I am Morgan Freeman (or librarians can get you things)

Last summer I did the “One Archetype, 5 Movies, 5 Seconds” DS106 assignment (with some liberties… my video lasts 18 seconds).

The more I think about it, the more I should’ve added this clip from Shawshank Redemption.

Maybe it’s brain damage from the 18 months of sleep deprivation I suffered because my son was a poor sleeper for… well… 18 months.  Maybe it’s a result of parenting a full-speed-ahead three-year-old boy.  Maybe I’m just small-minded.  Whatever the case may be, that scene from Shawshank Redemption runs through my head pretty often while I do my work.

I’m a librarian (in case you’re new here).  More specifically, I’m a librarian in an independent school.  I find that on a daily basis I experience some kind of work-related existential crisis.

Sometimes the existential crisis is triggered by a conversation that goes something like this:

Student: “I have to write my Honors English paper.  I have two paragraphs written.  I don’t know what I’m going to write for my third paragraph.  I need another source.”

Me:  “When is your paper due?”

Student:  “Today.”

Me:  “Yikes.  What are your sources?”

Student:  “The book and some education web site.”

Me:  [thinking to myself, ‘WTF?’] “Have you looked at any of the subscription databases?”

Student:  “Like JSTOR?  No.”

Picard face palm
Picard face palm

My frustration doesn’t lie with this student who has waited until the last minute to write this paper (turns out that it was the rough draft that was due today).  My frustration lies in the existence of the research paper.  In this case it seems so….  pointless.  The student isn’t invested in the topic.  The student knows how to game the research paper assignment.  An article from The Huffington Post is accepted as a legitimate source.  Why go through the hassle of searching a subscription database when you can just throw a couple of words in a Google search and come up with 1000-word McArticle?

I don’t know how I feel about it.  One one hand, using HuffPo or The Guardian probably best represents how the average person satiates his/her curiosity in something they’re only mildly interested in once he/she leaves school.  Maybe it’s authentic–representative of how we operate when we’re not being graded.

On the other hand, I’m appalled.

I think my main source of friction lies in the traditional research paper.  It seems so meaningless.  I say this as someone who liked writing research papers in both high school and college.  Admittedly all of my selected topics were pedestrian: “The Role of Women in ____” or “How the City is Portrayed in ____.”

My god I could crank those papers out.

It wasn’t the exploration of the literature that I loved.  It was the hunt for information.  Following the breadcrumbs.

I guess that’s why I do what I do now.

If I can’t find, the article “Prevention of Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injury in Athletes: a Review” in the school’s subscription databases, where can I get it?  How kind is the open web for a request like that?*

Being a librarian is a lot like being a private investigator.  Or it’s like being “Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding” from The Shawshank Redemption.

We’ve been known to locate things from time to time.  And I’m not just talking about books or academic articles.  Librarians are the mother effing Power of Pull.  Here’s a broad assumption: if a person decides to go to library school, odds are that person had trouble committing to just one subject area.

OK.  The point….  I think….

Librarians are about matchmaking.

Flickr photo by Brandon Christopher Warren (cc license)
Flickr photo by Brandon Christopher Warren (cc license)

Librarians are about putting the person with the right piece of information–the right thing–at just the right time.  Sometimes that information/thing is a book.  Sometimes it’s an article.  Sometimes it’s just showing a student with a little bit of downtime how the Makerbot or a Makey Makey works and watching them play for a little bit.

It’s always about inspiration.  Or at least it should be.  There is nothing more uninspired than a student jumping through hoops to complete the tired, meaningless research paper.  I think it’s time to offer more options.

I’m having a hard time making a point.

Here’s what I’m trying to say:

While I believe in the traditional roles of the librarian–embedding information literacy and information seeking within the curriculum (just to name a few)–I think students are better served when teachers and librarians collaborate to tap into the resources that engage the student.

As Erin White so eloquently tweets, the librarian is uniquely positioned to match people with information, technology, and other people.  The librarian can bridge disciplines.

If a student is writing about science in Cat’s Cradle, maybe it would be more interesting to let that student contact local scientists and technologists and find out their opinions on science for science’s sake or science with purpose and then compile those interviews into an edited documentary or audio essay.

At the end of the day, this is what I want for the students I work with and my son who will one day be going to school somewhere: (1) an environment that encourages the exploration of passions/rabbit holes/questions (2) an environment that allows for choice (3) an environment that provides time, a place for solitude, and a place for collaboration (4) an environment that that understands and values the significance of stocked knowledge, information flows, and networks and one’s ability to navigate and pull from those very different pools at just the right time.


