Blatantly Berry Bumbling

This morning, while I was reading through the latest issue of Library Journal online, I had the distinct displeasure of reading John Berry III’s article entitled “Don’t Muzzle Librarians”. While watching David Rothman’s reaction vlog provided some levity for my irritation (a must watch for the purposes of this post), there are some outstanding points that Mr. Rothman did not touch upon that I feel should be addressed.

First and foremost, freedom of expression does not equate to freedom from accountability. While my various forms of expression are generally protected from civil and criminal liabilities, it does not render me immune to social ones. Those seeing, hearing, or listening can hold me to account for my words and choose to continue, engage, or withdraw. While Mr. Berry wields the freedom of expression concept as if it were a hammer (in the most ironic way as noted by Mr. Rothman), it does not render null and void the accountability that the magazine has for the words of one of its blogger employees. While traditionally publications have stood with their contributors (and rightfully so), there are business and social consequences that can occur. For example, the affronted party can discontinue reading the offending publication and tell others not to buy such a magazine. This is the subtle difference between what Mr. Berry is implying and what Mr. Rothman actually said in his previous video regarding the Annoyed Librarian and Library 101. I defend the right to free expression, but I am not compelled to read or listen to such acts nor prevented from enacting my own set of social consequences.

Second, as noted in Mr. Rothman’s response, there is no one calling for the end of anonymous writing. Pseudonyms and unsigned letters have served society well in various capacities over the course of history. However, in terms of the internet, anonymous writing and commentary have presented an additional set of results. Observe this chart that precisely documents this phenomena:

internet-dickwad[1]

(Original NSFW cartoon here.)

Thus, the fine anonymous art of “trolling” has come to exist. While the Annoyed Librarian certainly makes fine points that I can agree with (like here), the amount of vitriol displayed at times towards other professionals is pure emotional spectacle. The nature of those postings does not rise to the great anonymous writers (as touted by Mr. Berry) but becomes synonymous with the legions of unknown insensitive boorish commentators whose affection for naked cruelty is disturbing on a multitude of levels. While I certainly support anyone’s right to write anonymously for whatever personal reason, it would be folly to think that such practices (especially on the internet) do not come with its own particular set of perceptions and disadvantages when it comes to evaluating the content.

Third, after proclaiming the merits of freedom of expression in the previous paragraphs, Mr. Berry then derides the findings of the ALA New Members Round Table regarding a survey conducted which shows that “its members feel ALA should avoid expressing itself on what they call ‘nonlibrary issues.’” Again, in a bout of unnecessary quotation marks, he raises the specter that most issues can be argued as being library issues, calling thoughts to the otherwise “[a] disease of deciding what is ‘appropriate’”. (I presume this disease must be some sort of brain cloud.) I have written about this before (so I won’t rehash it here), but I’d like to add another thought.

While political activism has waxed and waned through the history of the United States, the political climate at present0 is extremely emotionally charged and divisive. In my reckoning, there is no reason to introduce resolutions that do not advance the mission of the library but work towards creating divisions within the membership. Especially in this budget climate, I would hope that the ALA Councilors would be working on measures to save and expand funding and provide morale support for librarians across the country rather than broad proclamations outside the organizational scope and purpose. A focus on unity would be prudent in this time of financial infirmity and politically charged rhetoric.

In closing, I’m reminded of a famous quote by the journalist Edward R. Murrow.

We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

One cannot announce a great history of the defense of free expression while attacking another for exercising it. Nor can the democracy of the ALA Council be praised in one post and be labeled with the derision of implied infirmity when the majority does not favor one’s outlook. It does no favors to question the good faith intent of those who are in opposition to one’s position simply because they contradict. The only thing being muzzled here is the legitimacy of dissent in a profession that thrives on the inclusiveness of differing viewpoints. This principle cannot be heralded at each and every library when it fails within professional circles and discussions. It must be upheld, embraced, and loved for what it is: a uniting dogma of this profession.

Mr. Berry would do well to remember that the freedom of expression he cherishes for himself and his employee also applies to Mr. Rothman and this blogger. As the saying goes, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism”. We will not all agree on the issues facing the library community, but we are all patriots of the library.

