TEDucation: 5 TED Talks Librarians Should Watch (and Why)

Ever since I was introduced to TED talks, I’ve sought them out when a new batch is available. Last year I had the privilege of attending the TEDxNJLibraries at the Princeton Public Library. It was great to listen to a range of speakers on a wide range of topics and stories while also being able to talk with others about the presentations.

My attraction to these talks and the reason I am writing about them now is that I feel they are excellent perspectives from outside of the librarian echo chamber. Some have given me additional ideas for how to think and approach some of the issues that we as librarians face in the road ahead. I’ve linked some in my blog over the years but I wanted to highlight 5 TED talks that I think every librarian should watch.

So, without further ado. (I note the talk lengths in minutes, rounded up.)

1) Ken Robinson – Schools Kill Creativity (20m)

If you are going to watch any talk, make it this one. My takeaway from this talk is looking at how libraries as a whole approach their patrons. Are we nurturing the creativity of others? Are we looking at their interests and curiosities? Furthermore, are we creating our own hierarchy of literacies? Why do some treat book borrowers better than movie borrowers? Why does certain kind of internet use get more scrutiny than others (people on Facebook versus people writing school papers)?

For myself, I think about the idea of a dynamic intelligence and personal unique talents when I am conducting a reference interview. I work towards trying to figure out what is the best way that the person in front of me learns and try to match the materials to that style. It doesn’t always work, but I think it more effective than simply handing out a list of items without consideration to how they take in information.

2) William Kamkwamba: How I Harnessed the Wind (6m)

I know I’ve written about this one before, but I want to reiterate the lesson again: information access matters. In watching this presentation, William talks about how he made a windmill to provide electricity and pump water for his family in Malawi. He constructed it based on books he got from a school library which consisted of three sets of bookshelves. The ability for people to access information can make the difference in the inventions and innovations for the future. To me, it speaks also to the digital divide and the importance of narrowing that gap. Is the next great mind out there but lacking the resources to truly unlock their potential? My guess would be yes, but my thoughts are to work towards fixing that situation.

3) Malcolm Gladwell – What We Can Learn from Spaghetti Sauce (19m)

This talk is a great meditation that carries over to the user experience. As libraries have moved to emphasize our human interfaces and the face-to-face contact that we offer, there is still an undercurrent mindset of creating ‘one size fits all’ solutions to the customer experience. But, honestly, no one can say that every conversation that they’ve had with a patron (public, academic, school, otherwise) has been the same. But, in the same way that Malcolm describes grouping people’s preferences, we can look to group the kinds of interactions that we have and create experiences from them. It behooves us to think and move towards services and information solutions in the same manner. The world has shifted to the individual experience; libraries should look to provide the same wherever possible.

4) Mark Bezos – A Life Lesson from a Volunteer Firefighter (5m)

It’s very short but also to the point: don’t wait to get into the game. Everything counts. While librarians tend to gloss over interactions that don’t result in “real” librarian work (like placing books on hold or answering basic computer questions), these experiences do have an impact on the patron. It is not a life or death issue, but certainly a quality of life issue. While the cynical side to me says that someone will not be broken by not being able to put a reservation on the latest James Patterson or Nora Roberts (and would certainly they would not), it’s the small stuff that can have bearing on the larger picture. It’s important to the library because it is important to our patrons. It’s something to keep in mind.

5) JR – Use Art To Turn the World Inside Out (25m)

My reasons for including this are a bit more abstract than the other four talks, but I don’t think it is any less important. It is about perception, community, people, and of course art. For myself, it’s just about another way to look at the world. I found it moving and introspective in its range and scope for a French street artist to work towards creating bridges between communities that were in various states of conflict (either with others or their issues). I just think it’s an excellent not-to-be-missed TED talk.

Note: As I was putting this together, I realized there were a ton of other TED talks I wanted to include. I might just look to make this a blog series and I would encourage others to highlight videos (both from TED and other sources) that bring something new to the librarian world. 

Open Thread Thursday: The Skills to Pay the Bills


On Tuesday, Eli Neiburger’s article about ditching reference for IT shot around the online librarian world. So, what are the skillsets that the libraries of the future will require?

Directors and administrative types, what are you looking for in your hires?

Librarians, what did you learn on the job? What did you learn in graduate school that helped?

Library students, what do you think you should be learning about?

This is an open thread, so feel free to ignore my starter questions and name your own topic. (I hear porn in the library is back on the front page again.)

