Say Yes No Maybe So To Privacy

I honestly don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or just let the apathy take over me when it comes to libraries and their relations to vendor that collect usage information. It must be active cognitive dissonance in which we tout the confidential nature of patron records, the freedom to read anonymously, and the actions we will take (up to and including jail and legal proceedings) but let such data slip through our fingers first with database providers, then with social media, and finally now with the landscape of apps. It’s either that librarians aren’t serious about principles of privacy protection or we have to accept that the cultural norm has shifted to the point of passive acceptance where the less work it takes to do something, the better.

The Digital Reader reported late yesterday that Adobe was collecting user information about people’s eBook library through the latest edition of their program, Adobe Digital Editions. Among the many problems here, two are chief in this librarian’s eyes: first, that the data is sent unencrypted and insecure to the point where anyone can just tap in; second, that Adobe is provider of digital authentication to Overdrive, the leading supplier of library eBooks in the United States. The first is somewhat laughable (a digital security company that cannot encrypt) but the second is absolutely enraging. The two come together as one with Adobe’s statement about their data collection that I will (unfairly) sum up as “It’s totally in line with our privacy policy to take that data to make sure that you aren’t stealing.” It’s like checking for identify theft by screaming out the person’s social security number to a person across a crowded room checking it against their records. It’s digital security at its Super Troopers best.

But I save my fiery gaze of fury for the entity that I can do something about: Overdrive. As of the moment I am writing this, they are currently “aware” of the situation and I await their comment with deservedly given suspicion. While I struggle with giving them the benefit of the doubt with Adobe (but seriously, COME ON MAN), I did make it a point to look up the privacy policy of their app which they are pushing people (aka our library members) to sign up. I encourage you to read the whole thing since you are serving it up to your community, but I’ll highlight some passages for you.

What is “Personal Information”

“Personal Information” describes information that can be associated with a specific user and used to identify that person, such as your name, email address, birthday, gender, location information, etc. Personal Information, specifically your name and email address, will be submitted by you when you create, access, and use your OverDrive account. Other information, that is not personally identifiable, may be collected automatically by creating, accessing, or otherwise using your OverDrive account.

What information does OverDrive collect?

We may collect certain information about your interactions with us and information related to you and your use of your OverDrive account, including but not limited to, Personal Information, your online activity, digital content selections, reviews, ratings, your library card account number and/or Adobe® ID as well as Internet Protocol addresses, device types, unique device data, such as device identifiers, and operating systems.

By creating and using an OverDrive account with OverDrive and/or otherwise consenting to the sharing of information with us, you authorize OverDrive to collect and retain your Personal Information and, at your option, you library card account number and/or Adobe ID, and other information. Please be aware that your OverDrive account cannot be used unless you identify yourself to us.

How does OverDrive use information?

[…]

OverDrive may also use and share non-personally identifiable information, such as general demographic or location information, or information about the computer or device from which you access your OverDrive account. Additionally, we may anonymize Personal Information and share it in an aggregated form with third parties, advertisers and/or business partners in order to analyze service usage, improve the OverDrive service and your experience, or for other similar purposes. The use and disclosure of such information is not subject to any restrictions under this Privacy Policy.

Even as I copied and pasted these passages, I felt the swell of apathy rise within me. How much can I care about this when people (including myself) are giving away their personal information everyday in exchange for free web stuff or customization or personalized deals? It’s hard to reconcile that at times, especially since I know I will copy this link into my social media accounts.

But, for me, this is an instance where action is called for. The freedom to read anonymously is simply that important. In a world that seeks to find, track, and record our mundane moments, our principles should not be flexible on this invasion of privacy. There is a reason and a damned good one that library records enjoy a higher level of protection: uninhibited curiosity and the intellectual pursuits are the hallmarks of thought, discovery, and being. We must act if not from these ideals but from our legal duty to protect our member’s privacy.

What happens next? I’m not entirely sure. For myself and my library, it’s a hard look at the expenditures and price (legal, moral, and financial) we pay for them. I will be taking a hard look at 3M and their privacy policy and consider what options are available. I don’t know about any other companies at this point, but I’m willing to consider more options. Honestly, even for the delight it brings my members in getting books online it poses an ugly question: at what cost? Can libraries back away from eBooks now or have the claws sunk in too deep? At what point is “giving them what they want” to we allow to give ourselves away?

I remember attending the Public Library Association annual conference when it was in Philadelphia a couple years back. Overdrive threw a bash at the Constitution Center complete with food, drinks, and entertainment by a wide ranging cover band. As the revelry played out in front of me, one of my thoughts was how libraries had paid for the extravagance. It really was a good party, though the attention to detail there could have been used on the app at the time.

It’s not any different now. If you think about it, nothing is new here, just unfortunate. Privacy intrusions abound these days, but there should be lines. There needs to be lines or else the concept erodes away under the constant drip of internet cookies, app permissions, and other forms of tracking software. We as a profession have to draw that line. Or just go home as glorified content caregivers who will do or say anything to keep the general public coming to an inadequate building with funding commitments based on whether cutting or adding is the favored community political position.

So, get on the phone or send an email to your eContent providers. Find out what they are doing to comply with state laws and the ideals of the library. It’s up to you to do it.

Draw your line.

