Augmented Library Reality

This is why I like reading a ton of blogs. If something gets past me the first time, someone else might pick up on it and make it an blog post. This is one of those times.

From Shelf Check last month:

What if […] there were neat, social, community-building opportunities for patrons to engage in whenever they happened to step foot in the library? That didn’t require planning on the library’s part, or remembering on the patrons’ part? That were targeted to their own individual interests? That fostered connections between them and their neighbors? That made stopping by the library just to see what’s up in the building worthwhile, as opposed to only using the digital branch? That helped people to learn and to better use our resources and our spaces?
Here’s what I’m thinking: a living, updated-in-real-time site (somewhat like Twitter or Foursquare in the way it works–and it would need IM capabilities built in), ideally displayed prominently on a large screen in the lobby/entrance, but workable even if it was just on the web via a link on the library’s home page (that automatically loads when you use the library computers, and that wireless users can choose to load).

Emily Lloyd goes on to note a couple of things. First, a system like this is completely voluntary. If you don’t want people joining you or learning your name or any intrusion on your privacy, then don’t do it. Even if you share an activity or location once, you are not under any obligation to do so in the future. It’s a complete opt-in idea.

Second, people could create accounts with a user or screen name that is not connected to their real name. This creates a barrier between the user and their identity and allows them to share as much information as they want about themselves when they meet up with someone. People will be given an additional safeguard over their identity.

Third, it could be done for a relatively low budget. While Mrs. Lloyd talks about a display setup, I know that the technology exists now for people to text a message to a special short code and have it appear on a screen. (I remember seeing it in Boston at an ice cream place called Toscanini’s. You can see the monitor in the upper left corner of this picture.) I would surmise that it would be a matter of buying the display and the software or service to use it. Under this premise, a patron could text a message, it would display for a set time (for instance, one hour), and then scroll away afterwards.

I can see this idea as being meaningful to the library in several ways. First, it creates the air of spontaneity that Mrs. Lloyd speaks about in her original post. It becomes a place for people to drop in and see what is going on at the library. It changes the tempo from being static to dynamic in nature, in which smaller events and connections can be created on an ongoing basis in conjunction with scheduled library programming. With a “status board”, one could mix the library events with patron happenings, allowing the library to announce what is going on currently as well as who else might be there or other things going on in the library.

Second, a savvy library could analyze the ‘check-ins’ to see what people are up to. Is there a regular group meeting to talk about current events? Offer them space or refreshments or other support. Do people regularly come to study Spanish? Examine your language collection and see if they are using it or whether additional purchases should be made. It provides some feedback as to patron behaviors and activities; and more importantly, it is something you can act on in tailoring the user experience.

The only downsides that I can see critics raising is the possibility of user stalking, inappropriate status messages, and the potential for luring people into remote areas of the library to assault them. User stalking is nothing new to the library, so that could be handled accordingly. Inappropriate status messages could be filtered before being posted with a backup system in place to remove those that survive the process. As to the last aspect, luring people to areas of the library, it would be a matter of letting people know that if they are unsure about joining someone in the library, a staff member would be glad to escort them. There are some common sense guidelines can be put in place much in the way that you tell kids to not go with strangers.

The aspect of this idea that appeals to me the most is serendipity. It’s the creation of a possibility or a chance at something new or different. The brain appreciates a good gamble, especially when there is nothing to lose in trying. It’s a risk-reward that is all reward. It’s a good gamble on a local social connection which creates a new possibilities for the patron.

Someone should steal try this idea. Because I’d like to see how it works.

(h/t: The Civil Librarian)

Librarians by the Numbers

As I was finalizing my conference schedule for the ALA Annual conference this year, there was a blurb for one of the programs that caught my eye. It’s for a program entitled “Passing the Baton: Who Will Take It?” on Sunday morning.

There are 72 million baby boomers, 11,000 Americans turn 50 every day, 4.6 adults turn 65 each minute, and almost 60% of librarians are 45 or older. There is little balance: only 7% of the library work force is age 20-29!

