HHH: Fiber

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I’ve highlighted a lot of exciting technologies in this blog series, but there is one out there right now that I believe libraries should be making every effort to acquire and take advantage of, if they haven’t already. Harnessing it will ensure that both the library and the community it serves will continue to thrive in the future. The technology I’m talking about is fiber optic cable connectivity.


Today’s highlight: Fiber


Social media giant Facebook announced earlier this month that they’ve been collaborating with a number of partners to develop a robot that can deploy fiber optic cables quickly over power lines. This dramatically reduces the cost of fiber construction.

 [Nerdy fun fact that I personally love: they nicknamed the robot “Bombyx”, scientific name for a silk moth. Get it?]

Computer-generated rendering of cylindrical robot on powerlines above an inhabited rural area.
Source: Facebook

Why is Facebook making an acrobatic silkworm robot? Around the world, 3.5 billion people are still not connected to the Internet. And for those who have access, average data usage per person is growing 20 to 30 percent annually, pushing current capacity to its limits. To address these issues, Facebook says, “fiber must be brought from the backbone closer to the end user.”  For them, that means pursuing innovations like Bombyx.

I, for one, welcome our new robot fiber deliverers.  


What is fiber?

To put it poetically, it’s light-filled glass connecting us to a better tomorrow. I’m inspired to describe it this way because of the book I’m currently reading: “Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution―and Why America Might Miss It” by Susan Crawford. In her book, Crawford sings fiber’s praises and makes excellent points about why fiber deployment is the key to the nation’s success.

Cover image of the book, Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution―and Why America Might Miss It, by Susan Crawford

On her love of the technology of fiber, Crawford writes:

“Inventors have found ways to encode stunning amounts of information on pulses of light vibrating billions of times per second, and then send that light on its journey through a channel made of the purest glass on earth.”

Fiber, Crawford explains, is a physical connection that needs to be distributed to each individual building for it to be harnessed. The same is true for copper and cable, of course, but fiber is more flexible and doesn’t require recipients to be close to a central physical hub. Perhaps the biggest advantage of fiber is one doesn’t have to dig the existing cables back up to make an upgrade. Those cables can stay where they are, and they last for decades. One just has to “swap out the electronics that encode and power the pulses of light,” which are easily accessible above ground. This means that fiber is almost infinitely upgradeable, and it’s why so many consider it a future-proof technology, unlikely to become obsolete any time soon.


Needed for the future

Many of the emerging technologies I have highlighted for HHH are ones we expect to be a big part of our lives in the future. And here’s the truth: they require fiber infrastructure to work in the first place.

So many of us use our smartphone in the outside world away from our homes, and we might be forgiven for thinking that wireless connectivity is a wholly separate technology from a wired connection. But they’re actually complimentary―WiFi requires a fast wired connection for it to work. Fiber, plus advanced wireless capability, as we’d see with the predicted 5G revolution, is, as Crawford writes, “central to the next phase of human existence as electricity was a hundred years ago.

5G means that enormous amounts of data can be shipped to whenever and wherever they’re needed. This allows the Internet of Things (IoT) to be implemented in our towns and cities to improve citizens’ lives, solving problems like traffic and the handling of fires and accidents, among many other things.

Fiber also enables Augmented Reality (AR). All that visual annotation occurring in real-time, or the piping in of live video feeds into our field of vision while we are out in the world―these features require fiber-enabled 5G connectivity. In her book, Crawford asks us to imagine an apprentice training in a remote factory using directions from AR, rather than having to go to the physical central training location. It means those in rural areas will have equal access to the same privileges as their urban counterparts.

Fiber/5G also allows for artificial intelligence (AI), driverless vehicles and personalized transportation, neural interfaces, persistent recognition systems, esports, and wearables.

And of course, telehealth. Crawford writes, “Every part of the health care system could be vastly improved by eliminating distance, bringing data, doctors, and counselors where they’re needed via communication networks, rather than making 330 million Americans travel to where these specialists and databases are.

Finally, Crawford thinks we may not fully grasp the value of having even faster speeds with fiber―particularly with regard to interacting remotely. Currently when we video conference with one another (an activity many of are having to do a whole lot more of), there are still lags when virtually communicating. Crawford points out that this delay means eye contact between people is not genuine. It’s something we humans actually notice, and subconsciously the interaction doesn’t fully satisfy us. It feels virtual, inferior. With the fiber-enabled higher speeds, we can overcome this dissatisfaction and unease. The closer we make our remote, virtual interactions feel like we are physically present with each other, the better the social connection, which could make a big impact in how we embrace the technology and use it in the future. Crawford writes, “Fiber will allow us to be present in others’ lives in ways we cannot now imagine.” 


Needed now

The truth is we can’t wait for the future to come.

The current crisis is revealing just how much of a digital divide we have in the United States. The alarm was raised long before the pandemic when it was pointed out that students who lacked Internet access at home were unable to complete their mandatory online homework, causing them to lose valuable educational opportunities and fall behind their classmates. Called the “homework gap,” this discrepancy and inequality of access created immediate disadvantages for many people. But in the times we’re living in now, with schools closing and having to switch to virtual classrooms, it means these same kids can no longer even participate in school activities at all. And, it should be pointed out, it’s not just Internet access that’s needed, but fast, affordable and reliable Internet access. Students may have an Internet-enabled device at home, but it may not be connected to the higher speeds needed to handle the video conferencing technology school use for their classes. What we’re seeing is that it’s not just a homework gap any more; it’s a learning gap. And we need a solution now. We needed it yesterday.

When public library buildings closed, similar issues were faced by many adults, who lost access to crucial services and opportunities. So many paths to success in life rely now on having online access: job search and training, healthcare information, communicating with loved ones, etc. Many people’s sole computer is their smartphone, and they must pay for data to access the Internet. Free available WiFi found at public libraries is a way to not only access the needed services but also to save money. Taking away the library’s Internet revealed just how many folks relied on it. Closing the library building and stopping the transmission of its Internet access is self-destructive. The community is stifled and starved, lacking in its source of nourishment to grow. This is why so many libraries are trying to lend out wireless hotspots and extend their WiFi into their parking lots. 

It’s not just the schools or libraries. A BroadbandNow report released in February said that only 25 percent of American have access to fiber, versus 87 percent for China’s 1.4 billion population. We are way behind. Everyone has a right to fast Internet speed right now. And those who don’t have it may suffer and become further disadvantaged.

Getting fiber to the library is a good start.  


How are public libraries getting fiber?

If a library isn’t receiving fiber, and no service provider is offering it at an affordable cost to the area, consider the following:

  • Advocate for fiber infrastructure to be brought to your community, either locally or nationally. 
  • Apply for federal E-rate discounts to afford the costs not only for special construction to build out the fiber to the library building, but for the cost of the Internet access itself.
  • Look for any existing fiber infrastructure in your community that can be leveraged. State appropriated funding in Texas helped support school districts in building expensive fiber rings across the state. We’re now seeing public libraries partnering with those same school districts to start taking advantage of their fiber connectivity. In many cases, the fiber ring was built so physically close that the cost to connect the library is minimal. Often in these partnerships, libraries join forces with the schools as part of a single consortium to apply for federal E-rate discounts.

Library Fiber for Victory!

Back in January, for this Highlights series, I created a set of updated World War II posters to empower library staff about using technology. 

For this month’s post, I’ve fashioned a new poster to drive home the need for more fiber in our efforts to close the digital divide as COVID-19 challenges us further:

On the left, original poster shows  soldiers carrying lumber beams to a bridge that's under construction over a river in the background. Other soldiers are defending an attack and an explosion has occurred in the river near the bridge. One soldier is facing the viewer has his hand up to his open mouth. Caption below says "KEEP THAT LUMBER COMING!".  On the right, new poster shows same soldiers now wearing the safety helmets and vests of public utility workers, and instead of carrying lumber, they're carrying fiberoptic cable which is being laid on the bridge.  The explosion in the water is labeled "COVID-19" and the gap in the bridge on the river is labeled, "DIGITAL DIVIDE". The yelling soldier facing the front now sports a badge with the library symbol on it.  Caption below says "KEEP THAT FIBER COMING!"
On the left, the original war-time poster; On the right, my modern update. Note the librarian issuing the clarion call.
Bigger version of new poster (Soldiers now wearing the safety helmets and vests of public utility workers carrying fiberoptic cable which is being laid on a halfway constructed bridge over a river.  The explosion in the water is labeled "COVID-19" and the gap in the bridge on the river is labeled, "DIGITAL DIVIDE". The yelling soldier facing the front  sports a badge with the library symbol on it.  Caption below says "KEEP THAT FIBER COMING!")