*Turns out, not very.  Though I did eventually find the article.  Because I am awesome.


Better living through better hacks (or be your own tech support)

Tonight was my greatest achievement in… well, a while.  I worked most of the week on a 30 minute presentation for VSTE’s VirtualVA2013 because I’m that kind of person.  Not an overachiever, but a non-talker… an introvert… an internal processor.  And then there’s the fact that I can’t pronounce words like “inquiry” and “peripheral” thanks to my Cumberland County slur.

I talked about the importance of third spaces and how they’re vital to the cross-pollination of ideas and the nurturing of the adjacent possible.  I talked about the Academic Commons that will open in 2013.  I talked about makerspaces.  I don’t think I sounded like a lunatic.  I think I made sense.  I think the presentation went ok.  I’m really excited about getting more involved with VSTE.  But what I’m really proud of is solving the gigantic Java tech issue I experienced all by myself.

The brief timeline of events:  (1) Java wouldn’t launch when I tried to get into the Blackboard Elluminate room.  (2) I think maybe it’s because I’m trying to log in too early.  (3) That’s not the case.  (4) I think, “Well, it worked fine Tuesday.  (4a.)  Check Blackboard Elluminate support page and see this:

Announcement: Thursday, January 31, 2013 – Some Mac OS users are unable to run Java. This issue will prevent users from opening any Java based application including Blackboard Collaborate Web Conferencing, Elluminate Live! 10, SAS, Blackboard Collaborate Voice Authoring, and Wimba Classroom. We are investigating alternative options and will provide update in this area as soon as possible. Click here for more information.


(5) I try to update Java  (6) Software update wants to connect to school’s software server.  I’m not at school.  (7) Being mild panic attack.  (8) I vaguely remember logging into the school’s server via a VPN a few years ago.  Surprisingly, I still remember how to do it.  (9)  Update Java.  (10)  Still no go.  (11)  Fine.  I’ll do this workaround, which involves the terminal and sudo and warnings that you had better be sure about what you’re doing:

WARNING: Improper use of the sudo command could lead to data loss or the deletion of important system files. Please double-check your typing when using sudo.

But what the hey.  Java was screwed anyway.  I had nothing to lose but the connections with other educators and the time I spent preparing.

And there we go.  It worked.

Here’s the thing though: If it weren’t for my failed attempts at C programming and Unix school and a Linux class, I don’t know if I would’ve been comfortable futzing about in the terminal.  If it weren’t for past experiences, I probably wouldn’t have known to access the Collegiate server through the VPN.  Even though updating Java didn’t work, it was a possible solution.

What am I getting at?  I think I did some creative thinking under a deadline, and I’m pretty pleased with how things turned out.

And this brings me to my Maker Manifesto that I did for senior seminar.

Maker manifesto
Maker manifesto

Figuring out how things work–even if it’s just trivial figuring–is empowering.  Having some idea–just a basic idea–of how things work or talk goes a long way in finding a solution.  That’s one reason why this maker movement is so appealing.  To make something, you need to know about all of its parts.  You need to know how it fits together.  Crawl under your house and spend an afternoon rerouting water lines and you’ll really develop an appreciation for indoor plumbing.  You’ll also develop an understanding for that system.  Understanding the system leads to better hacks, better solutions, and maybe better systems.

Week’s end

The first week of the spring semester is over, and there’s lots to think about.  My senior seminar class started up Tuesday, and I think it went ok.  We spent Tuesday-Thursday (we don’t meet on Fridays) immersed in a couple of “design sprints” (thanks to Andrew for that phrase, which I had never heard before), a short discussion on what it is to be a maker, and the set up of class blogs.

The design sprints included a Daily Create-inspired video project.  The prompt:

Today is the first day of your last semester at Collegiate.  Tell us what will make this semester radically different.

Our second design sprint involved the making of sketchbook/notebooks using cardstock, paper, sharpies, brass binders, embroidery thread, and a host of other supplies.

Also, I’m not quite sure how the exercise went over.   Everyone participated, and without an tutorials they all created something.  My favorite was “Notebookception”–a notebook within a notebook within a notebook.  I’ll have to do some debriefing Monday.

The deeper I get in this maker/hacker rabbit hole, the more problematic my ignorance of electronics becomes, so I’m sitting in on Physics II: Electronics.  Day one opened with a review of some Physics I notes.  Personal electronics labs similar to the one below were handed out.

