You Told Us *Nothing*

I realize that I had put myself into blogvacation, but this latest entry from the well known pseudonymous librarian at Library Journal pulled me from my writing hibernation. If you can hold your nose and read it, do so. If not, it is basically a rehashing of a old canard in which library videos are the public image villains that will kill the library. The premise is that videos such as ‘Library 101’, ‘Kickass Librarian’, and ‘Libraries will survive’ present a clear and present danger to the image of libraries and librarians that it will result in their eventual closing wherever these videos can be viewed on the planet Earth.

The title to this post is ‘I Told You So’ and the superficial explanation offered is that these kinds of library videos are a detriment to the institution and the profession. It is imagined that those with control over the library budget were sitting on the fence about the library funding when, SUDDENLY, they saw one of these videos. That the real reason for this particular library closing is not local budget woes, a bad economy, or the decline of tax ratables, but that video. The leap of logic to connect these two items is nothing short of breathtaking in the asinine lengths one person will go to bash another.

The real underlying message of the Annoyed Librarian in this post (and perhaps the last year’s worth of blog posts) is “creativity kills libraries”. Period. Do not do anything that could be considered outside of the norm. The profession cannot possibly risk the embarrassment due to the imaginative endeavors of a few. That anyone would have the initiative to tweak the public perception of a librarian is something that should be quelled or smothered. And if you must be expressive, then there are certain strict standards that must be met; the first of these is that when viewed from any angle, it cannot possibly detract from the reputation of the library, librarians, or the field of library science.

Color within the lines, dammit.

Furthermore, in this topsy-turvy demented viewpoint, all advocacy will be seen as a joke and any expressions of humor will be considered deadly serious. Nevermind what the library does for its community. Nevermind the programs, materials, and services that are provided. Nevermind the average return of investment for every dollar spent on the library. Nevermind the importance of information access in a digital knowledge economy. It’s a comical video that made the difference in deciding to close the library. It’s akin to telling a crime victim that the reason they were assaulted and robbed is not because they were in the wrong place at the wrong place, that the assailant has a history of such attacks, or that it was a crime of opportunity, but it happened because they are a bad person.

This kind of reasoning is why we can’t have a library renaissance during the greatest revolution of communication, information, and computation in the history of mankind. In an era that has seen the rise of the knowledge economy, the expansion of educational opportunities to every corner of the planet, and when information can be beamed into a personal handheld device, there is a cornucopia of carping and self doubt that is nothing short of staggering. In an age of potential, the conversation about the library is still controlled by the hyperactive risk adverse. It is one thing to take such risks into the overall calculation; it is another to say that any risk factors are fatal errors to the computation. I think this passage from the Seth Godin blog post, Fear of Bad Ideas, sums up the underlying issue perfectly:

A few people are afraid of good ideas, ideas that make a difference or contribute in some way. Good ideas bring change, that’s frightening.

But many people are petrified of bad ideas. Ideas that make us look stupid or waste time or money or create some sort of backlash.

The problem is that you can’t have good ideas unless you’re willing to generate a lot of bad ones.

(Emphasis mine.)

The other point that Mr. Godin makes in his post is that it takes a lot of bad ideas before a good one will emerge. That an idea may go through many generations, refined and rethought, before it emerges through the development process. Should people be allowed to examine these ideas or concepts and offer their critiques? Absolutely. But where it crosses the line is when this criticism is not given in good faith nor acts as a partner in the process.

The Annoyed Librarian is destructive hyperbole masquerading around as dissent. That’s not the tragedy in this instance. The tragedy is that this person is just one of many in the profession who engage in this sort of discourse. So enamored by their own self righteous banality, they seek to tear down the concepts and ideas of others long before they prove their worth or merit. They are the bane of innovation, the scourge of experimentation, and a foe of creation. They are not the voices of well reasoned doubt or Devil’s advocate; they are schadenfreude parasites on any meaningful discourse.

They tell us nothing for they offer nothing.

If parts of this entry sounds familiar, it is because it goes back to my second lesson learned in 2010. The balance between caution and risk has swung too far in the direction of the former. The vocal risk adverse minority are squeezing out the thinkers, creators, explorers, and adventurers within the profession on the basis of their biases and fears. The profession will not meet the challenges of this new century when any attempts at progress are smothered in the cradle. It simply won’t. The time has come to stand up to these bullies and announce them for what they offer the profession: nothing.

In closing, I want to share a quote by Dr. David Lankes that I think really nails the main issue for the profession:

“What will kill this profession is not ebooks, amazon, or Google. It will be a lack of imagination. An inability to see not what is, but what could be. To see only how we are viewed now, but not how that is only a platform for greatness… It [librarianship] only survives if we, librarians and the communities we serve, take it up, renew, refresh it, and constantly engage in what is next.”

