Movies, technology, and libraries

film projector

home movie projectorI’m dating myself again, but I remember when home movies used 8 mm film. Movies available for sale were 16 mm. The latter were mostly made for educational purposes, so only English classes ever had feature films. I doubt if anyone thought of renting one for home use. Then came the VHS/Beta wars. Soon enough it didn’t matter that VHS had won, because everyone flocked to DVDs. They’ll be gone soon enough, too. So will Blu-ray. It’s not a problem for libraries–at least, not yet

New technology and business

Audio cassettes made it possible for the general public to buy or rent movies to watch at home. Two formats clashed for market domination until, ultimately, VHS won its temporary victory over Betamax.

Everyone who had placed their bets on Betamax now had obsolete equipment and had to go out and buy something else in order to keep watching the latest releases. Business was great for companies that sold VCRs and other equipment that used VHS.

Blockbuster and other companies quickly cashed in on the new ability to watch movies at home. After all, not everyone wanted to buy their own copies unless it was a movie they knew they would watch many times.

With the invention of DVDs, the public quickly turned away from cassettes. They were less bulky. The picture and sound were better. No one had to fuss with rewinding them. In some ways, Blu-ray is even better, although it has never threatened the DVD format.

The new technology was a boon to manufacturers. Blockbuster et al. simply switched their holdings from cassettes to DVDs/Blu-ray and didn’t miss a beat. That is, until Redbox and Netflix offered more convenient delivery systems.

Now, cloud storage and streaming services have begun to catch on. Sales and rentals of any kind of disc are declining rapidly. They will probably disappear eventually.

New technology and libraries

VHS_2_DVD_1Once libraries decided they were no longer only about printed materials, they have collected audiovisual materials in the latest available technologies. As technologies have changed, many libraries have kept much of the older material and the equipment necessary to play it.

Why? Not everything available on videocassette ever got transferred to DVD. Not everything issued on DVD will ever be available through the newer technologies, either. Few enough people want them for them to be commercially viable to transfer to new technology. Enough people want them for them to belong in at least some library collections.

So far, therefore, introduction of new technologies have been expensive both in terms of purchasing new equipment and formats and training staff to use them. They have not had significant impact on ordinary library services and procedures. Whether patrons take out videocassettes or discs, it counts toward the library’s circulation statistics.

As physical objects become obsolete, libraries will still offer the latest technologies to their patrons, but circulation is already taking a hit. Eventually, libraries and the governments or other institutions that fund them will have to agree on a new way to track the effectiveness and usefulness of library services.

Why circulation matters

DVD displayMeasurement of how a library is used and what it does naturally rely on counting things. Libraries keep counts of the number of people who walk in the door or who call on the phone. They count and itemize everything that patrons borrow, including the number of DVDs.

With the catalog, databases, and other information available through the library’s web site, it is no longer necessary for patrons to go to the library physically or call on the phone in order to use library services. Of course, the invention of the telephone caused a similar problem more than a century ago. There are ways to measure the number of people who use the library via computer.

Similarly, when patrons download movies (or other electronic media) using library facilities or view them while in the library, it would seem that that should be covered by statistics.

The situation probably varies from place to place, but Massachusetts does not allow its public libraries to count the use of licensed content in its circulation statistics. The library does not own it. If a contract is canceled, libraries can no longer make that content available.

That makes no sense to me. If a library buys something and then years later weeds it from the collection, patrons no longer have access to that, either. But during the time the library had it, no one questions counting how often it gets used. The fact that no one has looked at it for years, if ever, is one of the factors that justifies getting rid of it in the first place.

But as a top officer in the Pentagon once told an irate colleague of my father, “Aw hell, Doc. It don’t gotta make sense. It’s policy.”

For the short and middle term, it looks like library circulation will not suffer greatly from streaming movies as much as the rental stores do. On the other hand, library administrators are already looking for other measurements of how well they serve the public besides circulation.

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Source: “Media Spotlight: DVD Circ Hold Steady, For Now” by Matt Enis, The Digital Shift.
Photo credits:
DVD display. Some rights reserved by Monterrey Public Library.
Others. Source unknown.