Banned Books Beast 2014

Once again, Banned Books Week is upon the library world and this year I find myself disappointed. This is my sixth annual entry on the event, the only consistent thing I’ve written about throughout my blogging years. I’ve been thinking about writing this blog entry for a week, a constant companion in my quiet moments traveling between home and work, doing chores around the apartment, and in that short span of consciousness laying in bed before sleep. Unlike other things that would have developed in blog posts in the past, this one pestered me to finally put fingers to the keyboard.

My disappointment with the event comes from the notion that is an excellent case study in how public librarians fail to articulate their values to the general public. Our ideals as related to this event revolve around intellectual freedom, personal liberty in reading materials, and the public library as a platform for individual expression and ideas. Our output is “I Read Banned Books” stickers and shirts, a collection of current and historically challenged/banned books on a shelf or table, and the liberal use of “CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS” police tape. In presenting Banned Books Week to the public, it misses the meaning in favor of the cheap shock and most superficial of library/patron interaction, materials with signage.

I can sense the itchy fingers that are waiting to spring into action once the indignant eyes race down to the bottom of this post so as to leave a comment as to how it might be true but not at their library. I know I’m being unfair to a good number of librarians who take the time and effort to provide more than what I have outlined above, but I would be willing to bet dollars to donuts that my examples are more of the norm. To those peers, I salute them for providing the context that makes the week more than a recitation of book names from a list.

In my reckoning, the materials are a vehicle to introduce and educate people about the librarian ideals on these important topics. To be honest, I don’t have anything specific in mind (as public libraries are inherently local so your best communication practices with the community may vary) but I would urge my fellow librarians to consider how these challenged materials are the beginning of a conversation with the community, not the sum total of the Banned Books Week event.

Another thing that stems out of my thoughts is how the collection development process remains an enigma to the general public. Here is a document (or policy or guidelines or whatever you want to call it) that outlines what the library will and will not consider for inclusion in the collection and yet it remains lost in the preening terminology of the library world. For all the time devoted to presenting the image of the library as welcome to all ideas and opinions, the reality is more pragmatic and nuanced so as to keep the library efficient, relevant, and functional.

A typical criticism of the public library during this time of year is that it won’t collect a certain type of book or topic. “How can they talk about banned books when they won’t carry X subject?” asks the commentator )where X is their pet subject and part of an agenda that they want to push). “That is so hypocritical!” they exclaim, faux shock coursing through their ham-fisted screed. (Some of this is done without an ounce of irony since they can’t get some book or subject removed from the library that they will try to put their propaganda next to it.) Then they pat themselves on the back as if they have discovered fire or antibiotics or solved a great mystery of our time.

What is lost in this thin skinned moral outrage is that there is difference between speech and collection material. The library should be welcoming of all kinds of speech and expression, no matter how odious or vile the librarians might find it. This support is paramount since it strikes at the heart of our support for intellectual freedom; if we are as enlightened as we pretend to be, we can welcome such opinions without accepting or endorsing them as our own. Our comfort with these individuals, groups, or organizations is secondary to the freedom that is being expressed for we cannot support one form of speech and disregard another. 

While freedom of speech should be near-universally supported within the library, the collection is a different matter. It is a finite resource in so many definitions of the term: physical space, limited budget, and usability/relevance. The “why doesn’t the library carry this subject that I care about?” tends to be a self-interested argument that doesn’t care for everything that is potentially behind it. It doesn’t care for the quality of the scholarship (if there is any) nor for the relevance in the broader collection nor any cost/benefit (read: usefulness) consideration. I want it, therefore the library should have it.

Collection development policies exist for a reason: to provide guidelines to staff as well as the general public as to what the library collects and why. It’s a tightrope act in which an individual can raise hell as to why X isn’t in the collection while another can wave around a book they found in stacks asking why their tax money was spent purchasing it. At my library, the policy outlines material that the library will not purchase such as college textbooks and technical scientific literature. Does that mean we hate higher education and professionals such as engineers, doctors, and psychiatrists? Not at all, but the time, space, and financial outlay to establishing and maintaining such collections doesn’t mesh well with our service to the public. There is a level of quality (albeit flexible) that material needs to meet for purchase. It’s part of our fiduciary duty to the library funders to make the best use of their money; it may not always sit well with them, but it is important to present this as our area of expertise with clear cut directives that explain and justify it.

(Note: I do want to mention access in passing because it’s a tough librarian issue. Our discretion in purchasing can make a difference when it comes to our community members and the materials they want. Access is vital in some communities, often the only way that people can reach out to the world via the internet or lack of other services. I don’t really want to go further on this avenue, but I did want to acknowledge it.) 

One final thought: the profession really needs to define the conversation about Banned Books Week instead of our critics. It’s not that books have not been banned by the government therefore this week is moot, it needs to be about infringement of the freedom to read at a local level. It’s not about the books themselves, it’s about the ideas and notions they represent. Too often we meet these arguments and fight them at their level; we are better than that and the ideals we represent are as well.

So, go on, celebrate Banned Books Week. But be ready to say why the week exists and continues to be important in the first place.

Rocket Ship to the Moon

I didn’t make it through the entire Cosmos series when it was on television, but there was something in the first coupe of episodes I watched that stuck with me. The concept of the observable universe is something I’ve known, but the thought that there could be things beyond that had never crossed my mind. To imagine that the universe could be older than the oldest light we have measured simply because that light has not yet arrived was a mind blower. It’s a simple yet powerful thought that reminds me of the limits of human observation.

