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.

Quick Note on Advocacy

As mentioned in a previous post, there are things afoot in response to the devastating 74% state funding cut to libraries in New Jersey. After starting the Facebook group, I’ve been looking for new and additional ways to spread the message and get people active in saving their libraries. In gearing up for this fight, there are some things that have caught my attention.

First, while the fight is statewide, the real efforts are local. As in, being able to explain to my patrons what the cuts means to them. Overall, my library system is not in bad shape; these cuts will not result in shorter service hours, layoffs, or other reduction in quality of service. The real cut is that our materials budget will be reduced by 25% along with finding money to replace the databases. My colleagues and I are working on the best way to portray that to the public in order to make our case. As the saying goes, “All politics are local”; so here we are in a position to show our patron what the cuts mean to them. It’s hard to ignore how this will negatively affect other libraries beyond my county (since the cuts felt will be more dramatic), but that’s a secondary case to be made.

Second, for a group of people who can make recommendations for materials and services, we really don’t seem to be comfortable with making a case for our own continued existence. I’m not sure what the deal is, whether it is a case of modesty or sense of political neutrality, but when it comes to articulating why libraries are essential to communities in an age of information (and the information economy), we seem to get all tied up in knots. Perhaps it is because we as an institution have never really been put to this sort of test. In any event, I certainly hope that people can get over their hang-ups and begin to speak up.

For myself, I try to make the case for libraries with each patron. It may sound silly, but I try to treat every request as being the utmost importance. I think of it this way: they have taken time out of their day to come to the library so it’s my job to make it a good experience. Sure, it doesn’t always work, and not everyone leaves with a smile, but I try to make their time at the library worthwhile. It’s something no publicity campaign can really do for us; it’s all about the individual and making that time spent in our walls valuable.

What more can librarians do?

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

Re: Nothing is the Future, ctd.

Some of the commenters to Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s post “Nothing is the Future” seem to be under the odd impression that his post is an response to Library 2.0/101. It could be one till you get to the last paragraph of his post.

I’ve used "mobile" just as one example. The same could be said of various service or organization models. You can plug in any term you want, and know that when anyone tells you that thing is "the future," they’re wrong. And to be clear, my criticism isn’t of any particular services or trends. If there’s a new, popular way for librarians to communicate with or reach out to library users, by all means librarians should adopt it, or at least experiment with it. My criticism is the hype and the reductionism, and the implied claim that some librarians really know what the future holds, and that it just happens to be centered around whatever they happen to like at the moment. Maybe they’re convincing themselves, but they’re not convincing me.

(Emphasis mine.)

From the bolded text, Mr. Bivens-Tatum is addressing all forms of library future hyperbole. While Library 2.0/101 make an excellent target for such criticism, the logic presented also makes an excellent case for the librarians who are overly cautious and/or completely rejecting minor changes to the practice and profession (e.g. the people who make the overzealous argument that rejects any new service, program, event, material, web tool, or website based on their own biases without patron consideration or input). It’s a dangerous, dismissive, and ultimately untenable position to maintain in this information-communication revolution. It’s antithetical of the evolution of knowledge and ultimately critical of anyone working on better content delivery, regardless of their means and methods. If the zealotry of the web 2.0 techno-narcissists with their grand prophetic-like innovation announcements is bad, then their counterpart in the sneering cynical criticisms of pompous ludbrarians[1] rejecting deviance from the status quo is equally harmful for rational forward looking discourse.

(To provide a visualization of how I am seeing this, I made up a simple chart.)

4327174388_3031ab946b_b[1]

I count myself in the middle of this chart, perhaps with a leaning towards the right end. The middle sentence between the two bolded ones in the quotation holds more of the essence of the “change in the library” conversation that I’m interested in. It is about watching and listening to what patrons are doing and saying and then providing materials and services that work towards or meet their expressed needs. If I can provide both a low tech or a high tech solution, who gives a damn which is used so long as there is a solution? I am beholden to the end result (patron with need satisfied), not the process that achieved it.

Tim Spalding in the Thingology blog makes an excellent concluding point in his reply to the Academic Librarian post, stating:

It says something that hasn’t been said before as well. But if it prompts librarians to dismiss technology’s impact on the future of libraries, it will do great harm. Instead, I hope people use your essay as a way to "kick it up a notch" intellectually, get past the small stuff and confront the very real changes ahead.

