Category Archives: Op/Ed

My Personal Debt to Steve Jobs

I was writing a post about the iPhone when the news of the death of Steve Jobs came across my Google+ stream. Only a minute later my phone started humming with the plethora of texts that are still coming in as I write this.

Jobs touched so many people. In the coming days and weeks, as we watch and read the flood of stories that will be authored, we’ll see many people telling us just how deeply they admired and loved Steve Jobs. He was brilliant, daring, and truly visionary. But I want to share one story of why I came to feel that I owed Steve Jobs a very personal debt of thanks.

I’ve used an Apple iPhone ever since, in early 2008, I was given one by a dear friend after my father died. It didn’t take me long to realize the power of that device. One year later my mother would be diagnosed with cancer and she would begin a long and desperate battle. She chose to take treatment several hundred miles away from home because she wanted her to have the best care that she could get.

It was a lonely battle. She had only two family members close to her on a day-to-day basis, and most of her family, including her grandchildren and me, were far away. We talked to her as often as we could, but she was often too weak to talk to all the people who were calling. In the years leading up to her cancer, my mother had cultivated a rather lengthy list of email friends, many going back to her high school days from the 1950s. So, when she found herself far from her computer and trapped in bed because of the debilitating chemotherapy treatments, she quickly lapsed into a depression caused, in no small part, by her isolation.

Then, on January 27, 2010, Steve Jobs stepped onto a stage in San Francisco and announced the iPad. Critics called it an over-sized iPod Touch, but they were so mistaken. I immediately saw the potential, and placed my order.

We flew my mother home during a break between different courses of treatment. It was May, and her grand-kids and I had a special mother’s day present waiting for her — an iPad 3G. At first, she did not really know what it was other than a very small computer. But it only took five minutes for her to discover how to use her fingers to swipe between the email app that would connect her to family and friends, the Kindle app that would allow her to continue reading, and the web browser that would connect her to the outside world.

My mother would die six months later. It is not an overstatement to say that the iPad liberated her. The iPad allowed her to rejoin her world of friends, family, reading, and so much more. She even watched religious services on that iPad. She took it with her to her chemo treatments, and it kept her company on the long car rides and airplane rides she would endure over those last few months.

So that is why I will forever feel a debt of gratitude to Steve Jobs. His vision, and the reality of his iPad, freed my mother from solitude and, in her darkest hours, gave her the means to connect with family and friends, and so much more.

Guy Kawasaki on Triangulation

“Facebook is a family reunion and Google+ is a party.”

Interesting interview with former Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki. He’s also the author of Enchantment. Guy has an interesting take on the sense of entitlement some people feel towards internet giants like Facebook and Google. His ideas and opinions are always intelligent, unique, and often quite accurate.

Transparency and Relevancy

The Pew Internet & American Life Project is a wonderful resource. They have provided libraries, and many others, with a wealth of quality research over the years. Their latest report (How the Public Perceives Community Information Systems, 3/1/11) focuses on transparency in governance, but it also brought to mind the issue of relevance — both are topics of importance for public libraries.

Transparency

Surveys… show that those who believe city hall is forthcoming are more likely than others to feel good about: the overall quality of their community; the ability of the entire information environment of their community to give them the information that matters; the overall performance of their local government; and the performance of all manner of civic and journalistic institutions ranging from the fire department to the libraries to the local newspaper and TV stations.


In addition, government transparency is associated with residents’ personal feelings of empowerment: Those who think their government shares information well are more likely to say that average citizens can have an impact on government.

This report points out what many have felt to be conventional wisdom, namely that transparency in government leads to greater trust, greater participation, and greater feelings of involvement and empowerment. But this latest report seems to knock gently on a door that should really be pounded upon. Transparency isn’t an aesthetic add-on to today’s successful government, it’s becoming a core expectation of the governed.

Transparency in governance is one of the most important ingredients in the continued health and success of democracy. This importance isn’t limited to the various branches of federal and state governments — it extends to every publicly funded organization, including public libraries (corporate transparency is a different subject altogether).

The recent economic downturn and the resulting government budget woes have put public libraries in what may be their most precarious position in almost a century. Budget cuts and increased criticism of all varieties of government spending have put many public libraries on the defensive, having to cut staff, materials, hours and services.

