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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional thoughts on this idea: The World Without Public Libraries

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

Library Budgets in the Perfect Storm

Just about a month ago, New Jersey Governor Christie proposed his version of the FY2011 budget. In addressing a $10 billion budget gap, he sought to make dramatic cuts to state spending. As part of this self-proclaimed new day of fiscal responsibility, he made a 74% cut to state library spending. Cut is a bit of a misnomer for this action; the better term I have heard used is a decapitation. The reduction of state library spending would result in the complete elimination of valuable library services and support programs such as intrastate inter-library loan, the Talking Book and Braille Center (formerly the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped), group purchasing contracts for internet access and databases, and the library cooperatives whose exemplary efforts provide libraries with additional savings through grant finding, tailored group contracts, and innovative pilot programs.

Going on concurrently, there have been dramatic cuts to state aid for education budgets. School districts have been scrambling all over the state in order to find budget solutions through layoffs, program or service reductions/eliminations, and cuts of aspects that are deemed "non-essential". Within this framework, the school librarian and library has come under the budget knife, resulting in the elimination of these entities from many school districts around the state. I would presume that the duty to teach research, technological literacy, and information vetting will presumed to be passed onto teachers (in addition to their other primary teaching duties, that is). I’m uncertain as to who or how the library would be maintained without a librarian or materials budget, but that topic is better suited for someone with more expertise. But what I do know is that library resources will be greatly diminished within this new school setting on the whole.

Academic libraries within the state face similar circumstances, though have a different set of solutions for them. Increasing library fees can compensate for the loss in state funding, but it is carefully balanced against the rising costs for students. The needs of professors and students in their fields of study and publishing will be scrutinized under a smaller information resource pie, potentially denying or delaying data for their studies, projects, papers, and research. Colleges and universities will no longer have “the best” resources available to their students; they will simply have “the best” they can afford under the new funding scheme.

In taking on the teacher’s union and perceived state budget largess, the Governor has made collateral damage out of information literacy. While I’m certain that this is not the Governor’s intent in making these dramatic cuts, it is the result that will happen. Under the mantra that he has been making cuts because the state cannot afford it any longer, he has sacrificed one of the few fiscally responsible government services that works throughout the state on an extremely cheap $1.25 per capita. Unlike many other agencies, libraries in the state of New Jersey have been fiscally responsible and budget streamlined for many years now. We fit within the Governor’s self proclaimed financial disciplines, yet we lose the most under the budget knife.

How is the reasonable? How is this fair? How is this a shared sacrifice?

More importantly, I am concerned by the results of this perfect storm. With the reduction or elimination of school libraries, the information resource pressure will be shifted to public libraries (as seen in Philadelphia libraries). With the reduction of state aid, the materials and services in the public library will be diminished as well (for the libraries that didn’t cut back their hours or close). This doesn’t change the same demand for library computers, services, and materials from people still looking for work, filing for unemployment, or seeking assistance for other government services. Nor does it change the increase in the amount of people who rely on libraries on a regular basis, whether it is for literature, education, or entertainment.

What government services covers all of the aspects that we do?

Where will these people go?

At this point, to be honest, all I am left with are questions:

Where will elementary and high school student go to get homework help and research their reports and papers? Where will these students go to get away from bad influences in their neighborhoods?   

What about the college students? Will they tolerate higher fees to make up the loss? Will they tolerate a smaller resource pool for their academic studies? Will they pass on New Jersey schools in favor of other colleges that have better information resources and materials? What about the professors that teach them? Will professors opt to teach at other non-NJ institutions because they won’t receive the same level of professional research support?

What happens to the vision impaired and other fellow residents with disabilities? Without the state funds (and the federal matching funds), the Talking Book and Braille center will close in 2012. Where will they go for their special materials, ones suited for their disability?

What happens to people looking for employment? Who will provide the same time and attention to these job seekers with their online applications? Who will provide basic computer classes to assist them to get off of unemployment and back to work? Who will provide them with a place that can be part of their routine, to provide friendly help, and to suggest new places to look?

Which staff members in the library, both great and small, are going to be tasked with finding or teaching training as a rate as cheap as the library cooperatives once did? Which staff members will be searching for grants, the same ones that the library cooperatives found and got for years? Which staff members will work towards negotiating a group price, the same way that library cooperatives did to save local taxpayers money for years?

(Note: While I have been told that there is a plan to consolidate the library cooperatives into one, I think that all the cooperatives are worth fighting for as they exist now. Consolidation is a compromise position, one that I do not accept right now.)

