasks; the one-shots all the faculty are asking for) and saying “Good! These things are fun, good and needed!  People are asking for them!”  But in doing so, there is less time and energy for the larger landscape:  how do I make sure that at the end of the year, I’ve really re-thought XYZ or re-imagined and planned out something valuable at a deeper level in terms of information literacy within and across curricula?

Just drawing that connection right now makes me hopeful that I will keep pondering these issues as I weigh little moments during the day against long term goals – be they personal or professional.

Crafty Creative Time

At our library, mimicking Google’s 20% time, we spend a (small) percentage of our time on something creative.  Many people take MOOCs, many pick up new skills somehow, and until recently I was blogging about my collection weeding efforts and the new resources I was finding.  I will pick that up again shortly.  But since January, I’ve embarked on a collaborative crafty project with my officemate…appliqué and embroidery!

Let me back up.  When I married my husband, my sister created a beautiful quilt for us by sending out squares to our family and friends to design.  See how lovely it is??

Wedding Quilt

Then, when my son was born last year, she presented us with a blank quilt of the same style.  As I got to know my lovely officemate, Laura, I learned she was incredibly crafty (alas, an adjective one would not ascribe to yours truly).  So, we decided to embark on a collaborative project ourselves:  she’d mentor me and help me stitch on something related to Henry’s first year.  Et, voila!

Me holding Henry's quilt Henry Quilt 2 Henry Quilt 3Butternut squash!  Always a favorite 🙂  And I seriously could not have done it without the amazing mentorship and calming vibes of the amazing Laura R.

Happy springtime, dear readers!


Re-reading some “classic” dystopian fiction

Recently I have re-read some old-school science fiction / dystopian fiction and have been shocked at my own selective memory of the works.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (stories published late 1940s; collected in book form in 1950)

First edition cover of The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.

First edition cover of The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.

I first read The Martian Chronicles in a high school English class.  The only story I even vaguely remembered from it was one about a human settler running into a Martian from a different era.  Upon re-reading it, I was struck by how ridiculously the 1950s gender stereotypes play out in the years between 1999-2026 (or 2030-2057 if using the 1997 version) on Bradbury’s Mars.  I know it’s not totally fair of me to judge this aspect of a book written in the 40s and 50s (the stories were written first and then subsequently aggregated into the book), but I still feel deeply disappointed in his lack of foresight on that front.  And now, I think I will forever remember that gender roles shortcoming concept over any of the individual stories or the themes he explores in the book.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1931)

First edition cover of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

First edition cover of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

I read Brave New World my freshman year of college – not for a class but just because.  I dimly remember the Gattaca-like themes, but upon re-reading it, I was again struck with the really limited creativity Huxley has around gender equality.  Again, it is what most sticks out in my mind upon re-reading.  In many ways, this book is even worse with its gender assumptions and norms.  But, it’s not as though the gender issues were what Huxley (or Bradbury) were satirizing.  Whether my feelings are justified or not, I just feel deflated and disappointed about that.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

The cover of the British first edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.

The cover of the British first edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.

To round out my middle of the 20th century dystopian / futuristic / science fiction, I’ve just picked up Nineteen Eighty-Four from one of the greatest public libraries in the world.*  I distinctly remember reading this at Crane’s Beach (the best beach in the world while we’re talking about best in the world categories) before senior year of high school for my English class while my friend read All the President’s Men for hers.  Again, I remember so little: really just big brother & mind control.  But, I gather the main plot centers on a love affair… I am not hopeful that my criticism of Huxley and Bradbury will change for Orwell.  Sigh.

And some new stuff

Recently, I’ve read quite a bit of John Scalzi recently – namely the Old Man’s War series, but a few others here and there – and what really strikes me about Scalzi’s work is how he subtly challenges your gender assumptions as you read.  As a reader, you’ll be introduced to a character – perhaps the captain of a ship or someone in charge – and about a page later you realize this person is a woman and you had just assumed it was a man!  Well, maybe YOU didn’t assume the character was male, but I bet many people do until they learn she’s not.  I did on quite a few of them.  This happens over and over again in his writing.  I love it.  I love it because it reminds you and challenges you about your own assumptions.  And he doesn’t call it out in neon letters (“Hey! I’m challenging your gender assumptions here!”), he just does it.  A lot.  So, for that and for many reasons – I highly recommend Scalzi’s work.

