Infomancy n. 1.The field of magic related to the conjuring of information from the chaos of the universe. 2.The collection of terms, queries, and actions related to the retrieval of information from arcane sources.

Open Letter to Follett Software

March 15th, 2010 by infomancy

Thomas Schenck, President
Follett Software Company
1391 Corporate Drive
McHenry IL 60050-7041

Dear Mr. Schenck;

Congratulations on the launch of your new Cognite software. Taking a major project like this from concept to an actual, usable product is always an exciting challenge. Your team has done an excellent job working with librarians to define needs and provide real world tools that support our library mission. I am concerned, however, that our mission and your mission seemed to have drifted apart during the marketing at product launch. The mission you are communicating is that Cognite is a powerful new tool that eradicates the need for librarians.

We all understand that the elimination of librarians is not actually the intended purpose of Cognite. It’s just that somewhere between your building this tool with the support of librarians and your launching it, some marketer seems to have removed us from the equation. In fact, the Cognite website explicitly suggests that this new software replaces the functions of a flesh-and-blood librarian and can serve as the sole intermediary between students, teachers and parents and the resources housed in a school library. Your fancy graphic makes it clear that Cognite is your recommended answer for information access, not a certified school librarian.

If it were just a case of an overzealous graphic artist forgetting to properly display the role the the school librarian still plays in supporting access to information resources while using Cognite as a tool, then this would be less of an issue. But instead, it seems that the entire marketing plan for Cognite is built around selling the software to administrators and teachers as a replacement, not a supplement, for a school librarian. If this isn’t the case, then you really need to talk to your copy writers about their failure to include the word “librarian” even a single time on the entire Cognite website.

Follett has been a strong supporter of libraries and librarians for many years. From great book services, to more recent expansions into digital resources and strong software tools for libraries, Follett has always been there. We especially appreciate your willingness to be there as conference sponsors as well. So maybe that is why this latest move comes as such a shock. As was pointed out in your Twitter response to my initial question: “Libraries inspired Cognite! It brings library info into the classroom or anywhere learning takes place, & keeps parents involved.” Maybe 140 characters wasn’t enough to address the real question. Given your long time support of libraries, and given the role libraries and librarians played in the creation of Cognite, why are we so conspicuously absent from the sales literature?

I understand that Cognite isn’t a librarian tool. This is a good thing as we already have too many librarian tools (like the traditional OPAC). Yet in these very trying times, with unfortunate news of library and librarian cuts coming in from around the country, we need your continued support. Now, more than ever, we need Follett Software to showcase the librarian – the person – as the expert who can support the spread of information and resources using powerful new tools like Cognite.

I ask these questions about the rollout of Cognite not to criticize, but in a plea for continued support in our common work of highlighting the critical importance of librarians as the driving force that make libraries work. Thank you for your time, and I hope that this might convince you to at least consider how the Cognite marketing can be shifted slightly to draw more attention to school librarians.

Christopher Harris, Librarian

21st Century Databases

October 9th, 2009 by infomancy

From the SLJ Summit: Database companies are looking at “the future of digital content and how they plan to support 21st century learning through seamless interface, widgets, adding more geographical relevance, making databases more interactive, and appealing to emergent readers.” [SLJ]

Or, they could spend more time on gathering/creating top-notch content (what we really want from them) and then figure out some sort of an industry consortium model for a single, shared interface. That way we aren’t paying each of 10 or so companies for doing interface development work. This was especially obvious when five companies sat on a panel reporting on their progress towards creating a spell-check for their products. Do they each need to labor to reinvent the wheel? Furthermore, each time a company changes their interface to differentiate themselves from their competition, we end up having to re-teach yet another interface design instead of focusing on content.

As came from a discussion during that panel, the first step is probably for information providers to work together to identify common data elements for an XML schema. By having common elements (like “title,” “grade level,” etc.) it will be easier to integrate content with widgets and other third-party interfaces.

After that, it is probably time for the database vendors to make a tough decision. Are they going to be 21st century content providers or 21st century interface designers? I am not convinced that a single company will be able to tackle both of these massive tasks concurrently.

