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??


Big Data? How about Long Data…

Apologies for the hiatus.  Things (life, holidays, work, travel, library books, book club, making delicious dinners, etc.) got… hectic.  I should know better than to promise upcoming posts, but here I go anyways:  today I had a fascinating and enlightening discussion with some librarians taking a Coursera MOOC on e-learning & digital cultures.  Definitely going to brain-dump some of that discussion here later.  Very promising course.

But, what have I really come to break my long silence here for?  I saw an article today on the ol’ interwebs on Big Data.  Really it was about why we should be hyping up “long data,” though.

Arbesman prefaces his piece by acknowledging that the trend of collecting, analyzing, visualizing and thinking about “big data” brings some amount of value to our society.  (Though, I think it can also be used for negative purposes… just think about all the data Facebook, Amazon, Google and whomever else has on all of us.  What might they do with that?)  But, his main point is that we’re missing an opportunity by only looking at a “snapshot” in time.  Enter “long data,” which does not as of yet have a wikipedia page.

By “long” data, I mean datasets that have massive historical sweep — taking you from the dawn of civilization to the present day.

He does a lovely job offering a picture of what a world of long data might look like – it might enable a much richer and deeper interpretation of how things are and have been.  It’s a very nice concept!  But I particularly like how he calls for an even more forward-thinking approach to data analysis at the end of his piece.

If we’re going to move beyond long data as a mindset, however — and treat it as a serious application — we need to connect these intellectual approaches across fields. We need to connect professional and academic disciplines, ranging from data scientists and researchers to business leaders and policy makers.

Again, I think this is a nice concept and I hope this vision is realized.

Now, I realize that this is a very vision-y piece, with a high-level call and a re-framing of something people are buzzing about at the moment.  But, I think that there are some nitty-gritty aspects to fulfilling this vision that could have been raised.  Most importantly:  to use data effectively and have it be interoperable, metadata (information about the data you’re interested in) must be correct and relevant and there must be enough of it.

These are exciting times in the world of data – we have the NSF and other federal agencies requiring (or strongly suggesting) data management plans in grant proposals, libraries are getting into the mix and figuring out their role in the process of data curation, and individual researchers spinning on their wheels to pump out publications as fast as possible often with little regard to data management at all.  Metadata!  Gotta have it.  And it’s gotta be (reasonably) good.

I’m particularly interested in what librarians are going to do in this sphere moving forward.  I know of data curation specialists, data visualization librarians, and other roles in the library that are starting to interface with these kinds of research.  It’ll be fascinating to see where this goes in the future!

Tweeting Conferences

Tweeting conferences is quite a thing.  One blogger exhaustively breaks down just how to do it well.  After attending two conferences this summer, I can now reflect on the use of Twitter at each.  At ESA 2012, a conference of several thousand ecologists, there were quite a few active tweeters.  Just take a peak at the hashtags “#esasocial” or “esa2012.”

Twitter Fail

Hope the LOC is having success with their whole archiving Twitter project…

Just kidding!  Darn!  I tried to go back to find a tweet that had a link to an infographic compiling all the tweets, but alas and alack, I couldn’t access old tweets.  More on this in a moment.

At the second conference I went to, attended by a few hundred ecologists, tweeters were very few and very far between.  While I did tweet a few things at ESA, I did not tweet at the second conference in part because the silence in the twitterverse for #lterasm was intimidating and in part because I was there to observe the ecologists and not really be a communicator of what I was experiencing.

It is curious to me that among seemingly similar groups of people (ecologists!) there can be such a difference on Twitter.  There are probably a few reasons for this.  One is that there was a workshop early on at ESA on social media and people were actively encouraged to tweet the sessions (and it was explained what that even meant), while there was no such emphasis at the LTER conference.

But a second reason could tie in most wonderfully with something I actually learned via my Model Thinking coursera course!  Ah worlds connecting!  How I love that!  So, one of the models our instructor incorporated into this curriculum is called “the standing ovation” model.  So, people have different thresholds of needs for standing after a performance which depend on the quality of the show and the number of other people they see standing… it occurs to me the same processes could have been at work on Twitter.  I saw many many tweeters, and they made the atmosphere a more welcoming one for me.  But also, I went to some really great sessions that made me want to communicate that out to the wider twitterverse.

