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.

The Library Deconstructed

Photo by svenwerk/Flickr In ruminating on a post on Librarian By Day, I was sitting in the back of the Children’s section of the county library surrounded by rows and rows of books. The hum of the highway behind me is constant on this busy county road as is the sounds of kids and parents navigating the stacks. For a brief moment, alone at one of the work tables in the back, I thought to myself, “What if these books weren’t here? What would take their place?” It’s the ultimate of blank slates. What would you put there? Print? Computers? Reading spaces? Meeting spaces? A coffee bar? What is the new “now” for libraries in design and function?

Personally, I fear that some of my peers would be so distraught by such a dramatic loss of the print collection that they would be paralyzed from seizing the opportunity to innovate the space. This blind allegiance and reliance to a medium would completely sully any sort of exercise in library design, even a fancy of the imagination such as this one. I’m not completely insensitive to their preferences, but for defenders of intellectual freedom, it seems odd to ask for some open mindedness when it comes to our own physical holdings and locations.

But rather than dwell on a space without books, another thought occurred to me. “Where is the real point of contact between patrons and our materials?” While patrons come to us for what they seek, we are but a simple middleman in the process. The real point of contact, in my opinion, is the manner in which people absorb information. The connection of eye and print or picture, of ear and audio, and for some, touch; this is where the library experience is complete. These are the types of transactions we are facilitating. All the debate about what the library space is (should we have coffee bars, ‘loud rooms’, video games, and so forth) melts away into background noise as it reduces everything down to the commodity that we harbor: information, pure and simple. This is the bond we help create, to protect, to nurture, and to teach. And, for myself, this is the distilled essence of the profession.

And it is why I love what I do so very much.

We encourage the people who come to the library to be a blank slate for new authors, new stories, new ideas, and new worlds. We should not fail to apply that advice to ourselves. In helping others establish and maintain their own connections to our holdings, our own attitudes towards the mediums should remain fluid. We owe it to ourselves and the proud tradition we maintain. And, like the concepts and imaginings that pass by as we walk through the library, we owe it to them. Let the flourish in as many ways possible, for no medium is a master over ideas. And ideas, like the paper they are printed on, the people who take care of them or digital space they are stored on, and the buildings that house all of these things, will outlive us. But they rely on us to find them new homes in the minds of our patrons. That is what is important, that is what endures, and that is what sparks the human mind.