Posts in academic librarianship

To Criticize, To Hope, and To Library

I’ve been struck by something on library Twitter recently. I doubt that anything has changed, but i seem to be noticing this more and wanted to dig deeper into my response to it. What I’m seeing is a lot of “either for us or against us” response to criticism of libraries. A lot of what I’m seeing is good push back, I’m certainly not arguing against the content of what people are saying. Instead, what I want to do is to look at criticism of and in libraries and see if there is something to learn in the general reaction, as opposed to simply choosing a side or deciding who is right and who is wrong. 

This is coming from a place of self-contemplation. At my intersections of gender, race, class, and other demographics I’m learning how to examine my initial emotional responses to external criticism and temper my defensiveness with listening. For example, when friends post online “Men are awful!” or something to that effect, instead of responding “YOU’RE WRONG! I’m not awful.”  I’ve been taught to listen to the complaint and to try not to be awful. When this happens, above all, don’t say #notallmen.

Maybe because I’ve been paying more attention to how I respond when groups I belong to are publicly criticized, I’ve seen that when libraries and librarianship are criticized, our first responses aren’t quite what they could be. So there are three examples of criticism of libraries and librarians that showcase our response. Again, my point in writing this is not to determine who is right and who is wrong, but instead, I want to figure out how can we best respond to criticism.

@theangriestlibrarian’s excellent rant to an uninformed library critic

(librarians) are so convinced that we must defend libraries against threats that we are defending libraries against improvement

In this lovely rant, @HalpernAlex takes down someone who suggests that libraries are no longer needed, or at least are no longer the most efficient way to provide the public with access to information. I have zero criticisms of the rant; I think that it’s is accurate. What I’m worried about is that we, as a profession, are more interested in preserving libraries as institutions than we are in fulfilling the mission of libraries. When we see bad ideas about replacing libraries, whether it’s this one (give the books to schools and close the buildings) or others (buy everyone Kindle Unlimited and stop funding libraries or academic libraries are vanity project that have already been replaced with smartphones) we (myself included) gleefully dogpile on the poor benighted fools who dare question the invaluable contributions of our vocation to the public good. My question is this: when librarians face a choice between libraries and something new that more efficiently serves our mission, how will we respond? Part of me worries that it will be with torches and pitchforks.

At least, this is what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid that we (librarians) are so convinced that we must defend libraries against threats that we are defending libraries against improvement.[1]Though, obviously in this case, just dumping books in schools and closing libraries is the opposite of improvement.

@rdlankes’ tweet about a continuum of library quality and @lisalibrarian (& others)  response to this.

I’m really intrigued by this exchange. There are two good (and not mutually exclusive, in my view) arguments being made here. One: some libraries do bad work or at very least, bad libraries are the result of bad library work. The other: referring to library work as bad in public forums is disrespectful of library workers. So what do we do about libraries that fail in some aspect of their work?

The first example that comes to mind is the Florida librarian who broke the law and patron privacy ethics by calling the FBI to report on suspected library usage by 9/11 perpetrators.  If that is too ambiguous an example, nina de jesus’ article Locating the Library In Institutional Oppression and Cheryl Knott’s book Not Free, Not For All: Public libraries in the age of Jim Crow provide undeniable examples of not just bad libraries and bad librarianship, but libraries (the concept writ large) in the service of oppression.

if good library work is our goal, positive and nurturing conversation is more likely to achieve it than running down and disrespecting our colleagues

So I guess I’m taking a position here. I’m against the unwritten rule that orders librarians not to tell the truth about bad library work. On the other hand, I’m on board with the argument that says if good library work is our goal, positive and nurturing conversation is more likely to achieve it than running down and disrespecting our colleagues. As a personal rule, I try to talk about bad libraries and bad library work, but not bad librarianship or bad librarians. Failing this, if I’m talking about bad librarianship, it’s best to assume I’m talking about myself. We’ll see in the next example that I don’t always follow my rule here, but similar to the first example there’s a tension between telling the truth about library work and providing a consistent narrative most likely to lead to better library work in the future.