Additional resources

HHH: Humanitronics

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In early February 2020, I had the privilege of attending the TCEA Convention in Austin. This is a conference put on by Texas educational professionals, teachers, trainers, media specialists, and school librarians all of whom love to employ technology in fun and innovative ways for their students. You can really feel the love there. TCEA presenters and attendees don’t employ tech because their boss or school district said they should, but rather because they unabashedly enjoy new technology and want to share their enthusiasm with their students, knowing that modelling that joy and getting it into young people’s hands are the keys to their future success. These are my kinds of folks.

At TCEA, there were a lot of great presentations from these tech-savvy teaching superstars, ones that showcased the newest, most buzzworthy educational tools, tips, and tricks. I think my favorite program of the whole conference though wasn’t about a new piece of software or fancy gadget. It didn’t talk about VR, AR, AI, or any other two-letter acronym. It was held in a small room, not heavily attended, on one of the first days of the conference and first thing in the morning. It described an idea out of Trinity Valley School in Fort Worth, Texas called Humanitronics, and I think it’s one of the most clever ideas for STEAM programing I’ve ever heard of. One day soon I hope we can be at a place where more schools and libraries can duplicate or draw inspiration from it.

Today’s highlight: Humanitronics


When I walked into the conference room that morning at TCEA, this is what I saw at the front:

Two puppets of a bull and a lion propped up in a small decorated set, with labels in front of them showing famous names from history.
???

Puppets. Propped up within a tiny decorated stage. Then a switch was flicked, and they were turned on.

Animated gif of the bull and lion puppets talking on their own (no puppeteers)

The puppets began to move on their own, their mouths opening and closing in sync to the recorded voices of middle school kids acting out a skit featuring famous historical persons they’d researched in their seventh grade Humanities class. The students weren’t even there. They basically made robots perform their school assignment for them. Definitely a cool trick, but it’s what went into its creation that is, as I would soon learn, where the real magic resides.

And this magic has been dubbed, “Humanitronics”. As presenter Abbie Cornelius, computer science teacher and STEAM specialist at Trinity Valley School, explained:

Humanitronics = Humanities + Animation + Electronics

This is, of course, a bit of word play referring to animatronics. If you’re not familiar with the term, perhaps you recognize this little guy, who happened to have captured many folks’ hearts right at the time I attended TCEA:

An animated gif showing Baby Yoda waving.

It’s Baby Yoda from The Mandalorian tv series. This immensely popular creature was created and performed using mostly animatronics puppetry. Although modern special effects in television and film rely heavily these days on computer generated imagery and less on practical effects, the art of animatronics is far from dead – as Baby Yoda’s adorable charms can attest. You can also find animatronics at theme parks such as Disneyland with their ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ ride, for example. And there are animatronics programs in higher ed., as well as classes taught in K-12 schools.

But Humanitronics is something special. The original visionary for the project was Dr. Paul Dietz, a former Disney Imagineer and Microsoft Researcher.  He brought the project to Trinity Valley School in 2014, conducting a hands-on summer workshop for high school students. In collaboration with computer science teacher, Dr. Ginger Alford, the high school team traveled to Maker Faires in both Seattle and New York presenting their first animatronics project. The project continued to develop in other forms, but the original animatronics kits sat idle and unused, collecting dust in a closet at the school. This is when Middle School STEAM teacher Abbie Cornelius noticed something.

For the last several years, the seventh grade humanities teachers, Dan Betsill and Tina Harper, were teaching literature and history through a final class project where their students would script conversations between the characters they learned about. They’d then perform the skits as a puppet show using miniature sets they designed and decorated themselves. It was a great idea, giving students a chance to be creative and combine several humanities disciplines, such as playwriting, performance, and art.

Cornelius saw she could take it to the next level. She could leverage this existing humanities project and combine it with the animatronics kits. And thus, Humanitronics was born!

Teaming up with the humanities teachers, as well as Dr. Ginger Alford, SMU professor of computer science, Cornelius crafted a year-long program for seventh graders to continue their humanities puppet show project but now with integrated STEM skills.


(Normally, we see folks finding ways to put the A (Art) into the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) to make STEAM – but this is the reverse: adding the STEM to the Art.)


Besides what they are already getting in their humanities classes studying history and literature, in Humanitronics, they learn script writing and voice acting. They next learn how to use audio recording equipment and editing software, then metalwork and basic engineering and design skills while they fashion their puppet frames.

Animated gif showing students building the puppet frame.

They learn about wiring and circuitry (electrical engineering) to control the servo motors in their animatronics.

Animated gif of a student setting up the wiring to a circuit, with the chyron below: "Power and control your motors by wiring circuits."

They design, build, and decorate their sets, learning woodworking and interior design

Animated gif showing students working on their sets using scissors on fabric and a power drill on wood.

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They get experience with coding and robotics as they record their lip-synced puppetry performance within their set.

Animated gif showing a zebra puppet with the animatronic puppet frame inside being controlled by a student at a computer.

Among many roles, they get to be performers, engineers, and writers. Every student tries all of the skills, with the chance to engage deeper with the ones that most interest them.

Animated gif showing class gathered with their projects with the chyron below: "Every job is needed to create the show"

Fun Fact: They took the students to the local Benbrook Public Library to use their laser cutters – I love that!


One coda to the successful program: After the recorded robot puppet shows were finished during the 2018 year, Cornelius and the team took the project out to the larger community. At the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, the students played live performances, explained the process, and answered questions from museum guests. They even gave hands-on demos with the puppets, circuitry and servo motor programming.

Honestly, I can’t think of a more well-rounded STEAM project that exposes the students to so many practical disciplines. Humanitronics for the win!


Special thanks to Abbie Cornelius, who shared with me a promotional video of the project. It’s the source of the animated gifs included in this post.

HHH: Discord and Twitch

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Even before the pandemic closed our buildings, necessitated social distancing, and gave sudden prominence to our online offerings and services, many libraries had already ventured into less familiar digital territories to explore new ways to connect with and build their communities. They did so to reach the underserved, those in the community who were either unable or disinclined to physically visit the library building and engage with the services there.

Take teens, for example. Two popular online platforms that teenagers frequent are Discord and Twitch. Some libraries, trying to meet this age group where they are, have pioneered the use of these services before and during the current crisis. Now, more than ever, such virtual online spaces are worth boldly engaging with to conduct library programming and outreach.

Allow me to dig out my trusty highlighter, and let’s begin…

Clip art of a highlighter pen,

Today’s highlights: Discord and Twitch


What is Discord?

It’s a digital community gathering space, an app described as “Slack for gamers”. Picture a customizable chat channel with the integration of text, images, audio, and video.

Discord was created by gamers for that specific community: a shared space online to socialize, chat, share content, discuss strategy, and keep up with their games remotely and asynchronously.

Despite its gamer origins, Discord has many versitile applications including education and business. Any organization can use it to conduct outreach, communication, and facilitate community building.

So it’s a perfect fit for libraries!

How are libraries using Discord?

Here are a few ways the platform is being used in libraries today:

  • Book clubs
  • Dungeons & Dragons games
  • Genealogy workshops
  • Internal staff communication
  • Professional discussions

What is Twitch?

