Posts in library

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.


Tablets in Library Workflows: Revolution & Healthy Skepticism

 Originally posted in ACRL TechConnect 2012/11/25.

Tablet Revolution: Healthy Skepticism

Tablets and mobile computing have been the subject of a lot of Internet hype. A quick search for “tablet revolution” will confirm this, but if we’re appropriately skeptical about the hype cycle, we’ll want to test the impact of tablets on our library ourselves. We can do this in a few ways. We can check the literature to see what studies have been done. [1. Pew. Tablet and E-book reader Ownership Nearly Double Over the Holiday Gift-Giving Period. Pew Internet Libraries.] We can check our web analytics to see which devices are being used to access our web sites. [2. Wikipedia contributors. 2012. Mobile web analytics. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., September 13.] We can also walk the public areas in our libraries and count patrons working on tablets. These investigations can tell us how and how often tablets are being used, but they don’t tell us how or if tablets are revolutionizing library use.

In order to better answer this question, I started a little project. Over the last year, I’ve been using informal methods to track the effects that tablet use have on my work. I secured some equipment funding and acquired an Apple iPad 2 and an Android tablet, the Asus Transformer Prime. I started doing my work on these devices, keeping an eye on how they changed my daily workflow, how suited they were to my daily tasks, and whether or not they increased my productivity or the quality of my work. Over the course of the year I can report that tablets have changed the way I work. Most of the changes are incremental, but there are at least a couple cases of genuine revolution to report.

Deploying Tablets in my Workflow

As I spent some time doing my work using the tablets, I discovered there were three possible results to my efforts to integrate them into my daily work. Some tasks simply did not translate well to the tablet environment. Other tasks translated fairly seamlessly to the tablet environment; what I could do on a computer I could also do on a tablet. Finally there were a few cases where the affordances of the tablets: touch interface, networked portability, and app environment enabled me to do my work in new ways, ways not possible using a traditional workstation or laptop.

The first sort of task, the kind in which tablets failed to produce positive results, tended to involve heavy processing requirements, the need to connect peripheral devices, or involved complex software programs not ported to mobile apps. Examples included editing image, sound, or video files; analyzing datasets; and creating presentation slides. The tablets lacked the processing power, peripheral interfaces, or fine interface control to make them adequate platforms for the editing tasks. Statistical analysis software shares the same heavy processor requirements and I was unable to find mobile apps equivalent to SPSS or Atlas TI. In the case of presentation slides, all the necessary conditions for success seemed to be present. Keynote for iOS is a great app, but I was never satisfied with the quality of my tablet-created presentations and soon returned to composing my slides in Keynote on my laptop. As a general rule of thumb, I found tasks that require lots of processing power, super-fine input control (fingers and even styli are imprecise on touch screens), or highly-specialized software environments to be poor candidates for moving to tablets.

The majority of my day-to-day work tasks fell into a second set of tasks, these tasks enabled me to easily replace my traditional computer with a tablet. I discovered that after a little research to discover the proper apps and a little time to learn how to use them, a tablet was a good as a computer, most of the time. At first, I experimented with treating the tablet as a small portable computer. I acquired Apple’s Bluetooth keyboard and the keyboard dock accessory for the Transformer and was able to do word processing, text editing and coding, email, instant messaging, and pretty much any browser-based activity without significant adjustment. I found text entry without a keyboard to be too clumsy a process for serious work. Tablets also are ideal for server-administration, since the computer on the other end handled the heavy lifting. There are SSH, FTP, and text editing apps that make tablets perfect remote administration environments. I also found text-based tasks like writing, email, chat, reading, and most things browser-based or whose files live in the cloud or on a server can be done just as well on a tablet as it can on a workstation or laptop.

The limitation to this general rule is that in some cases the iPad presented file management difficulties. The iOS defaults push users into using iTunes and iCloud to manage documents. If you like these options, there is no problem. I found these options lacking in flexibility, so I had to engage in a little hackery to get access to the files I needed on the iPad. Dropbox and Evernote are good examples of cloud storage apps that work once you learn how to route all your documents through them. In the end, I found myself preferring apps that access personal cloud space (Jungledisk) or my home NAS storage (Synology DS File) in my workflow. The Transformer Prime required fewer document-flow kluges and its keyboard accessory includes a USB flash-drive interface which is very useful for sharing documents with local colleagues and doesn’t require a fancy workaround.

A second limitation I encountered was in accessing web video content. Not frequently, but often enough to be noticed, certain web video files (Flash encoded) would not play on the iPad. The Android tablet is Flash capable and suffered fewer of these problems. Video isn’t a key part of my workflow, so for me this is mearly an annoyance, not a serious hindrance to productivity.

