Metal Objects Replace Librarians

Photo by fensterbme/Flickr

Or so you would think the Wall Street Journal article was implying when detailing the plan for libraries to use lockers that can be accessed by the public after hours or kiosks and vending machines to distribute library materials at different locations. The line saying that these kinds of outreach will redefine what it means to be a library mean that this is a relatively new concept to the writer and the WSJ. However, for those in the business, the practice of remote services (mall locations, kiosks, vending machines, and so forth) is relatively old hat.

I can understand why some library directors and supporters are a bit apprehensive about the lockers and vending machines. They are afraid that budget administrators will see it as a replacement to workers and hours rather than an enhancement of service. I might be naïve in thinking that there still has to be someone who orders the materials for the library to purchase and that someone is most likely going to be a librarian, but I don’t see this as a shrinking of the library. I see it as a way to reach people in new ways and make the library a part of their life, even if they don’t step through the front door. There are libraries out there now that mail materials to patron’s homes; I don’t see anyone writing about how that is the end of the institution.

One of the things I don’t see is the fading of physical library as a location. Even in the worst case scenario, there has to be a location where the materials can be distributed from and a system in place to coordinate orders, holds, retrievals, and invariably dealing with patrons and problems with their materials. With that level of staffing, I see a building that resembles a hybrid between the current library and a post office. There are postal type areas that allow for remote access to materials for people and then there are library areas for people to browse, take classes, attend programs, and read a daily newspaper or magazine. In this incarnation, the library morphs into a place that is truly available twenty four hours a day, both physically and online. The mission doesn’t change, but the look and feel of the physical location does.

I guess this begs a question: how can libraries expand out space outside of the library? What other areas can libraries get ‘remote outposts’? What enhances or diminishes service outside of the library?

How eBooks are making people stupid (and not in the way you are thinking)

ebook_for_dummies__10414[1] To be clear, I’m not talking about the ebooks themselves; they are a perfectly fine media format. But the continuous need for comparison of the two formats (electronic versus physical) is just plain stupid. Perhaps, as both an emerging market and medium, people feel the need to make this examination constantly. However, it’s often a misrepresentation: it is the capabilities of the ereader device being compared to the physical book, not the ebook itself. Ebooks, like physical books, do not have a great range of functionality or features in and of themselves. It’s the hype, the fear, and the uncertainty about how ebooks will change libraries that is leading some pretty smart people to make some pretty dumb statements. Where is this notion of a threat to libraries coming from?

Some perspective is in order concerning the hype: Amazon has reported selling more ebooks than hardcover books in the last year. Amazon, the company that has artificially held down prices on ebooks and has gotten in fights with publishers over the raising the price on ebooks, has reported that they sell more ebooks than hardcover books. Amazon, the company that has set the price of ebook editions for the Kindle at roughly one third of the price of a hardcover, has reported selling more ebooks than hardcover books in the last year. Amazon, the company that introduced the first popular ereader (and seek to support their portion of the market through reduced prices for ebooks for this device) that continues to dominate the ereader market share, has reported selling more ebooks than hardcover books last year.

I’m not sure how many other ways I can say it; if you price something drastically cheaper (three ebooks are roughly the cost equivalent of one physical hardcover book) and you have the largest market share, you are going to sell more ebooks no matter what. Shocked, I am not.

As to the fear, there are some misguided basic presumptions being made: that all future ereaders will be completely proprietary and loyal to one provider, DRM will never change (or will only change for the worse, meaning more restrictive), and that libraries will never EVER have a seat at the ebook table. The first assertion has been proven false already by the emergence of applications that allow for the purchasing of content from other ebook sources. It is not too far fetched to predict that as time progresses all ereader devices will be able to access any ebook content provider. The second assertion that DRM will never change or change for the worse is a harder case to make, but the movements of the litigation regarding copyright give me the feeling that it will be addressed in the next few years. The recent action by the Copyright Office leads me to believe that DRM will become more liberal as the United States is a society that places emphasis on personal ownership & property rights and not on the current lease models in use currently. As to the third assertion, libraries as an institution have not demanded from our distributors and publishers that we be provided with ebook copies that are compatible with most popular devices. Libraries are being treated as a junior partner when it comes to ebooks. With more locations in the country than McDonald’s, this is a position that the publishing industry takes at their own peril. Eventually, ebooks will be lent by libraries; it is only a matter of time. There will be two groups: the publishers who got with the program and those who are trying to catch up.

