Relevancy of Libraries in the Future

Earlier this week, the assistants on Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Daily Dish (rated one of Time’s Top 25 Blogs of 2009) sought to perform an experiment. They asked for readers to submit questions that would be posted to the Dish audience with follow-up entries showing the feedback received. This reminded me of a post by Peter Bromberg in Library Garden a couple of months ago. The part of Pete’s post that stuck with me was the last paragraph.

I worry every day about whether libraries will be relevant, three, five, or ten years from now. Unless we start allowing our customers to make decisions about their own personal data, AND start building systems that offer them a social networked experience based on their ability to selectively share their heretofore private info, I fear that libraries will grow increasingly irrelevant to our customers.

So, I took the theme of relevancy and crafted it into a question for the Dish.

What can the library do to stay relevant in the lives of the community? The methods of information delivery are increasing as well as the sheer volume of information resources. The quick and convenient Google search is replacing the more thoughtful human depth of a reference librarian’s answer. Librarians have transitioned from gatekeepers to guides, yet requests for our expertise in navigating the spectrum of information mediums and systems are in overall decline. There is an urge to offer more types of materials and services within the library, but there is also an enormous pull to provide greater forms of outreach through our website and other mobile technologies. What can we do to reverse this trend?
(While overall library usage is up due to the flagging economy, the most reported types of increased library use are borrowing materials, use of computers, and increased attendance to programs, specifically job related. This does not encompass my overall question.)

And they ended up using it. I was pretty surprised when it came across my Google Reader, but I was eager to see how it would be received. Later that day, they put up a post of selected feedback.

As a public librarian in a large metropolitan city, I can attest that our patronage is up…substantially now more than ever due to people seeking out resume advice, and our usage of computers has skyrocketed.  Which goes to show you one thing: people need libraries.

Regardless whether they own their computer, many patrons still need assistance in navigating the ‘Net, or advice on how to compose a resume, or where and how to use the templates available on word processing programs. Or they come for information on community resources to assist in their job search, or simply to discover free events in their community for their families.

They come for book discussions and debates, for senior "Wii" programs, for children’s play-reading times, for how to start your own business seminars, for teenage events that encourage good reading and learning habits, or simply to just enjoy reading the racks of magazines and newspapers knowing all the time they are all…free.

But they also read. A lot. Fiction and non-fiction books are still checked out. There is a warm, fuzzy comfortableness about taking home books and reading – especially escapist type of genres.

But what can a library do to stay relevant?  It still needs ‘place.’  A library was always a place first.  A haven to escape the hustle and bustle of their jobs, or even their family home. A place where every square inch of information and recreational reading is there at their fingertips. A place where librarians still answer reference questions and are available to help them navigate that almost-overwhelming mass of information that is thrown at them each day on the ‘Net, TV and radio and in newsprint.

In short, the library is still the most precious gift we give ourselves as a nation. Librarians are now more than the old-fashioned point-that-dewey-out individual-they are now information miners, resume makers, recreational reading advisors, gamers, events-planners for all ages.

The library is the still the best place in town.

And:

My inclination is to say that libraries could very well become central to communities — but that they’d have to shift emphasis from distributing information to editing it.

"Librarianship" is a skill that is only becoming more important. The question that the librarian seeks to answer is, I think, a defining one: How can I deal intelligently with this mass of information?

I think a great many of your readers go to the Daily Dish to answer that very question. They go as one goes to library: not only does the blog provide content (the analytic function of blogging), but it sorts through it (the curatorial function of blogging). Libraries do both. They provide content and they help people sort through it.

But as the former becomes more accessible, the latter becomes more important. Some ideas would be this. Libraries should focus on:

Community

  1. Hyperlocal news aggregation

Discovery

  1. Personalized reading lists and recommendation like "new books you might like" and "new articles you might like"

Editing

  1. Helping people create information consumption regiments
  2. Parsing paragraphs and quotes from books and aggregating them
  3. Collecting book reviews

(Emphasis mine.)

