Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

A couple of days ago, there was another attempt to move the minute hand of the Library Doomsday Clocktm towards midnight. I really couldn’t say that I was outraged since it was a basic recycling of “who needs a library when you have the internet lol” argument. What pushed superficial response aside was a contempt at the effort; not that someone would dare utter the words, but more of a “Really? Is that the best you can do?” I mean, come on! Simply supporting the thesis of end of libraries with “isn’t it obvious?” is either lazy trolling or just link bait. Initially, I just made a series of replies on Twitter of which Jacob Berg embedded the highlight reel in his post on the topic. But really, folks, these kinds of posts don’t merit our limited time, effort, or sanity.

Hell, if you want an idea of how old and tired this “heresy” is, it’s old enough to drive, vote, and most likely not get carded at bars. From the journal The Electronic Library back in 1983, this “end of libraries” article has the most wonderful abstract:

In terms of size, arrangement and catalogues, the conventional library has reached an organisational and financial impasse. Coincidentally there has emerged a pre-emptive new technology for the storage, handling and transmission of information, potentially better suited to the convenience of users. Libraries may disappear like the dinosaurs; or they may, by returning to first principles, be able to adapt and successfully survive.

You hear that? Even by 1983 standards, we were in danger of extinction. The Commodore 64 was going to put libraries out to pasture. Now I have word document files that are bigger than the entire memory of those old machines.

“Death by internet” gets some play in this New York Times article from 2002:

And contrary to predictions about the death of libraries in the Internet age, in the last decade local libraries have grown more essential than ever to social life in the county. They have become community centers, the beating heart of Westchester’s towns and villages and cities.

There are probably a ton more examples of this kind of artistic license in which the library is either saved or damned by the internet, but you get my point. It’s overplayed and makes a nice headline, but it really lacks that pesky thing known as evidence.

For myself, my reasons for writing this post are not to show how weak that argument is, but that librarians are made of tougher stuff. In peering through the history of the profession, the profession has been on the forefront of important societal issues such as women’s suffrage, civil rights, and gay rights. The ALA had called for women’s right to vote, the end of racial segregation, and the recognition of homosexuality as a acceptable sexual orientation long before there was popular support. These pursuits are part and parcel to our belief in intellectual freedom and equality of information access. And, even in this grand age of the internet, the challenges of fulfilling these ideals remain.

In my perspective, what has changed is the battleground. Copyright, net neutrality, and intellectual property are the next major societal conflicts which will require different tactics and solutions in order to resolve. For certain these are hard issues, ones that will require great minds and greater efforts to change. But so was a woman’s right to vote. As was ending segregation and enacting civil rights. And supporting gay rights from the early days to present victories.

Librarians were on the right side of those issues and we continue to be on the right side when it comes to the present challenges. We can and will overcome. We are heirs to dedicated women and men who changed the world. Never forget our legacy. And most importantly, never let anyone take it away from you.

Our future depends on it.

20/20 on Libraries in 2020

Recently, I was at a job interview in which the final question from the interviewers was something like this :

“Where do you see libraries in the year 2020?”

At that moment, I gave an answer as to where I thought it would be on the basis of what I knew about the demographics of the area, the funding levels, community support, and the current trends in the public library world. It was a damn good answer (if I might be so self-assured), but in the time since the interview the question itself has been turning over and over in my head.

The more I think about it, the more I really don’t like it.

Granted, the question is a bit of a softball. No one is going to hold me to my answer and it is asked to get a better idea of my thought process as it pertains to the future. But the question feels deceptive, not on the part of the interviewer, but for the multitudes of potential answers. While I gave the one that counted then, the factors and permutations have crept in upon further thought.

Seven years is now a dinosaur-like era in a field that has ties to technology. Back in 2006, there was no Tumblr, Google Street View, Instagram, Dropbox, iPhones, or Kindles. Can we even fathom what kind of technology will exist in seven more years? I’m sure there are people within the field who would clamor to answer that question, but I’d have severe reservations about their response.