My tweets about bad library instruction and the responses to them.

I wrote some tweets earlier this month about bad library instruction and my response to it. There was more engagement with these thoughts than there is with most of what I write, so I appear to have struck a nerve with others. However, it wasn’t the same nerve that I had struck in myself. Reading how others responded to what I wrote, I saw a lot of people concerned about their own library instruction being seen as shit. I was more concerned with interacting with the course instructors–what do we do when then inevitable bad day of instruction happens? How do we safe-guard instruction programs from instances of low-quality work? I know that author intent theory is dead and what I intended is not more important that what the readers perceived, but it was hard to see the thread of conversation get away from me.

It was especially hard because my casual use of profanity and the scatological metaphor [2]I’m sure this reads as pompous, but it was SO MUCH FUN to type that I’m leaving it in. only amplified the disconnect. When instruction librarians are fighting for the time, respect, and resources we need to succeed, it must have felt awful to have another librarian say that our work is shit.[3]I wasn’t trying to say that at all, but that’s really beside the point. Swearing about librarianship helps me, as a professional practitioner, to shed rose-colored glasses I have to wear at work. There are a lot of contexts in which I rightfully treat librarianship as holy. These make it necessary to have a space where I can blaspheme with critical thought. Otherwise I’ll have no choice but to believe my own marketing copy and drink the Kool-Aid. When we’re shifting perspectives or code-switching, hyperbole, profanity, and blasphemy can be contextually confusing. I’m confused as well. I still strongly believe that the library instruction I was writing about was undeniably shitty and that talking about shitty library instruction is a first step towards making better library instruction. Yet by not making my criticism general enough or impersonal enough [4]I really don’t think it matters if original  example was someone bad at their job or just someone having the inevitable bad day. I appear to have disrespected my colleagues and caused pain.

So What Do We Do About Criticism?

What do we do about criticism? We accept it. We listen to it. We don’t have to agree with it or obey it, but we should hear it. Librarians should strive to hear criticism of our profession without treating it as a personal attack. Library critics (myself included) should strive to hear the push back that tells us overly mean criticism tears down rather than building up. Criticism is a means to an end and that end is the public good, the good of the people who use libraries. The end we are pursuing is not the good of libraries or librarians, it is the mission of libraries.

We embrace criticism and we pursue to provide better criticism. We seek out criticism that provides hope for better libraries to come. I don’t have a better example of this than a talk given by Eli Neiberger in 2010.  Neiberger tell us that libraries are screwed, explains why, and then gives us reason for hope and a vision for services that better meet the information needs of our communities. For me, this is the platonic ideal of how do provide criticism. I worry that if we’re not able to hear that libraries are screwed, if we’re not able to hear that there are bad libraries out there or that if we make bad choices, we get bad libraries, and if we’re not able to hear that some library instruction is shitty, then we’re not able to avoid these fates.

 

There’s no intrinsic value in making us feel bad about libraries. There’s nothing to be gained in nihilism or in being a pretentious know-it-all who looks smart by correctly predicting that there is no hope. However, the path towards hope, the path towards a better future, the path towards better libraries goes through criticism, not around it.

Vocational Awe: A concept that helps us go forward here

Finally, I want to refer to someone else’s words and thoughts that do a better job of describing the dangers I’m trying to write about. Fobazi Ettarh wrote a great piece on Vocational Awe I strongly encourage y’all to read it. I’ve pulled two key passages here to explain the term vocational awe:

As we were brainstorming, I mentioned that I was interested in deconstructing this idea of vocational awe in librarianship. I saw the concept as the root of a lot of problems within librarianship, especially in creating a work/life balance and in larger critiques of the field. ~Fobazi Ettarh

So what exactly is “vocational awe?” Well simply put, it is the idea that libraries as institutions are inherently good. It assumes that some or all core aspects of the profession are beyond critique, and it, in turn, underpins many librarians’ sense of identity and emotional investment in the profession. The closest that Sveta found to a similar concept was occupational mythology in the journalism world.

