Want to be a Subversive Librarian? Teach a Class!

For all the onerous topics that face the library, I believe that the best way to confront them is to teach our communities about them. I don’t believe that the public in general is apathetic to the issues that face libraries from publishers, content providers, and web companies; they just don’t know enough of the situation to consider involvement. I was reminded of Dave Meslin’s great (and short) TED talk on the barriers to involvement in politics. How can people know what is going on in the library or library issues if they don’t know how Overdrive operates, the terms under which databases provide access, or how social media generally funds their operations? Show them behind the curtain!

I teach all the computer classes at my library as well as offering help using the Overdrive system and our subscription databases. I tell people about the pro’s and con’s of sharing information on Facebook and Google and how they use any account information. I inform patrons that certain eBooks are not available because some publishers do not allow for library lending. I caution students and researchers that some of the results in a database search may have to be purchased unless it’s from an open access publication. For all the issues that I want the public to be informed of, I try to teach a class that relates to it or make it part of my reference desk repertoire.

For any who might be aghast at this suggestion or feel that I am acting out on behalf of an agenda rather than providing service, I should add a few things. First, teaching the class or skill comes first. When people leave the class or service desk, they know how to use Facebook, download books from Overdrive, or search the database. I’m not running a propaganda laden re-education camp in the computer lab or at the reference desk. Second, I am perfectly frank about the pros and cons of everything that the library offers. I don’t want them to discover something and have them come back with the accusation, “You never told me about this [glaring privacy invasion/hideous legal term of use/hidden huge cost]!”. I label all my personal opinions as such and offer both sides. Third, I emphasize that it is still up to them to make the decision. If I’m asked, I’ll tell them what I would do and why I would do it, but the decision is always theirs. Furthermore, I am still resolved to help them no matter what they choose.

Finally, I feel that the facts speak for themselves. Four of six major publishers do not allow for library eBook lending. As the newly coined saying goes, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product being sold” when it comes to internet or social media websites that collect personal information. There is academic research behind paywalls as well as open access resources that are equally credible and citable in papers. It’s a disservice to the community and to the profession to gloss over or dismiss some aspects in order to facilitate a happy-shiny-everything-is-rainbows-and-candy-here-in-the-library façade rather than confront the ugly (and sometimes uncomfortable) realities behind the goods and services people want to use. I am not in the turd polishing business. Quite frankly, given all of the spin that permeates our culture these days, a little candor goes a long way.

I believe there is nothing more subversive than an informed patron. So, go on. Teach a class.


*I will applaud Google and Facebook for simplifying their Privacy policy language, but they are still extremely verbose.

Fight the Future

“In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”

That quote by the English historian Edward Gibbon was a favorite of my Grandfather. So much so that he printed it out, framed it, and hung it in the family room. It was only years later that we noticed a spelling error (responsibility sans the b, a funny reminder of the man years later) and now it hangs in my apartment above a shorter set of bookcases.

I’ve been thinking about that quote since I read Anthony Molaro’s post, “Libraries Gave Up Control” last week. His self-described rant talks about the lack of control within the public library and his points should give the reader pause whether you agree with this overall premise or not. Personally, I think the issue is twofold: how much control over content, tools, and services do we have and is there a will to reclaim it?

As to the former, I can see the nucleus of a culture of complacency (or, for the cynical, laziness) argument. Why work towards the development of a better ILS or better databases presentation platforms or expanding rights over library content when we can pull out a catalog or get a vendor proposal or basically have someone else do it so we can use our time to complain about the lack of choices, services, or bureaucracy? If we can’t get it pre-packaged, ready to go from day one, then I guess it’s not worth having or doing. This is the kind of mindset that sends people to fast food places every night rather than cooking at home. Given the related obesity rates, we can guess how that’s going to work out in the long run. I sometimes wonder how many librarians go to work with the idea of a good day being one in which no one challenges them on how the library is run or the order of things. Not a good thought to contemplate given the current fluid nature of the profession.

In addressing the latter, I’d like to imagine there is a will to reclaim it (mainly because I’m an obnoxious optimist). Barbara Fister’s recent post about taking back librarian professional literature from publishing companies who would be all too happy to sell it back to us certainly warms my heart. Given the course of eBooks, perhaps it is a good thing that the majority of publishers are pulling out. To me, it signals a chance for libraries to assert their terms if publishers want to deal with us again in the future. (First term: no taking your ball home on whims.) In looking to reclaim our content and services, it’s going to be a fight, one which I suspect will be a marathon over the course of decades and generations of library professionals (as is always the case in a change in culture).