The concept of radical librarianship has come up in the online world recently, started off by a post by David Lankes and a reply by Melissa Powell. David says:

Too many see the idea of a radical librarianship as a sort of extreme political partisanship. That is wrong. Radical librarians see librarianship as a chance to make a positive difference in their community. They see their mission to not simply promote reading, or to inform a community. Instead radical librarians, the kind we need, see their mission as the improvement of society. They see their role and the instruments of their institutions as engaging a community and addressing the issues that have exploded in Ferguson. Addressing these issues not with tear gas and rubber bullets, but through pizza, magic shows, and learning.

A quote from Melissa:

Radical is NOT pink hair, crazy clothes, over the top programming.  Yes, some of the best radical librarians do have different hair styles, dress differently, and have the most amazing abilities to create the most incredible programs, however that is not “Radical” in and of itself.  Radical is the library staff member who comes up with the idea that is “outside of the library”, in that it is outside the norms we call the library paradigm.  Makes the partnership, creates a service, opens their eyes to what the community needs.  They are aware, awake, and in tune with the role of the library as organization can play in their community, beyond books, beyond programs.

In reading both concepts, I find myself leaning more towards David’s take.  I’m not trying to slight the idea of making a positive difference in a community, but I feel like he’s aiming too low. Like the edges of the observable universe, I wonder at how much further it could go beyond that.

I can appreciate the idea that small changes lay the groundwork to larger ones, the core of the common mantra of “think globally, act locally”. But I can’t help but wonder how many of my peers take the first part to heart. I wonder how many define success as getting people to think “wow, I didn’t know the library did that” versus “wow, the way I see the world around me is different”. The attitude about the library should be a byproduct, not part of the goal.

To my mind, radical librarianship is not about using the role and tools of the institution to make a positive change so much as it is using all of the resources possible. Like the booster rockets in our forsaken space program, the library is the means to push individuals, groups, people, businesses, communities, etc. beyond the bounds of our Earthly atmosphere. The fuel is a well known but little understood combination of “whatever it takes”: books, music, movies, downloadable content, community partnerships, grants, sponsorships, meeting groups, networking, politicians, and everything including the kitchen sink.

If you define issues and situations with the library as a constant factor, then all of your solutions will be constrained by the limitations of the library. It is not about what the library can or cannot do, but what the library chooses or not chooses to do.  There is always a choice and context provides the factors for any decision point. The library as an institution is a tool, not the entire toolbox.

As for those rockets, they don’t make it to space; they fall back to Earth, recovered, and re-used in the next mission. They also don’t make it to the moon, but they’ve sent a lot of people there. Perhaps the metaphor should have ended further up the page, but I wanted to point out that they were not discarded (at least as part of the Space Shuttle program).

But as soon as we treat librarianship as public transit, a means to get people from one end of town to the other, and not a space program for the mind, then there is no longer a need for librarians. The notion of radical librarianship needs to go beyond even what we think it is. It is not about leaving behind current practices, but expanding beyond them. It needs to push boundaries in places we’ve never gone before.

Late Night Pondering

A couple of questions have been rattling around my mind over the last week or so. It’s the kind of stuff that lurks in the background and creeps into your mind in the moments between things like commuting to and from work and trying to go to sleep. As you might tell from the time when this is posted, it has been keeping me up to the point where the bed becomes the sum of all irritations: too warm to lay on, the pillows aren’t right, and the sheets won’t settle just right. But enough about that.

A few days ago, I sent out a tweet asking if libraries are moving towards building moments or monuments. (For clarification, I meant moments as experience based services and programming and monuments as enduring collections of, well, whatever.) The quick and easy answer is “it depends” because contextually it really does matter based on the community needs as influenced by culture, history, demographics, income, and a myriad of other population statistics.

I keep coming back to the phrase “one size fits one”; that there are enough unique factors that make it unwise to generalize aspects of the library when it comes to how it interacts with its service population. The judgment of whether a service, program, or concept is good should not be limited to whether it can be duplicated, but whether it works for the library’s community.

However, the kind of thing that really keeps me up at night is thinking whether I’m working on projects for my library that will be one when it should be the other. To torture the terminology some more, it’s the thought that I am making a monument when it should really be a moment. That’s the kind of healthy self-doubt I have, although whether it is healthy for my sleeping habits is another story.

Also, another question recurs in my thoughts: if we were building libraries today from scratch, would the final product match what we currently have? Granted, it’s invariably a ‘no’ given the hindsight that exists between when the doors are first opened to the present day. But the service models, the collections, hell, even the buildings: would they be the same?

In my mind, it’s still a “no”; but a healthy kind of no since the present form of the library relies so much on history. A history of a government service, the constant struggle for the relatively unregulated expression of ideas, and the establishment of the institution in the culture and community. Yes, there are things we can do better but we aren’t dealing with some of the pressures of the modern information brokers. Personally, I think the library remains a greater cultural touchstone; the people of the future will still be talking about Alexandria hundreds of years from now when campuses of Mountain View, Palo Alto, and Cupertino are long gone. (The nice thing about this prediction is that if I’m proven wrong I’ll be long dead and won’t have to hear about it.)

If “no” is the most sensible answer, it does beg the question as to what we can do to change some of our practices to meet that hypothetical “built from scratch” library. Sometimes I pause at work and think, “if this building was opening today, would I still want this (X)?” It really gives me pause at times to look at things for what they are: are we doing it because it’s ideal or because it’s what we’ve always done? Are we doing it because it’s right or because it’s easy? Are we doing it because it’s what the community wants or what we think they want?