(Excerpted from here.)

(I must give credit for some inspiration for this post to Karen Schneider and her post, The Devil Needs No Advocate. In my opinion, it’s a ‘must read’ post.)

Best Book Prognostication EVER

From Terribleminds:

You know what the future of publishing is? The book. The motherfucking book. With pages and words and shit. And no, I don’t mean the e-book. I mean the kind of book that you can use to pound a nail, hit a bear, break a window. The physical object.

The book is never going away.

The book is an icon. The book is a treasured object. It is equal parts totem, fetish, decoration, and hand-me-down. It is a container of permanent wisdom and knowledge (or, in the case of some books, a container of permanent bullshit, but hey, that can be just as awesome).

I said it before and I’ll say it again: the fact that anybody still wants to burn a book shows you how powerful the physical object is, both as itself and as a symbol.

Books are magic. Books are love. Books are infinity times two.

I’m not saying the audiences won’t shrink. I’m not suggesting that publishing won’t be changing its models. I’m not saying that publishing books will remain the most stable industry.

But the book, she ain’t going nowhere. Because the book is a thing. I don’t mean “thing as physical object,” I mean, “thing as thing, as cultural bulwark, as obelisk and idol.”

I was introduced to author Chuck Wendig by my brother who has written some guest posts for his blog. Remarkably insightful and delightfully profane, Mr. Wendig rarely disappoints in his posts about life as a writer, the writing process, and the rollercoaster that is the life of a freelancer. In taking on the current constant hand wringing regarding the future of the book and the e-book, he serves a fresh reminder as to the place of the book in regards to culture and society, both as a physical object and as a container for the contents within. It’s probably one of the best takes I’ve read on the future of books and not just because I was giggling through most of it.

If your work filters can tolerate it, go and read the whole thing right now. Bask in the unholy glory of one author’s take on the future of publishing.

Books in 2025 over at LibraryThing

From the Library Thing blog, Thingology:

The group aims to centralize and restart a site-wide conversation about the future of books and reading. It’s a conversation that’s been going on for years here and there on Talk, especially Book talk and the librarians group, in comments to my Thingology posts about ebooks and my Twitter stream. It needs it’s own group. It will also be refreshing to hear more from LibraryThing members–not technologists or industry people. After all, who better to discuss the future of books than the people who love them most?

Be sure to check out the Books in 2025 group since there are some discussions already going on (the current largest discussion is whether the disappearance of the physical book stores matter). I admire the concept of an ‘everybody in’ huddle where book lovers of all stripes are being called together. If you’re a librarian, this is good marketing research as to what people are looking for or expecting out of books. This wouldn’t be a bad time to ask your own questions about the future of the book, either. (Don’t marry it with the future of libraries!)

The Case for the Great Good Place

Via Stephen’s Lighthouse:

It’s been a couple of days since I sat down to watch this video and I still don’t think it’s enough time to digest everything that I saw. It was like watching a pitcher throw a perfect game or a bowler roll a 300 or some other sports analogy of perfection. While I know that no library operates that flawlessly, it certainly seems that it is a little slice of library heaven on Earth. Patron focused, community supported, technology enabled, staff supported & buy-in? Where can I get some of that?

The part of the documentary that has stuck with me the most is something John Berry spoke about at the beginning of the film. “The Great Good Place” is a term I had not previously heard used in describing the library. In dissecting the phrase in my head, it has such nuance to it that it just blows me away. I do believe there is an inherent goodness to the library and that it is a place of aspirations and dreams.

I had joked earlier this year on Twitter and Facebook that, in the future when people ask me what I do for a living, I’m going to tell them that I work at the creativity factory, but for me there is a kernel of truth in what I said. I do believe that we as librarians are surrounded by thousands if not millions of creative expressions made over the course of written history. Fiction, non-fiction, it all comes together as people pour themselves onto the pages to teach, to entertain, and to share themselves. If you stand in the stacks and take a moment to consider your surroundings, the amount of time and effort used in handing down knowledge and stores that you are surrounded by is pretty damn impressive in my opinion.

I would prattle on about how the library serves its community, works for information access, and in its heart a people oriented service business, but that would be preaching to the choir here. These are all good latent qualities to the library.

Where does the “great” begin then? I believe it is in the execution of the library mission and goals. Like all customer oriented entities, how the library service is carried out is what will make it a ‘great’ place. I’m not sure how to expand upon this point, really; that just about sums it up for me.

Once again, kudos to Darien Public Library for this video. I’m proud to know some of the people who work there and now see what their efforts yield. Now, onwards to make this the accepted and sought after norm for the profession.

(Note: I have been wrestling with WordPress to show the video. If it’s not showing up, you can view the video here.)

