Get To Know CSL: Kieran Hixon on Technology and Storytelling

In a series of interviews, we are finding out about how the people of CSL derive meaning from their work, as well as some of the challenges and successes they have had. In this third installment of #GetToKnowCSL, we have Kieran Hixon, the Technology and Digital Initiatives Consultant for the Networking and Resource Sharing (NRS) unit of the State Library. He currently provides technological assistance to small and rural libraries across Colorado, which includes building their websites and being on hand to help library staff navigate the complexities of the tech in an approachable way. Anyone who has met Kieran will know of his disarming laughter, coupled with his love of stories and storytelling. He is that rare personality type in libraries: an extrovert. In fact, before I could even think of what question I wanted to ask first, Kieran hit me with a story in that vein. 

Kieran Hixon

Kieran: We all did a workshop once, and I had been told about how introverts need more time than extroverts to respond, so I was literally sitting on my hands as they asked for a volunteer to go up. Finally, somebody turned to me and asked, “Can’t you just do it?” and I said, “I’m waiting to give everybody else a chance,” and she said “We’re waiting for you to just do it!”

M: [laughs] So, how did you get involved with libraries?

K: I was working three jobs, trying to get a bunch of money together to build my house. I was working like crazy. And one of the jobs I had was working as a clerk in a liquor store in a small town. My boss’s wife, Suzanne, was the Assistant Director of a library in Cañon City. Time goes on, I quit the liquor store and I’m working full time at a hospice and care home and I realize I’m burning out and need a new profession. So I looked at the community college’s catalog and on the days that I had time I could either become an accountant or get a library technician certificate. So library tech certificate, obviously! I was dutifully doing my homework in the Cañon City Library and Suzanne came up and said, do you want a job. I said, I have not finished my coursework, and she said, well, you never stole from us at the liquor store. So, I got into libraries because I worked at a liquor store.

M: And so you worked in libraries – did you consider becoming a librarian?

K: When I went back to get a degree, I started with library science and found storytelling and neurochemistry more exciting, so I decided to do my degree in that.

M: Tell me more about that.

K: The connection between the two to me is just fascinating. Really simply: when you tell a story and there’s a traditional story arc – a beginning, middle, and end, a hero’s journey – oxytocin is released in your brain, which is a trust chemical. Oxytocin is released in the blood stream the most if you are a nursing mom, the second most if you are having sex, and the third most if you’re hearing a story told in a traditional story arc. Some of those early charity campaigns for raising money for kids in Africa used the story arc – it’s really basic marketing – because you care for the poor kid who is starving in Africa, and you want to give him the money you were going to spend on your cup of coffee. Suddenly your cup of coffee is this kid you’ve seen, this story you know, this boy who just wants to go to school, and all his struggles are helping you bond with him and have empathy for him. Then there’s dopamine and cortisol – the hero succeeds and you get this other surge. It sounds like manipulation and propaganda – and those things fall under it – but it’s also just grandpa sitting you on his knee and telling you a story.

M: So when you’re getting invested in a character, it’s chemical.

K: Right. Will Harry Potter overcome and defeat the darkness? You have to know, and you have to finish the next seventeen books.

M: Do people generally want to have an arc and to empathize?

K: Oh yeah. That’s why I read genre literature. My sick pleasure is reading these sea stories – late 1700s early 1800s British men on ships fighting Napoleon or whatever it is they’re doing – love them, can’t get enough of them, will read all 27 books in the series to see if the midshipman will grow up to be the port admiral or whatever. I know exactly what’s going to happen, how the series will build, I can start the book and predict the whole plot. I’m not interested in getting new information. I know exactly what’s going to happen and it’s comfortable, like an old sweater. He’ll meet a woman, maybe she’ll be in a different class than he is, maybe too high or too low, they’ll question, will they marry? The sea battles are also predictable. At some point there will be a close call and his good buddy will die. Never be the hero’s good buddy!

M: Do you have a tendency to look for narratives in life in general?