IT (and not that Stephen King creepy clown, either)

Eli Neiburger, known for the “Libraries are Screwed” presentation at the Library Journal eBook Summit, is stirring the pot once more by calling for the replacement of reference with IT people. From Library Journal:

"We need big servers and the geeks to take care of them," Neiburger said. "What are we going to cut to be able to hire a geek? We are going to cut reference staff. Reference is dead," he said.

Despite the fact that a trained librarian can bring value to a reference interaction, the patron today, acclimated to Google searches, does not feel that way, and librarians cannot change their mind, Neiburger said.

For what it’s worth, I totally get where Eli is coming from. He’s touted a move towards libraries owning their digital content rather than licensing it. For eBooks, it means going to the authors themselves and making a deal with them to get their works for the library to distribute. To this end, you need the data infrastructure (various hardware purchases and a patron-friendly interface) to make it work; for that, you need to have a robust IT squad. And if library budgets are presently zero sum, that money will need to come from somewhere. In eliminating the reference library staff (and replacing them with paraprofessionals), the savings generated can fund the digital infrastructure.

If I’m understanding Eli correctly, this future vision of the library would be one that has a paraprofessional front (circulation and reference) with any remaining librarians in the back (administration, cataloging, and IT). 


To be honest, my biggest concern is taking librarians and removing them from contact with the public. This whole “let’s move librarians off public desks” seems like a step backwards for user experience by overly focusing on digital content to the detriment of face-to-face service. Personally, I think librarians struggle with assessing what their patrons want as it is and this would create an unnecessary aloofness to overcome. I believe there is value to having a librarian in the public spaces, even if they are relegated to handling actual reference/research questions. While discovery online is not at the library website (perhaps something having library geeks could work on), discovery in-person is still a viable service and one that I believe librarians should still have a hand in.

Also, I don’t think this kind of arrangement scales very well. I can see how it would work for larger libraries, but I’m having a hard time imagining it for smaller staffed public libraries (and, as an aside, nigh impossible for school libraries). I think with some help from commenters that we might be able to guess at the minimum level of staffing and funding where Eli’s IT move would be viable. My hunch is that it could create it’s own “digital content divide” where some libraries can afford to staff and fund a robust digital infrastructure while others would simply be relegated to current vendor offerings. (Now, if you introduce consortium arrangements to fund regional IT staff and hardware, we’re talking a whole new ballgame.)

I’d like to highlight some of the comments made on Friendfeed that the article presents a false dichotomy; that you can have reference or IT but you can’t both. Why not? Perhaps it is a better question about MLS graduate programs; could they create a program where a person can speak geek and reference? Or geek and cataloging? Or geek and administration? Should these programs be focused on making hybrids?

I think there is geek in the future, but I’m not completely sold on it being the only way to go.

One-Two Punches on Publishing

First, this wonderful blog post, “It is a reading revolution, and there will be blood”. Wonderful salient quote:

It’s a revolution. That means what worked in the past is not going to work.

Yes, as humans we have a strong need for facts. We want to have something of the past that we can gather up – gather up so we can pretend that the future is predictable. But, what could you possibly use as precedent?

There has never been a market like books. There has never been a transition like the one we are part of. There’ll always be the one person who knows nothing about reading and claims this revolution is the same as what happened in music. There’ll always be some analyst who claims that in 2015 we might see 25% market share for ebooks. However, they have absolutely no clue. Same as us.

Of course, there is one difference. All the analysts and experts and Publishers and authors have zero power. We readers, on the other hand, have all the power.

It’s a revolution and it’s not based on facts or logic or any set pattern. It’s based on readers expecting to be treated decently and expecting people to behave in a human way – to treat other people the way they would like to be treated. And if they aren’t, then they have the power to do something about it.

Then comes the ever wise Eric Hellman with his post on publishing:

An efficient library channel will compete, to some extent, with ebook direct-sales channels. The optimum strategy for publishers, however, is not to force inefficiency in the library channel, but rather to optimize pricing to monetize increased efficiency.

The efficiency of library acquisitions can be increased by introducing more consortia. A library needing a collection specializing in medicine, for example, should bolster its collection by participating in a consortium with the corresponding specialization. In principle, there could be a consortium specialized for every book that gets published. Such a consortium could manage the number of copies it purchases to closely manage global demand. If the economics worked out it could even strike a deal for unlimited use of the book by consortium members.

For myself, there is something comforting about these two posts. Libraries have always been trailing the desires of the reader; it might just be the perfect place to be at the moment. The large consumer base (as opposed to our tiny percent) of the market is capable of doing much more than libraries can when it comes to price and access. I wouldn’t suggest coattail riding here, but I think that librarians are uniquely poised to influence consumers in the reading market.