The Reports of Our Professional Deaths Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: Outside Observer Edition

This article entitled “Digital Underclass: What Happens When the Libraries Die?” by Jason Perlow at ZDNet caught my attention last week. The gist of the article is that libraries are in danger of extinction due to the change in format of one of our cornerstone collection pieces, the book. In moving from physical print to an ebook, Mr. Perlow makes the case that libraries will slowly face away into the past as the demand for physical print diminishes.

While this notion is not a new one that has been fired over the bow of the library ship (and is rebutted by issues of internet access and the increasing importance of bibliographic instruction in an information tsunami world), Mr. Perlow does make an excellent point in regards to the creation of a “Digital Underclass”: that is, those people who will be unable to access ebooks due to poverty. Specifically, when it comes to the rights of those who cannot afford such device:

It means that we need to guarantee that citizens have access, even if they are poor. It means each citizen needs access to free bandwidth to get books and they need devices to read the material on. We can assume that everyone in 10 years will be able to afford a smartphone or a super-inexpensive tablet device with inexpensive Internet connectivity, but that’s an awful big assumption.

And assuming that we aren’t going to cede the distribution of all electronic books to the Amazons of the world, then we need to start thinking about how we build that Digital Public Library infrastructure. Does it make sense to build datacenters at the state or county level with huge e-book/e-media repositories?

The other point Mr. Perlow makes is one that is currently at issue within the library world: the lending of ebooks. Or rather, the lack of such opportunities right now. I found it very refreshing to find someone outside of the library community who has concerns about this situation. It reinforces the importance of education the non-librarian public about what is going on with DRM, copyright, proprietary software, and what it will mean for them in the future if changes are not made now.

Another writer on ZDnet answered Mr. Perlow’s article with one of his own, challenging the idea that the public library would die and that what is needed is a reboot. In “Digital Underclass? Only if we allow it”, Chris Dawson articulates the point that libraries are the great equalizer for information access. Because it is an institution that provides materials and services to a community, the library continues to play an important part in our new information future. What is integral to the future of the library is that it “reboots” itself and morphs into a new institution that can handle the access and availability issues of the 21st century. For me, it is encouraging to hear some of the same arguments that librarians have been trying to make coming from outside observers.

I wrote a response to Mr. Perlow that evening, the first of which I will reprint below.

In reading your article, “Digital Underclass: What Happens When the Libraries Die?”, I wish to disagree with your assessment of the future of libraries. The short answer is that funding cuts will kill libraries, not technology. As a fellow New Jersey resident, you might have noticed that state funding to libraries was initially cut by 74% in the Governor’s first budget proposal. The final draft was a slightly less 43%, enough to keep federal matching funds for programs and some vital state wide library programs. A good number of libraries cut staff, hours, and even closed. None of this was technology related; it was all due to funding cuts not because the library was unnecessary, but was seen as a community luxury. In the depths of the recession, library visits were up, library usage was up, and NJ libraries saw increases in computer use generally across the board.

My longer answer is that libraries will not close so long as there is a digital divide (the proverbial technology ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’). So long as there is a digital divide, the need for print will continue. I will concede to a reduced demand and different printing schemes, but an all digital content world risks creating too large a gap that will stifle further development. I’m not simply talking about within the United States, but around the world. While cellular technology adaptation is rapidly gaining footholds in the developing worlds, they still lack an incredible amount of infrastructure to support that kind of reading. Furthermore, even with a suitable network system in place, ebooks cannot not replicate certain interactivity aspects of children’s books, the flip-flop of reading and checking the index of college textbooks, and remain under proprietary software and DRM issues.

And now I’m going to give you the third degree for your description of the library. Have you BEEN in a library lately? The card catalog is quite dead, my fellow New Jerseyian. It has been ever since the first OPAC (Online Public Access Catalog) graced the entrance of the library. And while we do have shelves of books (a staple), we also have shelves full of music, movies, audio books, and video games along with rows of public computers. The quiet is not what it used to be with collaborative spaces and tapping of laptop keyboards. In a fully digital society, there will be public libraries and people will need them. They will need them for bibliographic assistance, technology classes, and other things that cannot be gleaned from downloading or opening the box.

Will the library be the place that it was twenty years ago? No, absolutely not. The advances in communication and computing have turned the data landscape from (to borrow the phrase from another librarian blogger) an information desert to an information jungle. Librarians are no longer the gatekeepers to knowledge, we are reinventing ourselves as guides. The amount of data created this year will equal the amount of data ever created in the history of man. This mountain of data expressed in petabytes, a one with a scary amount of zeros behind it, and they are looking for names for the next set up the chart. It’s an information future and there will always be a need for someone who can find their way through to the information that people are seeking.

