The Electro-Map Menagerie → prologue

July 22, 2007

This week I would like to highlight inventive cartography, impossible visions made real through digital technology. I am a big fan of Katharine Harmon’s book You Are Here: personal geographies and other maps of the imagination. In her book she details beautiful examples of abstractly representative map making, or maps interested in showing systems of relationships not geographic in nature. Her collection is great, worthy of a place in any personal library, but sadly for us it is bound by ink and by paper. This week, I hope to bring you a sampler of works available only to an electrified world.

In order to inaugurate this series, however, I will start with a traditional form of imaginative map; click for a readable view.

New York Subway Map of the Internet, all rights reserved

You can visit the original Flickr page here.

This one, supplied by Orli Yakuel, is (inaccurately) called the New York Subway Map of the Internet. It’s actually a modified Tokyo map, but who’s counting? Either way, Orli’s map is a good entry point into this weeks’ upcoming Electro-Map Menagerie, hearkening all the way back to Simon Patterson’s 1992 London Underground mash-up The Great Bear.

Come ride with me the tubes of the Internet, and in so doing we shall visit fantastical realms of uncertain geography.


1000 4th Avenue, Seattle

July 16, 2007

Seattle Public Library by Mark Paciga

As promised, I am writing from the Charles Simonyi Mixing Chamber, floor 5 of the central Seattle Public Library (SPL), Rem Koolhaas branch. I have investigated a small portion of SPL’s treasures and peculiarities which I will try to describe in brief, and it is already clear that it would be easy to burn a few days in deep study here. There’s a little chocolate and espresso busker on floor three, conveniently located near the welcome desk, that I am sure could make the hours just melt away. I do not have the luxury of time today, though, since I need to return to my friend’s house shortly to begin on a homework assignment that is due just hours after I disembark from my aeroplane in Chicago, some days from now.

First off, the workstation itself: the chairs are all solid orange, retro Eamesesque & molded plastic. This keyboard is surprisingly sprightly, and there’s something really inviting about that. Of course the web browser is Internet Explorer, since, if you don’t already know, this building was funded in part by a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation largess (though the public’s enormous bond measure accounted for most of the funding). IE is so buggy, and Robotic Librarian is not displaying properly– I need to figure out why, and if this has been the case for any of my readers I apologize — I use Mozilla Firefox to compose and troubleshoot my work. All of the workstations are in an open air hall, with wonderful diamond-shaped views of Seattle’s bright & hazy atmosphere. Every screen is outfitted with those dimming monitor-hiding privacy thingamabobs, and the Internet access is unfiltered unless filters are requested by a parent or guardian. Seattle Public apparently has a custom designed gateway for children which I think is a nice touch; it might even be something fun for kids who get excited about having their own private browser which adults don’t use.

The whole SPL complex is strewn with artworks, some borrowed from other continents, some traditional paint work & sculptural, and some commissioned for the site. My favorite commissioned work is probably the wood planks on the 1st floor, which are covered by Ann Hamilton’s raised & polished sentences culled from SPL’s book collection, showcasing first sentences in eleven languages running backwards and right to left like an enormous printer’s block. There are also strangely intrusive modernist video/electronic works. Tony Ousler’s projected face eggs in a wall space to your right as you descend an escalator from floor 5 to 3 is the most unsettling, apparently babbling (quite loudly) about its current condition, though when I rode past the bald-headed Asian-faced one it accused me of being Empty.

Seattle Public Library by Gabi in Austin

There’s also the compelling OCD-inspired digital artwork on floor 5, dominating the empty space above the IT/reference desk. George Landry’s work is Making Visible the Invisible, continually ticking off numeric data like an opinionated stock market predictor. Six LCD screens tabulate real-time circulation info gathered from SPL branches and display them in four themed visualizations:

Seattle Public Library by Librarian in Black, Flick Sept 17 2006 creative commons

  1. Vital Statistics book, DVD, CD and video check-out stats
  2. Floating Titles anonymous correlative map of book & DVD (in red) and Cd & video (in green) titles, which allows one to read Dewey Decimal locations spatially on a horizontal plane
  3. Dewey Dot Matrix Rain where columns of Dewey classifications for circulated books can be read left to right while non-Dewey classified materials fall vertically in a yellow, blue and gentle green rain (a comment on Seattle’s weather, or an attempt to replicate The Matrix‘s famous opening title sequence? Both?)
  4. Keyword Map Attack showing another Dewey derived digitalscape as a genealogy of keyword designations for checked out books.

