Friday, December 06, 2013

Notes from a (former) beach

This summer I hiked to the rim of a canyon in central Arizona and lingered there, enjoying the warm day and spectacular scenery. The rimrock under my feet sparkled as the sun caught tiny grains of almost pure silicon dioxide, cemented into an attractive pink-white rock that had made the transition from soft sandstone to hard quartzite.

The grains had started as simple sand.

Though I was 7000 feet above sea level in a pine and juniper forest, I was standing on a beach.

Or at least it had been a beach 700 million years earlier.

Picture me there:

Two hundred feet below the cemented sand of my beach is a red-brown limestone which had once been sediments deposited in a marine basin. A large gulf on a continental shelf, perhaps? An ancient twin of the Gulf of Mexico?

Minute organisms died and fell to the bottom of that gulf for 300 million years to build up 1200 feet of finely layered material. For a time the gulf grew shallow and sported sticky mats of cyanobacteria which harvested the sun's energy in the warm waters and are now preserved as layered fossils, among Earth's oldest traces of life. Known to paleontologists as stromatolites, they break off their cliffs and fall into the canyon below:

The ancient gulf and its history ended 1.1 billion years ago.

Between the sea's carbonate remains and the cemented beach sand on which I stand is a 400-million-year gap during which some amount of material -- possibly a vast amount of material -- was removed by erosion. Complicating the structure is the presence of vast sheets of a dark, igneous rock which long ago shouldered its way into the existing strata in an act of titanic displacement.

If we could run a fast-motion film of Arizona over the last two billion years -- in which each span of a million years is reduced to one second to make a 33-minute-long geological documentary -- we'd see islands sail into view from the west (for Arizona was for a very long time on the ancient coast of North America) and be either worn away or pasted onto the continental margin. Basins off the Arizona coast would fill with sediments; long successions of beaches would develop and then be covered. Land would periodically heave up and then be eroded away. Trenches and fractures would form and crustal plates would shift. From time to time vast sheets of igneous material would emerge from deep in the Earth, shoving their way between existing sheets or erupting from the surface as lava flows. Our documentary film would most assuredly contain a lot of action.

But I like to think of it as a book with geological formations as its leaves, a book we have learned to read. It is a history text, albeit one with missing or shuffled pages.

So my summer sojourn on the top of the canyon becomes a deeply fascinating back-to-the-beach book, immensely long but fragmented, a story more textured and more mysterious than any other. It rewards minds willing to read closely.

It is the best book I know.

Figure from S.J. Skotnicki and L.P. Knauth, 
"The Middle Proterozoic Mescal Paleokarst, 
Central Arizona, U.S.A.: Karst Development, 
Silicification, and Cave Deposits," 
J. Sedimentary Research, 2007 (77), 1046-1062.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Some things you should know about the MLS degree

I've done a little research and have pulled together some information and data about the degree that is the basis of our professional qualification:

-- Admittance to most MLS/MLIS programs requires that you have a pulse and $20,000-$30,000 to spend.

-- Being able to read and write is helpful, but literacy is not in fact a prerequisite for any program.

-- Courses taught in library schools have nothing whatsoever to do with operating a library, although you will have the opportunity to explore fascinating subjects such as "The Psychosemantics of Information Exchange in Gender-Neutral Interaction."

-- After pulse and respiration are checked, A grades are awarded to all enrollees.

-- Someone in some school on the West Coast reportedly received a B last year in "The Psychosemantics of Information Exchange in Gender-Neutral Interaction," but this is awaiting confirmation.

-- With the advent of online education, there are many programs to choose from.

-- The good news is that American Library Association accreditation is still important.

-- The bad news is that last year the ALA granted accreditation to an online program consisting of 37 unemployed librarians teaching from a Starbucks in Pasadena.

-- Programs accredited by the ALA granted 33,455 MLS/MLIS degrees in 2012/13.

-- There were 27 professional-level job openings in the United States and Canada in 2012/13.

-- 24 of those required a second master's.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Six library megatrends

Evolution of reading (away from the long form to the short)

Evolution of computing (away from the PC/laptop to the pad, smartphone, and wearable device)

Evolution of access (away from ownership of resources to their licensure)

Evolution of authority (away from expertise to the crowd)

Reduced funding (fewer resources in the context of a poorer population)

Deprofessionalization (finding cheaper workers in light of the above)

If reading is done in short bursts, if computing happens on the fly rather than at a desk, if access means licensure of material in the digital cloud, if the supposed wisdom of the crowd supplants the wisdom of experts, if money is tight, and if the person staffing the library is a part-time, no-benefits worker, then what will the library look like in ten years and how will it perform?