My fear is that we (librarians) feel so much protective love for our work and our patrons and we feel so much justified fear that changing attitudes towards funding the public good and changing information technologies will undermine and destroy libraries; we feel this so much that we lash out against all criticism, even the criticism we need in order to have hope for a better future. Vocational awe is a thing that keeps us from building better libraries because we are afraid of listening to criticism. Vocational awe is what makes us define program assessment as “making the library look good to the administration so they don’t cut our funding” instead of as a practical tool to doing our work better. We can do better.

Hope.

Here’s the hope I have to offer. No matter how real the threats we face are, our cause is just. We can wrap ourselves in the confidence that when we teach people to find and use quality information, we are improving their lives. When we help kids learn to love literature, stories, and information we are making their futures brighter. When we library[5]That’s right, a library isn’t a book warehouse, library is a verb!, we are doing the good work. This confidence is well-founded and it can replace vocational awe. We don’t have to be afraid of criticizing the library that we love, because we know that the library is unquestionably lovable. We don’t have to shy away from ugly truths about the shifting foundations beneath our feet, because our mission is clear.

We’re going to have to face a lot more ugly truths about the future need for today’s library services. We’re going to have to confront the ways in which our library structures prop up oppressive structures in society. We’re going to have to face the unpleasantness of learning that some of the ways in which we library are misguided. We are wrong about a lot of our thinking about libraries. That’s where the hope is. We can do better. We can find new ways to library that aren’t shit. We can find new ways to library that don’t exclude the marginalized. We can find new ways to library that continue to meet the changing information needs of our service populations. As long as people need information, librarians need to library.

 

Note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Fobazi Ettarh’s name. My sincere apologies for being careless.

Notes

1 Though, obviously in this case, just dumping books in schools and closing libraries is the opposite of improvement.
2 I’m sure this reads as pompous, but it was SO MUCH FUN to type that I’m leaving it in.
3 I wasn’t trying to say that at all, but that’s really beside the point.
4 I really don’t think it matters if original  example was someone bad at their job or just someone having the inevitable bad day.
5 That’s right, a library isn’t a book warehouse, library is a verb!

Free Primary Sources: dp.la, european.eu, and the Magic of Metadata Harvesters

This post is a summary of a presentation given at the 2015 ILAGO Summit in Hood River, Oregon.

DP.LA and Europeana.eu have become my go-to tools for primary source materials. Metadata harvesters (this is the fancy name for the kind of tool that dp.la and europeana.eu are) are amazingly useful, fun to explore, and rely on open content and sharing in a way that warms my cold librarian heart. I gave a presentation on these tools at the ILAGO (Information Literacy Group of Oregon) Summit and I wanted to share it with you all. Here is my slide deck, followed by a brief synopsis for my fellow preferrers of text.

I have three goals for this talk. First, I want all of you to be able to go back to your libraries and share how rich, deep, and amazing the content available through metadata harvesters is. That’s the key point: metadata harvesters are really freaking cool. Once we’ve established that, I want you all to be able to explain to your coworkers what underlying technologies and standards are behind the magic of metadata harvesters. Finally, I want to close on the question of how to integrate metadata harvesters into our existing suites of tools for discovery and reference.

Metadata harvesters are really freaking cool.

