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Steep learning curve

A woman came in one day this week hoping to use one of our public-access computers to apply for a job.

Her only option was to fill out an application online. At the very outset, I commiserated with her because several years ago I was looking for a job, and I found that the vast majority of employers wanted online applications, period.

The process of filling out all those forms, especially as someone with 45 years of experience in a variety of jobs in a variety of places, was daunting, to say the least. Each and every online form, including most of those for state agencies, was different. So, every form had to be filled out completely. I could spend a half a day on just one application form.

The lady who came in did not have that problem.

Instead, she did not have an e-mail address, did not know how to use a computer mouse and did not know how to type.

Oh my, I thought as I tried to guide her through the process (after getting her a gmail account), what kind of job can she possibly hope to get?

She left after about 55 minutes, even though I offered to extend her time and to help her. I'm sure she was even more frustrated that I was those few years ago.

We at the library can and do want to help people like her. But, sometimes the learning curve is pretty darn steep.

The impact of evaporation

Every once in awhile someone will donate a batch of those old-timey VHS tapes of movies to the library, and I put them on a cart by the front door where people can pick them up and take them home for absolutely nothing.

You'd be surprised how few takers there are. In fact, I can think of just one regular patron who still has a VHS. He takes the movies that aren't for children.

Nobody donates old cassette or eight-track audio tapes, because nobody has a player.

Unfortunately, this same situation is playing out over and over again as digital formats replace earlier formats and older formats such as print.

Vint Cerf, one of the developers of the Arpanet back before there was ever any thought of the Internet, recently participated in a conference in London sponsored by The Guardian newspaper, and he told interviewers that he was extremely concerned about the future of the kind of information storage that we today call the public library.

That storage device could be as endangered a species as the modern-day newspaper, Cerf noted, repeating something I've felt for quite some time.

"I am really worried right now about the possibility of saving 'bits' but losing their meaning and ending up with bit-rot," he told reporters. "This meanas you have a bag of bits that you saved for a thousand years, but you don't know what they mean because the software that was needed to interpret them is no longer available, or it's no longer executable, or you just don't have a platform that will run it. This is a serious, serious problem and we have to solve that."

Now Cerf is a very, very smart man. And here's the deal: He has no idea what that storage device will look like down the road. Will there be libraries? If so, how will they work? He doesn't know. It goes without saying that neither do I.

He does think that the solution will require a whole new infrastructure.

Where will the money come to built it?

Will another Andrew Carnegie step forward?

I'm with Cerf: We have to fervently hope so.

College costs, Part 2

As if we collided in cyberspace, a columnist for the American-Statesman and I got caught up in the same subject in the past few days.

Last week, I started writing a three-part blog on the rising price of college attendance across the country. The columnist got into the same subject this weekend, writing about it from the perspective of a student, not an old coot.

Her point was that college costs have risen X amount, but the rise in costs for administrators has been X++. The rise in what it costs to keep deans and veeps around has far outstripped all other costs.

For today's blog, I wanted to address the rising price-tag associated with those who teach at the university level because professor salaries have also gone up at a quick clip over the last decade, even while the rumblings about lousy pay have grown stronger.

To the latter point, I would say this: I have had the distinct impression that Texas professors have been left behind when it comes to compensation, perhaps because other state employees have, in fact, seen wages stagnate.

That has not been the case with Texas college teachers, according to data posted this year from the American Association of University Professors salary survey report.

At the University of Texas, for example, full professors have seen median pay increase from $99,400 in 2000 to $144,000 in 2012. A cost-of-living calculator at the Department of Labor shows that $99,400 is equal to $134,400 today. So, professor pay has beaten inflation by a good measure.

The situation is the same for associate and assistant professors.

And pay at UT is already way above the national median.

Next time: College book cost in perspective.

 

College costs, Part 3

A new survey shows that college students still prefer to access written information through real books rather than e-books.

I'm a little surprised by that because I have assumed that the high cost of textbooks would eventually push these materials out of the marketplace. In a class I taught at the University of Texas in spring 2012, I did not require a text; it was too expensive, in my opinion. Instead, I did a lot of extra work to get different kinds of things in students' hands.

Surely e-book texts would be cheaper than paper books.

But, maybe there is something other than price going on here. I'm thinking that maybe students value bound texts over e-books because a) they plan to keep the books after college; and b) they like to highlight text and to write in the margins.

I mean, I liked to do the latter, and as to the former, I kept some college textbooks until about six years ago -- nearly 30 years after buying the last of them.

College costs, Part 1

The average cost of tuition and fees for students at four-year colleges rose 6.7 percent between 2010-11 and 2012-13, continuing the skyrocketing rise in student financial burdens.

That 6.7 percent rise was for in-state students.

Oddly, the increase was less steep -- 4.1 percent -- for out-of-state students and lower-still for private nonprofit and for-profit colleges -- 3.1 percent and -2.2 percent respectively.

These numbers all are adjusted for inflation and come from National Center for Education Statistics. They were just released.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the cost of books and supplies actually dropped on average at all four-year institutions, and a whopping -2.7 percent in public for-profit colleges.

I suspect, however, that the costs for books and supplies are lower because more professors are letting students use books available via the Internet or via digital e-books. Additionally, costs were probably lower because professors just aren't requiring students to buy texts, recognizing that textbook prices are out of control. (I taught a news editing class at the University of Texas in spring 2012, and I required no text. The book that I might once have used cost more than $100. I thought it too pricey.)

In Part 2: What role does professor compensation play in the rising cost of college?