In reading it, the first commentator turned my present thinking on its head. Whereas I had been looking to expand services, to reach out to the patron population, and to widen our influence on the communities around my library, the commentator is looking inward towards what the library has going for it already. The draw of a destination is certainly something I see everyday in my library since we are situated in the residential community. We are lucky to have patrons who are within walking distance and come to the library as part of their daily routine. They read the paper, check the movie selection or email, and we know each other well enough to wave and greet each other by name. Maybe I have a destination already and I just need to tap into that vibe and capitalize on it.

The second commentator reminds me of a theme I’ve heard since I started my MLS degree a couple of years back. There is an awful lot of information out there, the likes of which that the majority of people had not previously seen in their lifetime. My generation grew up on cable television, but we came to age in the dawn of the internet. Perhaps we are more accustomed to the increasing abundance of resources that are available, but there are those before my generation who are not. Even now, there are those in the coming generation who are not able to edit it as well. I’m not saying that my age group (early 30’s) is better adapted to do so, but I will say that we straddle times before and after the digital revolution. 

I can personally say that I remember the library when it had card catalogs, when it got the first line of OPACs, and when it went online with its catalogs. These are huge leaps that were done as I came to age; in other words, as I grew, information technology grew with me. Perhaps it is time for the library to reclaim this essence of destination, a place where people want to be to enrich their lives. Librarians become guides and interpreters, to distill the desires of the patrons, to provide intellectual nourishment, and to rescue them from the sensory overload of the dense information quagmire.

Our relevancy may depend on it.

Cross posted to LISNews

The Failure of E-Book Devices

The failure is not the technology. The capacity to download, store, and recall hundreds if not thousands of books is impressive. The ability to replicate the look of font on paper is incredible. Each generation of e-book devices is rapidly outpacing the previous incarnations with additional features such as internet browser, PDF support, wireless updates, subscription support, and multiple e-book file types. The technology in and of itself is grand and a true marvel of the modern times.

The failure is how the e-book reader companies do not consider libraries as a viable customer.

If you read the FAQs or Terms of Service for Amazon, Sony, Mobipocket, and Ebooks, there is a clear indication that you cannot lend an e-book to anyone. Ok, that’s not entirely true, since Sony indicates that you can lend an eBook to a friend (gasp!) so long as they are an authorized user of your account (Awww!). Sure, you can authorize a friend, but if you are someone who passes around books to all your friends and family, this becomes an onerous exercise in authorizing and de-authorizing just to share a reading gem. Also, it makes the lending of a Sony Reader with eBooks a circulation nightmare for a library under those ‘guidelines’.

Mobipocket stakes dangerous territory by saying that you cannot lend an eBook but you can lend the device. Since they don’t make any readers, this could possibly put them at odds with the companies that do make devices that they support. (I’m sure Cybook and iLiad might beg to differ, but I digress since I can’t find their positions on it.) This makes the use of Mobipocket books a big no-go for libraries. eBooks mentions that it uses robust software to ensure that only the legitimate owner of the eBook can read it. While it does not outright prohibit lending, it sure as hell probably works to stymy it. I smell a terms of use violation buried somewhere in there like a leftover World War II ordinance in a French farm field. Thus, the libraries are usurped once more.

Out of all of these devices and shops, Amazon has the most frustrating position. With the Kindle, there has been much discussion about whether or not you can lend one. The current Amazon stance is the equivalent of a wink and a nod that you could lend one, but it’s against the terms of service. While my first reaction was admiration of shrewdness, it has since evolved into insult. Did Amazon really think that a libraries would not be interested in offering this device to their patrons? Either they are terribly short sighted as to their market or just plain inconsiderate that the well established institution of the library would love to offer a new medium for people to borrow materials.

This simply cannot stand. If this is a product of the electronic industry getting into the publishing business, they need to wake up and smell the pulp. Libraries are not your average customer and we should not be treated as such; for lack of a better analogy, we are the street level dealers to our vast clientele. We deserve to get special treatment.