For myself, there’s a certain irony at work here. One of my early posts on LISNews that caught people’s attention was about the “Next Big Thing”. And now here I am with a half decade worth of observations and information and I’m reluctant to hazard a guess more than three years out. I have mixed feelings when I read stories and blog posts about the future of libraries, arriving as a skeptic and generally leaving unmoved.

I’d like to believe I’m on the leading edge for these kinds of developments in the field, but I have to wonder at what that really means. Is the information pointing me the right way? Is this what libraries should be doing? Are my peers that far behind? The more I hear, the more skeptical I become.

The only thing I believe about 2020 is that there will be libraries. After all, the solutions that libraries provide to their communities will not be cured in seven years. But what they will look like? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Programming Unconference Northeast 2013 Recap

I have to start this post with an admission: for every unconference I attend, it lowers my patience for most organized conferences. Whether it is a “panel” that is actually a vendor sales pitch or presenters who magically turn the interesting into the mundane, I just don’t have the tolerance anymore. I would not go so far as to declare it to be a complete waste of time, but it is certainly squandering my time. I’m not shy about getting up and leaving, and I can say that I’ve voted with my feet enough times to declare expertise in the subject.

In doing so, I’ve found more useful outlets in meeting and talking with my peers, the conference phenomena commonly known as “hallway conversations”. Chatting, socializing, and otherwise engaged conversations are how I learn best and so I seek out those kinds of settings to create up my own learning experience. This is probably why I gravitate towards unconferences, especially in helping to organize them. I leave wanting to do another with the conversations still fresh and the effort to get to that point pushed aside. I come from a long line of very social people, so this is now just a family tradition.

For me, the unconference was a good reminder that the community and the library are not worlds apart like they seem at times. Community groups, whether they are businesses, non-profits, social clubs or whatnot, are readily approachable by the library. It’s a matter of showing how their interests align with the library interests and providing space for that relationship to grow. The library walls, which can feel so confining at times, can be breached by the telephone and email in order to reach out. While making initial contact face-to-face has merit, those in short staffed situations can still make the first move.

Also within that first move of outreach is one to the community at large in trying to ascertain their interests and needs. It doesn’t take much effort with social media pathways and simply asking people who come to the library what they want. It is a matter of doing it.

The most interesting breakout group conversation to me revolved around the makerspace movement. I’m pivoting towards the belief that there has always been a makerspace sort of entity to the library (most notably in childrens’ storytime crafts). What we are seeing now is the next logical step in scaling the production upwards with 3D printers, digital media labs, and other technology. But, even without those items, the capability for craftsmanship is limited only by your creativity. Simply having the tools and materials to allow people to make things such as jewelry or art can be a rewarding programming experience. It’s about taking the lessons of a thrifty hobbyist to see what can be done with recycled materials, odds and ends from a junk drawer, or other seemingly unrelated items. Don’t let the term ‘makerspace’ fool you into thinking that you need some fancy technology in order to have one; opt for the original version that uses hands, tools, and materials. People want to create with their hands these days as they always have since the tactile experience is still highly desired.

For myself, the best reward was watching and hearing how people got involved in the many different conversations. There was one moment where someone’s face lit up at a realization (the suggestion of someone else) and began to dash down notes as fast as their pen would let them. That, to me, was a moment that will stick with me for a very long time and makes me smile just thinking about it. That really made my day and all the effort completely worth it.

As I finish up this post, I want to thank Erin Shea for agreeing to help me “unorganize” this. (We came up with that term; licensing fees for using it are still quite reasonable.) She did the grunt work that comes with setting up the website and arranging the venue (the always beautiful Darien Public Library) and the million other things that I as the remote person could not handle. She was a thrill to work with and I look forward to collaborating with her again in the future. I’d also like to thank Lisa Carlucci Thomas for doing our keynote; she is a wonderful and thoughtful speaker who really got the day going. My special thanks to Pat Sheary and the rest of the Darien staff for their help at the unconference on that day.