Date Archives January 2013

My Silence on Gender Issues in Libraries and Technology

I started writing this post a while ago and shelved it, waiting for more insight. Gender issues, technology, and librarianship is a huge issue. I didn’t want to get something this important wrong, so I didn’t finish my thought and hit the publish button. While I’m not certain I have more insight today, I do think it has become timely again and I want to air my thoughts this time, warts and all.

Attention Distribution Disorder

This week on the library blog Hi Miss Julie, Julie aired her discontent with the way attention is distributed to librarians. I have some trouble with some of the underlying assumptions behind the post, but it is undeniably honest and timely. It very clearly strikes a nerve and resonates with a lot of my colleagues in a way that is worth paying attention to. Make no mistake, this is an important issue.

The post also offers indirect but clear insults to people I am friendly with. The insulted are adults who can handle criticism or mild Internet bullying. However out of loyalty and fairness I want to be direct and point out what I perceive to be a lapse in manners. ( I hesitate to pick a fight and refuse to choose sides, but I am loyal to my friends and I respect Julie enough to take her own advice on speaking up when we witness a perceived wrong.)

The reason Julie’s recent piece draws my response is that I couldn’t figure out how to respond to it. She clearly has identified something about gender and power in our profession that resonates. I want to understand that better. I also observed that at least three eminent library speakers offered excellent advice on raising one’s profile as a speaker. Their advice is spot-on, practical, and following it will lead to the desired outcome, but I didn’t get the feeling her original post was seeking advice. I don’t share some of the post’s assumptions, but again, I didn’t get the feeling that the appropriate response was to engage it in critical dialog. So I returned to the draft of this post that I had started and abandoned. When I read my earlier thoughts about gender disparity in libraries and technology I found my answer. The appropriate response to Julie’s post on gender and attention was to listen to it.

So I sat down and read it again. I listened. I divorced it from the context of ongoing librarian Internet feuds or disagreements about whether books ARE stories or if they just CONTAIN stories. I tried to listen to the piece and it told me that gender influences attention in our profession in disturbing ways. A significant number of smart and competent librarians don’t feel smart or competent because people like me get more than our fair share of attention. I don’t have a metric for the attention economy, but I believe my work has received its fair share of attention. I believe I’ve done damn fine work and that my awards, attention, and paid speaking gigs are justified by my competence. But I’m not fool enough to believe that there are not smarter, more competent, and more eloquent librarians who toil in relative obscurity. It is unlikely that many of these overlooked librarians are male. That sucks. So this is what I’ve decided my appropriate response to Julie’s post is: first listening carefully to what she has to say and then mourning the fact that many of my smart and competent female colleagues don’t feel as brilliant and accomplished as they deserve to because our culture is diseased. This is a tragedy.

I have ideas on how we can change this on an individual scale and I have some problems with other things she wrote in the post, but since no one asked me, I’m just going to stick to listening and mourning at this time. It is a tragedy that competence and hard work do not always receive their just deserts. It is a crime that our culture allows this to happen to females so much more often than to their male counterparts.

Below is the post stub that generated these thoughts:

Mansplaining, 1reasonwhy, and gender issues in library technology leadership

Society, at least the American, educated, technological society that I inhabit most of the time, has a problem with gender. I’m probably not best placed to identify and describe this problem, so I’ll just point to three examples. The first is explained clearly by Rebecca Solnit in 2008 Men Explain Things to Me. This piece has circumnavigated the Internet several times and each time it comes around again it has been heavily linked, liked, and retweeted. It has become the seminal work on mansplaining. My second example is the twitter hashtag #1reasonwhy. Each #1reasonwhy tweet relates one reason why there aren’t more women in the video game design industry. Third is Roy Tennant’s Library Journal piece : Fostering Female Technology Leadership in Libraries.

Looking at them in reverse order, these examples explain that libraires need more women in positions of technology leadership, that women in technology fields are often treated poorly, and that men (such as myself) may not be best placed to articulate or remedy this problem. It’s the third point that gives me trouble. The first two seem well established. So let’s work backwards through these and see if we can uncover additional insight when we get back to the sticky point.

Is Fostering Female Leadership a man’s role? I don’t know, but I want more of it.

First, Roy Tennant’s piece on fostering female technology leadership in libraries. My response to this is: “Yes, please. Let’s have more.” I’ve been fortunate enough to work for two women who ran both libraries and campus IT. It seems natural to do things that way, but I know my experience isn’t the norm. I’ve also had the very good fortune to be mentored by amazingly brilliant and technologically adapt women. Every job I’ve had in libraries and academe I’ve had the opportunity to be trained and mentored by brilliant women whom I am striving to accomplish enough not to bring shame to their legacies. I bring this up because I’ve been where Roy wants us to go (as a profession) and it is a wonderful place. Why hasn’t it happened yet for more of us?