So, all you e-book reader industry people out there, here’s a couple of ideas for you from this librarian.

(1) Write a terms of service exclusively for libraries. Don’t leave us in this gray legal area where no one is a winner. We won’t want to lend out your product if we feel like we are going to get bit on the ass when you don’t support it or repair it (due to terms of service violations) or suddenly decide to sue the crap out of us for lending them in the first place. Stop ignoring libraries and start embracing us for the information and technology educators that we are.

(2) With your army of lawyers (Amazon, Sony, etc.), write a service contract in which you provide us with devices and materials which we can then lend to patrons. (Leave it to us as to how we make them financially responsible to borrowing the readers; we are better in the lost or damage item debt collection field than you are.) For example, a contract that gives us a reader, you stock it with the top 10 or 25 or whatever bestsellers that month, we lend it out, you update it as the month goes on, we send you back the device every year or so (which you can resell as used or refurbished or whatever) for the latest generation, and throw in a service/repair contract on top of that. Make it work so that we can put your devices on our shelves with materials that people will want and we will take care of the rest.

(3) Profit. You profit both literally and through increased exposure for your product to the public who might not otherwise be interested in your e-book reader. We profit with increased patronage, circulation numbers, and overall system usage statistics. It is a win-win-win for us, you, and our patrons. You can’t beat that result, not even with a stick.

We are in the intellectual enhancement business, no matter the medium. Libraries are the allies of the e-book reader devices. Start treating us like it.

Cross posted to LISNews.org

The Personal Reference Touch

Within the last year or so, I’ve read and heard a lot of discussion about how the library could take lessons from retail. Most notably, the retail industry has done all of the research when it comes to layout and design of spaces. They know how people shop, how people act when presented with a layout, display, or other store feature, and how to adjust things so as to get the most desirable consumer reaction. The department stores you walk into are the sum total of this exploration into how people hunt and gather for their shopping needs. I don’t think it’s a bad idea, really, to mimic some of these attributes with our own libraries. If we can get people to take a second look or listen to what we have to offer, it is certainly energy well spent.

There is also some discussion about what lessons we can take from retail customer service. Patrons have come to expect a similar customer experience since they are engaging in the same steps (e.g. find a product, bring it to a counter, hand over a card, get the product and card back, leave). I think that, while a retail style interaction is logical for the circulation desk, I would hesitate to apply the principles to the reference desk. Any librarian can tell you of the many common questions and requests to the gamut of deeper inquiries and searches that patrons can bring. The principles of retail, for me, seem to fall flat on their face in the face of such diversity. I had been wracking my brain for a better customer interaction model for a good week and I think I’ve stumbled upon it: concierge.

Most online definitions of a concierge lean towards someone who cares for the physical needs of their clients, but I’d like to think that the underlying concept is still sound. It is a person who attends to the requests and needs of their client (in this case a patron). While it’s not setting appointments or arranging for dry cleaning, I don’t see much of a difference in placing holds, making calls on their behalf to other libraries for information, assisting with computer or copier problems, or researching complicated questions. Each patron comes to the reference desk with their own inquiries and requests. The customer service goal of the reference librarian should be to provide the patron with a personally tailored experience. That type of interaction is what brings people back to the library over time as they know that there is someone who will invest time and effort into what they seek. Much in the same way that a hotel concierge sees to the needs of guests, a reference librarian attends to the intellectual needs of the patron.

For certain, the next time my job title comes up, I’m going to be pressing for “Information Concierge”. It just has a special ring to it.

Cross posted to LISNews.

the search for the next big thing, ctd

Awhile back, I had written about trying to figure out the next big thing for libraries and library science. This past week, I had the fun privilege of attending the 2009 NJLA conference. I would not say that the conference provided an answer about what the next big thing is as that would suggest a conclusion to the search. I did feel that the conferences I attended indicated a new direction worthy of following. Well, a “new to me” direction, for I don’t think I had a true original revelation for my profession, but the concepts presented have consumed my thought processes for the couple of days afterward.

