The search for the next big thing, ctd

As the Christmas shopping season officially began over the Thanksgiving holiday, I have been thinking about what the next big thing will be for librarians and libraries in the near future. It’s possibly the right time of year for this type of meditation as business put out their latest and greatest wares for the seasonal marketplace buying frenzy. What is the “must have” item for libraries in this coming year? Is it mobile platforms? Open source programs? Google Wave servers? Lendable e-reader devices? While these certainly have their appeal to the technophile in me, I think the answer is more basic than these contemporary offerings. Like the holidays of this season, I believe that the next big thing in the coming year is a focus on people. Ourselves, our staff, and the communities that we serve: it is a matter of advocacy.

As it has been storied across LISNews, Library Journal, and other news media, this past year of the library has been about the economy. The first half of the year saw stories of how public library usage and statistics were up across the country. As the economy tightened with job and business losses, people sought to curtail spending by eliminating luxury spending and unessential household expenses (such as magazines, newspaper, and internet subscriptions). To fill in these gaps, the library filled the space in their lives. Library staff also helped people process unemployment claims, seek social services and foreclosure assistance, and assist with job hunting.

As the year progressed, states, cities, and municipalities sought to close their deficits by slashing library budgets and other “non essential” services. As previously mentioned in this blog, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Washington, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Michigan saw funding battles in which libraries were fighting for their very existence. At a time when our social service side was being sorely tested, our survival was dependent on how quickly we could articulate our value to the community and rally them to our cause. In some cases, the established credentials of the library restored most of lost funding; in other cases, it simply did not materialize.

This was not limited to the public sector; state funding and endowment of community and state colleges and universities shrank as well, putting academic libraries under sharpened budget scrutiny. (Louisiana Tech & Grambling State; University of North Carolina; University of Arizona & Northern Arizona University; and Virginia Tech, to name a few.) Anecdotally, from my few acquaintances in special libraries, I’ve heard tales of cutbacks directed towards the corporate library in the form of materials and staff. In looking ahead to the next year, where the budget battles are shaping up to be tougher, the tough lesson learned from these course of events is this: in this new information culture, the library must be able to consistently demonstrate our superior value as a community intellectual and recreation resource. 

With that said, there are advocacy efforts currently underway. Sites like Save Ohio Libraries, I Love NJ Libraries, and ALA’s I Love Libraries are but a few online efforts to educate, recruit, and energize the public about the importance of the public library in society. I’m trying to refrain from sounding like gloom and doom in terms of the possible consequences of inaction or insufficient action. However, I do believe that if we do not act in a timely and effective manner, we will be burdened with even more catching up (modernizing through technology plus regaining the trust and support of the general public). Now is the time for concerted action.

 

In looking ahead to next year, the other thing I would like to see is for us (the library community) to do is to reach out and start forging better relationships with others in the “getting people to information” business. I’m thinking of our database and journal subscription providers, but also search engine companies (in particular, Microsoft and Google). What I would like to see is a lowering of these barriers between us and these groups.

We have these wonderful collections locked up in catalog software, invisible to the search engine eye. Wouldn’t it be great if our catalog listing for a book, magazine, movie, or audio book to come up as a first result for a Google or Bing search, above other results? Or it gave you a World Cat style listing of the 5 closest libraries that have it? With a more universal library catalog interface, can we make it so that an ILL request is a simple click away? I think we can.

If I’m in a database such as EBSCO, and one of my results is a citation for a journal article, wouldn’t it be cool if it told me where the nearest library holding was? Make a button so that I can do a photocopy request within the interface if the holding is too far away. (You already have my card number since I needed that to get into the database in the first place.) I don’t think we lack the technology to make this happen either.

This is where our customers are looking for information first; this is where we should be looking to be. And why not? We are all in the “getting people to information” business; we just happen to be the non-profit end. This is a win-win for both sides where we get our catalogs and holdings onto higher profile platforms while they get to offer better varied results to their users. Our library automation vendors certainly aren’t offering us new ways to be able to market our holdings or be able to glance around our area to see what other libraries might have an item. Hell, the idea of adding text message hold and overdue notifications seems like onerous task to them despite the explosion of text messaging as a communication medium.

