Posts in academic librarianship

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.

Questions:
  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.

 

Hacker Values ≈ Library Values*

* The ≈ symbol indicates that the two items are similar, but not equal, to each other.

This post was originally published at ACRL TechConnect 2012/11/13.

Disambiguation

Hacker is a disputed term. The word hacker is so often mis-applied to describe law breaking, information theft, privacy violation, and other black-hat activities that the mistake has become permanently installed in our lexicon. I am not using hacker in this sense of the word. To be clear: when I use the word hacker and when I write about hacker values, I am not referring to computer criminals and their sketchy value systems. Instead, I am using hacker in its original meaning: a person who makes clever use of technology and information to solve practical problems. 

Introduction

With the current popularity of hackerspaces and makerspaces in libraries, library hack-a-thons, and hacking projects for librarians; it is clear that library culture is warming to the hacker ethic. This is a highly positive trend and one that I encourage more librarians to participate in. The reason I am so excited to see libraries encourage adoption of the hacker ethic is that hackers share several core values with libraries. Working together we can serve our communities more effectively. This may appear to be counter-intuitive, especially due to a very common public misconception that hacker is just another word for computer-criminal. In this post I want to correct this error, explain the values behind the hacker movement, and show how librarians and hackers share core values. It is my hope that this opens the door for more librarians to get started in productive and positive library hackery.

Hacker Values

First, a working definition: hackers are people who empower themselves with information in order to modify their environment and make the world a better place. That’s it. Hacking doesn’t require intruding into computer security settings. There’s no imperative that hackers have to work with code, computers, or technology–although many do. Besides the traditional computer software hacker, there are many kinds of crafters, tinkerers, and makers that share core the hacker values. These makers all share knowledge about their world and engage in hands-on modification of it in order to make it a better place.

For a richer and more detailed look into the hacker ethic than provided by my simplified definition I recommend three books. First try Corey Doctorow’s young adult novel, Little Brother [1. Doctorow, Cory. 2008. Little brother. New York: Tom Doherty Associates. http://craphound.com/littlebrother/download/]. This novel highlights the hacker values of self-empowerment with information, hands-on hacking, and acting for the public good. Little Brother is not only an award-winning story, but it also comes with a bibliography that is one of the best introductions to hacking available. Next, check out Steven Levy’s classic book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution [2. Levy, Steven. 2010. Hackers Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Cambridge: O’Reilly Media, Incorporated. http://shop.oreilly.com/product/0636920010227.do]. Levy details the history of hackers in the early 1980s and explains the values that drove the movement. Third, try Chris Anderson’s Makers: The New Industrial Revolution [3. Anderson, Chris. 2012. Makers the new industrial revolution. New York: Crown Business. http://worldcat.org/oclc/812195098]. Anderson tells the story of the contemporary maker movement and the way it is combining the values of the traditional do-it-yourself (DIY) movement with the values of the computer hacker community to spark a vibrant and powerful creative movement across the world.

In the preface to Hackers: Heroes of the Computer revolution,  Levy observed a common philosophy that the hackers shared:

It was a philosophy of sharing, openness, decentralization, and getting your hands on machines at any cost to improve the machines and improve the world.

The Wikipedia entry on the hacker programming subculture builds on Levy’s observations and revises the list of core hacker values as:

  • Sharing
  • Openness
  • Collaboration
  • Engaging in the Hands-on Imperative. 

These values are also restated and expanded on in another Wikipedia article on Hacker Ethics. Each of these articulations of hacker values differs subtly, yet while they differ they reinforce the central idea that there are core hacker values and that the conception of hacker as computer criminal is misinformed and inaccurate. (While there clearly are computer criminals, the error lies in labeling these people as hackers. These criminals violate hacker values as much as they violate personal privacy and the law.)

Once we understand that hacking is rooted in the core values of sharing, openness, collaboration, and hands-on activity; we can begin to see that hackers and librarians share several core values and that there is a rich environment for developing synergies and collaborative projects between the two groups. If we can identify and isolate the core values that librarians share with hackers, we will be well on our way to identifying areas for productive collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas between our cultures.

Library Values

If we are going to compare hacker values with library values, an excellent starting point is the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights. I recently had the pleasure of attending a keynote presentation by Char Booth who made this point most persuasively. She spoke eloquently and developed a nuanced argument on the topic of the narratives we use to describe our libraries. She encouraged us to look beyond the tired narratives of library-as-container-of-information or library-as-content-repository and instead create new narratives that describe the enduring concept of the library. This concept of library captures the values and services libraries provide without being inextricably linked to the information containers and technologies that libraries have historically used.

