Educators That Rock!: Helene Blowers

Helene Blowers in a photo by Scott Weaver.

Helene Blowers is the digital strategies director for the Columbus Metropolitan Library in Ohio, which was recently rated a five-star library by Library Journal for the second year in a row. Named a “mover and a shaker” by the same publication in 2007, Blowers created the Learning 2.0 project, which has been duplicated by more than 700 organizations worldwide.

Blowers also writes a blog called LibraryBytes where she examines trends and offers constructive advice for other lifelong learners.

fE: What made you choose to become a librarian?

HB: By some people’s definition I may not be a librarian because I do not have formalized training. But I have worked in libraries for 17 years.

I work in libraries because I’m passionate about learning. I started as a library page at my hometown library when I was in high school and ended up also working in the library in college, processing interlibrary loans as part of my work-study program. My degree is actually in organizational communications and after college I started doing a lot of  technology training. That was in the early 1990s. From teaching technology at the community college, I then jumped back into libraries from an education standpoint, becoming Charlotte Mecklenberg’s public library’s first library resource trainer.

Now, I’m the digital strategies director for the Columbus Metropolitan Library and although my specific area of focus is mostly in the digital space, it’s really the learning  aspect that keeps me here.

fE: Tell me about the 23 Things project.

HB: The 23 Things program, also called Learning 2.0, was born out of my own sense of frustration in trying to figure out how to get a staff [at the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg] that was 560 strong up to speed on all these new technologies that were being introduced.

You may be familiar with 43 Things, which is a goal-setting Web site … that’s actually where this idea for 23 Things was born. It was developed so that over the course of nine weeks, staff would be introduced to 23 self-guided exercises, approximately two or three a week. The key to the program’s success was really found in the program’s sharing aspect, since all participants were required to blog about their experiences.

Those who completed the program received an MP3 player. And out of the 356 that started the program [there were 560 staff members in all], we had a completion rate of 223. That’s a completion rate of 40 percent. That’s pretty phenomenal for a staff training program that was voluntary.

fE: What impact did the program have?

HB: Before the program was even completed, a library in Australia [Yarra Plenty regional library] contacted me and asked to duplicate the program for their staff. In designing the program, one of the things that I focused on asking myself was could I actually build the whole program without having to build a Web site, using free open blogging platforms. I found that I was easily able to do this and believe that this is what makes this program so easily duplicatable by any other organization. Yarra Plenty was the first library to duplicate 23 Things, and since that time this program seems to have grown its own set of arms and legs, and just kind of walked all over the globe.

fE: “The E-Memory Revolution,” an article you referenced in one of your presentations, discusses the future of libraries and the future of social media. What changes do you see happening? How do you expect librarians and students to react?

HB: In the article they called it “e-memory,” but there’s another term that people use to refer to the informational breadcrumbs that people leave all over the Internet about themselves: “lifestreaming.” Whether  you’re putting stuff on Facebook, you’ve got a blog or maybe you’re twittering … There is an awful lot of information that’s just floating out there in digital format, what I call “soft information.” It’s not like a book that’s been reviewed or an article that’s been published. It’s anecdotes. It’s feelings. It’s opinions. And the ability to take this kind of lifestream information and assimilate it into an information package, I think, is going to be a very interesting type of skill set that will emerge within the library field in the next couple of years. And I see libraries really being able to move into this space to help facilitate learning within the community.

fE: Your program was created several years ago. What new sites and tools would you incorporate if you were creating 23 Things today?

HB: My whole idea of the 24th Thing is really to adapt yourself to a new mode of learning, to continuously learn about new things.

If I look at technologies today that I think are really going to affect the future, I would have to say that development augmented reality apps are something to keep a close eye on. What AR apps do is actually take data from GPS and your surroundings and overlay information from the Web on top of your view. For example, maybe you’re pointing your iPhone or your mobile device at a home in front of you, and it’s able to show you the property value or the history of that home. AR apps are really just in their infancy stage, but I believe these are going to be game changers in how we access information. I’ve blogged about them a couple times.

When I developed the program in 2006, Twitter wasn’t even out there. So I’d have to add Twitter to that list, because it’s kind of revolutionized the way people share bits and pieces of their life with each other or information.

And I blog an awful lot about the e-book evolution or revolution. Once that [battle] settles down and we’ve got a device that allows us not just access to books, but allows us to socially interact with other people who may be reading the exact same book, the exact same page at that time, it’s really going to change the way reading has been [done]… more than these book chats or book groups that people have had for decades and years.

fE: That’s pretty amazing to think that you might connect with someone reading the same page of the same book at the same time …

HB: There’s an interesting site that’s out there, BookGlutton, and it’s all about networked reading. Users can leave comments not only on the book, but they can highlight a word or even just a phrase and leave a comment off to the side about it.

I think it’s this type of technology that once it becomes available in a mobile device, will really revolutionize the reading experience. Imagine that I could know right now when I’m reading this particular page that there happens to be 300 other people that are reading this, and I could engage some of them in a conversation or put a note out there that somebody else would respond to. I think it really opens up a world of possibilities.

fE: Who inspires you?

HB: I find that I get a lot of my inspiration from exposure to new ideas. Many of those ideas float around on blogs and on the Web before they ever get turned into books.

And I get a lot of inspiration from my children. I have daughters that are 8 and 10 and I constantly look at the world through their eyes—what they’re seeing, the things that they ask me. It just floors me. Where I get a lot of my inspiration is really from learning through them. And that was one of my tips for the Library 101 project [a series of essays and other resources focused on 21st Century Learning]: Pair your learning with a child, because I think it gives you a different perspective.

fE: What advice do you have for educators that feel overwhelmed and are trying to catch up?

HB: Actually get yourself in the process of learning by taking 15 minutes to proactively learn something new each day.

Build yourself a play box. When I’m surfing the Web I always come across interesting things … what I tend to do with them is tag them in Delicious. It’s like I’m throwing my find in the toy box so when I have those 15 minutes, I’m actually going there to get it, and pull it out to explore and play with, instead of wandering aimlessly around the Web.

They say a habit takes 16 to 21 days but you really have to set aside the time to make it happen. If it’s not easy for you to do this, then I’d encourage you to do a program like 23 Things, which will help you to set aside time each week, each day to actually learn something new.

Helene Blowers’ Favorites Sites:

Fast Company
ideas are awesome
Tame The Web
David Lee King

Related Link Resources
Learning 2.0
Columbus Metropolitan Library
Library Journal
Library 101
Library Journal