Twitch is the world’s most popular social live streaming site. Like Discord, it came out of the world of gamers. Besides being where most eSports competitions are broadcast, Twitch is the place to watch game-based talk shows or individual streamers playing their favorite video games while giving their own self-commentary. Participants watching the live stream can interact with the streamer directly or access the archived recordings on-demand. Unlike YouTube, where watching videos is usually free, and content creators are paid solely via advertising revenue, Twitch employs a subscription service and popular streamers receive payment from their subscribers.

Animated gif of someone Twitch-streaming Fortnite on Twitch.
Source: NY Times

Twitch isn’t just for games. There are a number of creative artists on Twitch – anything from sculptors to musicians – streaming the live creation of their work for an audience willing to give them immediate (and I mean immediate) feedback.

Animation showing a drummer playing his drums on Twitch while people respond over chat.

How are libraries using Twitch?

Digital literacy: To stream one’s one content, Twitch can be particularly complex to set up and use effectively with regard to its hefty hardware, software, and network requirements. This makes it a fantastic tool to introduce teens to crucial (and lucrative) digital literacy skills. Considering the growing rise in the number of female gamers, there’s an opportunity here to engage teen girls with the platform and encourage them to develop skills in this area and potentially pursue STEAM careers.

Despite its popularity with teens, over half of Twitch’s users are between 18-34 so libraries may want to consider using it to provide adult services as well.

Here are some ideas for how libraries could use Twitch:

  • Support an eSports program
  • Stream programs, workshops, and presentations for homebound patrons or ones outside of geographical area
  • Engage guest speakers for programming without requiring travel.and including special interactive component
  • Teach resume classes
  • Play bad movies and host a community heckle

If you’d like to learn more about these two popular platforms, I highly recommend this introductory presentation for last year’s Library 2.0 conference.by Michael Dunbar-Rodney and Pamela Van Halsema from San Antonio Public Library. Besides giving a great overview, itcovers many of the emerging best practices for those libraries wishing to use Discord and Twitch themselves.

> Presentation recording (MP4, 30 mins): Twitch & Discord in Public Libraries: New Opportunities for Adult Services


Has your library done anything with Twitch or Discord, especially during the pandemic? Let me know. I’d love to hear about it.

A big thanks to LDN Office Assistant Tomas Mendez for his help developing the content for this month’s highlight!

HHH: Drones

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Back in late summer of 2019 (remember those halcyon days?), I noticed that May 2, 2020 was ‘International Drone Day’. So I planned a Henry’s High-tech Highlight post for this week on that topic. 


The world is in a different place now than when I penciled that into my calendar. But as the week of May 2 approached, it struck me as still being an interesting highlight for this time.

You may recall that in 2013, Amazon announced plans to start a drone delivery service. I recollect feeling wonder-struck at this futuristic concept becoming real, imagining that our lives would soon become even more like science fiction. I thought the sight of autonomous flying robots zipping about their business above us as we conducted our lives down on the ground would soon become commonplace. Drones weren’t new in 2013; they had become a popular item for consumers a few years before. Once they had cameras attached and could be controlled by our smartphones, people wanted to give them a spin. Many libraries were quick to embrace this exciting new technology and began offering programming to showcase how it worked, as well as checking them out to patrons to try out at home.

Fast forward to today. It’s been seven years and Amazon’s drone delivery service has yet to take flight. Doesn’t it sure sound nice right about now? Many of us are social distancing and having varying degrees of difficulty in receiving even basic supplies like toiletries, pharmaceuticals, and groceries. Although items can be delivered directly to our homes, we rely on human drivers who may be putting themselves at risk. A remote-controlled robot that descends from the sky to drop toilet paper on my doorstep? Yes, please.

To some, drones may seem like they’re passe, a passing fad, part of a hypothetical future that never came to be. But despite the lack of an Amazon delivery highway in the skies above our neighborhoods, we’ve come a long way in the last ten years.  There are a lot of really exciting things going on that I’d love to highlight for you. Drones are still worth buzzing about.

Today’s highlight: Drones


COVID-19 and Drones

It’s been interesting to see how emerging technologies can, well, emerge during times of crises such as what we’re going through now.  Before we get to more general uses for drones, here are some instances when drones have been deployed in the pandemic:

  • To deliver supplies to residents: If you are a resident of Christiansburg, Virginia, you can already experience what it would be like to get your supplies via drone at this time. Google has a pilot project there called Wing launched in September 2019 with little idea they would be testing things out during a pandemic six months later.
Photo of family on doorstep looking up at drone delivering supplies.
Source: Wing via Forbes
Photo of a drone with sprayers attached.


Outside of COVID-19, drones are still taking off. An article in the Wall Street Journal from last October outlined a lot of their upward momentum (sorry, I can’t not make drone puns).

Here’s a rundown of uses for drones you may not be aware of:

Medical

  • Blood
    • In Rwanda, they can cut a treacherous 4-hour road journey to just 30 minutes. Drones delivered 5,500 units of blood to Rwandan regional hospitals over a12-month period, leading to a reduction in maternal deaths and fewer cases of malaria-induced anemia! Source: beautifulnews.daily
  • Medicine

Farming and pest control

  • Drones with crop sensors significantly improve the efficiency of agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers and water, and improve environmental impact. It saves the farmers thousands of dollars every year. Though primarily used for grains, a recent study is exploring how drones can even help fruit growers by:
    • taking inventory of tree height and canopy volume
    • monitoring tree health and quality;
    • managing water, nutrients, pests and disease in-season;
    • estimating fruit/nut production and yield; and,
    • creating marketing tools (videos for promotion of the orchard, or sale of trees and fruit).
  • Pesticide-spraying to accelerate sustainable farming
  • Eradicate locust swarms ravaging crops to curb hunger crises
  • Planting trees by firing “seed missiles” to restore the world’s forests
  • Dropping baits to poison invasive wilderness pests to support indigenous wildlife and with enough accuracy to avoid endangered species

Drone photos to 3D Print

Here’s a cool idea: Use your drone to take photos of of a subject (like a building), and then make it with a 3D printer.



Other compelling applications

Speaking of swarms and insects…

Check out this recent video from PBS of a camera drone disguised as a hummingbird which was able to capture never before seen footage of monarch swarms:

Source


Libraries and Drones

Anything new going on?


Thanks for asking. Here are a few I found:

  • Scanning shelves to conduct inventories (happening in Japan)


    Source: A librarian monitors a flying drone to scan bookshelves at a library in the Nishifuna 1-chome district of Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, on March 12. (Shigeo Hirai)

And finally, as suggested by our Inclusive Services Consultant Laura Tadena, you can do something right now, even if your library building is closed:

Suggest a drone simulation video game to teens currently at home. They can get started playing with this emerging technology and practice flying one until they get the real thing. Here’s a free one.

Screenshot of a drone simulation video game

What about you? Anything I missed about drones? Send any further ideas, even flights of fancy (sorry), to ld@tsl.texas.gov care-of Henry Stokes.


A big thanks to LDN Office Assistant Tomas Mendez for his help researching links for this month’s highlight!

HHH: Virtual Branch

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If your library has a website, you’ve got a virtual, or digital, branch.

So what happens when all the library’s buildings are closed, the books are locked away on their shelves, the computers and printers are shut down, and the staff are sent home? Is the library gone? Is it really closed?

There may be a “virtual branch” sitting on the Web somewhere for people to find, but does that count? That’s just web pages with the library’s address and hours, maybe some text that no one really reads, right?

I don’t think so. The virtual branch is so much more. Especially right now.

Today’s highlight is the Virtual Branch.


Many might think that library closures mean that the library’s gone away. That the job is over, all the essential services have stopped, that staff will have nothing to do. That the virtual branch, the library’s online website, is merely a sad placeholder, a shuttered, boarded-up storefront, useless and defunct, with a message at the top announcing: “Sorry, we’re closed.”

I want those who think this to reconsider. Here’s what a virtual branch can be, should be, even when the buildings and physical collections are inaccessible.

Photo of a smiling woman
Photo by KAL VISUALS on Unsplash

It’s PEOPLE.

Here’s what I hope folks understand: the virtual branch is still the people.

