Your Library Will Go On… But…

Some time ago, this little fascinating article rolled through one of the sites I frequent talking about a theory that ultra-rare celestial alignment led to a much larger than normal high tide that could have refloated larger icebergs that eventually made their way into the path of the Titanic. The part that really gets me is that this event happened on January 4th, a full three months before that night in April. Ironically, at the same time the lifeboats were being installed on the ship, its demise had begun its journey slowly off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. I’ve always had a fascination with the convergence of events  and how people and things come together all in the same place at once. If not for this particular event at this particular time of the year, the ship would be a modest entry in historical ship construction books. James Cameron’s fame and fortune might be linked to a movie called Lusitania.

It’s this preoccupation with convergence that has me looking at some of the technologies of the past fifteen or so years that will have significant impact (no pun intended) on libraries in the next few years. While there is no killer iceberg that will sink the Library ship, I do see some technologies that are knocking off particular aspects that have been maintained by the library over the years.

Take the development of the internet search engine which started years ago with names like Alta Vista and Webcrawler. Combined with the content that has been added over time, it has effectively killed off the Trivial Pursuit portion of ready reference. You don’t need to consult with Encyclopedia of Left Handed Victorian Irish Farmers when a simply query in Google or Bing can bring back the answer faster than you can lumber out of the reference desk chair. Even mid ranged questions with more in-depth answers can be handled in the same manner depending on the topic, thus depleting some of the inquiries to the reference desk being either (1) unable to search for themselves, (2) announce that they are too lazy and want you to look it up for them, or (3) actually require some expertise to sift through the answers to find credible results. Even while (3) justifies the existence of a reference desk, the first two do not pose a strong case for its continued purpose in answering inquiries.

The search engine has killed off some of the more mundane reference desk inquiries, shifting it to a faster DIY usage. This is not a bad thing since it promotes self sufficiency, but it represents an aspect of the traditional library service that has fallen victim to one of these smaller proverbial icebergs.

Are there other icebergs you see that are chipping away at the ole Library vessel here? What developments are finally coming into their own now and replacing or reducing a previous library aspect?

Augmented Library Reality

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

From Shelf Check last month:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(h/t: The Civil Librarian)

The Reports of Our Professional Deaths Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

In no uncertain terms, the funding that supports our profession has taken beating on both the local and national level. This year, there will be cuts, layoffs, and closures despite our best lobbying efforts. But while there will be less money going around in the public and private sector for the next couple of years, an article I got today from my Twitter friends really made me think that there will be a upcoming shift as to where information management and interpretation skills will be needed.

The article by the Economist entitled “Data, data everywhere” talks about the skyrocketing growth in the sheer volume of information. I’m not shy to admit that it used prefixes to the word –byte that I had never heard of; it’s staggering on a scale that is breathtaking. According to Cisco systems, “[b]y 2013 the amount of traffic flowing over the internet annually will reach 667 exabytes” (or 667,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes or 1/3rd of a zetabyte).

That’s a lot of bytes. Eventually, I presume they will have to start smashing other Greek words together to make up new prefixes.

Aside from this momentary levity, I think this presents an emerging opportunity for information professionals (such as librarians) to shift gears in the way that they approach and treat information. The other quotation that made me sit up in my chair was from Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist.

Data, he explains, are widely available; what is scarce is the ability to extract wisdom from them.

There is an economic value to the management, storage, indexing, and retrieval of this relentless data creation. In addition, there is greater value for being able to analyze and interpret it as well as being able to translate or explain it to others. This data, in quantities not seen before in the long story of humanity, means little to nothing if it cannot be arranged or deciphered.

“The data-centred economy is just nascent,” admits Mr Mundie of Microsoft. “You can see the outlines of it, but the technical, infrastructural and even business-model implications are not well understood right now.”

