Thursday, 30 December 2010

First impressions review - Amazon Kindle

Semi-relevant preliminary spiel:

I love my iPod. Since I got my first iPod (Wikipedia informs me that it was a ‘classic’ fourth generation black & white), I’ve never thought about getting a different portable music device. I love my iPod because I don’t think about it: I automatically slip it in my bag or my pocket when I’m going somewhere; I use it quickly and reflexively; it just does the job it’s meant to do.

Since e-readers first became available, I’ve wanted an iPod for ebooks (disclaimer: this is not the iPad for reasons too numerous to enumerate). It would be a single device that does its job smoothly and blends into the background of your life. The Kindle –
received this Christmas – is a damn sight closer to that imaginary device than the Sony Reader (all subsequent comments are directed towards the PRS-505).

First impressions:

In terms of design, the Kindle is nicer to hold than the Reader. The Kindle’s plastic isn’t as cold as the Reader’s metal, the corners are nicely rounded, and it’s slightly lighter. The button placement is better as well with the ‘turn pages’ buttons larger and more naturally placed. The Kindle also has more memory (3GB) than the Reader (256MB without an SD card: newer models have more).

The randomly generated screensavers automatically make it look like 
you keep a picture of John Steinbeck next to your bed

The Kindle is also better for reading: the contrast is by default better and has the advantage of being adjustable; various aspects of the text itself can be changed (which makes sense for digital text) including size, font, line spacing, and words per line. All this makes the Kindle much better for people who have difficulty with text ie. people with reading difficulties or poor vision.


Reading, particularly non-fiction, is more complex than simply looking at words on a page and the Kindle allows for increased levels of interactivity with the text. Rather than passively reading, it allows the user to highlight, make notes, share highlights on Twitter, check a word in one of the two dictionaries included, or look up a Web address from the text.

Another advantage – a decisive one for non-smartphone owners like me – is the free Web access. I got – or rather, Santa got me – the 3G model because it allows much wider wireless coverage for access to the Web through the experimental browser. It’s slow, clunky, black & white but it’s free and massively increases my ability to access the Web.


The Kindle store is good: wireless access to books is a plus and the prices are mostly reasonable. New Kindle owners will discover a wealth of free titles – public domain works and such – but these tend to be poor quality, poorly formatted files: despite the added effort, it’s better to use a reliable source like Project Gutenberg or the Google ebookstore’s public domain PDFs. It seemed appropriate that my first Kindle book should be The Case for Books by Robert Darnton which downloaded easily and is functioning perfectly well.

If you don’t do so already, use Calibre to manage your ebooks. Putting personal documents and non-Amazon ebooks on the Kindle without software is a fiddly process. Calibre is easier, allows for more consistent metadata, and automatically converts non-compatible formats (ePub) to compatible formats (MOBI, PDF, RTF, etc.). This won’t work with DRMed files and so means that public library ebooks are unavailable for the Kindle which is unfortunate: it doesn’t mean I won’t use my public library (free ebooks!) but it means I’ll have to read them off another device/PC.

I didn’t get a cover for my Kindle. I asked Santa for one but I was either naughty or Santa reads Slashdot and got linked to the same articles as I did. Turns out that covers either break your Kindle or cost half the price of the device itself. I’ve ordered this which ought to allow Kindle transportation at a fraction of the cost.


Ideally this device should become as indispensible as my iPod. I asked my Twitter followers if I should write a Kindle review now or after the honeymoon period and a lot of people suggested that I do both. Expect a longer-term Kindle review in 2011.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Five lessons from 2010

Several people (Laura Woods, Andy Woodworth, Bobbi Newman) have written about the lessons they learned in 2010. This seems like a cathartic, end-of-year reflection exercise and it’s good to give some closure to a truly great year. So here are my five lessons from 2010.

Lesson 1: United we stand, divided we fall

Prior to this year, I’ve never really worked as part of a team (which was annoying because every goddamn job specification has TEAMWORK in big bold letters). My first job was in a bank entering data more or less on my own. My first degree was in philosophy – the epitome of ruminating quietly on your own. This year I’ve worked with other people: group projects for my Masters, as part of my various job roles, and now as part of a team spread across the country. I was so flattered to be asked to join the Voices for the Library team and I’m so happy to be working with this Justice League-like team of super-librarians (even though it makes me feel like Robin). Though I’m still finding my feet, it’s taught me a lot about working with other people and together we can accomplish much more than one individual ever could.

Lesson 2: Everybody lies

This refers to two institutions: the government and the media. I’m sure this lesson will elicit a hearty ‘Duh!’ from many but for me it’s been a revelation to learn just how much the truth is distorted and hidden from the public. WikiLeaks is revealing and has revealed an insane amount of information that governments have kept from the public. The leader of the Liberal Democrats lied to students and his party's supporters. Tabloid Watch and Minority Thought are now two of my favourite blogs on Google Reader showing how much the media lies and distorts stories for their own ends. 

