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!

Fight the Power 2.0: Young Turks edition

I’ve been following the ALA 2009 conference on Twitter for the last couple of days. It’s been interesting to pick up bits and pieces of people’s experience at the conference (as well as a ton of librarians to follow), but earlier today there was two tweets (here and here) from a librarian pal that grabbed my attention. (Based on the tweets around them on my timeline, I’m guessing they are regarding the ALA Council I session on Sunday morning. If I’m wrong, someone correct me in the comments.) While I was not there to listen to the remarks, I did retrieve the platform that (now) ALA President Camila Alire ran on. Here is the passage as it relates to advocacy:

The Advocacy Initiative will focus on “member-driven advocacy“ content and training – for librarians, library staff and supporters of all types of libraries. This complements ALA’s existing advocacy efforts focusing on local, state, and federal legislative advocacy. This front-line advocacy features a most critical emphasis on the competencies and content needed to advocate for the library and library needs within the library structure and within our respective communities — cities, counties, higher education environments, and schools/school districts. A Leadership Workgroup will be formed and will build out the vision, articulating both what it is and what it isn’t; identify target audiences to receive and deliver the message; and establish goals for the Initiative as well as outcomes for members. In addition, the Leadership Workgroup will create products, match delivery and content to target audiences and determine marketing and public relations to deliver content to target audiences.

There was also a mention of the formation of a “Young Turks” type of group within ALA so as to increase young librarian involvement in organization. My gut reaction to these ideas was pretty positive; to me the ALA is still an organization of mysterious purpose mentioned in passing by colleagues and friends. I’m not entirely sure what they do (the subject of debate in some library circles, so I hear), but the concept of reaching out to young librarians like myself and expanding the advocacy issue make it more appealing. In turning this over in my mind over the course of the day, the initial luster wore off. It could be my aversion to the political syntax of the passage, it could be that I somewhat uncertain as to what a “Leadership Workgroup” actually means (despite looking it up), but the passage as a whole feels a bit dated to me. I don’t presume that it excludes Web 2.0 and other technological products, but the steps listed appear to be rote marketing practices.

For me, I am still fascinated with the power of the grassroots as expressed in my first library advocacy post. The highly social and collaborative efforts of user generated content has undeniable appeal for putting current and accurate information into the hands of the end user. The virtual word of mouth was a powerful advocacy tool in organization lobbying efforts, rallies, and documenting everything from protesting patrons to signs of support. Personally, I leads me to believe that the librarians in the figurative trenches have a better gauge as to the points to emphasize in their respective debates and can tailor it to their patrons and audience. The initiative presented by ALA President Alire feels very “top down” when the library advocacy movement feels very grassroots at the present time.

However, I’m still curious enough to see how a Leadership Workgroup would take shape and what sort of proverbial seat at the table awaits my generation of librarians (in both advocacy and “Young Turks” groups). Personally, it does beg a larger question about future membership with the ALA and involvement; something that has been encouraged in the past but no attractive opportunity has arisen until now. As mentioned in “Fight the Power 2.0”, there needs to be a change in the dialogue; libraries need to be portrayed as an essential service for digital literacy in an information driven economy. Libraries are no longer a community luxury, but a population necessity.

In taking the macroscope view of library advocacy, I personally think that there is a fundamental societal flaw that needs to be addressed because it directly affects the underlying nature of our work. We need to confront the fact that we as a society in America are not serious about education. Our state and national priorities and spending habits betray us on this point, for we provide unequivocal support for education up to the point when we get the bill. I believe that we will not see widespread support for lifelong learning that the library provides if we can’t even bring ourselves to pay for the best education possible that we mandate for our children.

I will readily admit that the fixing of our educational system is far beyond me and the scope and purpose of the ALA, but more importantly I believe the cause for lifelong education is intrinsically linked with childhood/teen education. We can (and should) find allies in other national education oriented groups for the purpose of promoting this ideal. I believe we should start looking to our fellow educators and their respective organizations for alliances in the much larger picture. Surely, we cannot pretend that an effect on one education oriented institution does not have an effect on the other. Our common cause is our calling, our strength, and the requisite bond to speak as one voice in the name of education. Let us act accordingly.