In returning to Gibbons, this will mean forgoing the security of packaged solutions and prefabricated services to reclaim the responsibility as cultural curators and information educators. This is not a wholesale rejection of library vendors, but a call to rethink how solutions to library problems are reached. I don’t think there is a better time to be a librarian, given this communication and information digital age that is coming into being. But, to me, I’d like to see less complacency and more agitation when it comes to our current practices.

Our collective future is at stake here.

If Libraries are More than Just Books, Then Where are All the Damn Technology Awards?

The first draft title for this post was “If Libraries are More than Just Books, then Why Are There So Many Damn Book Awards?” but I figured that some humorless literal folks would see it as a challenge to giving out book awards. I don’t have any qualms about recognizing authors and illustrators for their fine efforts and I’d rather not get bogged down sidetracked with the elaborate interworkings of the book awards world. However, if the case is being made that libraries are more than just books and then the largest and most visible library association in the United States (the ALA) hands out awards mainly to people who create books, then there is some sort of dissonance afoot.

In looking through the Awards and Grants page on the ALA website, the first section entitled “Books, Print, & Media awards” has thirty eight awards of which only three are for non-book accomplishments (ABC-CLIO Online History Award, Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Children’s Video, and the Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production). Two of these are duplicated “Youth Media Awards” which lists seventeen awards. None of these are for the creation, development, and/or use of technology in the library (although there could be a very muddled argument for the ABC-CLIO one).

To be fair, there are probably technology based awards in the Professional Recognition section; I only scanned the list for any that sounded promisingly and didn’t click on all of them. I will concede that there are probably some technology awards hidden in there that I just didn’t discover. But my counterargument would be that those professional awards don’t share the same stature as a Newbery or Caldecott or Printz accolades. They aren’t public facing nor further a idea that the library is collaborative learning space or internet and information access location.  

I will also concede that the awards I have mentioned specifically predate the digital age and are the product of years of reputation building. There is a lot to be said about the continued tradition of recognition in this aspect and I fully support the continuation of such awards. However, given the movement towards digital and technology integration into the modern library, shouldn’t there be national library association awards to reflect the innovations and efforts of individuals and industries that exemplify that?

Somebody call Bill Gates. He’s a fan of libraries and seems to know a thing or two about the digital age. He might just like the sound of the “Bill Gates Library Technology Award” complete with his face in a bronze medallion. Traditions start somewhere and this one should begin with recognizing the people who make library technology and information retrieval possible at a national level. If libraries are more than just books, then this would be a start to acknowledging it as part of our own professional culture.

Three Library Predictions for 2012

After covering the lessons learned in 2011, I want to look ahead to 2012. In considering current trends and trying to read the library tea leaves, I opted for just a few predictions for the upcoming year. In addition, I’ve rated them in the likelihood they are to occur.

#1: Here Come The Embargoes!

Publishers and other content creators are looking for ways to push people towards their revenue streams (namely, to buy the book or movie). In their estimations, the only way to do this is to have later release dates for books and movies for libraries. Penguin Group has removed its newest content from the digital library shelves (with the idea of adding them back in at a later date) and Warner Brothers is delaying releases to libraries for four weeks. Given the relatively minor ripples of reaction to these moves compared to the HarperCollin’s limited 26 checkouts shitstorm, my hunch is that publishers will move towards holding back digital editions for a few weeks in order to (in their thinking) push people towards buying the book. None of the Big Six publishers have pursued a limited checkouts idea and that move is coming up on its one year anniversary. But, in holding back content for a few weeks, it will skirt the issue. Sure, libraries will get it a little later than everyone else, but they’ll still get it.

(Of course, far be it from me to point out that one of the things that really moves sales is a quality product (when it comes to movies) or getting people to talk about authors and their latest releases (when it comes to books). I guess we can use our free marketing and shelf space for other things.)

Likeihood: 80%

#2: A Shift to Community over Collection

While some of this is based on content being under siege from the previous prediction, I feel that it will be an impetus to revamp the form and function of the library. While it will not be the bookless library of the Cushing Academy, the shift of a physical reference collection to digital combined, the expansion of digital collections (think backlist), and pressures to demonstrate greater value to the community will take the libraries being constructed now and those being renovated to eliminate shelf space in favor of other space use. Digital creation labs, community use rooms, or even just an expansion of seating and reading areas are just a few ways that the library will be finding new uses for their current spaces.

