Tuesday, 27 December 2022

Being a public library user after the pandemic

I am not a librarian. I have worked with librarians, but I am not a librarian.

What my competence is is difficult to explain, so I’ll start with a little autobiography.

My first post graduate job was working for a field research station in the mid eighties, where basically I helped people with no IT skills manage their data, run statistical analyses, and write reports.

Later I moved to work in a university where I had a serious job in a computer centre.

It was an old mainframe focused computer centre but they had realised change was coming and they wanted someone to help support these pesky users who increasingly wanted to use a desktop computer instead of the central timesharing system (and incidentally help people who wanted to get their data off their PC and run it through one of the mainframe statistics packages).

Initially my job was much the same as the job at the field station, but as the IT revolution gathered pace it mutated into buying computers for the university, helping people get off the ground with projects – I did a lot of talking with archaeologists and botanists about how to do field survey work and finds logging in wet and computer antithetical environments – and building and maintaining a student teaching network.

However, by the time I moved on elsewhere in the early 2000’s I’d come to realise that the old model of central provision was breaking down.

Everyone who wanted a computer could afford one – not true of the population generally, but certainly true of the student and academic population. There were companies, such as Microsoft, who would provide you with a small amount of online storage which was regularly backed up, and there were even companies that would rent you time to run a bigger compute job on a virtual machine.

Basically, I could see that I would be out of a job some time soon.

At the same time I’d spent increasing amount of time dealing with serious storage and backup – big tape libraries and the like – which coupled with a familiarity with OCR and scanning  allowed me to move into digitisation and digital archiving. A bit niche, but it kept me employed until I retired a few years ago.

During my digital archiving years I came into contact with librarians. Like computer centres, they felt threatened.

Computers are good at counting and keeping track of things. First it was the card catalogue, and then it was self service checkouts, and gradually all the mechanical parts of a librarian’s job started to disappear. After all you could even buy pre-rolled catalogue records to save having to manually catalogue books.

And of course there were e-books which somehow couldn’t be handled  as if they were simply digital version of a physical book, or something else tangible like a CD or a DVD.

Search engines and free online access to databases like Trove or Welsh Newspapers online, not to mention other more specialist resources also meant that libraries could no longer function as the exclusive gatekeepers to knowledge.

So they tried to get funky.

Not just the simple provision of somewhere with reliable wifi and places to work, we got beanbags, makerspaces, and in public libraries story sessions and reading groups.

Looking in from the outside, I’d say these have met with mixed success.

Over the years since I retired I’ve spent a fair amount of time using public libraries as places to work and do background research on my volunteer project documenting the contents of Dow’s Pharmacy in Chiltern.

First of all, I can do almost all the work from home, I don’t need to use a library. I choose to because I don’t have a permanent desk at the pharmacy, and when there’s some big tour groups it’s easier to decamp. Small tour groups are fine, in fact I enjoy talking to them about my work on a one to one basis.

And sometimes if J is going to an art workshop somewhere it makes sense to help her take her stuff to where the workshop is and then do some work from a local library for the two or three hours the workshop takes.

So, what do I value?

A desk, a chair that doesn’t induce numbness in my lower back and decent wifi, preferably without me having to fill out forms and turn three times anticlockwise to use it.

I don’t mind registering with the library as a user, but I don’t want to have to do a dance with some online portal every thirty minutes to renew my connection.

And no, I’m not going to look at dubious material online, but then one person’s nineteenth century art photography is another person’s pornography – for example one of Rejlander’s moral tableau images that Queen Victoria gifted to Albert would probably be considered NSFW these days.

Equally, when I look around me at other people using the library as a place to work it’s clear that some people find having access to a public computer useful, if only to complete online forms that don’t play well on an iPad, and quite a few people find access to a decent printer really valuable.

While public libraries undoubtedly do have a role in lending fiction to people who either do not want to or cannot afford to buy books, even second hand, it is often the case that their reference and non fiction sections have shrunk away.

