Saturday, November 21, 2009

I am moving to a system in which I will use ark-based metaphors exclusively. You have been warned.

As you know, earlier this week I turned a paperback book into a series of mp3 files. Then, again with the help of my amazing IT department, we posted it on an internal webpage (thus avoiding those pesky copyright issues), meaning that students would be able to download it to their own computers before leaving for Thanksgiving. Meaning that in less than 36 hours the answer to the question, "Is this available as an audio book?" went from, "No" to, "Sure. Here are the instructions for downloading."

I think this is one of those, "It's amazing what one can accomplish when one doesn't know what one can't do" situations, as even a week ago I didn't think that this would be possible, and certainly not so quickly.

The response from the teachers teaching this book, other teachers who've wanted to see this happen, learning specialists (including two people who are, allegedly, in charge of implementing assistive technology), the head of school?


Which was annoying and frustrating and (at the end of the semester when I'm over-tired and burnt out) actually kind of upsetting. After finishing the project for the person mentioned in the earlier ark-themed post and not even having it acknowledged, let alone getting a thank you, I was also feeling extra-sensitive to issues of gratitude, and gratitude-denied. I wasn't looking for a ticker-tape parade (though, honestly, I wouldn't turn one down), but the 30 seconds necessary to hit reply on an e-mail and say, "Thanks for your work on this" would have been nice.

To be fair, my immediate supervisor, the assistant head of school, gets it and was just as excited as I was. She is, for the record (and I'm saying this even though I'm fairly certain she doesn't even know this blog exists) an amazing, inspiring woman and one of the main reasons I work here and will continue to do so. I went to her on Thursday to talk, in part, about how frustrated I was that this thing I'd done that was, for me, a major accomplishment had been greeted by such thundering silence.

She pointed out that yes, we'd built this ark, but now we need to build a ramp up to the ark. If all your life you've been able to easily access information in print (or—and this is where our conversation got sort of confusing—been able to use stairs and not needed a ramp to gain access to a building) you don't necessarily get what a difference something like this can make.

If it's not raining where you are, it's hard to see the point of building an ark.

Which makes sense to me. 'Cause even though the "powers that be" seem underwhelmed, students—who have been standing at the bottom of that ramp for years, waiting for someone to build the ark—have sought me out to tell me how cool it is that they'll be able to download the book. Two of the students I talked to directly about the book and how to download it hugged me. One girl said, "Wow. You must really care about us."

Which, when I take a step back and get some perspective, I remember is why I really do what I do.

This is not, technically speaking, library-related, and, blogospherically speaking, I am super late to this story, but for the record:

1) Kids like this are why I became an educator. Not just because his politics happen to align with mine, but because he is thoughtful, passionate, and articulate about his beliefs. Here is a kid who—despite some of the cutesy smirking on behalf of the anchors—demands to be taken seriously; he believes in what he's doing, and has come to those beliefs after consideration of the facts—which is more than you can say about a number of people on either end of the political spectrum.

2) "What's a gaywad?" is, quite possibly, the dumbest question in interview history. And I love how this kid was able to make it clear that this was a stupid question without having to say that it was a stupid question. Despite his suggestion that the teacher jump off a bridge, Phillips is far more diplomatic than most people I've seen interviewed on CNN.

3) His dad rocks my socks. That look of pride on his face is unmistakable.

4) His t-shirt. I want it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

How man cubits in a paperback?

I understand that undertaking a project like deciding to do in-house conversions to e-text and audio files is not a task to be taken lightly, and that it's necessary to establish a system and do it in a deliberate way. I understand that making such a shift in how we do things is a big change and requires thinking differently about our jobs and how we do things. I understand that taking on a task is not a small thing (despite how underwhelmed the headmaster seemed to be when I told him what I was working on). I understand that the technological hurdles can seem daunting.

But there's a point at which talking about how you're going to approach a task has to turn into action; sometimes the only way you can figure out how to do something is to just go ahead and do it.

Today, I turned a paperback book into a series of mp3 files.