There is very little reason to be fearful regarding about ebooks. It is a medium that is in the midst of birthing a viable business model. It’s not like Gutenberg printed his first book and thought to himself, “I must find a way to create more of these and put them in the hands of the general public.” No, he sold them and thought about what else he could print that people would buy. (For 30 florins each, or the equivalent of three year’s wages for an average clerk.) While ebook sales increase, the main limiting component in this equation is still the ereader device regardless as to whether it is a handheld gadget or desktop computer. You can cut the price of an ebook down to a slim profit margin; only time, innovation, and market demand will reduce the price of the ereader. Once those prices drop down (and they will) to where it gets within sight of the poverty line, then we will may see the rate of adoption that makes ebooks the “must have” item in library collections around the country.

I think the most apt comparison of an emerging technology (ebooks) versus an established technology (books) is that of the automobile to the horse. Automobiles are pretty ubiquitous now, adopted for use on nearly all corners of the Earth, as the main mode of personal transportation. However, there are places that the horse can travel that the automobile cannot. Horses are still used as a mode of travel otherwise, collected and cared for by people from all walks of life, and utilized for other daily purposes. There is still an industry around them ($39 billion yearly, according to the Horse Council.) Not bad for the main form of transportation for the majority of recorded history replaced by a ‘superior’ mechanical invention. There will always be a market for physical books, it’s just going to change over time. Horse riding did not go away with the advent of the automobile or even the plane; and neither will the book with the rise of the ebook.

This is not Armageddon[1]; it is a road map for our own library success. This is what people want: an device or app that can allow for download of library material wirelessly into a device. And this isn’t something on the scale of the moon landing; Overdrive Media has an app for multiple platforms already and the cost of ereaders is going down. As to ebooks, here’s the talk I propose someone who does purchasing to have with their distributors:

Hello, ladies and gentleman. I have a giant bag of money. And from what I hear, you guys like money. This is the money I have to spend on adding materials to my library.

As I am charged with spending this as wisely as possible, here is what I am going to tell you: the first company to get digital rights for all the books we want wins the giant bag of money.

Your time starts now.

Game on.

*****

[1] Be sure to read Heather McCormack’s brilliant post, “An Optimist-Pessimist’s Guide to Avoiding Ebook Armageddon”. I read it while I was writing this post and it encouraged me to finish jotting down all of the notes that came to mind.

After rant:

How can anyone in library services be displeased with a technology that allows a book to travel through the air at lightning and delivered to a receiving device in under a minute? (See also: Louis CK: Everything is amazing and nobody’s happy.) Isn’t this part of the dream of information services? This is sort of thing that people in the 1960’s saw on Star Trek and went, “Man, wouldn’t that be cool?” And within a generation, it exists. If there is a reason to be scared, it’s a selfish one: that the days of the traditional library collection are coming to an end and that the public will not need our profession. As if schools, parents, and teachers are doing a top notch job with bibliographic instruction and information vetting education. Based on my own experience, there will be a need for a librarian until they build an artificial intelligence that can answer the questions that I field. Once I see HAL taking reference questions, then I’ll know the time of the library has come to an end.

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t order that book for you.”

Edit: Changed the term “physical” to “hardcover” in the Amazon paragraph. Thought one thing and wrote another. Oops! Thanks to the LISNews commenter for pointing that out.

Saint Crispin’s Day

This was at the top of an email from NJLA I got last week.

TO: NJ LISTSERV MEMBERS

FROM:  PAT Tumulty, Executive Director

RE: Updates-Advocacy

DATE: March 18, 2010

1. NJLA ADVOCACY RESPONSE

Make no mistake, if the current proposals affecting state and local library funding pass, NJ libraries will have to close their doors.

Gov. Christie’s budget calls for a 74% decrease in funding for statewide library services.  This cut includes the elimination of all statewide library programs and services.  What does this mean to NJ residents?

