Retire the Phrase “Doing More With Less”

I know there have been other previous takedowns of the oft repeated phrase “doing more with less” within library circles, but I think I’ve finally hit my own limit. The tipping point came while I was reading this wonderful little blog post “The Hidden Suffering of ‘Good Librarian Syndrome’” when I actually started thinking about the phrase. It’s been a mantra that has been mindlessly and mistakenly uttered in talking about library and budget cuts, but I don’t think anyone has considered the actual implications of what it actually means.

Let’s consider for a moment an hypothetical example of ‘doing more with less’. Imagine you had a pizza (an excellent food choice stand-in for money and budgets) that was cut into eight equal slices in order to feed eight people. Now, because belt tightening, four of those slices were taken away. So, what are your options? You could feed four of the eight people (“doing less with less”); cut those four slices in half so as to feed all eight (“doing the same with less”); or you could cut those remaining pieces twice into twelve sliver pieces so as to feed eight plus another four people (“doing more with less”). In my mind, that last option is the simplest example I can think of in which the end result adheres with the conditions contained within the phrase “doing more with less”. In that situation, it really begs the question as to what those remaining slices look like and if anyone eating them actually feels like they are getting a proper meal.

At one glance, it sounds like our own feeding the multitude moment where librarians are able to provide more (more what? more of everything!) with the resources that we have been allotted. It’s like being MacGyver, except instead of turning a tent into a hang glider we say we can make it into a jet. Budgets are down, but programs and services (and whatever you can think of) are up! All because the community needs us and, as our respective deities/the universe as our witness, we are going to be there to provide.

Provide what? More! With what? Less. Makes sense, right?

From this arises a series of questions that is generates: if you can do more with less, how much less do you need to maintain what you have now? And what were you doing with the “more” you had before? What would a budget restoration mean under this “doing more with less” concept?

Unless someone can unequivocally demonstrate how “doing more with less” is a good thing (which I doubt highly), I think librarians should drop the phrase from their lexicon forever. It does nothing but cover up the real hurt of what budget cuts mean for our communities; because less is less and spinning it into some kind of positive helps no one.

Let’s not kid ourselves anymore on this one.

(h/t: Laura Botts for sharing the blog post on FriendFeed)

Creativity Killed the Library Star

I listened to Dr. David Lankes’ “Killing Librarianship” keynote last week and I keep thinking about one particular aspect of the presentation. Namely, that slide early on saying that what is killing the profession is not Google, eBooks, or Amazon, but a lack of imagination. I agree with this statement but the thing that hitches in my mind is this question:

Is imagination an attribute that the profession values?

It’s a question that has stymied me because I’ve gone back and forth on an answer. The nearest thing to an answer I can come up with is “Yes, but so long as it doesn’t interfere with workflow”. We have many creative individuals in the profession, but recruitment (whether into the profession or a position) on the basis of that attribute is rare to the point of being virtually nonexistent. I don’t believe our graduate programs encourage or nurture such a quality nor is it something that is sought to be rewarded within our associations. As it related to the current prominent figures of our profession, I don’t see the terms “imagination” or “creativity” springing forth as an attribute related to their prominence. (Let me rebut arguments for specific people right here: they represent a minority of that overall group.) I would say that our professional literature isn’t completely bereft of imagination but that it is heavily niched into the arenas of design and technology. Even then, the overarching emphasis is placed on the ease of use, the time saved, and/or the plug-n-play nature of the device, website, tool, or service. Yes, librarians place a value on imagination but with some potentially fatal caveats.

In essence, creativity and its output is treated in a way akin to how a small child regards pet ownership; we just want the kitten, but not all the work that goes into feeding, caring for, and cleaning up after the animal. We aren’t interested in the process; we just want the final product and without the potential burden of the fuss and mess. I don’t know if that is a product of laziness, ignorance, or apathy, but I think it is an condition that is without question fatal to the profession if it continues to persist. It operates under the irrational notion of guaranteed success without margins or methods for coping with failure. This is not an environment that creates innovation, but squashes it in all but the most insulated and/or isolated cases.