For me though, I find live-tweeting conferences ultimately hugely distracting.  How  can I pay attention or take notes (though, maybe tweeting is taking notes?  … not the kind of notes I take, I assure you) while tweeting AND paying attention to other tweeters?  I definitely see the value, but it is hard for me to juggle the information coming and going and being produced.  Maybe this all comes with practice though!

Citizen Science & Libraries

I think it would be *great* fun to develop an upper level undergraduate course that spans three disciplines/topics:

  1. Some science discipline (or interdisciplinary science course – like the one I taught, Global Change)
  2. Information literacy
  3. Citizen science

Wouldn’t it be a cool “upper level” library course to follow something like the Digital Research course offered at the UM Library?  Perhaps this course is something a science librarian could develop, in conjunction with a professor or two, that could be housed at the library.  Students could pick a citizen science project to research and contribute to (e.g. eBird, Project BudBurst, CitizenSky, or they could find one that interests them at SciStarter) and write up a reflection on their experience or proposal for a new citizen science site or research paper based on the class dataset.

On the library side, librarians could use this as an opportunity to give students a deeper look into the world of subject-specific databases.  Embedded throughout the course could be discussions around the resources students are finding on the topic of their citizen science project.  Do we trust these resources?  Who wrote them?  Do we believe their conclusions?  Would we need more data to assess their hypotheses?

I think this kind of course could interest a range of students in different disciplines, connect them to the science in a new way.  Undergraduate science majors, science education majors, science policy students and others could gain something from such a course.  Students could get a taste of some specific topic, the research process, evaluation and critique of resources, and writing or presenting what they’ve learned.

After doing a bit of searching, I haven’t found this kind of course out there – but if anyone knows of one, do let me know!

Response to “Honest tips for wannabe archivists out there”

I really like the ArchivesNext blog.  This is just a quick post to say that.  For example, I think Kate did a nice job summarizing a debate that went on over Twitter in a recent post and reiterating some really important points.  The debate was around loving the “stuff” of archives and libraries versus loving helping others have access to the “stuff.”  Apparently at the ACRL’s Rare Book and Manuscript Section 2012 conference someone said (and then this was subsequently tweeted):

If you love ”the stuff,” you’re closer to getting a job in archives and special collections.

Well, Kate respectfully disagreed, replying:

If you love books/old stuff, collect them. If you love helping people have access to information, become a librarian/archivist.

I think there is an assumption that people come into the (archival, and perhaps preservation?) profession specifically to deal with old stuff and shy away from people and technology.  I’m not totally sure that’s true; I wonder what the results would be of a survey of incoming students to library and information schools around the kinds of materials and collections they saw themselves dealing with in the future.  Really, what percent of these folks honestly think archives are musty old inaccessible places?  My hunch would be that many majored in history and used archives in their undergraduate research and thought that could be a good career path.  But, I didn’t see many fellow students thinking they would only work with paper archives.  Perhaps that’s a product of the incredibly tech-friendly atmosphere of UM’s School of Information, though.

In any case, there ARE old materials out there, and that old (paper) stuff needs curators.  Who are we to imply that we can’t enter this profession loving the stuff and setting up a dichotomy of loving the stuff OR loving providing access to the stuff/loving helping people/loving technology.  I think a healthy dose of loving the “stuff” of your collections can help you help your patrons much better, in a library or an archive.  I, personally, love interacting with people and it’s partly why I went to an information school:  I adored teaching but did not want to teach full-time.  I wanted to be a part of academia, facilitate scholarship, facilitate education and I saw that an information school would help me gain the skills to do that.  I also love science (and STEM) resources, so it’s a dream of mine to help patrons who are interested in those resources.  I love stuff AND people AND technology!  And that’s okay 🙂

On the topic of technology, I think it’s incredibly useful to feel comfortable with technology, if not well-versed in technology.  But, not everyone does.  My school was excellent at providing exposure to technology to students, but for people graduating with a bit more uneasiness around technology or for those who have been in the profession for a while and the technology has drastically changed, I think it’s the onus (or great pleasure?) of the organization to support its staff in pursuing professional development opportunities to become a bit more fluent in whatever useful technologies are out there.

Kate’s post also had a really nice list of advice for those pondering the archives profession and the comments section added to that discussion.  I encourage you to read it!