There is a saying in library circles that goes like this: “a good library should have something to offend everyone”. I’d like to add a corollary to this well known collection development mantra: “a good library should have a feature for everyone.” The advent of the internet and other information transmission technologies have displaced libraries as the information monopolies that they enjoyed since the days of Alexandria. Much in the way that the United States have switched from a manufacturing to a service economy, libraries are still experiencing the postpartum pains of transforming from information gatekeepers to guides. Knowledge and learning are the old buzz words that get thrown around when people talk about the library; enrichment and service should be the new ones. Our academic credentials are well established, but we need to aggressively break that mold and show patrons that we have more to offer that can enhance their lives. We need present ourselves as having features and services available that compliment their interests and desires.

And what sort of services and features should we offer? In my opinion, it is to meet the patron on the communication medium of their choice (a.k.a. “where the rubber meets the road”). Whether it is in person, phone, email, or text, we need to be able to act and converse on all of those levels. With the glut of information in various forms out there, we need to provide guidance for people to get to the right information, to find the proper resources, and sage advice on how to navigate the barrage of potential sources. In exchange, we learn from our patrons (directly or indirectly) what communication tools they use in their lives and what they prefer. I think we are in another case of trying to catch up with technology, only with much worse timing than the internet during the business boom of the 1990’s. It is falling right in the midst of an economic recession and government interested in trimming budgets where libraries are viewed as cost centers rather than valued citizen resources.

Right now, I know how the budget at my branch is fairing. I know that if I want to do something with text service, I’m going to have to get pretty damn creative and look for free and/or open source solutions to add that to my branch’s services. It frustrates me since I know some of the solutions are within “easy” reach save for the fact that I lack the technical knowledge to fully understand them. I’ll have to get someone smarter than myself (not a real stretch) to be able to explain whether or not it can be implemented to me.  As our system blocks Myspace and Facebook, I am less inclined to start a presence on either site. But I am eager to learn more about Facebook opening up its API to developers, so any sort of foot dragging may be rewarded after all. Twitter, which has caught my fancy these days, presents a mixed bag as there are user retention issues for this microblogging/micromessaging social site. The limitation of the 160 character box for both Twitter and text works well in focusing a message, but it does poorly for presenting larger concepts, instruction, library news, or issues. Yes, there are url shortening services out there that are coming into heavier use, but this would rely on the end user clicking on the link rather than having the sum total of the message presented in the text or Tweet. Beyond that, we get into library philosophy debates as to whether we are able to provide all the answers for a patron on such a short format, regardless as to whether it is the patron’s preferred method of communication or not.

The one concept from the conference that most intrigued me was mobile reference. It’s very simple deal, really: take a librarian, add a smartphone with a data plan, and cut them loose into the wild. I’m not necessarily talking about a door to door salesman approach, but the purpose of mobile reference would be engage people outside the physical setting of the library and provide a sampling of library services. For more information, a mobile reference librarian would say as they handed over the library pamphlet, you can visit, call, or check us out on the web. Ok, perhaps there is some salesmanship, but that is no different than when a person is seated behind a desk talking about a new program, service, or event. It also establishes a presence outside of the library and creates a new way for the patrons to use the library.

I can see what the arguments against mobile reference might say. Where is the patron need for this service? How do we target an audience? Is this is a good use of staff time? I don’t have those answers at this time. What I do know is this: whether we like it or not, the internet has blown the walls off the libraries as a knowledge center, yet our single focus remains on what we can do within the confines of the building. Mobile technology has liberated us from the land line and given us the potential to do library service anywhere there is a viable internet connection, yet we are content to sit at the reference desk window and watch the world go by. It is hard enough to compete with the convenience of the personal computer versus driving, walking, or even phoning or emailing the library; we should not limit the ways in which we offer ourselves to our patron community. This is more passion than facts, for certain, but I do feel strongly enough about it to do more research into the subject.