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.

#fyifriday

fyifriday

I had thought of this a couple of weeks back, but I had to wait till the holiday season passed to give it a go. Since #followalibrarian may or may not have been usurped by Twitter lists, I thought this meme would be something fun to replace it. Why toss a search into Google when you have your fellow librarians who can point you to nice sites they consult on a regular basis? Nothing quite like having an explanation and endorsement!

Here is a saved search. I intend to go back and mine the links out of it.

Library Day in the Life Round 4 Announced

Bobbi Newman announced on Thursday the start of the 4th round of her Library Day in the Life Project. Like the title suggests, it is a blog post detailing the day in the life of a librarian. Round 3 (for which I wrote an entry) had a fun array of takes on the library day, from Marianne Lennox’s Photo Diary to Julie Strange’s multipart post of the week (more of a ‘week in the life of…’).

I’m looking forward to another round of the project. It’s an interesting insight into the lives of my peers; sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s serious, but it always has a lot of heart to it. I find that I like these kinds of posts the most because it shows how much librarians love what they do.

Be sure to read the directions and then hop right in!

The Library Reloaded: Collections

4249561113_7734cbbc8b[1] Tonight, we hosted my brother and sister-in-law for dinner. While I was cooking, I had asked them for their thoughts on what libraries shouldn’t lend. (The picture above is the PG version of the list created, recopied by me for better presentation.) I’d had asked them for their help because there has been a question gnawing on my mind since the weekend.

What is a collection?

In my opinion, the most common answer to this question is a very dull textbook one. It’s usually a list of mediums plus maybe a statement about how it is a reflection of the community that it serves. The better (and more accurate) answer is that everything falls on three lists: things we lend, things we don’t (or shouldn’t) lend, and things we could lend but we don’t. It’s this third group that I find to be the most interesting because I think it is something that people involved in collection development should consider more deeply. Allow me to illuminate with some examples of what I mean.

  1. The Princeton Public Library lends out watt meters. This small simple device measures the amount of energy being used by electrical devices plugged into it. From regular lamps to household appliances, a customer can learn and alter their energy consumption behaviors. This can lead to direct savings in the form of lower utility bills.
  2. The Sparta Public Library lends out flip video cameras. While checkouts of this device could be people just trying it out, this camera can be used to record family history, events, sports, and other stuff that the patron wants to record and keep.
  3. Some Vermont libraries are lending out items such as garden tools, snowshoes, and children’s games. To me, it speaks to the life enriching efforts of the library and a true focus on the “needs assessment” of the surrounding community. It also proves the merit of non-traditional collections as an added feature of those respective libraries.
  4. Colleges around the world loan out laptops to students. Rather than shackling their student populations to the computer labs, the institutions give them the flexibility to do their computer based work from anywhere. It encourages students to perform their work in the environment that is most conducive to their work habits. (Ok, it’s certainly not always work, but you get the point.)
  5. DOK Library in Holland lends out art. While it is not the first library to lend out art, it is one of the more well known libraries to do so right now.

Moreover, the inclusion of these types of materials in a collection represents a lateral thinking when it comes to the collection. If we lend books on gardening, why not lend gardening tools? If we lend movies, why not lend digital camcorders? If we lend art books, why not lend art itself? It’s this third list that really captures my imagination and makes me look at the mundane items around me and ask myself bemusedly, “Could my library lend that?”

And it begs further questions for some items not mentioned. If we lend a map, why not lend a car GPS? If we lend museum guides, why not lend museum passes? Astronomy books & telescopes, knitting needles with knitting books, puppets with children’s books, carpentry books & stud finder devices, and so forth.

To be fair, I have heard of libraries lending some of these items right now (I just couldn’t find the links!); the real question is why your library isn’t doing it.

The only major objection I can muster to this type of non-traditional lending is that these types of items fall outside the normal scope of the library’s mission. The library simply provides the initial information for activities which require additional equipment, gear, or materials; it is up to the customer to acquire the requisite parts to further their interests. From a budgetary position, a library would be hard pressed to make expenditures that do not add or update current collection mediums (especially when many libraries are facing budget gaps due to smaller local, state, and federal funding). In addition, there are the usual concerns about storage, care, and maintenance of these non-traditional items. 