Now, I’m the first to admit that some of my requirements are perhaps a little obscure, but even when I look at a mainstream topic such as World War I, outside of Gallipoli and the Australian experience of the Western front, there’s little available, and even inter Library loan searches fail to provide much in the way of results.

In fact I’ve basically given up on libraries for background material and often buy books second hand from overseas second hand booksellers – and perversely the reason for going to overseas booksellers is not only are they cheaper, but the cost to send a book economy from the UK is less than to have the same book sent via Australia Post.

I don’t have small children so I can’t comment on the value of story sessions, but some of the adult reading group sessions look fairly dire. I’ve never been to one, and none of the authors that they’ve had in locally to speak to readers have appealed to me.

As for the beanbags, well yes, having a nice comfy chair to flip through material on  a tablet is nice, but I wouldn’t say it was essential.

So where are we?

Libraries have undoubtedly lost their role as gatekeepers to knowledge.

They do have an important set of roles though:

A)      Teaching effective search strategies and how to assess the ‘worth’ of information sources, including Wikipedia

B)      The provision of internet access and places to work, be it for school students seeking somewhere away from the hurly burly of home, oddballs like me, or people who simply need to get something done and don’t have suitable access at home

C)      Educating people about the effective use of online resources be it Trove, Scotland’s People or Ancestry. Family history won’t save a library, but access will undoubtedly increase footfall and act as a springboard to other things

D)      Providing access to books, including publicising the availability of new and popular books and improving interlibrary loan services – which means revisiting holdings and acquisition policy

As such they remain valuable community resources. 

How well they fill that role is dependent on the front of house staff developing and keeping the necessary skills. 

Being funky is nice but not essential.




Monday, 19 December 2022

More retro technology - an MP3 player no less


Recently I invested in a very basic no name MP3 player sourced from ebay - which might seem a very strange and retro choice given nowadays one just uses one's phone - tellingly Apple ditched the ipod some years ago.

Well, I have a use case - gardening.

When you're grubbing about pulling out weeds and roots, wearing gardening gloves, touch screen devices are a pain - just as when I'm documenting down at the pharmacy.

And of course, it's a messy mucky environment out there.

For years I used an original Apple iPod - and it worked really well, until the rotary switch thingie died. 

I tried various cheapie MP3 players as a replacement, which were all crap and ending up buying myself a refurbished iPod back in 2018.

That also worked well, but the world has moved on. Not everything is available via iTunes, and sometimes you need to download audio direct from the producer's website, so something where you just download the file and copy it over seemed the best solution.

So I'm back with a noname MP3 player. I'm mostly listening to podcasts of talk radio so I don't need stellar quality.

The earphones that came with it were not particularly good quality, but swapping them for an old pair of Samsung earphones solved that little problem, and the user interface looks like it has been designed by a Fortran programmer - a maze of twisty little menus all different.

However if you get lost in the menu maze switching it off and on again is a surefire way back  to the main menu.

However, I didn't pay a lot for it and if a crap menu system is the price I have to pay for listening to an extended radio interview with Lucy Worsley while pulling weeds, so be it

Friday, 16 December 2022

Sometimes sneaker net is best ...

J has a pair of elderly aunties in England to whom she always sends a Christmas card.

As they're both nearly ninety it has to be snail mail.

Normally the cards would have gone off earlier this month but J has spent the last ten days laid low by a flu like illness - we did some RATs a couple of days apart and both came up negative  so we're guessing it's just some nasty that makes you feel rotten.

Anyway, she's recovering now and suddenly realised this morning that she'd never posted the cards. In fact she'd never got as far as writing them.

Well there's absolutely no point doing so now, as they wouldn't get there until some time in early January.

So the workaround was to create an account with a print on demand Christmas card company in England and get them to send the cards first class, and hope that strikes and snow  notwithstanding, they'd get there in time.

Now J keeps a day book with notes and addresses in it, and guess what, she'd misplaced the old one with her aunties' postal addresses.