I think it is a fascinating artwork, light-years removed from early Lumière actualities when people ran from their theater seats for fear that an approaching cinematic train would emerge from the flickering screen. Legrady’s digital artwork is remarkably suited to our finely networked infosphere and altered ability to read pure data, yet it makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Considering the far reach of different emerging correlation technologies, the vast body of data which summarizes our interests that is being collected by Google and its ilk, and the SPL’s eager adoption of RFID technology, it seems that Making Visible the Invisible could compromise patron’s privacy rights. Not necessarily by what is fleetingly displayed, which is little more invasive than something like the scroll bar on top of Technorati’s main page, but I just don’t know if data is gathered by Legrady’s installation and how it is used.

The library is eleven floors, though only nine are accessible to the general public. The interior of the building has a distinctly European modern art museum feel to it, for me slightly reminiscent of both the Stedelijk Museum near Centraal Station and the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark — the Stedelijk for its austere geometry, and the Van Gogh Museum probably because of all the metal flourishes and oddly proportioned interiors of the Exhibition Wing designed by Kisho Kurokawa and opened in 1999:

Van Gogh Museum by Kent Wang, Flickr creative commons Aug 6 2005

However it is the interior detailing which dominates Koolhaas’ architectural achievment, not just the hulking asymmetry of its exterior. There are richly colored yellow escalators festooned randomly about the different floors, which by-and-large bypass the alternative shorter floors of SPLs design. Riding them reminded me in length of some of the disorienting & claustrophobic subway escalators in downtown DC, but with the candy-colored luminescence the ride inspires joy rather than existential angst.

Seattle Public Library by deVos

Everything about the organization and planning is noteworthy, and I know that there are detractors but to me the accessibility of its materials is wonderful. (The most noteworthy being the book spiral on the upper floors, allowing for continuous, uninterrupted browsing.) There are so many SPL librarians out and about to help people navigate the space, as well as informational pamphlets, tutorials, and tours. Labels are omnipresent, ambient lighting is emphasized, and ease of use is clearly a guiding operational philosophy. Seattle Public is incredibly playful; learning should always feel like visiting a children’s playground.

SPL is all about orientation of space. No two floors are exact twins, it seems, and the mood of each space is efficiently demarcated. The 4th floor is certainly the most unusual; my post from two days ago opens with a picture of this floor, all bowed, curved and red. Every room on the floor is for meetings, and their interiors are painted a “calming blue” from bottom to top. I was hoping to check out one of the meeting rooms but had to content myself with walking a mesh screened overlook walkway, observing the people sipping coffee and browsing new fiction on floor 3 — no attendent is assigned to the 4th floor on Sundays, and the public tour at noon was canceled due to a shortage of interest.

Instead I decided to focus on two of my goals for the trip to SPL. I wanted to use the Mixing Chamber certainly, but I also wanted to evaluate the extent of their reference business materials. On the way I distracted myself with the 6th floor collection of magazines and periodicals, but let me mention some of the business treasures first.

Initially I was surprised at how small the business collection seemed to be. The shelving was about four feet tall in this section, and though it seemed modest for the size of the library, at least it was divided up into clear, easy to browse divisions:

  • Small Business Collection
  • Fundraising Resource Center
  • Investment and Company Information
  • Business Newspapers
  • Financial Letters

The financial letters section is the most curious to me, and I still don’t quite understand the term. Are financial letters recommendations and reports from opinionated or respected sources? The titles were equally vague (to me at least) implying the need for insider knowledge about the source before one would chose a particular one: Cabot Market Letter, Chartist, Harry Schultz Letter, John Dessauer’s Investor World, or Prudent Spectator, for example. They’re so fascinating for someone who is eager to learn but unschooled in business literature.