To repeat myself, I don’t think libraries will be eliminating the physical collection. I do believe that the expansion of ereaders (one in six people and growing) compared with already existing space considerations will put less physical objects on our shelves. In doing so, it will means that there will be more space for other activities and purposes.

Likelihood: 50%

#3: Overdrive gets competition

I’m mildly shocked that they didn’t get direct competition last year, but I think this year could see a viable competitor to Overdrive. Although, given the beating Overdrive took with the HarperCollins business and Amazon just about eating their lunch when it came to the Kindle lending program, I’m not too sure how eager anyone would want to be to step into the ring. However, if they can provide greater assurances for content security to the Big Six than Overdrive, than it eat Overdrive alive.

This is, of course, if publishers don’t withdraw into their intellectual property fortresses and stop library lending altogether.

Likelihood: 25%

In looking in my crystal ball this year, I didn’t have anything that really stood out. I think some things will stay the same (library association members running for office will offer platitudes how awesome libraries are and how they’d love to be their president without contrasting themselves with their opponents, people complaining about ALA and lack of jobs, and a whole lot of time will be wasted in committees, workgroups, and task forces while social politics trumps their efforts). It’s this lack of other trends that makes for few predictions when composing a list for this year.

In taking a quick look as to how I did last year, I made seven predictions. I’d say I got one right (there are more paywalls to content. Thanks NYT!) and the rest were just “I’m sure it sounded good at the time, but what the hell was I thinking?” Otherwise, I recall something I read earlier last year about how predictions of pundits tend to be worse than average. It seems their ideology tends to get in the way. In keeping this in mind, I’m going to get out of the way.

Any predictions you’d like to share for 2012?

Librarians Online Poll Results

Back at the end of August, I put together a poll asking librarians about their online activities. I stopped collecting data at the end of September and then completely forgot about it. So, in the category of “better late than never”, I’m going to share to the basic results here and make the resulting data available to anyone who wants it. (And here they are in different formats for download: Excel, Open Office, PDF, and the Original Google Document Spreadsheet.)

Here’s some basic visualizations from Google Documents.

Here are the results of 1,383 replies.






If you do happen to use the data, please let me know so I can see what your analysis yields.

The Ever Increasing Disappointment with eBooks

I’ve been wrestling with what to write about eBooks on the basis of the latest library eBook fiasco with Penguin Publishing. The more I think about it, the larger the enormity and complexity of the eBook issue grows. The word that keeps resonating in my head is ‘disappointment’, but possibly not for the reasons you might think.

When it comes to eBooks and publishers, I have to be quite frank: I really don’t give a shit whether they lend eBooks to libraries or not. I will come out and say that I prefer that they wouldn’t allow for library eBook lending simply because it will spare the profession the aches and pains of buying, pardon me, licensing content under terms that provide a very limited benefit to the library or the community served. I get it that licensing is the only way publishers feel comfortable with the arrangement since it ensures ultimate control over content. With an industry that is in flux, publishers want to protect their revenue streams and that the current leading strategy is to building a fortress around intellectual property. Even then, that’s not what bothers me about publishers and eBooks.

What irks me is when publishers continue to use language in their publicity and marketing about how they “value” or even “love” libraries. If this is how they treat an institution that they profess to value or love, then I think they need to check their working definitions of those terms. The love here sounds like the tactics of an unstable ex-flame who wants to get us into bed but won’t respect us in the morning. I can’t say that I speak for the majority of librarians, but I’m willing to guess that they don’t feel like a partner in this eBook issue nor do they feel valued or loved by the publishing companies. At best, this arrangement could be called shabby treatment; at worst it is marketing lip service to cover the veneer of contempt for librarian values that utilize the First Sale Doctrine and believe in the sharing version of the common good. I would call upon publishing companies to stop with these platitudes and start putting actions and policies that support these statement of support for the library as an institution.

As disappointed as I am with publishing companies, I have my own disappointment with my peers. We can’t be churning up a shitstorm every time a company makes a change when it comes to eBooks. We ceded that control when we signed on the line for the Overdrive contracts. Nor can we act surprised when a company makes a change after all of the articles and blog posts that tell us that the publishing industry is changing and shrinking in the last few years. They are trying to save themselves, so don’t act surprised when they do something dramatic.