Take a moment to read the article and see what I mean. While some roles of librarianship will remain the same moving ahead, the nature of information is morphing. It’s on the move, expanding at an exponential rate. Perhaps Seth Godin was right about one thing; this new data world will need sherpas. And that should be us.

Tuesday Night Deep Thought: Information Future?

Today I found myself pondering the following question:

“Where will information content be in five years? Ten years?”

And after a long bout of deliberation this evening, I couldn’t really come up with an answer. I think that’s part of our professional problem, really. I can’t think of one person who has more than the most speculative of an educated guess. I’m sure there are some who might read this and take umbrage at this statement, thinking that they are or know someone who could provide an answer. But my guess is that if we were to take the answers, seal them in an envelope, place them in a time capsule, and open them in five or ten years, they would be mostly (if not completely) wrong. (There could be a wager in this, I reckon.)

In thinking about the future, I did a survey of the past. I took a look at some of the sites I use now (and some related ones) to acquire a proverbial snapshot at what existed, what just started, and what was yet to be five years ago. Here are the results:

  • Established five or more years ago: Amazon, Blogger, Livejournal, Delicious, StumbleUpon, Google Picasa, LinkedIn, Wikipedia, WordPress, LISNews, TinyURL.
  • Infancy/just started five years ago: Gmail, Facebook, Bebo, Flickr, Yelp, Netvibes, Ning, Reddit, Library Thing, Digg, Kayak, Vimeo, Newsvine, Renren (formerly Xiaonei; it’s the world’s largest social network based in China).
  • Didn’t exist five years ago: Google Calendar, Reader, & Maps; YouTube, Twitter, Friendfeed, Tumblr, Diigo, Foursquare, Jaiku, Plurk, Good Reads, Brightkite, Scribd, Hulu, Fancast.

This doesn’t mention the leaps in technologies like mobile phones (iPhone, 2008) or e-readers (Kindle, 2007) within this time period, nevermind the announcements of the last few months (the iPad and the Nook). Nor does it include the general decline in printed newspaper and periodical readership that has trended during this time period. And, to toss something else into the mix, it doesn’t account for the change in design of library spaces that make them more community oriented (this would be more of something of the last ten to fifteen years, give or take).

There is simply a lot of things going on; too much, I believe, for anyone to grasp in terms of the big picture. And I think it’s time that the librarian community admits that we really don’t know where exactly information content is going to end up in that time. Sure, we can say where it will be in the short short scale of maybe a year, perhaps two, but beyond that is lost to us.

Am I wrong?

(Edit: Fixed a spelling mistake.)

Re: Nothing is the Future

This is a reaction post of “Nothing is the Future” by Wayne Bivens-Tatum (Academic Librarian).

While my astute professional peer makes excellent points concerning the hyperbole in library technology trends, I feel that there is an excellent lesson to his post: while librarians can and should act as leaders for their patrons, they should also be followers and listeners. I see librarians as bridging the gap between the past and future, interacting on a medium of the patron’s choosing. While we should have an eye to emerging technologies to gauge their development and adoption by society as a whole, it behooves us to remain mindful of the established and accepted communication mediums. Yes, there are marvels of the digital age and certainly things that librarians should be aware of[1], but it is folly to set sights constantly on the horizon to the detriment of what currently exists and works.

In following, it is not for our patrons to take us to a brand new technologies, but to remind us of the merits of existing ones. As Mr. Bivens-Tatum simply states, people still interact with the library using letters, telephone, and other last established technologies. There should be no rush to usher to declare these mediums dead in the favor of what holds the current fancy of the technological vanguard. In listening to what patrons want and use, we are performing the most basic function of the library: giving people what they actually asking for. Simply put, it is the act of matching the demand that the patrons have articulated to us as a wanted and desired material or service.

To this end, my take on Mr. Bivens-Tatum’s blog title would change it to “People are the Future”. In the greater picture, our existence is constantly in their hands. At the local level, they will always (hopefully) tell us what can be done to meet their needs. Whether this is a mobile app or extended weekend hours, only the community that we serve can answer that question. People are the future for libraries, for they are the ones who dictate our services, programs, collections, and, ultimately, our fates.