(Emphasis mine.)

I couldn’t agree more. It’s really time to get past the crap, get over our hang-ups, and talk like adults. This divisiveness that has been generated is really beneath a profession who values the free exchange of ideas. Let’s start acting like it.

[1] Luddite + Librarian = Ludbrarians.

The actual future of the library

This past Saturday, Buffy Hamilton sent me the link to Seth Godin’s new post, “The future of the library” as well as some reaction blog posts. (I’ve put the links at the bottom of this post.) It’s the opening line that really started the ball rolling on this post and has lead me to take issue with Mr. Godin’s post (hereafter quoted in blue).

What should libraries do to become relevant in the digital age?

And this is my answer: Nothing. Why? Because we are already relevant in the digital age. The general population as a whole (more or less) believes that a public depository of knowledge is a necessary component for the common good. There’s no fact based rebuttal to this belief; I have yet to hear an argument with merit opposing the continued operation of the library. They prophesized the end of libraries with the rise of computers and, once again, they roll the bones and see the end of libraries in e-readers, Wikipedia and mobile technology. With all of the hoopla for the portable wonders, they are poor replacements with licensing agreements, DRM, and proprietary software. Wikipedia, while the netizen’s encyclopedia with proven accuracy, still has overhead to pay for despite legions of volunteers. Mobile technology has wonderful merits to it, but it is a very long way to go from its touted potential of putting a whole library into one’s hand without the required telecommunication infrastructure, increased display and computer power of the mobile handheld, and price structuring that allows anyone (read: the working poor) to have a data plan. This is not suggest that the library should not change or evolve, but the pronouncements of our imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated.

To say that libraries are irrelevant is a statement about the individual perception but not the greater societal whole. What is more important in such a statement is that raises the issue of how general apathy and indifference for the financial fate of the library really harms cogent funding arguments. The “everything on the internet” perception is easy to handle and is relatively innocent; the real dangerous perception is “I don’t use the library so I don’t see how losing it would affect me”. There is no recognition that this person receives a second hand benefit from the library from the people in the community who do use it; there is a disconnect from the notion that the improvement of the individual is an improvement of the greater whole.

That’s where our advocacy efforts need to be applied. We already have people who believe in us, whether they use the public library or not. It is those on the outside who do not see the benefit on the community as a whole that we need to reach.

They can’t survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don’t want to own (or for reference books we can’t afford to own.) More librarians are telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals. That’s not a long-term strategy, nor is it particularly an uplifting use of our tax dollars.

Ah, but we can survive as a community-funded repository for books that individuals can’t afford to own (or for reference books that have no internet counterpart). While the latter is becoming a scarce creature (and rightfully so), the former harkens back to the concept that the library is a public institution for the common good. And, on the whole, I’d say that that a majority of my customers at the public library could afford the materials that they check out, but opt to borrow instead for whatever reason. But my library is in a mostly middle class area; any shift in demographics on the education or pay scale would dramatically change the underlying reasons.

What I really take issue with is this notion that there are different tiers of entertainment. Reading for pleasure? Good. Watching a movie for pleasure? Bad. But why? One is a story written on paper and the other is a visual presentation of a story. While purists may sniff at a film production of their favorite author, are they not both acts of telling the same story? Where does listening to the audio recording of a story fall? It’s a slippery slope of information judgment. (Or, to use the words from Lori Reed’s reply on the theanalogdivide post, “It is also one of the core tenets of librarianship that we do not judge the information people seek. It is our job to connect people with information whether we personally agree with it or not.”)

To the librarians lamenting the borrowing of DVDs, I can think of three things. First, place your DVDs are deep into the library as you can while still preserving their security and reasonable access. This makes your patrons have to walk through the library and pass by other things you have to offer. Second, place advertising for services, programs, and other offerings in and around this DVD area. Third, get over it. I’m sure there are patrons who just use you for your large print collection or newspapers or magazines or even just databases when they have a paper due. In that way, the library is acting in its intended capacity: to connect people with information.

Here’s my proposal: train people to take intellectual initiative.

Initiative is really not the problem. The internet search engines have made it easy to look for something on a whim. Librarians already encourage people to delve deeper into the topics that interest them. From my observations, the real issue is one of online information source vetting.