Books are, and will be…

September 23rd, 2009 by infomancy

This comes from an ongoing discussion on the AASLForum mailing list – e-mail thread from the archive.

Following up on David’s comments about refocusing attention on the larger supported concept of reading as opposed to the individual container of the printed book, it is interesting to place this conversation in the larger stream of writing going on in the technology world right now.

Writing on the O’Reilly Radar blog (Tim O’Reilly of the technology books with animals on the cover, not the other one), Mark Sigal tackled reading yesterday in a post titled “Rebooting the Book (One Apple iPad Tablet at a Time)“.

Mark is not a librarian, nor is he in any way associated with education. He is, as his bio notes, “an eight-time entrepreneur who has spent the past 21 years seeding new ventures in the digital media, social networking, software-as-a-service, mobile device and embedded systems spaces.” So, how does this layperson view reading?

Well, first let’s establish that he loves books: “the book is the best, most universal, vessel for an improved learning culture/experience.” Pretty unambiguous. And yet, this is an article about reinventing the “book” to create a more effective and efficient method of delivering the book via updated methods we can now use in place of the 2,000 year old printing technology that has served us well lo these many years.

To make his case, Sigal references another recent article from Open Book Toronto, “The Future of Publishing“. In this interview of Sean Cranbury, he has more love to share for books. “I like things that occupy space, that have a certain heft, that hurt when people hit me with them, and no one has ever hit me with a web page. At least not in the physical sense.” He goes on…

“Books can challenge us with their thingness. The design and dimension of a book; the quality of paper stock; the floppiness, the arch-ness; the full-colour fold-out poster; the analog bleeds of ink into the fibers of a page of sloppy/endearing drawings by Kurt Vonnegut in Breakfast of Champions; the smell that they accumulate over time, especially when shelved in old bookstores owned by the wily and cantankerous — all of these things are irreplaceable. The web can imitate them, showcase them, allow us to edit, discuss and read their contents, or tell us about them in ludicrous detail from every point of view while linking the book across time and space to other destinations in other remote, insubstantial digital terrains.” [Cranbury]

The interviewer in this article, Hugh McGuire, shares Cranbury’s sentiments (and mine!):
“But as much as the sensual nature of books gives them great power, those things evoke sensory memories and they are secondary to — or the result of — having read and been moved by books in the past. I remember the smell of libraries because I was in libraries because of the writing in those books. The libraries, pages, print, typography all exist in order to allow me to get access to that writing. The sensual bits are all important, but they come second to the stuff that is in books.” [McGuire]

He sums this up in a statement mirroring what I have said in many blog posts, articles, impassioned conversations, and conference talks: “I love physical books because I love what is in them; I don’t love what is in books because of the physical objects.” [McGuire]

Without trying to put words in David’s mouth, I think that is what he was trying to point out in his earlier e-mail. David loves books, but he cannot easily access the printed vessel that libraries have endowed with this mystical fetishism. Is not the heart of a library the contents of the books and not the books themselves? While Cushing Academy might not have traveled the smoothest path in their transition to a digital collection, and while there is a risk of lost elements within the collection, is it not our duty to support their digital library in its fragile infancy when it’s need for help is the greatest?

In the larger world, or at least in the larger technology world of which we are becoming citizens whether or not we want to, the move towards digital publishing and digital books is pretty much being seen as inevitable. Print newspapers and magazines are on their death beds. Publishers, as seen in the Rebooting the Book article, are struggling with changes as well. This is not the death of books, newspapers, or magazines, however…just the death of the traditional printing model.

As McGuire notes in “The Future of Publishing”: “for all the talk about the death of books, could there ever have been a better time in the history of the universe to be a book lover? Just look at the wealth of information, writing, podcasts, resources of all kinds about books and writing available on the web now. There are fewer book review pages in newspapers, sure, but hundreds of booky bloggers writing about books, writing, literature, design, typography. I have 238 book blogs feeding into my Google Reader, there are about 500 posts a day, sometimes more, all about books. I could never read them all.” [McGuire]

Books will change, but they will survive. Albums did not disappear as vinyl records changed to plastic CDs and then to digital MP3s. Vinyl is going strong in niche stores, a smaller format for publishing, but one imbued with all the love and art that goes into a quality book today. Apple just released a new format for beautifully constructed digital albums in iTunes 9 launched earlier this month.