Thinking I was finished evaluating the business resources, I turned around and noticed a tiny sign above a photocopier, talking about the Barry A. Ackerly Business Collection and it’s significance. Around a shaded bend I continued, and this is where the true marvels of SPL’s business holdings make their debut.

I am beginning to appreciate how difficult it is to find certain information about business unless it is studiously current and accurate. So much of the value in data provision and knowledge management is currency coupled with solid analysis. Old business data is often discarded or neglected in order to make room for a percentage of new available data on contemporary industries. In this way the Ackerly collection is a fascinating resource for anyone wanting a deeper, more nuanced understanding of any particular industry.

Many of the Ackerly holdings reach back to the late 18oo’s and early 1900’s, with complete records of stocks, bonds, holding companies, currencies and values that would be impossible to find without access to these primary resources. (ie National Stock Survey from April 10 1929 onward) Many of the works detail older business philosophies, leadership manuals, reports from head offices, and a wall of business serials that stretch forward from the late 1800s.

One of my favorites was the Moody collection, which represents a vast combination of interests and methods of collating data. Moody’s Investment Letters alone seemed to go through about 4 iterations from 1925 to 1960: Moody’s Investment Letters, Moody’s Investor Services, Moody’s Bond Survey, and Moody’s Stock Survey. Perhaps they represented different works, but the dates would not overlap in the sequence and the physical look of the volumes were consistent over time, implying a unified serial. Perhaps my favorite Moody’s series was the early 20th century Moody’s Manual of Railroads & Corporation Securities. Each fat volume spanned a year, and I suspect only a professional basketball player could pick a single volume up one-handed. The accounts of the industry were related both in numerical lists as well as charmingly personal assessments, but perhaps the true find in each volume was the extensive collection of fold-out railroad maps, arrayed regionally. A reference librarian kindly scanned in this sample from the Missouri Pacific Railway for me:

Map of the Missouri Pacific Railway, St. Louis, Iron Mt., & Southern RY, and Leased, Operated & Independent Lines

I wish I could’ve had every last map scanned…

As I said before, I did get distracted on the 6th floor by the magazine collection. Its scope is simply spectacular, and this floor more than any other is where I could imagine losing several years of my life catching up on the past century and a half worth of idiosyncratic & mercurial writings. From lamp annuals to industrial surveys, records of jurisprudence, lifestyle quarterlies, horticultural companions, design compilations, archaeological abstracts and who knows what else, this is by far one of the most compelling collections of magazines, periodicals and journals I have ever gone through.

For one, there is The Leisure Hour from the late 1800s, with continuing articles on “Statesmen of Europe,” unusual travel surveys of England and rather uncomplimentary ones of the States, a great illustrated article about microscopic life called “More Marvels in Mud,” the oddly placed sub-Victorian poem, and great little collections of Varieties:

Electric Road Car. — In the final week of October 1890, a long car or omnibus propelled by electricity made a first public journey in London upon the Kilburn and Maida Vale road. The steady, noiseless progress of this novel conveyance was a surprise to those who witnessed the passage of the well-laden vehicle as it glided along the level way. If the venture is successful, the change from horse-drawn vehicles will be welcomed. Road steam-carriages are, on some accounts, objectionable in cities, but the electric car seems well adapted for passenger traffic. In a recent number of the “Daily Graphic” an account of the earliest road steam-coach was reprinted (with an illustration) from the “Saturday Magazine” of October 6, 1832. The writer described his journey in this conveyance–invented by Captain Ogle, R.N., and Mr. Summers–from Oxford to Birmingham.

I love it so much. If you ever come across one of these gorgeously printed and illustrated magazines you should spend a little time with it, they’re very charming.

They seem to have an enormous number of early machining trade journals, which is, I must admit, for my collage-making and for my interest in design, one of my numerous fetishes. A genuine treasure, from the oversized portion of their stacks, is a lengthy run of the Oil, Paint & Drug Reporter from the early part of the 1900s. The ads alone are worth the ticket, and the reports on trade & investment news range from the numbingly banal to the curiously cracked, with a typical report in 1903 sounding like this:


There continues a good demand for domestic grades, and the outlook is favorable to a large business up to the beginning of warm weather, as consuming industries are very busy. There is a steady tone to the market, and we hear of no change in prices.

