Welcome to this fortnight’s links!
Welcome to this fortnight’s links!
[One of my goals for 2012 is to update here on average weekly. We’ll see how that goes, but I think I’ve finally sorted out some of my practical issues to make it easier.]
First: I am all confirmed (payment and all) for the Library Technology Conference in St. Paul, MN March 14th-15th. (I am combining a week’s trip to see people in Minnesota with this conference – which is an awesome fit for my new job – plus a chance to see various Minnesota friends, and the chance to be at something I helped found the following weekend.)
Registration’s closed (they hit their cap: part of why I liked it when I went in 2009 was that I do much better in a conference of 500 people than one of thousands.) But if you’re going to be there, I’d love to meet both people I know and people I don’t know yet.
On to the meat of the post: I thought it might amuse people to have a day in the life. Or rather, two.
I’ve spent a very cheerful weekend being very happy where I am. Which makes it a good time to talk about why I love it here.
I took two days off work this week, partly because there were online things I wanted to be around for that I knew would run late into the night. And because it gave me time to do some other things around home that I’d wanted. (Lots of thinking about what I want to do with music and writing projects this coming year, and some cooking, among other things.)
But it’s also been good for another reason. When I was thinking about taking this job, one of the things I thought about was the question of “Do I really want to live in rural Maine?” The answer, five months later, is a resounding “Yes!”
Now, mind, access to a reasonable ‘Net connection helps here. I’m not sure I’d have been quite as confident about it ten years ago, or even five. But right now? I spent a lot of the night of the 21st chatting with a dear friend currently doing research in Japan, and have been chatting on and off all weekend with other friends.
It’s not quite the same as hanging out in their living rooms, but it’s still pretty awesome. And next weekend, I’ll drive down to Boston, and see my mother and various friends. I don’t feel isolated at all, and in fact, my social life is a lot more to my taste in some ways than it was in Minneapolis. (I get lots of downtime during the week, with excursions when I want rather than feeling like there’s several things I’d really like to be at most nights, and then guilty that I’m not at any of them.)
I love the part where everything here is nearby, and easy. My commute to work is under 5 minutes, and if I walk, it’s 10. I ran two different errands over lunch on Wednesday, because things are just that close together. I can walk down to one of the grocery stores, and did on Saturday. And while I’m still figuring out how I want to pick up more local interests and activities, I’m really happy in a fundamentally contented sort of way.
It’s a very good fit for how I want to live my life. And I can’t begin to talk about the variety and range of locally produced foods, given the climate. (And when I want things that aren’t handy here – there’s a pleasant drive through stunningly gorgeous countryside to get to it. Or Amazon Prime, which is surprisingly handy for household needs that I can’t do easily locally.)
But a lot of people dismiss rural areas. Or flyover country, including Minnesota. Which always makes me blink. (Did you know that the Twin Cities has more theatre seats per capita than anywhere else in the US besides New York City? Yeah. Most people don’t.)
My mother and sister were talking on Facebook about a recent Atlantic article about Iowa City, a place they both have a very strong attachment to: my father taught at the University of Iowa for 10 years at the beginning of his career, and my brother and sister were born there. [Interesting responses here, here, and here, by the way, especially the last one.]
And reading it, I can see why they’re irked. Particularly the bits about homogeneity.
I’ve actually been impressed and amazed by the range of people I get to interact with here. No, there’s not as much ethnic diversity as other places I’ve lived – but there’s a huge range of stories and interests and backgrounds. My campus has a big commitment to being a resource for the larger community, not just the university, and every time I sit down to help someone for more than a minute or two, there’s another story, another chance to learn something. (And definitely a chance to make someone’s life better: I love that part.)
There’s no doubt that there are hard things about living in rural America, in all sorts of ways. But I also see, all around me (and on trips to Iowa, and to rural Minnesota, and all sorts of other places) that there’s a great deal of good and complexity and depth that gets overlooked all too often. This world isn’t simple – and that’s as true here as in a large city. And here, in some ways, it’s easier to see.
And that’s something that’s rather core to why I love my job: digging in below the surface, figuring out why things connect the ways they do, how to follow the thread of information and inspiration from one place to another.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why it’s so important to figure out how to manage our digital lives more thoughtfully – and it’s been highlighted by two different job applications that came up recently (one for a school that’s very thoughtful about screen time, and another where I was talking in my cover letter about how I tie my love of the library and my love of technology together.)
Now, before we go any further, it’s probably obvious that I’m a passionate reader of books. I can count on the finger of both hands the number of times I’ve gone to sleep without reading for at least a few minutes. I read widely and deeply and broadly, in a rainbow of genres.
And I think, the same way, that there are lots of things that are part of our traditional images of libraries and learning that still matter – doing sustained reading, larger research projects, presentations, all those things. But I don’t think that’s enough.