If you’d like to know more about ebooks and libraries, here’s a reading list for you:

Ebook Sanity (and the 3 articles that are immediately linked to it)
Ebook Summit: Our Ebook Challenge
The New Librarianship in the Age of the Ebooks
The World Without Public Libraries (from this blog)

There are other sources out there as well. To be fair, I can see the reason that people come to libraries changing, but right now, I don’t foresee public libraries in danger from media changes. Libraries have been cut out of the ebook scene for a long time, but we as a profession are working to make our own inroads.

He was gracious enough to offer me the chance to write a proper letter to the editor. I drafted another letter that is more on point to the issues raised in his article. You can read my Letter to the Editor here at ZDNet.

In reflecting on this experience, it shows that the profession does have some distance to go in educating people about funding, information access, the role of libraries and ebooks, and the overarching concerns about DRM and copyright. However, it is posts like this that grant us the chance to create a teachable moment. These are opportunities to reach out and advocate on behalf of the library on platforms that reach non-librarians. These are the chances that matter and we should endeavor to seek them out.

If we are going to taut that the library of the future is about connections, then we need to start making some ourselves to the non-librarian world.

School Libraries: Endangered Species?

From the Not So Distant Future:

It seems like a no-brainer. For students’ reading skills to improve, they need to read. They need to have lots of access to books and technology. They need to feel comfortable around books, talk about books, and associate books with positive interactions. They need the support of librarians who can match them up with the right books, bring guest authors into the school, create book clubs, help them access electronic books, guide them to online book discussions, help them get past the digital divide by providing Internet access and information literacy training, and connect their teachers with the latest tools.

And we know this works — study after study has shown that schools with well-stocked, well-staffed libraries have higher achievement test scores. And yet, perplexingly, across the nation, librarian positions are being cut; elementary libraries have no librarian, librarians are spread among multiple schools, and libraries are being closed due to lack of staff, or opened only a few hours a day, manned by the occasional teacher.

I know that school libraries in New Jersey got clobbered by the budget cuts last year. You can read one librarian-teacher’s account of going from the library back to the classroom due to cuts over at Library Garden. It’s this really horrendous paradox in which we demand better academic achievement from students and then can’t seem to find our collective wallet when the bill comes in. I realize that money is not the solution to some of the education woes in this country, but when you have a bunch of evidence that indicates that a library is a relatively cheap and easy way of knocking up reading scores a notch, it really is a no-brainer.

For related reading, The Unquiet Librarian takes on the lack of mention of school libraries and school librarians in a Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy white paper, “Digital and Media Literacy:  A Plan of Action”. They appear to be re-inventing the wheel with a recommendation to create Digital and Media Literacy Youth Corps rather than support existing school libraries and librarians that are already in place and on the (relatively) same mission.

What will it take to bring school libraries back from the brink of budget extinction?

(Late addendum: Chicago’s Lack of School Libraries Sparks Dispute. [h/t: Resource Shelf])

Those Pesky First World Library Problems

While the United States has been steadily reducing hours or shutting down libraries, other places in the world are getting their first libraries.

Now we want to tell you about one of the world’s newest libraries in Bhutan. Bhutan is a tiny kingdom sandwiched between two giants — India and China. It’s also perched high in the Himalayas — isolated for much of its history.

[…]

So when a non-profit group announced it wanted to help the village start a library, the reaction was lukewarm. The library is only the second free lending library in the entire country. The other one is ten hours away in the capital Thimphu.

[…]

Choden says some parents were worried by the idea that their kids would borrow books to take home. They were afraid the children might destroy them, and they’d have to pay. The sad part is that the parents here maybe because they’re illiterate don’t see the importance of a book. They don’t encourage their children to read. That’s the sad thing, right?

It reminds me a story from last year in which over 10,000 South African school children marched to demand libraries and librarians. There are charity organizations such as Room to Read working to build libraries around the world in places that never had one before. So while the rest of the world strives to get libraries, we of the ‘first world’ are tossing them to the side.

I’ve said it before: our governmental spending indicates where our societal interests lay. By that account, in the United States we spend over ten times on the military than we do on education. I don’t know whether it is being lazy or careless, but the message I get is that it is easier to build bombs and bullets than it is to build minds and mentalities.

I’m not exactly a pacifist here, but I do know that I have not seen a fictional vision of the future in which we waited for an alien race to land, shot the occupants, and then used their spacecraft to explore the universe. It’s not how we get to the types of futures as envisioned in shows like ‘Star Trek’.

I hate to rant on this because it’s a very old rant with nothing new. But if it can maybe change one person’s mind, then it will be worth it. In my lifetime, hopefully the numbers on the defense and education budgets will swap as we convert from a military-industrial to an educational-industrial complex.

Something to dream about, but when so many things start as a dream, it’s a good starting point.