Why So Silent? Been Building a Library.

Over the last few weeks, well, since before New Year’s Eve, I began getting deeply involved with the Open Hearth Foundation.  OHF is a local community center for Pagans here in the DC area (and yes, we have so many that opening a center is a brilliant idea).  OHF has been operating as a fundraising initiative for over 10 years, and in that time they’ve been able to amass enough capital to finally open a physical structure.  So the hopes and dreams of many people have finally come to fruition. And on New Year’s Eve they opened their doors.

Since 2003, the OHF has been also collecting a substantial amount of literature, in the hopes that this new Pagan Community Center would also hold a functional library and research space for alternative religious education.  This little library shuffled back and forth between the homes of different trustees over the last 9 years until finally it got to the space where the fully realized OHF exists.

I had been aware of the OHF library from the earliest phases, and had been involved in a project (which eventually collapsed under volunteer inertia) to try to properly catalog that collection (as well as two others, but that’s a different story).  Somewhere along the way someone had done an inventory of the collection on LibraryThing and that had just been sitting there for all this time.

The Library SWAT Team on unpacking day.

I received a facebook message from a friend, who had gotten me involved ages ago with this project, telling me that this library was happening for real and that they were installing the collection in the space.  They were also looking at getting everything into LibraryThing and making everything circulating.  At that point I spoke up and said “WHOA! Hold up. Wait a minute.  Let’s talk about this.”  LibraryThing is a wonderful product in some respects, and yet for others it’s just inadequate.  One of the areas where it falls down is circulation functionality.  This was going to be a big draw for this collection.  Not to mention that the Board of Governors would need to get regular reporting on things, and a whole suite of other issues.

So, I floated a proposal that we explore installing Koha instead.  Koha is an open source fully functional integrated library system.  I learned about Koha when I was traveling in Thailand and talking with the folks at the library at the KIS International School.  I had a rough idea of what it was capable of doing and I had pretty strong feeling that this would be a much more comprehensive solution.  I had a sit down  meeting with several of the committee members and a Board representative to demo what Koha could do and talked about all the features.  Everyone agreed that this was a great solution, and we decided that we were going to roll with it.  The webmaster looked at the documentation and he agreed that this would be an easy enough installation.  But by this point the volunteers were already assembled, and they needed to do something.  That first day they added every item in the collection into a blank LibraryThing account, and when Koha got installed I ported all 1700 bibliographic records from LibraryThing into the Koha system.

Volunteer training to search for bibs via Z39.50.

For the last few weeks we’ve been exploring the ins-and-outs of Koha, and I’ve been training a horde of volunteers in basic copy cataloging practices, item record creation, searching WorldCat for LC Call Numbers, and getting items barcoded and labeled.  No small feat, and it’s really been taking us a good chunk of time.  But it’s beginning to pay off tremendously.

We’ve gotten well over a hundred items fully processed, and we’re getting the remainder of the collection in a state that’s ready to roll.  Twice a week we’re going in and doing a kickass load of item record creation.  It’s a spectacular achievement and one that I’m incredibly proud to be a part of.  It’s like we’ve transformed something that was a vague idea into something very physical, real and professional.  Talk about manifesting your vision!

So that’s what’s been eating my life and my spare time.  I couldn’t be happier.

The first labeled book was Janet and Stewart Farrar's 'The Witches' Bible"

First fully cataloged, barcoded, and classed shelf in order.


The New Information Literacy

As a public librarian I am often in the position to help newcomers to using computers for the very first time.  Many of them have never sat in front of a computer before, have no idea how a mouse works, or even rudimentary typing skills.  Given the outrageously bad literacy rates in the District, the fact that they have never used a computer before seems unsurprising.  But now nearly everything is online, and people are constantly being confronted with the necessity of information literacy.  Even the lowest paying cleaning jobs and cashiers are required to submit resumes and applications online.  Vast amounts of government services require that their recipients file their claims online.  750 million people are on Facebook.  That’s a big chunk of the entire planet.  To not be connected online today is to be cut off the world.