Libraries will survive. What is stored in our current printed books is too valuable to loose. And yet, we too must change. Cushing Academy took a brave step forward into the digital chaos that we are all facing. They should not be vilified, but rather honored. In truth, it is our fault that their steps included missteps. We were not there to lead them as we should have been. Where is the AASL Guidebook for the Digital Shift? Where is the AASL Handbook for Digital Reading? Where is the leadership?

If we are not willing to take on leadership in this critical issue, then shame on us for finger waggling after the fact.

July 12th, 2009 by infomancy

Here are four questions, presented publicly on the AASL Forum to continue the discussion about the standards.

1) Given the confusion between the very limited actual permissions granted and the much more open permissions that AASL thinks are provided for use of the standards, can you help clarify what the desired level of permission for educational use is?

2) Is AASL willing to allow educational, non-commercial use of the standards as a part of derivative works? I.e. can states or districts adopt and adapt the standards to meet local implementation requirements? Can teacher-librarians quote standards in lesson plans or include them in curriculum maps? Can the standards be aligned with other library activities?

3) What barriers would prevent AASL from releasing the standards under a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share Alike license, a tested license that allows free use for personal and educational purposes while protecting the standards from commercial use?

4) If the need is to protect revenue (a critical element, I fully understand) would it be possible to provide the Creative Commons license as just a member benefit? Would this perhaps encourage members to stay members for a higher level of access to the standards while also encouraging districts or states to join as organizational members to gain access to use of the standards?

A Followup on the Standards

July 11th, 2009 by infomancy

The problem is that [a really cool desire to use the standards] is exactly why I brought up this issue for discussion. Under AASL’s current permissions for use, you CANNOT use the language. CANNOT put the standards into Rubicon Atlas (or another curriculum mapping program). CANNOT even link to the pdf document on your website or in an e-mail. I know that Alison Cline wrote back yesterday saying this could be “easily taken care of” but it cannot. We need to change the policy that guides use of the standards.

Let me put this a different way. Think of the AASL permissions for use as a web filter. Those permissions are filtering our access to the standards just like a web filter blocks us from sites. The problem here is that AASL is running what is called a “white list” filter; the most restrictive kind of web filter that checks each attempt at access against a list of allowed sites. What might work better is a “black list” filter that presumes that use is okay except for a select few instances that are denied.

Why is the white list so bad? Well, each new attempted use of the standards must be checked against a list. That places a huge chilling effect on innovation with the standards. If I want to use these great standards, I can only do those things that have been done before and are on the approved list. For example, the current permissions do not allow librarians to quote the standards in their lesson plans. While Alison Cline has assured us that oversight will be corrected, what about the next thing? If permission is added for librarians to “quote standards on their lesson plans”, they still won’t have permission to add them to curriculum maps. What if someone wants to have a standard of the month to share at faculty meetings? That is a new permission that would have to be added. What if a state or district wants to apply the standards and create a local adoption plan? Again, that is currently denied and would have to be added.

Seems to me that it would be much easier to presume that we, the member librarians who wrote the standards, can do what we wish to push forward implementation of the standards in a non-commercial way. Instead of freezing innovation by making librarians look over their shoulders for the copyright police as they attempt to navigate a restrictive list of allowed uses, open up the possibility of new uses. We can keep patching up the cracks in the permission list as they are identified, or we can instead change the policy and create a new vision for innovative use of the standards that respects members and encourages adoption.

Therefore, I am suggesting that the member-authored AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner be released under a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share Alike (BY-NC-SA) License []. This would mean that instead of having to check for permitted use, librarians could instead make use of the standards in non-commercial ways provided they meet some requirements. The use would have to be attributed back to AASL, it could not be commercial, and any resulting derivative work (like a state adoption plan or district implementation or handy admin guide) would have to be freely shared under the same license.

Doesn’t this meet the requirements of what we want to do? It protects the standards by preventing commercial use while allowing us, the members, free access to our standards.