I’m starting to finally fade so this means a few things: first, I’m not going to be able to edit this so I fully anticipate some missing or misspelled words that will drive me nuts later. Second, even in writing to get these things out, it is starting to bring up more questions. Being a librarian who is an agnostic with anxiety is the trifecta of question generation. “What if” and “what about” are inquiry staples around here. Last, I wonder what other people think about these things. Am I onto something? Or am I just a tired person trying to make sense of his professional life while his mind and bedding rebels against him?

Questions, questions, questions.

Shifting Gears

"If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing."
- Ben Franklin

My brother used to have this quote hanging on the wall in his room when we were growing up. As he wanted to be a writer (which I’m happy to say that he is), it was a reminder to keep working on his craft and create stories and novels worth reading. It’s a writer’s version of Ranganathan’s law of “save the time of the reader” by working hard to make it worthy of the reader’s attention and effort.

I’d like to think that I have written things worth reading over the last five years I’ve had this blog. I’m appreciative of the compliments I’ve received and reports of post sharing within various workplaces. It’s been crazy look at the WordPress dashboard and see readers from all over the world in addition to pingbacks in different languages. It really speaks volumes about the power of the internet as a platform. 

This isn’t a “so long and thanks for all the fish” post, but a signal in a shift in gears. I picked that Franklin quote for both parts: writing and doing. The writing period is not completely past me, but with the new job I have shifted into the do things portion of the quote. I’m in a place where I can channel my creative energies so as to create, develop, and implement ideas and concepts for the library. When I get home these days, writing is the last thing on my mind (and I have some half finished drafts to prove it).

In closing, I had typed out a rant about the current state of librarian blogosphere in which I went on at great lengths. I took a long look at it before  erasing it; the whole thing just depressed the hell out of me. Since it would eclipse everything above it, I just left it out.

This blog isn’t dead, just dormant. If you need me, I’m still on Twitter.

Ciao.

Reference: Life on the Desk

(If I write a memoir, I’m using that as the title. -A)

One part of my new job duties is collection development and one of the sections that I cover is the true crime area. This past weekend I was thinking of the David Simon book, “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets”, which was the inspiration for two excellent TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire. I only got part of the way through the book; I stopped reading it because I got caught up in other things and found it hard to pick up again.

One of the things I remember from the book is the “Homicide Lexicon”, a detective created set of informal rules that apply to murder investigations. I started to think about a Reference Lexicon, a set of informal rules that apply to most reference transactions. Here’s what I would say are the rules and why.

1. Patrons are (sometimes) wrong. They can be wrong about the title, author, actor, musician, where they saw it, what the cover looks like, and any other detail that might be helpful.

Human memory is a tricky thing. Human thinking is a mess as well. I once had a person swear up and down that the book they were looking for was called ‘The Maids’ and it had a certain cover to it; as it turned out, it was ‘The Help’ and looked nothing like that. I tend to take what people say at face value, but the higher their degree of certainty about specific details is when I can’t find anything tends to throw up a red flag now. I’ve been proven wrong on this, but that’s a tiny number compared finding the right results that have completely different characteristics.

2. A question is asked once, but it can takes many searches to find an answer.

When someone asks me to look up a title for them, my preference is to ask for the title. If the title is very common, then I ask for the author. I check alternate spellings (e.g. Louis vs. Lewis vs. a mispronounced Lois) and ask about what else they remember about the material (such as plot, characters, genre, etc.). From there I head out to the internet or databases like Novelist, depending on the parameters. I also keep Rule 1 in mind.

3. The initial few reference interview questions are the most critical to an efficient interaction.

Ambiguous subjects require some follow up questions to figure out where you are going. Do they want birds as pets, birds as animals species, or birds in mythology? The first few questions are vital to narrowing it down to the right circumstances. Don’t assume, just ask.

4. Sick people with colds, flu, and other communicable diseases will cough, sneeze, and touch everything on the desk. Healthy people will make little or no contact.

Unless someone is really icky, I don’t generally feel the need to sanitize my hands after someone sick is at the reference desk. I like to imagine that I’m building up a more robust immune system that will allow me to survive the world’s next plague. I’ve had people cough on their library cards when they were handing them to me, sneeze on the desk, and touch every single pamphlet, flyer, and other publicity material before putting it back. If you can’t handle germs or get easily grossed out, then a service desk is not in your future.

5. It’s good to be good; it’s better to be lucky; it’s even better when it becomes a part of you.

It’s one thing to be familiar with a genre, topic, or series because it’s a personal interest. It’s another thing to be able to make an educated guess on what people are asking for based on hunches. It’s still yet another thing when you can answer a question on a subject to which you have no personal interest because you remember it from a previous reference interaction that you had six months ago. People might disagree on this one, but I have found that being able to accurately retain and recall things from previous reference interactions is an invaluable skill. It saves time and it makes you look like a genius and/or freak. Personally, I’m just lucky that my brain is built for this kind of trivia.

6. Every person who needs help will have a certain look to them, but they may not come up to the desk and ask.

Sometimes it will be obvious, other times it will not, but getting a feel for it comes with time and practice. It may mean getting up from the desk and approaching the person to ask if they need help. Even if they don’t, they will be thankful that you asked (with a tiny percentage being annoyed, but forget about them). They might even ask you a question unrelated to what they are looking for at the library. It doesn’t hurt to ask and it can be the best customer service. And it’s nice to stretch your legs every now and again.

