Monday, February 28, 2005

D-Day +1: Sunday 27th Feb 2005

The second day came and went with no major problems. The most serious was just the aircon breaking down, making the 1st and 2nd levels very stuffy. Luckily it was restored by 2.30pm and it definitely made things less hot (in all sense of the word) for the next 3 hours before we closed for the day.

Of course there's the usual lot of customers who gripe about this and that. Like the guy who complained about the keyboard of the Transaction Kiosk being too reflective and saying it was a stupid design etc. OK mister, your point has been made without making all that gestures. The poor Cyberguide was quite flustered. I told her to listen to the Message, not the Man.

The critical first-weekend is over. The team (with the help of all the support personnel on duty -- IT, customer-assistance, vendors and contractors etc) passed the test. I'm proudest of the Library Assistants. From just doing plain shelving and shelfreading (which was their typical job scope), they are now competent in performing circulation duties and in customer service assistance. Ask them if this was possible 8 months ago and they'd tell you "very difficult". Give them a few more weeks and I'd trust them to run the library alone without the Library Officers or Librarians around.

See, nothing is impossible if we have the right attitudes, coupled with systematic planning and quality improvements. It's the attitude, not the job title, that counts.

Ok, reality check: Following the re-opening, there's a whole list of issues and areas (IT equipment, work processes, physical infrastructure, collections) for corrections and improvements. No upgrading project is totally problem-free. That'll keep us busy for the next 6 months at least, on top of the outreach activities, programmes, class visits etc. that we have to do. As a library manager, one of the challenges is that with a major objective completed (i.e. the reopening), I have to ensure that staff don't get bored by routine work and inadvertently settle into a rut.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

D-Day: 26 Feb 2005

D-Day came and went -- the first day of BMCL's reopening to the public, I mean. I couldn't have asked for more. Everything went well. There were no major problems and those that did occur were non-critical and already anticipated (i.e. staff were briefed and trained to deal with them). Customers were genuinely appreciative of the upgraded collection, facilitites and equipment. As usual, the crowd was hungry to be the first to get to the new books.

The kids obviously enjoyed themselves.

We worked 10 hours for our first day (9am - 7pm), closing the library 45 minutes after the official closing time (which was expected, as the larger than normal first-day crowd took a longer time to finish their borrowing transactions from the self-service machines). Then we spent half an hour straightening the messy collections, and almost another hour for an operations-debriefing to summarise the issues encountered on our first day, so that we work out specific action plans for the next few days. If the above sounds like some military operations, well in truth we're not too far off from one. There were so many things that could have gone wrong. Nothing major happened and luck had little to do with it.

I'm not sure how many Singaporeans appreciate the work that goes into upgrading a library and maintaining it. Some people think the library staff get to enjoy a long break during the closure. I'd like them to try working with us for a day. Idea -- NLB should seriously consider a blog to post regular updates on the progress of work behind the scenes.

Today reminded me of why I entered the public service: I get that sense of satisfaction seeing people, from the very young to the very old, quietly enjoying themselves in the library (some not so quiet, but that's ok -- we're not so uptight about that sort of thing nowadays). Speaking to some of them reaffirmed to me that the library (and the people who make NLB work) is making a positive difference in their lives. It makes all that stress and anxieties more palatable.

Oh -- so far, we've not encountered any really difficult customers yet (i.e. those who think the entire world owes them a living). I know they will come -- it's a matter of time. But let them. I always remind myself of this excerpt from Rumi's poem (from the poetry collection "Feeling the shoulder of the lion" translated by Coleman Barks):
"Don't burn a blanket because of one flea! Don't waste a day on trivial irritation, some gnat's headache."

My colleagues and I will start work in about 9 hours time for the second day of the reopening. It will be a 7 to 8 hour shift for us on this Sunday. I usually do not work on Sundays though.

I'm getting sentimental here -- must the the high from a successful opening. These BMCL folks -- the Library Assistants, Library Officers, Admin Officer, and Librarians -- deserve all the credit for the success of the reopening. Damn proud of you all lah!

Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Legend of Bukit Merah revisited: BMCL official re-opening ceremony

In about 8 hour's time, Bukit Merah Community Library (BMCL) will re-open its doors to the public after 8 months of major upgrading works (hey, talk about being auspicious -- the Chinese associate the number 8 with "prosperity"). The official re-opening was on 25 Feb 05, with Assoc Professor Khoo Tsai Kee (Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Defence and the Environment and Water Resources) as the Guest of Honour.

The re-opening ceremony went well: We had 3 performances put up by kids from selected organisations which the BMCL has worked with closely in past years -- Mujahideen madrasah, Gan Eng Seng Primary School, and the Singapore School for the Deaf. The exhibition from the Singapore Polytechnic School of Design and Environment did wonders to spruce up the whole place.

The term "Bukit Merah" means "Red Hill" in Malay, i.e. "Bukit = Hill" and "Merah = Red". It's aptly named for the soil around Bukit Merah area has a reddish tint to it. There's a legend associated with how the name came to be.

Truly, BMCL is an icon (dare I say, almost legendary?) in this old (but constantly being renewed) town. The improvement works to this 23 year old library includes a lift (finally!), streamlined and updated collections, a Quiet-Reading room, better space utilisation, and upgraded services and facilitites. The guests loved the new look. I'll know how well we've done in upgrading the library from the reaction of the readers.

Oh, I managed to lobby A/P Khoo, who is also the Member of parliament for the area, to get an overheard bridge to be built so that residents need not jaywalk across the road in order to get to the library. He's giving serious thought about the suggestion. I'm crossing my fingers.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Idea for book promotion: "Quotes/ excerpts from books"

Thought this was really funny:
When I die, I want to die like my grandfather--who died peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming like all the passengers in his car." -Author Unknown
First thought was, "Was this from a book? I'd like to read it." Then it struck me - instead of writing reviews all the time, why not extract interesting quotes or excerpts from a book, indicating the page numbers, and Call No.? It might prompt readers to go look for it.

Well, it's sort of like what I'm trying to do with RawNotes. Maybe that's why I started my other blog...

BTW, the above quote was from someone else's email footer... say, that reminds me, why not use the similar concept for all NLB staff's email footer?

Friday, February 11, 2005

Common sense and respect above a Blogging Policy

About 6 weeks ago, I discovered some blog posts about people getting dismissed from their jobs because of their blogging. My impression then: there were a lot of indignant bloggers out there. Most weren't fired but shared a common sense of injustice to the whole issue. Someone even came up with an International Blogger's Bill of Rights, and apparently there's even a term called "dooced" as reported in BBC news.

Ok, that was a few weeks ago. Reading the recent posts and comments, my impression was that the initial sense of indignant righteousness has mellowed and replaced by something more... reflective (for want of a better word). And more rational as well (Hmm... an example of the self-correcting nature of the Blogosphere?). You'd know what I mean if you follow the comments from the same Blogger's Rights blog.

Majority of the recent posts suggest an agreement that the real issue wasn't about blogging, but about how people were seen to conduct themselves as employees. Shel's post "Fired for Blogging or Cause " sums up what I consider as the "reflective and rational" view. I quote:
"People are getting fired for the same reasons they've always gotten fired--for conducting too much personal business on company time, for lying about their employers, for revealing too much about a company's internal mechanizations and so on. Blogging is just another delivery mechanism for making the same employee mistakes. "
I support the view that employers should make their view towards blogging clear to employees who blog. But really, it's a matter of the employee exercising common sense over any written or verbal policy, isn't it?

I mean, if I choose to blog, then I have to be responsible for whatever I post. If I choose to rant over work issues and blog about it, I have to realise that there's a record of my views posted on the Internet. That's equivalent to me standing outside the company headquarters and complaining to any passerby.

Putting it in another way -- would we like our employer to post their complaints about us on a website?

I'm reminded of these wise words from Og Mandino (he writes on self-inpirational and self-motivational stuff) which goes something like this -- "If you have nothing good to say about someone, then say nothing". This is similar to a common advice in books on job interviews: Never bad-mouth your (previous) employer.

As a consumer, I can blog my views (good and bad) about a company, its products and policies. But if I feel like complaining about work issues, I must not forget that I'm doing so in a employer-employee relationship, rather than as a consumer of the company's goods or services.

Some people try to hide behind the veil of anonymity and blog about what they don't like about their employer. Anonymity wouldn't work, really. Things, especially words, have a way of catching up with us whether we like it or not. What we say is a reflection of ourselves. What makes the Blogosphere any different?