Is all this talk pie in the sky? Maybe. But I do think we run a constant danger of putting ourselves in a perpetual catchup situation for adding emerging and/or established technologies. We need to become better at identifying technology trends, budget for it in due time, and make it connect with what we have to offer while it is still a popular technology. We won’t be able to sit on our duffs as much anymore, but that reference desk chair is not as comfortable as it once was for me. Not after the conference. We see how our patrons use technology everyday. We need to pay closer attention, see what it is, and then start looking where it is going. That will put us back on the forefront of the information age.

Men are from 523.43, Women are from 523.42

On the way home from the NJLA conference today, my wife mentioned to me that she thought that this year’s conference had more young men than last year’s. I thought this was a strange observation since (1) it was confined to such a narrow band of crowd population and (2) what gauge was she using to measure the number from last year compared to this year. (I could toss in “why are you counting young men?” as a (3), but I think the first two get the job done objectively.) I remember writing something about gender in the NJLA Blog from last year’s conference. In looking back on that entry, it feels to me like I was more excited to contribute to the NJLA blog than I was at actually making a point that people wouldn’t simply scan over and move on the next entry. Ah, yes, it was during my rookie librarian year. I was all very new to the profession and full of optimism and ideas.

I was still full of optimism and ideas even before Karen Hyman’s keynote speech. Her speech almost compelled me to rise from my seat, get in my car, and head back to my branch to announce, “We are going to weed, redecorate, renovate, and improve staff morale today” while emphasizing each concept with a rev of a chainsaw. Perhaps it sounds a bit extreme, but my library could benefit from some new window holes, a noticeably smaller collection, and a suddenly cooperative and motivated staff. (Lest uninformed readers be shocked, it is a little known fact that the chainsaw is McGuyver’s army knife, duct tape, and chewing gum rolled up into one extremely delightful gas guzzling tool for all occasions. It is so good at solving problems that it can work by simply holding one in your hands while you talk.)

To be certain, if I had known that I would have gone into such a female dominated profession, I certainly would have tried to stay single longer than I did. (I’m sure I’ll get pinched in my sleep for that.) Sadly (that’s another pinch), I got married long before thoughts of library science danced across my mind like a tantalizing raven haired seductress (yet another pinch).

But in giving it actual serious thought, the gender imbalance is a complete non-issue for me. I wouldn’t exactly call myself progressive unless “I don’t care where the answer comes from so long as it is right” counts. When I’m reaching out to colleagues for answers to a question I can’t figure out, or share ideas for new programs or services, or to find out why my patron’s hold got sent to another branch, the gender of the person on the other end of the conversation is completely moot. I’m sure there are social scientists who could show me how different gender balance works environments perform but, honestly, unless there is some sort of earth shattering difference, it’s trivia that I would store away for the night I can shout it at the television during Jeopardy!.  It reminds me of a line by Admiral Percy Fitzwallace (played by John Amos) in the television series The West Wing when asked about having a young black man serve as the President’s body man:

I got some real honest-to-god battles to fight [...]. I don’t have time for the cosmetic ones.

Back to optimism and other things that spring eternal, I will say that loathsome, too oft repeated cliche that the best days of library science are still ahead. And while the phrase may be vile, the new information networks and communications are not. We stand at the frontier of complete information immersion where there are few actual limits to access and all forms of knowledge are now intertwined. For me, the future does not lay in creating a better library system, but in the empowerment of the end user. We can come up with as many features and tools as we want, we can create a big ole pile of features and tools that could be stacked end to end and reach from the Earth to the moon and back, but it will mean diddly squat if our patrons don’t know about it, don’t know how to use it, can’t figure out how to use it on their own, and/or don’t ask us about it. In my sophomore year of librarianship, I see the mission of the library is to educate and empower the patron with the access and tools to the resources they desire. Let us move from being gatekeepers to guides.

I’m sure I’ll look back in a year and snicker at my second attempt to figure out the big picture, but it’s nice set lofty goals and to have stars to reach for.