Radio Shack electronics learning lab

Radio Shack electronics learning lab

The week ended with finding the resistance of circuits and the current and voltage across each resistance.  I even have a homework assignment.

physics homework

physics homework

Participating in this class has been an especially interesting experience.  First, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen such unbridled enthusiasm in a classroom.  The majority (if not all) of the students are seniors.  They have a special interest in the topic.  They want to be in that class.  I think that accounts for a lot of the enthusiasm.

Secondly, some of the class is lecture, but the format is really more of a work-at-your-own-pace/independent learning environment.  Although the class is confined to the upper school schedule, the students have some flexibility within that 45-90 minute period (the length of class periods vary depending on what day of the week it is).

I’m looking forward to watching how students teach each other as they embark on their own projects.

One of the best things I heard was, “Mr. P____, can you please tell my coach that I can’t make it to practice this afternoon, because I have to work on this [labs in his electronics kit].”

Ok.  I have homework to do.

Why do we make?

I don’t have a definitive answer to that question.  Maybe the answer lies in Shop Class as Soul Craft or some article I could find in JSTOR.  

I’m going to go out on a limb and give the non-committal answer that people make for different reasons:  necessity, compulsion to make something out of nothing, the challenge of the puzzle, curiosity, and maybe even the satisfaction of seeing a successful finished project after hours/days/weeks/months/years of invested time.

I don’t even know what I make these days.  I knitted in the past.  Dabbled in quilt-making.  I spent a summer during my undergrad years in the dorms during summer school.  One of my hall mates had a sock monkey from his youth (this was before Paul Frank, thanks).  I decided then that I had to have one too.  A lot of time was spent making sock monkeys and weird sock creatures for friends and family.

Weird sock creatures
Weird sock creatures

Having a kid has cut into my time to work on fiber/textile projects.  I dread (am intimidated by) home improvement projects.  Yet I find them to be really interesting once I’m immersed.  I spent a day one summer under the house rerouting a water line.  It made for a pretty interesting day once I got past the camel crickets in the crawl space.  What’s the most fascinating to me about these home improvement projects?  It’s a peek into how the guts of a house work.  It’s interesting to see how things are put together.  That’s really something I never cared about until I bought a house.

camel cricket
photo credit: lobstar28 via photopin cc

Lately I’ve been interested in projects that seem doable mainly because I don’t know enough about the topic at hand to feel otherwise.  An example?  Arduino.  Raspberry Pi.  WordPress.  Google searches and Youtube videos bring answers or at least more breadcrumbs.  The internet keeps the trail warm I guess.  At this early point I don’t even care if a finished project results.  It’s just cool to have something to sink my brain into.

And then the car just stopped

This is my car.

the family car

the family car

It’s a Toyota Echo, and I love her.  I bought this car almost 10 years ago.  She’s been paid for for almost that long.

I thought I lost her Wednesday after some odd smells and wonkiness that surely suggested a shot transmission.  Luckily my diagnosis was wrong.  The competent folks at the Village Exxon brought the Echo back to life for a mere $640.

One of my top 5 regrets in life is not taking auto mechanics my senior year of high school.  I had space in my schedule to fill.  I couldn’t fill it with a second study hall.  I was so close to enrolling in the auto mechanics class.  Instead I opted for keyboarding.  Taught by my mom.

I already knew how to type.  I already knew how to use word processing software.

Sometimes–usually when there’s vehicle maintenance or repair on the horizon–I think about why I chose not to take that auto mechanics class.

It was the fear.  What if I’m not good at it?

Same as it ever was, right?

So here’s my resolution: the next time I make excuses for sticking to the easy and familiar path, I’m going to call myself on it.  Ideally there will be some action too.

That’s it.  Go about your business.

The library is dead! Long live the library!

We closed the library.  Not just for winter break, but for the rest of the school year.  When it reopens, it will house a pretty awesome library program for middle school students, staff, and faculty.  The upper school community will return to school in August with a brand new academic commons.  This building will be the home to academic services, international & economic education, counseling, student activities, communications, an archives, a design lab/makerspace, a cafe, and the library.

The bones of the commons

The bones of the commons

The past couple of weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind.  Cliche, I know, but true.  We  packed while students continued to study, work, and hang out.  Though they knew we were moving out, I don’t think the students really realized what was happening until boxes piled up around them.

I heard a lot of, “This is our last week in the library.”  And “Wow!  This is really happening.”  And, “This is sad.”  I also heard (because I was asked directly by a student), “Can we write on the walls?”

