Tag Archives: technology

A Month in the Life of an Outreach Librarian

When I tell people that I’m a librarian, I can practically see the many stereotypical images that come to their mind in terms of what my day-to-day duties involve (and no, librarians do not get to sit around reading all day). I like to quickly dispel those stereotypes by describing all the fantastic projects that I get to be a part of thanks to my job at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, in my role of bringing a variety of services and learning opportunities to the residents of the city.

These were just some of the things that I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to do this past month alone:



I know, I know – I’ve just blown your mind! So next time you meet a librarian, you may look at us with a different image in mind – not one of someone dusting off old books, but maybe with a soldering iron in hand instead!

Maria J. –  “jack of all trades” librarian


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Hello Hal.


Image: Shimi Cohen, from “The Innovation of Loneliness”


This is a post about panic. And technology. And being connected, over-connected, and disconnected. And resolutions. And living in the present (well, trying to live in the present).

I was fortunate enough to spend 10 days riding my bike in the Florida Keys (for the second time!) This time I was determined to be totally present and not succumb to the desire to document every moment. I wasn’t checking my email, I wasn’t on Facebook (much), I wasn’t texting…I thought I was doing great.

Until I camped on the deserted island.

Dry Tortugas National Park is a 100-square mile park in the Gulf of Mexico, almost 70 miles west of Key West (it’s mostly water). It’s home to Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fort in the United States and is accessible only by boat or seaplane. That is to say: There’s no cell service.

The island is beautiful. The fort has an actual moat with an actual crocodile. The water is turquoise, cobalt, indigo, cerulean, azure.  There were less than ten people camping on the island that night.

What an unbelievable privilege.

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Yet, as soon as the boat left at 3pm, I panicked. What was I going to do on this island for 24 hours? I had good friends, a good book, a bathing suit, a bottle of whiskey, and I was surrounded by breathtaking scenery, yet I was genuinely panicked at being disconnected.

So I took a nap.

I woke up around twilight. I walked around the moat while the sun was setting.  The 140-year old bricks were lavender in the filtered light, the water looked like glass, and I was alone.  I resisted the urge to record. Instead I reveled in the quiet. I walked over two miles in the dimming light and let myself be completely in the moment.  It is one of the best memories of my life.

There are no photographs.

I went back to camp and drank a bottle of whiskey with people I love IRL. I experienced relentless howling wind and wet socks and a huge bright moon and swimming on my own private beach and poking at hermit crabs and crocodile hunting: all without Facebook or Instagram or email or endless text messages.

I want to resolve to have more moments like that in 2015. When I ride my bike or read or simply daydream, my phone is going to be somewhere else. I’m no longer available 24 hours a day. I’m done with technology making me feel lonely and disconnected.

I’m not the only one. Read more here. Read this book, it’s good. Watch this video, too.

And at least put your d**m phone away while you eat dinner.




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Type L For Live

At least once a year, I take down a certain book and read it through, though I know it well enough that I can start from any point. And then, if I can, I give it away. The gap in my bookshelf makes me happy; it feels right to pass along this book. But it comes with a sense of regret, too, and not a little awe. I don’t think anyone will write anything like William Horwood‘s Skallagrigg again.

Published in 1987, it seems both timeless and brave as a product of its time; Horwood’s winding prose is gentle, but spares you nothing. It begins in 1927 with Arthur, a boy with cerebral palsy abandoned in a squalid institution, where he loses even his name. He begins to tell his fellow patients of the Skallagrigg, a mysterious figure who he prays will take him home–over a fence and into a field of poppies, where someday he will run. Skallagrigg becomes a legend among the patients, a protector amid neglect and brutality. For years, disabled people pass down Skallagrigg stories all over England–with eyes, feet, symbols, speech–until Arthur becomes legendary too.

In the 1970s onward, the stories reach Esther Marquand. Privileged, clever, and contrary, she too is tangled in her body. She’s not always likable, but she is appealing. With more to say than she’s able, Esther reveals the workings of her mind in subtle ways. Every twist of a limb matters; every “Nah” or “Yeh” has an inflection. Emerging technology reveals her quick reasoning as well as foreshadows the freedom computers would bring to many disabled people. When Esther scans the letter grid of a Possum typewriter or chords Speedwords on a Microwriter-esque keyboard, you’re in her head where time passes in letters per minute, then words; you know exactly how much effort it takes her to communicate, and how elegant numbers and logic can be. Esther begins to believe the Skallagrigg stories are real, programming them into a labyrinthine interactive fiction game as she searches for the only person who knows who or what the Skallagrigg is. Along the way, she leaves an “Easter egg” especially for our narrator, who’s telling the story against Esther’s father’s wishes in 2019.