Here is where the library rubber meets the road. The information on the visible web presents an mixed bag of accuracy; this is not to say that it is wrong, but it means that some resources lay on the cusp of academic dubiousness. The challenge for librarians and other information professionals lays in getting people to examine the source of the information as well as looking beyond what is immediately within reach (translation: the first page of a Google search). This can lead to information exploration in the invisible web in areas beyond search engines (e.g. databases, subscription content). This is one area where our librarian expertise lays; not simply in search assistance, but also in providing guidance and coaching for people in their investigations. It is the training and teaching of people to use critical thinking in information source examination that is part of the bigger package of developing research tools as a life skill.

Once again, the net turns things upside down. The information is free now. No need to pool tax money to buy reference books. What we need to spend the money on are leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others.

Alas, information is not truly free. The communication revolution has increased access to information to the point that it gives the illusion of being free. That would be akin to find an apple tree along side a country lane and declaring that it sprung up from the aether. Someone or something planted the seeds along the road; the conditions were conducive to its growth and survival; and on a long enough timeline, it grew into the fully formed tree that appears before the observer. The fruits of the tree are the end products of time, energy, and effort. Information on the internet is no different; someone had to take the time to write and create the content. Bobbi Newman’s answer to Seth Godin reply on the theanalogdivide post is more succinct to this last point:

Information is not free. As an author and a blogger you should know better. Even the often [cited] Wikipedia has had a plea up for funding recently. We all know Google isn’t scanning books out of the goodness of their heart. Even the simplest things on the internet cost time. With the plethora of information out there the skill to determine if it’s accurate (or crap detection as Howard Rheingold puts it) is even more important that ever. At the very least information takes time, something so many seem to be short of these days.”

(Emphasis mine.)

As to the last sentence in Mr. Godin’s post (the one mentioning sherpas), I think there is something there that is much bigger than libraries. While I mention that the library is a public institution that has arisen out of the idea of a common good, there is a silent caveat tacked onto the end of it which states “so long as it is not too expensive”. To me, libraries exist in broader scheme of public education, another community expense that falls victim to this same silent conditional.

For me, this nation and society is not serious about education. Our spending priorities give us away on this issue, from the federal budget down to the family budget. Our country’s well documented altruism towards humanitarian causes is strangely tempered by the bottom line when it comes to our own next generation. We as a society provide the ideals, dreams, and testimonies of academic success, yet we do not provide the required money, tools, or educational infrastructure to make those lofty objectives more accessible. We want the best results but are hesitant about the material cost, ignorant or indifferent to the fact that the success of each generation benefits the greater whole.

When it comes to the library, it is no different. An intellectually based public institution, created under the ideals of a common good for all who seek it, a home for honest and free inquiry, is tethered by layered bureaucracy and constant budgetary inadequacies. I’m not asking for a blank check or a complete free hand here, but some financial certainty and community pledge of support would go a long way.

While I admire the aspiration that Mr. Godin creates in this final sentence, what I think needs to happen is a broadening of the education commitment. This is not a simple of matter of money and materials, but a paradigm movement by the community to commit to the better education of the next generation through all the means available. Knowledge has always been a valuable commodity. There is no time like the present during this information revolution to raise our voices and make it a greater priority in the lives of our fellow citizens. I believe that the lifting up of an individual lifts up the community; to this end, I believe that the library fulfills this exalted ideal.

Other blog reactions to Mr. Godin’s post (by no means a complete listing):

theanalogdivide (complete with Seth Godin comment), SarahGlassmeyer(dot)com, Digitization 101, Lucacept, Neverending Search, Blue Skunk Blog, Schooling.us, Justin the Librarian, A Curious View of the World, The MLXperience, Cathy Nelson’s Professional Thoughts, Library Idol.

Thoughts on Schools and Libraries

Picture by Atelier Teee/Flickr Since I thought about this observation while getting into my car to go to dinner the other evening, I haven’t been able to shake it out of my system. I’m hoping that this blog entry will be read by individuals who can shed some light on the subject and perhaps nudge me as to whether I am actually onto something. And so, without further ado, here is the observation that came to me.

