Why Libraries Kick Ass

This is my entry for the Louisville Free Public Library Blogathon. Check out the story behind the blogathon here at the wiki. You can donate the Louisville Free Public Library Foundation by clicking banner below.

I’m going to go out on a limb, but I’m guessing that the majority of the my librarian peers do not have a bachelor’s in biology like I do. My path to biology started at the end of high school with the all important question: what do you want to do in college? My initial inclination was to study physical therapy; it was science based, I got to work with my hands, and I got to help people. I didn’t see myself as someone who would work in an office from 9 to 5 or even a lab, for that matter. But, as things turned out, physical therapy was not for me. This came at the end of my sophomore year and put me in a dilemma: I didn’t want to change majors, I didn’t want to “waste” some of the classes I had taken, and I still wanted something that would meet the previously mentioned criteria. I meandered with classes within the basic biology degree requirements for a year, but I was still very uncertain as to what to do. At the start of my senior year, I took the required “plant” class; it was a core requirement that each biology student take Botany or Introduction to Plants. I took the former since I had heard that the latter was deadly dull. And it was a fortuitous turn; I loved the plant physiology part of the class and that, after college, I wanted to work with plants. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but having some direction instead of none was a better feeling and guided my class choices as I finished my degree.

After college, I worked for a pair of commercial nurseries in the area over the course of three years. I was fired from each, but it was the parting words of one of the owners of the second business that sparked my path towards library science. He said, “Andy, there are other things in this world that you seem to have more of an interest in. We’re wondering why you’re not doing that.” He was right; while I liked what I did and was able to do it, I didn’t love it. So I started trying to find something I did love. This lead to a year in law school. During the summer after this first year, commiserating about being on academic probation, Kathy (my wife) was talking about becoming a librarian. She was an assistant master electrician at the Delaware Theater Company, but she always had an interest in it. She was looking at taking some classes from Clarion University since they taught Saturday classes at the Philadelphia Free Public Library. That fall, she signed up for a class. When she came back in the evening, she talked about class with such feeling and excitement that it made me think about following her into the field. In the middle of the fall that year, we made the commitment to move out to Clarion, go through grad school, get our MLS’s, and come back as librarians.

And the rest, they say, is history. And I told you that story so as I can tell you why I think libraries kick ass. As a biologist, I believe libraries are in midst of exciting and rapid evolving. Allow me to explain.

If the library was an organism, it would have had a long period of time in which there wasn’t much change. Going back through time to the early age of recorded history, it was a niche resource of learning and information storage available to those who were educated and could afford it. The introduction of the printing press and moveable type created a small time blip on the evolutionary development of the library, but only in that it allowed the educated elite to collect books from other parts of the printing world. Library collections were still private as the the property of the state, nobility, or universities.

Only within the last hundred years, with the spread of literacy and the notion of public education, the library has started to evolve. Communities built libraries to house shared literature and educational resources for the common good. What was once only available to the select few was now available to the general public. This stayed about the same for the better part of a century before technological innovations changed everything.

It is here, within the last twenty five years, that the evolution of the modern library fascinates me. The explosion of communication innovations and modern computation powers have quickly created a new global network of information exchange. The library has been forced to rapidly evolve to incorporate these new tools and technology into our collection. In doing so, librarians have become inventors and innovators looking to dissolve barriers to access, to create simpler presentation models, and to generate awareness to the global information network that exists. These rapid short term changes of the library evolution represent a new age of humanity as the global village finally forms on the basis of true knowledge and understanding: an unfettered idea and information exchange.

This is why libraries kick ass. We are evolving along with the speed of innovation cycles, bringing new approaches and tools as to how we collect, store, and retrieve information in all its forms. There are few things in this world that remain remote, that cannot be reached in one medium or another, and for the first time in history, we have the clearest picture as to what our global neighbors look, sound, and think like. Libraries continue to grow, evolve, and move forward in this bold new information age. There is nothing more exciting to be standing at the precipice of the expansion of human knowledge and to know that this is only the beginning. This is why libraries matter, this is why libraries are integral, and this is why libraries kick ass.