250 of the state’s 302 libraries will lose access to the Internet on July 1st

130 libraries will lose email service July 1st

124 libraries will lose their websites or access to them July 1st

Statewide interlibrary loan and delivery of library materials will cease on July 1st

The Talking Book and Braille Center (known as the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped) will close on July 1st

NJ resident’s access to electronic databases such as RefUSA and EBSCO will cease on July 1st

Group contracts which bring down the cost of other electronic resources purchased by libraries will cease on July 1st

In addition, libraries will lose $3 million in state aid

At the same time the state is eliminating funding for library programs. Assemblyman John DiMaio has introduced A2555 which eliminates the minimum local funding requirement for municipal public libraries.

This assault on libraries must be stopped!  Here is what you need to know:

170,000 people enter a NJ library every day

The library programs eliminated from the Governor’s budget represent little more than $1 per capita in state funds.  And since library programs have been flat funded for 20 years it is hard to believe these programs have caused the state’s current fiscal crisis.

Local library funding targeted in A2555 typically represents less than 3% of local property taxes.

That’s a hell of a way to start a Wednesday.

Here, within these budgetary apocalyptic pronouncements, lay the very instruments to test the mettle of any librarian. We proclaim ourselves champions of information access, intellectual freedom, and a providers of materials and services to all who cross our threshold regardless of politics, economics, or social standing. Yet here, laid bare in tomes of numbers and figures, the value of such ideals has been coldly calculated by our fellow citizens within the Office of the Governor. This is no mere indictment by a passing critic of the machinations of government spending; no, dear friends, these are individuals of equal intelligence and a shared conviction for public service. Though these traits we share, what one thing we possess over them is our understanding of the far-reaching implications of the vastly expanding information universe.  In this grand age of information, the closing of a library is not simply a denial of the modern world of knowledge, but a denial of the modern world. This is the deeper potency of the communication revolution, the removal of barriers for the sharing of information and information resources. This is our shared professional frontier, the culmination of generations of predecessors, and our home.

We are but a number now, zeroed out on a buried budget sheet, but in the days ahead it is our charge to bring context to those lines. It is up to librarians, all of us, and any and all who read the words written herein, to take up this cause now. That now is the time to educate budget makers as to our return of investment; now is the time to demonstrate to the voters the breadth and width of the offerings of the modern library; that now is the time to raise our voices and make ourselves known for what the institution has become:

That libraries are a lynchpin of valuable public services, universal information access, and shared community commitment to the betterment of our friends, our neighbors, and ourselves.

***

For inspiration in days ahead, I suggest this from the Bard of Avon.

What can you do? (This is a continuation of the email above.)

  • Become a Library Champion (NJ residents)
  • Join the Facebook group Save NJ Libraries
  • Watch Capwiz for NJLA’s call to send a message to your Senator and Assembly representatives opposing the elimination of statewide library programs and A2555. 
  • Get Trustee Boards, Town Councils, County Library Commissioners, Friends groups, community organizations and School Boards to pass resolutions in opposition to these cuts (schools rely on these databases too – and the cuts to school libraries are already going to be bad).

Andy-W-Library-Poster-copy

The Reports of Our Professional Deaths Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

In no uncertain terms, the funding that supports our profession has taken beating on both the local and national level. This year, there will be cuts, layoffs, and closures despite our best lobbying efforts. But while there will be less money going around in the public and private sector for the next couple of years, an article I got today from my Twitter friends really made me think that there will be a upcoming shift as to where information management and interpretation skills will be needed.

The article by the Economist entitled “Data, data everywhere” talks about the skyrocketing growth in the sheer volume of information. I’m not shy to admit that it used prefixes to the word –byte that I had never heard of; it’s staggering on a scale that is breathtaking. According to Cisco systems, “[b]y 2013 the amount of traffic flowing over the internet annually will reach 667 exabytes” (or 667,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes or 1/3rd of a zetabyte).

That’s a lot of bytes. Eventually, I presume they will have to start smashing other Greek words together to make up new prefixes.

