Friday, April 30, 2010

iPad, iType, iSeek, iConsume, iLearn and iCreate

I'm two weeks into my ownership of the iPad, and, like many others, I have spent some time sitting back to reflect on this new device and what I've learned about it thus far and what it might mean for libraries.

I said in my first post about this device, that it is designed primarily for a new type of user, those focused on consuming content. I still believe this, but will note that I'm now more convinced that it also has a role in content creation.

As a content consumption device, it clearly excels. It offers a bright screen, entirely large enough for comfortable viewing of all types of media. It's easy to use and insulates one from the intricacies of the operating system and most programs. It simply works and works well.

I learned very early (say around the end of day one of my ownership) that having this device without the cover is to put oneself at a major disadvantage. Apple should really include these covers with the units, as the cost to do that for them would be quite marginal, I'm sure. Holding the unit without the case might provide esthetic enjoyment in seeing the usual excellent design of the device, but the unit feels a bit slippery because of its size and your concern that you don't want to drop it and crack the screen. The shell, by itself, really only provides you with edges by which to hold onto it. The case, while hiding the sleek case, provides a tractable surface that your fingers can easily grasp and puts you at ease in using the device.

There are other obvious benefits to the case, the first being that it allows you to tilt the unit when using the screen keyboard. This is very important if you are to have any chance of using it effectively. But I note that when I do this the continued need to hold your hands so that they hover over the screen keyboard convinced me that this method of entry is only good for Tweets, Facebook, and email. Content creation of a more substantial nature is best achieved by, as you'll see in the picture of my unit above, buying a Bluetooth keyboard and using that. Yes, it means carrying another device (and as one person said to me, now how is this different from having a Netbook?), but with it, you'll likely be able to leave your notebook behind in a high percentage of normal day-to-day mobile situations. Plus, when you are doing only short bursts of data entry, you can carry just the iPad sans keyboard and you’ll be just fine.

I’ll also note that interacting with the unit, particularly with a detached keyboard, does require learning some new skills. Since there isn't a mouse, many of the functions you performed with that device are now achieved by interacting directly with the screen. If you want to go back and edit the sentence you wrote, you tap the screen to place the cursor and then use the keyboard to edit. This is quickly learned and it’s not really burdensome; it's just different. More importantly, I suspect that it is highly indicative of a growing trend we'll see in computing where interaction through the screen will permanently eliminate external devices like the mouse and eventually even the keyboard. Particularly as voice recognition continues its continual march towards ease-of-use and accuracy.

Apps availability for the iPad is still largely based on the iPhone apps, which, while usable, do suffer noticeably when the screen resolution is doubled. However, a steady stream of new iPad specific (or both iPhone/iPad) apps are emerging, and it's clear that this new platform will offer some substantial enhancements in functionality and display capabilities. I've downloaded a number of additional apps beyond those I use on the iPhone, including GoodReader, ABC, Pages, Keynote and Numbers and, while many of these are early versions, it is clear they will offer much promise in later versions. The iBook store at this point only holds a faint candle to the offerings of Amazon's Kindle store. While I'm sure this will also change, I still find the Kindle largely superior for reading most newspapers and books because of the far superior annotation capabilities the Kindle offers. Again, this will likely change with further releases of the iPad software, but for now Kindle is still the clear winner, in my opinion, for e-books and e-newspapers.

So what does this mean for libraries? What I think the iPad has convinced me of is that we in libraries also have a new platform, a new content consumption and creation device, wrapped in a powerful new user-friendly computing environment. It will enable us to better serve information and knowledge seekers and creators. This won't happen without some creativity on our part in order to exploit this platform to its fullest. Doing so, however, will help many to see the relevance of our institutions in the new information landscape. How?

Obviously, devices like these make content all the more accessible, and, if we're talking about libraries, we're not just talking any content, we're talking quality content, placed in context—an important distinction that we don't market enough to both our current and future users. Discovery tools (like Primo) will obviously migrate to these platforms and that's an important step, but, once they get there, users will start looking for ways to also integrate them with other applications and data on the local platform, such as the PDF/DOC tools (GoodReader, iannotate or Papers) that allow you to load a personal library of materials for use on your iPad. If, from within those applications, we can build ways for users to click on citations in those bibliographies or footnotes and then link directly into the discovery tool to find and retrieve those documents from libraries and/or aggregate databases of scholarly articles (like Primo Central), we'll be empowering the user in new powerful ways. Other functions might allow the easy annotation, extraction (with appropriate footnotes) and the citation of those documents directly into the body of new papers being developed. Providing ways for researchers to build new papers and then to submit them to reviewers and automate that whole process could be another valuable extension that could easily be supported via these platforms. Once papers are created, making it possible to deposit it in repositories will help us to further the role of libraries in capturing and furthering knowledge.