While there are those who utilize imagination and creativity as its own reward (and I would consider myself in that camp), there is no other reward, bonus, or boon offered to encourage imagination as a desirable professional trait. I will be honest and say that I don’t have a remedy to this particular issue; frankly, it might just be a condition of the professional culture that will take generations of librarianships to alter. Even then, it will be a vastly different information landscape that the profession will be facing; this change is not simply over the next twenty years, but the next five. If librarianship does value imagination, it has a long ways to go to encourage, nurture, and otherwise support it.

What do you think? Is imagination a value of the profession?

Librarians Online Survey

I hinted at doing this over a week ago, but I finally got time to write out a short survey in Google Docs about librarians and their activities online. This is what I would call a ‘tester’ survey in that I want to see how eclectic the librarian community is when it comes to their online conversation spaces. From this survey, I’ll be looking design another one that probes further into the online services, sites, and tools that librarians use. But first, I want a little data to give me some direction.

In the meantime, please click on the link, take the survey, and share it as widely as you can. I’d like to get a decent sample size so I’ll be sending it out on all of my social networks but I could always use a hand from the readership. If you’d be so kind to send it to your social networks, your library staff, library system, state association, or whatever mailing lists you belong to, I’d be much obliged.

Librarians Online Survey

I’m looking forward to people’s responses! I’ll be reporting the survey results in a few weeks.

Freedom of Speech (Just Watch What You Say)

The always excellent In the Library With the Lead Pipe blog had a new post today from Leigh Anne Vrabel by the title, “A Short Distance Correctly: 13 Ways of (Not) Writing (Contrarian) Librarianship”. There was one particular passage that caught my attention.

At present, there is no room in our professional discourse for creative expression beyond a certain number of limited outlets, unless we christen ourselves Library Mofos or adopt an Annoyed pseudonymous posture of detached superiority. Bad satire and anonymous ranting aside, we have no voice for the collective library shadow. We have no vehicle for expressing that which is unacceptable, no crucible for transforming our imperfections into works of art that might heal our wounds. I deem this unwise, and declare open season on the culture of library science by inviting its poets, artists and madwomen in the attic to bring forth that which is within them, before it destroys them.

I thought about it off and on over the course of a couple of hours. Is this true? And if it is, then why is it like this?

To the first question, I’d have to agree. While I don’t read every single librarian blog out there, I have about three hundred librarian blogs in my Google reader feeds. Not all of them are active, but I think they represent enough of a online cross section to be statistically significant to support such a conclusion. How many of them would I consider to be capable of talking about collective library shadow? In looking through the different feeds, I wouldn’t even need to take off my shoes to count the ones that could fall into that category. And even the ones that rise to the occasion to provoke controversy and take on some of the profession’s third rails do so rather infrequently or dilute it with so much satire or wishy-washy language that they might as well not bring up the topic in the first place.

Despite being champions of freedom of expression, the profession too often turns cowardly towards expression by peers in any manner deemed too uncomfortable, controversial, or otherwise unhappy. We will rally and march for the right of expression as a universal human right and yet abandon it at home in trade publications, professional literature, and online discourse. For a profession so deeply aligned with the value of speech, too many of my confederates seem to lose their voice even if it was to save their own skins.

So, why is it like this? I feel like I’m stretching for an explanation if I have to invoke cultural social norms, the desire for acceptance into our social groups, and other psychological and sociological based reasoning. Certainly they are scientifically valid possibilities but they feel woefully inadequate for supplying a satisfactory answer. But from what Leigh is suggesting (and I concur), the explanation is such that librarians feel the need to take on pseudonyms or be anonymous in order to raise such issues. That is a damn shame, a symptom of a professional cultural ailment that may not kill the profession but be a chronic burden.

For myself, I’ll admit that it has taken a long time to arrive at a level of comfort to be perfectly frank when writing in this blog. It was more of a struggle to conquer my own self-doubts and find my voice than feeling professionally obligated to hold back what I really felt. “Blog fearlessly,” I would think to myself every time I hit the publish button as if it was a protective ward against potentially negative reactions to what I had written. I have the standard disclaimer in the “About Me” section that says that my words and opinions do not represent my employer, but I would be a fool to think that it grants some sort of immunity. I have purposefully avoided discussing certain subjects and topics, though I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything either by not writing about them either.

However, it has impressed upon me the importance of bringing my own voice and authenticity to the topics, ideas, and concepts I do write about. As part of that bargain, it means saying or writing things without regard to whether it is polite, correct, or otherwise kosher. I would hope that more of my peers would feel the same and invest themselves unreservedly into the ongoing professional conversations. The dividends of drama are worth far more than the savings of silence.