What exactly is a “consuming industry”? Is that a Britishism for chemical or industrial industry? Isn’t every industry technically a consuming one, after a fashion? The periodical reports of “Drug Trade Bowling Scores” were also peculiar. At first I thought it meant something else, something mysterious and out of fashion, but no, they literally were the collected scores of competing drug trade teams. Is bowling the golf of the drug trade? Who knew? In 1903 Johnson & Johnson was hot, repeatedly beating the pants off of teams such as the NY Glucose Company players, though interestingly of all the scores I saw no individual player topped 200. Has every living sport gone through the same upward curve in gross skills? I just think about a 50s football team playing a modern one, and it would be ugly…

Well, the Mixing Chamber only permits an hour of use, and this post was not finished by then. I didn’t realize how much there would be to tell from my short visit. I haven’t even gotten into the 2nd floor vacuum-tube, RFID-supported, SPL robotic material sorting conveyor system, but I think that deserves a post all by itself.

Tour of Seattle Public Library 4/06 by mstephens7

In the meantime, I hope I conveyed a bit of the Willy Wonka quality of the Seattle Public Library, and I may have a follow up post when I have more opportunity to look over all the materials I gathered while there. While it’s not necessarily a replicable library model for even the most well-to-do public library systems, there is much to inspire and provoke in their organizational philosophy. I feel like SPL stands as a public affirmation of the value of libraries, at a time when the profession is being uncomfortably stood before a mirror in the public square; we are rapidly learning how to properly value and promote ourselves while redefining our service and ethical values for a more openly vocal & diverse patron base as well.

Under Cover

July 7, 2007

Yesterday I was lucky enough to pay a visit to the Newberry Library. I only hope that for those of you outside of Chicago you are able to see such treasures in your lifetime. I never took advantage of the NYC Public Library the way I should have, considering the depth of their collection. In a few weeks I will traveling to England for a short trip — I am definitely going to make time for the British Library, and I will share my discoveries with all of you. The Newberry really is a bibliophiles’ paradise — if you want to see, for example, one of the earliest accurate works of anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica by Andreas Vesalius, you just have to ask. Or how about the Sangorski and Sutcliffe binding of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, c. 1900?

from the Newberry website

This image does no justice to their ridiculously ornate snakeskin and semi-precious stone binding, nor does it show you the peacock on the back cover, or even the beautifully marbled interior leaves…

If only I could be an eighteenth century scrivener, toiling away with my quill pen on handmade papers at my escritoire, drinking some armagnac for inspiration. Of course, in all likelihood, I may have wound up as a 14th century amanuensis to someone as …um, conflicted as Margery Kempe, forced to spend my time avoiding accusations of Lollardry. (Margery’s visions of Jesus scare me, but in many ways she’s like a 14th century version of Mary Jane Hooper’s Harper Valley P.T.A., if you know what I’m talking about.)

I’ve always had a fascination with amanuenses, actually; the idea of devoting oneself to transcribing another’s account of their life is unusual business. There’s the selfless aspect of it, the continual flexibility it requires in planning for yourself, plus the fly-on-the-wall voyeurism of following another person around for possibly years, so deeply invested you would have to be to accurately represent the whole person. You may not think you’ve read the work of an amanuensis; I would argue that The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a modern version of the form, but I digress.

So my visit to the Newberry was very inspiring; I am working on a longer post that will detail methods of book binding, but I am far away from completing that anytime soon. In the meantime, I thought I would offer a few links, as well as a gallery of some of my favorite art deco book bindings ever.

First off, if you have never heard of Boekie Wokie book store in Amsterdam, then I implore you to check out their shop. They are an artist-run bookstore for books by artists, and this is a 360° panoramic shot of the shop. All kinds of hand-bound, stitched, glued, scrapbooked, letterpressed, spiral bound, appliquéd, and burnished books are there for your perusal. Like this copy of Mrs Dead and Mrs Free by Evren Tekinoktay:


If you’ve never beheld a book drawn from a wild range of found source materials such as ballerinas, toilet paper, sofas and printed fabrics then you just ain’t livin’.