==

Despite it all, I believe that New Jersey libraries are worth fighting for. Hell, I want to demand 110% funding restoration. After being flat funded for 20+ years, we deserve a raise. We’ve done wonders with the limited funding ascribed to us this long, imagine what we could do with a million more. But for now, I gather my strength and my wits for the funding fight ahead.

April is almost gone. May is upon us. June is close behind.

There is no time like the present. Surely, these are trying times. Let them test our mettle and resolve, for we will pass since our cause is the patrons we serve. We fight not for ourselves, but for the greater good of the society around us. We know that intuitively, for we do it every day when we step through the doors into our libraries. We are public servants dedicated to the common good that all libraries represent. This is our chosen calling. Together, we can weather this budget storm.

It is the right thing to do. And it is the thing to do right now.

Onward, I say!

Who is with me?

The actual future of the library

This past Saturday, Buffy Hamilton sent me the link to Seth Godin’s new post, “The future of the library” as well as some reaction blog posts. (I’ve put the links at the bottom of this post.) It’s the opening line that really started the ball rolling on this post and has lead me to take issue with Mr. Godin’s post (hereafter quoted in blue).

What should libraries do to become relevant in the digital age?

And this is my answer: Nothing. Why? Because we are already relevant in the digital age. The general population as a whole (more or less) believes that a public depository of knowledge is a necessary component for the common good. There’s no fact based rebuttal to this belief; I have yet to hear an argument with merit opposing the continued operation of the library. They prophesized the end of libraries with the rise of computers and, once again, they roll the bones and see the end of libraries in e-readers, Wikipedia and mobile technology. With all of the hoopla for the portable wonders, they are poor replacements with licensing agreements, DRM, and proprietary software. Wikipedia, while the netizen’s encyclopedia with proven accuracy, still has overhead to pay for despite legions of volunteers. Mobile technology has wonderful merits to it, but it is a very long way to go from its touted potential of putting a whole library into one’s hand without the required telecommunication infrastructure, increased display and computer power of the mobile handheld, and price structuring that allows anyone (read: the working poor) to have a data plan. This is not suggest that the library should not change or evolve, but the pronouncements of our imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated.

To say that libraries are irrelevant is a statement about the individual perception but not the greater societal whole. What is more important in such a statement is that raises the issue of how general apathy and indifference for the financial fate of the library really harms cogent funding arguments. The “everything on the internet” perception is easy to handle and is relatively innocent; the real dangerous perception is “I don’t use the library so I don’t see how losing it would affect me”. There is no recognition that this person receives a second hand benefit from the library from the people in the community who do use it; there is a disconnect from the notion that the improvement of the individual is an improvement of the greater whole.

That’s where our advocacy efforts need to be applied. We already have people who believe in us, whether they use the public library or not. It is those on the outside who do not see the benefit on the community as a whole that we need to reach.

They can’t survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don’t want to own (or for reference books we can’t afford to own.) More librarians are telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals. That’s not a long-term strategy, nor is it particularly an uplifting use of our tax dollars.

Ah, but we can survive as a community-funded repository for books that individuals can’t afford to own (or for reference books that have no internet counterpart). While the latter is becoming a scarce creature (and rightfully so), the former harkens back to the concept that the library is a public institution for the common good. And, on the whole, I’d say that that a majority of my customers at the public library could afford the materials that they check out, but opt to borrow instead for whatever reason. But my library is in a mostly middle class area; any shift in demographics on the education or pay scale would dramatically change the underlying reasons.

What I really take issue with is this notion that there are different tiers of entertainment. Reading for pleasure? Good. Watching a movie for pleasure? Bad. But why? One is a story written on paper and the other is a visual presentation of a story. While purists may sniff at a film production of their favorite author, are they not both acts of telling the same story? Where does listening to the audio recording of a story fall? It’s a slippery slope of information judgment. (Or, to use the words from Lori Reed’s reply on the theanalogdivide post, “It is also one of the core tenets of librarianship that we do not judge the information people seek. It is our job to connect people with information whether we personally agree with it or not.”)

To the librarians lamenting the borrowing of DVDs, I can think of three things. First, place your DVDs are deep into the library as you can while still preserving their security and reasonable access. This makes your patrons have to walk through the library and pass by other things you have to offer. Second, place advertising for services, programs, and other offerings in and around this DVD area. Third, get over it. I’m sure there are patrons who just use you for your large print collection or newspapers or magazines or even just databases when they have a paper due. In that way, the library is acting in its intended capacity: to connect people with information.

Here’s my proposal: train people to take intellectual initiative.

Initiative is really not the problem. The internet search engines have made it easy to look for something on a whim. Librarians already encourage people to delve deeper into the topics that interest them. From my observations, the real issue is one of online information source vetting.