Touching Revolution

Of course, simply duplicating the capabilities of traditional computer environments in a smaller form-factor is not revolutionary. As long as I was using a tablet as if it were a smaller computer, then my work didn’t change, only the tools I was doing it with changed. It was when I started working outside of the keyboard and mouse interface model and started touching my work that new ways of approaching tasks presented themselves. When I started using a stylus to write on the screen of a tablet the revolution became apparent.

As an undergraduate, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book [3. Mortimer Adler, How to read a book, Rev. and updated ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972).] was a required reading and their lesson on annotation while we read stuck with me. When it comes to professional development reading, annotation is absolutely necessary to comprehension and integration of content. Thus Amazon’s Kindle reader app for Android and iOS became my favorite ebook platform, due to its superior system for taking and sharing reading notes across platforms. I rely so heavily on annotations that I cannot do my work using ebook platforms that don’t allow me to take notes in text. In the same vein, I use personal copies of printed books for my research instead of borrowed library copies, because I have to write in the margins to process ideas.

Tablets revolutionized my reading when I discovered PDF annotation apps that allowed me to use a stylus to write on the top of documents. Apps like Notetaker HD and iAnnotate for iOS and ezPDF Reader for Android give readers the digital advantage of unlimited amounts of text without the bulk and weight of paper printouts. They also give the reader analog advantages of free-hand highlighting and writing notes in the margin. Combine these advantages with Zotero-friendly apps such as Zotpad, Zotfile, and Zandy that connect my favorite discovery tool to my tablet and I found myself reading more, taking better notes, and drawing clearer connections between documents. The portability of digital files on a mobile wirelessly connected device combined with the stylus and touch-screen method of text input enabled me to interact with my reading in ways impossible using either printed paper or a traditional computer monitor and keyboard. Now, my entire library and all of my reading lists came with me everywhere, so I carved out more time to read each week. When I opened a text, I was able to capture my thoughts about the reading more accurately and completely. This wasn’t just reading in a different medium, it was reading in a different method and it worked better than the way I had been doing before.

Tablets with reading annotation apps revolutionized the way that I read and organized my reading notes, but they had an even bigger impact on the way that I grade student papers. I love teaching, but grading essays is a task that I dread. Essays are heavy and hard to carry around. When I have essays with me, I have a constant and irrational background fear that someone will steal my car and I’ll lose irreplaceable student work. When I started using the tablet, I had my students submit their essays in PDF format. Then, I read their work in a similar manner to my professional reading. I read the essays on a tablet, using the stylus to highlight passages and write feedback in the margins. When I was finished, I could email the document back to the student and also keep an archived copy. This solved a number of paper distribution and unique copy problems. The students got better feedback more quickly and I always had a reference copy if questions arose later in the term.

A Personal Revolution

Taken by themselves, these reading and grading innovations may sound like incremental changes, not revolutions. For example, laptops are quite portable and we’ve had the ability to add notes and comments to PDF documents for a long time. There is no reason I couldn’t adopt this workflow without buying an additional expensive gadget, except that I couldn’t. I tried electronic reading and grading workflows before I had a tablet and rejected them. Reading on a computer monitor and typing comments into a PDF didn’t result in interesting thoughts about the reading. I tried grading by adding comments to PDF documents on a laptop and found my feedback comments to be arid and less helpful than the remarks I wrote in the margins of paper essays, so I switched back to colored pen on paper. These experiences are all anecdotal and personal, but accurately describe my experience. With a tablet, the feel of touching a screen and writing with a stylus enabled an organic flow of thoughts from my brain to the text. I can list the affordances of mobile computing that make this possible: ubiquitous wireless broadband networking, touch interface, lightweight and portable devices, a robust app ecology, and cloud storage of documents. The revolution lies in how these technical details combined in my workflow to creates an environment where I did better work with fewer distractions and more convenience.

Next Steps

One requirement to justify the time and expense of this project is that I share my findings. This post is an effort in that direction, but I will also be offering a series of faculty workshops on using tablets in academic workflows. I’m planning a workshop where faculty can put their hands on a range of tablet devices, a petting zoo of tablets. There will also be a workshop on reading app for tablets and one on grading workflows. One challenge to presenting what I’ve learned about tablets is that most of what I have learned is personal. I’ve spoken with scholars who do not share my preference for hand-written thoughts; my workflows are not revolutionary for them. What ultimately may be the most beneficial result of my project is uncovering a method for effectively communicating emerging technology experiences with non-technologically inclined colleagues.