It wasn't exactly seamless. I spent quite a while scanning (and a bit more time re-scanning). Getting Kurzweil to recognize the mp3 encoder was a longer process than one might have liked it to be (and I am indebted to the amazing IT department for making that happen). Organizing the files, determining a structure for the saved files, deciding which file formats to save the book as for optimal accessibility (.kes, .rtf, and .mp3, for the record), figuring out how to get these files to students before they leave campus (a still-unfinished project, but should be taken care of tomorrow morning)—all of this took time, and all decisions are the result of previous training and discussion. Completing this project would not have been possible without all of the conversations leading up to it.

I have been up a long time. I spent entirely too much time staring at a computer screen today, often squinting in either concentration or confusion. My level of exhaustion could best be described as "skull-crushing."

I am not the type of person who does things for the recognition. Generally speaking, I'd much rather not draw attention to myself; I am happy to do my job and let the results speak for themselves.

But today, I turned a paperback book into a series of mp3 files.

And that's pretty fucking cool.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I know I've said I work well when I'm up against a deadline, but come on

A student came into the library on Friday looking for an audio version of the next book she's reading in English class. I was a little befuddled at first, given that it's now exam week and, as previously mentioned, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas will consist of regular classes, meaning that regular classes won't resume until January. I subsequently discovered that these students will be expected to read a book and make contributions to a message board during the time between now and when they return in January. These are seniors, and that seems like a perfectly reasonable project.

Only the book isn't available in audio. Not just at my library. Anywhere. No one has made an audio version of this book.

But no worries! Kurzweil (and perhaps another program I've been playing with) will convert electronic text to an mp3.

Only this book is also not available electronically. Anywhere.

The only version it is available in is traditional print. Which, at most schools, would probably be fine. But at a school for LD students? Not so much.

We're in exams now, so it is likely too late for the senior English teachers to change their plans; if anything, they would have to scrap this plan entirely, which I don't want them to have to do. But I've already had two requests for the book in audio, and those demands (from students and parents) are only going to increase as students actually start reading.

So it would appear that the answer to the question, "How long does it take us to take a paper book, convert it to electronic text, and then convert that to mp3?" is "by Wednesday."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Noah Principle. Or, about that squid

The Noah Principle:
No more prizes for predicting rain.
Prizes only for building arks.

It has been a hard week at work. It is the end of the semester and many of us are tried and overwhelmed frustrated and burnt-out. The minor annoyances of September, when repeated often enough, become the stuff of squid-like ranting. It is so, so easy to fall into negativity, as predicting rain is much easier than building an ark (what the hell is a cubit, anyway?), particularly when so many of the people around you are not only predicting rain, but bemoaning the quality of the available umbrellas.

One of my informal professional goals for the year has been to avoid the negativity that can run rampant here. And I don’t think that that negativity is necessarily an indicator that this is a negative place or that I work with a lot of negative people. But the ark builders are usually so busy building arks that you don't hear from them much. So I’ve been avoiding conversations with some colleagues, and keeping others short and to the point, as I am tired of talking about the rain.

We are preparing for our first-ever Winterim, which will take place during the academic no-man's land between Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. In the interest of professionalism (and not getting myself all worked up again), I will simply say that the leadership on this project has been less than inspiring. . . and far, far less than clear.

The person in charge of Winterim is one of the most frustrating kinds of rain predictors, going on and on about his vision and how incredible this all will be, but providing little in the way of direction and clarity. He reminds me of something I read in one of Doug Johnson’s recent columns for Library Media Connection. In response to Peter Drucker’s oft-repeated aphorism, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things” he writes, “You can’t do the right things unless you know how to do things right.” I appreciate vision. One of the things I love best about professional conferences is that I leave them feeling energized and inspired by others’ vision and ideas. But that needs to translate into real action and forward motion. If I wanted to spend my career prattling on about ideas without having to figure out how to actually execute them, I would have become an academic.