It’s YOU. It’s your friendly, helpful staff. It’s actual living library workers still doing the work they would do in the physical location, but now virtually. Many of the crucial services the library provides continue on. Even when the library is closed, the virtual branch can be actively open. You’re still helping your community..


Here’s a little video I made explaining more about a virtual branch, albeit back in far less crisis-y times:


Right now our communities are going to need help. This is the time for action. Libraries respond.

Picture of determined looking librarian

How will you respond to the various, and sometimes dramatically different, circumstances facing your patrons? For example, in a community for a public library:

  • People will be bored and need entertainment and diversion.
  • People with kids at home will need support for home schooling and parenting.
  • People working from home will need help with remote office technology.
  • People will be learning new skills, for example: finally getting to their home improvement projects.
  • People will be out of work and need help with unemployment filing, job training, job search and applications.

It’s that last one—the area of workforce development—that I believe is the most crucial. Folks in these situations could previously go visit a public library for the needed technology, good connectivity, and digital literacy help from the staff, but now they’ll need it all virtually.

At a minimum, libraries should use their virtual branch to provide up-to-date resources and show their communities how to access the services they need. They should be active users of their existing social media—to promote their digital content but also things like reader’s advisory—or try becoming active on social media for the first time.

There’s also programming that can be shifted to digital, using Zoom, Facebook Live, and other tools . Here are some great examples I’ve seen so far:

  • virtual storytime *
  • virtual book club meetings
  • yoga classes
  • tech training
  • Q&A’s about genealogy research
  • virtual ukulele class 🙂

* Need resources on streaming storytime? Check out the third tab in Youth Services (YS) Consultant Bethany Wilson’s awesome spreadsheet, Texas YS COVID-19 Resources

Don’t forget: We can still talk to our patrons over the phone. Google Voice can provide phone numbers for staff to provide reference services from home. Also, I’ve heard from one library considering playing a recording of an audio book over the phone for patrons to call in and listen to.


I would like to add more to the idea that the virtual branch goes beyond just the phone, website, e-resources, and social media. Now is the time for libraries to partner with other agencies and organizations, get outside the library (not necessarily physically), and join with all the forces on the front line helping your community.

Here are just a few ideas:

  • Become reference librarians for other city/county organizations
  • Find other ways to provide patrons with Internet access who have none :
    • Track down those in your community offering free hotspots and circulate a local free WiFi map
    • Share free and low cost options for home Internet
  • Help facilitate access to telehealth.
  • Reach out to hospitals and determine if you can help. Do you have a 3D printer? There’s currently a widespread effort for maker spaces of all stripes, including libraries, to either donate 3D printers so faceguards can be printed, or print the faceguards themselves.
  • One library in Kentucky has set up its computers to run folding@home to add processing power for the study of COVID-19.
  • Assist with the 2020 Census – a critical tool to help support your community and ensure your patrons get counted and are seen.
  • Use video chat to be virtually present while patrons fill out census, do their taxes, get set up for telehealth, etc. Use screenshare if they’re struggling and move their mouse for them – just as you might do if you were sitting next to them physically at a library computer.

Final thought – from David Lee King:

Your library isn’t a building. It’s not a bunch of books. It’s made up of people and content. And interacting with people and content doesn’t have to stop just because the building is closed.

You can hear from him, plus several other library luminaries, in the recording of a free ALA webinar that happened yesterday (March 26) all about virtual services during the pandemic:

The recording is now available:

Recording: AL-Live- Libraries and COVID-19: Providing Virtual Services

Length: 1 hour

Description: Your physical library may be closed, but you can still offer direct services to your patrons. With many resources available digitally, and with the ability to provide reference via phone, chat, and virtual meeting tools, your services do not have to halt at a time when they are more important than ever. Please join our expert panel on Thursday, March 26 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern as they offer practical insights on how to make your virtual tools more efficient and how to get them off the ground if they weren’t being provided previously.



I want you all to know that Henry is here. Please keep in touch, and let me know how you’re doing and whether I can be of help! We’re all in this together and we’re going to get through this. And if you are a Texas public library with a Ploud website and need anything, I’m your man.

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HHH: Robots doing Storytime?!

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One of the most crucial, and IMHO, sacred services provided by a school or public library is storytime. I know I don’t need to elaborate on this further for my readership. 🙂

With the technology of artificial intelligence (AI) rapidly becoming more and more sophisticated, it’s no surprise that an AI’s abilities would start to approximate aspects of a library worker’s or storyteller’s talents.

We know the huge value of reading picture books frequently to, and most importantly *with*, preschool children. But what would it mean if AI helped perform this function? Is it an adequate replacement for a parent / caregiver or library staff member reading them a story?

Let’s dig in to the topic! Today’s Highlight is AI and Library Storytime.


I recently learned that local UT iSchool student Julia Sufrin participated in an unusual internship last summer where she helped create an AI that could tell a customizable story to a child. I thought it would be great to moderate a conversation with Julia and ask her some of my questions. Seeing as this is an area where both emerging technology and youth services intersect, I asked my fabulous co-worker Bethany Wilson, our Youth Services Consultant here at TSLAC, to join us.

You can play the video (embedded below) to hear our full, unedited 40 minute conversation, but I’ve also summarized our discussion for today’s Highlight (see below), or if you’re not into the whole brevity thing, you can even read the full transcript. *

* processed into text, I might add, with voice recognition brought to you by an AI using machine learning


Highlights from our Conversation:

Julia has an undergraduate degree in narrative theory and literary theory, and it was this particular background that got her the summer internship with the AI company. She joined a group of software developers and computer engineers to spend ten weeks building a machine that could generate children’s stories based on some preferences that you gave at the beginning and using its artificial intelligence.

Julia explained to Bethany and me that a lot of children’s stories are formulaic in their structure, which might make them possible to teach a computer system how to generate.

(Julia offered a lot more info about narrative theory and how this all worked with the AI tools she used, so if this interests you, please check out the transcript to read more).

Although still in its infancy stage, the potential for such a tool might mean children could use an AI to have personalized stories read to them, which could be especially useful to have if there are no grownups with a talent for storytelling around them.

At this, a skeptical Bethany shook her head and voiced her concerns:

“It takes out the interactivity piece between parents and children. There’s no opportunity for dialogic reading, which really allows the adult to prompt, evaluate, expand, and repeat what the child is saying  – to prompt them with questions, to interact with them so that they’re understanding how a conversation works, the back and forth of the conversation. And [the child is] being asked questions and prompted to speak during the story. I don’t know how you would program the AI to do that. Even the lack of the person’s mouth to see how words are formed is missing as well, if you don’t have another person involved. And that’s important when you’re building those early literacy skills for children before they begin the process of learning to read.”

Photo of a caregiver reading a picture book to an infant.

Julia agreed with Bethany, but didn’t think we should avoid the idea altogether:

“I don’t think that humans will ever be phased out of the storytelling relationship with children. I think it’s just so vital to our species to spend time together… and to help [children] through those periods of time. But I do think that we are seeing children interacting with technology from such an early age now that it’s inevitable that there will be some screen time. Unless you make a very serious effort to keep those things from your children, they’ll interact with intelligent agents just by picking up, you know, mom or dad’s phone… And the way I think about it is, sometimes a kid gets parked in front of a TV screen while the parent has to do something else. And in those instances, wouldn’t it be nice as an alternative [or a supplement] to TV… to have some kind of intelligent agent that’s stimulating the child like, [as] you said, ask questions?”

Julia then pointed out that this interactivity is already being incorporated into existing products such as Alexa’s apps for storytelling – where it prompts you for terms like MadLibs and incorporates them into story for you.

Bethany then asked if the AI would have the ability to answer a question from a child such as, ” What does sad mean?,” because, as Bethany put it:

“…one of the early literacy concepts is taking a new concept or a new word and likening it to something that the child has experienced. So a parent or a caregiver would be able to do that better than an AI would. And then there’s the opportunity for new vocabulary words in books. You’re going to hear dozens more words than you would hear in a daily conversation, like new words, like complex words. And that’s part of the story writing process for authors – it’s to incorporate as many new words and concepts into those storybooks as possible.  I think you could probably program the AI to do that easily. It’s the background knowledge piece that I’m wondering about.”