Bring on the open season. I can’t wait to see what it brings.

Anonymous Rex, Ctd.

From an op-ed at the New York Times:

Facebook also encourages you to share your comments with your friends. Though you’re free to opt out, the knowledge that what you say may be seen by the people you know is a big deterrent to trollish behavior.

This kind of social pressure works because, at the end of the day, most trolls wouldn’t have the gall to say to another person’s face half the things they anonymously post on the Internet.

Instead of waiting around for human nature to change, let’s start to rein in bad behavior by promoting accountability. Content providers, stop allowing anonymous comments. Moderate your comments and forums. Look into using comment services to improve the quality of engagement on your site. Ask your users to report trolls and call them out for polluting the conversation.

It’s written by Julie Zhuo at Facebook. I’ll be honest in saying that my initial reaction sounded something like this, “Fascinating. Facebook wishes to advocate for more online accountability. Privacy much?” She finishes the article with a line intoning that by lifting the veil of anonymity we can see that we are all human.

I don’t think she could have missed the point any more than she did in this nice but misguided editorial piece. The problem is not anonymity, it’s about civility. Mrs. Zhuo’s post seeks to lump all anonymous comments and replies into one giant guilty pile. That’s extreme in its scope and unreasonable in its criteria.

Anonymous authorship is the second amendment issue of free expression. Just as there are many gun owners who are responsible law abiding citizens, there are many well spoken and articulate people who write anonymously online. For every crime committed by a gun, there is a standard hue and outcry about how gun are awful, horrible things that no one should have. This ignores the staggering volume of non-incidents that occur with or around guns each and every day. One could draw the same parallel to trolls and other acts of anonymous uncivil posts that go on every day versus the majority of perfectly reasonable and rational anonymous comments and postings.

It is all in the perception of the issue. You will always see a news story about gun violence and online stories about people engaged in trolling behavior. You will never or seldom see a story about a responsible gun owner teaching respect for firearms or gun safety and stories about people who have perfectly normal anonymous discussions. The focus is skewed toward the salacious and tawdry side of the issue about how bad it can be, how bad people act, and the rare acts of awfulness that cross the lines of social norms. Where is the data to support this position before requesting that every content provider eliminate anonymity in the name of accountability?

In my reckoning, the anonymous posting is just a symptom of overall societal incivility and the polarization of speech at present. It is a matter of re-asserting and re-establishing a courtesy for the views and opinions of others. It is a matter of respecting the free expression of another person. It doesn’t matter whether they are anonymous or not; what matters is the appreciation of differing viewpoints.

(I talked about anonymous authorship recently in my post “Anonymous Rex”, a response to Emily Ford’s post “X” at In The Library With The Lead Pipe.)

Ten Things You Won’t Find On Your LIS Class Syllabus

I generally try to avoid posts comprised of a list but every now and again I get inspiration to put one together. I give credit to Jill Hurst-Wahl for providing a catalyst with her blog post “What I want LIS students to know”. In doing my own reflection of the last couple of years, I’d like to offer my own advice on this avenue. So, without further ado…

1) Don’t buy into the “Old vs. New” librarian generation meme.

At its most basic form, it is the idea that young librarians are just wishing for older professionals to die or retire to make room for them in the job market. In its advanced concept, it is the notion that older professionals are resistant to change and are actively engaged in the prevention of new ideas from being heard, implemented, or otherwise considered.

This is bullshit.

I wouldn’t rule out that the “get out” idea hasn’t passed through the mind of a new librarian. It’s a normal upward pressure felt when new members are trying to make room in a field that is crowded. Nor would is it completely unlikely that an older professional squashed, outmaneuvered, or otherwise dismissed an idea from a young or new librarian simply because they are set in their ways. But to me the embracing of the meme means two things: first, that older professionals are an obstacle to the development of younger librarians; second, that the older generation is incapable of handling change. That, simply put, is asinine shortsightedness. Without the older generation of librarians, there are no mentors, no guides, and no retained professional intelligence that can be passed onto the next generation (and likewise when the current young group becomes the older hands). Nevermind the notion that the older librarians cannot handle or manage change; it’s a rehashing of the saying that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. There is no age limit on being a progressive librarian. One cannot pass around a video of a woman over one hundred years old using an iPad or learning a new dance and praise it while then saying that older librarian generation cannot handle change.   

