Wednesday, July 30, 2008


I do think having student produce podcasts can help build fluency and self-confidence. These are some podcasts from some students I worked on a few year back -- we got the hardware through a grant, and we used Audacity freeware to mix it up. they were enrolled in a developmental reading class, and it seemed to be a motivator that they would share their favorite books on a page linked from the school library home page. Many of the same students listened to my first batch of Playaway digital audioplayers this past year.

I love, love, love the idea of instructors capturing content this way for later review or just for thsoe who missed class for whatever reason. And, despite not being an auditory learner, I do love that what RSS does for news, podcasting (delivered by that same container, xml) does for audio. And I love being able to listen to PRI's The World, which my NPR affiliate doesn't carry, and The Archers (and Silver Street). And I love that the city of Chicago has tourist audiotours available -- the Blues tour is narrated by Buddy Guy!

I know there are criticisms that we are losing our shared culture, turning into "pod people" as we seek narrower and narrower ranges of content, facilitated by the long tail etailers. I am enjoying a steady stream of niche reading material, when I would have had to content myself with more mainstream stuff only a decade ago. If you want to read it optimistically, it is making me a specialist. Have there even been generalists since the invention of the printing press allowed knoweldge to expand beyond the individual or even the community? I, for one, find the explosion of knowledge thrilling. We live in interesting times!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

RSS -- a personal history

RSS is a technology that really allowed me to function in the broader society. After a debacle of a presidential election, I turned against the mainstream press entirely out of an instinct of self-preservation. If, flipping through television channels, I ran across network news, I had the impulse to throw things at my set. I thought no one was paying attention to the egregious things going on. I wasn't reading the paper (which really didn't do me any favors with my reporter husband). I built a Chinese wall and read Rosamunde Pilcher books to escape the here and now. All of this meant I really couldn't carry on a dinner party conversation because I was so ill-informed.

When I learned about RSS, I realized I could choose what news came to me. I could read ONLY the technology feed from the New York Times, ONLY the books feed (populist, yes, but you do need to know that stuff) from USA Today, and keep up with all the great new blogs without having to chase all over the place. Gradually, I was able to dip my toe into the greater world and fight my natural impulse towards agorophobia.

Because it's built upon lowest-common-denominatory XML (which my professor Marcella Genz, forseeing its ubiquity, promoted as the ideal container for bibliographic information in a networked envrionment), there are so many amazing things you can read via rss -- flickr tags, catalog searches, fare updates. A visit to the aggregator is intense, information mainlining.

I used to use a piece of local software, RSS Reader, as my aggregator. Except for the fact that some of our network update tended to loose my feeds, which meant I was constantly taking screen shots for very low-tech back-ups, I loved it. RSS Reader allowed you to leave the story, rather than the feed, marked stories as unread, which meant you could let the news build up for a while but still be relatively confident that you weren't missing anything. Also, you could flag a story as important with a big red exclamation mark, which was a great visual cue. I'm using Bloglines now, which is blatantly inferior, but web-based, so I can access it from more than one machine, and I didn't have to sweet-talk my local computer admin to install it. I am trying to choose my battles. But I miss RSS Reader.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How I stopped worrying and learned to love the social web

I have had this blogspot URL for almost three years now, but have failed to do much with it. I inevitably delete the whole of whatever I use it for after a few months. I love my privacy, and in January 2008 I got the email I had been dreading, "I googled your name and found your article..."

My maiden name had been included in a byline for a breezy little article about technology. I am not sure exactly why that terrified me so. It was lightweight stuff, granted, but was it really something I wanted my high school classmates to see?

I had never wanted to be findable. It's not that I'm scared of online predators. I really side with Nancy Willard on that one. Hiding online had been one of the unexpected advantages in marrying someone with a relatively anonymous last name. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Wendy Stephens, even some connected with libraries. It was the same reason I'd always submit out-of-focus photographs, snapped from a distance, whenever required for online purposes. I liked to fool myself into thinking that, if stumbling upon these, no one idly searching would have enough information to confirm my identity.

In reality, anyone who was a half-decent searcher could have turned all my personal details pretty easily anyway, so I had to think long and hard about what exactly it was that scared me. And then I had to go about establishing some sort of digital identity, better later than never.

I wonder about my students. Will they be better people because their every crush, favorite pop songs, and passing political persuasion were captured electronically? I do think they might be better able to reconcile their awkward, gawky teen selves with the subsequent adult incarnations, stay in touch over time and distance. I hope the social web is teaching them to appreciate the weight of their own decisions. I do think students can learn from teachers and from peers, in their own environment.

The social web is like Pandora's box. It's open, there's no putting this stuff back in, and it's changed our society. I don't feel I've thrown out my cherished privacy expectations, altogether, but I do think we as librarians are going to have to negotiate that.

When I worked for an automation vendor almost a decade ago, we introduced an OPAC feature that, by default, tracked checkouts for future recommendations. The librarians were up in arms about the data retention, but haven't spent a lot of the intervening period trying to ape the online bookstores that do just that? I can delete old circulation transactions to protect my patrons' privacy, but if they post everything they're reading to the facebook Shelfari app, it's all for naught.

Buy the URL, homestead the blogspot and wikispace. We are all online. There's no pretending we aren't.