#1reasonwhy libraries need to do better: the rest of the world sucks.

Second, I want to compare this experience to my experience working in non-libraries IT. It ain’t the same thing. Before library school I worked in a tech support call center where thousands of stereotypical male geeks toiled under the leadership of aging bros and fraternity brothers with MBAs. It. Was. Hell. Oh my gods it was awful. Having gone through that nightmare I believe I can empathize (without fully understanding what they go through daily) with the contributors to the #1reasonwhy hashtag. When the culture is actively hostile yet refuses to acknowledge that any privilege or oppression exists, a reasonable existence is not possible. If my first point was to acknowledge that I have it good because I have the good fortune to work for brilliant women, my second point is to acknowledge that my situation is relatively unusual and not everyone is so fortunate. Technology fields can be actively hostile towards those it needs the most.

Let me ‘mansplain it to you:

Which brings me to my third point: Solnit’s piece and mansplaining in general make me loathe to comment on gender issues. What do I have to contribute? (The fact I don’t ask this more often is perfect evidence of straight-white-male-privilege.) More than that, what happens when I disagree with a woman on a gender-related topic? There does not exist a safe party line I could toe, even if I was inclined toward that kind of intellectual safety, but how can a guy struggling to be cluefull avoid looking like the buffoon in Solnit’s piece? To use a line from Quentin Tarrantino (of all people): “the less a man makes declarative sentences, the less likely he is to look foolish in retrospect.” Sometimes the appropriate answer risking looking like an ass and sometime the appropriate answer is silence.

My Silence

I’m not saying males don’t deserve to speak, our opinions don’t matter, or I need to be silenced. It’s not that our voices doesn’t have a place, but silence itself is a space to be filled. Cluefull men can leave pregnant silences to be filled by others. Others may be waiting for silences to be filled. Others may not be brought up and acculturated to believe that their words are desired and useful in all conversations. As a teacher, I see every week that the voices most comfortable speaking in class are not always the voices with the most to contribute. As a professional, something I would like to become more skilled at is offering my silence to my colleagues, especially in matters such as this. Gender equity is important, but I may not be the right person to talk about it. I may be the perfect person to be silent and listen.

Of course, I’m not silent now, I’m writing and adding my voice. I’m also not promising to submit to ideas that I find unreasonable. It’s just that the more I think about this issue, the more convinced I am that finding ways to indirectly defer to previously silenced voices is the best way forward.

From Cool to Useful: Incorporating hobby projects into library work

This was originally posted at ACRL TechConnect on January 09, 2013.
Cool or Useful? A guide to incorporating hobby projects into library work

Sometimes I have trouble creating a clear line between geeky hobby projects I do on my own time and professional tasks for MPOW (my place of work.) This time, the geeky-thing-I-think-is-cool is a LibraryBox. LibraryBox is a hardware hack created by Jason Griffey.  What I’m currently trying to work out is, is this project a viable solution to a practical work-place problem? Of course, I have to watch out for Maslov’s Law of the Instrument which can be paraphrased: “To a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” These days I’m seeing a lot of LibraryBox-shaped nails. I’m eager to find potential applications for my new toy tool. My project in today’s post is to describe the LibraryBox project and describe a method of determining whether or not it has a work-related application.

What is a LibraryBox?

A LibraryBox is a very portable pocket-sized device that serves up digital content to wifi devices. It is designed to provide free ebooks to readers with wifi devices but without access to reliable Internet or power. The best introduction to LibraryBox may be found on the LibraryBox site. Jason Griffey has done an excellent job with the site’s design and has written comprehensive instructions for building and deploying LibraryBoxen. The site describes the project as: “an open source, portable digital file distribution tool based on inexpensive hardware that enables delivery of educational, healthcare, and other vital information to individuals off the grid.”