So, after two weeks, what I believe we need to keep in mind is that this is a new device that is light, capable and will facilitate and accelerate our ability to help people find quality content, load it, annotate and atomize it, recombine it, enhance it and build extensions of existing knowledge in order to create new knowledge. It's early in the life cycle of this technology, but I'm very excited about the future I see for it and similar devices that will inevitably follow.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

ALA should speak for the profession with one inclusive voice when it comes to preservation

Most of us are painfully aware that librarians are facing a major problem today in dealing with digital preservation. Institutions around the world are beginning to grapple with the reality that digital content and digital records in any file format are more fragile than the equivalent items in the physical world. The research on this issue is ample and it’s conclusive including the just issued final report of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-Term Access to Digital Information, February 2010, which reports that “digital information is inherently fragile” and “…access to valuable digital materials tomorrow depends upon preservation actions taken today…”.

Most likely, many of us have personally heard the stories of important data or data sets lost or even experienced the problem ourselves of having some digital files in a format or on hardware we can no longer use. For instance, when I recently went to consolidate all my digital photos in a common repository, I found a large number of older photos were still resident on a PC that only had as output alternatives either an outdated dial-up connection (that is no longer in service) or a 3.5” diskette (a lot of good that is going to do me). Unfortunately, those photos remain captive to that machine for the moment.

This past week I received two ALA magazines both with information about preservation. One was the current issue of College and Research Libraries News which contains an excellent article on data curation by Sayeed Choudhury. In this article Sayeed talks about "data curation is a means to collect, organize, validate, and preserve data so that scientists can find new ways to address the grand research challenges that face society." It’s a powerful statement, and I was pleased to see this article talking about an important issue in digital preservation, especially in light of the next encounter I had with an ALA publication. I next opened up this month's American Libraries and I was momentarily surprised when I found a full-page ad (see above) proclaiming May 9-15th "Preservation Week".

I was hoping that ALA was really trying to take a leadership role in helping the profession deal with a critical problem underway today for all kinds of user communities, that of digital preservation.

I say “hoping” because upon inspection I quickly realized what ALA was primarily talking about with this ad was the preservation of analog items, not digital.

Digital preservation, the very issue so many of us are working so hard to raise awareness of, the opportunity that gives libraries a whole new chance to create demand for their services across their campus or community – that is not mentioned (or if it is, only after you do a lot of digging).

Now this is not to minimize the importance of analog preservation. But libraries have been doing this for many decades and have developed some considerable expertise in that area. However, the place we need to focus today is digital preservation. Doing so, be default, re-establishes libraries as experts in preservation of information. It offers us the opportunity to approach other departments across our campuses or communities and position our expertise as that of leaders in these matters. It allows us to say, “we offer services you need” and to show those that fund our libraries that our relevancy and return-on-investment is as great as ever, if not better.

The report mentioned above stated it this way: "When making the case for preservation, make the case for use… Trusted public institutions—libraries, archives, museums, professional organizations and others—can play important roles as proxy organizations to represent the demand of their stakeholders over generations."

That would be true. Provided our professional organizations responsible for speaking on behalf of libraries understand the enormity of the problem and speak with one clear, consistent voice so that the importance of the message is not confused or lost.

I think this ad represents a missed opportunity for the profession of librarianship.

Friday, April 9, 2010

We in libraries can learn some lessons from the iPad(TM)

Watching the debate over the new iPad(TM) is fascinating. Analyzing the discussions one quickly sees traditional viewpoints being expressed and applied to this new piece of technology. These take the form of:

“It’s a controlled environment. You can’t get into the guts, Apple makes all the choices for you.”
“It doesn’t replace anything. Why do I want to carry another device around?”
“I can’t figure out what I’m really going to do with it”
“It doesn’t have a very good keyboard.”
“It has bugs. WiFi doesn’t work reliably, there are problems with USB recharging, apps crash…”

These are understandably true from the point of view of those who say them. But at the base of all this, I see some rather predictable human behavior, i.e. that change doesn't come easy for any of us. When encountering something new, we take our human experience and try to apply it. So we take this new device and try to shoehorn it into a slot we know, something we understand and can easily classify. But I think in doing that, we miss the point of the iPad.

To me, the iPad represents brilliant marketing (no surprise, given it comes from Apple). It isn't trying to replace anything. At least not yet. It's opening up a new market. I strongly agree with those that say this device is primarily intended for the consumption of content and not nearly as much for those who create that content . (For instance, after doing the product comparisons, I just bought a new MacBook Air, because I like the portability factor, but I lean far more towards the content creation side).

One of my favorite marketers is Geoffrey Moore, author of “Crossing the Chasm”. He points out in his books that when you introduce a new product, many companies make the mistake of trying to make it appeal to a very broad audience. On the other hand, he points out, those organizations that are wildly successful understand that you need to identify a single type of customer and develop a product to meet 100 percent of their needs. You win the heart, soul and majority of those customers. Everything else is to be left aside until the market begins maturing and then you begin addressing those segments.

I think what Apple has done here is look at the market, the technology and obviously they're seeing the rapid growth in a broad range of digital content and they understand that people will want and need to consume that content. So they've built a device that is focused on allowing customers to do that exceedingly easy and well. It's a new market representing a new need and they've created a new device to address it. That's why it doesn't replace anything and that's why many don't yet understand what to do with it.