Personally, I uncovered a mass media lie when I discovered Twitter. Before this year, I blindly accepted the media’s portrayal of Twitter: a site where narcissists broadcast banal pronouncements about what food they’re eating. When I finally joined, I discovered this to be a lie and it quickly became my defining communication medium for 2010. Without Twitter, I would not know half as much about what’s going on in the library community, I would not have attended any professional events, I would not have written my Guardian piece, and I would not have half as many professional contacts and, dare I say, friends.

Lesson 3: The fundamental interconnectedness of all things

This year I wrote my Masters dissertation. At 18000 words, it’s the longest thing I’ve ever written and – though still awaiting its result – I’m proud of it. It seems astounding that a dissertation ostensibly about library and information management – a very niche subject – allowed me to bring together everything I’ve ever been really interested in. I was able to bring together my undergraduate dissertation, my love of Alberto Manguel, Borges, and Wittgenstein, my interest in digital libraries, my belief in consilience, my interest in The Semantic Web, my strange devotion to Google, my obsession with labyrinths and mazes, my unwavering belief in logic; everything. It felt like a culmination: as if without realising, I’d been preparing to write it for years. This has reinforced my belief in consilience and the fundamental holism of existence. 

Lesson 4: Feel the fear and do it anyway

I owe this one to Katie Fraser.

From Indexed:
This year I’ve been scared a lot. And yet that’s made it one of the best years ever. I worked as IT Support, scared that I wouldn’t be able to fix any computer problems: turns out I’m (comparatively) good with computers. I got a professional job working with the military which forced me to move away from home: turns out the military are good people and I love living on my own. I sent off short stories and articles despite being terrified of rejection: turns out the lasting glow of success far outweighs the momentary sting of rejection. If you’re never scared, you’re never going to learn to cope with the things that scare you and you’re never going to improve yourself.

Lesson 5: Ask not what _____ can do for you but what you can do for _____

This comic represents how institutions actually are: in need of support from people who use them. If you take from an institution without giving anything back, then you’re not valuing that institution. When people complain about CILIP, they often say that it doesn’t provide anything for them. Like most things in life, you get out of it what you put into it. The same applies to public libraries: if you don’t use libraries – if you don’t give – then you can’t get anything from them. 

Public libraries are facing a crisis and the next few months will be critical. All librarians have a part to play in ensuring the survival of our institutions: institutions that help people, that empower communities, that provide an intellectual bulwark against the advance of acceptable mediocrity. Over the next few months, we need people to campaign for public libraries and we need to support and connect campaigns across the country to present a united front rather than a community torn apart by division or blame. This is a time to show councils and Government that we value our libraries and won’t go gentle into that good night.

New Year's resolutions

So what next? Apart from my job, a few projects I'm working on for next year, and continued work for Voices for the Library, 2011 is wide open. Chartership is the next major career progression but there's no rush and technically I don't even have my Masters yet. I'll wait and see what 2011 brings.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

The male librarian gift guide

Once again Christmas unexpectedly descends on the country. For families across the country and indeed the world, the obvious question is raised: what do you buy for the librarian in your life? That friendly / grumpy (delete as applicable) person who finds you stuff and uses words like 'literacy', 'interoperability' and 'OPAC'. The delightful Ms. Jaffne has written a gift guide for female librarians and, digusted at this rampant exclusionism, I have penned this gift guide for the lesser-spotted male librarian.

All male librarians (or indeed shambrarians) look like this. They are brooding, fragile, poetic creatures bringing order out of chaos, ingesting too much science-fiction stuff, and looking vaguely foppish while doing it. So what does one buy for this frail, geeky individual? An iPad or a Kindle is too risky (they could start frothing at the mouth and ranting about the sanctity of the physical book). Better to choose something from this tacky awesome list.

Male librarians wear clothes reluctantly: as long as the clothes are made of fabric which doesn't fall apart, they aren't too picky. Go to any library conference and gaze in awe at the mismatched suits, radiant ties, occasional jeans, and shoes held together with tape. In general, anything that makes him feel more like Sherlock Holmes will be fine no matter how outdated it may be. To keep their shirts from falling apart, male librarians wear cufflinks (stylish book-related cufflinks) and ties. If your male librarian has a strong opinion about the books versus computers debate (and believe me, if he does, you will know about it), let him proclaim that allegiance proudly with either a book tie or a computer tie. Don't forget, he works in an emasculating profession and needs constant reassurance of his manliness so make him feel more authoritarian with this hardcore jacket.
(May not be representative of male librarians)
If your male librarian uses the term 'militant librarian' a lot, talks about 'echo chambers' and fancies himself as some kind of informationy Robin Hood, this bag will make him feel like Che Guevara and Julian Assange all rolled into one. Of course he'll need some badges to go on that bag: they can stick it to Google or enforce the grumpy reluctant librarian stereotype. Many young librarians spend much time on Twitter causing their language skills to slowly atrophy and so will feel right at home with this text speak badge or any of these Twitter T-shirts (Twi-shirts?).