Then there is Max Ernst, whose work continues to put me in a sublime state of awe. I recently came across a wonderful little blog post about him that I wanted to share with my readers. It’s a little older, from 2004, and it does say “Not to be introduced into the British Empire or the U.S.A.” so please, be quiet and respectful when visiting his site. I really don’t know how seriously to take that little caveat. It reminds me of one of my favorite ever warnings, courtesy Loompanics Unlimited, circa 1990: “If you are a prisoner or a Canadian, please check with local authorities before ordering any books.”

(And curses, but I discovered the Ernst post just a little too late! The most recent post on Giornale Nuovo was for a book giveaway, featuring some jaw-droppingly exquisite little volumes. Hopefully I catch number eleven! Thank you Giornale Nuovo for making the Internet that much more delightful and mysterious.)

Finally, here is the mini gallery of Art Deco book covers, which are just too wonderful to hide any longer:

Paul Bonet / Joan of Arc 1925 Paris


Pierre Legrain / Song of Songs 1925 Paris


Pierre Legrain / Quelques fables de la Fontaine 1928 Paris


Pierre Legrain / Lediadé me de Flore 1925 Paris


Rose Adler / The Back of the Music Hall 1925 Paris


Geneviéve de Léotard / Vers et Prose 1928 Paris


And happy 100th to Robert A. Heinlein, who passed on in 1988 but for whom a grassroots campaign is working to name a US Navy DDC Destroyer 1001, Zumwalt class, in honor of him.

Handcuffed lightning

July 5, 2007

I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and got into bed before the room was dark. (Muhammad Ali, 1974)

In case you didn’t know, it’s all about speed. Check out the new Type N700 bullet train from Japan.


Top speed: 186mph. Tokyo to Osaka in 2hrs 25m, fully 5 minutes faster than the previous model. Sure, it’s 171mph slower than the French V150 passenger train, but Japanese ingenuity for speed knows few bounds. Here’s a little celebration in video, with some other tidbits of world speed record trivia to flavor the mix like dashi:

World’s Fastest Secretary

(the world’s fastest growing plant is a tropical bamboo which can grow over 50 feet in three months)

World’s Fastest Drinker

(the world’s fastest drummer is likely Mike ‘da man’ Mangini who played a record setting 1207 single drum strokes in 60 seconds at NAMM, 2005)

World’s Fastest Undresser

(Michigan can boast the world’s fastest cow, Taffy. “The only difference between a cow and a horse,” says Taffy’s trainer, “is about 45 miles per hour.”)

And, last but not least, a ridiculously fast method for

T-Shirt folding

Damn, I’ve got to learn how to do that!

So as you can see, there’s just something about living in Japan that inspires people to excel. Honda has even developed a little robot space child from the future who can run. Man, that video is so creepy and cute at the same time, like so many things kawaii. I didn’t even show you the guy on the trampoline who completes a cross-court slam dunk…I’ve gotta save something for tomorrow. Meanwhile, I’m waiting to hear back from James Gleick to see whether or not the world’s fastest computers, which already can simulate planet Earth, will have enough memory to back-up the Milky Way just in case something goes wrong. Perhaps we can give the first super-storage facility to Stephen Wright who once claimed “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”

(the fastest observed pulsar moved at approximately 1100km, or more than 670 miles, per second!)

Before you go, though, I have to share my personal favorite speed record from the wide world of sports. (A big massive thanks to Malcolm Bubb who alerted me to this) Maybe you’ve heard of snooker and Ronnie “The Rocket” O’Sullivan. If not, check out the rules first, and see just how crazy difficult snooker is compared to regular pool. Anyhow, watch this video to see just how a perfect score is done. Keep in mind that he must sink the black ball after every red one for the 147… And I swear to you by the power of Bob, you will never again see something as amazing as you do 2:23 minutes into the video.