Libraries, immigrants, and digital literacy

Library workshop

Library workshopImmigrants to the US generally come with some skills and resources, but not necessarily everything they need to succeed here. For example, many arrive with limited or no facility in the English language. Many also lack adequate computer skills needed to get and perform jobs. Libraries offer both language instruction and computer instruction, but helping patrons with limited English learn digital literacy presents new challenges

In the days when most immigrants arrived by ocean, they arrived in major ports and tended to stay there. If very many of a particular group of immigrants left the port of entry, they usually went to other major cities. Now, the port of entry is likely to be any city large enough to have an airport. Even smaller cities find themselves home to multiple immigrant populations.

Projects in small cities

My home town of Greensboro, North Carolina, for example has a significant concentration of Montagnards from Vietnam. I can’t easily find a list of other large ethnic groups, but I do find a website for the local office of Church World Service, which offers its services in several languages: Arabic, Burmese, English, French, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish.

Immigrants in Boise and Twin Falls, Idaho speak Karen, Russian, and Hindi among other languages. The Idaho Commission for Libraries and the Idaho Office for Refugees have teamed up to find ways to tackle both the English language and computer and internet literacy challenges at once.

As an article in American Libraries reports, they obtained a grant to train 12 immigrants, presumably with adequate command of English, not only to use computers, but to train newer refugees from their homelands their native languages. They were trained to pass on digital literacy skills first in using a computer at all, and then using the internet in order to find

  • online government services
  • information about family and health
  • educational opportunities
  • jobs

The project began with the modest goal of reaching 200 people in six months. In fact, the trainers had reached 914 people in 212 coaching sessions within three months.

Although one goal of the project was to present the library as a place for learning digital literacy and using computers, organizers expected training sessions to take place in a variety of places. They hoped that at least 25% would be given in libraries. In fact, trainers chose library meeting rooms and computer labs for 71% of the training sessions.

This model should be fairly easy to replicate in other states and cities. Although the article mentions no other comparable programs, they probably exist.

Projects in larger cities

Probably no one is surprised that Minneapolis, a major American city, has a large and varied immigrant program. It had a large concentration of Scandinavian immigrants a hundred years ago. When the Franklin branch of the Hennepin County Library system opened in 1914, a third of its collection was in foreign languages, including not only Norwegian and Swedish, but also Yiddish.

The Franklin Learning Center opened in 1988 primarily to help US-born patrons study for the GED, but its mission expanded to teach English to immigrants from every inhabited continent. Computer skills have since become an important part of the center’s educational efforts—especially after the state announced that GED testing will be offered only on computers beginning in 2014.

The same American Libraries article describes computer literacy efforts of the Franklin Learning, especially outreach to Hmong immigrants originally from China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Hmong culture presents special problems to teaching digital literacy. Many other ethnic groups (including US-born people) lack such basic skills as knowing what to do with the mouse. Most immigrant groups must struggle to learn English. Many Hmong arrive without any ability to read or write at all, because the several dialects of the language have not been written down until quite recently.

That said, staff at Franklin approach the problem much the same way the Idaho libraries do. One Hmong-speaking staff member serves a liaison to the community to determine its needs, recruit volunteer trainers, and monitor the progress of the classes they teach. The liaison’s duties include attending parent-teacher meetings at school and other community events to help families adjust to their new home as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Especially to librarians reading this post: an article that appeared in American Libraries a couple of months ago spoke to the need for librarians to write for “civilians,” not just other librarians. So far as I have been able to find, Reading, Writing, Research is the only blog written by a librarian for “civilians.” I would be happy to accept guest posts from other librarians!

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Source: “New Americans and the Digital Literacy Gap,” (link no longer work as of Feb 2016) American Libraries
Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Technology & Social Change

How the American public perceives and uses libraries

Library circ desk
Library circ desk

Circulation desk at Newburyport Public Library

The Pew Research Center has lately issued a substantial report called Library Services in the Digital Age. I will explore this important research in depth for future posts, but for now I’ll just mention some things that immediately catch my eye.