Don’t get caught up in this meme. It’s a waste of your time.

(Some people will have a problem with the use of the term “progressive”, so I define it as someone moving towards new services, materials, and policies that better reflect the needs of the communities they serve. You may now argue it from there.)

2) The mission is static. The implementation is dynamic.

It’s an oversimplification, but the mission of a library (any library, either public, school, academic, or special) could be summed up in a simple phrase such as “to provide service to a community”. Along with other core librarian values, they do not change regardless of the setting.

As it relates to how services are rendered, collections are maintained, and policies are outlined, that is a whole different train of thought. Furthermore, it is highly influenced by the circumstances under which the library operates. What works at one library may not scale to another. It doesn’t mean that it is wrong or a bad idea, but that it just doesn’t fit or apply to another situation. Be open enough to recognize the differences in libraries and how different approaches work towards similar outcomes.

Libraries are not a ‘one size fits all’ prospect, but they are operated under the same philosophic ideals and principles.

3) Libraries are not information vaults, but information launch pads.

Like Mrs. Hurst-Wahl stated, the profession is in flux. It is a paradigm shift from being one of few source of information and literacy to one of many. Libraries are not the end of the line for knowledge, but now a gateway to the greater intelligence networks of the world. Communication and computation have made global sharing of collected wisdom the new reality of a connected world. That is the concept that we have moved towards: the people who can make the connection between a person and the information or literacy that they seek. It will be the evolving measure of success for the library and a key element to future measurements of library effectiveness.

4) Service matters.

The passive service model in which a person sits at a desk and waits for inquiries is half dead. While there is merit to having someone on hand to answer patron’s question, it is up to librarians today to provide service remotely. Whether it is by phone, email, chat, text, mobile, or website, people are going to be looking for information on other platforms. It’s up the profession to provide additional reasonable access venues to meet these emerging or established means.

In becoming more connection oriented, the emphasis on customer service has never been greater. It is about creating, cultivating, and maintaining a relationship with the patron community. For myself, I think about the kind of service I like to get at store and restaurants and put that into my efforts to help my patrons. I want them to leave not only with satisfaction, but the desire to come back.

5) Advocacy is the new norm.

In my opinion, advocacy is now integral to librarianship. The days in which the library did not have to sell itself to its community are past and gone. While marketing library services, materials, and programs is important, it is important that the profession be able to articulate and demonstrate the value of libraries to their communities. It’s not simply a matter of reaching those who come to the library, but reaching beyond to those who do not but still support the mission of the library. Whether it is politicians, adults, students, superintendents, provosts, or corporate officers, the ability to show value for the investments placed within the library is an ongoing and important endeavor. In times of need, it is integral to have the ability to call upon supporters.

6) Politics is not a dirty word.

This is simply not limited to elected officials, but the social politics that exist in other settings. While there has been a distain for engaging in such lobbying as we pride ourselves for being neutral and objective, I find there is an important difference between offering information objectivity and being active in the politics of those who make decisions regarding the fate of the library. There is no taint to creating and maintaining relationships with decision makers. I would argue that there is no conflict of interest; in fact, it would be in the best interests for the continuation of the library to curate these friendships.

Politics (as political science or social politics) is something that librarians have been involved with in one way or another for many years; this end of the spectrum should be utilized to the best advantage of the library.

7) Professional development is in your hands.

While there are great libraries and systems out there that provide excellent monetary support for attending continuing educations classes, workshop, and seminars, it’s up to you to find the resources that will further your career. They may send you to the state or ALA conferences, but it’s up to you to attend the programs and talk to the people who share your interests. Beyond that, I’d suggest delving into other professional outlets, whether it is trade publications, academic publications, or online in the form of sites, forums, blogs, and/or social media.

Where there are opportunities, utilize them. Where there are not, make your own. Only you can advance your career.

8) Know your library’s basic maintenance.