7. First, check Amazon. Then check WorldCat. Then check Google.

You can swap the first two based on personal preferences, but they are excellent resources for identifying materials that are not in your collection. They also provide all the details necessary for an interlibrary loan request. If they don’t have what you are looking for, then Google becomes the search of last resort. Good luck. *makes the sign of the cross*

8. When you don’t think the library owns something, it will be the only result in your search as well as being checked-in on the shelf. When you are certain that the library owns something, it will take multiple searches to find it and the all of the copies will be checked out/on hold/missing/lost/in mending.

Pretty self explanatory. It’s a bit of Murphy’s Law at work.

9. To a patron, all searches are easy. The more straightforward they thing their request is, the easier they think it is. Finding a patron who appreciates the size of the collection (be it 10,000, 100,000, or 1,000,000 items) is a rare feat.

Perhaps this is why people question what a librarian does; all they see is that I type a bunch of things into a computer and come up with an answer. It’s partially true since there isn’t much magic involved in knowing subject headings and being able to type words into a search box. As the most visual part of the job, it’s not hard to see why people don’t recognize it as a skill.

Where the magic happens is translating the gobbledygook of their request into actual results. Yes, there are a number of easy ones (“I want the next Alex Cross novel” isn’t rocket science), but getting to the root of research requests and connecting them to the right information is the magic of librarianship. I’ll put it another way: anyone can draw a duck; but if they want a drawing that looks like a real life duck, they can go to an artist and hire them to draw it. Librarians are the artists of information; people can certainly do their own research but this is our livelihood, profession, and passion.

10. There is such a thing as the perfect reference interview. It’s a skill, an art, and it can be mastered.

For me, the perfect reference interview is the one that makes someone’s day. It doesn’t have to be important or big, but just right to make them leave feeling good. It means I have them more than they expected, whether it is materials, information, time, and/or patience. The last two can overshadow all others because it shows a level of care and concern that translates at the human level. Many people cross through our lives on a daily basis, but how many of those people give us a sincere kind word? It’s a small act but it can change a life. Making someone’s day at the desk is my idea of a perfect reference interview outcome.

 

What do you think?

“Food for Thought”: My First Keynote

Last Thursday, I had the privilege of giving my first keynote to the 2014 Lehigh Valley Spring Workshop. It was one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended and many thanks to Courtney Eger and the other Lehigh Valley Executive Committee Board members for having me. Unfortunately, a family emergency arose and I could not stay to the end of the final session. I’d like to publicly thank and commend Daniel Huang for going above and beyond the call of duty in escorting me to the highways I needed to get to for the trip home. It was really appreciated and a sanity saver.

As you might observe from my blog output in the last couple of weeks, my writing efforts had been focused on this keynote. As I note early on, it was a real challenge. I wanted to convey a message that would resonate with every kind of librarian and also give some specifics for people to chew on on their way out.

In my mind, I ended up with a sequel to the “Big Tent Librarianship” piece I wrote for Library Journal a few years back. I would call this the “Little Tent” speech since it focuses on the unique nature and circumstances of every library out there as well as how our principles and ideals intersect with the needs of our communities. I had been kicking around the Little Tent idea for awhile (a long while, to be more honest) and this is how it manifested itself. Big Tent Librarianship was written when I was a bit more optimistic and still very young in the profession; the Little Tent reflects someone is a bit older, a bit wiser, but still an idealist. I think it’s a bit more pragmatic since it addresses what I think are the bigger needs of librarians: the self-confidence in their choices and the determination to follow through in turning principles into practice. To me, what matters most at this intersection of time and purpose is how we believe in ourselves.

Before I get to my keynote, the day before I was to speak there was a new post by Hugh Rundle on In the Library With the Lead Pipe. His excellent post raises some extremely thought-provoking questions about the future of the library regarding the intersection of technology and librarian values. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it.

In giving the keynote some context, the theme of the workshop was “Gearing Up for the Future” and the speech was to take place during the lunch hour. I’ve taken my talking notes/script and have edited them into something coherent for the reader, adding and removing words and details where needed. It’s not an exact transcript of what I actually said, but it’s close enough. I’ve also inserted my slides as well as linked to stories that I told during my keynote.

I hope you take its message to heart because that’s where I was aiming.


 

Food For Thought.pptx

Good afternoon, thank you for having me, and what an incredible workshop it has been. I’m so pleased that I was invited and the sessions I have attended have been incredible.

 

I’d like to tell you something about myself from the outset.

When I’m teaching a new computer class for the first time at the library, I like to tell the students this: they are my guinea pigs. They are my experimental group, the ones I get poke, prod, and test things out on. Some things work, others don’t, and we will overcome any obstacles together. It’s meant to put everyone at ease and give a casual vibe to the class, to lower any apprehension between teacher and student, and it’s a decent icebreaker.

So you know, you are my first keynote audience.

However, unlike the class, my purpose here isn’t teaching but to come up with something that would be compelling, inspiring, and wonderful as to relates to the theme of the workshop, “Gearing Up for the Future.” It was a challenge to which I had moments of doubt.

Food For Thought.pptx (1)

In finding the words and flow for this keynote, I had my own issues.

First, I personally loathe the question, “What is the future of libraries?”. The root of my distaste is based in the critical thinking and problem solving skills imbued in me from my undergraduate biology degree. That’s like asking the question, “What is the next step of human evolution?”, a nebulous question that could give rise to a range of answers.  (Which, based on current climate change trends, I hope the answer is “gills”.)