None of this does it justice; I don’t think I can. It’s a hell of a quest novel, where the mazes are library stacks and hospital corridors, and the battles are spiritual and personal as well as physical. Today it’s also a little bit of nostalgia for people who remember things like BASIC, Pong, and such vexing lines as “You are in a twisty little maze of passages, all different.” But if that were all, it wouldn’t have become its own Skallagrigg story. Out of print (but available through WorldCat), it circulates now through word of mouth and gifts of secondhand copies. Often the recipient is another disabled person, but always it’s only someone who would understand.

Skallagrigg is an epic act of empathy; I haven’t read anything so broad and painstakingly detailed before or since. This is worldbuilding–but what Horwood recreates is the everyday history, language, love stories and struggles of people like his own daughter as well as himself. His daughter has CP; the novel was partly his coming to terms with their relationship. But Esther’s is not the only quest, nor the only disability. Here, disability is also loneliness and estrangement and the inability to help the people we love. There is an ache throughout this book, and we follow the thoughts of each character as they slowly make their way to the people who might ease it.

Horwood returns often to the characters’ relationships, sometimes mentioning each with their complement in a refrain, as if they’re dancing. Relationships are everything in this novel, their mutual exchange and dialogue essential for the characters’ survival. In their bonds I find an apt line of poetry attributed to Roy Croft: “I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I am with you.”

Disabled people may be rooted in their bodies, but the spirit of disability is also fluid–shaped by whom you’re with and where you are. Some people drag down hard at your bones and render you helpless, strangling your voice worse than disability could by shouting over your words until hopelessness and tension make you mute. With others, your limbs ease and you can breathe and participate and laugh. Expansive and forgiving, granting the whole human spectrum of emotion to mutually imperfect minds, Skallagrigg is a testament to the people who help you over barriers when you’re bruised and scraped against them–who give you glimpses of poppies and the sky between the trees.

It’s an intense and sometimes dramatic read, but it is also fiercely beautiful. The effect of reading the characters’ journeys in such exhaustive detail is greater than the sum of its parts, generating an amazement that’s distinct from the book itself–a mix of peace and joy and sadness and rightness so deep it’s almost a presence. The Skallagrigg, perhaps.

photo of bright orange poppies, taken by Rebecca O'Connell

Bright orange poppies, taken by Rebecca O’Connell. All rights reserved.

Related reading:

Under the Eye of the Clock, by Christopher Nolan

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney, et. al.

Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper

Petey, by Ben Mikaelsen

William Horwood’s site

–Amy R.




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Ghosts of Futures Past

I grew up with two older brothers, and so was subjected to an almost constant stream of action movies in my childhood. I don’t want to give my age away, but most of that childhood took place in the 1980s, the heyday of Schwarzenegger and many fine John Carpenter films.

I hadn’t seen most of these action movies in years, and decided it might be time to revisit some of these childhood gems. A few things that surprised me during my reviewings: 1) I probably shouldn’t have been watching any of these movies as a child, 2) 48 Hours is a legitimately good movie, but full of some very colorful language, so thankfully, 3) I had remembered almost nothing about these movies, and 4) the future has arrived, and it looks nothing like we thought it would in 1985.

Dystopian films of the 1980s such as Mad Max, Scanners, Blade Runner, Terminator and Robocop all feature charmingly out-of-date technologies. I recently re-watched Total Recall and Escape From New York and made a few stray observations about the technologies of “the future.”

Yes, although there has been a lot of talk in the news recently of self-driving cars, back in Total Recall’s future, cabs were populated by creepy Johnny Cab robots. I’d take no driver over a driver that looks like a murderous ventriloquist’s dummy any day.

