The Real Takeaway of ALAMW14: The Homeless

I’ve just returned from the 2014 ALA Midwinter conference in Philadelphia. The average temperature was around 11 degrees Fahrenheit. I had free time between my meetings — time I would usually have used to run to the Liberty Bell and other historical highlights within walking distance. Instead, the bitter cold and snow kept me indoors. When I ventured outside for food, I’d tread lightly on the ice covered sidewalks and the above-shoe-height puddles of slush on the streets. The only bit of skin I showed was just around my glasses. It was beyond freezing for me.

Despite the cold, there were homeless men every few yards on nearly every sidewalk. Half held up cardboard signs proclaiming their homeless status while others just huddled under one blanket in a doorway while icy concrete emerged from underneath their blankets. I saw men missing legs propped up in wheelchairs. Everyone’s hair was gray, their skin leathery, and deep wrinkles ran from the corner of their eyes towards their jawbones.

An Example

My colleague and I had just emerged from Reading Terminal Market. We were waiting for the light to turn to cross the street. I then noticed a man lowering himself onto the wet sidewalk across the way. He looked to be 60+ and was lying back on the sidewalk and stretching out. Then he went up onto his heels and curled his fingers into the grate beneath him. Thus he raised up a little bit and moved this way and that till he found the optimal spot. His eyes were closed and his face was a study in concentrated satisfaction. Beneath him, white bellows of steam escaped around his body; he was lying on top of a sewer grate for warmth.

As I walked around the cavernous conference center, I kept thinking about this large building that is heated and has restrooms, sofas, and power outlets. I wondered since this is a big conference, if the local homeless populace could come in, pretend to be an attendee and just stay out of the biting cold for a bit. But if they left their sidewalk territory, they’d miss their chance at raising funds so they could live.

This is of course not the first time I’ve seen homeless people or homeless people outside a major conference I was attending. It was the cold weather, the sheer number of men, and the sight of so many huddled into doorways into the night that has stuck with me more than anything I heard or participated in at Midwinter. I do not fully know Philadelphia’s efforts to help their most needy and vulnerable residents. I was also under the mistaken impression that a portion of Philadelphia’s Restaurant Week would go towards charity.


I don’t know if there’s anything we can do as a profession and professionals to help out our fellow man while we attend our conferences. I do not pretend to know the stories of the men I saw or why they were there outside instead of seeking a night’s reprieve from the dangerous temperatures. There is Project Home of Philadelphia which “empowers people to break the cycle of homelessness” and other organizations that can help.

Note: I’ve made a slight edit for myself.

A Website Platform Challenge

I worked with a patron today who presented me with a conundrum: they had several Excel sheets documenting a project they had been working on for years. They wanted to import that data into a website. What would be the best way to do this?

I looked over their project, grew excited, and posed my questions: Should this be sortable? Do you have images? Will we link this information to maps? Based on that, I then dove into Googling to see which would be the best option for importing a CSV into nodes: WordPress, Drupal, or Omeka. I then realized that (as I thought) and Drupal Gardens would not allow an import through their self-hosted options. I did not follow up on Omeka because I got distracted. The patron was not interested in having their own server. Their tech skills were not up to that.

Suddenly I had a flash of insight: Can Google Sites handle just copying and pasting the data? I logged into my own Google account and set up a quick site. It worked! We just had to pick a template which did not use a sidebar. I walked the patron through the process of creating a page, copying and pasting data, and how to add pages to the top nav. My lesson stumbled at times because I was learning to use Google Sites at the same time.

Today’s realization is that sometimes simple is best. This project has so much potential, but I had to adjust my recommendation and help based upon the technical capabilities of the patron.

A Second Flood in the Library

We had a second flood in the Library on Wednesday, January 8th (the previous one in August 2012). Something about a pipe being exposed to the “Polar Vortex”, freezing, and then as it began to melt, the ice/water forced a sprinkler head off, thus dumping water down the street-facing vestibule and into the Lower Level. I was assisting in setting a camera up on the second floor when the fire alarm went off. On my way downstairs to retrieve my coat (whoo, Polar Vortex!), I was stopped by patrons wanting to know if they really had to leave, what was wrong, and gimme my spouse’s library card number.

With my coat on, I took over shooing people out of the computer labs. Once they were gone, I stuck my head in the room to check for any further stragglers. That’s when I heard it — a waterfall. I paced in on my toes towards the noise. It was coming from the back room where we keep the copiers and other office equipment. Water was pouring through the ceiling — directly onto our faxing copier and the computer next to it. I ran up the stairs and out of the building searching for an admin, my boss, anyone to report what had set off the alarm.

After it was over, I stubbornly insisted that I had to help vacuum up the water. It was exhausting, back-breaking work, which felt like a waste of effort. The water had spread from the copier room to the tech classroom, through the study room, the Digital Media Lab (DML), and into the teen room. I needed to feel of use though — haunted as I was by the sight of that water falling down on top of the copier — so I wrestled and shook off my colleagues who tried to take turns with the vacuum. I felt so guilty though I knew there was nothing to be done. It did not help that in my pant’s pocket were two AA batteries that I had retrieved from the copier room five minutes prior to the water bursting down.