My first thought was one word: “Really?” But as I thought about in the context of my own life, it made sense.  When I graduated with my MLS, I was 29 going on 30. Librarianship was a second career, just as it was for a number of my peers at work. This also means I’m in the relatively large minority between the ages of 30 and 44; which, in using their numbers, is about 33%.

If you apply the percentages to the ALA Library Fact Sheet, it gives the following breakdown out of 149,521 librarians:

45 and older – 89,712

30-44 years old – 49,342

20-29 years old – 10,466

To give a sense to this result, the number of librarians 45 and older is approximately equal to the population of Cheyenne, Wyoming, the 355th largest metropolitan area in the United States.

If you were to presume that the membership of ALA followed this same age distribution pattern, the numbers get tinier based on an estimated organization size of 55,000 (the total number of eligible voting members). (I used this number instead of the full 63,000 members mentioned in the annual report since that can include trustees, friends, and other non-librarians.)   

45 and older – ~33,000

30-44 years old – ~18,150

20-29 years old – ~3,850

(And if you were to apply these numbers to the percentage of members who voted in the last ALA election (20%), you get ~6,600 (12% of the total voting membership), ~3,630 (6.7%), and ~770 (1.4%) respectively. But, alas, I am venturing into very specious logic at this point; I just wanted to run the numbers out of curiosity. I’m sure someone out there has real numbers that could change the perspective in a moment’s notice.)

Anyway, back to numbers with better backing; these statistics bring to mind a couple potential explanations.

As I stated above referencing myself, librarianship is not often a first career choice. Like myself, I was doing other things (commercial horticulture and later law school) before I settled on the profession. There are a number of people that I know who did the same; they worked in a different field, it didn’t suit them, and went back to school to get an advanced degree. They came to librarianship as it held something that was missing or incomplete from their first career. In taking a second look at their occupation expectations, library science was closer to what they wanted to do as a career.

Additionally, unlike the other sciences (both hard and soft), you cannot major in library science as your undergraduate degree. There is essentially no coursework connection from undergraduate to graduate for library science. It relies on people from other disciplines becoming interested in an MLS; not exactly the best manner in which to recruit people in the program. As the undergraduate major teaches you to think within that field, this can create its own disparity when approaching the library science mindset. Not all degree teachings are compatible, in my opinion, with that of the approach emphasized in a MLS graduate program.

(To be fair, I can’t even imagine what an undergraduate requirements for a degree in library science would even look like.)

I have a couple of other ideas, but I think I need some more time to reflect upon them (and do some fact checking). So, what do you think is creating this age gap?

Why Closing More Public Libraries Might Be The Best Thing (…Right Now)

Photo by bigoteetoe (CC)In Roman times, there was a uncommon military discipline practice called decimation. Meant as a way to punish cowardly or mutinous soldiers, it was a brutal practice in which groups of ten would draw lots; one man would be selected to be killed by the other nine men through clubbing, stoning, or only with their hands and feet. This ‘removal of a tenth’ punishment sent a clear message to the survivors: your actions (or lack of action) put you at risk for a disgraceful death. It was warning to all, a vicious lesson that the cruelty of the battlefield is nothing compared to the cruelty of your fellow countrymen.

With this emergence of a seemingly constant cycle of state and local budget crises occurring around the United States right now, this would be the perfect opportunity for the library profession to engage in some introspection. There is no better time than the present to engage in critical evaluation of the librarian as a profession, the public library funding models, the state of advocacy, and the current vision and path of the public library. I do not believe that the status quo of these aspects create a stable future continuity. This is the right time to get our proverbial house in order so as to secure the future of the institution in ten, twenty, fifty, and one hundred years from now.