Library bill of rights
Char Booth’s distillation of the 1948 Library Bill of Rights into five core values

As she developed this argument, Char encouraged us to look to library history and extract the core values that will continue to apply as our collections and services adapt and change. As an example, she displayed the 1948 Library Bill of Rights and extracted out of each paragraph a core value. Her lesson: these are still our core values, even if the way we serve our patrons has radically changed.

Char distilled the Library Bill of Rights into five core values: access, freedom, advocacy, inquiry, and openness. If we compare these values with the hacker values from above: sharing, openness, collaboration, and the hands-on-imperative, we’ll see that at least in terms of access to information, public openness, freedom, sharing, and collaboration libraries and hackers are on the same page. There are many things that hackers and libraries can do together that further these shared values and goals.

It should be noted that hackers have a traditionally anti-authoritarian bent and unlike libraries, their value of open access to information often trumps their civic duty to respect license agreements and copyright law. Without trivializing this difference, there are many projects that libraries and hackers can do together that honor our shared values and do not violate the core principles of either partner. After all, libraries have a lot of experience doing business with partners who do not share or honor the core library values of freedom, openness, and access to information. If we can maintain productive relationships with certain parties that reject values close to the heart of libraries and librarians, it stands to reason that we can also pursue and maintain relationships with other groups that respect these core values, even as we differ in others.

At the end of the day, library values and hacker values are more alike than different. Especially in the areas of library work that involve advocacy for freedom, openness, and access to information we have allies and potential partners who share core values with us.

Library Hackery

If my argument about library values and hacker values has been at all persuasive, it raises the question: what do hacker/library partnerships look like? Some of the answers to this have been hinted at above. They look like Jason Griffey’s LibraryBox project. This wonderful project involves hacking on multiple levels. On one level, it provides the information needed for libraries to modify (hack) a portable wifi router into a public distribution hub for public domain, open access, and creative-commons licensed books and media. LibraryBoxes can bring digital media to locations that are off the net. On another level, it is a hack of an existing hacker project PirateBox. PirateBox is a private portable network designed to provide untraceable local file-sharing. Griffey hacked the hack in order to create a project more in-line with library values and mission.

These partnerships can also look like the Washington DC public library’s Accessibility Hack-a-Thon, an ongoing project that brings together, civic, library, and hacker groups to collaborate on hacking projects that advance the public good in their city. Another great example of bringing hacker ethics into the library can be found in TechConnect’s own Bohyun Kim’s posts on AJAX and APIs. Using APIs to customize web services is a perfect example of a library hack: it leverages our understanding of technology and empowers us to customize and perfect our environment. With an injection of hacker values into library services, we no longer have to remain at the mercy of the default setting. We can empower ourselves to hack our way to better tools, a better library, and a better world.

An excellent example of hackery from outside the library community is Audrey Watters’ Hack Education and Hack [Higher] Education blogs. Just as computer hackers use their inside information of computer systems to remake the environment, Audrey users her inside knowledge of education systems to make positive changes to the system.

eBook Review – Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines

Orignially posted at ACRL TechConnect 2012/11/01.

Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines

This is a review of the ebook Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines and also of the larger project that collected the stories that became the content of the ebook. The project collects discussions about how technology can be used to improve student success. Fifty practical examples of successful projects are the result. Academic librarians will find the book to be a highly useful addition to our reference or professional development collections. The stories collected in the ebook are valuable examples of innovative pedagogy and administration and are useful resources to librarians and faculty looking for technological innovations in the classroom. Even more valuable than the collected examples may be the model used to collect and publish them. Cultivating Change, especially in its introduction and epilogue, offers a model for getting like minds together on our campuses and sharing experiences from a diversity of campus perspectives. The results of interdisciplinary cooperation around technology and success make for interesting reading, but we can also follow their model to create our own interdisciplinary collaborations at home on our campuses. More details about the ongoing project are available on their community site. The ebook is available as a blog with comments and also as an .epub, .mobi, or .pdf file from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy.

The Review

Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines [1. Hill Duin, A. et al (eds) (2012) Cultivating Change in the Academy: 50+ Stories from the Digital Frontlines at the University of Minnesota in 2012, An Open-Source eBook. University of Minnesota. Creative Commons BY NC SA. http://digital-rights.net/wp-content/uploads/books/CC50_UMN_ebook.pdf]

The stories that make up the ebook have been peer reviewed and organized into chapters on the following topics: Changing Pedagogies (teaching using the affordances of today’s technology), Creating Solutions (technology applied to specific problems), Providing Direction (technology applied to leadership and administration), and Extending Reach (technology employed to reach expanded audiences.) The stories follow a semi-standard format that clearly lays out each project, including the problem addressed, methodology, results, and conclusions.