Aside from this momentary levity, I think this presents an emerging opportunity for information professionals (such as librarians) to shift gears in the way that they approach and treat information. The other quotation that made me sit up in my chair was from Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist.

Data, he explains, are widely available; what is scarce is the ability to extract wisdom from them.

There is an economic value to the management, storage, indexing, and retrieval of this relentless data creation. In addition, there is greater value for being able to analyze and interpret it as well as being able to translate or explain it to others. This data, in quantities not seen before in the long story of humanity, means little to nothing if it cannot be arranged or deciphered.

“The data-centred economy is just nascent,” admits Mr Mundie of Microsoft. “You can see the outlines of it, but the technical, infrastructural and even business-model implications are not well understood right now.”

Take a moment to read the article and see what I mean. While some roles of librarianship will remain the same moving ahead, the nature of information is morphing. It’s on the move, expanding at an exponential rate. Perhaps Seth Godin was right about one thing; this new data world will need sherpas. And that should be us.

The World Without Public Libraries

SOME say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To know that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

- Robert Frost, Fire and Ice

On the whole, I’m not much of a book reader. Most of my reading is done online; I read a handful of books every year, mostly non-fiction, based on various whims. Right now, I’m reading The World Without Us, a captivating exploration about how the world would revert (or not revert) back to a pre-human emergence. Some of these things have been dramatized into a series on the History Channel by a different name, providing the added element of CGI to show how buildings would collapse, infrastructure would fail, nature reclaims the suburbs, and how all that would remain for future archeologists is our stainless steel cookware. For the scientist in me, it’s fascinating to see everything humans have made becoming undone by the natural forces of this world.

So, in touching upon the premise of the book, I thought, "What would the world be like without libraries?" How would our demise come?

Unlike the book, which asks the reader to suspend disbelief and accept the total sudden disappearance of humankind, I cannot propose nor fathom asking the same for libraries. In attempting to avoid hyperbole, I think the mechanisms of the library’s demise have already proven themselves present. It will not come through lack of innovation or adoption of technology or practices; our relevance and willingness to change in this digital information age has certainly been established. No, the end will come as it has for some libraries over the past two years: through budget cuts. Funding for all library types (public, academic, school, and special) has hung in the balance for the last couple of years after budgets tighten and communities and companies look to trim their expenditures. You need go no further than typing in the words “library budget” in a Google News search to see the current toll that is being exacted. 

One problem, as I see it, is that the library as a community service does not fit nicely into any government spending niche. The library is not an essential service like the police, fire, and ambulance companies nor do we handle the mundane mechanisms that make everyday life possible in terms of sanitation, road maintenance, and other public works. We provide some support for families, unemployment assistance and job hunting help, and educational materials, but we are not of departments of social services, labor, or education, respectively. We wear many hats for our community, covering gaps within different agencies, yet most talks about the library budget are controlled by the things we buy so members of the community can borrow them. There is a dangerous disconnect between the commonly held public perception of what we offer and the myriad of services and benefits beyond the collection that exist.

So, to go back to the original question, what would this truly mean? We should not invoke dire warnings of our demise without considering what would actually happen if libraries were removed in their entirety. I’m not certainly saying that this will happen, but let us imagine if it did. The immediate fallout would be the end of the industry and trade associations that have set up around the library: no more groups like ALA, no more trade publications like Library Journal, and a spectrum of businesses that provide consulting, furniture and building ware, hardware and software technology, and other office supplies would be forced to evolve or cease. Perhaps the most prominent economic impact would be the companies that provide the materials that go into our collections; the books, magazines, newspapers, movies, music, and database providers would find their business slowly evaporating as the library budget shrinks.

In this hypothetical, the length of time before libraries would shut down depends entirely on the community. Whether large or small, it is the amount of local support that would prolong the end. I would imagine there would be some consolidation in libraries between towns; similar to how the library systems would close down branches one by one before finally shuttering their main location. As they say, all politics are local, and the same holds true for library support.

In pondering this and trying to make it manageable, I’ve broken this post into three distinct sections: collections, services, and ideals. I’ve also excluded school, academic, and special libraries from this question. I’m not an insider when it comes to the other library types, so I would invite those with better knowledge to post their own hypothetical.