The Pew report is clear when it says, “those who think local government does well in sharing information are also more likely to be satisfied with other parts of civic life… Citizens who believed that their government was forthcoming about its activities were more likely than others to feel better about… the performance of all manner of civic and journalistic institutions ranging from the fire department to the libraries…”

Clearly then, public libraries want to be as transparent as possible in their operations. It also stands to reason that this “reward” for transparency flows not only from the taxpayer, but also from the funding agencies. Making both constituencies happy should be a priority.

Relevancy

The Pew report touches on relevancy when they examine the relationship between broadband internet access and lower perceptions of community life.

It is not clear in these surveys why broadband connections are correlated with lower perceptions of community life and local information systems. Perhaps, as some people take advantage of broadband connections they become exposed to more critical information about local government and organizations and they become more aware of information and conversations about community problems. Perhaps, too, broadband users’ expectations are higher about the availability of information and the ease of finding it – so, they would give lower performance grades if the local information system did not meet those higher expectations.

This relationship between access and expectations should not surprise anyone. Those with access to an expanding wealth information set their standards accordingly. We, as librarians, have been witnessing this for over a decade. As our users gain high-speed connectivity, adopt the tools for audio and eBook downloads, shift their primary computing to mobile platforms, and learn to navigate the many online information sources (whether accurate or only slightly so), we as librarians need to advance with them in order to remain relevant in their lives.

This past holiday season’s spike in eBook demand is a clear example of user expectations outpacing the library’s ability to remain ahead of demand. Library users expect their local library to have plenty of eBooks available for download — they are not interested in DRM issues or the perverse licensing schemes of eBook publishers. Our users simply want to load their new eBook readers with the same titles they’ve been checking out in print form.

As mobile devices supplant desktop and laptop computers as the public’s primary computing platforms, the expectation is that their library’s online offerings will be available on those devices in a usable format. But the list extends far beyond eBook readers and iPhones and Android phones — it extends to information.

The relationship between cost and quality has always been a difficult one for librarians. As our users gain greater access to information, they balance the quality of the information at hand with the cost of seeking better answers elsewhere, such as at the library. Many will conclude that the information they have is just as good, or almost as good, as the information they would get if they reach out to a librarian.

This poses many questions for librarians, such as how to market our skills to a broader audience, how to reach that broader audience, and what type of information will public librarians still hold a relative monopoly on. The answer to the last question isn’t simply “good information”. The quality of the information is defined by the questioner, and it is subject to the cost versus quality calculus.

I’m sure the authors of the Pew report didn’t have all of these things in mind when conducting their survey, but the results lend themselves to this exploration. Transparency and relevancy are two keys to the successful growth of public libraries.

We need to have, and know how to use, the tools our community uses. We need to have and deliver the information they need. And it is not as simple as saying that we will have the tools and the information. We must know what those tools are early enough that we can prepare, budget and train. We must know what information they need so that we have it and can deliver it. These are difficult expectations, and they pose serious questions regarding of the future of public libraries.


Questions regarding this opinion essay and suggestions for future topics are welcomed in the comments area.

My Wish List for the Apple Tablet

New product announcements usually don't get my attention, but tomorrow's pending tablet announcement by Apple has me clearing my schedule to watch Steve Jobs unveil his new tablet. The hype has grown so big that people who don't usually care about technology announcements have been asking me what I think will be released. Many, many sites have been discussing the new Tablet, and the latest roundup of rumors is here at MacRumors.

I have no idea what the new Tablet will contain. There have been a lot of rumors but few definites, though this exec at McGraw-Hill may be looking for a new job if he really did reveal insider information. Instead, let me list a few things I would like the Tablet to contain if I were in charge of its development.