But the unconnected users are only a fraction of information literacy needs in the public library.  There is a spectrum of information literacy needs that needs to be met by the public librarian and the skill set required to meet those needs is evolving and changing as we speak.  The spectrum, as I see it, runs from zero connectivity to immersed.  Here’s a little graphic.

Let’s talk about these users, because these are the people we work with every day and their needs are different.


This is the person who has no knowledge of computer skills whatsoever.  They have, through the nature of our information economy, finally been confronted with learning new technology and they are starting from zero.  This is the person to whom you need to teach how to use the mouse, what email is and how it works, and the basics of using an internet browser.  These are the people to whom most of the introductory computer classes in libraries are geared.  Public Libraries are the necessary waystation in learning how to become a computer user to accomplish the few things that they need to get that one step forward.  These are also in many respects the most challenging patrons, because they have no background the amount of material required to get them started can be overwhelming.

Light User

This is the individual who has mastered the fundamentals of using the physical parts of the computer but for whom understanding some of the complexities of software and web functions is still confusing.  This is the user from whom we get questions about how to properly space things in MS Word, how to attach something to an email, why Outlook doesn’t work when they try to auto-email a document, why a web page freezes up on them, etc.  These users need someone with a deeper understanding of the functionality of the software they’re using and how web pages function.


These users have gotten to the point that they know how to function online, and they are using social media to connect to their friends, family and coworkers.  They are mostly self-reliant, but they have begun to explore new technologies and software to integrate into their social experience.  They’re are getting to the point that they are creating original content online, but slowly.  These are the users who want to learn how to create and edit digital photos and possibly videos for their Facebook, Google+, Twitter and YouTube personae. Here the librarian serves as a consultant regarding the software used to create original content.


The gadgeteer is the user who has acquired a new device (digital camera, smart phone, iPod, ebook reader) and either a) has no idea how to use it or b) is trying to engage in some kind of file transfer maneuver that they cannot navigate.  Those are really the only two scenarios I have seen take place in the library, though I’m sure there are more.  The unsure new user may bring their device to the librarian to help demonstrate to them how to use the device itself or an application on the device.  The file transfer user just want to desperately figure out how to migrate data from point a to point b, and the librarian’s role is to educate the user in the file structure system underlying their devices. The gadgeteer may also fall at earlier points in the spectrum, but it is usually seen (in my experience) when they have at least mastered the light user phase.


This is the user who has grown to become savvy with social media and often times devices, and they are looking to build a bigger presence for themselves online.  These are the users who are exploring creating original public content on a website, blog, photo site, video site.  They are often self-reliant because they have learned to navigate the internet and they understand internet content well enough that they are ready to become content creators themselves. These are the people who want to learn about content management systems, search engine optimization, using social media for marketing, and how to power-use web technologies.


This is the person who wants to begin tinkering with electronics to make something physical, and not just digital creation.  These are the hackers who make things with arduinos and LEDs for fun.  They are the makers who want to play with 3-D printers and CAD programs.  These users are going to want to learn programming languages so that they can make smart phone apps or design new electronics.  They are the ones who want to make the next big thing, or at least the next cool thing.

Traditional library service has been able to help people up to the gadgeteer phase.  When we get into complex issues of web design and programming, these often fall far outside of the body of knowledge of the average librarian.  Though we don’t see much in the way of reference questions from these users now, we may begin seeing this sooner than any of us would think.  One of the speakers at the TEDxLibrariansTO conference, Eric Boyd, spoke about programming as a literacy skill and the hope for libraries to incorporate hacker spaces into their domain.  I wholly agree with this sentiment.

When I was in library school (10 years ago) Information Literacy was about navigating the user interface and how to verify and compare information on the internet.  We just basically changed the words “bibliographic instruction” to something else.  Today’s information literacy is much deeper than that.  It’s about understanding the complex interconnections between software and hardware; people’s interaction engagement with content (as user and creator); the sociology, politics and ethics of software; and right down to the fundamental building blocks of understanding how software operates so that you can see why it does what it does as well as what it does to us.  The scope of what a librarian needs to know has grown, and we need to have a very real conversation about that.  Does every librarian need to be a programmer?  No.  But we can’t remain ignorant of programming and electronics, or we become information illiterate ourselves.