Memorable moments:

  • forming a chain with firemen as we shoveled chairs out of rooms and into the teen room
  • gently but repeatedly chiding my older colleague to stop walking into the water soaked rooms
  • when rushing around looking for an admin, holding up my hand full-stop and telling a colleague, “No, stay here. Don’t follow me down.” (I was worried about her safety)
  • climbing on top of a table in the study room and sliding across in order to drop two more buckets under leaks
  • hurriedly unplugging the equipment in the Digital Media Lab and ordering the big pieces to be carried to the UX office and set by my desk
  • my brown leather coat — holding my phone in its pocket — thrown over a chair that had been pushed out of the rooms
  • gladly helping to clear the way so our brand new expensive banner printer could be pushed out of the copier room and to safety
  • going to the UX office and telling the teen librarian to come save her books — note: the shelvers are way more capable and better equipped at dragging books off shelves and putting them on carts
  • the sound of the fans, the smell of the carpet shampooing, and the wet feel of the gray rug in the DML as I rolled it up and tossed it into a trash can I had found (my wonderful colleague Vic later found it, dried it, and brought it back for me to place back down)
  • the “Room Closed” signs I made for the closed rooms
  • pulling out the paper trays in the worst damaged copier to see if we could salvage the paper. The top drawer was mostly dry, but the others were full of water
  • I got a paper cut while stacking and carrying the paper out
  • looking down on the card-swiping kiosk that was directly under the onslaught. The touchscreen glass has great water circles on it. The guilt has subsided but it feels awful seeing all that expensive equipment in the closed room
  • patrons arriving that afternoon and in the days since not always understanding or knowing that our copiers are down or about the flood

The copier room is still down, but we’ve opened up all the other rooms.

Back to Teaching Again

For a secret project at work, I used to map out the Library in 3D. With my new mad skills in hand, I decided to teach a random class on the topic. My students were either working on a home renovation or wanted to redecorate their home. One person told me after the class that he could now put together something to show his builder which would save him time and money. Besides learning floorplanner, I threw in a couple extra lessons on:

  • Getting a throwaway email from Guerrilla Mail
  • Searching for images on Google Image Search
  • How to select images of a certain size
  • How to upload images

I found the class at times to be a little tough to teach because of the wide range of tech abilities. What I thought was pretty simple — clicking on a link — would send me circling around the room to make sure everyone knew how to use their mouse. This slowed the lesson down, but in the end, I had everyone drawing new rooms based on a found floor plan and zooming around in 3D space.

Afterwards I wound up sitting in a comfy green chair on the first level showing someone how to use Dropbox and Google Plus to back up the photos on her Android phone. My next one-on-one time involved helping someone check their storage media to see if their documents was on it. I did find something strange: several documents’ text were actually images. I haven’t been able to figure this one out — how did the text turn into images? Any ideas? Otherwise, I did lots of email back and forth with patrons.

Unrooting the Nook Colors at Work

I wrote before about converting unused Nook Colors into Android tablets using Cyanogenmod 7. The tablets, dubbed “Tween Tablets” weren’t a hit with the pre-teens in the Children’s Library. I suspect this is because they were probably being marketed as mini iPads before mini iPads existed. I love my personal Nook Color, but after having worked with devices which are heavily reliant on touch like smartphones and yes, an iPad, I can recognize that Nook Colors just aren’t real replacements for an actual touch-responsive tablet.

Converting the tablets back into Nooks took a little bit of research. There are a dozen daunting methods out there, but this one turned out to be the easiest method:

It works great on a Mac. The only thing you’ll need is to get the Nook Complete Restore File from another video’s description. You’ll need a microSD card. Once you have the card set up, it’s easy to plow through converting a stack of tablets in minutes. I’d estimate each tablet took about 5 minutes to restore. At one point, I was walking through the Library reformatting a Nook as I went about my business.

Eblast Newsletter Growing Pains

My Library has been with Contactology as our email/eblast newsletter service since I was hired. Before them, it was Constant Contact. It took me a year, but I finally pulled the Library over to using MailChimp. The transition between eblast services and email designs has not been the most smooth event, but I’m glad to be in the new position — AND I’m saving the Library some money each month.

Below is the original email template I made up was based upon the one my predecessor had created. The design was very simple and from it I based all our other library related email templates. Contactology was a frustrating system for us to use since content would become uneditable after you had saved and gone to the next step (thus making proofreading almost impossible to have assistance in), sometimes an editable block would become uneditable, and common characters like & would not render. Contactology’s chat people were wonderfully pleasant, but more often than not they were stumped too.

Property of Darien Library

Property of Darien Library: Week of December 7, 2013

Now onto how this particular newsletter has changed in the past month using MailChimp and their drag-and-drop editor. The feedback I received was that there wasn’t enough content below the images and that the yellow text was too hard to read. Why such short text? I want people to click through to the actual postings so I can track what people are actually interested in reading/attending on our website. Also our click-through stats went through the roof!

Property of Darien Library: December 13, 2013

Property of Darien Library: December 13, 2013

This next version is the current style with the darker colors and more text about each event (title, date, two line description, Read More link). The biggest difficulty is making sure the content matches the layout of the template. For example, each header should be two lines and the descriptions need to tell you what the event is about. This is a struggle between design, content strategy, and editing. I spent most of 2013 thinking about content strategy, so it’s very important to me that we provide consistent and attractive content to our readers. So at the moment, I’m checking back in on the weekly big newsletter to see if it’s meeting the design rules. I may need to handcode a new template, but I’m not sure that would help since consistency and content still needs to be king. I don’t think there’s a way that can be automatically built in regarding line length and description without a human editor. The problem on my side is that I’m consuming all this information about the web and how to handle content which describes large companies that can afford to have strict content editors and creators. At a small library, we don’t have the luxury of having specific content people, so it’s just more about training and trying to enforce the rules that we have in place. I care very much about it and think that we should set ourselves to the same standards as larger organizations — especially when it’s something doable.

Property of Darien Library: Week of January 3, 2014

Property of Darien Library Week of 2014-01-03

I have not been blogging much as of late because I’ve been working on very small, routine projects that need to get done. Stuff like checking then rewriting all the eBook handouts, managing my end of launching Hoopla, lots of hours on desk, etc. So while I’ve been busy, it feels a bit like spinning my wheels.

P.S. I’d love some feedback regarding the current design!