Showing off the dp.la and europeana.eu is easy. It’s pretty easy to manipulate the interfaces and both tools do an adequate job of helping novice searchers. Let’s use an example to see how searching metadata harvesters work. Here’s the scenario: a student comes to the library with an assignment to find primary source materials on a historical figure represented in current popular culture. This student is interested in the Cercei Lannister character on HBO’s Game of Thrones series, so we are looking for primary sources about her historical inspiration Margaret of Anjou. Searching for Margaret of Anjou, including alternate spellings, returns quite a few interesting primary and secondary sources in europeana.eu. My favorite is a letter she wrote using veiled language to threaten people who were molesting tenants under her protection. The ease of finding materials really shows off the power and usefulness of metadata harversters like europeana.eu and dp.la.

Standards and technologies behind the magic

Turning to the underlying technology & standards that enable metadata harvesters to work, we’ll see that Dublin Core, XML, and RDF are foundational technologies. Metadata harvesters like europeana.edu and dp.la rely on dublin core and rdf to build standards. The key concept is that the metadata harvesters publish a standard that digital archives can use. Digital archives that wish to share their metadata must publish their metadata using these standards. Then this metadata will harvested and become discoverable. It is important to note that the digital objects themselves are not harvested and remain on the hosting archives’ servers.

Integrating metadata harvesters into our discovery tools

How we can make the amazing sources and resources that are discoverable through metadata harvesters available to our library users? At WSU Vancouver, we make them available through a Libguide. Reflecting on this, I’m starting to be concerned how free sources are largely segregated (made available to students in a different place) from the sources we pay to get access to. Are there strategies we can use to close this gap? It may also be useful to discuss the similarities between library discovery layers and metadata harvesters. Both can make use of the same underlying technology, OAI-PMH, but in my limited experience, the tool built on open standards and sharing is much more successful at providing discovery than the proprietary solutions.

Library Instruction West 2014 Recap #liwest2014

tl;dr Library Instruction West is a Marvelous Conference.

My brain is still buzzing and feels pleasantly tingly from all of the good thoughts, emotions, and interactions I had at the Library Instruction West 2014 conference. I walked away energized by the people I met and by the content they shared. Portland State University was a fantastic host and the organizing committee, led by Joan Petit, did a lovely job bringing brilliant people with excellent content together in a well-run event. <tips cap>

Three things that made #liwest14 a special conference:

Beyond my general glowing endorsement, I want to highlight specific aspects that made Library Instruction West 2014 stand out from other library conferences. To start, this conference draws from a specific and well defined community of practice and these are my people. The conference also stands out because instruction librarians are skilled and engaging presenters; spending our careers speaking with groups of students pays off with impressive presentation skills. The rewards of attending are both practical and intellectual; I left with two ideas I’m already using in my instructional design and with big picture thoughts that I’ll be reflecting on for a while.

These are my people.

Library Instruction West is about library instruction and not really anything else. This means that sessions are targeted and participants have a lot of shared passions and interests. If you are an instruction librarian, this niche marketing makes Library Instruction West much more valuable in terms of content than larger national or regional conferences. I was taken aback by the emotional impact I experienced listening to lovely colleagues talk about inquiry-based-learning, nurturing curiosity in our students, using narrative methods in our instruction, teaching format-as-practice [1], teaching with digital badges, assessing game-based pedagogy, and clever teaching hacks for survey software.I’m a bit of a utility infielder in library work. I do systems stuff; I do some web stuff; I do some instruction stuff; I’m trying to learn how to do more metadata stuff. That said, I came into the field as an instruction librarian and no matter how far my curiosity takes me, my core values come from instruction. Of course, as with most good conferences, the best information is transferred informally between sessions, at meals, or socially. I got to meet a lot of folks in person I’ve come to respect and admire through Twitter. I was able to put faces to Twitter names and spend a couple of days with some truly lovely people. It’s nice to be surrounded by one’s people, to feel part of a tight-knit community of practice.

Instruction librarians are skilled and engaging presenters.