Will there be a need for a physical space? Or even a virtual one?

Monday, September 02, 2013

The baby boomer
immortality problem
And what aspiring librarians can do about it

Thirty years ago, when we heard the first murmurs in the press that baby boomers may impose a significant burden on Social Security and Medicare, we were told they number 78 million.

Now, 30 years later, the number the press cites is still 78 million.

What's going on here? None lost to auto accidents? Early heart attacks? Gym mishaps? Choking on that little cube of Toscanello on a toothpick at a wine tasting?

Baby boomers, it seems, are immortal.

If boomers are such a problem (and, yes, the Bureau of the Census has an official definition: anyone born between 1/1/46 and 12/31/64), isn't the government taking exactly the wrong approach with its various public-health initiatives? Shouldn't people whose birthdates fall between the dates above be getting free cigarettes? Coupons for discounts on fatty and deep-fried foods? Sky-diving lessons from schools whose staff forgets to pack the parachutes?

Shouldn't the 50-something males be provided with high-performance sports cars with no seat belts or air bags?

In short, if baby boomers are refusing to die off, shouldn't it be a matter of enlightened public policy to encourage them in that direction? Can you imagine the civic virtue that lies in ensuring that we have several tens of millions fewer self-absorbed, pretentious, Dwell-magazine-reading, oenophiliac foodie snobs with infinite senses of entitlement? Where is the Grim Reaper when you most need him?

The immortality of baby boomers is a phenomenon of deep concern in the library profession, since there are legions of talented MLS graduates chasing fewer and fewer positions in the increasingly Walmartized library workplace.

And the boomer incumbents are not retiring and are showing every sign of remaining on their jobs until they seize up while standing at their posts on their Dr. Scholl's massaging-gel insole replacements.

What can be done?

Let's return to the idea of nudging boomer librarians toward the exit. Better yet, let's think about giving them a good shove over the cliff, since there are reports that both public and academic libraries are beginning to again hire replacements for vacated positions rather than just freezing them.

There are many ways to deactivate the long-tenured and the long in the tooth.

The trick is not to leave a trail.

First, to divert suspicion, you must fawn over the veteran librarians on your staff, telling them you appreciate their wisdom, knowledge, experience, and valuable mentoring. Let suspicion fall on the sullen library assistant with an MLS and two subject masters -- the one with the piercings, tattoos, and attitude who responds to the veteran ones in monosyllabic grunts and who steals their Zantac tablets and flushes them down the toilet.

Second, give special attention to your especially senior librarians.

Accidents happen. They fall. They can't get up.

On a wintry night return to the library with jugs of water after everyone has departed and groom that icy spot by the staff entrance. Warn your young colleagues so they will remember to wear the little spiky things you slip over your shoes to walk on ice, that I don't know the name of because I live in Phoenix.

Many of your 50-something colleagues are inveterate gym rats because of boomers' obsession with their bodies and health. (Yes, they really do fully intend to saddle us with their presence for eons to come.)

When my grandma was 59 she... well... she looked like my grandma. Today your 59-year-old baby boomer colleague has rocklike abs, buns of steel, and arms like a stevedore. Thus, a heart-attack-inducing surprise will be ineffectual when deployed against such a person. "Accidentally" dropping an armload of fluorescent tubes behind her will induce nothing but indignation and an order to clean up the mess.

But there are work-arounds.

Does the sullen library assistant have a boyfriend who works at the gym? Could the elderly but buff colleague be jogged to death by a berserk treadmill? Or smothered by a large Pilates ball run amok?

A few of your veteran colleagues may be of a delicate nature in spite of the gym, and a shock to the system just may work. Nothing so disconcerts a baby boomer as finding an invitation to join the AARP in her inbox. It's worth a try.

Most baby boomers shook off heavy drug use early enough to have gotten away with it. But you'll find they have one still-indulged guilty pleasure -- compensation, if you will, for having abjured pot, LSD, and, here in the Southwest, an occasional shoebox full of peyote buttons. It is coffee. They all drink it. (And... oh yes! Not your mom's coffee out of the 3-lb Folgers can but whole-bean fair-trade feminist-farm-collective eco-aware Blue Nile Ethiopian coffee, which the elder ones insist on grinding in that god-awful, 120-decibel electric mill at 8:03 am in the break room when you're still trying to come to grips with the pounding headache left over from last night's rave.)

