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November, 2009:

Praise for Librarians?

I was reading this book review by ricklibrarian today morning.  The review was about Marilyn Johnson’s new book, This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All.  In the book review, it was stated “most librarians knock themselves out serving their clients regardless of pay, institutional support, or appreciation from society at large.”

And is this supposed to be praises for librarians?  No librarian would argue against the fact that librarians tend to be more than 100 percent service-oriented.  Yes, librarians are eager to help, librarians are willing to do almost any kind of work that may contribute to library users’ better understanding and use of library resources, librarians are friendly, librarians are polite, and librarians protect the public’s freedom and privacy.

But I don’t think librarians are to be praised for knocking themselves out serving their clients regardless of pay, institutional support, or appreciation from society at large.  That is just crazy, isn’t it?  Not because there is something wrong with librarians being devoted to their work but because librarians’ services rendered in such a way may well make them almost meaningless.

There are obvious and clear limitations to ‘individual’ librarians’ devoted services that is unsupported by proper pay, institutional support, and appreciation from society at large.  No matter how excellent their services are, without the proper recognition and support from society and institutions that govern and fund libraries, the value of libraries and librarians’ services will go unnoticed or taken for granted.

I wonder how many people are even aware of the fact that librarians are required to finish a graduate school to be a librarian and also have to invest additional years as a library assistant for experience enduring a surprisingly low salary for their education and previous experience.  Probably not that many.  I wonder how many academic faculty members at a college/university know that at their institution, librarians may also be faculty just like them (although it may not be tenure-track)?

Some may question why what makes someone qualify as a librarian should be common knowledge.  Why not?  After all, everyone knows that what doctors, lawyers, journalists should do to become qualified in their professions.  The point is not bragging that it is not easy to become a librarian nor claiming that librarians are intelligent, knowledgeable, and talented people (although both of them may be quite accurate a description for librarians in general).

Rather, my questions is this.  If the basic qualifications of a librarian is unknown to library users -either faculty and students or the general public, why would they respect, listen to, and work with librarians?  Without such knowledge, there is going to be little appreciation and understanding about what librarians provide and offer to library users.  It seems to me that there is some serious work to be done in libraries’ outreach activities and that it may concern more librarians than library services or resources.

So, librarians, let’s please not knock ourselves out regardless of pay, institutional support, or appreciation from society at large.  Instead, libraries and librarians have to help people understand what kind of places libraries are these days – certainly not just a warehouse of books – and what kind of work librarians perform -certainly not just shelving books.

As the cataloguing librarian describes so vividly in the recent blog post, the general public’s perception and understanding of a librarian is sadly obsolete and dismal.  How did it happen that a used car salesman is so convinced that he knows so much about what a librarian does and laughs at librarianship as a profession?  Although deplorable, I don’t believe that this car salesman is any unique exception.  But in my opinion, it is mostly those outside a library who declare the death of librarianship.  If you are working at a library, you will be so busy that you won’t even have time to worry about the death of a library.

Microsoft Surface Table at Libraries

There is this table that has recently fascinated me.  It is Microsoft Surface table.  With both the commercial and the development version, this table looks absolutely fabulous to my librarian eyes.

What is Microsoft Surface table?  Imagine a coffee table whose surface works like an iPhone responsive to touch with its full computing power.

I can see so many applications of this table at a library. I work at a medical library and our students love to use the anatomy software that is loaded on the computers at the library.  For this particular resource in mind, the library has ordered a large screen monitor for library computers.  Medical students absolutely love it.  But as any librarian can testify, today’s students study together.  At libraries, group study rooms are always in a short supply and all the tables tend to be moved in a group by students who want to study together.  Our library provides forty something carrels for each individual medical student.  But students prefer studying as a group in our two group study rooms.

So it is no coincidence that when I saw this MS surface table I immediately came to think about putting anatomy software on it.  Students can not only see clear large anatomical images on the table but also can manipulate them with their hands.  Even more cool is the fact that multiple students can simultaneously interact with the surface. One can zoom, the other can rotate, and another can annotate.

At this year’s ALA conference at Chicago, DOK Library Concept Center‘s in-house application for MS surface table was also shown, making a lot of librarians fall in love with the table and the possibility of providing useful applications for it at a library.

Multitouch Microsoft Surface: Cultural Heritage Browser from Jaap van de Geer on Vimeo.

Yesterday I have learned that actually the university of Nevada- Reno-library owns two MS Surface tables and that the library’s application development librarian, Will Kurt, wrote an anatomy flash card application for it.  (He also published his anatomy application codes for everyone’s use.)   A news article from University of Nevada, Reno, reports that these surface tables are in high demand from students. In the first week of the semester, they were used for 70 hours over just seven days at University of Nevada, Reno.

See the demo here:

Some may say, “OK, I see that the table looks cool and maybe good for anatomy and maps etc. But what other use could it have at a library?”  Well, Darien public Library purchased this table in December, 2008 and there the surface table was placed at the library’s children’s room.  In his blog post, John Blyberg talks about the idea of tagging certain picture books, so that when they were placed on the Surface, a video-recording of a story-time with that book would pop up in his blog post.

The surface table can also be used for gaming, music, and probably history, math, physics, and other humanities and sciences.  Just imagine classicists studying old manuscripts on the surface table to decipher the annotations on them!  Applied to medicine, the surface table can do so much more than showing two-dimensional images.   See this video in which the images of a human heart rendered in 3D being studied, annotated, and discussed. Depending on the quality of images and the sophistication of 3D rendering applied, a whole surgery can be recorded and studied.

I see the use of this MS surface table in architecture too, in which 3D image-rendering is common.  Actually any 3D image viewing and analysis would be fantastic on this kind of surface, and the surface would be a wonderful tool for many people to study such images together at the same time.

But guess how much it would cost to get one of these tables?  I asked around today in Twitter and found out that it costs $12,500 + shipping and handling.  Ok, so it won’t be in any near future that libraries can offer these tables for library users.  Will Kurt made a good point saying that these tables are not only heavily used by students but also not extremely expensive compared to some of the online journals and databases that libraries license.   However, the table is still hardware, not part of a library’s collection.  At the current stage, the purchase of this table would also be wise only if a library already has an in-house application developer who can write some custom applications for the table.  So the real costs for a library are even more than the cost of the table itself.  Consequently, not many libraries won’t be able to afford a surface table any time soon.

Still, I can’t stop thinking about all potential applications of this surface table at a library because it can make coming to a library much more fun and useful for students.  Surface computing enables us to use a computer in an environment that is not designed specifically for computing.  Surface computing replaces traditional input devices such as a keyboard and a mouse with our human hands and fingers.  And as a result, it can also accommodate collaboration and group study in a more natural manner.

My undying curiosity also prompted me to find out how a surfacetable is built.  This excellent blog post by Stewart Greenhill shows how to build a home-made surface table with a relatively cheap LCD monitor with the total cost of $500.  There are many youTube videos but this blog post is much more thorough in explaining the mechanism of a surface table.

Now, $500, that’s the price a library can probably afford.

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