Addendum: I am estimating that there was about 77 people who participated in the blogathon, including 50 students from The Unquiet Librarian‘s two media classes. I wish I could gauge what kind of fund raising this created, but I did get a nice spike in blog traffic. Hopefully that translated into some donations for the library. Keep an eye on Steve Lawson’s blog to see how his ‘write a big check for the LFPL’ cause went!

Social Media for Social Good

Last evening, I attend an event called Social Media for Social Good hosted by the Philadelphia chapter of the Social Media Club. I had learned of this event through a Facebook posting of one of its members. This event highlighted how social media tools were being used to promote charities in the areas; specifically, Blame Drew’s Cancer, Philadelphia Twestival, and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. I am curious to see how other types of groups and individuals approach the tools and technology.

In turn, each speaker got up and gave a brief overview of what they are using to get the word out on their cause. Overall, there was a lot of talk of Twitter, of organization websites, and a smattering of Facebook groups. In a way, I was disappointed; I had hoped that there would be some sort of gem of a website or tool that I had not heard of but would really rock my world. But, in listening to the other people at the event speak, it also gave me a good barometer of the things people were using, how they were using it, and to what success. While I had not discovered something new and radical, it was a nice reassurance that all of my promotional efforts are hitting the same places that some of the professional consultants are using.

My biggest takeaway from the event was from the group itself; here is a room full of people looking to use social media and web tools to assist those in need. Could this sort of enterprise be duplicated in the library community? My instincts tell me that it could; the example I would look to is the Save Ohio Libraries phenomena. With a Facebook group, Twitter hashtag, Flickr account, and intuitive website with their compelling story, they mustered thousands of people to rally for their cause. I can’t help but believe that it had an impact on the budget process, even if the cuts passed were still devastating.

But in looking at other budget fights that are being broadcast on Twitter and Facebook, they don’t seem to have the same “oompf” to it. Pennsylvania has the second best response to news that I’ve seen, but there wasn’t much in the way of tweets or retweets beyond the initial story. Searches of Facebook groups for states in the news with library cuts reveals a smattering with small numbers. When I go to the corresponding state’s library association website, there is a simple notice and a plea for action.

Photo by Andrea Nay/Flickr In taking a step back and looking at the different events, I’m not sure why one is succeeding like crazy and the others are limping along. Perhaps Ohio had the biggest “sticker shock” of the state budgets; you really can’t beat having someone slash a budget in half to induce outrage and the desire to take action. Maybe Ohio had a much more hardcore series of library professionals on Twitter who were diligent about tweeting and retweeting budget information, calls for actions, and rally recaps all under the same hashtag. A group with a vested interest in the results who could tell the story of the Ohio budget battle. Likewise for the joining and sharing of the Facebook group which grew to over 50,000 people over a period of two weeks. There was a focused purpose to the whole endeavor: getting people involved with a definitive goal in mind.

In looking at the other library based causes, my inclination is to say that they suffer from a lack of visibility and organization at the grassroots level. There is a vast difference between asking someone to write to their representative versus asking someone to write to their representative, sign up an online petition, join this Facebook group, check out a website, and be sure to follow the news on Twitter. (To a degree, this has been a topic of conversation in one of my NJLA groups.) It has to be more than a plea for help; it has to draw people in, get them involved, and to move together as one.

But getting back to the group that filled that Temple University classroom and the question asked a few paragraphs back, what would it take to create a similar group of library advocates? I have a few thoughts but I want to map them out over the next couple of days. I think the time for networks that are broader than state lines is coming; I see it as inevitable as our connections between libraries grow greater.

Young Librarian Project

Leah White has started a multimedia project for young librarians called (oddly enough) the Young Librarian Series. With an emphasis on Gen X and Gen Y librarians, it is looking to address what it is like to be a newcomer to the field. Whether it is covering personal experiences or projects being worked on, Leah is hoping to develop it as a librarian community going forward towards our shared future.

Michael Stephens is hosting the project’s space on his website, Tame the Web. Here’s the ‘welcome’ video that Leah has posted.

I’ve contacted her about doing a post for the upcoming blogathon benefit for the Louisville Free Public Library. We are talking about a couple of other entries to do for the project, so stay tuned.

By the by, there is still plenty of room for people to sign up for the blogathon. Check out the wiki for details!

