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Libraries and the Digital Age

Lately a lot of people I talk with have been asking me about the future of libraries. Friends, relatives, strangers, you name it. At least this time its being phrased as a question. Ten years ago we were being told by some that the Internet, more specifically the World Wide Web, meant the eminent demise of the library. It seemed a natural conclusion. If you can get all your information via the computer, why bother with the library?

Those of us who work in libraries tended to respond to this initial challenge in two ways–patient explanations that the bulk of recorded information was not online and assertions that people would still need our help to access the information that was online. We have done a good job over the years at providing this help, including research assistance, information literacy classes, public computers, and subscription access to databases and other resources. Business is booming at most libraries and it sure does not feel like we are in any danger of becoming obsolete.

Yet the recent conversations I have been having about the future of libraries makes me wonder. Most of them center on changes in the publishing industry due to the rapid growth in ebooks. As physical objects, print books are suited to lending and require a local place to house them. Not so for ebooks. If you disregard DRM/copyright, it is much easier to copy an ebook than to lend it. Indeed, “lending” an ebook is really just a form of DRM that is controlled by the publisher. And other than acquiring a reader, there is no reason to visit a physical location to access the ebooks themselves if you have an Internet connection.

It could be argued that there are three broad reasons people use libraries–they can’t find the information anywhere else; its more economical; or they just like visiting the library. It turns out that the first reason is fading rapidly as the vast bulk of recorded information moves online. Of course there will always be special collections and archives that house unique information, but this function is a bit different than the idea of the lending library.

It seems like libraries are on firm ground with the second reason since they provided access to econtent via subscriptions that individuals could not otherwise afford. But this access will probably be provided through cooperatives at a state or regional level versus the local library (e.g. Alaska Digital Pipeline).

The third reason (i.e. that people go to libraries because they like them) is perhaps the most compelling and enduring. Many things fall under this banner–the library as place, the user experience, library as community center, library as temple of learning, etc. Just like people still go to movie theaters in the age of netflix and home theaters, people will still want to gather around the idea of shared knowledge and life long learning.

Public access computing provided by libraries falls across all three reasons. Often the library is the only access point for some while for others the library provides cheaper access or a better user experience. For example, many students at the academic library where I work use the library computers even though they have a laptop or a computer back in the dorm room.

As the digital age comes to full fruition, libraries are facing a transform in technology and content as radical as the shift from hand-lettered scrolls to printed books. Libraries will survive but the way we do business will change. We can look to journalism to see the level of disruptions we will face. We still need the professional reporting provided by journalists working at newspapers. But as the economic model for print newspapers crumbles it is not clear how we as a society will sustain professional journalism, especially at the local level. In a similar fashion, there is an enduring value in the library as a common place to meet and share knowledge, but it remains to been seen what radical shifts will take place in the profession and the workplace.

Mobilizing Your Website

AKLA Conference 2011

Mobilizing your Website

Mobilizing in Juneau

I’m off today to the annual conference for the Alaska Library Association which is in sunny Juneau this year.  I will presenting a session call “Mobilizing your Website”.  You can  download the presentation slides as well as some coding examples:

Camping in Our New Yurt

Yurt on my in-laws property in the Valley

My wife and I just bought the Hilleberg Altai UL, a lightweight yurt that is ideal for winter camping. Years ago I bought a Black Diamond Megamid, a floorless pyramid tent often used by groups as a cook tent or shelter. We added a small, portable wood burning stove from Kifaru by sewing a fireproof jack for the stove pipe into the tent canopy.

The stove (3-4lbs) and Megamid (4-5lbs) combination is lightweight, but the set up is too cramped. The Megamid measures 9′ on each side for 81 sf of area, but the sloping walls really cut into the usable space. Add a small, intensely hot stove (nicknamed “the beast”) in the middle of it  and you can barely sleep two people much less hang out comfortably.

So a few weeks ago, we started searching for an upgrade.  There are a number of manufacturers of ultralight teepee-like shelters that can accept a wood stove,  but they still have the problem of the sloping walls.  Wall tents are great in terms of livable space, but weight too much.  And thus we finally stumbled on the yurt.

Checking out the stove insert

The Altai is an octagon that measures 11′ across, provides about 100 sf of area, and is 6.5′ tall in the center.  But the real difference is the side walls, which are 3.5′ tall.  You can comfortably sleep 4 people with gear and the stove.  And a lot of people can sit inside to hang out, this thing is a palace.  The Altai weighs 6-9lbs depending on the number of poles you bring (its designed so you can use ski poles in place of the side poles and a pair of skis in place of the center pole).  It takes about 30 minutes to set up but the Altai is actually easier to pitch than the Megamid, despite all the poles and guylines.

Fixing a Zip Code Problem in WorldCat

We have a funny problem with WorldCat.org and at our library.  When you are in the library or on campus and search Worldcat, our library appears to be 257 miles away when trying to find copies in a library nearby.  It works fine if you are off campus somewhere else in town.  So what gives?  OCLC is looking a the IP address of the browser and doing a lookup to determine zip code location.  Unfortunately, the lookup for our IP addresses on campus thinks we are in Fairbanks because that is where the statewide university system connects to the broader Internet.

We reported this to OCLC  3 years ago when we first noticed it.  They had no way to specify or customize how IP addresses were associated with zip codes since they used an unspecified external service for their geo mapping.  They offered that when WorldCat Local came it might be fixed.  Turns out that’s not true.  A couple of months ago we came up with a work around, not sure why it took so long for us to think of it.  When we link to WorldCat on our website, we include the Ezproxy prefix so the site is included in the proxy server.  We’ve configured the proxy server to automatically authenticate users on campus so they don’t have to login but to continue proxying the WorldCat website.  Since Ezproxy is a URL rewriting proxy, we then use a search and replace command to insert the correct zip code:

Title Consortium Library WorldCat Local
URL http://consortiumlibrary.worldcat.org
DJ worldcat.org
Find &referer=
Replace &loc=99508&referer=

It’s not perfect.  It only works when users access WorldCat from the library website. If users on campus go directly to WorldCat or end up there from GoogleBooks they will have a Fairbanks zip code.  Since OCLC seems unable to offer a real fix, my colleague had the clever idea of contacting geo IP services and getting them to correct the zip code for our IP ranges.  Maybe we will get lucky and fix the one that OCLC uses.