  • Strike a deal with Amazon. Let there be three tiers of content delivery. The standard Kindle would deliver books, and that's it. At under $300 it does an excellent job at doing what it is designed to do. The Kindle DX would deliver text book and journal/magazine/newspaper content at the $500 price point. Its primary market would be academic. The new Apple Tablet would merge video/television into the mix, while giving the option to view magazines and newspapers, all in 720p color. At $900 the Tablet is really for those who want to add movies and television to the mix. Amazon's video on demand can provide this content.
  • Amazon owns Audible. Audible is the best provider of audio books. Sorry Overdrive, but it's true. Audible's audio books could sync with Amazon's ebooks and allow the user to switch seamlessly between reading and listening. A lot of people I know like to do this, and making it seemless would attract a new style of reader.
  • Strike a deal with Netflix to allow Netflix subscribers to easily view content on the new Tablet. Yes, Amazon's on demand video content is good, but Apple needs greater depth and video downloads via iTunes are slow and expensive. The Netflix subscription model of streaming is a much better developed service.
  • Subsidize the cellular connectivity just like Amazon does for the Kindle. Leo Laporte has been arguing this for a long time and I have to agree. Base cellular service needs to be included in the package, even if it's just for content download and streaming and does not include browsing or email.
  • Offer a web browser and the same quality email interface found on the iPhone. A web browser and email require ever-present connectivity. This may need to be an extra-cost service but a Tablet without the option for web browsing or email will fail. The two cheaper Kindles can get away with not providing email, but the Tablet can't. One option here is to allow tethering to the iPhone so users don't have to pay for two monthly data plans.
  • Don't build Flash into the browser. Force developers to keep moving towards HTML5.
  • A forward facing webcam would allow the type of collaboration iPhone users have been wanting for a long time.
  • Put a flip-out stand on the back and don't make me buy an overpriced accessory just so I can stand the Tablet up on my desk.

And that's about it for my wish-list. My wants are more content related than the tech of the Tablet itself. A lot of what I want would be answered with a strong relationship with Amazon, but it could be done via other sources (though I question how well anyone else can do it). The tech side is important, but not so much as the content. Oh, a 10" OLED screen would be nice, and a power-conserving but powerful CPU is needed, but what will really matters is the content that I can enjoy on the new Tablet.

Looking forward to tomorrow's announcement!

Mark Steinmetz’s South East: a Review

One of the first things I realized when I moved to Atlanta in 1997 was just how difficult it is to take a photograph between 11am and 5pm on a sunny summer day — and summer here lasts pretty much from April until October. The sun appears magnified in its intensity, blowing out all but the darkest shadow areas and leaving only pure white and pure black. Pity the poor photographer, left with nothing in the middle, very few grays, no subtlety. The historical irony of this observance was not lost on me. The South was a new experience for me, and it would take most of a decade for me to be able to say I understood at least a little bit of it.

Mark Steinmetz's South EastBut the technical difficulties of midday photography are real. I shot a political rally a few years ago and found redeemable images only in black and white versions of my photos. The stark midday sun can be brutal, and color film is easily blown out and the result is a flat, washed out image. If you try metering for the shadows, your sky is lost. If you meter for the sky, your shadow details disappear. But black and white can better handle the contrast, and the look is classical.

I say all this in the intro because it influenced how I saw the black and white photos in Mark Steinmetz's book, South East. Mark Steinmetz grew up and lives in Athens, Georgia, about an hour drive east of Atlanta. It's easy to think of Athens as nothing more than the home of the University of Georgia, but having lived in a similar town (State College, PA, home of Penn State) I am very aware of the life and lives that function outside of the university. Thanks to good friends I have been able to explore and get to know Athens over the past few years. It has a strong intellectual environment that has supported a thriving art and music scene. The Indigo Girls, R.E.M., and the B-52s all hail from Athens.

So when I first sat down to explore Steinmetz's South East it was these thoughts that had been on my mind. What Steinmetz delivered to me was a story and a sense of understanding. Many of Steinmetz's photos are portraits, and many of those portraits are of young people. It is these images that touch me most deeply. I could not help but be reminded of Walker Evan's photos of the American South. People, many of them stationary, stoically staring slightly away from the camera's lens, perhaps caught unaware. I was transported into the role of voyeur, but unlike modern reality television, this feeling was not an uncomfortable one.

One has to be careful when setting out to document an area through photography. It would be easy to fall into what Sontag refers to as the "polemical pursuit of the trivial and the vulgar" when attempting to reflect the flavor of a people and place. But I did not come away with that sense after viewing Steinmetz's work. I felt like I did when I was taken on tours of Athens by someone who grew up there. I felt as though I has been given the rare opportunity to glimpse a town through the eyes of a native, through the eyes of someone who understood the conflict inherent in university towns, and in southern towns. This photo book is not a seedy exploration of the underground, but a timeless depiction of daily life. I appreciate Steinmetz's closeness with those in his photos. I wonder how much conversation he had with his subjects before or after the capture of the image. Did he know them? His photos suggest a casualness between artist and model that results in the honesty seen in the photographs.

Looking at South East took me several days. I would look at an image or two and find myself taken back to friends and their stories of life in the American south. Photos that can take me other places are, in my opinion, successful. South East is a wonderful work.

You can see many of Mark Steinmet'z photos on his website. Click on South East to see a selection of photos from the book.