Casualty of the Health Care Debate

Photo by The One True b!x

Photo by The One True b!x/Flickr

There exists another casualty of the health care debate: information literacy.

Regardless of the side of the debate that one subscribes to (but seen more noticeably by health care opponents), there exists a litany of misinformation paraded around as fact when a simple search through a newspaper, the internet, or other contemporary news source would immediately refute it. As a librarian, it pains me to see so many individuals failing to do the most basic of vetting when it comes to claims about health care reform. Has society grown so lazy as to accept wild and outrageous allegations on their face value? Has critical examination of presented evidence in a political forum become passe? For all the people who make assertions about not trusting politicians, they should expand that same policy to those who make recitations in the political arena. Rigorous political debate is a proud heritage of this country, but when participants spout proven falsehoods as fact, it is downright embarrassing.

I’m certain there are people in the health care debate forum who also decry the state of our education system, but they themselves are not a role model for the information literacy that they want for their children and grandchildren. Politically charged soundbites, chain propaganda emails, and rife word of mouth speculation do not replace an actual education on an issue as important as health care.

Blogathon on behalf of the Louisville Public Library

A week or so ago, I was sent a link to Steve Lawson’s blog post about the flood in the main branch of the Louisville Free Public Library in Louisville, Kentucky. They had four to six feet of water in their basement, destroying and damaging an estimated five million dollars worth of materials and equipment. Steve has been collecting money on behalf of the Library Society of the World and plans on writing them one big check of the collected funds on September 1st. Steve’s noble gesture got me to thinking of a way to increase visibility of this fundraising effort. Thus, the idea of a blogathon on behalf of the Louisville FPL was born.

I have set up a wiki for this undertaking. Those who are interested can get the full details at the wiki, but here’s the short short version: make a donation to the Louisville Free Public Library Foundation, register at the wiki, advertise the blogathon with your social media and real life peers, write a post based on the selected common theme, and place that post on your blog on Monday August 31st.

Pretty easy!

Sign up at the wiki and start spreading the word! Let’s give the Louisville staff something to cheer about in September! It’s the best kind of karma: good karma!

Donate today!

I can’t wait to read the entries on the 31st!

Right Here, Right Now

This little gem of a YouTube clip came across my Google Reader as a gift from a fellow librarian blog, The MLX Experience. A video on social media set to a Fatboy Slim song? Yes please!

I wouldn’t say that the content surprised me but it did affirm some of my personal hunches. (I would be interested to know where some of the statistics cited originated.) I was surprised that it was a teaser for a book; a four minute ad entertained me when most thirty second ads bore me. Perhaps it because I am the target audience for the ad, but that is is a whole different issue.

The big takeaway for myself from this video is the word “mobile”. Not simply that libraries need to be on cell phones, but that we should be converting our content delivery to be completely mobile. We can create a deeper partnership with the USPS to expand delivery of books, music, and movies to their homes. We can create social network presences to field reference questions on the web and text. We should utilize all of the communication, all of the delivery methods, and all of the social networks to makes library content as widely available as possible.

This is not a call for the physical dismantling of the library, but a revision of how we do business. The flip side of this equation is making the library a true destination, a place where patrons are rewarded with events, classes, and those things that do not translate through the mail or the web. And it has to be personal, from how they are treated to the sitting areas to the computer lounges. While this last part might be a sacrifice to utility, there must be emphasis on the patron experience. This new world of social connection demands it, for to ignore the potential reputation damage would be folly.

Like this website, like the program I used to compose this post, like the computer I am using to write these words, all of the tools are available to make this happen. We just need to put it together.

The String Theory of Reference Interviews

Quite frankly, most of the reference desk interactions I have with patrons are pretty rote: material requests, program registration, basic library policy questions, and assistance with whatever piece of technology that is currently misbehaving. But it is the minority of questions and requests that keep my librarian heart warm, for they invoke the exchange known simply as “the reference interview”. This question and answer dialogue is what I live for in this profession; a chance to unravel a mystery, to make the highly unlikely possible, and to make the connection between a patron and their inquiry. Even then, the process is generally short lived. The majority of patrons offer enough clues so you can determine what they are looking for and either be able to deliver or inform them of alternatives.