I am trying to create something meaningful and worthwhile and relevant for the Winterim course I’m teaching, but all I have to work with is a vague vision; even Noah knew how many days it was going to rain for. And it is so, so frustrating. But I’ve been doing my best and trying to design this course with the information at hand—when the “leader” of this project dumped a major project on my lap on Monday, simply expecting (once again) that other people would take care of his ark-building while he prattles on about how amazing the rain will be. Which, I think it’s fair to say, is neither leadership nor management. It’s just annoying.

I don’t think that predicting rain is necessarily rooted in negativity or in a lack of interest in doing the work yourself. I spend a lot of time talking about rain. We have to. In order to build the ark properly, you need a blueprint.

But at some point you have to stop talking about the damn rain and just start building the ark.

Friday, November 13, 2009

I am still mildly squid-like, but this post is still not about that

This year I decided to do a Birthday Book Club (the process of getting it set-up and running and approved and re-approved sometimes made me squid-like with annoyance, but I'm over that squidiness). Basically, parents make a small donation to the library, I pick out a book for their child, put a special bookplate on the first page, and include a note in the catalog indicating that the book was donated in honor of whoever (that way the students can look him/herself up in the catalog, which is pretty cool). I write out a birthday card for the student and put it in their mailbox the day of their birthday, or sometimes hand-deliver it if I happen to run into the student.

In the card I give to students I let them know that they will have the first opportunity to check out a book, and I have the books in a special display at the circulation desk. The vast majority of students, however, have not even come in to see the book, let alone check it out. When I hand-deliver the cards students often act as if I have just handed them an envelope full of anthrax; they repeatedly demand to know what's in the envelope, and act skeptical of my assurances that once they open the card, they will know what it says. I think I need to come up with a better way to advertise what's going on to students--in part so kids will get excited about it, but also so they stop treating me like a terrorist.

There has one notable exception to the typical series of events, which gives me hope that things might turn around. I had put a birthday card in a girl's mailbox while she was home sick (this may be another part of the problem; a lot of kids have been home sick for their birthdays lately). Shortly after she returned to school she was in the library with her Geography class, and we were in the middle of discussing something else completely, when she said, "Hey, didn't my parents donate a book?" Which made her, officially, the first student to come seek out the book that had been donated in her name. So I got the book to show her and she was so excited. When she opened up the book and found the bookplate with her name she just lit up, and started showing it to her friends. When I told her she could check out the book and keep it over Thanksgiving break so she'd have time to read it. . . I don't think she actually, technically, squealed for joy, but it was close. It made my whole day, and most of the next day, too.

There have been other positive outcomes from this whole project. When I went to get the mail on Wednesday there was a check from a parent who had donated a book for the Birthday Book Club, and who I'd spoken to over Family Weekend. She said that she was going to make an additional donation in support of the library, but that was almost a month ago, so I assumed it was an idle offer (or, that if she did make a donation, it would be for $100 at most). But when I opened the mail on Wednesday I found a check from her for $1,000. Which I know, in the grand scheme of money, is not a lot. But it is the equivalent of 10% of my annual budget. And while the money is, obviously, a huge gift, the bigger message there--that this parent, and her daughter, believe in the library and support what I do--is what I am overwhelmingly grateful for.

These are the types of things I need to remind myself of when I get squid-like with frustration.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I am a giant squid of annoyance, but this post is not about that

Student: Do you have this movie? (waving book for English class)

Me: Yes, but only on VHS.

Student: Ooh! Is that DVD?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

At least it's productive procrastination

I've put the e-text battle on the back burner for a while, and today decided to turn my attention to the myriad other things I need to be doing: all my shelving, designing the course I'm teaching next month, writing an article, developing a research manual. . . .

I got none of that done.

But I did re-arrange my office. And it felt good.

I love my office. It's huge. It gets great light. But there are no cabinets or cupboards and the only shelves I have are. . . oddly shaped for lack of a specific term. And there are lots of windows and multiple doors, which means little usable wall space. In addition to being my office it's also my workroom for processing books and other such things. So it's a hard space to arrange in any workable way. But the chaos in there had gotten kind of epic, and I decided I needed to tame it, thinking that it might make it easier for me to work in there.