Not a problem, it'll be in a file on OneDrive with the other documents transferred across when she changed from an iMac to a windows laptop.

Except it wasn't.

Fortunately her old iMac was still sitting on the studio floor - I'd been weighing up whether to install Linux on it so that I could use it to examine scanned historical documents on it.

Well procrastination has its uses - it was still as it was when unplugged. 

The batteries in its keyboard and mouse were flat, but I still had the wired keyboard from the old vintage 2008 iMac I'd been using as a document viewer, plus an old mouse from some other machine that had gone to e-waste centre, so daisychaining them together should work.

Well I connected everything together, powered it up, and it went 'bong' in the way that Macs do when they're happy.

It did seem to hang halfway through startup but just before I was going to powercycle the machine it came back to life.

Logged in, and there was the document, a Libre Office 6 ODT file.

At first we tried to be clever and open Libre Office and do a 'send document', but the mail system's OAuth login token had long since expired, and it didn't seem worth doing battle with the keychain tool, so we saved it as a word file to a USB stick, took the stick across to J's Windows 11 laptop and copied the file to OneDrive.

The current version of word opened it without problems, meaning we were home and dry.

The moral of course is, when switching machines, just copy everything, and this includes all documents stored on a cloud provider if you're changing, in this case from iCloud to OneDrive.  You can get rid of the junk later when you are really sure you don't need it.

Inevitably you'll have more storage than previously so you won't really have a problem keeping some seeming junk around for a bit ...

Monday, 12 December 2022

Technology and me 2022

 Every year around this time I do a little post on my personal use of technology - here's the one for 2022.

Compared to last year, we've had some changes, but nothing dramatic, more incremental change as machines come to the end of their working lives.

 My venerable MacBook Air finally curled up its electronic toes and I also took the opportunity to ditch the 2008 vintage iMac I kept around for viewing images on its large screen - it had simply got too old and the software too out of date to be usable any more.

At the same time my Dow's project laptop decided that it couldn't see its battery any more, leading to its replacement with a refurbished ThinkPad.

The project documenting Dow's pharmacy continues to inch closer to fruition, and after a couple of problems with wheelie boxes, I invested in a decent wheeled computer bag, which has proved the ideal solution.

Despite it's age, my old iPad Mini continues to be useful as a notetaker, as strangely enough is one of my old Handspring Visors that I resurrected as a way of being able to take notes while wearing my blue examination gloves - I favour the slightly thicker pathology style ones, one never quite knows what one's handling when it comes to nineteenth and early twentieth century patent medicines.

My Huawei MediaPad continues to give excellent service, but I'm becoming increasingly impressed with my ChromeBook Duet's abilities - fold out the keyboard it's a ChromeBook, fold back the keyboard it's a web tablet, albeit a rather heavy one, but close to the ideal as a travel computer.

The dogfood tablet continues to do its job, but this past year I've been trying to work my way through my 'to read' pile of second hand books, so it hasn't seen as much service as it might have

My four year old Lenovo laptop is still doing its job, and I see no reason to replace it for at least another year. Likewise the refurbished Thinkpad I bought back in 2018, albeit now with Kubuntu, continues to be incredibly useful, as does an old Dell laptop I acquired that now sits in the corner of Judi's studio (actually our garage) fitted out with Raspberry Pi desktop - incredibly useful for checking the weather, packing lists, or indeed updating lists of supplies that we need to order.

Still giving excellent service is the little Lenovo I bought as a travel computer, as is my old refurbished Yoga, as a second machine.

The little Lenovo came to my aid when I did a presentation for our local U3A group, as it turned out to be the only machine I had with a modern external HDMI interface - the curse of using refurbished machines I guess.

The one real failure has been the e-slate I bought out of curiosity - I still really havn't found a use for it.

But it's not all work here at Moncur towers - having discovered the Lenovo smart clock we've ended up with three scattered around the house, plus a Google assistant enabled speaker in the lounge room to play background jazz plus I bought myself a Google Hub really to use as a podcast player that sits on the shelf above my desk.