The importance of libraries

According to the findings, 91% of Americans ages 16 and older consider libraries important community resources and 76% consider them important to themselves and their families. Oddly enough, only 84% have actually visited a library at some point in their lives, while only 59% have visited either a library, a bookmobile, or a public library website in the past year.

It would seem, then, that people’s stated opinions about the value of libraries varies from their actual behavior. On the other hand, only 77% report childhood memories of someone in their family using the library. That is, fewer people remember growing up in a family of library users than have used libraries at some time in their own life.

The more detailed sections of the report make it clear that people who grew up in families that used the library are much more likely to use the library as adults than those who didn’t. The poll demonstrates, though, that some small percentage of people who did haven’t used a library themselves. A significantly larger percentage of those who didn’t have grown up to be library users.

How important are libraries in your life?

  • Very important
  • Important
  • Somewhat important
  • Not very important
  • Not important at all


More polls: dollarstore

Books and other printed materials

Despite the rising importance of the Internet, 80% of the population still considers lending books a very important library service, and 80% also considers the provision of reference librarians a very important service. Both of those figures are more than the 77% who call free computer and Internet access very important.

People who have visited a library in the past year have done so for numerous reasons that have nothing to do with books, but 73% have borrowed printed books, 73% have browsed the shelves, 31% visit in order to read newspapers or other periodicals.

The percentages for browsers and borrowers is the same, but that hardly means that people browse in order to borrow. Surely some people go to a library for a particular book or books, use the catalog to find their location, and borrow their choices without looking at anything else nearby. On the other hand, 49% visit in order to sit and read in the library. That is larger than the percentage of people who go there specifically to read periodicals.

Print collections are still growing. The Pew researchers raised the question of whether libraries should move all of the books off site to make more space for people to read and meet. Here, the public is split, with 20% answering that libraries should definitely do so and 39% answering that they definitely should not.

Off-site storage is expensive to obtain and maintain. Depending on how far away it is, it forces patrons to wait hours or days before they can get the materials they want. I reported in an earlier post that some academic libraries have moved all of their printed materials to very compact areas accessible only by robots. I am unaware of public libraries adopting that technology, but it would be cost prohibitive for all but the very largest.

What is your level of use of print materials?

  • I use libraries entirely for print materials
  • I use print materials more than electronic materials
  • I use print less than electronic materials
  • I hardly use print at all


More polls: Gullbrev

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Internet and electronic media

It seems odd that 77% of the population considers free access to computers and the Internet is a very important library service, but only 26% say they have actually taken advantage of it! (In contrast, 49% of library users—49% of the 59% of the population who used the library recently at all—visited in order to use the library’s subscriptions to proprietary databases.)

Patrons use computers for a variety of uses; 66% have used the Internet to do research for projects at school or work, but 63% have used it just to pass the time browsing.

People have used library computers to get a variety of information, take an online class or certification program, use email, look for work, use social networking sites, shop, pay bills, or in short anything that people do with computers at home or at work.

As computers have become more and more important in society, so they have become in libraries. The Pew report lists a number of computer services that patrons want to see their local library offer.

The report also includes input from a panel of librarians. Most of what the public wants is either among their library’s current offerings or is definitely in the planning stages. American libraries have always been service-oriented institutions, very responsive to the needs of their communities.

It’s fascinating, though, that so many more people in this country consider libraries important than have actually visited either a library or a library web site.
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Spelling, punctuation, and other fun topics

Spelling checker

Spelling checkerPeople who like to read and write like words and like playing with words, sentences, punctuation, and anything else that comes along with reading and writing. Now that so many of us are BFF forever with our electronic gadgets, we have new tools for communicating—or failing to communicate, as the case may be.

Word processing software now comes with spelling and grammar checkers. I expect most writers find them helpful, but they don’t make a very good crutch. For one thing, some of the grammar checkers contain hard-coded grammatical errors. And even if the suggested correction isn’t simply wrong, it might make hash of the meaning of the sentence.