While both schools and libraries are seen as institutions of education, there is a radical difference between the two. Specifically, schools represent a structured form of academic learning and inquiry based around lesson plans, schedules, and specific practices and theories of education, whereas the library is an unstructured marketplace of intellectual exploration for the self motivated curious individual. It is the institutionalization of the learning process through the public school that makes the unfettered academic freedom of the library so foreign to most people that they become non-users. In other words, I believe the structured learning process of schools tends usurps the ability of people to engage in the independent pursuit of their own erudite curiosity. 

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense. As a graduate of the public education system, as far as I can recall in my schooling years, I can remember the existence of structure in my studies. From Pre-K to 12, my academic thoughts and curiosities were managed by a series of very well meaning teachers and instructors who told me the subjects I was going to learn, explore, and consider at different parts of the day. It may not have mattered that I wasn’t much for considering Shakespeare at 8:30 in the morning or math functions right after lunch at 1:45 or tackling a foreign language at the end of the day when I was tired of being at school; there was a schedule and I was beholden to it.

During those years (especially high school), I did as I was expected by my parents and teachers in order to do well on my report cards. But it was not a labor of love; it was a means to an end to get to the looser structure of college with its liberal schedule and hours that better matched my learning habits. Even when I went to the library, it was because I had an assignment or report that needed research and support. (i.e. I was indirectly told to go the library because the requirements of research for the report were necessary to gain a passing grade.)  Throughout the length of my academic career, I never went to the library on my own whims.

To this end, I think this is where the lacuna between schools and libraries exist; people either do not or cannot make the step from a structured learning environment of school to the free form inquiry of the library. When you have spent the new sum total of your formative years being told what you are going to think about and learn, how foreign would it be to given a learning environment that comes without such directions or constructs? Obviously some people can make the transition while others use us for the services that we offer (e.g. free internet, free newspapers), lest we would have been gone many years ago. Nor would I say that everyone is completely brainwashed into thinking only through direct prompting. But, I suggest that for greater numbers the library has less appeal without the instilled structure or guidance that has been carried hand in hand with their prior learning experiences.

One might look at this notion and ask, “Well, where does the Internet fall into this? It’s unstructured and people use it everyday.” I’m really not completely sure at the time of writing this post. I would surmise that the internet is more convenient for (what I would call) “surface curiosities”; that is, basic inquiries such as what today’s weather will be, the local or national news, what the family is up to, and so forth. I think the point of inflexion on the internet exists when there is a deeper understanding sought. Here, you can easily get into the invisible web, a point where the library can step in through databases and subject specific materials on a topic. The gap that exists here is one of perception. It is very easy to think that the web has everything with the ease of search engines; however, it is another thing when it comes to the merit of the results. The “all knowing” reputation of the internet supersedes the possiblity of asking for aid from the library. And as a result, people to not pass through our doors, call us on the phone, or even email us with their inquiry.

I’m not indifferent to the fact that there has to be some organization and structure when you are dealing with that many students at those ages with the variety of learning styles. Public education is a ‘one size fits most’ solution to providing knowledge to the greatest number of students with the least amount of variation in practice. But, if we are as serious as we proclaim to be about the education of our children, there certainly has to be a better way of doing it that balances maintaining an orderly school and allows exploration and inquiry that better matches a child’s natural inclinations.  A fostering of natural curiosity blurs the line between schools and libraries and makes the interchange between them more natural. (The left and right hands of education, if you will.)

To be fair, I only have my own educational experience to draw upon for these observations and I am certainly no expert in the fields of public education. However, I simply cannot shake this notion that my presumptions hold some greater validity. I would be delighted with either a correction or validation, for both would provide me with a more definitive answer.

Such is the price of my curiosity. :D

Why Libraries Kick Ass

This is my entry for the Louisville Free Public Library Blogathon. Check out the story behind the blogathon here at the wiki. You can donate the Louisville Free Public Library Foundation by clicking banner below.

I’m going to go out on a limb, but I’m guessing that the majority of the my librarian peers do not have a bachelor’s in biology like I do. My path to biology started at the end of high school with the all important question: what do you want to do in college? My initial inclination was to study physical therapy; it was science based, I got to work with my hands, and I got to help people. I didn’t see myself as someone who would work in an office from 9 to 5 or even a lab, for that matter. But, as things turned out, physical therapy was not for me. This came at the end of my sophomore year and put me in a dilemma: I didn’t want to change majors, I didn’t want to “waste” some of the classes I had taken, and I still wanted something that would meet the previously mentioned criteria. I meandered with classes within the basic biology degree requirements for a year, but I was still very uncertain as to what to do. At the start of my senior year, I took the required “plant” class; it was a core requirement that each biology student take Botany or Introduction to Plants. I took the former since I had heard that the latter was deadly dull. And it was a fortuitous turn; I loved the plant physiology part of the class and that, after college, I wanted to work with plants. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but having some direction instead of none was a better feeling and guided my class choices as I finished my degree.