Photo by Lorianne DiSabato (CC) First, there needs to be a philosophical shakeup in the librarian professional ranks. Quite frankly, let’s face it: there are librarians working out there right now that are poor representatives of the profession. I’m talking about the people who actively exclude a particular group from receiving their attention or service. For example, librarians who serve children and adults but not teens (as if teens, once they would advance to maturity, would magically return to the library). Or those who have no time or empathy for the computer illiterate or others who require attention effort. I’m also talking about librarians who are incapable or unwilling to try new things. Whether it is online services or a different way of arranging the physical collection, this conservative mindset of “This is how we’ve always done it” permeates and stifles any attempts at better practices.

Personally, in the future, I think that the main focus of librarianship will rest on two areas: transliteracy and customer service. For me, transliteracy is the best umbrella concept to the multi-disciplinary knowledges that the future of information will require. With information storage occurring in a multiple of mediums (audio, video, and written recordings, for example), the ability to navigate the formats will become a necessity. As to the latter, customer service is perhaps our most touted and most overlooked professional criteria. People skills are a sorely overlooked basic requirement of librarianship. A librarian could be well versed in every item in a library, but it wouldn’t matter a single bit if they lack the social skills to communicate this information with the patrons. Our jobs exist because of the people who come there, not the materials; otherwise, they could just hire a watchman to mind the building. I’m not aware of any library programs that teach any aspect of this vital skill, whether it is managing different personalities, conflict resolution, or other forms of social diplomacy. And this needs to change.

This aspect extends to our paraprofessional and support staff. In a nutshell, checking in and out materials and maintaining patrons records is trainable; finding someone who will act as an advocate for the library at the desk that most patrons interact with is not. And yet, we hire on the basis of the first part without much thought or consideration as to the face that we are giving the library by putting this individual at our most prominent position: the circulation desk. This simply cannot continue as a hiring practice.

With less public libraries around, it is my belief that there will be greater emphasis on the aforementioned skills when it comes to hiring. A tighter job market will (in theory) place bad and mediocre librarians at a hiring disadvantage. In turn, librarians who do not meet muster will be weeded out and replaced over time. Over a longer timeline, the profession can work towards attracting people who possess the transliteracy knowledge and customer service skills that will be vital to the future of the library as an institution.

Photo by TechSoup for Libraries (CC) Second, the current public library funding models need to be re-evaluated (and in some cases, restarted completely). Whether it is a dedicated tax line or levy, allotment of public funds, greater care and consideration need to be established between the library and those who write the checks for the funds. While this is not a universal issue in libraries (there are libraries that enjoy a good relationship with their respective local governing bodies), what is not universal is the knowledge or determination to establish and maintain this important relationship through all types of economic and political climates.

One of the lessons that I am learning in New Jersey right now is that the majority of elected officials do not have an ounce of a clue as to what the library does and how it impacts their constituents and communities. It is not a stretch of the imagination that, since they are voting for expenditures that fund programs and services for which they know nothing, they would not have an equally hard time cutting or eliminating such funding from the budget. These are the people that libraries rely on for the money that will keep their doors open. It is our failure to educate them as to the importance of library funding, the return of taxpayer investment in materials and services, and the overall impact on the people and the community. It is up to the profession to work towards better funding models by establishing and maintaining better relationships with their governing bodies.

In the absence of this commitment, there are inherent benefits to the restarting of library funding after being completely eliminated. While some may object to a complete loss of funding under the notion that re-establishing funding is an near insurmountable obstacle, this ignores the longer timeline of the institution and the greater benefits of (for lack of better phrase) fresh funding. It can offer a clean slate for the construction, layout, materials, and overall design of the library facility. I cannot imagine that there is not one librarian out there who cannot think of a library that could use a fresh start. The overall “feast and famine” years of library funding have a created locations across the country that reflect a mishmash of time periods and renovation expenditures. Personally, I’d rather have a library eliminated from a budget, return under a swell of community support, and begin anew than limp along with fickle cyclical funding and mediocre support.

With less public libraries, it will be the time to see which funding models thrive or flounder. These financial schemes can be evaluated and replicated in places that are looking to start or restart their libraries. Furthermore, it can create a chance to examine the relationships which impact library funding. In studying this aspect further, the profession can look at ways to instruct librarians (both old and new) as to how best to pursue their government financial minders. With perpetuity in mind, the profession can work towards creating the relationship that will result in a lasting funding scheme.