With that said, let us consider a world without public libraries.

Collections

I think that our public patrons will break down into two groups: the people who will end up buying more materials and the people who will look for borrowing alternatives. As for the first group, they will recapture a small part of the library market by buying the materials they would have previously simply borrowed. While operating under a smaller budget than the library, they will be purchasing within a niche of authors, movies, and magazines they are pretty comfortable with. There may be some purchasing around such preferences (such as similar authors, musicians, and genres), but the wider range of opportunities that the library offered will be gone. As to whether the amount an average person would spend over the course of a year would exceed the amount that would be paid taken out of a tax line, the ALA estimates that the average tax burden of an individual is roughly $31 (the cost of a hardcover book, one DVD, seventy local daily newspaper issues, or six months to two years of a popular periodical). It’s not hard to see how this number could be easily surpassed by an individual over the course of a year.

The more interesting development to me would be the innovations to lend/exchange material in the absence of the library. On the local scale, there could be physical exchanges of books, music, and other materials as people pool their resources to expand their own access. Whether it would be small meet-ups of individuals for exchanging or library co-ops (fee based membership run entities), smaller communities would arise to allow lending and access to databases (which would have to consider lower cost individual subscriptions to maintain revenue).

The presence of the internet would certainly ease peer to peer lending of materials. There are already sites that exist right now such as Bookmooch, Swaptree, and Paperbackswap that facilitate people wanting to trade materials. Freecycle and Craig’s List could easily add book swap subheadings to their repertoire to assist people in making connections for exchanges. A subculture of an open information market where books, DVDs, and CDs are the currency is not terribly farfetched in light of what currently exists. Social media such as Facebook and Myspace could also play a hand in spreading the word about the aforementioned websites and tools or act as another trading medium.

In the void left by libraries, this would give rise to new material lending enterprises. Business models and ideas like Netflix could be applied to other types of materials including books, magazines, and music. Likewise, in the model of iTunes, an idea of a low cost per-piece rental system could garner attention. (Whether or not someone could borrow a book for the cost of $1 is another story entirely.) In both cases, it would be a system of pick, click, and have it shipped to your door. With either a subscription or per-item, the private sector would offer alternative material lending solutions for former library users.

In thinking about materials after libraries are gone, the question is not “if” people will still have access to materials, but “how”. Long before the emergence of public libraries, people lend each other reading materials. Whether it was the newspaper, pamphlet, book, or serial, information and literacy moved across society. With the demise of public libraries, it would return to a slower pace of exchange. The new communication mediums would allow for more rapid material exchanges (including illegal ones such as piracy). I don’t doubt that people will get their hands on the same materials, but between the private sector and public communities, it would be interesting to see how it broke down. 

Services

While a world without public libraries would lose a gamut of services, none would have a more glaring absence than the loss of free public internet access. This aspect presents the largest access barrier to former patrons. Whether it is maintaining social or professional relationships, searching or applying for employment, making personal intellectual inquiries, or keeping up with interests or hobbies, the disappearance of public computers has great ramifications.

There are a trio of potential solutions to this issue. First, other governmental organizations could provide computer access as part of their public service. While possibly niched, it would allow jobseekers to search and apply for jobs online (Department of Labor), homework help for children and teens (Department of Education), or specific department related inquiries (such as access to sites and databases relating to finances from the Department of Commerce). Otherwise, there is the potential for government run computer centers which allow citizens to access the internet much in the same way that libraries currently operate. The main obstacle to this type of solution would be the additional expenditures required to create and maintain these services (in other words, if they did not have the money to keep libraries, a new expenditure is highly unlikely). Even with this obstacle, I think there is enough importance on computer access (however rationed) that certain governmental agencies would create their own computer centers and labs for their tailored purposes.

The second potential solution would be the private sector. The concept of internet cafes and center is not a new one; people pay for the time that they use to access the internet. The real question is to whether the government would offer computer subsidies (“computer stamps”) to allow lower class individuals to get cheaper access rates or if the influx of new customers would drive competition and lower prices to the point where nearly anyone could afford it. I would imagine it would be a combination of the two; where competition did not push the price down, there could be a mechanism in place to allow the working poor to maintain computer access. (The larger looming question this begs is whether internet access is a fundamental right; for this hypothetical, I am brushing aside such an issue in favor of simply looking for ways to maintain current levels of access.)