Everyone knows that librarians love books (why else would they become librarians, right?) so what about a guide to the murky world of libraries? There's a good chance your male librarian likes comic books (if you're unsure about this, ask him whether he prefers Marvel or DC. If his answer is anything other than 'I don't know' or if he uses the term 'graphic novel', comic books are a good choice). Unshelved is a good source of comedy that only a minority of the population understand or there is always James Turner's seminal treatise on the subject of male librarians, Rex Libris.

Finally, you could always play it safe and buy a tiny effigy of the ultimate male librarian - the template from which we are all wrought - Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

From Penny Arcade
Merry Christmas to all library staff; male, female and everything in between. Have a good holiday season and steel yourself for the deluge of books to be returned in the first week of January.

Monday, 6 December 2010

New media and the right to debate

Recently I was involved in an online altercation with Tony Horne, a radio broadcaster from North-East England, which served to highlight a shift in my generation’s understanding of media interaction. It started here, continued with Ian Clark’s reply here, and went on to this blog post here. In his final piece on the subject, Mr Horne wrote “Another [Twitter user] called Simon demanded I reply to his tweet. Why would I do that? I had my say, you had your right of reply.”

For the record, I did not ‘demand’ a reply. I asked Mr Horne via Twitter whether he wanted to reply or not. My exact words were: “Do you plan to respond? Were you trying to generate hits or start an actual debate?” which I’ll admit reads as more hostile than I intended it. He declined my debate invitation and seemed to misunderstand me so I sent “My aim is to engage in debate: an exchange of views to reach a conclusion. This can't be done without back and forth response.” There was no further reply.

For a time, I was mystified by Mr Horne’s refusal to engage with his readers or enter into a debate. I couldn’t grasp why someone would write something and then not reply to contrary arguments. As far as I could see, he had no reason not to reply: he clearly had the courage of his convictions, he was online at the time when pro-library comments were dropping thick and fast, he definitely believed what he had written. Why not reply directly?

Then I realised it comes down to the words “I had my say...” These words indicate a different understanding of media interaction to the one I hold. Essentially, Mr Horne did not view our interaction as an active debate: for him, media interaction consists in a creator giving his opinions and the reader passively taking them in. My generation and generations younger than me have always had the right to debate and this is because of the difference between new media and old media.

On the Web, the creation of content involves subsequent discussion. You write, record, or visualise what you believe and then you either defend it or allow it to be picked to pieces. Everything one puts on the Web can be actively debated: in comments – blogs, YouTube, newspaper websites – or on Twitter, Facebook, email, etc. Reading and reacting to content is as active a process as creating the content. When our right to reply is blocked, we create new avenues for reply. It’s become common practice for librarians to debate with detractors in the comments of news articles concerning public libraries and encouraging and engaging in informed debate is one of the primary roles of Voices for the Library. In new media, creators stand behind what they say, respond to arguments they hadn’t considered, and, hopefully, change their minds a little to accommodate the diverse opinions of other people.

In old media, the creation of content is the entirety of the interaction. Creators wrote articles, published them, and left the consumption to the reader. Once they ‘had their say’ that was the end of it. Maybe a dissenting letter would be published in the paper or read on the air but the initial creator wasn’t expected to respond. There was no debate because the means required to have a debate were not available. This seems to be the case with Mr Horne: in the recent past, he broadcast or wrote his opinions and people passively consumed them. He didn’t reply to our arguments in the comments because his understanding of media interaction is different from that of a generation raised on new media.

This new understanding of interaction is even influencing the ‘real world’. In the past few months, there has been a rise in protests against the Coalition Government’s decisions: students in particular have been taking to the streets to protest what they see as injustices – injustices to themselves in the case of tuition fee rises and EMA cuts and injustices to the country in the case of corporate tax avoidance. Young people feel that they have the right to debate and with no outlet, no system in place to accommodate active debate with the Government, they protest in the streets.

The generation now coming-of-age has a new understanding of media interaction: the understanding that people debate about what they believe and respond when someone argues against them. Simply ‘having your say’ and letting it lie is not sufficient anymore. In this new paradigm, you either respond to your detractors or lose the argument.