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.

the search for the next big thing, ctd.

Yesterday, this article about the Top Provocative Tech Trends came across my Google Reader. The short short version of the article would sound like this: go mobile; embrace open source, open content, and user generated content. As to the first, the timing couldn’t possibly be better for my library system as we had been chosen for a text message marketing pilot program. This program has never been done in the United States and, needless to say, we are excited to be a part of it. It appeals to my science background as I get to approach it like a giant experiment. While we are certainly hoping it will work, even any mistakes we make are tiny victories for the learning process. We are aiming to roll this out on the first week of August. (Which, oddly enough, coincides with my week of vacation.) Today, I did an interview with a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer about the program; the article will appear in tomorrow’s New Jersey section.

Not to parrot the experts on the Tech panel, but mobile is only going to get bigger and better as the technology cycles churn. Libraries are need to start the steps of moving to where our patrons are and that future is web ready phones, PDAs, and other smart phones. I remember the reporter asking me if one of the goals of the program was to get people to come into the library. My reply was something like this: while we would love to see more people in the library, we’d also love for people to be able to use the library resources no matter where they are. I think this took her slightly aback, but it’s the truth: access counts. And I certainly hope that this program is a baby step into the larger mobile forum for the system. It’s a whole new ballgame, as they say, when you can connect people to the help, service, or materials they want with the ease of a text message.

Picture by Travelin' Librarian As to the last three points (since they interrelate), the malleable nature of open source and user generated content will be the fuel of future library experiences. We need the agility of these formats versus the static evolutions of vendor derived content. It’s really that simple. This is a real time information environment; and while I’m sure there is a vendor who can show me that they can do something like that, why even involve them in the first place? There will be no reason to maintain a service request chain that is patron-library-vendor when the best solution will be a locally implemented solution tailored to the problem and the library. It’s a paradigm shift that needs to happen and the sooner the better.

User generated content is where it is at, now and in the foreseeable future. The tools are so simple a child can make and share their creations (and they have). Each software cycle brings us better tools for better interactivity, stoking the collective creative furnaces of users. Just as the library community embraces collaboration across the profession, there is certainly room for our patrons to join this process. People always want more and we certainly should give it to them. As I said earlier, the tools are there. Let’s starting using them.

Fight the Power 2.0

It was earlier this year when I realized that the song in the video above, “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, was twenty years old. I remember when I was first introduced to Public Enemy back in high school. My friend Adam put on the album “Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black” while we were playing video and board games. It was the first time I had been exposed to hip hop and shortly thereafter it became the first hip hop album I bought. I had never listened to any band with a social and political agenda before Public Enemy. “By the time I get to Arizona”, “Can’t Truss It”, and “Shut’em Down” were like shots being fired across my world perception bow born from my very mundane suburban living. I knew things were not right in the urban community, but I had never heard it told from street perspective. This cultural grain of salt has stayed with me through the years. However, like a lot of my fickle music interests as a teen, the album got heavy play for a month and then retired to a CD folder, rarely to be heard again.

I’ve been thinking about “Fight the Power” recently since I bought the Public Enemy retrospective “Power to the People”. I’ve been playing it on my iPod when I’ve been working on ideas for the library that has been resisted in the past. While the song is more closely identified with a call for racial equality, I thought this article from Salon about the song and its impact said it best: “When Public Enemy called us to battle, it revived the notion that it just might be possible to fight the system. At the very least, we knew it was necessary.”

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been keenly following the state budget battle out in Ohio. Governor Strickland had announced a 50% cut in funding to libraries as part of his proposed budget. Since a majority of libraries are state supported, this would mean the crippling and/or closing of many libraries around the state. I’ve joined and contributed to the Save Ohio Libraries Facebook group that was set up in order to organize rallies, distribute state legislator contacts, and public lobbying of the Governor. The genesis of this group has been phenomenal as it gained over 20,000 members in the first week (the current tally as of the time of this post is roughly 45,000). It is full of photos, links, video, and active postings on the wall and in the discussion boards. While I have not received a message from the group creator, I have been checking it (as well as following #saveohionlibraries on Twitter) for updates as to how things are working out. I can’t say that my posting presence on this massive group has gone unnoticed.

The other night, I got a Facebook message from an Ohio resident which read:

Why posting about Ohio libraries if u r in NJ? My grandchild here in Cleveland can lose her storytime, yours?

My reply to her was:

Because libraries are important, regardless of state borders. I just want to show my support!
NJ has some budget cuts, but we aren’t in the same trouble as Ohio libraries!

Her last message thanked me for my involvement, but this whole series of events has been fascinating. This certainly is not the first time that social media has risen to a grassroots cause, but it was the first time I experienced it from a front row seat. It held me in rapt attention in the evening for most of last week as the number of group members climbed and people started offering their words, links, and other forms of support. In concert with libraries all over the state and the Ohio Library Council, this virtual march ran as a prelude to actual ones. These Buckeyes, proud and defiant, have focused the outrage of the populace into political action. (As of the time of writing, the budget is still in the air.)

As engrossing as this whole situation was to watch unfold in the belly of social media, it was during a drive up to work where I had a thought that gave me significant pause: why is it that the library community can be this organized and passionate when it comes to budget battles and less visible during other times? (With the exception of book challenges, possibly.) Does it take being pushed to the brink of non-existence to ignite the fire in our bellies for our profession and rally the public to our noble cause? What can be done now to prevent putting ourselves in this position in the future?

As it can be expected, I have a few ideas.

