“the Amy Winehouse of occupations”

From Counterpunch:

So why have hipsters latched onto librarians?  Because we’re losers, at least in the public’s mind.  Ask anyone with French tip nails and a frappuccino, and they’ll pretty much describe us as the Amy Winehouse of occupations: people with odd hair and odder interests. We’re crazy cat lady of professions, except we don’t smell like cat pee.  Most of the time.  But to those whose idea of the perfect day is having a quote from The Aeneid inked in Latin onto their forearm after scoring the perfect cardigan from Goodwill (preferably one designed for the opposite sex), a librarian is the personification of their post-millennial aspirations: props from friends for being the smarty-pants slacker that they are.   But if you hold such aspirations, you don’t have to go to library school to be a librarian: you can at the very least look and act like a librarian.  Why incur student loan debt and classmates with the demeanor of Dick Cheney without the sparkling repartee when all you need are your English lit books and access to your grandparents’ closet?

I think I owe the author of this piece, Linda Ueki Absher, a drink. Specifically, I’m thinking of a box of wine. I had written about librarian stereotypes as a guest post for Will Manley’s blog over the summer, but Mrs. Absher’s piece on the image of the librarian has taken it to a completely new level of brilliance. It embraces the darkest elements of the librarian stereotype: useless liberal arts degree, the drudgery of public service, and the quirky/deviant nature of the people who aspire to provide information service in this day and age. It’s does in one piece what the Annoyed Librarian can’t do in ten or twenty entries; bring the full on ridiculousness of the hipster librarian, display it in all its glory, and send it on its way like a loved but wayward child.

Yes, we are librarians. We are a fun, hard working, hard drinking, and defiantly curious and quirky bunch. But that’s the way we like it.

(h/t: LISNews)

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

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)

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)

news that makes me smile

This will warm the cockles of your heart.

Anthony Morris’s job search hit a snag this month when the Queens Borough Public Library notified him that he could not get a new library card until he paid about $80 in fines.

Mr. Morris, 31, had been unemployed for eight months and did not have the money. But he had amassed an armful of library books he needed to prepare for an exam that was part of the application process for a job at Con Edison, and he also needed a library card to browse online classified sites. So he asked if he could work off his debt.

After 22 hours of sorting books in the reference section at the Jamaica branch, Mr. Morris got his library card — and was asked to apply for a part-time position at the library.

(Source: NYT via LISNews)