Both posts are certainly worth the read. It does present a question: where do libraries fit in a reader powered world? More provocatively, where do we fit in a world where the reader can bypass publishers and libraries to get books?

<Insert Clever Library Porn Story Name Here>

From the NY Post:

Shakespeare’s plays, Einstein’s theories — and porn queen Jenna Jameson’s steamy online sexcapades.

New Yorkers can take their pick at the city’s public libraries, thanks to a policy that gives adults the most uncensored access to extreme, hard-core Internet smut this side of the old Times Square.

The electronic smut falls under the heading of free speech and the protection of the First Amendment, library officials say.

The article goes on in the typical porn-in-the-library Mad Libs manner: ordinary citizens outraged at the very idea while library officials offer stale free speech and First Amendment snippets. The only issue I can see is the poor timing for New York City library advocacy efforts as they combat cuts to their systems. It take the steam out of all the efforts to highlight all of the good things that the public libraries do for their community and focuses it on a tiny minority of computer users. It’s rather unfortunate, really, and I hope this issue fizzles in the media.

The Greatest Library Funding Idea Ever Written

There’s no subtle way of delving into it, so I’ll just lay it out there: this evening, I went to see the new Morgan Spurlock documentary, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. It’s a film about brand sponsorships in movies… and the movie itself is paid for by brand sponsorships. It’s a vastly entertaining movie on the process (from start to finish) of how advertising and entertainment are joined at the hip, the former funding and influencing the latter. And I really, really enjoyed it.

On the drive home, I thought about sponsorships as a means of funding the library. This is not a new idea by any means, so there is a certain amount of moving old bones into new graves on this blog post. But in the last two years, the sources of funding for public and school libraries have failed like nothing else. The budget cuts are well documented and well known (for non-librarians reading this, try this Google search covering the last three years) but the government funding forecast continues to look bleak. There have been victories in terms of raising tax levies and finding other public funding, but in most cases it is not a sustainable funding model for the future.

The ideal of the public institution for the common benefit is no longer good enough to win the budget day anymore; the common anti-public library refrain is that “I don’t want my tax dollars paying for other people’s entertainment/literature/ computer use”. Compared to the relative status of police, fire, ambulance, and even sanitation, the library is perceived as a luxury community expenditure. In taking money from interested corporations, public librarians can tell those anti-library people that their money is no longer being used for that. School librarians have been proven to be effective in raising achievement in schools; if taxpayers can’t or won’t foot the bill, why not pay for it through advertising and marketing money? Schools, once thought off limits, are now using advertising to meet their budgets. (There is a disconnect between wanting the best education for our nation’s children and paying that bill, but I digress.) So, why not libraries?

We have markets that companies want to reach through advertising. Whether it is book readers, movie watchers, internet users, or story time attendees, these are all representatives of desirable demographics. The library is uniquely positioned in the community since there is no other institution or entity (public or private) that does we do. There are aspects to the library that could hold unique appeal to both library vendors and non-library companies on that basis. And, to put it in some additional perspective, it’s a relatively unexplored market.

As much as people might find this idea reprehensible, here’s a incontrovertible fact: a closed library helps exactly zero people. You can explain your adherence to the “the ends don’t justify the means” principle while you stand on the front step of your closed library to the job hunters and students being turned away. I believe that the tough economic times call for consideration of other avenues of funding and revenue, especially from sources that libraries may have shied away from in the past. Where public funding has failed I think corporate funding can fill in some of the gaps to keep the doors open for both the public and students alike.

The fair rebuttal question to ask of this idea is “where does it stop once you introduce advertising to a library setting?” To be honest, I don’t know but I’d like to imagine I would know it when I saw it. Is the “Gale Cengage Computer Center” too far? No, I don’t think so. Is the “Playaway Presents Time for Twos: Story Time Program for Toddlers” too far? No, I don’t think so either. Would taking time at the start of a crafting program to announce and thank sponsor Jo Anne Fabrics while making promotional material be too far? Perhaps to some, but not to me. Considering how the Friends and Trustees of the library fund and support programs (hell, we even have a sign in our library to display when they do), how is that any different than offering a corporate advertisement? There are extreme cases we should avoid (like a 3-6 year old story time where the children sing commercial jingles or recommending books based on sponsorship and not patron desire), but I think it can be handled in a manner which is in line with our core mission while benefiting a corporate sponsor.