What what?!

My response, “Well, probably the sheetrocked walls, because those are coming down in the renovation.  But, that’s really a question for Ms. Chamberlain [the head librarian].”  

I was confident that the answer to the question would be “No!”

The answer was yes.  And boy oh boy did the inmates run and asylum for a good hour.

kids write on the walls before the library closes.

kids write on the walls before the library closes.

And it was really kind of amazing.

more wall writing

more wall writing

I was definitely outside of my comfort zone for a while, but I love this tribute to the library–this piece of art the kids created.

It’s a fitting tribute.  It’s chaotic.  It’s a jumbled ball of thoughts and feelings from ‘tweens and teens.  These walls belong to these kids.  The library belongs to the kids.  It has since the day I arrived 7 years ago.

The library has been a hangout space, a meeting space, a study space, a club space, a research space, a reading space, a concert space, a makerspace, a makeout space (so awkward to encounter that), a place kids come to be seen, a place kids come to talk.  This kind of space is not what comes to mind when your average Joe/Jane thinks of a library.

Sometimes that’s a point of contention, but tell me what you do when the kids have no where to go?  How can one expect a teenager to be in academic mode twelve or thirteen or fourteen hours a day with no break?  I want quiet to think and work sometimes, but I also want time and a place to tinker and play and talk and work with others.

The movers from American Interfile had us moved in a little over two days.

The makerspace is packed and ready to go

The makerspace is packed and ready to go

more stuff to move out

more stuff to move out

close to empty

close to empty

We librarians now dwell in two (rather comfortable) trailers for the rest of the school year.  We may get some visitors, but those trailers sure are removed from the rest of campus, and students have been tempted with the promise of a heated, tented area on the side of the cafeteria.  Though I won’t miss picking up trash and abandoned laptops, I will miss the (awful) Friday morning Third Eye Blind sing-a-longs.  I will miss eavesdropping on conversations of kids so comfortable that they forget they’re in the library.

There’s lots to be done though.  Lots of planning for the opening of the commons.  My section of senior seminar on the DIY/Maker movement starts January 8th.  I have this feeling that the next year will be the most challenging year I’ve had in a long time.  I’m going to do my best to document and reflect on it here.

The first rule of knit club…

A couple of teachers started a knitting club for students, facult, and staff.  A reminder email went out earlier in the week.  Tuesday night I ventured into the attic to pull out some yarn that I’ve stored away for the past three years.  I dusted off some knitting needles and cast on.

It was, as they say, like riding a bike.  God love you muscle memory.

I joined the knitters during the 45-minute clubs and committees period.  Kids passed by.  Some of them exclaimed, “I used to knit!”  Some of them said, “Oh!  I want to learn how to do that.”  A couple of kids sat down and called up their knitting stories.  A grandmother was often involved.  One of the history teachers–a self-proclaimed dabbler in the fibrous arts–pulled up a seat, showed off a picture of a quilt he made during a minimester in college.

Making: bringing people together since the beginning of time.

As stories were told, I knitted for the first time since 2009.  It all came out perfect.  No stitches were dropped.  A row that was pearled rather than knitted was fixed in a couple of minutes without help from anyone or a tutorial on Youtube.

swatch of simple stockinette stitch

That feels good.

I won’t deny feeling lost or adrift as of late.  Unmoored is a word my more educated colleague used.  Somewhere along the line I decided that it would be cool to learn about Arduino and Raspberry Pi.  Yes, I’d like to know how to solder a circuit board.  In fact, I’d like to know about resistors and capacitors and 555 timers.  Mastering WordPress sounded like a good plan too.  And because I know very little to nothing about any of the aforementioned things, it all seems very doable.  That it until one sits down with an electronics manual and quickly finds that the spare hour dedicated to doing this stuff has passed, and there’s no free time anywhere in the near future to pick it up again.

I’m doing this “learning new stuff” thing wrong.

I’m hesitant to say it, but maybe the question is why do I want to learn this new stuff anyway?  Is it just curiosity?  If so, can it wait until my son is in college (or at least old enough so we can figure it out together… assuming Arduinos are where Jobot’s interests lie).  Do I think it’s worthwhile to know this stuff so that I can share it with kids at school?  Yes, definitely, but do I need to be the ‘expert?*’

There was a time when curiosity was enough.  Though curiosity without free time creates nothing but dilettantes and wishes.

* Yes.  Yes I do.