Robotic Mnemonic

July 1, 2007

Being a librarian is a complex business, and pretty much every discipline of study out there exists because of a historical respect for the values which guide our profession. Or, at least, because of the impulse which guides some of us toward the study and practice of librarianship. Without an overarching belief in the equitable value of all information, and without a heartfelt need to preserve cultural memory, where would we be?

As Andrew Robinson discusses in The Story of Writing, language has been used to obscure history and propagandize right from the start. After a battle at Kadesh between the Egyptians and the Hittites in approximately 1286BC, each side proclaimed themselves the victor in graven inscriptions. In the 20th century, Stalin routinely demanded falsified photographs to disguise the absence of the disappeared, and more recently Time magazine got in trouble for editing a little cover photo. Or two.

Fauxtography and its antecedents are a fascinating study, and one that helps properly contextualize library values and practice. I am obviously a fan of advocacy; I do not believe in pure objectivity, and in fact I feel that perpetuating a myth of objectivity only harms professions that are held to it, such as journalism and librarianship. (Edward R. Murrow, we have not forgotten you.) Language itself carries millions of unspoken processes for discrimination without which we could not function or meaningfully communicate, yet simultaneously erects borders that proscribe meaning & communication.

Lukasa (Memory Board) of the Luba people

“Is there a difference between history and memory? Simplistically, perhaps, one tends to think of memory as personal, selective, amorphous and emotionally charged; and of history as memory made to some degree objective, sorted out, verified, supplied with missing events, dates and causes.” Isn’t it incontrovertible at this late date though that memory creates history, and vice versa?

I love trying to understand cultural conceptions of memory, and how we organize the stories we tell ourselves. If you’ve even been involved in a car accident or argued passionately with a loved one you know how forceful dissonant memories can be. Communities coalesce around shared coruscating facets of memory; our own personal Rashomon Effect. Memory is central to librarianship, and it is so important to preserve memories of our selves and our world unedited. Every time history is re-imagined, or reshaped by contemporary understanding, we lose something in the translation unless the original memory is preserved.

A librarian is a steward, yes, but also a bulwark as well. After the Roman Empire’s influence dissolved by assimilation selfless Abbots and monks preserved dangerous philosophical texts at risk of losing their lives — hiding them in walls and chests, scraping front pages of heretic authors’ names and copying onto the palimpsest names of condoned writers, or even rebinding works so that several texts could be hidden by the authority of an acceptable one. Almost every early religious culture was involved in this form of preservation, be it Islamic, Zoroastrian, Buddhist or Christian. Without such work the records of cultural memory would be illegible maelstroms of dust.

Huichol yarn painting by Rojelio Beuites

Digitization offers so much promise…I can’t wait to see how the Armarius project is going to develop. Just as amazing is the British Library’s Turning the Pages project, which offers to the world community a chance to interact with very rare and fragile primary texts otherwise impossible to share. Familiarity with digital platforms, social networking and what have you, is at root a form of multilingualism which can only complement our respective native languages. As a librarian I feel responsible to history because, at the end of the day, librarianship is a socially sanctioned mnemonic.

New Urbanism and libraries

June 29, 2007

I am thinking a lot lately about the organization of our cities, and about the idea of New Urbanism. It is not hard to understand some of the concerns about new urbanism, and the worry that a blind devotion to aesthetics will subvert equitability and affordability. Even though popular culture is beginning to understand that the spaces in which we live need purposeful organization, it is difficult to move beyond emotional subjects such as zoning. We need to get over our reliance on cars, and embrace flexible, modern forms of public transportation. We also simultaneously need to wean ourselves from our waste culture while we embrace long-term building projects, reusable product packaging and hold large scale waste producers accountable.