I feel there is a certain hypocrisy to the rejection of sponsorships and product placement in the library world. The major state and national conferences that we attend are not exclusively funded by registration fees. They have sponsorships where library vendors pay money to get their name on the front of the program book, on the websites, and on every advertising piece that goes out. It ranges from the free ice cream that is handed out at the New Jersey Library Association conference, the open bar exhibitor reception at Computer in Libraries, and funding some of the major speakers at the American Library Association Annual conference. Some might revolt at the idea of the “Harlequin Romance Section” at their library, but have no issue picking up advance reader copies or other swag from the publisher’s booth. You cannot curse it at one end while seeking to exploit it at another.

For the libraries that are well supported, this kind of funding should not be a consideration. For the libraries that are facing budget gaps, it should be a viable option put on the table. There is only so much materials, so many hours, and so many staff members you can cut before the operation becomes wholly inefficient to its mission. Like the movie poster for Morgan’s movie says, “We’re not selling out. We’re buying in.” And what we get for buying in is staying the business of helping our patron communities. At the end of the day, that is what matters.


Like I said at the top, there is no subtle way of approaching this as a blog topic. In putting links to the filmmaker, the movie, and providing my own personal endorsement, I’ve inserted a variation of product placement in my blog post (sans compensation but staying faithful to the unwritten blogging credo of citing and referencing the subjects being addressed). I’ve just sent this blog entry with a product placement/endorsement to over 1,000 blog subscribers, over 200 Facebook fans, and since I’ll tweet this post several times, over 2,300 Twitter followers. This will be in addition to whatever incoming links I might get from other bloggers (both from this post or from previous links) or if/when my posts get picked up by American Libraries Direct which goes out to the tens of thousands of American Library Association members. Between all those tweets, Facebook shares, and emails, those who actually read the post will see that I went to a movie, liked it, and then wrote about it. (To steal a line from Morgan in the movie, “dozens and dozens” of people will end up actually reading this.)

In looking back, I can see everything that I have, in essence, advertised: from “People for a Library Themed Ben & Jerry’s Flavor” Facebook group to the Edublog and Salem Press Awards to a permanent link to my Mover & Shaker profile on Library Journal and even talking about how I advertised myself to boost my Facebook author page. And that’s just the stuff off the top of my head.

So long as we are talking about self marketing and self promotion, if I really wanted to utilize the blog space to pay some bills I could sell the banner spot, buttons on the side of the sidebar of the blog, even put a banner and link at the base of all of my posts. Of course, it is a matter of proving value (or in other words, my brand); while I get thousands of views a month (a small number compared to some of the other librarian bloggers out there), I would say that I’m widely read by all the right librarian people. “Do you want your library products to reach library thought leaders and futurists? Then I’m your guy. Send me an email and let’s talk!”

And Morgan, if you’re reading this: first, thanks for an enjoyable and informative movie. You do excellent work that makes people think. I laughed as I drove home and looked at all the advertising I saw on the way. Second, I’m biased but I would hope that you’d be interested in doing a documentary of libraries (or at least an important information issue like the inadequacy of current copyright or the digital divide). I’d be happy to answer any curiosities you might have even if it’s just for yourself. Third, if you have any thoughts about the idea of advertising libraries, please feel free to leave a comment. It would be most welcome, especially as someone coming from outside the library world.

Thank you.

(By the way, the only potential result I fear from this blog post is being haunted by the ghost of Bill Hicks.)

Weekly Digest: April 16-April 22

I’ve been toying with the idea of posting a weekly digest of the blog. Just the title, a short blurb, and a link. So, without further ado…

SunSpec: Inspiration (In thinking about a Sunday post, I find inspiration from a lack of inspiration.)

Libraries & The Cloud (My thoughts on cloud content and ownership as it relates to the PC Magazine article that thinks about the implications of subscription services and the cloud.)

Salem Press Blog Awards 2011 (I will be a judge for this contest. I also point out the TED audition contest.)

Murder by the Numbers (Looking closer at the numbers presented by the Archives.com inforgraphic and the disconnect between our research and our program content.)

Roadtrip! (I took a roadtrip to the Darien Public Library. Here’s the deal: you invite me to your library, I’ll bake you cookies.)

For All the Content in the World (My comments on the NPR’s Monkey See blog post that talks about how we can’t possibly read/listen/see all the content being created.)

Houston, We Have a Problem (Amazon and Overdrive are bringing the Kindle to library lending, but are we ready for it?

KIA for QandA NJ (Unraveling the cause of death to New Jersey’s virtual reference service)

Open Thread: As Advertised (A true open thread without any suggested topic)

Update: And this might be over before it even started. Apparently, if you are on the email subscription, it generates a ton of messages. I don’t have a clue as to how to fix it so I’ll just drop it till I can riddle it out. Sorry folks who got spammed!