K: Oh, yeah. Have you not noticed I have a story for everything?

M: Well, tell me a story about that.

K: The best compliment I think I’ve ever gotten was at the end of a conference and this woman came up to me, a librarian, and said “I would listen to you tell me how to install something like a toilet, because it’s just so interesting to listen to you.”

M: I would listen to that for sure.

K: [laughs] I think stories help people understand things. It’s as primitive as sitting around the campfire and explaining to our children how not to get eaten by a saber tooth tiger. A lot of learning is experiential and the best way to learn is through experience, but the second best way to learn is with the story.

M: What makes a good story for you?

K: I like a little humor along the way.

M: Can you have a good story without a conflict?

K: Maybe not a conflict, but you have to have something that you overcome.

M: Let’s go back to your beginnings in libraries.

K: Yes, I started working in local rural libraries. I went from doing more customer service, circulation desk work to cataloging, which was in the back room. The director was looking at going from a card catalog to an online system and getting an ILS. I ended up project managing that switch over. As well as the technical side of things, I also ended up doing technology and youth services, which included gaming. We went to a conference and I presented on gaming. I had never presented before, but I was excited about it, so I just talked about it, what I tried, what worked and didn’t work in a practical way. And folks really enjoyed it and liked it. So I presented again at CLiC conferences, and my manager Judy was sort of my mentor, and after presenting a few times and listening to feedback, I realized I really liked to present. It gave me that outlet, as an extrovert and storyteller, that I wasn’t getting in technical services and cataloging.

M: Tell me about the work you’ve done with ILS software – when you started to work for libraries, where was the technology at?

K: I think most modern libraries in metro areas had left their card catalogs behind long ago, but in rural areas it was about the expense of the ILS. There are still a couple of libraries that don’t have an ILS. So at the John C Fremont Library where I worked they initially went with a big company to install an ILS, but it wasn’t really geared towards small libraries. And so we had a patron who was 14½ who was really smart, a sort of tech genius, and we hired him to help me. We were the first library in Colorado to download Koha, which was free. Free like kittens are free, right? We managed, over a weekend eating pizza, to transfer all of our data into Koha. We were running it off a laptop, instead of a server, and when the staff came in Monday, the entire ILS had changed. That was really fun. We didn’t have a big budget, we could try crazy things – that’s something a small library can do that a bigger library can’t. Big library systems are like cruise ships that turn really slowly. A small library is like a little motorboat.

M: Are small and rural libraries able to modernize with technology?

K: There are around 115 libraries in Colorado – if you include library systems like Denver Public Library as one library – 45 of them are in populations of under 5,000. A lot of them are on the cutting-edge technology-wise, like we were doing at the John C, jumping in before even the big libraries can think about it, so I think a lot of them are pushing the edge of library service, including technology.

M: How about our resource kits, like our new Virtual Reality Kits, do you hope that it will help bring young people into libraries?

K: Yes. I have the same feeling about the VR kits that I have about 3D printers. Here’s a funny story. When I got hired at the State Library in 2011 I had never touched an iPad before, and I was the tech guy. But in the community I live in, you could drive for an hour and a half before you get to an Apple store, or an hour to a Best Buy, but in my community it’s not like I could just go find one and go play with it. I had seen them on TV, but I never touched one and a colleague had one, so I was like, can I touch it? And she kind of looked at me like, and you’re the tech guy. I realized at that moment that I want to make sure that my niece, who’s 13 now, has all the opportunities to see that stuff. Even if it’s like having a petting zoo for technology in the library, or even if I hear there’s no good reason for a library to have a 3D printer, it’s important that people understand that it exists, so we can open all of the possibilities for all of the people. Like I had a water pump that broke, and a little plastic part needed replacing, it was $300 online to replace. So I went to the Pueblo library where they had a 3D printer. They scanned the part with a cell phone and they printed my part all for free and the pump was fixed. That’s my goal: to make sure that all of the people see all of the possibilities.