The last solution would be the creation and support of a community organization to provide access. Whether it is under a co-op structure or a simple pooling of resources, people could create shared computer access points that meet basic internet access needs. It could be a jointly purchased computer in a person’s house, a room in a community center, or a communal laptop with a mobile access card that goes to where it is needed. The point is that people will find a way if they want to maintain their wired connectivity.

While free public computers is one of the traits that defines the modern library, it is not the only service lost with the closing of public libraries. Research questions, from genealogy to academic inquiry to reader advisory, become inquiries that are answered by either local subject experts or fodder for search engines. The presence and growth of Wikipedia would suggest that people are willing to share their knowledge and create links between information. Without librarians acting as a clearinghouses, the shift of the burden of providing information moves to individuals to step up and share in websites, wikis, and other organized content. I don’t think information is necessarily lost; a person could still track down the information from experts and other knowledgeable sources. What changes is the number of steps and the amount of time it takes for some inquiries to go from question to answer.

The last important service that the library provides is when it acts as a life enrichment center. Each month, libraries across the nation put on programs for children, teens, adults, and seniors. Whether it is story time for babies or Wii for seniors or instruction classes, it would take a concentrated local effort to maintain these programs. I am hard pressed to imagine other governmental entities making replacement offerings save for those whose programs are closest to the department’s purpose. Likewise with the private sector; although I can see larger or more affluent communities being able to hire speakers and performers on a consistent basis. Personally, I feel that all of these social and/or educational activities would need to be picked up by the communities they serve in order to continue on as the closest resemblance to the offerings of the library.

The remainder of services lost in the absence of public libraries consists of offerings that some libraries provide such as a notary, public fax, computer instruction, or a place for kids and teen to go to get off the street. These are the functions that cover the various gaps in overall government operations. It is not that there are no alternatives to these services, it’s just that libraries were the best situated institution for offering them. Again, people would find a way to get what they when public libraries existed; it would just take more local direction and effort.

Ideals

In essence, who would carry the banner for uninhibited intellectual inquiry, academic freedom, free expression, and unfettered information access? The government? Businesses? Our educational institutions? The people? To this last section, it has given me great pause.

While public libraries are absent, I don’t believe our ideals are equally so. I believe that, with the creation of decentralized information in the absence of libraries, these issues would take greater importance. It is hard for people to rally for our ideals when they remain unchallenged as a whole; the creation of access barriers between the people and the information they seek would create a whole new playing field.  With the onus of responsibility shifted from the institution to the people, I believe you will see a greater vocal presence for these freedoms. This is not to say that there would not be cases of censorship or information access inhibition, but I believe there would be more community opposition to infringements (realistically, to paraphrase a saying, your mileage on this ideal will vary with the community in question). To put this another way, with the elimination of additional options, I think people tend to get very particular about what is left on the table. 

Without public libraries, the question of the ideals that librarians champion rests in the hands of the community. As much as I’d like to give into my cynical side and say that they would erode within a decade, I feel that the general public also embraces the basics of intellectual freedom. As Americans, we accept the freedom of expression even if we don’t always fully follow it to the letter. This is to say that we are not a perfect people but we do agree on certain basic freedoms. We like our options, we like our ability to speak and express freely, and these aspects become important in the face of a reduction of information options. 

My Thoughts 

I’ve been working on this post off and on for the last couple of weeks. Over that period of time, I’ve read Ned Potter’s “The Unspeakable Truth” and other posts talking about a shrinking or vanishing role in libraries. This has compelled me further to finish this post and to thoughtfully examine a world without public libraries.

Personally, for all our budget troubles, I don’t foresee the end of public libraries in the near future. Libraries may consolidate between towns, close smaller locations or branches with the weakest statistics in larger system, even cut back to much shorter hours and offerings, but the complete demise of this public institution is not a reality. While there are entities that are better at aspects of what we do, there is no complete package or an organization that replaces us as a whole. There is no other establishment, government, private, or otherwise, that does what the library does for the same amount of cost/benefit. This is not to say that there aren’t individual libraries under the knife right now in desperate need of public support. What I am saying is that the institution of public libraries at present remains above extinction. If anyone would like to suggest otherwise, I’d be happy to hear their arguments and evidence.