We need to radically reframe the public and political dialogue about libraries. How? By advocating that libraries are an essential service of a modern industrialized society. Information literacy has become a new set of basic skills for people living in the developed world. Even if a job does not require them, it is more than likely you will need them to apply to that job as businesses move their employment applications online. Data is the new goal of our hunting and gathering ways, whether it is to determine the lowest airfare available, how to contact an old friend, or find out what the weather will be like tomorrow. Our materials (print, video, audio, web) are fuel for the human curiosity engine that resides in all of us.

We educate, enrich, and enhance the lives of our patrons. Whether it is through materials or programs, computers or classes, or simply being there for our patrons when they are looking for someone to talk to, libraries matter to their communities. There is no private or government entity nor internet service or website that equates to the personal service we offer or the depth and breadth of information we can access. Our role in society is unduplicated, unequaled, and undisputed in this new age of information.

Therefore, we are essential.

In order to broadcast this type of message, it is pressing that we believe in it ourselves. There can be no false enthusiasm or facade to this belief; it must be complete and genuine. Personally, in seeing the passion presented by my peers at conferences and gatherings, this is perhaps the easiest aspect that I am proposing. However, I can see how it would be a true barrier in a world that minimizes and marginalizes the very mission of the library. It is imperative to rise above the critics, to instill ourselves with confidence about our restless profession, and to take pride for our service and toil on behalf of our patrons. For if we don’t believe that we are essential to the public, why should they believe it themselves?

From this, I see the hardest yet most rewarding part: a sustained public movement towards the safeguarding and custodianship of the public library and its ideals. While moving towards this goal can feel Herculean, we are already surrounded by the necessary building blocks.

Some of these are more familiar and “traditional” methods of building relationships with the community by getting to know your patrons and politicians. A Friend’s group can work as an extension of the library as each member becomes an ambassador of the library. Local media in the form of newspapers and radio stations provide a broadcast platform to reach out to the community. Encourage local politicians to define a stance on the library and library funding and invite them to come and see the collection for themselves. In addition, any marketing campaign that can be run (alone or in conjunction with a Friend’s group) at the community level should work to raise the visibility of the library. These tried and true methods are pretty universal for libraries around the country.

Picture by Matt Hamm

On the other hand, there are the exciting new methods possible through web 2.0 social media. Witnessing the growth and development of the Save Ohio Libraries Facebook group has really reinforced this concept with me. For the price of time and effort, you can create content that can be used to reach out and interact with patrons far beyond the walls of the library. It is this extension into the lives of our patrons as a relevant and important service that will ensure the survival of the local library in the future. It latches onto the underlying appeal of constant and immediate contact as offered by text messages, email, and Facebook or Twitter-like updates. With the improvement of our communication technologies, this is the opportunity to groom this technological type of relationship with people. As communication methods grow, as different types of web based social networking appear, and as the product of information evolves, the library needs to be in step with these advances. Our patrons are moving along with the improvements, and so should we.

The difference between the traditional methods and web 2.0 social media is that the latter is more personal since the conversation never ends. Beyond the aforementioned constant contact, it becomes a part of the information lifestyle that people have grown accustomed. We meld into the other popular web services that people use to manage their daily lives. The ability to order groceries online coincides with placing materials on hold; watching YouTube becomes no different than watching a movie on Overdrive; and calling or emailing the reference desk is seen as an upgraded internet search. Not only are the tools on hand, but there are more being developed and refined with each passing software innovation cycle. Twitter, Jaiku, Facebook, Myspace, Flickr, Picasa, Blogger, Livejournal, these are examples of social media of today; can you imagine what is down the road from these illustrious starting points? We will never lose the personal touch that is exemplified by more traditional patron relationships, but we should work to enhance it through the communication and information technological wonders of social media.

For librarians looking towards the future of the public library, now is the time to create our own functional social networks for advocacy. Now is the time to forge new friendships and connections with librarians both local and national. And now is the time to share experiences and knowledge resources when it comes to organizing the library grassroots. It is through these bonds that we can support one another during the inevitable crises that play out across the country when the ideals of intellectual freedom are endangered, when our content is challenged, and when our very existence in the community is threatened. Librarians call upon each other to help with a reference question; how can we not call upon others to help one another weather the ideological storms? Our professional egalitarian ideals should not mean that we treat everyone equally yet suffer all of the hardships alone. We are now one immense information sharing entity, intricately connected through phone and ethernet. The closing of one library is a loss of a unique community resource to the whole system and we should treat it as such.

This is not a call to replace specialty or state library associations in their advocacy roles, but to supplement them. Our assets are thousands of additional eyes and ears with computer savvy capable of finding and reporting information back to the others. It is an intelligence network staffed by passionate library professionals that extends wherever a library stands. With the increasing ease of user content creation, information sharing has never been easier for those who are bold enough to utilize it. This is a strength that we should seek to use for the benefit of libraries from coast to coast.

(In terms of the ALA, at least one person I know doesn’t think that the ALA is doing enough. I don’t really know enough about the organization to make any declarative statements, but I have been watching for their actions and words during the Ohio budget crisis.)

I realize in closing that the latter half of this post is more passion than substance in calling for a change in our collective course of action. But passion is the unquenchable thirst that drives each and every one of us to go farther and reach higher, whether as a librarian, an athlete, a parent, or just to be a better person. And library advocacy has become my passion, much in the same way that you can hear it in the voices of the testimonials in this video from NYPL.org:

So, I say to you, dear reader, who is with me?

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.