If Links Are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Have Links

The Associated Press is mad as hell and they aren’t taking it anymore.

While whom they remain angry at is somewhat nebulous, the venerable pillar of news reporting is looking to get a piece of the new media revenue pie by asserting greater control over their content. The current status quo is one where various types of web entities (such as Google, Yahoo!, and The Huffington Post) arrange licensing agreements in which they pay for the right to link to AP stories, audio, and videos. It is from here that the gray areas of the web emerge as sites, bloggers, and other aggregators link to the content that is generated through these AP licensees. On these tertiary sites, people can generate revenue from either ads or services that they provide while linking to AP product.

While stealing content is pretty straightforward, the trouble begins with linking of photographs, stories, summaries, and other copyrighted content. Such sites look to invoke the “fair use” for their use of the copyrighted materials since their argument is that they do not take substantial portions of the original works. While copyright law defines a “fair use” exemption, the criteria for determining such a case is less than crystal clear. By their own admission, there are no set parameters and it would require a case by case analysis of the works to determine whether “fair use” applies or not.

So, here lies the current dilemma: how does a link fit into the equation? The controlling document here is the Digital Rights Millennium Act, an act that was written and amended (and re-amended) before the current wave of web technology of the last two years. While current court cases provide a limited fair use protection to certain forms of linking (such as thumbnails and  inlining (linking photographs from other servers)), there is a still a universe of circumstances under which links exist. There is no way that the current version of the DRMA addresses these new circumstances to any degree of satisfaction; in fact, I would agree with the Electronic Frontier Foundation that the inadequacies of this act create a internet ripple effect which do not reflect the current web reality. While I as a content creator am completely sympathetic to people who wish to control the fruits of their labors, the current laws and regulations apply obsolete or ill-fitting rules on those who wish to share content with the new tools and technology in use today.

There are those who say (and I am one of them) that the news print media has had over a decade to adapt to the new web environment. The signs that the current business model would not hold have been there with the reduction of readership and shrinking subscription base. It is only now that a new revenue stream has become apparent that the AP has determined itself to exercise control over the content. But this genie is out of the bottle, and the technological and social norms of the internet have done nothing but to make the sharing of information easier and more accessible. Once again, it is an industry that should be pushing innovation in technology by developing new methods of information delivery that will generate revenue and provide news while still embracing fair use as a means to increase site traffic and readership. For the AP to try to put the breaks on the link economy (which does exist) would be akin to trying keep a litter of puppies from escaping from a box; the constant effort to retain everything will prove to be exhausting and ultimately fatal to an flawed business model. There is nothing to fear in linking; if anything, it is a medium that should be embraced by the AP.

(Posted at LISNews)

Politics in the Age of Information

These days, there is a disconnect between politics and the information age that I find disconcerting. We live in an age where information is neatly digitized, indexed, and available upon demand for those who seek it. And yet, there are those public figures who do no such fact checking of their own to some of things things they have said in the past. I concede that positions change over time and with different fact parameters, but what always surprises me is the disconnect to these past statements. It’s not like there isn’t a way to determine previous positions on a topic via searching relevant databases or the internet.

In a recent example, take Rick Warren. In an interview with Larry King, he indicated that he had never spoken against the gay marriage issue embodied in Calfornia’s Proposition 8. Not only is there evidence that he did so, but it is a video. Where is the reconciliation?

Insofar as politics go, the best collection of position or statement reversals lies with The Daily Show. If it is left to satirical entertainment to keep people honest about their positions, then what the hell are journalists doing these days?

the faulty model of newsprint media

At the end of last week, the New York Times Company threatened to close down the Boston Globe unless the employee unions agreed to $20 million in cuts. This comes on the heels of comments by NYT executive editor Bill Keller speaking to an audience at Stanford in which he stated “saving the New York Times now ranks with saving Darfur as a high-minded cause.” (He clarifies his statement to relate it to the relative level of interest in the survival of the Times, not as a human rights intervention. This doesn’t change the extraordinarily poor choice of comparative terms.) It’s not the only newspaper in trouble within recent memory. The Tribune Company (owner of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times) filed for bankruptcy at the end of 2008. The Philadelphia Inquirer filed in late February and the Rocky Mountain News (Denver) closed its doors just shy of 150 years of printing. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer dropped the print edition in favor of a web only edition.