The spelling checker will bleed red all over people’s names, correctly spelled foreign words, brand names, and all kinds of things. On the other hand, just because a word is spelled correctly doesn’t mean that it’s the right word. I have had fun with that in my occasional series on “misused pears.”

Years ago, a poem about spell checkers made the rounds of forwarded email. I just ran across a version of it again and love to share this kind of thing:

I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your sure reel glad two no.
Its vary polished in it’s weigh.
My checker tolled me sew.

A checker is a bless sing,
It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
It helps me right awl stiles two reed,
And aides me when eye rime.

Each frays come posed up on my screen
Eye trussed too bee a joule.
The checker pours o’er every word
To cheque sum spelling rule.

Bee fore a veiling checker’s
Hour spelling mite decline,
And if we’re lacks oar have a laps,
We wood bee maid too wine.

Butt now bee cause my spelling
Is checked with such grate flare,
Their are know fault’s with in my cite,
Of nun eye am a wear.

Now spelling does knot phase me,
t does knot bring a tier.
My pay purrs awl due glad den
With wrapped word’s fare as hear.

To rite with care is quite a feet
Of witch won should bee proud,
And wee mussed dew the best wee can,
Sew flaw’s are knot aloud.

Sow ewe can sea why aye dew prays
Such soft wear four pea seas,
And why eye brake in two averse
Buy righting want too pleas.

Punctuation marksSomething’s not quite right about that poem. Yes. I see what it is. The punctuation needs some editing!

Did you know that a comma can be the difference between life and death? I’d far rather hear someone say, “Let’s eat, David” than “Let’s eat David.”

Here’s a favorite gem that shows how different choices of punctuation can change the entire meaning of exactly the same sequence of words:

Dear John:
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can forever be happy—will you let me be yours?

Dear John:
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can forever be happy. Will you let me be?

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Image credits: sources unknown

Library robots

blue robot

blue robotLibraries have always been at the forefront of adopting new technology, but their innovations usually have something to do with organizing and retrieving information. The online library catalog is a good example. Now some libraries are borrowing technology from manufacturing: robots that shelve and retrieve physical books.

It may come as a surprise to some people that printed books are still such a big deal to academic libraries. After all, much of formerly huge reference collections has been replaced by online databases. Long runs of many important journals and other periodicals are likewise available as full text online. Ebooks have lately begun to surpass printed books in sales.

Nonetheless, vast amounts of important information have never been digitized. It is accessible only in print form. While more and more library patrons use electronic information sources in preference to print, print cannot go away any time soon.

Problems with print collections

When I was a freshman in college, the university library had a closed stack policy. (This was in prehistoric times when there were not yet computers in libraries.) Students had to select materials from the card catalog, fill out a call slip, and wait (and wait, and wait) for someone on the library staff to retrieve the books. Sophomore year—oh joy!—the university opened a new library building with open stacks.

Missing items

Open stacks meant, of course, that anyone could go there and take books down. Patrons could check them out or sit in a nearby chair to read them. In that case, they either left them laying around or put them back on the shelf. It requires some training to reshelve books correctly, so more often than not, patrons misfiled them. One problem, therefore, is that as patrons trekked from the card catalog to the stacks (either in a vast underground space or a nine-story tower) they never knew if they would actually find what they were looking for.

Online library catalogs eventually solved part of that problem. When someone checked out a book, the catalog showed that it was in circulation and gave the date when it would be back in the library. That still did not solve the problem of misshelved books or books laying around on tables somewhere.


Even medium sized academic libraries own more than a million books and bound journals. They must be in some predictable order so that patrons and library staff can find any one of them in particular.

Bound periodicals may be shelved by title, but most materials are shelved according to the classification system used by the library (Dewey Decimal Classification, Library of Congress Classification, National Library of Medicine Classification, etc.). Shelving by classification puts short books and tall books close together, so there might be several inches of empty space between the top of one book and the bottom of the shelf above it.