Photo by thelibrarygeek (CC) Third, library advocacy needs to move to a more consistent feature as part of the profession. The present prevalent format (desperate reactionary advocacy) should not be the status quo. It cannot continuously be an act of survival, content in the notion that the library get just enough funding to fight another day. While generally on a longer timeline, it begs compassion fatigue as the library funding needs to saved yet again.

Advocacy needs to be placed at the forefront (in both job duty and as a core graduate class component) as an active relationship between the library and the surrounding community. Set aside from the funding bodies (covered in the previous section), this activism seeks to maintain relationships between the library and active supporters (people who use the library) and passive supporters (people who support the library as an institution) [Otherwise known as my parents.] It benefits the institution to promote and cultivate this relationship in order to direct collection development and services, but acts as an additional system of political and/or financial support when the library/funding body relationship is less than stellar.

With less public libraries, there will be more emphasis placed on advocacy as a outreach approach, advocacy as a job skill and job duty, and advocacy as a more prominent and integral part of the profession. It is a shift from a completely reactive activism paradigm to a more proactive one. Without a renewed importance on these community relationships, the library as an institution will continue to dither, moving from one crisis (funding and public support, or lack thereof) to another (tripe existential “Are we still relevant?” blathering) in a non-constructive ceaseless pattern for a very long time. The activism that the profession embraces now as a larger core value sets the model and ground work for future librarians and their community relationships.

Photo by luzer (CC) Fourth, the current vision and path of the public library needs some prolonged and serious discussion. This is already occurring in different places at different levels, but even with the amount of communication technology present, there seems to be people missing out on these dialogues. Even then, there is emphasis on particular aspects (such as Web 2.0, specific forms of outreach to niche communities, age based collection development, and so forth) rather than the library as an institutional whole. This is the conversation that really needs to happen before those in the profession attempt to fill in the details.

For myself, I don’t feel that there is a coherent macro-level debate. Maybe I don’t read the right blogs or trade publications or have the right connections, but what I read and hear is generally wrapped up in keeping libraries running or trying to modify an existing feature. It’s not that these smaller talks don’t have a place in library discussions, but it seems slightly out of step. It’s like trying to value how much gold will be extracted from the ground without knowing where you will be mining, nevermind whether there will be any gold to be found. The question for me remains as this: what will the libraries of the future look like, act like, and what is their place in the community? The closing of public libraries should bring this question into sharper focus. And the answers, when discussed across the profession as a whole, should give better direction and purpose to those in the public library profession.

In my reckoning, it will take a catalyst such as the closing of more public libraries to reach this time in the wilderness. This modern decimation of our shared public institution should be the time to draw a new lesson: that it is not the end of the dreams of Franklin and Carnegie, but it is the beginning of a new era in the public collection and dissemination of knowledge. To step forth into this future, we must break from some practices of the past. If it takes the closing of libraries today in order to secure the future of libraries tomorrow, as painful as this would be, it just might be the right thing for the librarian profession.

Additional thoughts on this idea: The World Without Public Libraries

Edit: I added a link to the Libraries and Transliteracy blog, run by librarians Bobbi Newman, Buffy Hamilton, Brian Hulsey, and Tom Ipri. In their About section, they state that the blog is “a group effort to share information about the all literacies (digital literacy, media literacy, information literacy, visual literacy, 21st century literacies, transliteracies and more) with special focus on all libraries.” As I feel that this skillset will become vital to the profession in the future, please check out their blog. It has some great posts; for certain, they are food for thought and you may just end up learning something new.

The Three Simple C’s of Librarianship

If the three L’s of buying a house are “location, location, location”, then the three C’s of librarianship should be “communication, communication, communication”. I don’t think what I’m going to list is anything revolutionary; I do think it might be a novel way to remember the basic interactions that keep the library moving forward.