Here is where the library rubber meets the road. The information on the visible web presents an mixed bag of accuracy; this is not to say that it is wrong, but it means that some resources lay on the cusp of academic dubiousness. The challenge for librarians and other information professionals lays in getting people to examine the source of the information as well as looking beyond what is immediately within reach (translation: the first page of a Google search). This can lead to information exploration in the invisible web in areas beyond search engines (e.g. databases, subscription content). This is one area where our librarian expertise lays; not simply in search assistance, but also in providing guidance and coaching for people in their investigations. It is the training and teaching of people to use critical thinking in information source examination that is part of the bigger package of developing research tools as a life skill.

Once again, the net turns things upside down. The information is free now. No need to pool tax money to buy reference books. What we need to spend the money on are leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others.

Alas, information is not truly free. The communication revolution has increased access to information to the point that it gives the illusion of being free. That would be akin to find an apple tree along side a country lane and declaring that it sprung up from the aether. Someone or something planted the seeds along the road; the conditions were conducive to its growth and survival; and on a long enough timeline, it grew into the fully formed tree that appears before the observer. The fruits of the tree are the end products of time, energy, and effort. Information on the internet is no different; someone had to take the time to write and create the content. Bobbi Newman’s answer to Seth Godin reply on the theanalogdivide post is more succinct to this last point:

Information is not free. As an author and a blogger you should know better. Even the often [cited] Wikipedia has had a plea up for funding recently. We all know Google isn’t scanning books out of the goodness of their heart. Even the simplest things on the internet cost time. With the plethora of information out there the skill to determine if it’s accurate (or crap detection as Howard Rheingold puts it) is even more important that ever. At the very least information takes time, something so many seem to be short of these days.”

(Emphasis mine.)

As to the last sentence in Mr. Godin’s post (the one mentioning sherpas), I think there is something there that is much bigger than libraries. While I mention that the library is a public institution that has arisen out of the idea of a common good, there is a silent caveat tacked onto the end of it which states “so long as it is not too expensive”. To me, libraries exist in broader scheme of public education, another community expense that falls victim to this same silent conditional.

For me, this nation and society is not serious about education. Our spending priorities give us away on this issue, from the federal budget down to the family budget. Our country’s well documented altruism towards humanitarian causes is strangely tempered by the bottom line when it comes to our own next generation. We as a society provide the ideals, dreams, and testimonies of academic success, yet we do not provide the required money, tools, or educational infrastructure to make those lofty objectives more accessible. We want the best results but are hesitant about the material cost, ignorant or indifferent to the fact that the success of each generation benefits the greater whole.

When it comes to the library, it is no different. An intellectually based public institution, created under the ideals of a common good for all who seek it, a home for honest and free inquiry, is tethered by layered bureaucracy and constant budgetary inadequacies. I’m not asking for a blank check or a complete free hand here, but some financial certainty and community pledge of support would go a long way.

While I admire the aspiration that Mr. Godin creates in this final sentence, what I think needs to happen is a broadening of the education commitment. This is not a simple of matter of money and materials, but a paradigm movement by the community to commit to the better education of the next generation through all the means available. Knowledge has always been a valuable commodity. There is no time like the present during this information revolution to raise our voices and make it a greater priority in the lives of our fellow citizens. I believe that the lifting up of an individual lifts up the community; to this end, I believe that the library fulfills this exalted ideal.

Other blog reactions to Mr. Godin’s post (by no means a complete listing):

theanalogdivide (complete with Seth Godin comment), SarahGlassmeyer(dot)com, Digitization 101, Lucacept, Neverending Search, Blue Skunk Blog, Schooling.us, Justin the Librarian, A Curious View of the World, The MLXperience, Cathy Nelson’s Professional Thoughts, Library Idol.

Deep Thought Thursday Night

In libraryland, there are a lot of statistics that are measured: door counts, circulation of items, computer uses, reference questions, and so forth and so on. As I was getting ready for the end of the year marketing committee for my library system, I couldn’t help but think about some of the things that cannot be tracked. Specially, I wondered about the number of conversation opportunities that are missed by staff members.

I’ll give an example: I’ve watched people come in for a library card, fill out the paperwork, get the card, and thank the staff member and walk away. The staff member was courteous and pleasant; the patron was not problematic; and the overall process went smoothly. But at no time did the staff member offer the customer a library calendar, inquire about interests so as to link them with current programming, ascertain whether they have children within the age ranges of our programs, or otherwise engage in small talk that makes the library sound more welcoming and familial.