Be that as it may, our peers do try to answer that question. But even then It tends to be brushed in broad strokes, a “one size fits all” mentality that feels more like the frustration of finding the right size between different fashion labels.

I read an article about a year or so back about a man who went shopping for a pair of pants. I don’t remember the exact detail, but let’s say that his waist size is 36. He went to one store and tried on a pair of pants which fit perfectly. He then went to another story, got a pair of a pants marked as a 36 waist, and he was swimming in it. It made him curious as to the difference of the sizes so he took a measuring tape and went from store to store. He found that not every store brand of pants that was marked as a 36 waist was actually a 36. The worst culprit was Old Navy in which the pants measured 42 inches, a full half foot larger. I mean, there are misses and that’s a big one. [The article in question. –A]

The market, society, and culture change so quickly these days combined with the disruptions of the last ten years make me hesitant to prognosticate (although I’ve been known to make a few predictions, so I’m guilty as well). 

So, I tried to do what I was taught to do back in those lab days: break everything down and examine the pieces in order to come up with a possible strategy that will help obtain a solution.

My problem? Too many variables.

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Personally, I believe that libraries are extremely contextual to their communities. Some of these measurable data points are the tiny variances that make the world of difference between the libraries that are represented here today.

To the outside observer, it forms the basis of review that makes people wonder why X library is thriving and Y library, a few miles or school district or college or university, is not. What is happening (or, conversely, not happening) at X that makes it a community gem whereas Y is just, well, there.

So can we begin to answer the question the looms before us,  a monolithic presence that casts its shadow across our professional lives and discourse.

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I had the notion of trying to make it more exacting but even that lead to it own complications.

“What is the future of your library?”

“What is the future of your library in your community?”

“What is the future of your library in your community if all current trends remain the same?”

“What is the future of your library in your community if all current community trends remain the same but library funding is increased?”

Get the picture?

In adding condition after condition, it dawned on me that this might be the beginning of a solution; that, it is not a matter about how narrowly we can tailor the question, but the question we ask ourselves. Specifically, that we need to not to ask vague questions in general, but asking the right questions of ourselves that reflect our values and beliefs. “What is the future of libraries?” will invoke dozens if not thousands if not millions of answers, but asking “How does my library show the community the value of literature or discussion or imagination or understanding?”

That brought me to another stumbling block. Even as we are changing the nature of the question we ask ourselves, what about the solution? And now THAT began to bother me. I can’t stand in front of these nice wonderful people and say, “Hey, look, let’s rephrase the question, but damned if I know what the solution could be! Enjoy your lunch, have a nice day, and, um… I need something from my car…. yeah….”

In figuring out the path to a solution, I felt limited by the libraryland data before me as well as my own professional biases. I needed a fresh start, a different perspective, and a new approach.

So, I looked elsewhere.

In imagining that the core element of libraries is built around what I will vastly oversimplify as “information storage and services”, I looked for other ubiquitous human resources. Something in which I could examine how people interact with it so as to make observations and suggest equivalents that could lead to different ways of thinking about how libraries approach their respective futures. 

And I think I found a good parallel that can make answering this question more intuitive.

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Consider some of the immediate common traits between the two:

- It evolved with us [short version: the establishment of agriculture was followed shortly by the invention of writing; as we domesticated crops, we also created systems for retaining information such as stories, speeches, and other information.]

- It’s a daily need. You literally cannot live without either. Food drives biological processes, information drives decision making ones [I gave an example of living in the Yukon which in calories equal life and information of finding food and constructing clothing and shelters are vital. -A]

- it is an integral part of our human experience in the world. [short version: I can eat Chinese food while watching Chinese movies and reading Chinese news. The world is connected along cultural lines in exchanging food and information. The internet has ratcheted this up to a near instantaneous experience. I mentioned a story my dad told me that a hundred and fifty years ago, JP Morgan was the richest man in the world. But for all his wealth, he could not have a fresh pineapple. Now, there are no more food seasons (for better or worse) and we can have any food we want at any time. The exchange of food and information are unparalleled.]

Let me share some of my observations that I believe can help us address the question of the future of libraries.

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Food is hospitality. It is the one of the most basic social conventions of welcoming a person into a room, event, or a home. Can I offer you a drink? Can I offer you something to eat? It’s the mint on the hotel pillow, the drink placed in your hand when you arrive at a dinner party, and the offer of bread and cold cuts after a long trip.

Food as hospitality is a codified social norm in places like Iran and China in which such offers take on an elaborate ritual for both parties. It is a weaving of offers and refusals leading to an ultimate acceptance or gentle rejection. But my grandmother would put these cultures to shame with her near continuous offers of sandwiches after we arrived in Connecticut after traveling from New Jersey.

The conversations would sound something like this:

“Would you like a sandwich?”

“No thanks, Gram.”

“…well, we have some roast beef, chicken, and ham I think.”

“No, that’s ok, Gram, I’m not hungry.”

“…we have white or wheat bread.”

Yes. It was relentless hospitality.

Now, I wouldn’t say that we should start offering food or drinks (ok, maybe drinks) at our libraries, but what is in your library right now that welcomes people? A display? A person to greet them? A sign with the rules on it telling them that they can’t use their cellphone and don’t move the furniture and have your ID ready and OMG THIS IS A QUIET AREA.