(1) Communication with Patrons

There is a symbiotic information cycle at work here. Patrons ask for things from the library collection; in return, we ask them what they want for future collection development. A no brainer, right? But take a moment and think about how it’s being accomplished in your library today. Is it done through face to face staff interaction? On the phone? On the web? Text or Mobile? Or [shudders] Signs? (How many library “issues” do library staff try to solve by posting signs? Seriously.) What medium is being used to facilitate this staff-to-patron interaction?

I think libraries can tie themselves up into knots attempting to solve this riddle. They want to be sure they have staff on hand to handle any issues that arise or to be available for those patrons who prefer human-to-human contact, but they try to make the system as accessible as possible for the “Do It Yourself” crowd. We’ll never be able to completely satisfy the multitude of potential interaction points, so we just try to present as many as possible.

There is no proper answer for what medium is best; it’s wherever your patrons prefer. What is important is that this communication be as open as possible.

(2) Communication with Staff

You can call it whatever you want: staff awareness, staff buy-in, staff communication, or some other term with connotations of togetherness. It’s the communication that happens across the organization planes, whether it is horizontal (within a reference department) or vertical (from the janitor to the director).  What matters is that it is an important and integral aspect of running a library.

Librarians tend to separate staff around organizational function: circulation, reference, adult, children, programming, serials, subject specialties. But there are details and points of information that need to be mentioned outside of the function. It helps the circulation staff to know about programs for children; it helps a reference librarian to know about changes to circulation policy; it helps subject specialists to know about catalog alterations to their field.

It’s organizational knowledge, plain and simple. Do you know what is going on in other departments that could affect what you are doing? What information are you sitting on that could allow others to help you do your job? We’re not exactly spies; we don’t need to operate on a ‘need to know’ basis.

Otherwise, it becomes a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

(3) Communication with Governing Bodies

And by governing bodies, I mean the people who write the checks for your institution. Whether it is a mayor, town council, freeholders, county administrator, state assembly, or another political body, it’s up to you to keep them informed as to the value of the work you are doing.

And this is not a call to shower them with statistics. Five thousand people visiting the library in a month doesn’t mean anything without context; what does a number like that mean? Even so, it helps to put a human face on it. Show them who is using the library and what it means to them. This is a time to shine on your behalf (by showing them how the taxpayer money has been well spent) and their behalf (for continuing to fund you and making a good investment).

As local and state budgets tighten, it is critical to show what the library means at the constituent level. Even in better times, it is the maintenance of a good  relationship that will see the library through the bad times. Let those who watch over your budget know the meaning and value of what the library does for the community it serves.

 

As I said at the start, I don’t think I said anything really revolutionary here. But a good and timely reminder never hurt. It’s up to librarians everywhere to keep the channels open and maintain healthy relationships within and throughout the institution.

The Reference Singularity

Last week, I was at my favorite watering hole with a group of my fellow librarians enjoying an evening of beer and socializing. During this gathering, Pete Bromberg was telling me about his upcoming presentation at ALA Annual, the RUSA President’s program “For the Love of Reference”. When I got home, I looked up the write-up in the online preliminary program. This passage caught my eye:

We want to explore the twin appeals of information discovery and serving users that drive the devotion to reference and readers’ advisory work.

I have written about reference before in terms out how the interviews could possibly be measured (and maybe re-labeling reference service as an “information concierge”), but I had not really considered examining the interaction itself and the implications of all of the possible outcomes. When I start to turn this idea over in my head, something really caught me. Imagine the reference interaction as this: an intersection of time and space in which you (as the librarian) have the ability to influence the resulting experience.

From the moment of inquiry, it presents a vast array of potential outcomes. We tend to think of these results in a binary fashion (the two potential endings of “Yes, we have that/Here is the answer” versus “No, we don’t have that/I cannot provide an answer.”), but the reality of outcome pathways is far more nuanced. The prevailing underlying thought that finding materials or information is good and that the opposite is bad is not just misguided, but completely wrong. I would contend that there is no such thing as a good or bad outcome; there is only good or bad reference (customer) service.