I know that all staff can’t be mind readers nor salesmen nor social butterflies, but within the broad range of personalities, they could do something. As we are a service economy with people holding high customer service expectations, is it wrong to think that we have to step up our game as well? I don’t have a ready made solution for this, but it has been rattling around my brain since it occurred to me this morning.

In any event, it’s something the Marketing Committee will be working on next year. Any thoughts or comments would be helpful.

Thoughts on Schools and Libraries

Picture by Atelier Teee/Flickr Since I thought about this observation while getting into my car to go to dinner the other evening, I haven’t been able to shake it out of my system. I’m hoping that this blog entry will be read by individuals who can shed some light on the subject and perhaps nudge me as to whether I am actually onto something. And so, without further ado, here is the observation that came to me.

While both schools and libraries are seen as institutions of education, there is a radical difference between the two. Specifically, schools represent a structured form of academic learning and inquiry based around lesson plans, schedules, and specific practices and theories of education, whereas the library is an unstructured marketplace of intellectual exploration for the self motivated curious individual. It is the institutionalization of the learning process through the public school that makes the unfettered academic freedom of the library so foreign to most people that they become non-users. In other words, I believe the structured learning process of schools tends usurps the ability of people to engage in the independent pursuit of their own erudite curiosity. 

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense. As a graduate of the public education system, as far as I can recall in my schooling years, I can remember the existence of structure in my studies. From Pre-K to 12, my academic thoughts and curiosities were managed by a series of very well meaning teachers and instructors who told me the subjects I was going to learn, explore, and consider at different parts of the day. It may not have mattered that I wasn’t much for considering Shakespeare at 8:30 in the morning or math functions right after lunch at 1:45 or tackling a foreign language at the end of the day when I was tired of being at school; there was a schedule and I was beholden to it.

During those years (especially high school), I did as I was expected by my parents and teachers in order to do well on my report cards. But it was not a labor of love; it was a means to an end to get to the looser structure of college with its liberal schedule and hours that better matched my learning habits. Even when I went to the library, it was because I had an assignment or report that needed research and support. (i.e. I was indirectly told to go the library because the requirements of research for the report were necessary to gain a passing grade.)  Throughout the length of my academic career, I never went to the library on my own whims.

To this end, I think this is where the lacuna between schools and libraries exist; people either do not or cannot make the step from a structured learning environment of school to the free form inquiry of the library. When you have spent the new sum total of your formative years being told what you are going to think about and learn, how foreign would it be to given a learning environment that comes without such directions or constructs? Obviously some people can make the transition while others use us for the services that we offer (e.g. free internet, free newspapers), lest we would have been gone many years ago. Nor would I say that everyone is completely brainwashed into thinking only through direct prompting. But, I suggest that for greater numbers the library has less appeal without the instilled structure or guidance that has been carried hand in hand with their prior learning experiences.

One might look at this notion and ask, “Well, where does the Internet fall into this? It’s unstructured and people use it everyday.” I’m really not completely sure at the time of writing this post. I would surmise that the internet is more convenient for (what I would call) “surface curiosities”; that is, basic inquiries such as what today’s weather will be, the local or national news, what the family is up to, and so forth. I think the point of inflexion on the internet exists when there is a deeper understanding sought. Here, you can easily get into the invisible web, a point where the library can step in through databases and subject specific materials on a topic. The gap that exists here is one of perception. It is very easy to think that the web has everything with the ease of search engines; however, it is another thing when it comes to the merit of the results. The “all knowing” reputation of the internet supersedes the possiblity of asking for aid from the library. And as a result, people to not pass through our doors, call us on the phone, or even email us with their inquiry.

I’m not indifferent to the fact that there has to be some organization and structure when you are dealing with that many students at those ages with the variety of learning styles. Public education is a ‘one size fits most’ solution to providing knowledge to the greatest number of students with the least amount of variation in practice. But, if we are as serious as we proclaim to be about the education of our children, there certainly has to be a better way of doing it that balances maintaining an orderly school and allows exploration and inquiry that better matches a child’s natural inclinations.  A fostering of natural curiosity blurs the line between schools and libraries and makes the interchange between them more natural. (The left and right hands of education, if you will.)

To be fair, I only have my own educational experience to draw upon for these observations and I am certainly no expert in the fields of public education. However, I simply cannot shake this notion that my presumptions hold some greater validity. I would be delighted with either a correction or validation, for both would provide me with a more definitive answer.