The truth is that libraries are uniquely positioned as the most universal and diverse “middle man” in the information matrix; we are the best human resource for people to have for all of their questions and intellectual and entertainment needs. We are where the big corporations and our vendors are not: in a position to evaluate information interface effectiveness at the human level on a scale far larger than their focus groups and in real life settings. This is what we bring to the information table and this is why it is important to look to share it with the others. There is nothing to lose, only tools and resources to gain.

Those who hang onto their data fiefdoms do not progress in this information age. They are anchors, relics of an old age where thoughts and ideas must be chaperoned rather than be freed. Only be removing any shackles or obstacles between people and what they seek can we move forward in our mission to provide universal information access. It is where we need to be heading in the new year: proving again our value to the general public while eliminating the virtual distances that keep us separated from the others who work with information. Both of these connections exist; let us strengthen them and forge ahead.

The Personal Reference Touch

Within the last year or so, I’ve read and heard a lot of discussion about how the library could take lessons from retail. Most notably, the retail industry has done all of the research when it comes to layout and design of spaces. They know how people shop, how people act when presented with a layout, display, or other store feature, and how to adjust things so as to get the most desirable consumer reaction. The department stores you walk into are the sum total of this exploration into how people hunt and gather for their shopping needs. I don’t think it’s a bad idea, really, to mimic some of these attributes with our own libraries. If we can get people to take a second look or listen to what we have to offer, it is certainly energy well spent.

There is also some discussion about what lessons we can take from retail customer service. Patrons have come to expect a similar customer experience since they are engaging in the same steps (e.g. find a product, bring it to a counter, hand over a card, get the product and card back, leave). I think that, while a retail style interaction is logical for the circulation desk, I would hesitate to apply the principles to the reference desk. Any librarian can tell you of the many common questions and requests to the gamut of deeper inquiries and searches that patrons can bring. The principles of retail, for me, seem to fall flat on their face in the face of such diversity. I had been wracking my brain for a better customer interaction model for a good week and I think I’ve stumbled upon it: concierge.

Most online definitions of a concierge lean towards someone who cares for the physical needs of their clients, but I’d like to think that the underlying concept is still sound. It is a person who attends to the requests and needs of their client (in this case a patron). While it’s not setting appointments or arranging for dry cleaning, I don’t see much of a difference in placing holds, making calls on their behalf to other libraries for information, assisting with computer or copier problems, or researching complicated questions. Each patron comes to the reference desk with their own inquiries and requests. The customer service goal of the reference librarian should be to provide the patron with a personally tailored experience. That type of interaction is what brings people back to the library over time as they know that there is someone who will invest time and effort into what they seek. Much in the same way that a hotel concierge sees to the needs of guests, a reference librarian attends to the intellectual needs of the patron.

For certain, the next time my job title comes up, I’m going to be pressing for “Information Concierge”. It just has a special ring to it.

Cross posted to LISNews.

the search for the next big thing, ctd

Awhile back, I had written about trying to figure out the next big thing for libraries and library science. This past week, I had the fun privilege of attending the 2009 NJLA conference. I would not say that the conference provided an answer about what the next big thing is as that would suggest a conclusion to the search. I did feel that the conferences I attended indicated a new direction worthy of following. Well, a “new to me” direction, for I don’t think I had a true original revelation for my profession, but the concepts presented have consumed my thought processes for the couple of days afterward.

There is a saying in library circles that goes like this: “a good library should have something to offend everyone”. I’d like to add a corollary to this well known collection development mantra: “a good library should have a feature for everyone.” The advent of the internet and other information transmission technologies have displaced libraries as the information monopolies that they enjoyed since the days of Alexandria. Much in the way that the United States have switched from a manufacturing to a service economy, libraries are still experiencing the postpartum pains of transforming from information gatekeepers to guides. Knowledge and learning are the old buzz words that get thrown around when people talk about the library; enrichment and service should be the new ones. Our academic credentials are well established, but we need to aggressively break that mold and show patrons that we have more to offer that can enhance their lives. We need present ourselves as having features and services available that compliment their interests and desires.