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Missing the forest for the trees: RFID & libraries

Came across the following headlines: "Berkeley puts $650,000 into library book tracking system - Some raise privacy concerns over technology" (Times-star, 8 Feb 05). Summary of the article:
  • Berkeley Public Library feels the investment is justified, as it would reduce library checkout time for users and lessen worker strain injuries.
  • Repetitive motion injuries among library employees have cost the library $2 million over five years.
  • Automating repetitive tasks would free up library staff to do other more meaningful tasks, like assisting readers.
  • Some users worry that RFID technology could be used as a surveillance tool that might intrude on the users' privacy. For instance, a book on some private/ sensitive subject could be linked to the reader.
  • In Berkeley, there are also concerns that the RFID system is being implemented at a time when the library is struggling financially.
  • Other library users are concerned that increased automation would lead to a more impersonal environment, where users would not feel personally welcomed and safe, and should machines break down, there would be no one to turn to.
The concerns mentioned above were fairly consistent with all other articles and discussions about the implementation of RFID in US libraries that I've come across so far -- the potential abuse and loss of readers' privacy, and the loss of the human touch.

I understand that Singapore's public libraries were the first in the world to implement RFID technology on a large scale (i.e. its entire public library system). We've had RIFD for 22 of our public libraries for about 5 years now. Personally, I can't imagine us not having RFID.

For instance, I do not know of any other technology that would allow library books on loan to be cancelled the very instant they are dropped into the book-drop (i.e. book return bin). This feature of RFID alone has been a tremendous boon to readers and staff alike. After dropping off the items, readers can proceed to borrow more library materials right away (before RFID, they had to wait for up to 30 minutes just to get their items cancelled). In many ways, there's less pressure for staff doing the cancelling of loans. In the NLB public libraries, we have staff doing a manual cancellation of loans in the backroom (apart from this being an additional check to ensure the loans are cancelled, it also allows staff to retrieve reserved items and spot any damaged items).

So far, I do not know of any NLB members (or non-members) raising any concerns about loss of privacy with RFID. I'm not sure if Singaporeans are less concerned about privacy issues that say, readers in the US. Or perhaps those Singaporeans who are concerned simply do not use our libraries.

My take on the privacy issue is this: Any opposition to RFID on the grounds of intrusion of privacy is really a case of missing the forest for the trees. The benefits far outweigh the risks, in my opinion. Even without RFID, there are already ways for the library to (for lack of a better word) intrude on "readers' privacy" if the library really wanted to. For instance, the circulation program could easily be modified such that the system retains a record of the books borrowed by a library member -- and the library does not even have to tell you that they have this capability.

As for the loss of the human touch, the real issue is about the increased level of automation in libraries rather than RFID per se, isn't it? Staff salaries are a huge part of the total operating costs of any organisation (unless its predominently volunteer-run) so as usage of the service increase, the need to automate repetitive tasks is really a given (I mean, check out this article as well -- Robots being developed to retrieve library books. And you'd inevitably have people who are less enthusiastic about using automated services.

I wouldn't say that these people are the older folks, because I know many "old people" who embrace technology wholeheartedly. Perhaps the people who say they don't use libraries because of new technology are those who don't use libraries in the first place, i.e. as an excuse for not using the library. Honestly, I've not come across any regular reader who has to give up going to the library because we introduced more self-help services.

Could these people (voicing the issues) be a "vocal minority"? Maybe. Which could be why some libraries may decide to put the RFID issue to a vote. I wouldn't go for a vote for one main reason -- unless you have a very comprehensive prototype, most people would not be able to envision what the new technology might be. They would therefore cast their vote based on their understanding of current technology, which may be very far off from the real thing.

Seems like trying to stop RFID implementation in libraries could be like trying to dam a river with only a few twigs at a time. It's going to be inevitable. The moment the cost of RFID tags come down, it will be unstoppable.

The potential loss of personal privacy and the loss of the human touch is something larger and not limited to just RFID in libraries. Consider how banking and shopping is done nowadays -- even interpersonal relationships at work, school, play etc. Hence those issues should be dealt with from a systemic point of view, i.e. how we carry out social and commercial transactions between people and organisations.