While this traditional type of media is reeling financially, I think that newsprint media and technology have reached a crossroads of opportunity. The best example of this opportunity resides in the newspaper subscription service for the Kindle. The device is capable of downloading and updating content (such as newspaper subscriptions) automatically through available technological networks. This means you can wake up in the morning, roll over, hit your alarm, pick up your reader off the nightstand, and have the paper (so to speak) in your hands. In addition, it satisfies a push for greener technologies that will reduce a carbon footprint such as materials (paper and ink) and fuel. This is the sort of technology that the newspapers should be pushing the market to develop: a cheaper media reader (much cheaper than the Kindle’s $360 price tag) that can allow people to subscribe to their web content.

While there are arguments that print media is a victim of the economy or the public’s reading habits, I personally don’t find them compelling enough. The lack of movement towards digital content represents a lack of innovation on the part of the newspaper companies. And it’s not like they didn’t see it coming with the rise of Mobipocket Reader or the Kindle. We are becoming a “fingertip society”, for we expect information to be found at our fingertips when desired. While I cannot deny the pleasurable sensory experience in the feel of newspaper, the smell of the ink, or the crinkles of the sheets when turned, it is the content that is the selling point. A searchable digital format is what people have come to expect in their information experience. While there is much lost from the lack of serendipity browsing in these formats, there are greater gains to be made here in preserving these journalist institutions.

This reasoning also covers readering habits as it relates to how people are perceiving the information around them. Awhile ago (and I can’t remember or find the source now), I remember a  study that indicated that leisure reading is down across all age groups. However, this is an incomplete analysis for it fails to mention that the number of information mediums has gone up. Whether it is the web, text, video, or peer to peer referral, the increase in the types of media and means for people to get information has pushed newsprint media from being one of a few to one of many choices. In part with the aforementioned instant access that society has come to expect, this makes the current newspaper format a dinosaur of the information age. It does make me sad to say that I believe newsprint is on its way out; I have tons of memories of reading the comics with my father or the things I’ve discovered by thumbing through a section. But I cannot deny the financial situation nor the information trends which are moving away from it.

They are late off the starting block, but traditional news media can catch up. The technology is here or a few innovation generations away from where it needs to be for newspapers to fully take advantage of it. I will hope that there is some companies left to take advantage of it.

(Posted at LISNews)

another chip away at the Patriot Act

Four members of the House of Representatives have introduced legislation to reign in the power granted by the Patriot Act to the investigative tool known as the National Security Letter (NSL). The National Security Letters Reform Act of 2009 would return the issuing requirements of NSLs to pre-9/11 requirements. This has been hailed by the ACLU at the same time as they have launched their own website calling for reform of the Patriot Act.

For those who might not recall, libraries and library systems have been long wary of the enhanced powers of NSLs. It came to a full conflict in the case of Library Connection v Gonzales in which a library consortium challenged both the gag order and the records sought. It ended with the government withdrawing the NSL and lifting the gag order. You can read more about it here.

I wasn’t a librarian in 2001 when the original Patriot Act was passed. I do remember talking about the chilling effect that it had on the average library record in my graduate courses. (I recall reading about some library systems in California shredding every type of record that they didn’t need to run the system, but I can’t find that article for linking.) I remember thinking that it was a real shame to put the library in an untenable position of trying to remain in compliance with the law and protecting the privacy of the patrons. While most will see themselves as defenders of academic freedom and intellectual inquiry (and embrace the radical militant librarian moniker), I would argue that we should have never allowed ourselves to get to that point in the first place. (Perhaps the political activism of today will ensure any such future endeavors.)  However, hindsight being what it is, I certainly commend my fellow librarians for their steps to preserve some of the freedoms that make this country great.