In the past, I’ve taken a bunch of different approaches in explaining the art of reference interview to a non-librarian. The most common was likening it to a game of 20 Questions. While it has been a somewhat satisfactory explanation to me, all the exceptions and variations I inevitably end up throwing in make it feel clunky. Then, when I was out getting lunch today, I had a quasi-science nerd moment: the reference interview operates in five distinct dimensions. This immediately reminded me of string theory, a scientific concept which describes the universe in roughly ten dimensions. (Yes, this is an oversimplification, so read the Wikipedia article if you really want to know more specifics.) Within this theory, there are four observable dimensions: length, width, height, and time; the remaining six cannot be detected directly. With my idea of a five dimensional reference interview, there are similar four observable dimensions and one subjective dimension. As I enjoying likening concepts to one another, please indulge me as I use some of the same names to explain what I mean.

Photo by Rainer Ebert/Flickr

Length in a reference interview is the number of places searched. This can be both physical (different book sections & stacks) and virtual (online catalog, websites, databases, etc.). This can be a single place or numerous locations based on the obscurity of the inquiry and the success of the search. This is where our experience and expertise in accessing the best resource are put to the test; it can also be a learning experience as we find new tools to answer questions.

Width in a reference interview is the number of types of searches made. While most inquiries can be satisfied via author or title search, reference librarians know that subject topic questions can create multiple searches in order to attempt to check all potential resources. It is a test of our recollection of indexing and subject terms, pseudonyms and alternate spellings, and multiple ways of labeling the same thing that guide us through the different search types. It is an exercise in thinking laterally (no pun intended); some searches require us to approach the inquiry from multiple direction.

Height (or depth) in a reference interview is how specific the patron inquiry or end result is. Whether it is the temperature at a town at a specific date and time in 1956 (true story) or all of the books written by Jonathan Kellerman (another true story), it is the degree of detail required to completely answer the inquiry. Listening skills are forefront as the question is analyzed for specificity; interview (questioning) skills can gauge the level of detail in that the patron is expecting. This sort of “zeroing in” is necessary to tell us how far we need to go in our journey for the answer.

Time in a reference interview is the most straightforward concept; it is how much time is spent satisfying the patron inquiry. The duration of the search is highly mutable as it is directly influenced by outside factors (e.g. waiting patrons in person, on the phone, or online; time engagements like programs; other appointments). It requires a good sense of time management as to avoid making the patron feel rushed off with a seemingly incomplete answer or over aggravating patrons in line as they wait their turn. This fine sense of timing assures the patron that we have given their inquiry our full attention while not monopolizing our own time in face of waiting demands.

The fifth dimension of a reference interview is an intangible that I am simply labeling “X factor”; it is the overall patron experience. The best way I can visualize this dimension is through the use of color; specifically, how would a patron describe their experience on a color scale? Would it be a vibrant red, a chilly blue, an affable yellow, or perhaps a growing green? The patron experience of how their inquiries are handled shapes their attitude towards the library. Whether they are treated like an old friend, a troublesome interloper, or a valued customer, patrons take away a distinctive experience that will dictate future library use, the word of mouth to their immediate social circle, and overall sympathy or apathy towards the library. This important subjective aspect is what can turn library users into library advocates. We have the power to turn average and good interactions into excellent ones; we should always seize on these opportunities when presented.

Like string theory, I’m fairly certain there are other dimensions that could be surmised to exist based on this presented concept. (Perhaps it will show up in a future post.) But these five dimensions are a good start in providing a quantifiable means to measure the outcomes of a reference interview. Alone, one could think about how much (or how little) was performed within a dimension and how it related to the end result. Combined, they create a picture in full of the reference interview experience, a mosaic of our knowledge, tools, resources, and people skills. From here, the evolution of the modern reference experience begins.

And to think it only took some theoretical physics to find a more satisfying explanation of the reference interview. =P

Photo by the mad LOLscientist/Flickr

If Libraries Operated like Health Insurance…

As the title of the post implies, I got to thinking the other night about that. With all the talk about health insurance reform, I think libraries are poised to consider long term changes to how we approach the patron interaction. Some of these are silly, some are relevant, others are perhaps thoughtful, but I think one or two are real questions for libraries looking ahead. (I’ll let you guess which ones I think are the real deal.)