After college, I worked for a pair of commercial nurseries in the area over the course of three years. I was fired from each, but it was the parting words of one of the owners of the second business that sparked my path towards library science. He said, “Andy, there are other things in this world that you seem to have more of an interest in. We’re wondering why you’re not doing that.” He was right; while I liked what I did and was able to do it, I didn’t love it. So I started trying to find something I did love. This lead to a year in law school. During the summer after this first year, commiserating about being on academic probation, Kathy (my wife) was talking about becoming a librarian. She was an assistant master electrician at the Delaware Theater Company, but she always had an interest in it. She was looking at taking some classes from Clarion University since they taught Saturday classes at the Philadelphia Free Public Library. That fall, she signed up for a class. When she came back in the evening, she talked about class with such feeling and excitement that it made me think about following her into the field. In the middle of the fall that year, we made the commitment to move out to Clarion, go through grad school, get our MLS’s, and come back as librarians.

And the rest, they say, is history. And I told you that story so as I can tell you why I think libraries kick ass. As a biologist, I believe libraries are in midst of exciting and rapid evolving. Allow me to explain.

If the library was an organism, it would have had a long period of time in which there wasn’t much change. Going back through time to the early age of recorded history, it was a niche resource of learning and information storage available to those who were educated and could afford it. The introduction of the printing press and moveable type created a small time blip on the evolutionary development of the library, but only in that it allowed the educated elite to collect books from other parts of the printing world. Library collections were still private as the the property of the state, nobility, or universities.

Only within the last hundred years, with the spread of literacy and the notion of public education, the library has started to evolve. Communities built libraries to house shared literature and educational resources for the common good. What was once only available to the select few was now available to the general public. This stayed about the same for the better part of a century before technological innovations changed everything.

It is here, within the last twenty five years, that the evolution of the modern library fascinates me. The explosion of communication innovations and modern computation powers have quickly created a new global network of information exchange. The library has been forced to rapidly evolve to incorporate these new tools and technology into our collection. In doing so, librarians have become inventors and innovators looking to dissolve barriers to access, to create simpler presentation models, and to generate awareness to the global information network that exists. These rapid short term changes of the library evolution represent a new age of humanity as the global village finally forms on the basis of true knowledge and understanding: an unfettered idea and information exchange.

This is why libraries kick ass. We are evolving along with the speed of innovation cycles, bringing new approaches and tools as to how we collect, store, and retrieve information in all its forms. There are few things in this world that remain remote, that cannot be reached in one medium or another, and for the first time in history, we have the clearest picture as to what our global neighbors look, sound, and think like. Libraries continue to grow, evolve, and move forward in this bold new information age. There is nothing more exciting to be standing at the precipice of the expansion of human knowledge and to know that this is only the beginning. This is why libraries matter, this is why libraries are integral, and this is why libraries kick ass.

Addendum: I am estimating that there was about 77 people who participated in the blogathon, including 50 students from The Unquiet Librarian‘s two media classes. I wish I could gauge what kind of fund raising this created, but I did get a nice spike in blog traffic. Hopefully that translated into some donations for the library. Keep an eye on Steve Lawson’s blog to see how his ‘write a big check for the LFPL’ cause went!

Social Media for Social Good

Last evening, I attend an event called Social Media for Social Good hosted by the Philadelphia chapter of the Social Media Club. I had learned of this event through a Facebook posting of one of its members. This event highlighted how social media tools were being used to promote charities in the areas; specifically, Blame Drew’s Cancer, Philadelphia Twestival, and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. I am curious to see how other types of groups and individuals approach the tools and technology.

In turn, each speaker got up and gave a brief overview of what they are using to get the word out on their cause. Overall, there was a lot of talk of Twitter, of organization websites, and a smattering of Facebook groups. In a way, I was disappointed; I had hoped that there would be some sort of gem of a website or tool that I had not heard of but would really rock my world. But, in listening to the other people at the event speak, it also gave me a good barometer of the things people were using, how they were using it, and to what success. While I had not discovered something new and radical, it was a nice reassurance that all of my promotional efforts are hitting the same places that some of the professional consultants are using.