In the last fifty years, the United States has moved towards a service economy. How we are treated is a leading indicator as to whether we will return to a restaurant, store, or event. Libraries, despite our non-retail purpose, are not immune to these kinds of retail judgments. Nor should we be indifferent to the physical comfort of our patrons. When your community looks at your library, what is the hospitality that you are extending to them? Comfy seating? Personal attention? Something that lets them know that they are welcome to come, to stay, and to enjoy?

When you are welcoming someone to your library, are you offering them something of yourself?

It’s only years later after she was gone that I realized that my grandmother’s offers weren’t just food, but of herself. It wasn’t simply a sandwich, it was Gram’s way of showing care and concern for her family. She wanted us to feel at home, even if it drove us nuts.

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Food is a shared experience. It’s the focus of family gatherings that have become American traditions like Thanksgiving, the overly cliché ‘dinner and a movie’ suggestion that operates as many a first date between two people, the way we mark special occasions of birth, weddings, graduations, and even death. It’s one we are having right now as I talk to you while you eat lunch.

For years, starting roughly when I was in middle school, my maternal grandparents hosted my parents, my brother, and myself for Friday night dinners. And I can tell you what was for dinner just about every week: London Broil steak, steamed peas, and my grandmother’s special mashed potatoes.

Every. Week.

Occasionally, we would have pizza. But that meal brought us together almost every Friday with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas for years on end, well into my college days. My brother and I loved it. Even when we  were given the option of picking our own birthday meal, we usually asked for that. Why? Looking back, I would say that that meal was an integral part of our intimate bond with our grandparents; it was our shared experience with them.

Libraries have a leg up on the shared experience since nearly everyone can relate a story in which they were urged to read a particular book or see a certain movie. In the same way we tell our family and friends, “you simply MUST try..” this dish or restaurant or wine or whatever has tickled your palate, the same holds true for those cultural objects that move our emotions and minds from the page or the screen.

In looking at your library right now, what is the shared experience you want to your community to have? Is it between people and books or movies or materials? Is it between staff and patrons? Or what about between patrons themselves?

It was only years later that I learned that those dinners weren’t simply for the benefit of my brother and myself, but it was to help out my parents as well. My dad had been fired from his job after his bank merged with another and while we as a family were not in dire straits, those meals were how my grandparents made life a little bit easier for my parents. Through a financially troubled time, they shared some of our burden.

We are a sharing culture. It’s in our social norms, our social media, and social outlets. We lend material, but what can we do to make it a shared experience?

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Food requires skill. When we think of great chefs, the tendency shifts towards the ones we can relate to immediately through pop culture: celebrity chefs such Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsey, and my favorite, Anthony Bourdain and television chefs like Julia Childs and The Frugal Gourmet. But there are multitudes of talented culinary professionals across the globe, from the local breakfast joint to the burger stands to the trendy food trucks. Television shows like “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” take the viewer to small and medium sized eating establishments across the country to showcase local talent and flavors. The skill of food preparation surrounds us.

Despite their best efforts, I didn’t learn to cook till I moved out my parent’s place. Even then, I learned the same way my father had: I got tired of eating out and frozen dinners. Through trial and error (with lots of trial and lots of errors), I was eventually able to put some dishes into my dietary rotation. My mindset in trying was remembering that if I botched things so bad I still had the option of ordering out. That was my safety net in case of absolute disaster. Of course, having a safety net also a drawback since it let my experimental side run wild with trying out things like adding cinnamon to hamburgers. No, that did not work out well and I ate every single one to spite the comments my first wife made about them. That is not recommended either.

In making observations regarding the top rated restaurants to the best hot dog stand in town, my takeaway is that there is no one key element to offering the best collection, programs, classes, service, or ambiance to your community except the desire to do so. To invoke Hemingway’s reply to a criticism by Faulkner about his style of writing, “Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” Do the best libraries come from the biggest budgets, the most expensive staff, extravagant programs, and luxurious classes?  We tend to think that bigger is better in terms of budgets, staffing, purchasing, and programming, but it is not a silver bullet here.

Just like cooking, this is about your skills in using the ingredients available to you. This is your MacGyver moment in which you can turn papers clip and gum into a makerspace or death ray or whatever you need. With the resources that are available to you, what can you do with them?

In my previous position, I had a very limited programming budget, limited staff options, and a medium sized program room. In one year, I was able to squeeze out approximately sixty five adult programs, an average of one per week, well within my budget since most were free, and with a minimum amount of staff time. Because I looked at this way:

No budget? AWESOME. No paperwork or purchase orders to fill out.

No staff? AWESOME. No payroll or scheduling to worry about. I can find stuff that is lead by others or require no additional people.

No space? AWESOME. No clean up! Ok, I had space but I was certain to make sure that my programming was relatively clean.

My programming encompassed a plethora of interests, from local history to gardening to health to authors to artists to chocolate tasting to cooking demonstrations to financial presentations to a bunch of other things I can’t remember in addition to regular monthly programs such as an adult book discussion, yoga (paid for by the friends of the library), meditation, and a crafting class. [Here is my article on library programming that I wrote for LJ. –A]

With the resources that are available to you, what can you do with them? What do you pay for and what do you find for free? What needs staff to be present and what can run itself? What requires space, how much space, and can it be found in other places?

The ingredients are important, but what you do with them is even more so. It’s a skill that anyone who works in a library can develop.