For anything that has more than a handful of moving parts, requires electricity to work, or has a computer within it, I’d highly recommend learning as much as you can about it. Whether it is a computer, toilet, fish tank, printer, fax machine, copier, or electrical/plumbing system, you don’t need to know how to repair it, but should have an idea of what to do when things go wrong. Stopping a bathroom from flooding due to a leaky sink, helping graduate students from losing their minds when the printer isn’t cooperating, or being able to figure out what to do if the lights go out or the fire alarm malfunctions, these are the things they don’t talk about in an LIS program. As someone working in the library, you are a first responder to these issues and you should prepare yourself for these situations.

For myself, I’ve learned how to read and reset the fire alarms, reboot and reprogram the phone systems, check for sewage or other plumbing problems, who to call for animals in the library, and the basic fixes for all of our printers, copiers, and a few of our testier computers. No matter what the library setting, knowing your building is an important bit of knowledge to possess in my opinion. Under the right circumstances, this advanced knowledge and preparation can save the day.

9) Be yourself, no matter what they say.

There will be trying times. There will be trying situations. There will be obstructive people, whether they are coworkers, administration, or patrons. The important thing is to remain true to who you are as a person and what you believe in about the profession. Everything else will follow after that. And if you can’t be who you are or follow what you believe, then it’s time to hit the trail in search of a better fit.

That’s it. Be yourself, no matter what they say.

10) Have fun.

For myself, I love what I do. I enjoy what I do for the community I serve. I also like to have fun with what I do. Over a year ago, I started the “People for a Library Themed Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Flavor”  Facebook group because I thought it would be fun to do and to promote. It has serious undertones that relate back to advocacy and awareness, but the first impression was meant to appeal to people’s sense of fun. Same thing for last year’s librarian online gift exchange (which I will be doing again this year, just working out details/logistics) and with the #andypoll stuff on Twitter. Look at what my fellow librarians and friends Justin and JP did with the Project Brand Yourself A Librarian over 8bitlibrary; they had people getting tattoos!   

The bottom line for me is that I can act in a professional manner, enjoy what I do, and have some fun at the same time. I think people forget that last aspect at times, but I hope that this will remind them. Take what you do and bring some joy to it. Trust me, it is totally worth it.

Now, go forth and change the world. Or your little corner of it.

The Mitigation-Prevention Dynamic

ux-suffers

There’s something about John’s tweet here that struck me as having broader implications. How much time is spent in libraries working on preventative measures as opposed to mitigating ones?

By preventative measures, I mean the policies and practices that seek to regulate as much as possible for both the patron and the staff. Everyone has seen some variation of signs that are full of “NO” statements; no eating, no drinking, no cell phone use, no loud voices, no moving the furniture, no horseplay, no running, and so forth and so on. Everyone has also seen signs that are full of declaratives such as “Patrons must have your library card to do [X, where x can equal anything]”, “Patrons must return materials here”, or “Computers are for adult patrons only.” There is a point where having such things make sense; you want to show that there are basic rules to using the library.

But there are moments when I really wonder about it. Most of the time, these moments happen in the few seconds after a staff member has related a story about an incident within the library and finishes with the sentence, “I think we need to make a sign for that.” Inwardly, I cringe because the one of the Great Ironic Truths™ of the library (an ancient institution dedicated to reading) is that people generally do not read our signs. Even then, when I ask whether this has happened before or if it is part of a series of incidents, most of the time the answer is no.

So, in summary, something bad has happened once, there is no indication whether it is part of a future pattern, and now we need to take a dramatic step in ensure that it never happens again. I’m sure that there are some situations in which this applies, but to use it as the ‘one size fits all’ reaction to every potential negative event in the library is absurd.

It’s a bit hard to tell at times whether the pendulum between mitigation and prevention has swung too far in the latter direction. There are photo groups on Flickr dedicated to documenting library signs that are borderline infantilizing the patron. There are also a good number of stories that get passed around by rules and policies that are drafted or modified in order to address very specific incidents. On the other hand, there are individuals like Stephen Bell, Michael Stephens, and the source of inspiration for this post John Blyberg that are working towards the mitigation end of the spectrum. In keeping up with their efforts, I think it might create a bit of a blind spot to the overall issue. In other words, I can’t tell whether prevention is as big a monster as it comes across as or whether the negative prevention stories resonate more with people than positive mitigation ones. My instincts are telling me to lean towards the “monster” idea, for what it is worth.

What do you think about the mitigation-prevention dynamic? Has it gone too far to the prevention end? Where can mitigation be substituted for prevention? And where do we mitigate when we really should prevent?

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.

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.