Julia agreed that it would indeed be difficult to do, as humans have the advantage to draw from their shared lived experience, which the child is a part of. This turned the conversation to talk about sophisticated deep neural networks and the black box aspect of how they work: With artificial intelligence at this deep level, Julia explained:

“…Something goes in, something magical happens inside the black box, and something comes out, and we don’t exactly know how. And so in the stories that we were writing over the summer, if the hero got a sword from the witch in the swamp, I knew exactly why it did that because I programmed it. I wrote the code that taught it that it can go get a sword from the witch in the swamp. With other algorithms that are more sophisticated and they’re taking in a lot more knowledge, what’s happening with the deep neural network is actually it’s observing and learning and teaching itself. And so it becomes near-impossible… for anyone to explain why it did what it did. Coders can’t even look at it. The engineers who wrote the code can’t tell you why it made those decisions.”

We discussed the initiative called Explainable AI which seeks to create AI that can explain why it made its decisions, and then we took a detour to talk briefly about another equally troubling aspect to AI: its current problem of unexpectedly generating misogynistic or racist content because the only data we fed it to make its decisions is from Twitter or the Internet at large – where the most amplified voices are often misogynistic and racist. The AI is only as good as the data it is given. We humans are the ones to blame.

Julia then wondered what would happen if deep neural networks were able to start telling stories themselves. She imagined they would be interesting but also troubling. She mentioned that Google had a visual tool called DeepDream that would render imagery but what it produced came out as weird nightmarish renderings of animals pooling out of each other. Would their stories be equally alien and bizarre?

A comparison that shows a photo after run through a DeepDream filter. Weird animal shapes appear.
Example of DeepDream: A photo I took on the left, and a photo after it’s gone through the DeepDream filter on the right
Photo of realistic human robot to illustrate the concept of Uncanny Valley

She also touched upon the concept of the Uncanny Valley, a phenomenon where humans can sense something is wrong with a simulated human. It’s why she thinks humans won’t really allow robots to be around our kids, that it’s more likely we’ll make them look like teddy bears – something as far removed from being human-like as we can get it.


Julia thought we should exercise a lot of caution:

“There’s so much that we don’t understand. I think about the way technology gets released and I compare it to how.. new medication gets released, and medication goes through several rounds of double-blind testing before it ever goes on the market. And Apple invents a new watch and suddenly we’re putting it on our wrists and there’s no long-term research. We don’t understand what is actually happening. And so when it comes to such a vulnerable group like children, and in a space that’s so special, like the library, I imagine we would want to exercise a lot of caution.”

Bethany brought us back to the topic of AI as a storyteller:

“I think you’re going to run into a lot of issues with AI as a storyteller. I mean, I just touched on a couple of them and I’m not an expert by any means. and the information that I have is from Supercharged Storytimes, which is of course you can take here free through WebJunction –  but it teaches you how to weave the early literacy concepts into your story times or into your storytelling. And I’m seeing issues with trying to do that with AI. Interactivity is one of the pillars of Supercharged Storytimes. And the interactivity that we’re looking for is also related to building a relationship with a parent/caregiver on a child. And that wouldn’t happen with an AI.  But then, on the flip side, you’re talking about the programming pieces, and I see a lot of opportunity for older children, maybe they don’t want to write the story themselves, but they’re really interested in coding. And if they could create a story that way, they’d be totally on board.”

Logo for" Supercharged Storytimes"

Julia agreed that coding would be a fun way to get a young adult interested in storytelling and in character development.

We then talked about the capability of AI to learn social emotional skills, feelings and emotions – which led us to a philosophical discussion of the nature of intelligence, whether its instinctual and programmable, how ethics could be taught to an AI, considering how humans already have so many systems of ethical thought themselves.

Julia mentioned an app called AI Buddy – a set of animated characters powered by AI that give support to kids of military personnel deployed to war. Because these children often have to travel around so much, start new schools, make new friends, having the consistency of AI Buddy provides a level of continuity as it talks to the child, remembers things about her and her family – forming something of a friendship. This possibility of AI to provide companionship was of particular interest to Julia.

Talk then turned about the ethical obligations to protect children’s privacy. I mentioned that we’ve already seen horrifying incidents such as CloudPets, a children’s toy that automatically uploaded the child’s voice recording files, as well as personal photos, to a place online that was accessible to anyone without even password protection. We also discussed persistent recognition systems, how they’re being used as witnesses in criminal cases. Bethany joked that : “This conversation really went all over the place!”

I then envisioned the possibility of a picture book that could not only generate and read a personalized story to child, but also fashion illustrations to accompany the text – all completely on-the-fly, with AI and digital paper.

Photo of an infant reading a book with illustrations.

Bethany liked the idea, and thought it could maybe be incorporated into a storytime, still tying it to and utilizing some of the early literacy concepts. She continued:

“Part of learning about how a book works is to follow along, put your finger under the words so that the kids understand how text works. So even to have the words starting to appear under the finger, [the caregiver could say] “It’s going this way” –  so [the child] can see it visually appearing on the page and [in] that direction… Or to mimic phonetics, the sounds. So sometimes the words are bigger so you make your voice bigger, or sometimes they make the word ‘bounce’ look like something that’s bouncing, [which would help] kids… understand the concept of bounce, for example.”

Julia also thought it would make for a great opportunity to teach children digital literacy – about who exactly is writing and reading them a story, the differences between an AI and a human, and about identity and subjectivity – providing background knowledge, which, as Bethany repeated, is a big part of early literacy best practices.

As an aside, I made the point that AI developers should really be working directly with library staff. So much of this is our domain.

Furthermore, I argued, the best stories will always come from humans anyway.

Julia agreed:

“Over the summer I kept waiting for the system to surprise me… and unfortunately… I wasn’t ever really surprised. It’s coming from the past. It’s coming from the data we gave it before.

I will say that after spending the summer doing this project and thinking really hard about: ‘What are stories? What do they do?’ How do we make them good? What is a good story? What’s a satisfying story?’,  I left wanting to, you know, spend more time writing. It stimulated me creatively, in my own sort of storytelling capacity. And because the entire internship was such a good story: All the people I met and the tools we used. But… I didn’t walk away from it fearing AI would corner the publishing industry and start generating all the new stories. I think it’s possible to generate the way that Babysitter’s Club books are generated – by ghost writers and stuff. Because there’s a formula. ‘[Hey, do you need] formulaic stuff? Sure, AI can do it.’ I think that kids are a little bit more clever. I think kids want new things. They want things that speak to their context and their moment. And children’s authors do that already with picture books and the stuff they include. So I think that AI will increasingly be used as another tool or medium for very talented humans to express their creativity.”

Bethany gave the final thought:

“I think you just nailed it with that. It’s not about the AI, it’s how it can be used to further some things. So it is the tool. It’s the vehicle, the vehicle for creating.”

A big thank you to our special guest Julia for the fascinating talk!

HHH: Library Tech for Victory!

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Hi there, Henry here.This month’s High-Tech Highlight is a special edition for the new year. I wanted to share a fun project of mine where I took three World War II recruitment posters and updated them (via Photoshop) to help highlight some of the new technology roles that modern library staff should adopt today.

You Can Do I.T. logo

But first, some background: The inspiration for this project stemmed from a promotional graphic I created back in 2014 for TSLAC’s You Can Do I.T. (YCDIT) technology training program. For the workshop series’ logo, I updated the iconic Rosie the Riveter image from the World War II propaganda poster. Re-dubbing her “I.T. Heidi”, I made her a TSLAC shade of blue, gave her a library symbol badge, and modified her flexing arm to proudly show off an ethernet cable. For my co-worker Cindy Fisher, who spearheaded YCDIT, I fashioned an action figure to take on the road as a kind of mascot, and we had a lot of fun asking participants to flex their arm, hold up a cable, and strike the ‘Heidi Pose’ for our cameras.