Section One: Changing Pedagogies

The opening chapter focuses on applications of academic technology in the classroom that specifically address issues of moving instruction from memorization to problem solving and interactive coaching. These efforts are often described by the term “digital pedagogy” (For an explanation of digital pedagogy, see Brian Croxall’s elegant definition.[2. http://www.briancroxall.net/digitalpedagogy/what-is-digital-pedagogy/]) I’m often critical of digital pedagogy efforts because they can confuse priorities and focus on the digital at the expense of the pedagogy. The stories in this section do not make this mistake and correctly focus on harnessing the affordances of technology (the things we can do now that were not previously possible) to achieve student-success and foster learning.

One particularly impressive story, Web-Based Problem-Solving Coaches for Physics Studentsexplained how a physics course used digital tools to enable more detailed feedback to student work using the cognitive apprenticeship model. This solution encouraged the development of problem-solving skills and has to potential to scale better than classical lecture/lab course structures.

Section Two: Creating Solutions

This section focuses on using digital technology to present content to students outside of the classroom. Technology is extending the reach of the University beyond the limits of our campus spaces, this section address how innovations can make distance education more effective. A common theme here is the concept of the flipped classroom. (See Salmam Khan’s TED talk for a good description of flipping the classroom. [2. http://www.ted.com/talks/salman_khan_let_s_use_video_to_reinvent_education.html]) In a flipped classroom the traditional structure of content being presented to students in lectures during class time and creative work being assigned as homework is flipped.  Content is presented outside the classroom and instructors lead students in creative projects during class time. Solutions listed in this section include podcasts, video podcasts, and screencasts. They also address synchronous and asynchronous methods of distance education and some theoretical approaches for instructors to employ as they transition from primarily face to face instruction to more blended instruction environments.

Of special note is the story Creating Productive Presence: A Narrative in which the instructor assesses the steps taken to provide a distance cohort with the appropriate levels of instructor intervention and student freedom. In face-to-face instruction, students have body-language and other non-verbal cues to read on the instructor. Distance students, without these familiar cues, experienced anxiety in a text-only communication environment. Using delegates from student group projects and focus groups, the instructor was able to find an appropriate classroom presence balanced between cold distance and micro-management of the group projects.

Section Three: Providing Direction

The focus of this section is on innovative new tools for administration and leadership and how administration can provide leadership and support for the embrace of disruptive technologies on campus. The stories here tie the overall effort to use technology to advance student success to accreditation, often a necessary step to motivate any campus to make uncomfortable changes. Data archives, the institutional repository, clickers (class polling systems), and project management tools fall under this general category.

The University Digital Conservancy: A Platform to Publish, Share, and Preserve the University’s Scholarship is of particular interest to librarians. Written by three UM librarians, it makes a case for institutional repositories, explains their implementation, discusses tracking article-level impacts, and most importantly includes some highly useful models for assessing institutional repository impact and use.

Section Four: Extending Reach

The final section discusses ways technology can enable the university to reach wider audiences. Examples include moving courseware content to mobile platforms, using SMS messaging to gather research data, and using mobile devices to scale the collection of oral histories. Digital objects scale in ways that physical objects cannot and these projects take advantage of this scale to expand the reach of the university.

Not to be missed in this section is R U Up 4 it? Collecting Data via Texting: Developing and Testing of the Youth Ecological Momentary Assessment System (YEMAS). R U Up 4 it? is the story of using SMS (texting) to gather real-time survey data from teen populations.

Propagating the Meme

The stories and practical experiences recorded in Cultivating Change in the Academy are valuable in their own right. It is a great resource for ideas and shared experience for anyone looking for creative ways to leverage technology to achieve educational goals. For this reader though, the real value of this project is the format used to create it. The book is full of valuable and interesting content. However, in the digital world, content isn’t king. As Corey Doctorow tells us:

Content isn’t king. If I sent you to a desert island and gave you the choice of taking your friends or your movies, you’d choose your friends — if you chose the movies, we’d call you a sociopath. Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.[2. http://boingboing.net/2006/10/10/disney-exec-piracy-i.html]

The process the University of Minnesota followed to generate conversation around technology and student success is detailed in a white paper. [3. http://bit.ly/Rj5AIR] After reading some of the stories in Cultivating Change, if you find yourself wishing similar conversations could take place on your campus, this is the road-map the University of Minnesota followed. Before they were able to publish their stories, the University of Minnesota had to bring together their faculty, staff, and administration to talk about employing innovative technological solutions to the project of increasing student success. In a time when conversation trumps content, a successful model for creating these kinds of conversations on our own campuses will also trump the written record of other’s conversations.