And what sort of services and features should we offer? In my opinion, it is to meet the patron on the communication medium of their choice (a.k.a. “where the rubber meets the road”). Whether it is in person, phone, email, or text, we need to be able to act and converse on all of those levels. With the glut of information in various forms out there, we need to provide guidance for people to get to the right information, to find the proper resources, and sage advice on how to navigate the barrage of potential sources. In exchange, we learn from our patrons (directly or indirectly) what communication tools they use in their lives and what they prefer. I think we are in another case of trying to catch up with technology, only with much worse timing than the internet during the business boom of the 1990’s. It is falling right in the midst of an economic recession and government interested in trimming budgets where libraries are viewed as cost centers rather than valued citizen resources.

Right now, I know how the budget at my branch is fairing. I know that if I want to do something with text service, I’m going to have to get pretty damn creative and look for free and/or open source solutions to add that to my branch’s services. It frustrates me since I know some of the solutions are within “easy” reach save for the fact that I lack the technical knowledge to fully understand them. I’ll have to get someone smarter than myself (not a real stretch) to be able to explain whether or not it can be implemented to me.  As our system blocks Myspace and Facebook, I am less inclined to start a presence on either site. But I am eager to learn more about Facebook opening up its API to developers, so any sort of foot dragging may be rewarded after all. Twitter, which has caught my fancy these days, presents a mixed bag as there are user retention issues for this microblogging/micromessaging social site. The limitation of the 160 character box for both Twitter and text works well in focusing a message, but it does poorly for presenting larger concepts, instruction, library news, or issues. Yes, there are url shortening services out there that are coming into heavier use, but this would rely on the end user clicking on the link rather than having the sum total of the message presented in the text or Tweet. Beyond that, we get into library philosophy debates as to whether we are able to provide all the answers for a patron on such a short format, regardless as to whether it is the patron’s preferred method of communication or not.

The one concept from the conference that most intrigued me was mobile reference. It’s very simple deal, really: take a librarian, add a smartphone with a data plan, and cut them loose into the wild. I’m not necessarily talking about a door to door salesman approach, but the purpose of mobile reference would be engage people outside the physical setting of the library and provide a sampling of library services. For more information, a mobile reference librarian would say as they handed over the library pamphlet, you can visit, call, or check us out on the web. Ok, perhaps there is some salesmanship, but that is no different than when a person is seated behind a desk talking about a new program, service, or event. It also establishes a presence outside of the library and creates a new way for the patrons to use the library.

I can see what the arguments against mobile reference might say. Where is the patron need for this service? How do we target an audience? Is this is a good use of staff time? I don’t have those answers at this time. What I do know is this: whether we like it or not, the internet has blown the walls off the libraries as a knowledge center, yet our single focus remains on what we can do within the confines of the building. Mobile technology has liberated us from the land line and given us the potential to do library service anywhere there is a viable internet connection, yet we are content to sit at the reference desk window and watch the world go by. It is hard enough to compete with the convenience of the personal computer versus driving, walking, or even phoning or emailing the library; we should not limit the ways in which we offer ourselves to our patron community. This is more passion than facts, for certain, but I do feel strongly enough about it to do more research into the subject.

Is all this talk pie in the sky? Maybe. But I do think we run a constant danger of putting ourselves in a perpetual catchup situation for adding emerging and/or established technologies. We need to become better at identifying technology trends, budget for it in due time, and make it connect with what we have to offer while it is still a popular technology. We won’t be able to sit on our duffs as much anymore, but that reference desk chair is not as comfortable as it once was for me. Not after the conference. We see how our patrons use technology everyday. We need to pay closer attention, see what it is, and then start looking where it is going. That will put us back on the forefront of the information age.

Men are from 523.43, Women are from 523.42

On the way home from the NJLA conference today, my wife mentioned to me that she thought that this year’s conference had more young men than last year’s. I thought this was a strange observation since (1) it was confined to such a narrow band of crowd population and (2) what gauge was she using to measure the number from last year compared to this year. (I could toss in “why are you counting young men?” as a (3), but I think the first two get the job done objectively.) I remember writing something about gender in the NJLA Blog from last year’s conference. In looking back on that entry, it feels to me like I was more excited to contribute to the NJLA blog than I was at actually making a point that people wouldn’t simply scan over and move on the next entry. Ah, yes, it was during my rookie librarian year. I was all very new to the profession and full of optimism and ideas.