[1] Personally, I don’t take all of the Library 101 RTK list literally. I don’t think that librarians need to know how Hulu works (to use the most infamous example), but the important takeaway is that this presents a trend of television on demand via the internet (something very worthy of notice as all forms of television and movie content make their way to online). Same goes for a lot of the named products, sites, and items on that list. The 101 RTK list gives an excellent heads-up to some of the emerging trends in information and communication.

Enjoy the Silence

Photo by SuvikoThere’s an opinion piece on the Christian Science Monitor website that’s been making the rounds on Twitter and various RSS feeds. A librarian in Texas by the name of William H. Wisner wrote an opinion piece called “Restore the noble purpose of libraries”. And if I read it correctly, the library needs to (1) restore the silence of the library by removing any technology that makes any noise, including ones carried by patrons; (2) remove any form of visual, audio, or interactive technology from the children’s section; (3) librarians need to learn books to the point of oral recitation, regardless of specialty; (4) comes to grips with the fact that libraries are popular because they are free despite our professional ethics which tout that we provide access to all regardless of their ability to provide supporting payment; and (5) that we stop being “information scientists” and start being scholars again through rote memorization of printed materials so we can once again love and defend our societal purpose.

Or, the funnier way of summarizing his article:

I need to stop prostituting myself, learn Middle English, write humorous non-existent interviews with celebrities who used to date while handing out beverages to make the library “personalized” again and restore the public trust.

Either way you look at it, it’s a strange theory.

To his credit, I will now grin like an idiot while I’m refilling the paper to the printer. While I whore myself to the paper beast, I will relish in the idea that the reason the printer is empty is that people decided to print out timely  and relevant information and take it with them. Quite frankly, that’s all the more reason to construct library based mobile applications so that people can reach the same information on their noisy cell phone or noisy laptop. Or more reason for me to teach classes so that people learn how to use all of the library sources from home so they can print on their own paper. Or just embrace a combined format approach that yields the best resource or information regardless of the medium. Or, heck, for that matter, I’ll give them whatever literature work they want in whatever format they want: print, large print, even audio!

By my own admission, I’m not much of a reader. So I will confess that all of these new audio, video, and interactive technologies for children make me pretty jealous. I really had to struggle with reading, not because I was bad at it or suffered a disability, but because it wasn’t as interesting compared to watching or hearing the work. Oh sure, we can dismiss decades worth of studies on the different learning habits of children and just stick with reading. My brain and character certainly aren’t much worse for it after all these years. But I’m not going to work at a library with that kind of children’s section. I’ll be over at the fun library with the games, the videos, and the noisy interaction and enjoy the more progressive learning models.

I’m sad to say that my library doesn’t offer free coffee. Sure, I could lament the fact that people love us because we are free and then proceed to give away something for free, but I’d rather not sully the incredible dividends that taxpayers get from their investment. Nor would I care to disparage all of the free adult and children programming offered that enriches the lives of the patrons who use it. Far be it from me to possibly heap any more disgrace on the dedicated professionals in the field who work longer hours with more responsibilities for stagnant or shrinking wages and benefits because of the love they hold for their patrons and profession. To be fair, I’m sure some of them also offer free coffee.

Mr. Wisner is certainly welcome to his opinion and the enjoyment that he gets from handing out coffee while building relationships by chatting about Proust or Picasso with students and faculty. As for me, you can find me in the future where information architecture and communication networks interact so as to provide seamless content delivery and global sharing of user derived content  while providing the highest level of patron interaction and satisfaction. Oh, there will be books there too. Print is not dead, just it’s business model.

(And if you too enjoyed his opinion piece, you can check out the preview of his book “Wither the postmodern library?” on Google Books. If irony was chocolate, this would be Godiva.