(Cross posted to LISNews)

the search for the next big thing

For those unfamiliar with the library field, librarians have a strange relationship with technology. On one hand, the library field has been quick to follow new trends of audio and video technologies. Even as we speak, my library is moving towards Blu Ray and expanding web based technologies such as eBooks and downloadable content such as movies and mp3s. We are working on bringing the library and the patron closer together through the internet with an online calendar, databases, and other remotely accessed sources.

On the other hand, it wasn’t long ago that libraries were playing catchup to one of the biggest technologies, the internet. When the internet was emerging as a means for global communication, the majority of libraries balked at the addition of computers. Books, it was said at the time, was the main mission of the library. The internet was something that fell outside of that mission. Eventually, obviously, the massive amount of information exchange was too much to ignore. The internet rewrote the mission of the library in terms of the mediums that it could be expressed in. Combined with the linking of broadband communication networks and global information resources, literally a world of knowledge was brought to the simplest library setup.

At work today, I was sitting at my desk and scrolling through LISNews when I stumbled upon this article. While I try to pick apart some of the underlying technology being used there, it was only on the way home that I really thought about what part of my job entails: finding the next big web technology that the library can use. Ok, it’s not exactly my job description, but it is something that my reference and committee work seem to demand. It’s something that certainly interests me since I’m a gadget and technology oriented guy.

As of recently, Facebook and Twitter are the hot fads that some libraries are making their presence. I’m on the fence about Facebook for a couple of reasons. Our library system filters it out due to some major behavioral issues that were arising from it (we had patrons of all ages monopolizing our computer resources for it and straining the system). So, to have the library on Facebook while filtering it presents a kind of hypocrisy. Plus, with the number of applications and other addons, it feels like it could go spammy very quickly. (This same argument could be used for MySpace, another site we filter as well.)

I think my problem with Twitter is that I haven’t been able to integrate it to my life, so I’m not sure how it would fit into others. I have friends who use it and then use LoudTwitter to post a days worth of Tweets to their blogs (a neat way to bring all the messages together). In looking how it is being used in the media (specifically, CNN), I think it runs the risk of generating too much output. With the low character count of a Tweet, it works well for the Facebook style update but not a full on discussion level conversation. Granted, an outlet like CNN would be looking for something that is short so that it can be evaluated for on air use quickly. But I think we lose something if we come to rely on 140 characters or less to get our points across. To me, in larger exchanges, it turns into information overload.

In looking at reader sites such as GoodReads and LibraryThing, I see something good but not a means for the library to hook into it. The current round of automation doesn’t make exporting into one of those sites an option; and in the overall scheme of things, I don’t see it in the spirit in which the site is intended. As they stand right now, they are perfectly lovely reader’s advisory since it offers a fellow booklover’s review of literature that might be taken more to heart than a librarian consulting a resource like Novelist or pamphlets generated by one of my wiser colleagues in the system.

A site like LibraryElf represents something that should be integrated into the next round of library automation: it will send you a text message reminder of library holds, due dates, and reserves. (Currently, in our automation system (Horizon), we can send emails to patrons for holds and reminders for due dates.) But while that represents a future integration into library automation, it does not in fact create an library/patron interface now.

As I look at these sites, for me it still begs a question: what’s the next big technology thing for libraries? What is the next connection out there that will integrate what we do into the lives of our patrons? Or make the access of library resources that much easier? I don’t think libraries will fall behind the same way they did when the internet emerged as I stated in the anecdote at the start of this post, but I want to be on the forefront of the next library technology trend. I’d like to think that TextMarks from Blake’s article and invention would be a technology available now to utilize, but I always come back to the same thing: what’s the next big thing?

With such lofty library philosophical musings like that, I can rest assured that my job will never be dull.

(Cross-posted at LISNews)