Would people have to pick borrowing plans? Would these borrowing plans be based on tax/levy contribution? Or the ability of neighbors to band together and negotiate services? Would libraries provide service to only those who pay taxes?

Would dyslexics be denied a library card because they had a pre-existing condition? Or people who are illiterate? Or any learning disability? Or people who don’t know how to use the computer?

Would patrons need a referral to read different types of non-fiction? Or would a patron have to choose from a pre-approved list of subjects based on their library plan? Or would we refer them to a subject specialist?

Would there be a limit on the number of items a patron could take out over a year? Would they have to pay for the ability to borrow beyond their limit?

Image by a.diran/FlickrWould use of a computer be restricted by the library to a certain number of times per week/month? Would databases be restricted in the same way?

If a patron wanted to read a banned/challenged book, would they need to get a second opinion of another librarian? Would they need to sign a “informed consent” waiver before we let them take the book?

Would librarians need to get malpractice insurance in case a reading recommendation ends up offending the patron? Would there be a cap on the amount of awards for people who suffered emotional distress, eye strain, or the dreaded “reader’s thumb”?

Would patrons be restricted to only the materials that are deemed ‘necessary’ by the library?

Perhaps this is more waxing philosophic than hard questions about current practices, but I cannot help but think that some of these types of questions start us down the path to more meaningful policy changes.

Vacation Mode

Many years ago, my family was sharing a beach rental with the family of a first cousin who is very close to my mom. My cousin’s husband, Al, spent the majority of the day on the couch reading books while the Jersey Shore was experiencing the best weather all summer. It was a nice, hot July with perfect surf. My brother and I spent just about every moment of the day in the surf. But his behavior was somewhat odd to my brother and I at the time, so we asked him what he was doing.

“I’m in vacation mode,” he replied, his eyes heading back into the book he was reading. Such a statement has become a family mantra over the years as to explain any vacation activity in which the person is doing whatever pleases them at that particular moment. I think Al was happy to be lying on the sofa in a nice quiet vacation rental enjoying the breezes coming over the dunes. I certainly can’t blame him; as a sportswriter covering NASCAR, he would be traveling most weekends of the year to the various tracks around the country. There is a certain joy to lying on a sofa without an expectation for the day.

I took off this past week, a vacation that was somewhat overdue. I can tell when that happens since I didn’t check my work email till Thursday and even then that was to send a note to my boss about attending an NJLA meeting next week. I scanned the email subject lines for an emergency but didn’t find one, thankfully. I barely touched Twitter to the point where even catching up on a day’s worth of tweets seemed insurmountable. I emptied my Google Reader of all the political stuff, but left all the library stuff for next week. I won’t say the week hasn’t been completely library unrelated, but these are the personal projects that are fun for me.

At any rate, Kathy and I went up to Boston for the weekend (as noted in the ”The GIANT blog post”) which was enjoyable. I spent Tuesday at the beach with the families of my uncles on what was a perfect weather day. (Pictures below.) Wednesday I went with a friend to the Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Thursday and Friday were spent doing not much of anything but yard work and laying around. Right now I’m waiting for my cousin and his wife to show up at the house. But this richly deserved rest will be the energy I will need for the week back. Tons of fun!

View of the Ocean

View of the House

Wednesday Night Deep Thought, Ctd

On the drive to the beach today, I heard an interview on Here and Now on NPR that caught my attention. It was with Ric O’Barry, the trainer of Flipper, who started the interview talking about animals in captivity (specifically dolphins) and how they are adversely affected by the contained environment. Basically, the dolphins do not thrive in a relative sensory free environment. It got me thinking to some of the general barriers of access that sometimes impede our patrons.

I felt inspired and started writing out the shell of a blog post. But as I sat on the deck with the summer breeze drifting over the dunes, something felt off. Then I eyed the crayons of my five year old cousin sitting on the table. There are some times when illustration trumps prose; this was one of those times.

Crayons are the original Powerpoint. Thanks, Emma!

So what are the barriers? What can be helped? What can’t be helped but possibly made easier? Those are the questions I’ll be taking back with me to work next week. Ease of access is not simply a convenience, but a necessary aspect for our patrons.