I also think that there is a tremendous amount of gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands when it comes to the question of relevancy. All of this energy is better utilized doing what the library does best and focusing on the mission at hand: serving their patrons and their community. I don’t care whether this is through larger book selections, better reader advisories, an immersive website, or through providing support for the latest websites, tools, and gadgets. It is about the information, whether it is educational, entertainment, or otherwise.

Finally, I don’t believe the world would stop without public libraries. Society got along relatively fine without us as they would again if public libraries went away. Our demise would add layers of additional complexity to information access, but it does not stop us from eating, breathing, or living. Life, most assuredly, would go on.  It should not be our aim as public librarians to try to convince people how bleak and melancholy the world would be without public libraries. Rather, it should be our goal to show how much better the world is when you have seemingly infinite information and entertainment options only a phone call or keystroke away. It is an appeal to what could be, for our holdings are the seeds of insight, of knowledge, and of imagination. That we can enable better dreams, better understandings, and a better fuller life.

The public library is in the life enrichment business. Act accordingly.

Tuesday Night Deep Thought: Information Future?

Today I found myself pondering the following question:

“Where will information content be in five years? Ten years?”

And after a long bout of deliberation this evening, I couldn’t really come up with an answer. I think that’s part of our professional problem, really. I can’t think of one person who has more than the most speculative of an educated guess. I’m sure there are some who might read this and take umbrage at this statement, thinking that they are or know someone who could provide an answer. But my guess is that if we were to take the answers, seal them in an envelope, place them in a time capsule, and open them in five or ten years, they would be mostly (if not completely) wrong. (There could be a wager in this, I reckon.)

In thinking about the future, I did a survey of the past. I took a look at some of the sites I use now (and some related ones) to acquire a proverbial snapshot at what existed, what just started, and what was yet to be five years ago. Here are the results:

  • Established five or more years ago: Amazon, Blogger, Livejournal, Delicious, StumbleUpon, Google Picasa, LinkedIn, Wikipedia, WordPress, LISNews, TinyURL.
  • Infancy/just started five years ago: Gmail, Facebook, Bebo, Flickr, Yelp, Netvibes, Ning, Reddit, Library Thing, Digg, Kayak, Vimeo, Newsvine, Renren (formerly Xiaonei; it’s the world’s largest social network based in China).
  • Didn’t exist five years ago: Google Calendar, Reader, & Maps; YouTube, Twitter, Friendfeed, Tumblr, Diigo, Foursquare, Jaiku, Plurk, Good Reads, Brightkite, Scribd, Hulu, Fancast.

This doesn’t mention the leaps in technologies like mobile phones (iPhone, 2008) or e-readers (Kindle, 2007) within this time period, nevermind the announcements of the last few months (the iPad and the Nook). Nor does it include the general decline in printed newspaper and periodical readership that has trended during this time period. And, to toss something else into the mix, it doesn’t account for the change in design of library spaces that make them more community oriented (this would be more of something of the last ten to fifteen years, give or take).

There is simply a lot of things going on; too much, I believe, for anyone to grasp in terms of the big picture. And I think it’s time that the librarian community admits that we really don’t know where exactly information content is going to end up in that time. Sure, we can say where it will be in the short short scale of maybe a year, perhaps two, but beyond that is lost to us.

Am I wrong?

(Edit: Fixed a spelling mistake.)

The Library Reloaded: Library Cards

Photo by NJLA/Flickr While I was taking a break working on a blog entry, this post by Patrick Sweeney about getting rid of library cards showed up in my Google Reader. He talks about replacing library cards with user names and passwords, with authentication control happening at the library locations. I thought this was such a different take on the one traditional part of the library experience that I started to write a reply. What I wrote grew beyond what felt like a simple note so I decided to drop my current post and craft this one.