Book stacks are usually no more than about six feet tall even though ceilings are much higher. The aisle between the stacks must be wide enough for two people to pass. Some libraries have adopted compact shelving for some of their less used materials. They save space by eliminating most of the aisle space.

Many libraries save shelf space in their main buildings by using off-site storage for infrequently used items. Typically someone on the library staff makes one or two trips there per day on a regular schedule. Patrons can still get access to these materials, but they have to wait several hours or even until the next day.

Preservation issues

Most patrons probably don’t give the physical safety of the books much thought, but some shelving designs make it awfully easy to inflict great harm on a book simply by putting it on the shelf. For example, some shelves have a thin metal divider that keeps books standing upright when several of them have been removed. Whoever puts the books back must be careful. Otherwise, the inside of the book can be pushed up against the divider, bending or tearing several pages.

Also, books thrive in an environment of controlled temperature and humidity. About 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 30% relative humidity is ideal. Humans are not comfortable in those conditions.

Robotic retrieval of reading material

library robot

Robot book fetcher at the University of Utah

California State University at Northridge installed an Automatic Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS) in 1991. Since then, a couple of dozen academic libraries have followed suit, either because of the opportunity to build new library buildings or to perform radical renovations to existing buildings.

Basically, robots take over all responsibility for retrieving books and returning them to their place. That means both that the system need not be designed with human limitations in mind and that the stacks are unsafe for humans.

Instead of six feet tall, stacks can be any size. At the Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago, they are 50 feet tall and underground. Each stack runs the entire length of the building in temperature and humidity conditions that are optimal for book preservation. The Mansueto Library will ultimately house the university’s entire print collection.

An ASRS can house an entire library collection using about a seventh the space of conventional library shelving, space the library can use for any number of places for people to gather. It is very expensive to build and maintain, of course, but as it turns out, only about half the cost of compact shelving!

Robots do not read call numbers, so the books can be arranged by size. Actually, the robots do not retrieve individual books, but bins that hold about 100 books each. Each robotic crane can swiftly move both horizontally and vertically at the same time to find the appropriate bin.

Here is how the system works:

  1. A patron looks for the desired item in the online library catalog. Assuming that it is not already checked out to someone else, only a few clicks are necessary to call for the item
  2. The catalog communicates the request to the ASRS, directing it to retrieve the bin where the item is located.
  3. The ASRS gets the bin and delivers it to a waiting librarian within a couple of minutes.
  4. The library staffer’s computer screen tells exactly where in the bin the item is located and shows its barcode number.
  5. The staff person scans the barcode and takes the item to the nearby circulation desk, where the patron picks it up.
  6. When the item is returned to the circulation desk, a staffer scans the barcode again, which causes the ASRS to return the bin so the item can be replaced.

This process occurs hundreds of times every day. It completely solves the problem of missing books. It doesn’t matter whether the patron removes the item from the library for a couple of weeks or uses it in the library. Either it is in the bin or it is not, and the catalog reflects the current reality at any given moment.

It saves lots of staff time. It is no longer necessary to shelve books manually. Neither is the time-consuming and extremely tedious task of shelf-reading to find misshelved titles.

So far, it seems like the old closed stack libraries without the horrendous waits. What about the serendipity that comes from browsing the shelves? With a virtual bookshelf on the computer, it can be almost as good as physical browsing.

The virtual bookshelf shows books in call-number order. And it shows not only the physical books, but also the growing number of ebooks libraries own. It is even possible for the virtual bookshelf to display books held by other libraries that have book-sharing arrangements.

You no longer look inside a book on the shelf to see if it’s useful, but you can have it from the bin within five minutes. Not only that, but for most installations of ASRSs, you can go over and watch the robots in action. Cool!

Robot Visions (Library Journal)
How It Works: Underground Robot Library (Popular Science)
Miller Nichols Library and Learning Center Expansion and Renovation: About the Robot (University of Missouri at Kansas City)
Books Flowing into New NCSU Library’s Robotic Stacks (North Carolina State University)

Image credits:
Blue robot. Some rights reserved by Nemo.
Robot book fetcher. Some rights reserved by skyfallery.