Up until this afternoon my desk had been in the middle of the room, and office space and workroom space kind of blended together. Which was good in that I could wheel my chair from desk to worktable without standing up, but bad in pretty much every other way imaginable. I had no walls or shelves near my desk, and the chaos in each area easily infiltrated the other area. So I moved my desk into a corner and pulled some shelves around so now a) there is a distinct difference between office space and workroom space and b) I have shelves! Near my desk! Where I can put things!

Before moving furniture (and as I continue to put things in their new places) I've also been purging and sorting. I found a file I've been looking for since June, so that was nice. I also found a copy of the AACR2—and bunch of papers rubber banded together which appeared to be the revisions to the AACR2. Which just highlights how painfully out of date my professional reference collection is. I don't even want to think about what version of the DDC I'm using.

I also now have one giant "to be filed" pile, as opposed to five separate, smaller "to be filed" piles. When that filing will happen, I have no idea. I'm saving the cleaning and re-organization of my filing cabinet for the next time an office-related nesting instinct takes hold.

I'll Kurzweil your DAISY

Last night I wanted to see how easy it was to use Kurzweil to convert a DAISY book to mp3 but was stymied when I couldn't get version 4.0 of Kurzweil 3000 to properly open or convert the xml file of the DAISY book.

I have been trying to think of some way to say the above without it being so nerdtastic, but I am up to my proverbial elbows in e-text and have a hard time talking about it in any other terms. Besides the technical terms, the only other words I can think of when dealing with accessible e-text are, generally speaking, profanities.

People who are all excited about e-text being easy and accessible and act like anyone who still reads on paper is clearly a technophobe refusing to drag his knuckles into the 21st century (most of their gushing confuses me a bit, as they seem excited about getting rid of paper books because we now have e-books that. . . look like paper. I already have something that looks like paper. It's called paper. Google it) are rarely, if ever, talking about truly accessible e-text. They are talking about e-text that is available to non-LD readers who only want to read commercially popular text. Which is nice and all, but if you really want me to be excited about e-text in needs to be more than just a different format for the same people to read the same things. The (as yet unrealized) promise of e-text is that it can provide access to people who—due to physical or cognitive differences—have difficulty accessing traditional print. And that's a lot more complicated than making it possible for you to easily carry the collected works of James Patterson in your carry-on the next time you go on vacation.

I believe that access to e-text should be seamless for the students who need it. They shouldn't be the ones downloading extra software and conversion programs and text-to-speech programs and troubleshooting and solving issues (never mind having to scan the books themselves). Yes, these are great things for students to learn and know how to do in order to learn independence and self-sufficiency. But asking a student to do that in order to read a novel for English class is equivalent to asking a non-LD student to build a printing press before she can do her reading. It's a completely unreasonable barrier to access.

Which has me running between multiple computers on two different floors and keeping so many different tabs open in my browser that I swear I heard Firefox sigh with relief when I finally closed it. And the only thing I'm trying to figure out is how to easily make a novel accessible via a text-to-speech program with curricular reading supports. A simple novel—one that's already been scanned and converted to DAISY, even, which is the hard part (and a feat I'll be attempting soon). We're still many, many hurdles away from easily providing access to textbooks electronically (one of the biggest of those hurdles being textbook publishers).

It feels like this should be easier than it is. When I read about e-books (which I’ve been doing a lot) people mention again and again the potential e-text has for providing access to people with disabilities. But they’re rarely talking about cognitive disabilities, and they’re almost never talking about curricular access.

My boss keeps telling me that once we've really got this figured out we'll be able to publish and present at conferences. Conferences that are some place a lot more glamorous than Hartford. And if we do get this process anywhere near seamless, it would be very exciting and definitely put us at the forefront of this issue. But as I’m working on this it’s not so much “one step forward, one step back” as it is “one step forward, unscalable brick wall."