But all kinds of things find their way into coffee.

Untraceable things.

I could go on, but you have a poison reference center right at your fingertips -- the mystery collection in the library in which you page and clerk even though you have three master's degrees and scored a 1520 on the SAT math and verbal, while the professionals just sit over there ordering books, sipping coffee, and bidding on exercise equipment on eBay.

Good luck, and remember to take the batteries out of that automatic electronic defibrillator the fire guys installed in your building as a public service.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Duly noted...
Improving Library Output Measures Through Patron Outsourcing

(From the Iowa Journal of Library Administration, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, April 1, 2011, pp. 12-39; illus.)

Abstract: The New Vienna Public Library (NVPL), a suburban Iowa public library system, reversed declining usage and user satisfaction ratings by redefining its legal service area to exclude its existing patron base and replace it with one in Patalipatnapuram, India, a suburb of high-technology center Bangalore that has lacked public library service for its growing and highly literate population. Service to NVPL’s new patrons is through thrice-weekly, expedited air-freight service to Bangalore and a storefront operation in downtown Patalipatnapuram. At the end of the first fiscal year with its new patron base, NVPL reports 322-percent higher circulation and a much lower rate of overdues and customer complaints. The cost of the service is more than offset by savings realized from closing all facilities in Iowa other than an administrative office. NVPL Director Samuel S. Green comments that the library remains open to discussion with its former patrons: "The residents of the New Vienna area must understand that in an environment of globalization, services as well as jobs can be outsourced. We are willing to discuss any concessions -- especially higher use, greater compliance with library rules, and more respectful behavior -- from our former patrons that will lead to output measures matching those provided by service to our new patrons. Our former patrons must understand that in a global marketplace, enterprises, even not-for-profit ones, can shop for better attitudes as easily as they can for cheaper labor."

Sunday, March 25, 2012

What librarians do

Click on piecharts to enlarge

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Internet
Attention-Deficit Machine?

Maggie Jackson, in her October 2009 book Distracted, and Nicholas Carr (author of the 2008 Atlantic Monthly article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"), in his forthcoming (June 7) book The Shallows, ask essentially the same question — that is, is the way the net structures the presentation of information giving us shorter attention spans and promoting shallower thinking?

The Jurassic Librarian wouldn't be Jurassic if he didn't call attention to these thought-provoking books. There may be something, after all, to the long-form reading we librarians have extolled and promoted these many years, if not centuries.

The library digerati will wave off consideration of the idea that the net is rotting our brains in just the same way that a well-known library technologist and blogger waved off Andrew Keen's Cult of the Amateur a few years back as beneath consideration or actual reading. In their world, expressing reservations about the net is, it seems, akin to a felony. In my world, they are the tragically hip.

Jackson delves into the history of attention science, and Carr cites contemporary brain-function studies in making his case. Jackson tackles the question more broadly, focusing on our gadget-driven "culture of interruption," whereas Carr specifically criticizes the net. Here are the citations: 

Distracted — The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, by Maggie Jackson, with a foreword by Bill McKibben. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2009, 327 pages.

The PW review, available on the book's Amazon page, is worth your time. And Professor Alan Lightman's blurb cuts right to the core of Jackson's thesis: "This is an important book . . . a harrowing documentation of our modern world's descent into fragmentation, self alienation, and emptiness brought on, to a large extent, by communication technologies that distract us, dislocate us, and destroy our inner lives."

Last year Wired Science ran an interview with Jackson, worth reading to test the waters before you take the plunge into the book. Here's an excerpt: "Right now, people hope they’ll be able to think or create or problem-solve in the midst of a noisy, cluttered environment. Quiet is a starting point."

Hmmm. Perhaps we librarians were on to something with the quiet thing, too. 

The Shallows — What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010, 276 pages.

From the Booklist review (available on the book's Amazon page): "Here [Carr] looks to neurological science to gauge the organic impact of computers, citing fascinating experiments that contrast the neural pathways built by reading books versus those forged by surfing the hypnotic Internet, where portals lead us on from one text, image, or video to another while we’re being bombarded by messages, alerts, and feeds. This glimmering realm of interruption and distraction impedes the sort of comprehension and retention 'deep reading' engenders, Carr explains."