So,  with the spirit of Patrick’s post in mind (getting rid of library cards), I started to think about what existing technology that we have now that could be adopted to fit this ultimate goal. In leaning back in my desk chair and rolling the puzzle around in my head, I brought it down to a few requirements: provide the same level of authentication (for privacy), provide the same level of permissions on and off site (for access), and be arguably easier and cheaper than the process it replaces (issuing library cards). Under those guidelines, I’d like to propose some additional alternatives to the library card (with varying degrees of viability).

1.) Cell phone wallet: Popular in the countries like Japan and South Korea, your library card information is stored on your mobile device. Simply by swiping your phone on a signal reader, you can use it for all of your library business (e.g. checking your account, borrowing materials). Computers in the library could be fitted with readers. For offsite authentication (such as remote account and database access), the user could simply retrieve their stored card number from the phone.

The major con for this is that not everyone has a cell phone, whether they are too young (think babies, toddlers, kindergarten through whenever their parents want to five them phones) or they cannot afford one with cell phone wallet capability. While the technology is popular in other countries, it has not taken off in the United States. In addition, this could also pose account management issues with people wanting to lend their card to others to check out materials, use computers, and other situations of permissible card lending. Unlike a card, a cell phone does not lend itself as well to lending.

2.) Fingerprint Scanner: No need to carry a card when you are using your fingerprint for authentication. Fingerprint scanners have come down in price to being under $100, a figure that is relatively easy to reach. Just scan your thumb or forefinger at the circulation desk or computer lab to prove your identity. It’s more reliable and secure than a library card since fingerprints are a unique biometric. The patron’s privacy is secure behind the fingerprint; it also completely removes the need to remember a library card while providing an accurate way of identifying patrons.

As nifty as this would be, it completely fails the off site authentication test. It would have to rely on a supplemental piece of material so that people could remotely access accounts and databases. However, for libraries where the materials and databases are not generally reached offsite (think of certain types of special libraries), this might be the right approach to securing access to sensitive materials. Like the cell phone wallet, it also creates the same issues for lending of library cards or allowing multiple people to use a card. Also, it does not address the issue of the small number of people who are without hands.

(My next suggestion doesn’t get rid of the library card, per se. However, I think it does present another possibility to the alternative of the library card.)

3.) A hybrid RFID card/’one button’ authenticator: Ok, so this device doesn’t exist, but it does take two types of existing technologies that would not work for the purposes of this idea experiment and put them together. Yes, it’s still something people would need to carry, but I think it could have broader implications and aspirations for a simple library card.

The RFID provides the on site identification for materials. Swipe the card past a reader, do your library business, done. I think the potential for RFID in libraries goes further by acting as a library card in multiple locations. The idea of a single card being able to access multiple locations (for example, your library, your state’s library, and the Library of Congress) would be the ideal; a single library card to access everything.

The one button authenticator provides the off side identification. Pressing the button provides a unique and time sensitive series of numbers to be entered into the interface to provide access. This is used currently in the private sector for secure computer networks (including the largest massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, World of Warcraft, with over 13 million players) Within a combined system, it could provide remote access to accounts and subscription materials for a spectrum of libraries.

While it solves the problems of remote access that are shared by the cell phone wallet and fingerprinting, each technology carries its own baggage. RFID has privacy and security implications that make it a vulnerable means while the ‘one button’ authenticator has the chance of failing like any other computer chip. In addition, there is the additional cost this would incur in the form of cards, readers, and staff training.

I will admit that it is a bit of technology overkill for solving a simpler problem, but it was still fun to imagine. I really liked Patrick’s post because it was bold in its questioning of a status quo. Perhaps libraries won’t replace cards, but it doesn’t hurt to go back and examine practices to either reaffirm, renovate, or remove them. It is this kind of inquiry that tests the boundaries and makes the occupation and practice more interesting to me.

Overall, I think there are alternatives to library cards, but it is on a location and library type basis. There are enough nuances to this that, in the right situation, a library could replace their cards with something else. Perhaps it is on this micro scale that card alternatives could be considered, so long as it is a true replacement and capable of community-wide acceptance. In any case, I wouldn’t think it would be a daring statement to say that anything that eases the patron-library interaction would be possible welcome addition.

 

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