It is a real treat to watch experienced presenters who have a good body of practice work with an audience. In my two days at Library Instruction West I learned as much from watching how presenters interacted with their audiences as I did from the information being transferred. This is a rare treat. At other conferences, I’ve learned AMAZING THINGS from people whose job descriptions don’t include being interesting at the front of a room and I’ve also realized after a talk that the charming and engaging speaker really didn’t say anything profound or useful, but attending a conference full of engaging speakers who are intentional about their presentation style is WONDERFUL. It is also nice to have sessions where attention is paid to active learning, various learning preferences or styles, and non-traditional visual presentation techniques. I had the opportunity to observe small break-out sessions with group work, activities based on physical objects, self assessment exercises, and excellent question and answer sessions. I also got to learn from people giving very traditional talks using slide decks that were well designed and rich with information. Being able to see, hear, and interact with really talented colleagues practicing excellent pedagogy is a learning experience that I really can’t duplicate by reading about it. So if my effusive praise above hasn’t already convinced you to attend Library Instruction West 2016 in Salt Lake City, this may be the most appealing aspect: you’ll have the opportunity to experience experienced and skilled library instructors demonstrating what they do best first hand.

I left the conference with two ideas I’m already using in my instruction and with big picture thoughts that I’ll be reflecting on for a while.

Idea the first:

In Zoe Fisher’s session Live the Question, Love the Question: Inquiry-based learning in the one-shot she described a method of helping students craft rough topics into functional research questions. This is exactly what I need for a very large multi-section class I work with. Each semester the largest barrier I see to student success is the inability to see a topic, research question, and thesis as three separate things. Zoe used inquiry-based learning theory to design an exercise where the students explain what they know and then using that foundation to tease out interesting questions. My History faculty have already signed off on using the “what I know / what I want to know” table she described in their Fall classes. Hopefully, this will help us move from the first spark of student curiosity to potential research questions more smoothly and naturally.

sample table for what I know | what I want to know excercise
Sample “what I know | what I want to know” table. Click for larger view.

Idea the second:

In Kevin Seeber’s session Teaching “Format as Process” in an Era of Web-Scale Discovery he delivered a well-founded argument for a turn towards teaching process and away from teaching formats. Process being the critical thinking steps that make up scholarship and formats being the packages information is delivered in. He sums up his reasoning as: “the way we search is changing, we need to teach things that are constant” and “don’t teach the interface, teach the results.” His entire line of reasoning is a treat, so please don’t miss reading the whole presentation. Using what I learned from Kevin’s talk, I’m going to embrace the statement “Information literacy is not about knowing “how.” It’s about knowing “why.”” and do as much as I can to re-write the instructions for an assignment in the course mentioned above to explicitly refer to process instead of to formats. For example, there won’t be a “Finding Newspapers” section, but there will be a section that uses newspapers to “Find current information on your topic.” The reason for this shift is to reinforce the scaffolding in a semester-long assignment. Students are too often jumping through hoops to complete the assignment, I want to reinforce that the hoops are part of a method and not just arbitrary busy-work.

Big picture thoughts:

As I listened and interacted with the presenters and brilliant librarians around the event, I found my mind returning to a couple of big-picture concepts that I’m going to need some time to chew on. The first was the subject of Anne-Marie Deitering and Hannah Gascho Rempel’s talk, methods to engage student curiosity in research. Allie Flanary also had good things to say about curiosity in conversation between the sessions. She’s working on a sabbatical project on student curiosity, which I’m anticipating with great interest. Engaging curiosity is a big reason I’m a teacher and it’s the most rewarding aspect of the work. Seeing librarians identify curiosity as the keystone of our instruction work is inspiring and I want to explore where this line of thinking leads people.