Also, according to Total Recall, the phones of the future are really crummy, the video interface is always fading in and out, and there is nary a cell phone in sight.

from the site: imdb.com

from the site: imdb.com

John Carpenter’s Escape from New York came out in 1982, but takes place in 1997. Kurt Russell plays the renegade Snake Plissken who is sent into New York (now a penal colony) to save the president. Luckily he has this snazzy digital map to help him:

from the site: cracked.com

from the site: cracked.com

Google maps it is not.

from the site: cracked.com

from the site: cracked.com

Another thing this movie failed to anticipate—rather than New York turning into a crime-ridden waste land, it has turned into the family friendly outdoor mall we know today:

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed re-watching both of these fine films. How about you? Do you have any favorite action or science fiction movies from your childhood? Any favorite bits of outdated technology?


PS – Rumor has it that they’re planning a remake of Escape, and anachronistic technology or not, I am not happy about this.

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Something is Rotten, and it isn’t in Denmark

It’s much closer to home amongst us at the library and with you the reader.  To be more precise, with you the eBook reader.  Not to worry though: this isn’t anything either of us did – it’s the way things currently are.  I’ll elaborate shortly, but first a little background.

When Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh buys books (the original paper ones), it’s a pretty straightforward process.  We select titles based on several criteria, determine how many copies are needed, and place our order. Given our size and the volume of materials we purchase, process, catalog and distribute, we aren’t buying retail.  We don’t do this at Barnes & Noble, on Amazon or at Half-Priced Books. We buy from wholesale book distributors called jobbers.  We have a preferred hierarchy based on pricing and service models, and can purchase pretty much anything in print — regardless of publisher. Remember that last line — regardless of publisher.  The books (or journals, magazines, microfilm) arrive and are physically owned and stored by the library, and used by you the user.  We all usually know where they are or how to find them. They are as real as . . . go ahead and pick a cliche.

EBooks aren’t such a straightforward proposition. Much of the selection process is the same, matching need and potential need with titles, subjects and appropriate numbers of copies.  Beyond that though, eBooks become more complicated. There are format considerations, staff training requirements, privacy concerns, and questions about ownership. (Are they really ours if we don’t physically have them?)  And finally the rotten aspect — the blatant, deliberate, and unwarranted discrimination practiced against public libraries based on incorrect assumptions in the name of an unknown or undeveloped business model.

What do I mean? Remember my tag line in the paragraph before last — regardless of publisher?  Well, in the eBook world it doesn’t work like that. Look at the following list, and see if you think it makes sense.

  • Simon & Schuster and Macmillan outright do not “sell” or license ebook content for distribution to public libraries.  Neither does Hachette.
  • Harper Collins will, but only for a lifespan of 26 circulations,  a bibliographic actuarial assessment they pulled out of their. . . ears.
  • On November 19th Penguin had been selling ebooks through Overdrive to public libraries in several formats including Kindle.
  • On November 21st Overdrive (a digital distributor of eBooks, audiobooks, music, and video) informed its public library customers that Penguin was suspending sales to public libraries of new titles in eBook format, AND was going to retract the Kindle format from titles previously purchased.
  • On November 23rd Penguin relented and restored the Kindle format to previously purchased titles, but announced that new titles would not be available to public libraries.
  • Not all titles available in Kindle format at Amazon are available for purchase by public libraries. I haven’t been able to determine if that’s a specific publisher issue, or if Amazon regulates the number of Kindle compatible titles that are made available.

This isn’t supposed to be entirely about Amazon and my intention isn’t to paint them as the bad guy. The reality though, is Amazon’s proprietary Kindle format is to eBooks what Windows and Microsoft were to operating systems in the 90s — the dominant or preferred emerging format. We’re still in the infant stages of the eBook as a practical and popular format/medium.  Amazon’s licensing of the Kindle format for use by public libraries has ignited eBook use, leading to multifold increases (by percentage) of eBook circulation, and real increases in eBook’s share of circulation relative to all library circulation, a trend that seemed unstoppable just two months ago. I’m no exception. I thoroughly enjoy my Kindle, reading both borrowed eBooks from the library and buying others from Amazon. I believe these publishers mistakenly assume one use precludes the other, that they’re mutually exclusive.  I have to tell them, that assumption is a mistake.

But now? I’m not so sure the upward curve will be what it might have been. We the libraries and you the library user are more than a little marginalized as authors, publishers and distributors/vendors try to determine how they can make a profit (not a bad word IMHO,) or even just an income in a non-traditional marketplace. For them, it may be a brave, or fearful, new world; for us, it just stinks.