My biggest takeaway from the event was from the group itself; here is a room full of people looking to use social media and web tools to assist those in need. Could this sort of enterprise be duplicated in the library community? My instincts tell me that it could; the example I would look to is the Save Ohio Libraries phenomena. With a Facebook group, Twitter hashtag, Flickr account, and intuitive website with their compelling story, they mustered thousands of people to rally for their cause. I can’t help but believe that it had an impact on the budget process, even if the cuts passed were still devastating.

But in looking at other budget fights that are being broadcast on Twitter and Facebook, they don’t seem to have the same “oompf” to it. Pennsylvania has the second best response to news that I’ve seen, but there wasn’t much in the way of tweets or retweets beyond the initial story. Searches of Facebook groups for states in the news with library cuts reveals a smattering with small numbers. When I go to the corresponding state’s library association website, there is a simple notice and a plea for action.

Photo by Andrea Nay/Flickr In taking a step back and looking at the different events, I’m not sure why one is succeeding like crazy and the others are limping along. Perhaps Ohio had the biggest “sticker shock” of the state budgets; you really can’t beat having someone slash a budget in half to induce outrage and the desire to take action. Maybe Ohio had a much more hardcore series of library professionals on Twitter who were diligent about tweeting and retweeting budget information, calls for actions, and rally recaps all under the same hashtag. A group with a vested interest in the results who could tell the story of the Ohio budget battle. Likewise for the joining and sharing of the Facebook group which grew to over 50,000 people over a period of two weeks. There was a focused purpose to the whole endeavor: getting people involved with a definitive goal in mind.

In looking at the other library based causes, my inclination is to say that they suffer from a lack of visibility and organization at the grassroots level. There is a vast difference between asking someone to write to their representative versus asking someone to write to their representative, sign up an online petition, join this Facebook group, check out a website, and be sure to follow the news on Twitter. (To a degree, this has been a topic of conversation in one of my NJLA groups.) It has to be more than a plea for help; it has to draw people in, get them involved, and to move together as one.

But getting back to the group that filled that Temple University classroom and the question asked a few paragraphs back, what would it take to create a similar group of library advocates? I have a few thoughts but I want to map them out over the next couple of days. I think the time for networks that are broader than state lines is coming; I see it as inevitable as our connections between libraries grow greater.

Young Librarian Project

Leah White has started a multimedia project for young librarians called (oddly enough) the Young Librarian Series. With an emphasis on Gen X and Gen Y librarians, it is looking to address what it is like to be a newcomer to the field. Whether it is covering personal experiences or projects being worked on, Leah is hoping to develop it as a librarian community going forward towards our shared future.

Michael Stephens is hosting the project’s space on his website, Tame the Web. Here’s the ‘welcome’ video that Leah has posted.

I’ve contacted her about doing a post for the upcoming blogathon benefit for the Louisville Free Public Library. We are talking about a couple of other entries to do for the project, so stay tuned.

By the by, there is still plenty of room for people to sign up for the blogathon. Check out the wiki for details!

Blogathon on behalf of the Louisville Public Library

A week or so ago, I was sent a link to Steve Lawson’s blog post about the flood in the main branch of the Louisville Free Public Library in Louisville, Kentucky. They had four to six feet of water in their basement, destroying and damaging an estimated five million dollars worth of materials and equipment. Steve has been collecting money on behalf of the Library Society of the World and plans on writing them one big check of the collected funds on September 1st. Steve’s noble gesture got me to thinking of a way to increase visibility of this fundraising effort. Thus, the idea of a blogathon on behalf of the Louisville FPL was born.

I have set up a wiki for this undertaking. Those who are interested can get the full details at the wiki, but here’s the short short version: make a donation to the Louisville Free Public Library Foundation, register at the wiki, advertise the blogathon with your social media and real life peers, write a post based on the selected common theme, and place that post on your blog on Monday August 31st.

Pretty easy!

Sign up at the wiki and start spreading the word! Let’s give the Louisville staff something to cheer about in September! It’s the best kind of karma: good karma!

Donate today!

I can’t wait to read the entries on the 31st!