The LibraryBox project was designed to solve a very specific kind of problem. It is useful in scenarios involving all of the following conditions:

  • Either no access or sporadic access to Internet and electrical utilities
  • a need to distribute digital content
  • users that have wifi enabled devices

In order to meet these objectives, the LibraryBox

  • uses inexpensive parts and hardware.
  • runs off of batteries and is highly portable.
  • uses open source software. (The code is both kinds of free; both libre and gratis.)
My LibraryBox

Building the LibraryBox was fun and easy. I bought the necessary parts: a mobile router, a large usb flash drive, plus an optional battery. (I’m using a Sony Cycle Energy CP-EL I found on sale at the grocery store for $13). Then I went through the instructions. The process is easy and straightforward. A friend of mine completed them while his baby daughter was down for a nap. I took a little longer because I didn’t read the instructions through before starting and did some steps out of order. If you more diligent with following directions than I am, Jason’s instructions will get you from start to finish easily and without a hitch. Once I had my LibraryBox up and running, I filled the flash drive with some free and creative commons licensed content. I tested it out and was happy to see that I could use it to download ebooks onto my phone, laptop, and tablet. Once I demonstrated that it worked, I began to look for practical applications where it could be more than just cool, I wanted my hobby project to be useful.  To keep myself honest and keep my project enthusiasm in check, I’m using a series of questions to help determine whether I’m being blinded by the new shiny thing or whether it is, in fact,  an appropriate tool for the job at hand. These questions help with the tool/toy distinction, especially when I’m under the spell of the law of the instrument.

  1. Does this tool or technology offer a solution to an existing problem?
  2. If the answer to #1 is yes, does it solve the problem better (more efficiently, cheaply, etc.) than alternate solutions?
  3. Does this tool or technology introduce unintended consequences or side-effects that are worse than the original problem?
Applying the Questions:

There are two ready applications for a LibraryBox at MPOW. Neither directly involve the library, both involve faculty projects in our Creative Media and Digital Culture (CMDC) program. Both are interesting projects and both project leads have indicated interest in using a LibraryBox to solve a problem. The first case involves using a LibraryBox to allow visitors to a remote historical site the ability to download and install a mobile app. My colleague Brett Oppegaard is leading development of a mobile app to provide visitors to a historic site access to interpretive materials. The location is somewhat remote and mobile broadband coverage is spotty at best and varies depending on the cell provider. My thought was to provide visitors to the site a reliable method of installing and using the app. Applying the three questions from above to this project, I learned that the answers to the first two questions are an unqualified yes. It solves a real problem by allowing users to download a digital file without an active net connection. It does so better than alternate solutions, especially due to its ability to run off of battery power. (There are no utilities at the site.) However, the third question reveals some real difficulties. I was able to successfully download and install the app from its .apk file using the LibraryBox. However, the steps required to achieve this are too convoluted for non-technical end users to follow easily. In addition, the current version of the app requires an active Internet connection in order to successfully install, rendering the LibraryBox workaround moot. These issues may be able to be resolved with some hacking, but right now the LibraryBox isn’t a working solution to this project’s needs. We’ll keep it in mind as the project develops and try new approaches.

Fortunately, as I was demonstrating the LibraryBox to the CMDC faculty, another colleague asked me about using it to solve a problem he is facing.  John Barber has been working on preserving The Brautigan Library and re-opening it to submissions. The Brautigan Library is a collection of unpublished manuscripts organized in the spirit of  the fictional library described in Richard Brautigan’s novel The Abortion. The Brautigan Library manuscripts currently are housed at the Clark County Historical Museum and we tested the LibraryBox there as a source for providing mobile access to finding aids.  This worked, but there were speed and usability issues. As we tested, however, John developed a larger plan involving a dedicated tablet kiosk, a web-app template, and a local web server connected to a router in the building. While we did not choose to use LibraryBox to support this exhibit, it did spark useful conversation that is leading us in promising directions.

Next Steps:

After learning that the LibraryBox isn’t a turn-key solution for either project, I still have some productive work to do. The first step is to install a light-weight web server (lighttpd) on the hardware currently running LibraryBox. (Fortunately, someone has already done this and left directions.) It’s possible, but unlikely, that will meet our needs. After that we’re going to test our plans using more powerful hardware in a similar setup. I’ve acquired a Raspberry Pi to test as a web server for the project and may also try running a web server on a more powerful router than the TL-MR3020 LibraryBox is based on. (Some open-WRT capable routers have as much as 128mb of RAM, which may be enough.) There is also work to do on the Ft. Vancouver project. The next steps there involve working on-site with the design team to more clearly articulate the problem(s) we are trying to solve.

In both cases my hobbyist tinkering is leading to practical and productive work projects. In both cases the LibraryBox has served as an excellent kluge (jury-rigged temporary solution) and has helped us see a clearer path to a permanent solution. These solutions will probably not resemble my early amateur efforts, but by exercising a little discipline to make certain my toys tools  are being employed productively, I’m confident that my hobby tinkering has a place in a professional workplace. At very least, my leisure time spent experimenting is benefiting my professional work. I also think that the kind of questions used here have application when considering other library toys fads innovations.