“ON AVERAGE, each person in the U.S. throws out 4.5 pounds of trash a day. Over the last thirty years, the amount of rubbish the United States produces has doubled. Eighty percent of U.S. products are used once and then thrown away. And, unfortunately, this isn’t a problem that remains confined to U.S. borders: Today, the middle of the Pacific Ocean is six times more abundant with plastic waste than zooplankton.” (from Heather Rogers’ article The Conquest of Garbage)

Contrasts (downtown Seattle) uploaded to Flickr by A Boy and His Bike on March 29 2007

In 1956 Eisenhower signed into law the Federal-Aid Highway Act, more generally known as the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways Act. The build up to this legislation was remarkably complex, and there was definitely a significant measure of desire for it from general American citizens. The social, economic and governmental effects of the highway were far different that the establishment of the railroads. Our cities and rural centers spread out at first like a drop of water in the middle of a toothpick star; by the sixties and seventies, the drop became a stream of water, and the toothpicks clung to the land chaotically like sediment.

Suburbs, as we conceive of them today, arguably began in the middle 19th century, in England and other industrial centers, where employees were isolated from cities by the nature of their work. They rose to prominence though in the middle to late 20th century, a post-war phenomenon encouraged by complex social agitation, but ultimately made possible by the growth of highways. Highways consumed public and private lands like starving termites, supported by Federal appropriation and continuing a process of grants and subsidies offering lands to big business that started with railroad networks. Post WWII is when suburbs became desirable for more affluent homeowners, and the urban centers so fetishized today started to lose their economic foundations.

Jane Jacobs had commented on this in 1954 — “The erosion of cities by automobiles proceeds as a kind of nibbling. Small nibbles at first but eventually hefty bites. A street is widened here, another is straightened there, a wide avenue is converted to one way flow and more land goes into parking. No one step in this process is in itself crucial but cumulatively the effect is enormous.”

Celebration, Florida uploaded by RiffRaff to Flickr on March 18 2006, creative commons

This is part of why Disney’s Celebration, Florida is so fascinating. It is a town build not from need or natural population accumulation through the endemic value of its natural resources. Celebration is a much hyped face of New Urbanism that has none of the underlying structures that keep communities stable. Instead it offers residents a quaint, walkable downtown with a library, post office, “town hall” (which actually houses offices for the homeowners association), and store fronts. Homes and stores open directly onto the sidewalk, and naturally they have a golf course and a soda jerk fountain.

What they do not have is native industry, social infrastructure or democratic government. The local school is owned and administered by Disney corporation, and the teachers are trained “in a teaching academy established in Celebration by Disney.” Their downtown has had a remarkable amount of turn-over since business is heavily reliant on tourism. Celebration is almost entirely dependent on Highway 192, the same road that services nearby Kissimmee and leads to Orlando, the prime location of employment for Celebration’s residents. A major necessity of urban downtowns is high population density, guaranteeing enough foot traffic to justify increasing urban business owners’ monthly rent. Disney could subsidize shop owners’ rents and still there is not enough business for many of them to stay.

I hope that New Urbanism does not become solely identified with corporate interests or with futurist nostalgia, which will only damage its reputation. New Urbanism has promise, and much of that promise comes through broad support of efficient, affordable centralized public transportation networks. Even more important is the value of keeping necessities such as construction, agriculture and water supplies local. An intriguing proposal for downtown NYC is for something called vertical farming.

Is this how farms will look in the future? (from BBC article)

“Professor Despommier lists many advantages of this revolutionary kind of agriculture. They include:

  • Year round crop production in a controlled environment
  • All produce would be organic as there would be no exposure to wild parasites and bugs
  • Elimination of environmentally damaging agricultural runoff
  • Food being produced locally to where it is consumed”

I hope for more creative and viable plans such as this one. It may sound nutty, but it is not unrealistic from either an engineering or agricultural perspective. Either way, to me it signals an attempt to encourage long-term sustainable urban planning and the more ideas the better. The number of urban dwellers will equal that of rural dwellers this year, the first time this has happened in human history. The more land made available outside cities for the natural growth of heritage and heirloom agricultural varietals the healthier our global ecosystem will be — cities simply need to start supplying their own food.

Anything that fosters pride in local community will be good for libraries as well, and will not only provide visibility for library programming but will make provision of library services easier. Just look at the work of the Project for Public Spaces website to see how positive effective planning can be. Or look to our southern neighbors in Bogotá, who sponsored the amazing International Seminar on Human Mobility in 2003.