Will it eventually replace the laptop? Maybe, but not in the early versions and maybe never for those of us who actively create content. Can you modify the contents of the device? Not easily, but then that doesn't interest the pure consumer of content. They want a device, that works reliably, easily and well and that essentially becomes transparent in the act of their consuming content. Is it full of bugs? Of course, it's version one. Anybody who buys an iPad right now is going to help Apple perfect the device. That's the role of the early-adopter. Version two will be be much better and will allow it reach even more people thus will result in market expansion. Look at what has happened (and continues to happen) with the iPhone(tm).

Librarians should see this device as a natural extension of our libraries and for far more than just e-books. We house all types of content. Massive amounts of it. Making it easily accessible, usable and enjoyable on these type of devices will provide us access to what will clearly become a new market that is already reaching hundreds of thousands and what will ultimately be millions of users. We need to embrace this device and recognize the opportunity it affords us to put our libraries and all of their rich and diverse content in the hands of users.

The iPad is brilliant marketing in action. Look at trends. Look at emerging user needs to be addressed. Focus. Leverage what you know and have in order to create new demand for new tools and ways to address those needs. Make it happen.

Yes, we in libraries can learn some valuable lessons from what is happening with the iPad.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Time’s a-wasting – we need a new organization to articulate a new vision for libraries.

The recently announced “Research Libraries, Risk and Systemic Change” report is an interesting read.

For me, the report confirms what I’ve been feeling/saying about libraries and the value proposition they represent to users and those who fund them. It’s not good. This is reflected in its rating as a high-risk issue. The report also points out (page 9) that user satisfaction is linked to a lack of understanding of user needs. Nonetheless, the report ranks the issue itself only as medium-risk, and I would take some exception to this myself. But overall it’s clear that these institutions see and understand there is a real problem here that needs to be addressed. In the Risk Cluster Observations on page 12, it’s very interesting to note the observations recorded:
  • “Alternative service providers in the network are providing a more compelling research environment and support tools.
  • Our current value proposition can’t compete with the alternative service providers.
  • Our users have noticed this.
  • We’re continuing to rely on the old success metrics.
  • The university has now also noticed the disparity.
  • We haven’t yet responded (with an aligned strategic plan).
  • Our internal competitors for dollars are winning.
  • We can’t get other funders to help.”
That’s a depressing list. Of course the question is: what will be done about it? We'll get back to that in a moment.

I was also alarmed that the issue of “digital content being lost as a result of it not being properly managed and preserved” is only considered a medium-risk issue. I can only assume that this means when the issue is seen as of minimal importance when placed in the context of ALL the other issues we have to deal with in these challenging times. Given the fact that the average ARL institutions is buying $6M worth of digital content every year, not to mention all the digital content and research data being created locally, I have to say this indicates to me a continuing need for education about the risks involved in preserving digital content for future access. The fact that it is considered a “medium-risk” issue means it will become a critical risk if we don’t get in front of this problem.

The section on “Strategies for Mitigation” is where the report starts to address how to deal with these and the many other issues identified in the report, but it seems to me that it too quickly steps into the nuts-and-bolts of the solution without first identifying how to deal with the far more critical issue: developing an aligned strategic plan. We have limited resources, as this report points out in several places. We have numerous competing priorities. We have complicated funding scenarios, often tied to extremely narrow objectives. Until we can articulate an overall plan wherein we focus those resources, objectives and funds, anything we do is going to be diffused and further debilitating to our overall success.

Finally, in the “Epilogue” the report identifies the most critical issue (page 19):
In the absence of organizations within the U.S. library community that can address strategy, operational requirements and implement change on a system-wide basis, some bolder institutions are implementing action plans at the local or regional level fueled by the fiscal imperatives of the current dire economic times.”
It continues:
“This is heartening but likely to be inadequate. Most institutions continue to direct resources in traditional ways towards operations that are marginal to institutional and national research priorities, towards processes and services that are ignored or undervalued by their clients and towards staff activities that are driven more by legacy professional concerns than user needs. To properly respond to the risks identified here, research libraries need to come together around an action agenda aimed at improvement of the research enterprise they serve. Incremental revision of traditional operational models will only hasten the movement of important new research services to other entities within the academy, leaving the library with only the vestigial values of its book- determined legacy.”
That’s a very powerful couple of paragraphs. Can we do this just as suggested? I personally think we need a new organization to do it. ALA is apparently too large and too bureaucratic and thus unable to do this, although many would argue it should. OCLC could have a role here, but it’s continued multiple personality existence (are they a vendor, are they a competitor, are they a cooperative, are they a partner, are they a collaborator or are they all?) hinders their ability to effectively meet this need because they can't bring together all the necessary people and organizations that will need to play a role here. This is a big, complex task and will need resources, structure and considerable focus. Yet, somehow it must happen.

Time’s a-wasting. The profession needs to find a way to deal with this problem. Soon.