My answer to this objection is that we already take further steps when it comes to materials that we already lend. We offer crafting classes while having crafting guides in the collection; computer classes while owning computer texts; and story times while having a plethora of children’s books. It is my belief that the library works to provide life enriching materials to the community. Traditionally, this has been books and magazines; but as the technology has revolutionized the information and entertainment formats, the lending of such non-traditional fare is a continuation of supporting life enriching activities.

I’m not indifferent to the budget struggles that libraries are facing in this past and current year; it would certainly rule out some of the higher priced items offered for consideration. I don’t believe it would rule out some of the less expensive examples (like the watt meter and the gardening equipment); I would hope that it would make the staff creative in their potential selections for inclusion. As to storage, care, and maintenance, I would concede that it faces that same assessment concerns that are given to all of our materials. It certainly makes no sense to add anything that cannot be properly cared for. These are all very pertinent and legitimate considerations for any library to undertake in adding these types of items to their collections.

In approaching the addition of non-traditional items to a collection, my inclination would be to focus on three types of objects: the uncommon but situationally useful (like the watt meter), the useful but high turnover types of items (like children’s toys), or the things that take the next logical step from something currently being lent (like a car GPS). In addition, I hope that my fellow professionals will take a moment and think about the question posed above: what is a collection? For myself, it is not a matter of objects or materials, but the lives of the people it enriches.

5 Universal Truths That All Librarians Can Agree Upon Right Now

Over the last couple of days, I have been reading a flurry of “end of the year” posts. These end of year reflections (and the end of the decade that people had a hard time naming) have made me think about my own reflection of these time periods. It was only within this last past year that I really delved into the library and librarian blogosphere. During this time, what has really captured my interest in the library oriented blogs is the spectrum of beliefs that exist when it comes to where libraries are going and where they should be heading. In thinking about the wide range of perspectives, the different library theory approaches, and the variety of libraries that exist, I believe there are five current universal truths that will be the basis for any discussion about the library in the future decade.

Without further ado, here they are.

1.) Perception of information is changing

Information is now an instant gratification commodity, capable of being gained through a multitude of means (especially computer based). For libraries, this requires us to be flexible with our interfaces; whether it is face to face or with our customers accessing our resources, there has to be an eye towards the least amount of steps from an inquiry to a result.

2.) Literacy is changing

What it means to be literate twenty years ago is but a part of the greater definition now. The ability to read and write information on computers now shares with its print brethren. The integration of technology into our lives, for better or worse, is inevitable as we move more information into digital formats.

(For more on this, be certain to check out Bobbi Newman’s Transliteracy page.)

3.) Libraries are now part of greater information chorus

This aspect is two fold. First, there are the plethora of non-library internet based websites which provide accurate information on specific subjects. (Think more Mayo Clinic, less Wikipedia.) Libraries are now just one of many potential end points for a inquiry. Second, there is an explosion of user generated content. There are individuals who create pages and sites about topics that are extraordinarily niched (such as local history, family history, and local specializations). They represent a small but important information resources for inquiries that in the past would have been relegated to the vertical file and/or genealogy room.

4.) Communication is our friend

The world communicates on a myriad of levels, from the tweets of Twitter to the web published academic papers. On the one hand, these represent new and different ways to connect to our customers and to communicate with them on the mediums they are using. On the other hand, the technology exists to make communicating between each other (read: libraries) easier so that a catalog no longer needs to be held in relative isolation. And not simply catalogs, but there can more contemporary sharing of policies and practices that been successful.

5.) The underlying philosophies of the library have not changed

As much as the information revolution has swept through the profession, the commitment to academic freedom, intellectual inquiry, and act as a community resource (whether you are serving the public, a school, or a company; a space for all, if you will) are still intact. It is the common bond between everyone in the profession; and while we may not agree on how best to serve the spirit of these, they still represent basic elements that are universally embraced. This central dogma is what gives us common cause to provide information to those who seek it.

 

In closing, I am reminded of a quote spoken by the character Don Draper in the television series Mad Men. I think it will serve us well in the decade that is to be.

“Change is neither good nor bad. It simply is.”