Recently, I was remembering those experiences and how empowering the image of I.T. Heidi was, just like her grandmother Rosie. I began musing about similar ways to encourage library staff to embrace the new technology roles that the profession has been rapidly adopting. World War II recruitment posters, like Rosie’s, encouraged American women to join the war effort by becoming workers in munitions factories, and I wondered if the same patriotic messaging style could be updated for today’s library staff with regard to technology.

Below are three examples with this idea in mind. Note that the ones on the left are the original recruitment posters, and those on the right are my updated library tech versions.


On the left, original poster shows  WOW (Woman Ordnance Worker) holding drill and working in factory. Captions say "Do the job HE left behind" and "Apply U.S. Employment Service." On the right, new poster shows  librarian holding ipad in front of a computer monitor and working in a library. Captions say "Teach Tech" and "Your Country Needs You".

Poster # 1: Teaching technology is a patriotic duty

“Your Country Needs You.”

The Second World War necessitated the recruitment of courageous American women to roll up their sleeves and work in factories. Their contributions and service to the country are irrefutable. Although not to serve a war effort, modern library staff also need to become trailblazers and bravely step out of their comfort zones and take on work they haven’t traditionally been involved with. To ensure the vitality of the U.S. economy, there’s a need to provide American citizens of all ages opportunities to engage with STEM/STEAM programming as well as learn computer and coding skills. Libraries are crucial community partners in this effort and a great resource to support patrons in gaining the tech skills essential to future employment and civic participation. Think of it as a patriotic duty to teach technology.

Further reading on how libraries are currently teaching technology:


On the left, original poster shows  WOW (Woman Ordnance Worker) holding wrench and imagining a soldier in the clouds. Caption below says "The Girl He Left Behind is Still Behind Him. She's a WOW".  On the right, new poster shows determined librarian holding an ethernet cord and a copy of Diary of Wimpy Kid and imagining a family of kids in the clouds.  Caption below says "Get 'em to read, Get 'em high speed."

Poster # 2: Broadband is a library service equal to books

“Get ’em to read, get ’em high speed”

Improving the literacy of a community is a cornerstone of what libraries do, and it always will be. Libraries should unashamedly continue to be buildings filled with books, and library staff should be motivated to put those books in people’s hands to read. Humanity’s future relies on it. But there’s something new added to this already successful, civilization-saving mix that can’t be denied: broadband

For my second poster, I decided to start with the traditional image of a library staff member gripping a gateway book (in my case: “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”) and gazing with determined purpose at a group of youth with whom she hopes to foster a life-long love of reading. Then I added an ethernet cable to her other hand to give it equal weight in her objective. Providing free high speed Internet has become an important and critical service for libraries. The Homework Gap is preventing children who lack adoption of broadband at home to succeed in school. Libraries act as bridges, reaching across the divide to connect patrons to the information and services they need, even if it means providing a safe, Internet-connected place to get their homework done. Literacy now takes many forms: digital, media, information, etc. And libraries can boost their signal strength out into their communities in more ways than one.

Further reading on how libraries are getting folks high speed Internet access, and what they can do with it:


On the left, original poster shows determined WOW (Woman Ordnance Worker) with bomb shell in front of her and a graphic showing the different hats of the various wartime roles. Caption below says "She's a WOW". On the right, new poster shows determined librarian with WiFi modem in front of her and a graphic showing symbols of different crises (hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, wildfires, social unrest). Caption below says "Libraries Respond and Provide Refuge".

Poster # 3: Disaster Response

“Libraries respond and provide refuge”

When disasters, emergencies, and other crises strike, libraries stand strong in their communities as anchor institutions to provide immediate support. Besides acting as safe spaces for people to share news and resources, they are trusted curators of authoritative, often life-saving, information. The free electricity, WiFi, and computer access can be a crucial life-line to those who need it, particularly disadvantaged populations. Libraries also connect the affected to essential services, helping them fill out e-government forms. They help alleviate confusion and disorientation and provide distractions and entertainment so community members can take the necessary steps toward recovery.

It’s also worth nothing that it’s not just in the event of disasters that libraries respond and provide refuge They’re fair weather friends, too, and like Elsa, cold never bothered them anyway.

Further reading on how libraries can develop disaster response:


I will leave you with one more bonus poster, riffing on the idea that libraries are so much more than places to get books; they’re also communities’ technology hubs.

On the left, original poster has women working for the war effort at home with caption "Soldiers without guns". On the right, new poster has smiling librarians holding ipad, ethernet cord, iphone and computer, with caption "Librarians without books"

HHH: A Trio of Terrifying Tech

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Hi there, Henry here! Last year, on this hair-raising holiday, I highlighted a double dose of dreadful technologies to scare the smart pants off you. This time around, I’m going to escalate the eeriness up to eleven by trick-or-treating you to a triple threat of alarming innovations. Today’s highlights are:

  1. Smart Dust
  2. WiFi Recognition
  3. Digital Clone
Animation of an old timey black & white movie with grim reaper type looming over text coming towards screen that reads: "PREPARE TO BE SCARED!"

1. Smart Dust, what’s that?

Black and white photograph of a hand throwing up dust.

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it’s real and just around the corner, soon to be billowing our way. Computers can be made the size of a grain of dust and light enough to float in the air. These clouds of smart dust can monitor the environment, gather data, and even take photographs.

The microelectromechanical (that’s a mouthful) systems (MEMS) may end up being self-powered too, harvesting energy using passive WiFi and the heat from our bodies

Animation of a man mouthing the word "WOW!" as a starburst is superimposed over his head as if to say "MIND BLOWN."
Mind blown.

Here are more powers the potent particles may possess:

  • Detect light, vibrations, acceleration, stress, pressure, humidity, sound
  • Help with energy efficiency and environmental comfort in buildings
  • Measure air quality
  • Monitor crops and status of equipment
  • Assist with health and medicine: e.g. doctors can diagnose without surgery; inhale smart dust instead of having an endoscope inserted

Of course, the dark side of the dust is that these undetectable particles could be used to track us. It’s not hard to imagine them being used for security, wirelessly monitoring people and products.

One day soon we may be seeing signs up that warn us:

“SMILE, the DUST is WATCHING.”


2. WiFi Recognition, what’s that?

Cartoon of Superman having X-ray vision to see Lois Lane through a wall.

WiFi recognition is when WiFi and radio waves can track our physical movements and emotional states. Transmitters send out signals, and as we move through the signals, a device can see the signals bouncing off us and onto other objects. This allows the device to effectively see through the wall and track our movements. And the device can even tell we’re feeling freaked out by that. More on its empathic powers in a bit.

Here’s something appropriate for the season: MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has invented a way to recreate our skeleton via WiFi. Spooky!

Goofy dancing skeleton illustration.
Perfect for Halloween

It actually looks like this:

There are myriad uses for WiFi recognition. If health metrics are collected by our router, imagine it communicating with our smart home and automatically adjusting the appliances accordingly so we lead healthier lives. Or imagine a baby monitor that also collects the infant’s vital signs. It could also know we’re snoring and what state of sleep we’re in, thereby helping us with our sleep habits. Thanks for the health hacks, all-knowing WiFi!

Another MIT CSAIL creation, EQ-Radio, can detect emotions by collecting breath and heart rhythms from WiFi signals.

Maybe our emotionally intelligent WiFi routers will see how angry we get when they stop working and begin to apologize for once.

Image of a man getting mad at his WiFi router

3. Digital Clone, what’s that?

Photo of a man seeing his reflection in glass only it's facing the wrong way.