So, basically incremental change this year.

We've arguably still got too many computers between us - J ditched her iMac for a new HP windows laptop earlier this year, and I have my eye on the refurbished Dell latitude I bought her during the pandemic as a potential second kubuntu machine - however we do have a pile of older devices to go the the e-waste centre.

I'm expecting the Dow's pharmacy documentation project to draw to a close in 2023 (or at least my involvement in it) and that will probably mean some changes in our use of technology next year ...

Sunday, 4 December 2022

Escaping the family history Behemoths ..

 I started dabbling in family history back before the pandemic, but, like many people, I signed up to one of the mega family history companies during the pandemic. It was either that or sourdough.

And, I'm not going to be rude about the experience, it was actually quite valuable in building out the family tree, but there comes a point when it turns into stamp collecting with more and more distantly related ancestors.

Now there may be interesting stories out there, but about six months ago I came to feel that the way forward was to flesh out individual stories. And more, as an exercise to keep the grey cells ticking over it is more fun to do one's own searches, rather than simply rely on a set of algorithms.

So, I've made the decision not to renew my subscription to My Heritage, and to carry on dabbling myself.

The first thing, obviously, was to get my data out of My Heritage.

This is quite easy, if a little obscure. 

Using the web interface, there's an option to 'manage family trees', and in it is an option to export to Gedcom

Gedcom is a file format for the exchange of genealogical data between genealogy programs.

Gedcom has the advantage of being a text based format, meaning (a) files can be edited or examined with a decent text editor such as Kate, and (b) it's comparatively simple to write a script in perl, or anything else that is good at text manipulation and regular expressions, to extract and reformat data as required. 

Unfortunately as the Gedcom  format was not updated between 1999 and 2019, the various commercial genealogy companies have added their own extensions for extra functionality, making each of  their Gedcom exports slightly incompatible with each other - a bit like BibTex really, in that there are a whole set of minor an irritating differences between different vendors' implementations.

However Gedcom is what we have, and so Gedcom is what we have to work with.

As a local genealogy management tool I decided to use Gramps, a free open source package. I've used it before, and it does most of what I want.

I installed it on my Kubuntu linux laptop and imported my Gedcom exports. As you would expect there were various scary warnings about unrecognised attributes, almost certainly due to unrecognised extensions, but it basically worked:

Almost all the data seems to be there. (My MyHeritage subscription does not expire until the end of the year giving me a month to sanity check the data, but on a quick skim, everything important is there.)

Friday, 2 December 2022

So, twitter and mastodon

Clearly, twitter has not imploded, and at the same time there's been somewhat of a migration to mastodon.

I've made my own decision about twitter, but not yet about my use of mastodon.

They are currently very different environments.

Even before the change of ownership, twitter was changing and becoming increasingly a write only medium populated by press releases and reposts of nineteenth century orientalist paintings. 

All good in their own way, but not terribly conversational.

Mastodon, or at least the corner I'm in, is definitely more conversational, and is functioning more like an early eighties fidonet forum than twitter's tickertape.

Undoubtedly we're in a period of change. And of course that means we're on a journey with our use of these platforms.

At the moment there's little of the corporate presence on mastodon - it's a volunteer service being funded by the angels - which possibly has implications for long term sustainability; servers need to be maintained and the people that do the maintaining need to eat, and it's unrealistic to expect either to happen on a grace and favour basis.

And perhaps because of the lack of corporate stuff it's more conversational, more ruminative.

Twitter, on the other hand, lurches along much as it always did. I expect it to evolve and change rather than implode, but how, I'm unsure.

I don't see myself going back to twitter to the extent I was - I've decided to move on and do other things,

As far as social media goes, probably what I'll do is continue to blog - certainly I've found it enhances my writing skills (and I enjoy it), and perhaps post occasionally to mastodon and twitter about anything I find especially interesting ...