I suppose I do feel a bit guilty praising Scalzi so much; he’s writing now not 60 years ago. If I re-read him in 50 years, I am sure I will be disappointed with his lack of vision in some area or another, but for now, I’ll take it.

While I’m on a post about books, I implore you, I beseech you, I urge you to read… Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  It’s… so good.  I could not put it down – and I think about it fairly regularly.  Read it.  You will not regret it.  Especially if you are a child of the 80s!  But even if not… read it and tell me what you think!

* It is so wonderful to live and work in a town with a fabulous public library.

Another librarian’s take on MOOCs

Go read this take on a math MOOC by the Free Range Librarian.  Especially this paragraph:

I have struggled for months to pinpoint the crux of the problem, and as is usually the case, I have concluded it has little or nothing to do with technology. Bad online instruction  has the same problem as bad traditional instruction: a serious lack of attention to molecular engagement with the student learner.

I heartily agree.  Instruction is hard.  Taking mediocre instruction and putting it online to reach exponentially more people doesn’t make it better.  People who provide instruction in an online environment will need the skills to do that well for these MOOCs to be useful and sustainable (in my opinion at least!).  That is all.

Book Review – The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of DistractionHello, dear readers.  I have just finished Alan Jacobs (not that new) book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  It is a short, highly enjoyable read.  (I notice that this blog can be incredibly biased:  I really only post book reviews when I like the book!)

This project originated in a series of blog posts and ended up in book form in 2011. Each “chapter” is relatively short, and has a cute title like “Whim” or “Slowly, slowly.”  The piece in its entirety is a lovely and endearing read:  encouraging us to read without guilt, read with abandon, and read how and what you want to read.  Read on a whim!  Blaze through a book!  Read slowly!  Read in solitude, but for company!  Read responsively and actively (make notes in the margins – engage with what you’re reading)!  Jacobs works in defenses of different modes of reading and different approaches for each mode.

When we read for pleasure we don’t, or shouldn’t, take notes: being rapt is then our only ambition.  When we read for information – the paradigmatic case being the textbook on the contents of which we are about to be tested – we had *better* take notes.  When we are reading for understanding, we may or may not take notes, depending on the context.  Sometimes we wish to be rapt or are caught up in the book regardless of whether we wish to be or not; other times we will strive for a more detached analytical mode… These can be dramatically different experiences.  Do the strategies and practices of the one kind of reading differ so greatly from the other that what we do in the one kind of reading has no bearing on the others?  Or, worse, could it be that the one kind of attentiveness is actually inimical to the others, so that the more we read in one way the less we will be able to read in the second and third?

I have recently started a book, Crazy Like Us, discussing how the American-centric view of mental health (definitions, research around, diagnostics, treatments, etc.) is being irrevocably exported around the world like an invasive species, outcompeting native versions and perspectives of mental health issues.  It’s been framing much of my thoughts lately about all issues, so I can’t help but apply it in a way to this book.  I wonder what people from other places and cultures have to say about reading:  what other modes of reading do they have that might be fun or interesting to explore?  Do parts of this book resonate more or less than others for them?

I love that in between beautifully written prose, the book is sprinkled with quotations from various souls – alive and passed – about reading.  Jacobs  works in bits from Machiavelli, Kipling, Nicholson Baker, Zadie Smith and many others, including a fair number of academics to round out his own perspective.

If you are a reader, I highly recommend this book.  I’ll just close with his close to the chapter on Whim:

So the books are waiting.  Of this you may be confident:  they’ll be ready when the whim strikes you.

My search for utopia has ended.

I just finished reading Hanna Gray‘s Searching for Utopia:  Universities & Their History.  I must report that while I did find the book enlightening, I, sadly, did not find utopia.  However, I do now have a stack of books on my desk that she referenced and which I thought sounded intriguing.

Perhaps there’s a message in that?  Utopia = a stack of books?