— Richard


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Oh No! I Forgot My Cell Phone!

Can you hear the panic in the voice emitting this exclamation? This was me yesterday. And I have to admit that my first thoughts centered on how to get my phone back to where I was at any cost. But as I realized how unrealistic it would be to backtrack and retrieve this “necessity,” I started to review what exactly I was going to need my phone for on that particular day.  As it turned out, the answer was not a single thing. When I was completely honest with myself, I didn’t “need” that phone at all. I made it through the day, that night and some of the next day without my electronic sidekick and the world didn’t end. I may have missed a text or a phone call, but they were nothing that couldn’t wait.

So this has led me to start thinking. Do we really need all of the gadgets we have become addicted to? Are they really good for us? Are they a necessary evil? Or are they mostly for fun? If exploring this line of thinking along with me is something you’d like to pursue, the library has these to offer as food for thought:

Book cover for DisconnectDisconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family by Devra Davis – Scary, right? Ms. Davis was the founding director of the toxicology and environmental studies board at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. In this chilling book, she cites the research done on the effects of cell phone radiation on the brain, especially children’s developing brains, and exposes the regulatory process that does not allow health experts to participate in cell phone policy decision making. This book is a far cry from scientific extremism though; it is fairly presented and once presented with the facts, you are allowed to draw your own conclusions.

Book cover for 24-724/7: How Cell Phones and the Internet Change the Way We Live, Work, and Play by Jarice Hanson – Yes, we can be in contact with everyone all the time: friends, family, and work. But should we be? This book also examines the ways users of different generations integrate technology into their lives, as well as the way that these gadgets affect our psyche, the way we perceive ourselves and others.

Book cover for CellphoneThe Cellphone: The History and Technology of the Gadget That Changed the World by Guy Klemens – Everything you ever wanted to know and more about mobile telephone devices, from those shoebox sized monsters of the 1980’s to the do-it-all gadgets of today with dimensions no bigger than a credit card.

Book cover for You Can Hear me NowYou Can Hear Me Now: How Microloans and Cell Phones Are Connecting the World’s Poor to the Global Economy by Nicholas P. Sullivan – A more positive look at the exponential rise in the use of cell phones, this is the story of how microloans were used in Bangladesh to help those in poverty stricken areas start cell phone leasing businesses. This effective business model has been replicated in other underdeveloped areas with equal success.

And one from the fiction world (or is it?):

Book cover for CellCell by Stephen King – A simultaneous pulse transmitted through every cell phone in the world turns all who listened into killing machines. Makes you stop and think about how much you really need that phone…

-Melissa M.

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Library Reflections

“Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library.  The only entrance requirement is interest.”

Lady Bird Johnson

With all the attention libraries have received in recent months, I have been thinking back on decades behind the reference desk.  I arrived at a time when paper books were the norm.  Many of the books we used to answer people’s questions didn’t even have indexes, so we perused their contents page by page.  Experienced staff laboriously created and maintained homemade records, clipping, indexing, and filing, while passing on wisdom orally to younger generations. Smaller libraries, with limited collections, had to call even to find out if we had a particular title on the shelf.

The internet, of course, has changed the very nature of the reference process. People are able to do more basic research at home–including students with full-text access to many magazine articles. As in the past, reliability of resources must be considered and librarians are turned to for help in answering more complex problems, or for recommendations.

Today, as more and more experienced librarians retire, we are encouraged that a new generation of energetic, technically-minded and enthusiastic young people are choosing the profession.  One day, in the all-too-near future, I shall walk out the door for the last time to begin the final phase of my life.  When that happens, I shall take with me the memory of many fine co-workers over the decades and an amazement at the human mind’s endless questioning and desire to know.

To quote Samuel Johnson, “Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind.”


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Technology Playground

Leigh Anne mentioned this recently, but I couldn’t resist adding my own little reminder about the library’s Technology Playground event that’s happening this Saturday, April 25.  It’s an all-ages “tour” of some of the different technology-based things that CLP has to offer.  At different stations throughout the library you can try out the Wii, learn about chat reference, find out more about Web 2.0, download eBooks, or explore the Pennsylvania Department’s geneaology databases.  Between 1:00 and 4:00 there will be 10 stations where you can try out some of the less traditional services that we offer.  Stop by three stations and you’ll get entered into a drawing to win a gift-card for Best Buy!


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