A second big-picture thought that I came back to at several points during the conference is the impact of web-scale discovery tools on library instruction. This is a topic that I’ve been fixated on for a few years now. Search interfaces for web-scale discovery tools closely resemble search interfaces for single databases or catalogs even though the underlying architectures are very different. At what point should we teach students that this is a different kind of search? It’s not obvious, but it’s significant. The search we do now is increasingly different from searching a single index and the gap widens every day. For a great reading on this, see Aaron Tay’s excellent post Why Nested Boolean Search Statements May Not Work As Well As They Did. Even though search interfaces look the same, the underlying math is very different. Web search and discovery layers look more simple than a database search, but underneath they are MUCH more complicated. I realize not every student needs to be an expert in big data, but “How much does a competent searcher need to know about how these new tools work?” is a live and relevant question that we don’t have an answer to.

Wrapping up

Library Instruction West is a small, intimate conference focused on issues of library instruction, the librarians who do this work, and the students we work with. It is full of excellent content and is attended by fascinating librarians who are there to share the best work being done in the field today. If this sounds like your cup of tea, the 2016 edition will be hosted in Salt Lake City. I hope to see you all there.


Notes

[*] For what it’s worth, I thought the shiniest spark in a brilliant couple of days was Kevin’s presentation. (back)

Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi
A Raspberry Pi computer
A Raspberry Pi computer (image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 

This post was originally published on the ACRL TechConnect Blog at: http://acrl.ala.org/techconnect/?p=2962.

Raspberry Pi, a $35 fully-functional desktop computer about the size of a credit card, is currently enjoying a high level of buzz, popularity, and media exposure. Librarians are, of course, also getting in on the action. I have been working with a Raspberry Pi to act as a low-power web server for a project delivering media-rich web content for museum exhibits in places without access to the internet. I’ve found working with the little Linux machine to be a lot of fun and I’m very excited about doing more with Raspberry Pi. However, as with many things librarians get excited about, it can be difficult to see through the enthusiasm to the core of the issue. Is the appeal of these cute little computers universal or niche? Do I need a Raspberry Pi in order to offer core services to my patrons? In other words: do we all need to run out and buy a Raspberry Pi, are they of interest to a certain niche of librarians, or are Raspberry Pi just the next library technology fad and soon to go the way of offering reference service in Second Life? [1. Good and necessary work is still being done in Second Life, but it has become a niche service, not a revolution in the way we provide library services. ] To help us answer this question, I’d like to take a moment to explain what a Raspberry Pi device is, speculate who will be interested in one, provide examples of some library projects that use Raspberry Pi, and offer a shopping list for those who want to get started.

What is Raspberry Pi

From the FAQ at raspberrypi.org:

The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard. It’s a capable little PC which can be used for many of the things that your desktop PC does, like spreadsheets, word-processing and games. It also plays high-definition video. We want to see it being used by kids all over the world to learn programming.

This description from Raspberry Pi covers the basics. (H2G2 has a more detailed history of the project.) A Raspberry Pi (also known as a Raspi, or an RPi) is a small and inexpensive computer designed to extend technology education to young students who don’t currently have access to more expensive traditional computers. The Raspberry Pi project counteracts a movement away from general-purpose computing devices and toward internet appliances and mobile devices. The Pew Internet and American Life Project notes that: “smartphone owners, young adults, minorities, those with no college experience, and those with lower household income levels are more likely than other groups to say that their phone is their main source of internet access.[2. http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2012/PIP_Digital_differences_041312.pdf] Access to the internet today is pervasive and less expensive than ever before, but also more likely to come from an appliance or mobile device and without the programming tools and command-line control that were standard for previous generations of computer users. This means a smaller percentage of computer users are likely to pick up these skills on their own. Raspberry Pi offers a very-low cost solution to this lack of access to programming and command-line tools.

In addition to the stated goal of the Raspberry Pi organization, a lot of adults who already have access to technology are also very excited about the possibilities enabled by the small and cheap computing platform. What sets the Raspberry Pi apart from other computers is its combination of small size and low price. While you can do very similar things with a re-purposed or salvaged computer system running Linux, the Raspberry Pi is much smaller and uses less power. Similarly, you can do some of these things with a similarly-sized smart-phone, but those are much more expensive than a Raspberry Pi. For the technology hobbyist and amateur mad scientist, the Raspberry Pi seems to hit a sweet spot on both physical size and cost of entry.