Generally we think of digital clones as the ones used in special effects in TV and movies: a fake, computer-generated version of, say, Tom Cruise, is made to appear hanging onto the side of a plane. Wait, that’s a bad example since I think Tom Cruise does a lot of his own stunts. Anyway, there’s another kind of digital cloning that doesn’t need a body to be represented. A personal chatbot or mebot is a deployable AI version of you. They learn from you and then represent you online. Conduct an interview, ask them anything, and your digital clone will behave just like you. Your friends can ask it questions if they don’t want to bother you or might be embarrassed by the line of inquiry. Now you no longer need to reach out directly to a person for certain pieces of information. For example, you could ask a clone:

  • Do you have any food allergies or special dietary needs?
  • What was your famous chocolate cookie recipe again?
  • How are you feeling today? (If health metrics are involved and your partner is the clone, you could determine, without bothering the real person, what their current stress level is and see if they are up to visiting the in-laws.)
  • What did you eat for breakfast this morning? Or where did you buy that dress? Works great for celebrities who can’t possibly answer every random question from fans.

Library Role:

All three of these technologies are likely to cause a shiver to run down our spines. That’s okay. It’s good to be scared. It means we’re aware. It’s our job as library staff to heroically face down the horrors and negative side effects of potentially problematic emerging technologies on the behalf of our communities. When that tech with ethically questionable capabilities appears, look it right in the eye and seek to better understand the monster lurking inside. Remember: knowledge is power. And libraries can make a difference ensuring that our students and patrons are well-equipped and informed to make the right choices, have protected free speech, right to privacy – all that good stuff. We can’t do that if we put our heads in the sand.

So keep your heads up high, heroes!

And HAPPY HALLOWEEN, everyone!


P.S. My recent webinar on Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality and libraries is now available for your viewing pleasure! Just click below to be taken to the shortcourse page that contains the archived recording link. Remember to log in and enroll if you want to receive 1 CE credit.

HHH: Smart Garb

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Usually when we think about wearables, items such as watches, clips, and bracelets come to mind. They’re special accessories that we put on – more like gadgets, really. But as time moves forward, the idea of a separate device to carry around will be less and less appealing to us. Instead, we’ll begin to prefer new technologies that directly and seamlessly integrate into the everyday clothing we already wear. 

Today’s highlight: Smart Garb


The smartphone will go away one day. And to that I say, good riddance. I look forward to the time when I’ll see the looks of disgust and disbelief on the faces of my grandchildren as I reminisce about the old days :

“Back in my day, we used to carry this little mini – pocket computer device everywhere we went, and we would keep our eyes glued straight down at its tiny, barely even visible screen clutched in our hands instead of looking out at the world and each other.”

– Grandpa Henry

As Future Today Institute predicts, “We will transition from just one phone that we carry to a suite of next-gen communication devices, which we will wear and command using our voice, gesture and touch.”

Forget about all these devices and gadgets. Let’s just use what we already have – what we already wear.

Smart clothing isn’t just coming soon; it’s here! Allow me to take stock of what smart garb is already out there. You may be adding something like the following to your wardrobe now or in the near future:


> Electronic textiles or ‘e-textiles’ to interact with your music, GPS, and phone

Levi’s Commuter x Jacuard is a smart jacket that is fashioned out of a specially designed denim sewn with conductive thread that only needs to be touched to connect to your smartphone.

Animation showing a cyclist wearing a jacket and swiping at his sleeve to dismiss an incoming phone call from his boss.

> Yoga pants to improve your ‘downward dog’

These pants are paired with an app to help you practice yoga better. It can detect your physical movements and compare your data to baselines. It’ll “nudge” you to walking, sitting, and downward-dogging better. Curate your own personal yoga class! (Examples: Nadi X, Pivot Yoga)

Animation of a yoga practitioner posing next to a smartphone displaying an app that is measuring her body position.
credit: Nadi X

> Pajamas to recover from workouts

Had a hard workout? Put these smart PJs on and help your muscles recover faster using infrared energy.


> Swimsuits to prevent skin cancer

When the UV levels are high, the suit notices and alerts you to apply more sunscreen. Don’t trust your kids – or those sun-worshiping grown-ups whose skin you care about – to be careful about the Sun? The suits’ sensors can even be remotely monitored by the more responsible party (i.e. you).


> Socks to prevent diabetes

Sensors in these socks detect levels of glucose or lactate in sweat and can even alert those with diabetes of the presence of foot ulcers, which can often result in amputations if not caught in time.

Photograph of smart socks
credit: Siren

> Belts for epilepsy and to help you diet

For epilepsy patients, there’s a belt that keeps tabs on your respiration rate and sweat build-up with an automatic alert to your loved one if something goes awry. There are also belts that use sensors and measurements to help give you feedback in your dieting efforts: tracking waist size, food intake, how much you’re sitting, etc – and there is even one that helps you with the opposite: they automatically loosen when you’ve overeaten so you don’t have to cease your feastin’.

Photograph of Smart Belt next to smartphone showing weight loss app.

> Gloves to help you communicate

In Kenya, a researcher invented smart gloves called Sign-IO that can translate sign language into speech using gesture recognition.

Photograph of inventor of smart gloves that translate American Sign Language.
Source: Pulse Kenya

> Shoes to help with health, sports, visual impairment, falls, and personalized fashion

Walk a mile in these shoes… and the shoes will know you traveled a mile, plus a whole bunch of other things…

  • Health:
    • Many smart shoes can measure your gait, calorie burn pace, distance, steps, stride, cadence – all helpful in regard to your fitness and health improvement efforts. There are safety shoes that monitor the posture of construction workers and prevent them from spending too much time at work crouching, kneeling, and on tip-toes. This will prevent fatigue and common injuries, plus lower back pain and sciatica. For those patients needing post-surgical evaluation, the shoes collect valuable data for their doctors to speed up recovery. Diseases can potentially be diagnosed as well.
  • Sports:
    • Improve your athletic performance with your shoes’ assistance. Even your golf swing can be perfected
  • Visual impairment:
  • Aging population:
    • If the wearer falls, an alarm is triggered and the location is sent to a family member or friend. (E-vone)
Photograph showing E-inking on a shoe.

And here’s a list of other “shoe”-per powers I’ve seen out there:

  • Self-lacing, self-tightening
  • Color changing / E-inking
  • Heat up on cold days
  • Audible real-time coaching feedback as you run
  • Altitude measurement

> Helmets to send for help in accidents

A number of helmets now have built in brake lights and turn signals. If the cyclist is struck or falls, the emergency contact is instantly alerted. Some use bone conduction speakers to help you safely play your music and make phone calls.

Animation of a cyclist falling down and his helmet sending an SOS.
LIVALL BH81H Smart Cycling Helmet with HRM

> Nail art to prevent skin cancer and premature aging

Like the aforementioned smart swimsuit, this adhesive-backed decorative nail art by L’Oreal contains sensors to measure the amount of UVA and UVB rays you’re being exposed to and presents the data to you via a smartphone app.

Photograph of the smart nail art on a thumbnail of a woman's hand.

> What about libraries?

Here is some food-for-thought on how smart garb intersects with libraries. Let me know if you have further ideas!


Graphic of a lightbulb

Inclusive & Accessible Services

As described above, there are already numerous ways that smart garb can assist people with disabilities, epilepsy, diabetes, visual and speech impairments, risk of falling, recovering from surgery, etc., etc. – and more no doubt to come in the future. The service population benefiting from this technology is a large, important part of society – and as ALA writes, “libraries should be fully inclusive of all members of their community and strive to break down barriers to access.” Staff should stay up-to-date and pro-active in supporting how smart garb supports inclusion and accessibility.


Graphic of a lightbulb

New Interfaces

If smart garb becomes more complex and widely adopted, and if it replaces smart phones in the future, there will need to be an entirely new haptic language (using sense of touch and motion, rather than speech, text, or touchscreens) so that we can communicate with the systems and interfaces we use in our day-to-day lives.

This would inevitably result in new ways to use library services. ALA Center for the Future sagely points out that “patrons may increasingly expect that their library experiences – search, navigation of the library space and stacks, or even reading time – would integrate wearables and the haptic feedback that they provide.”

Libraries will need to learn to speak ‘garblish’ (I’m coining the term; you heard it here first!) and help empower and enable those patrons who may be left behind as everything shifts to the new paradigm.