In my mind, good or bad reference experiences do not hinge on the resolution of the inquiry, but on the type of customer service a patron receives. How much does the result matter when the experience was unsavory or unpleasant versus engaging or personable? I don’t think there is much of a stretch required to prove this contention, either. There are examples within our own lives in which the overall experience of the encounter have made us more or less likely to use a service, store, contact, or material. While outcome may have bearing as to whether or not a person uses reference services in the future, I think it is a minor factor in comparison to the impressions formed from the encounter.

Even if we were to take the customer service aspect out of the experience and examine the interaction based all of the potential outcomes, I think that all but the most cynical observer would find the any potential result acceptable. For the inquiries that have their criteria met (in the form of an answer, material, or other solution), the librarian is successful in meeting the stated request. For the inquiries that do not have their criteria met, the librarian play a heavy role influencing the outcome pathways. For example, in a request for an author or book, this is where literature discovery occurs in finding other authors (ones that the patron may not have considered). In a request for research information, it turns into a search for a person or material that can answer beyond the walls of the library or the development of a new search strategy. This is the providence of serendipity, for sometimes in failure there are opportunities created for possibilities previously unknown or unconsidered.

Some might find the concept of serendipity as a convenient answer to those inquiries which are not resolved to the specifications of the patron. I would suggest that it is still an answer, just perhaps not in the form that the patron anticipated. And since all of the answers provided by reference services may not be simple and straightforward as outlined by the inquiry, it is the customer service during the transaction that matters more than the outcome itself.

For me, I know I can’t answer every item that comes across the reference desk. It’s simply not possible. However, the one thing I can control and do for each interaction is make it an exemplary experience. I treat them the way I would want to be treated if I was in their shoes: professional, personable, and completely engaged in their curiosity or need, no matter how big or small. I may not win every round of the reference desk question roulette, but I hope to win the patron over to try again in the future.

And that’s what I love reference.

 

(The title of the post is a play on the term mechanical singularity, in which the positions of a mechanism or machine results in subsequent behavior being unpredictable. I thought it was appropriate.)

Hide ‘n Seek

Camouflage. Both prey and predator species use it in nature for their own purposes.

Prey species use it to hide or blend in. Whether they match with the foliage or the rest of the herd, it’s a survival technique. You can’t get picked off if you don’t get picked out. Never stand out, that’s the name of the game.

Predator species use it to hunt. They meld in shadows and landscapes, either by coloration or clever disguise. The deception is revealed only when it is too late for the quarry. Lure them in and then strike when they least expect it.

To a librarian, the library is our natural environment. Amid the desks, stacks, computers, and other benign furniture, we work as a greater part of the information exchange. We dress the part, looking (more or less) like we work and belong at the library. To our patrons, we are part of the institutional landscape.

As you think of yourself as part of the overall library scene, consider about what your library camouflage means: are you just fitting in to go without notice, or are you biding your time for the right opportunity to impress patrons with knowledge of materials and resources while demonstrating how it fills their needs?

Are you that of a prey or a predator?

(Author’s note: The alternative title to this post is “An ode to Seth Godin” since I think it closely resembles his style of postings.)

The World Without Public Libraries

SOME say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To know that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

- Robert Frost, Fire and Ice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collections

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

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

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

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

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

Services

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ideals

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

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

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

My Thoughts 

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

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

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

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

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

5 Universal Truths That All Librarians Can Agree Upon Right Now

Over the last couple of days, I have been reading a flurry of “end of the year” posts. These end of year reflections (and the end of the decade that people had a hard time naming) have made me think about my own reflection of these time periods. It was only within this last past year that I really delved into the library and librarian blogosphere. During this time, what has really captured my interest in the library oriented blogs is the spectrum of beliefs that exist when it comes to where libraries are going and where they should be heading. In thinking about the wide range of perspectives, the different library theory approaches, and the variety of libraries that exist, I believe there are five current universal truths that will be the basis for any discussion about the library in the future decade.