I was still full of optimism and ideas even before Karen Hyman’s keynote speech. Her speech almost compelled me to rise from my seat, get in my car, and head back to my branch to announce, “We are going to weed, redecorate, renovate, and improve staff morale today” while emphasizing each concept with a rev of a chainsaw. Perhaps it sounds a bit extreme, but my library could benefit from some new window holes, a noticeably smaller collection, and a suddenly cooperative and motivated staff. (Lest uninformed readers be shocked, it is a little known fact that the chainsaw is McGuyver’s army knife, duct tape, and chewing gum rolled up into one extremely delightful gas guzzling tool for all occasions. It is so good at solving problems that it can work by simply holding one in your hands while you talk.)

To be certain, if I had known that I would have gone into such a female dominated profession, I certainly would have tried to stay single longer than I did. (I’m sure I’ll get pinched in my sleep for that.) Sadly (that’s another pinch), I got married long before thoughts of library science danced across my mind like a tantalizing raven haired seductress (yet another pinch).

But in giving it actual serious thought, the gender imbalance is a complete non-issue for me. I wouldn’t exactly call myself progressive unless “I don’t care where the answer comes from so long as it is right” counts. When I’m reaching out to colleagues for answers to a question I can’t figure out, or share ideas for new programs or services, or to find out why my patron’s hold got sent to another branch, the gender of the person on the other end of the conversation is completely moot. I’m sure there are social scientists who could show me how different gender balance works environments perform but, honestly, unless there is some sort of earth shattering difference, it’s trivia that I would store away for the night I can shout it at the television during Jeopardy!.  It reminds me of a line by Admiral Percy Fitzwallace (played by John Amos) in the television series The West Wing when asked about having a young black man serve as the President’s body man:

I got some real honest-to-god battles to fight [...]. I don’t have time for the cosmetic ones.

Back to optimism and other things that spring eternal, I will say that loathsome, too oft repeated cliche that the best days of library science are still ahead. And while the phrase may be vile, the new information networks and communications are not. We stand at the frontier of complete information immersion where there are few actual limits to access and all forms of knowledge are now intertwined. For me, the future does not lay in creating a better library system, but in the empowerment of the end user. We can come up with as many features and tools as we want, we can create a big ole pile of features and tools that could be stacked end to end and reach from the Earth to the moon and back, but it will mean diddly squat if our patrons don’t know about it, don’t know how to use it, can’t figure out how to use it on their own, and/or don’t ask us about it. In my sophomore year of librarianship, I see the mission of the library is to educate and empower the patron with the access and tools to the resources they desire. Let us move from being gatekeepers to guides.

I’m sure I’ll look back in a year and snicker at my second attempt to figure out the big picture, but it’s nice set lofty goals and to have stars to reach for.

the search for the next big thing

For those unfamiliar with the library field, librarians have a strange relationship with technology. On one hand, the library field has been quick to follow new trends of audio and video technologies. Even as we speak, my library is moving towards Blu Ray and expanding web based technologies such as eBooks and downloadable content such as movies and mp3s. We are working on bringing the library and the patron closer together through the internet with an online calendar, databases, and other remotely accessed sources.

On the other hand, it wasn’t long ago that libraries were playing catchup to one of the biggest technologies, the internet. When the internet was emerging as a means for global communication, the majority of libraries balked at the addition of computers. Books, it was said at the time, was the main mission of the library. The internet was something that fell outside of that mission. Eventually, obviously, the massive amount of information exchange was too much to ignore. The internet rewrote the mission of the library in terms of the mediums that it could be expressed in. Combined with the linking of broadband communication networks and global information resources, literally a world of knowledge was brought to the simplest library setup.

At work today, I was sitting at my desk and scrolling through LISNews when I stumbled upon this article. While I try to pick apart some of the underlying technology being used there, it was only on the way home that I really thought about what part of my job entails: finding the next big web technology that the library can use. Ok, it’s not exactly my job description, but it is something that my reference and committee work seem to demand. It’s something that certainly interests me since I’m a gadget and technology oriented guy.

As of recently, Facebook and Twitter are the hot fads that some libraries are making their presence. I’m on the fence about Facebook for a couple of reasons. Our library system filters it out due to some major behavioral issues that were arising from it (we had patrons of all ages monopolizing our computer resources for it and straining the system). So, to have the library on Facebook while filtering it presents a kind of hypocrisy. Plus, with the number of applications and other addons, it feels like it could go spammy very quickly. (This same argument could be used for MySpace, another site we filter as well.)