Then there is the IDTP, whose mission is worth quoting in detail: “The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) was founded in 1985 to promote environmentally sustainable and equitable transportation policies and projects worldwide. ITDP was created by leading sustainable transport advocates in the U.S. to counteract promotion of the U.S. model of costly and environmentally damaging dependence on the private automobile in developing countries…Our programs include bus rapid transit, congestion pricing, pedestrianization, bicycle and pedestrian planning, brownfield revitalization, bicycle and cycle rickshaw modernization, the development of buyers’ cooperatives among independent bicycle dealers, and emerging work in health service delivery logistics. All of our projects are used to leverage additional resources from international development institutions, inspire these institutions to change their own priorities, encourage private sector participation, and encourage more participatory and transparent decision-making.”

In the meantime, perhaps librarians can step up the efforts to create joint-use facilities by integrating public and academic, public and school or public and museum libraries. These types of facilities are much more common outside of the United States, and offer so many benefits for 21st century communities. See this Donald E. Riggs article for basic considerations, and then check out this ALA bibliography for more in-depth study.  With digitization, libraries are able to work more effectively in tandem with disparate agencies in organizing, preserving and presenting the human record; the ability to tailor services to both individual and community needs through sophisticated content management systems is also improving.  Anything that enables us to serve larger populations, consolidate resources, and reduce eventual waste (in the form of subscriptions, energy use and land use) is a good thing.

Diving for Perls

June 16, 2007

In order to keep things honest here, I would like to post something with substance behind the observations and gripes. After reading a fair number of blogs about tech services, programming and libraries, I’ve noticed several common threads that could be addressed with a focus on basics. I would like to offer readers of Robotic Librarian quality for their time. Lifelong learning for us as well.

From The Medieval Countryside of Herefordshire

Ideas are valuable when able to be put into practice. A continual theme of these posts call for an active role in encoding library services, and to that end we need to know the basics. For example, a common complaint about the ALA’s digital face is that the website is unappealing, and even archaic. As Norma says in a response to a post on Free Range Librarian, “I was never a member, but look in from time to time. I loved the smaller, deeper professional library organizations, but ALA seemed so out of touch. Still I was surprised by the ugly website comment. It seems to be a library afflication [sic]. The poorest websites with clunky, chunky links seem to be run by libraries. Doesn’t speak well for the profession.”

Some suggest outsourcing, or bringing in professional web designers. Perhaps that is the answer, but I would prefer to see us accelerate our own learning on the matter. A good beginning would be to start with some basic, accepted frameworks and develop it from there. Or perhaps start with designer supplied open source coding that is already dressed up a bit. Best of all would be to learn the CSS, Java, XML, Perl and Ruby on Rails to do it ourselves. Google, one of the most sophisticated of all net aggregators, often uses remarkably simple XML programming to achieve its aims. That very simplicity is a hallmark of new collaborative web environments. Just look at the O’Reilly Web 2.0 article from the last post for an in-depth look at it. For samples of working code that anyone can use, check out The Code Project, with online free source code boasting 4,222,461 members and growing.

To get more specific, there are wonderful resources for libraries as well. Check out the code4lib blog to hear about advances in the tech side of library service. By becoming a member you are able to get advice, code development help, and emotional support every time your code seems to creatively reimagine your data. If you want to connect with other library systems, and see exactly what they are up to today, you can go to the Library Weblogs index, which hosts feeds from Antigua, Egypt, Belarus, Kuwait, Singapore, and…well, just check it out if you’re interested. Amazing, isn’t it? If you’re interested, send in an email and you can get your library related blog feed posted to the list.

On a more personal note, you can subscribe to Blisspix, Fiona Bradley’s Sydney based blog about “Open access, technology and social futures.” Sometimes a bit technical, but a fine review of ongoing questions and problems with a practical focus.

As I come across problems while learning coding I will try to post suggestions, difficulties and pleas for help along the way. Hope this little guide helps even one of you on your way as well.

“And yet relation appears,

A small relation expanding like the shade

Of a cloud on sand, a shape on the side of a hill.”

(Wallace Stevens, “Connoisseur of Chaos”)