Without further ado, here they are.

1.) Perception of information is changing

Information is now an instant gratification commodity, capable of being gained through a multitude of means (especially computer based). For libraries, this requires us to be flexible with our interfaces; whether it is face to face or with our customers accessing our resources, there has to be an eye towards the least amount of steps from an inquiry to a result.

2.) Literacy is changing

What it means to be literate twenty years ago is but a part of the greater definition now. The ability to read and write information on computers now shares with its print brethren. The integration of technology into our lives, for better or worse, is inevitable as we move more information into digital formats.

(For more on this, be certain to check out Bobbi Newman’s Transliteracy page.)

3.) Libraries are now part of greater information chorus

This aspect is two fold. First, there are the plethora of non-library internet based websites which provide accurate information on specific subjects. (Think more Mayo Clinic, less Wikipedia.) Libraries are now just one of many potential end points for a inquiry. Second, there is an explosion of user generated content. There are individuals who create pages and sites about topics that are extraordinarily niched (such as local history, family history, and local specializations). They represent a small but important information resources for inquiries that in the past would have been relegated to the vertical file and/or genealogy room.

4.) Communication is our friend

The world communicates on a myriad of levels, from the tweets of Twitter to the web published academic papers. On the one hand, these represent new and different ways to connect to our customers and to communicate with them on the mediums they are using. On the other hand, the technology exists to make communicating between each other (read: libraries) easier so that a catalog no longer needs to be held in relative isolation. And not simply catalogs, but there can more contemporary sharing of policies and practices that been successful.

5.) The underlying philosophies of the library have not changed

As much as the information revolution has swept through the profession, the commitment to academic freedom, intellectual inquiry, and act as a community resource (whether you are serving the public, a school, or a company; a space for all, if you will) are still intact. It is the common bond between everyone in the profession; and while we may not agree on how best to serve the spirit of these, they still represent basic elements that are universally embraced. This central dogma is what gives us common cause to provide information to those who seek it.

 

In closing, I am reminded of a quote spoken by the character Don Draper in the television series Mad Men. I think it will serve us well in the decade that is to be.

“Change is neither good nor bad. It simply is.”

Obligatory Google Wave Post

In the middle of last week, I got my coveted Google Wave invite. Ever since it had been announced, I had been excited for the September 30th open preview invite. While I didn’t get invited on the first round of invites, my proverbial Golden Ticket came a week after. I had just gotten in at the library that morning when I saw the “wave-noreply” in my Gmail.

There was to be no work done that day.

Indeed, I got into the interface and bounced around the boxes like a six year old on a sugar rush. What’s this do? What’s that do? I made a wave and started trying out all of the headers and extensions (those are the little programs you can add to your toolbar inside of wave). It was symphony of button mashing orchestrating a flurry of trial and error. As people came on, the discoveries continued to abound. (“I can see you typing!” “I can see you typing too!”) Over the last couple of days, people have been dragging files into waves and trying out applications and more extensions. I’ve been watching waves build up to over 100 members and options being added left and right. But, as there are many posts and write-ups about every aspect of Google Wave, I will go a different route to describe my ultimate impression.

While I don’t have the experience of fatherhood behind this, I have heard the story of new parents looking down at their baby laying in the crib the first night and thinking to themselves, “This child can grow up to be anything.”  It is the feeling of being in the humbling presence of raw potential. And it is this brilliant potential that makes me excited for its applications to services and scenarios in the library world.

An application like Google Wave means that every library in the country can now offer excellent free internet reference service. It means that colleagues within a library and across systems, library associations, and the country can collaborate on projects. It can be used to create teen spaces, more interactive homework guides, and to serve as virtual book clubs and other community projects. In my opinion, it is the best platform for electronically exchanging ideas at present. It’s potential is only limited by its developers and users. Take that statement at its face value. I can’t say whether it will be big or small, but it has the potential for both. It is an excellent next step application; now we have to see how it pans out.