I think my problem with Twitter is that I haven’t been able to integrate it to my life, so I’m not sure how it would fit into others. I have friends who use it and then use LoudTwitter to post a days worth of Tweets to their blogs (a neat way to bring all the messages together). In looking how it is being used in the media (specifically, CNN), I think it runs the risk of generating too much output. With the low character count of a Tweet, it works well for the Facebook style update but not a full on discussion level conversation. Granted, an outlet like CNN would be looking for something that is short so that it can be evaluated for on air use quickly. But I think we lose something if we come to rely on 140 characters or less to get our points across. To me, in larger exchanges, it turns into information overload.

In looking at reader sites such as GoodReads and LibraryThing, I see something good but not a means for the library to hook into it. The current round of automation doesn’t make exporting into one of those sites an option; and in the overall scheme of things, I don’t see it in the spirit in which the site is intended. As they stand right now, they are perfectly lovely reader’s advisory since it offers a fellow booklover’s review of literature that might be taken more to heart than a librarian consulting a resource like Novelist or pamphlets generated by one of my wiser colleagues in the system.

A site like LibraryElf represents something that should be integrated into the next round of library automation: it will send you a text message reminder of library holds, due dates, and reserves. (Currently, in our automation system (Horizon), we can send emails to patrons for holds and reminders for due dates.) But while that represents a future integration into library automation, it does not in fact create an library/patron interface now.

As I look at these sites, for me it still begs a question: what’s the next big technology thing for libraries? What is the next connection out there that will integrate what we do into the lives of our patrons? Or make the access of library resources that much easier? I don’t think libraries will fall behind the same way they did when the internet emerged as I stated in the anecdote at the start of this post, but I want to be on the forefront of the next library technology trend. I’d like to think that TextMarks from Blake’s article and invention would be a technology available now to utilize, but I always come back to the same thing: what’s the next big thing?

With such lofty library philosophical musings like that, I can rest assured that my job will never be dull.

(Cross-posted at LISNews)

And so it begins

I read a lot of blogs. It started as a work assignment at the library. I was collecting political websites to gear up for the presidential election. And, naturally, no actual questions actually materialized. In fact, I don’t think I had any patrons even remotely come close.

In any event, I got to collecting blogs in my Google Reader. These were the best of the bunch, the links that when I clicked on that didn’t make my head explode in one way or the other. I’ve added a few since, taken out a couple, but they have mostly stayed the same.

The political blogs are the widest collection that I read. They run the whole gambit from conservative to liberal to progressive to whatever other political stance buzzword they have out there. I like them all, even when they are posting or saying things that I don’t agree with. In fact, I might like them more in that case since it puts me outside my comfort zone. I get to mull over the points, digest the meaning, and come out with a new or refined belief. I think the questioning is what makes the arguments stronger, what makes it so I can argue both ways, and what makes me really think about what is going on.

Of course, there is an insane amount of “white noise” in political blogs. The petty issues can stymie any sort of actual conversation with the petty bullshit that prevents us from truly moving forward as a people. And while there is some blame to sling around, the real blame falls to everyone: those who partake, those who allow, those who abstain, and all who don’t call shenanigans on it. But sometimes, sometimes, you get lucky and find something that you didn’t know, whether it is about yourself or the world around you.

The second largest contingent of blogs are all library based. Being a librarian (or, the technical term for a male librarian, a “guybrarian”), I like to keep up with the news and trends. A news feed from Google News and LISNews along with some other smaller blogs covers the territory nicely for me.

Beyond that, it’s all the light stuff. Cartoon strips (Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield without Garfield) and World of Warcraft blogs make up the true time wasting end. Well, ok, they aren’t complete time wasters, but fun stuff after all the dreary political crap.

And so, here I am. I started a public blog before and then just let it die. I maintain a LiveJournal because all my friends are there. But with the advent of Facebook and Myspace, there is just too much social networking crap. This is a public journal, a soapbox, a place where I can jam my note into a bottle and toss it out into the sea of the internet. For, in my experience, people just want to be heard by other people. It is less about trying to bring someone over to your side as it is tryng to get your viewpoint out there.

And so it begins.