Graphic of a lightbulb

Digital Divide

If smart clothing becomes as ubiquitous as the smart phone, how can we ensure that this new technology is made accessible to all strata of society so that all have the opportunity to succeed in the future? Providing access and “wearable literacy” may become part of the library’s mission. Some community members may not be able to afford certain articles of smart garb or may only need them during a particular time frame. Would libraries start adding clothing and accessories to their collections for circulation?


Graphic of a lightbulb

Privacy Issues

Libraries should advocate for, educate about, and protect people’s privacy – and smart garb certainly poses significant risks in that regard. Security is paramount in ensuring personal biometric and location data isn’t abused by third parties. We don’t want to air our dirty smart-linen in public, so to speak. A recent Wired article outlined how Fitbit heart-rate data of a murder victim was admitted as evidence to try and convict a suspect. It contained this quote: While you have the right to remain silent, your gadgets mostly do not.”


HHH: Persistent Recognition Systems

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You should be aware of a new technology that is increasingly aware of you.

Today’s highlight… Persistent Recognition Systems


What is it?

All around us are smart devices that monitor us in real-time, all the time. There are our cameras, tablets, and the smart phones in our pockets, of course. But there are also home speakers like Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home, plus doorbell cameras and security systems, cars, refrigerators, watches and other wearables – all possessing persistent recognition. These systems are getting installed in our day-to-day spaces at a constant pace. Analysts expect 75% of U.S. households will have smart speakers by 2025.

It’s not just the monitoring. Combined with Artificial Intelligence (AI), these devices can know personal things about us. Some can even tell whether we’re sick or angry. Your accent can help them determine which country you’re originally from. They can take in background noise and make deductions like super-powered private detectives. All of this serves the function of targeting consumers for marketing purposes. Alexa hears crying in the background, for example, and soon Amazon.com starts suggesting baby products for you to buy.

Animated cartoon of a smart speaker with human ears and menacing eyes, swiveling back and forth listening to what everyone is saying.
Illustration: Erik Blad for The Intercept

What’s special here is that we are persistently being recorded and our data recognized. These devices are always on, always listening; the data that’s collected is uploaded and stored in the Cloud. Our data is being mined in our homes and offices. And in the near future, it won’t just be the external world keeping its ears open to our data, but the inner world as well (literally inside our ears in some cases). We will have our internal states recorded and analyzed via sensors in hearables, injectables, etc.

What is it good for?

It’s easy to see why one would be concerned about persistent recognition systems for their threat to privacy and their potential use by data-controlling authoritarian governments who could bring about surveillance states. It’s natural to be wary.

But what about the amazing good this technology could bring? One of my science heroes is Poppy Crum, PhD Neuroscientist and Technologist, Chief Scientist at Dolby Laboratories at Stanford. I’ve had the privilege of seeing her speak a couple of times at the SXSW Interactive Festival, and in the last talk I saw, she did point out that, indeed, technology will know more about us than we know about ourselves. But she argues this doesn’t have to be a bad thing!


“Increased tracking and ubiquitous sensing can improve care and quality of life and mean greater autonomy and freedom.” – Poppy Crum

Crum started her presentation by sharing this quote from 1943:

"Most of the greatest advances of modern technology have been instruments which extend the scope of our sense organs, our brains, and limbs. Such are telescopes and microscopes, wireless calculating machines, motor-cars, ships and airplanes." - K.J.W. Craik, 1943

What if there is a natural progression from telescopes to airplanes to persistent recognition systems? With this new technology, combined with AI, we can continue to extend our scope. Crum asks us to imagine all the many powerful and transformative benefits these systems can provide.

Here are a few of the ways we can extend the scope of our senses:

Emotion – Devices that pick up our emotions might, for example, automatically play us soothing music in the car to prevent road rage; they might know when we’re grieving and eliminate the ads we see. If they know we’re having positive feelings, they could suggest ways to prolong or recreate them later. Or help us better interact more effectively with others.

Breath – Devices that track our breath can help us improve our state of mind. If we know that we’re not breathing well, we can consciously control it and calm ourselves to reduce stress. This will also improve our heart rate, blood pressure and circulation. Having this tool in our arsenal will help us feel better and lead healthier lives.

Gaze – Devices which know where we’re looking will know what we’re interested in. And they might give us an extra way to interact with content. Say you want to turn the television on, for example. Just stare at the tv screen, and voila! – who needs the remote control? Want to pick which youtube video to watch? No need for the mouse click: just linger your gaze a bit longer on ‘cat playing piano’ and you’ll be taken straight to the hilarity.

Inner Ear – A lot of data can be mined from inside our ears to help understand our internal states. And a lot can be done with persistent recognition systems and AI in our ears to help create personalized experiences for us in the context of our lives. Via tracking, these devices will learn from the environment for us in order to provide a tailored experience at the point of need. If your hearable recognizes from your internal state that the noise at a party is overwhelming you, it can alter the volume within your ears to help you have a better experience – or, isolate only the voices from the people you are conversing with. Crum envisions a future where people will embrace this empowering hearable tech:

“Like fashion eyewear, hearing aids may become a style choice.”

– Poppy Crum

Subvocal – Check out this conceptual video from MIT for a device that picks up your subtle internal subvocal movements in order to communicate with a computer. This is great for protecting our privacy when we may not want to use voice recognition in public.

Spaces – Once these systems are embedded throughout our physical environment, they may be able to communicate with one another and adjust the space itself for individual users. Imagine assisted living places where a smart room with persistent recognition could help folks perform regular tasks they may find difficult, such as automatically lowering or raising the blinds. Imagine an elevator which takes the data from a person with physical impairments and automatically selects the right button for them. This tech has the capacity to eliminate barriers to access, creating an adaptive environment for everyone – especially people with disabilities.

Memory – A device that tracks and stores data and is capable of reminding you of things has the potential to aid a lot of people. Those who live with memory loss issues reportedly love Alexa-style services. They can keep asking for what the day is twenty times a day and still get the correct answer each time, without judgement.


Crum points out we can see these devices as extended partners, not assistants. The concept of one-size-fits-all technology, which is what we have now and have always had, will be a thing of the past. The next generation will wonder in amazement how we all had to use the same cookie-cutter tech.

Crum sees the future as the ‘era of the empath‘. If our technology can know how we’re feeling – measure our eye dilation, heat signatures, the amount of carbon dioxide in our breath – and determine from that data whether we’re lying, in love, feeling lousy, etc, then it means “we can bridge the emotional divide.” Crum predicts it’s the end of the poker face. “We get a chance to reach in and connect to the experience and sentiments that are fundamental to us as humans in our senses, emotionally and socially.” Examples she gives are a high school counselor being able to know whether a seemingly cheery student is actually having a hard time, or an artist able to find out exactly how her work effects people emotionally.

Another exciting possibility is in the field of healthcare and the potential of these systems to diagnose diseases. This technology can differentiate coughs and sneezes from other background noises so could discern if we’re ill and suggest solutions. If our speech patterns and body movements are being collected through persistent recognition, AI might use that data to determine whether we are developing early signs of diabetes, multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder, or Parkinson’s, and warn us. Using real-world labeled 911 audio of cardiac arrests, researchers trained the AI in smart devices to accurately classify agonal breathing instances – an early warning sign of cardiac arrests. Thus, the AI on the other end of the 911 call (or even in the smart speaker in your house) might know you are having a heart attack before a human dispatcher does.

How do libraries fit in?

Libraries are well-positioned to educate their communities about this emerging technology. Some libraries have partnered with voice assistants to create apps within them for their patrons specifically for using the library’s services. Others are teaching classes on how to set them up, or publishing helpful FAQs.

Library staff should be aware of the potential of persistent recognition systems, both good and bad. There are the very serious privacy and security concerns to keep up with and inform patrons about. And there are the beneficial uses that Crum envisions. Libraries are all about the idea of recognizing the importance of personalization and inclusive services. We seek to best understand and meet the needs of unique user experiences. It is inevitable that our communities will soon be joined by these AI partners with the capability to radically transform their lives, hopefully for the better. Let’s work to ensure this technology reduces barriers to access and helps us better connect with each other, enabling and empowering us to lead healthier, happier lives.