When I’m talking about technology in either an educational or technology setting, I see books as one tool, but not the only one, and maybe not the major one. The larger question is something different: it’s not about simply how to use the tool, but about what the tool can and can’t do for us.
Which brings us to the Internet:
I’ve been online since 1994, when I first got to college. In that time, I’ve made friends, gotten frustrated, planned projects, taught classes (including teaching music theory in a pure-text environment, which was an interesting trick!), learned leadership skills, taught myself about any number of things. And that’s before we get into any of my actual professional or formal educational work – all those things are just the things I did on my own, self-directed, because they were interesting.
Every major news story in the past 15 years, I learned about online before I heard about it from TV or radio news. (There’s one exception: I learned about the 35W bridge collapse while sitting in the computer lab at grad school working on an assignment, as someone walked in having just heard it on the radio before the online stories were up – but I would have seen an online story through my usual haunts inside of five minutes.)
The Internet has kept me in touch with friends – that’s the thing everyone knows it’s good for, especially in our current Facebook era. But it’s more than that: it’s making new connections.
In a job hunt where I’m being very geographically flexible, I’ve found time and time again that if I say “Hey, looking at a job in [wherever]” someone I’m linked to through my personal online accounts will know useful things about the area, or is glad to put me in touch with someone who’s just as glad to share. Or they’ll know someone who graduated from there. Or something else that lets me dig more deeply into what’d be like to live and work in that place. (And it’s been true even for places where I would have sworn it’d be unlikely.)
As someone who did a major cross-country move in 1999, when these tools weren’t nearly so wide spread, I’m delighted by that every time.
And it’s in making other connections – running into someone in a discussion in a forum about our shared religion, and discovering we’ve got academic and professional interests in common. Learning about someone through their hobby, and finding out they write great and passionate and amazing blog posts about another topic that I happen to be helping someone with. And much more.
But it’s also in my professional life.
One of the stories I tell about the power of the Internet goes like this. In the fall of 2009, a student – someone I knew was a brillant, engaged, amazing student – came to me looking for some reference help.
She was taking AP European History, and she wanted to argue, for one of her papers, that you couldn’t consider an era truly ‘modern’ until it had consideration for the role of women and minorities in the culture. (Not that they’d solved the problems – but that they were part of general public conversation and political discourse.) She needed some sources to support her argument.
I looked at that, went “Hey, great topic.” and she and I sat down to do some digging on it. We tried a lot of different approaches, but we kept not finding the right thing. She had to go to class after about 20 minutes so I promised I’d keep working, and I did about another 25 minutes (and brainstormed with my assistant, and tried a few other things) before deciding I needed a different approach.
I posted a request to my personal journal, basically saying “I know various of you have a particular interest in women’s history and diversity studies – any ideas?” and with a few notes about what was accessible in a useful timeframe.
I posted it at 10:55. By 11:15, I had a response with the perfect essay to solve the source problem. (In an older but classic collection that the library owned, even!) Within another hour, I’d had a couple more suggestions, and another reference to the same title’s usefulness.
Now, I could have spent hours poking at that – and likely have found the book, but only after skimming through other titles that might be relevant first (and not having time to spend on other good and useful things that were good for other students, the library, etc.).
With the shared knowledge of my friends, it was a much faster process, and I could get back to a busy and highly engaged student at lunch, and say “Hey, here’s this great book, and here’s some other suggestions, and now that I’ve got those classic articles, here’s a couple more ideas of things to try in JSTOR and other databases.” She thought it was pretty awesome, too.
This is – again – one of those things we’re not really teaching, as technology education professionals.
It’s not just about the tools, and how to use them.
It’s about how we choose to use them, and what we can do in small pieces, now and going forward, that build those connections and create those interactions, so that ‘news’ is not a thing we listen to at 6pm, but a thing that’s flowing around us throughout the day, or that research is not just something we ask a librarian (though there are lots of times that’s a good thing to do) but where we’ve got connections to friends with a wide range of expertise and knowledge in many places.
That’s not easy. For one thing, learning how to sort out all those different sources of information, and figure out which ones are useful or reliable or meaningful gets pretty complicated. But at the same time, can we afford not to have these skills?
And perhaps most importantly, it’s about how we dance with the technology in our lives, in this time of ‘always on’ access. What happens when we turn off the phone, or take a break from the screen? What happens when we want time for focused work, or extended play? How do we recognise our own personal temptations, and find ways to manage them? There are lots of good conversations about these things out there already – but we can use more.
The more I think about this, the more I think that it’s probably the essential question schools need to answer in the next decade or so – and particularly, how to help students for whom various parts of this (creating healthy, balanced connections with others, having access to technology tools but not living under their control, being comfortable with complexity and issues that don’t have easy answers, and much more) doesn’t come naturally.