The heart of the Raspberry Pi (or RPi) Model B is a Broadcom system-on-a-chip that includes a 700mhz ARM processor, 512mb RAM, USB and Ethernet controllers, and a graphics processor capable of HD resolutions. According to the FAQ its real-world performance is on par with a first generation Xbox or a 300mhz Pentium II computer. In my personal experience it is powerful enough for typical web browsing tasks or to host a WordPress based web site. Raspberry Pi devices also come with a GPIO (general purpose input and output) port, which enables an RPi to control electronic circuits. This makes the RPi a very flexible tool, but it doesn’t quite provide the full functionality of an Arduino or similar micro-controller[3. Check out this forum thread for a basic distinction between Arduino and Raspberry Pi.].

Out of the box, a Raspberry Pi will require some extra equipment to get up and running. There is a shopping list included at the bottom of the article that contains known working parts. If you keep boxes of spare parts and accessories around, just in case, you likely already have some of these parts. In addition to a $35 Raspberry Pi model b computer, you will definitely need an SD card with at least 4gb storage and a 5 volt 1 amp (minimum) micro-usb power supply. An extra cell phone charger looks like the right part, but probably does not put out the minimum amperage to run an RPi, but a tablet charger likely will. You can read the fine print on the ‘wall wart’ part of the charger for its amperage rating. If you want to use your Raspberry Pi as a workstation[3. The alternative is to run it ‘headless’ over your network using SSH.], you’ll also need an HDMI cable, a digital monitor and a USB keyboard and mouse. Any USB keyboard or mouse will work, but the monitor will need to have an HDMI input. [4. Monitors with DVI input will work with a small and cheap HDMI to DVI adaptor. Analog monitors–the ones with blue VGA connectors–will work if you purchase an HDMI to VGA converter-adapter which start around $20.] Additionally, you may also want to use a USB wifi adapter to connect to wireless networks and since the Raspberry Pi has only two USB ports, you may also want a powered USB hub so you can connect more peripherals. The Raspberry Pi unit ships as a bare board, so you may want to keep your RPi in a case to protect it from rough handling.

Who is the Raspberry Pi for?

Now that we’ve covered what kind of kit is needed to get started, we can ask: are you the kind of librarian who is likely to be interested in a Raspberry Pi? I’ve noticed some “enthusiasm fatigue” out there, or librarians who are weary of overhyped tools that don’t provide the promised revolution. I love my Raspberry Pi units, but I don’t think they have universal appeal, so I’ve made a little quiz that may help you decide whether you are ready to order one today or pass on the fad, for now.

  1. Are you excited to work in a Linux operating system?
  2. Are you willing to use trial and error analysis to discover just right configuration for your needs?
  3. Do you enjoy the challenge of solving a living problem more than the security of a well-polished system?

If the answer to all three of these questions is an enthusiastic YES, then you are just the kind of librarian who will love experimenting with a Raspberry Pi. If your enthusiasm is more tempered or if you answered no to one or more of the questions, then it is not likely that a Raspberry Pi will meet your immediate needs. RPi are projects not products. They make great prototypes or test-boxes, but they aren’t really a turn-key solution to any existing large-scale library problems. Not every library or librarian needs a Raspberry Pi, but I think a significant number of geeky and DIY librarians will be left asking: “Where have you been all my life?”

If you are a librarian looking to learn Linux, programming, or server administration and you’d rather do this on a cheap dedicated machine than on your work machine, Raspberry Pi is going to make your day. If you want to learn how to install and configure something like WordPress or Drupal and you don’t have a web server to practice on (and local AMP tools aren’t what you are looking for) a Raspberry Pi is an ideal tool to develop that part of your professional skill set. If you want to learn code, learn robotics, or build DIY projects then you’ll love Raspberry Pi. RPi are great for learning more about computers, networks, and coding. They are very educational, but at the end of the day they fall a bit more on the hobby end of the spectrum then on the professional product end.