Such is the price of my curiosity. :D

A Mighty Wind

This is an amazing interview clip. Take the eight minutes to watch it. My comments on it are afterward (and might make more sense after viewing the clip than without).

more about “ AMighty Wind“, posted with vodpod

It’s a great story about a young man who found something at the library that set off a chain of events that changed his village. It’s also a great story for librarians as an example of the importance of information access. Without access, our collections mean virtually little or nothing. Even with William’s limited access to library materials, he was able to find a piece of information that was of interest to him.

But, let’s be realistic about this: access to library materials in the United States is not a big issue. I concede there are some communities (both regional and demographic) that are underserved in this country; I concede that there are people who wish to remove materials from the library (as written about in a previous post); and I will concede that there are (especially this year) many libraries that suffer from funding gaps. But this doesn’t hold a candle to some of the information access obstacles that people face around the world (with an emphasis on developing nations and those with oppressive regimes). While we are quibbling here about what books can be read and how much funding equates to how many hours of operation, there are people out there who simply go without basic library-type services.

While it is not an equivalent evil of the denial of water or nourishment, it is a consumption tragedy of a different sort: food for thought. Yes, you can live without the library, but we cannot truly advance as a planetary population under unequal information footing. Library access falls under the much broader umbrella of world-wide education, a proven tonic for the ailments of poverty, intolerance, and oppression. And, more importantly, I believe it is something that within our collective grasp with the funding and the desire to work for it.

And that, as Shakespeare would say, is the rub; I haven’t a clue as to where the former aspect would come from nor the level of work that the latter would include. I’ve written this entry without much due diligence of checking to see if there are organizations or NGOs that work towards this issue. However, I do have a direction and that’s a start. I will try not to think about it the next time a customer argues about a $2 fine on an overdue book, resisting the urge to tell them that they are lucky to have this sort of access to materials in the first place (I never liked it when my parents told me to finish my plate because there are people starving in the world), but it will remind me to keep working towards it. And with movement in the right direction, hopefully, comes motion towards greater change.

Edit: William’s TedTalk. Pretty awesome as well.

To Boldly Go…

Image by darkmatter/Flickr Last month, there was the widely reported story about a private school in Massachusetts that removed all of its books from its library. (I’ve written about it before here.) Later, it became clear that other departments had the chance to take books from the collection before the rest were removed. There was a lot of discussion in the online library community about the move and brought up the integral question: can a library exist without books?

For those who can’t imagine a library without books, that kind of future has already been visualized. This was my recent epiphany watching reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation on Sci-Fi (I refuse to call it SyFy). As I watched the crew of the Enterprise deal with the episode’s problem, I could not help but notice the use of handheld devices, people reading nearly exclusively from monitors during their down time, and a computer system of near infinite cultural material storage and retrieval. And so here it was on the screen in front of me: a popular, highly regarded vision of a future space based society and nary a book to be found. The few books that do appear are highly prized personal possessions described by their owner as having been passed down from other family members or some other sentimental reason. No one ever appears to use their fabulous replicator technology to have a book created. They are content to use their view screens or handheld devices to do any reading. There is no ship library nor librarian nor even a information officer on a space ship that was reported to carry over 1,000 people. It simply did not exist within the confines of the Star Trek universe. And yet, it is an advanced and complex thriving intellectual and curious society that continues to push the boundaries of knowledge.

Of course, it’s a science fiction series, not an actual depiction of the future. But what may seem depressing to some who read this, I see the ultimate in information interfaces. Upon second glance, this future meets some of the very needs that we want for our customers now. Information is instant, free, and on demand. The computer acts as a reference librarian with a vast database of all forms of knowledge; a person can make factual inquiries as well as user defined analytical requests as well. The holodecks take visual learning and content immersion to a whole new level of information presentation. The closest we get to this future vision is the handheld reading devices of the 1987 series that have an eerie resemblance to the modern handheld e-reader devices. And I would guess that someone has to program the computer and instruct it how to store and organize information lest the whole system become too unwieldy.

The truth of this future vision is that the entity of the library has wholly integrated itself into the daily lives of society. (Or, to take the line from that awesome library video, “everywhere is here”.) There is no need for a library as its own space when access is universal at the personal level. Effectively, in this future vision, librarians have been put out of business by a society that has realized the goals that we strive for now. Can this presentation of the 23rd century be any more of a positive reinforcement of the principles and goals of librarianship?

While I was writing this, I couldn’t help but think about Steven Bell’s article on the Library Journal website, “We need a new Sputnik”. While he was addressing the future research function in academic libraries, it really got me thinking about the types of changes that should be considered for the future public library. I’m going to think about it for now since it deserves its own post. But it has certainly lit my imagination afire with the promise and potential. How can we go from where we are now to make this aspect of a future vision a reality?