Distance education not always online

The ability to accomplish educational goals even when you are not able to attend classes at a school has changed the world.  It doesn’t seem so long ago when I was working for the Air Force Library System that we hosted a conference on providing library services to military troops in the Gulf — that was after the 1st Gulf War. We gained Command attention for partnering through the BEPAC (that’s the Base Education and Planning Committee – the military loves those acronyms) to deliver the library component to college classes offered to deployed troops. As the AF was building tent cities in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, the Comm Squadron was installing lines and computers and we were sending library service right along with them.

I am personally thankful for online education. While an MLS was my goal, it was totally unavailable where I was living, until the UIUC LEEP program became available. MLS programs are much more available now — in the last week I’ve written 2 recommendation letters for candidates for library school, who have a multitude of choices available to them.

Finding candidates that meet educational requirements has become easier. Where previously finding a candidate with a college degree in rural communities was not always easy, many job postings now attract local applicants with academic accomplishments that exceed minimum requirements, often gained through distance learning programs.

And not all distance learning is academic. In my previous location, a small  rural school district has gained statewide notice for attracting elementary and high school students who for various reasons want to pursue education online. Another young person I know does not attend her local high school for health reasons and is going to school online.

You’d think that all the distance learning was the product of the Internet. But not so! My mother, now an octogenarian retired teacher with a school media licensure, got her teaching credential through a 2-year Normal school. Some years later, when the state required a Bachelors Degree, she earned some of her credits watching college lectures that were broadcast on television very early in the morning.

Digging through a box of books at my mother’s house last weekend, I ran across the text for my first distance class – a brown-covered song book. It is way longer ago than I want to admit that I attended a 2-room country school in Wisconsin. Each classroom had a teacher that taught all subjects. We had no subject specialists, but once a week on Wednesday afternoons was the high point of my week. That was the day that we turned the classroom radio to the local AM station that relayed the WHA Wisconsin School of the Air transmission of “Let’s Sing” with Warren Wooldridge and Don Voegeli at the piano. We sat at our desks and learned music over the radio, singing along with the crackly AM radio transmission (well some of us sang, but some just mumbled). Some lucky kids got to go to regional “Let’s Sing” events. I wasn’t one of them. Years later, through a music scholarship, I received my Bachelors Degreee in Music Education. Thanks, WHA and Warren Wooldridge.

Dewey Browser

How do you classify knowledge? The Dewey Decimal system is the most widely used classification system in the world. According to OCLC, 70% of the holdings in WorldCat are classified by Dewey. It’s the perfect vehicle for shelf-browsers. You can even do virtual shelf-browsing, by entering the known Dewey number of an item and finding all the other items on the same subject shelved right next to it. OCLC’s DeweyBrowser beta v2.0 is fun (in a librariany sort of way.) The drill-down options are endless, through the Dewey numbers or subject headings.

For all the times I’ve been consulted or helped assign Dewey numbers to a collection (we called it Deweyization) — there’s a tool to use the vast WorldCat collection as a measuring stick to find the right classification. I’ve Deweyized special collections and private collections. One of my favorite projects was working with a couple late-teenagers who spent their summer break debating (often hotly) the correct placement for each of the items in a special collection. Often a neutral party (known as the experienced local librarian) was called in to settle Dewey disputes.

I was reminded of this nifty tool (that’s been around for a couple years) while reading the Hectic Pace post Dewey the Decimal Maker – a holiday parady. Read it while humming Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.

And Happy Holidays!

Open source – why?

Once upon a time technology was an awesome mystery and we were amazed just to watch what it did. We put those geeky gods who made it work on pedestals and carried their coffee. Technology made any job that involved keeping track of stuff easier.

Libraries were particularly thankful for automated procedures that tracked the hundreds of thousands of pieces of stuff that we entrusted on loan to thousands of people. We were so mystified by how it worked and thankful that it did that once we found a program and learned how to use it (another monumental task) we didn’t want to think about picking out something different or learning new tricks to use it. Besides that, librarians are by nature collectively a cautious bunch who don’t welcome a great deal of change.

So, a few vendors developed logistics type software to manage library materials and procedures and everyone was happy. The vendors didn’t do a lot of research and development and library systems didn’t change much.

During the next 20 years, technology changed the way we managed business and lived our lives. Since I’m a late arrival librarian, I wasn’t in libraries during the early technology implementations. I was involved in automating processes in several other businesses, also related to keeping track of and assigning accountability to things. I automated processes in hospital logistics and later on in grocery store sales operations. In both cases, the end results of the processes and procedures were not so different than libraries’ implementation of technology management systems.

While technology vendors in many areas have made refinement and development a priority and the systems in use now don’t look much like the early legacy systems, library automation systems have changed not so much. While most businesses do not tolerate clunky procedures or incomplete responses, the performance and results of library automation systems does not come close to other systems. Library automation systems cannot deliver the kind of interactive performance that is standard in most other industries. Furthermore, library automation vendors do not deliver the responsiveness in customer service that libraries need to remain viable in a competitive economy that sometimes marginalizes the value of library services.

There are reasons for library automation vendors’ failure to deliver desirable performance or service. First of all, I don’t think that libraries initially asked for a lot. Furthermore, with minimal profits to be made off from libraries, I don’t think that development of library systems was very lucrative for systems developers, and there wasn’t a lot of competition out there. Effective customer support doesn’t seem to be a priority and in recent years, company mergers have resulted in fewer viable choices for libraries to go where the service is better.

Enter the realm of open source options, where “they” becomes “us.” My library’s options for automation services do not have to be driven by what my vendor offers. There are choices my organization can make where we could potentially have more influence in the development of service-point utilities. And most importantly, there are other options for my organization to consider in deciding who would really understand and respect us as a customer for their services.

MINITEX is sponsoring workshops this month to allow libraries to look at open source options for integrated library systems. At the first session this week the room was packed with library managers and system administrators. The sizes and capacities of our organizations varied considerably, but we hold in common a desire for better systems and service than legacy library vendors provides.

My friend DL did an excellent job summarizing the first session on Koha, which means I don’t have to . In his summary, he discusses the question on whether buying open-source from a vendor isn’t just another vendor. Yes, it is, but with a difference that there is a different relationship with an open-source vendor. The underlying program is as open and available as we wish it to be, constrained only by our own limitations. Indeed, my systems geek has already downloaded his own copy of Koha to experiment with and learn from.

Will all of us who are educating ourselves through the open-source workshops rush out and implement a Koha or Evergreen based ILS? Most likely not. We have varying abilities and budgets. Some have the capacity to dive right in, others will build cooperatives, others will make a decision to remain status quo. But through our discussion, we’re becoming better informed and more discerning about the potential for library automation solutions to equip us to provide the most cost-effective and best possible customer service and access.