Raspberry Pi Projects for Librarians

So, if you’ve taken the quiz and are still interested in getting started with Raspberry Pi, there are a few good starting points. If you prefer printed books O’Reilly Media’s Getting Started with Raspberry Pi is fantastic. On the web. I’ve found the Raspberry Pi wiki at elinux.org to be an indispensable resource and their list of tutorials is worth a special mention. Adafruit (an electronics kit vendor and education provider) also has some very good tutorials and project guides. For library specific projects, I have three suggestions, but there are many directions you may want to go with your Rasberry Pi. I’m currently working to set mine up as a web server for local content, so museums can offer rich interpretive media about their exhibits without having to supply free broadband to the public. When this is finished, I’m going to build projects two and three.

  • Project One: Get your RPi set up.

This is the out-of-the-box experience and will take you through the set up of your hardware and software. RaspberryPi.org has a basic getting started guide, Adafruit has a more detailed walkthrough, and there are some good YouTube tutorials as well. In this project you’ll download the operating system for your Raspberry Pi, transfer it to your SD card, and boot up your machine, and perform the first time setup. Once you’re device is up and running you can spend some time familiarizing yourself with it and getting comfortable with the operating system.

  • Project One-Point-Five: Play with your Raspberry Pi

Once your credit card sized computer is up and functional, kick the tires. Check out the graphical interface, use the command line, and try running it headless. Take baby steps if baby steps are what is fun and comfortable, or run headlong into a project that is big and crazy; the idea here is to have fun, get used to the environment, and learn enough to ask useful questions about what to do next. This is a good time to check out the Adafruit series of tutorials or elinux.org’s tutorial list.

  • Project Two: Build an Information Kiosk to Display Local Mass Transit Information

http://blog.bn.ee/2013/01/11/building-a-real-time-transit-information-kiosk-with-raspberry-pi/

I found this on the elinux list of tutorials and I think it is great for libraries, provided they are in an area served by NextBus or a similar service. The tutorial walks users through the process of building a dedicated information kiosk for transit information. The steps are clear and documented with photographs and code examples. Beginning users may want to refer to other references, such as the O’Reilly Book or a Linux Tutorial to fill in some gaps. I suspect the tricky bit will be finding a source for real-time GPS telemetry from the local transit service, but this is a great project for those who have worked through basic projects and are ready to build something practical for their library.

  • Project Three: Build a Dedicated OPAC Terminal.

While dedicated OPAC terminals may no longer be the cutting edge of library technology, our patrons still need to find books on the shelves. Library Journal’s Digital Shift blog and John Lolis from the White Plains public library describe a project that uses the Raspbian OS to power a catalog-only public terminal. The concept is straight-forward and working prototypes have been completed, but as of yet I do not see a step-by-step set of instructions for the beginner or novice. As a follow up to this post, I will document the build process for TechConnect. The gist of this project is to set up a kiosk-type browser, or a browser that only does a set task or visits a limited range of sites, on the Raspberry Pi. Eli Neiberger has raised some good questions on Twitter about the suitability of RPi hardware for rough-and-tumble public abuse use, but this is the sort of issue testing may resolve. If librarians can crowd-source a durable low-cost OPAC kiosk using Lolis’ original design, we’ll have done something significant.

Raspberry Pi Shopping List

As mentioned above, you may have many of these items already. If not, I’ve purchased and tested the following accessories for a couple of Raspberry Pi projects.

Basic Kit: (parts sourced through Amazon for ease of institutional purchase. Other sources may be preferable or less expensive.)

Accessories:

Raspberry Pi kits (Some vendors have put together full kits with a wide range of parts and accessories. These kits include breadboards and parts for arduino-type projects.)

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Notes