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Food is nourishment. It feeds the body as well as the mind, both in the most literal of senses and figurative. In the most literal sense it is the wonder of our digestion system, although my recollection of the exact processes leaves a lot to be desired: food goes in, some miracle occurs, waste is released. Not exactly the material for a Schoolhouse Rocks song.

Figuratively, food is a catalyst for healing our mental and emotional states. Think about comfort foods, a term in which actual nutrition is set aside for the benefits it brings us emotionally. Mac and cheese, sloppy joes, chicken nuggets, and milkshakes are all kinds of foods that bring us solace when we are feeling despondent. There are also foods that remind of you of people and places, so powerfully attached to our senses that even a whiff can cause a flood of  memories. One of mine is for a particular kind of cookie made with chopped walnuts and covered in confectioner’s sugar that goes by a bunch of different names: Russian tea cakes, Mexican wedding cakes, and as they are known to my wife’s family, nutballs. (Yes, it’s a giggle-worthy name.) One whiff and it’s Christmas again, for it was the cookie of the season.

The common notion reflected in many a quotation about the library is that it is a place that nourishes the mind. This is still an important value to the library as an institution, the librarian as a profession, and of course the communities that we serve. What has changed are the delivery vectors for this kind of nourishment. People look to libraries for education, both in the passive sense from materials and in the active one from classes, talks, and workshops, as well as entertainment, social engagement with others, and a place for volunteer and local organizations to meet.

How do you “feed” your community? What do you “feed” them?

There’s a quotation for which I could not find the original source but was made in reference to Christian beliefs: “We are not called to judge, but we are fruit inspectors”. I believe that the same sentiment could be said for librarians. We do not judge people on their library material, but we do want to make sure that what we offer is meeting their educational, emotional, spiritual, social, leisure, and enjoyment needs. I acknowledge that this is a vast gray area, but one in which we rely on our knowledge and instincts in navigating.

Nourishment comes in many forms and we have many minds to feed.

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Food is local. You do not get a cheesesteak outside of the greater Philadelphia area. I don’t know where the exact line is, but eventually such a request turns into a rib-eye steak with some weird cheese on it. In my travels, I have seen a Philadelphia cheesesteak described in many an inaccurate fashion, mostly in terms of the cut of the beef.

The same notion is true for the paellas in Spain, the beers of Australia, the curries of India, and nuanced differences between Kansas City and Carolina BBQ. (Kansas City: tomato based with sugar, most notably brown sugar or molasses. Carolina: thin and watery from either mustard or vinegar, noted with hints of spices that make it tangy and peppery.)

They are a culmination of the events and influences on a culture or people throughout the years. It is a sprawling picture that captures what plants grow there, what animals roam through, the kind of weather, how long people have been there, whether they have been occupied or not, and so forth and so on. It’s the history of a people wrapped up into grains, fruits, vegetables, and meats.

When I talk to people who have never been to New Jersey about the diner culture, there is a certain kind of fascination that gets invoked. You mean you can get a cooked meal any time of day? A menu that has cheese sticks, coffee, and lobster tails on it? (Although I would never ever ever EVER recommend getting the lobster tails, they are still there.) It’s a place that sits in a unique position in New Jersey culture, a hybrid between restaurants and fast food joints with an eclectic menu, nostalgic ambiance, and a loyal following. 

Sound familiar?

In looking at your library and its community, what are the events and history that have brought it to this point in time? Who settled, who left, who stayed, and who is just arriving? What are the local aspects and elements that make it different than the next town or school or college over?

What is vital here is that community identity cannot be overlooked nor set aside. That which is thought of as local, be it an image, attitude, or way of life, is integral to your service population. You will lose if you fight it, but you stand to gain so much more when you embrace it, celebrate it, and foster it. This is not to maintain the status quo for your library, but to mold the changes you make along the local norms and image.

Libraries are not simply buildings surrounded by communities, but the common good a community has invested in that reflects its local values, assist local goals and ambitions, and satisfy local information needs.

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And so we arrive back at the original question: what is the future of libraries?

Well?

Is the future: books, eBooks, bookless, print on demand, makerspaces, collaborative spaces, community centers, quiet zones, remote storage, coding, computer labs, programs, webinars, seminars, mobile apps, mobile websites, workshops, embedded, super PACs, Minecraft, Amazon, paraprofessionals, or self publishing, to name but a few things?

Yes… and No. It depends.

I’ve always liked this quote from Sir Ken Robinson: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” But I feel that “wrong” in the librarian world is defined as “wrong for all libraries”, not as it should be interpreted as “wrong for their community”. That ill and awful notion of the “perfect library” smothers the original ideas and concepts that would work and flourish within the unique circumstances of a single library which I will say for the purposes of naked hyperbole could be YOUR library. Lack of scaling or repetition of results is not a fatal flaw to any collection or program or service that only works at ONE library. For all the times that library science isn’t actually a science (at least by this trained scientist), this is not when it should act like one.

So, if I was forced to answer this terrible question, what would I say is the future of libraries?

It’s a nod to the past, a meeting of current demands, and room for the future. Sometimes we catch up, sometimes we follow, and sometimes we lead. And it’s the way it is meant to be.

What matters is merging our professional values with our communities.

What matters is what fits within our own set of variables.

What I ask of you here today in this room at this very moment, when you are driving back, when you arrive at your library tomorrow and the next day and the day after that is to keep this phrase in mind:

“The future of libraries is what I am doing today to best serve my community.”

 

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(That slide should have a giant “THANK YOU” across the top, but Google Drive would not cooperate. -A)

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