It’s not like we can actually do anything about these policy changes or stances, either. Not because the publishing companies will resist our efforts, but that our own internal professional dysfunction will ensure that any action is mired with doubt and confusion. Suggest a boycott? Bring on the parade of people proclaiming how much it will hurt our communities. This swallow-our-pain-for-the-happiness-of-our-family bunch will bog down any boycott debates with references to the apparently inflexible librarian values such as access and availability (even if it means giving away our future). Those not on the parade will state how ineffective or misdirected a boycott is, as if the idea of showing power through economic embargoes is only for third world countries with crappy dictators. Start a petition? The ineffective/misdirected argument returns with a new spin as to not reaching the right people. In addition, the “I have trouble with the wording” people will arise from their linguistic crypts to suggest how the petition could be better (translation: for them to sign it) if there were a few major minor changes made.

Create a committee, task force, or delegation? We all know that the trouble with groups is that they are full of people and for librarians there will be grand discussions as to who should be on them with proper representation of every library type, variety, and size under the sun. Enter the pundits and blogosphere to provide the commentary as to this process, its results, and its goals. Nothing appears to get done but resume building, organization clout creation, and a reason to write a book on the topic. Walk away completely? Sure, it’s a bad deal but that’s nothing compared to the “bad librarian” guilt that is created whenever a item or service isn’t offered. We want Mrs. Smith to be able to download a book onto their Kindle (a transitional technology platform, by the way) even if it at the potential cost and risk of the library as an institution. Because our instant gratification culture has taught us that the important point in time is now, not ten or twenty years from now when licensing practices will have eroded away our ideals of culture cultivation and preservation. No, we’ll sail for the center of this storm, even if it costs us the ship.

I could go on, but I’m starting to take morbid delight in detailing these things.

In looking ahead, there has to be a number of get-your-shit-together moments. From publishers, it will have to be over how much risk they can accept when it comes to their digital properties. Until then, we will be at the mercy of their whims. For librarians, it will be about the actual cost of access and availability of eBooks. We can’t trade our dollars and principles for materials that do not match our institutional values. There will be some more dustups, more drama, and more blowups between publishers and librarians. I know we’ll get through it, but I’m not optimistic about how that might look in five or ten years from now. In the meantime, I just ready myself to be disappointed. 

Thoughts on the Destruction of the Library Universe (or something like that)

Recently, there were two articles that got my attention and gave me all those warm science geek feelings on the inside that I get when I hear something extraordinary. The first was a report I heard on NPR’s Talk of the Nation: Science Friday which raises the possibility that the laws of physics are not the same all over the universe. Specifically, that the strength of electromagnetism (the force that holds molecules together and a mathematical constant here on Earth) is found to be stronger or weaker in different parts of the universe. This means that life as we know it could never happen elsewhere because the bonds would never form or never break. In essence, the constants of the laws of physics may not be constant at all beyond our own tiny corner of the universe.

If the first story I mentioned was about bending the rules of physics, this one would be breaking them. The second article is about a set of experiments in which neutrinos were found to be traveling faster than the speed of light. Considering that “[t]he idea that nothing can exceed the speed of light in a vacuum forms a cornerstone in physics – first laid out by James Clerk Maxwell and later incorporated into Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity”, this would be some very big news indeed. While this is a long ways from being widely accepted within the scientific community, the mere notion creates wonder at what it means for the technology possibilities of the future. This is an exciting time to be alive.

In reflecting on these discoveries as it relates to the library world, the profession has certainly set forth a variety of constants (or standards or rules, whichever term you prefer). There are prevailing and controlling notions of what a library should offer its communities, how it should organize its materials, and what kinds of skills are required for the next generation of librarians. I can’t help but imagine that similar circumstances to the two scientific findings are present in the library world; that the things we like to think of as constants apply differently depending on the location and context or even go beyond the constraints that we believe exist.

Think about the constants (or some of the new constants) of the library and I want you to think about them in the context of your library. Do you really need a reference desk? Do you need to use AACR2 for cataloging? Can you measure your “output” on more than circulation, computer use, and attendance? Do you actually need a social media presence? Could you divert money away from the collection in favor of programming and services? Do you need more shelves and materials storage or couches, chairs, and benches? 

Even in limiting the scope of answers to just public libraries, I have a feeling that if you were to plot the answers there wouldn’t be a overarching consensus. Furthermore, I think it would show how absolutely fantastically diverse the public library community is (and I would daresay the same would prove true for other library types.) I contend that the constants we like to teach to the upcoming generation of librarians are actually highly contextual, remarkably situational, and possibly dangerously fixed. A lack of creativity will not kill off the profession as quickly as a lack of acknowledgement of the inherent flexibility within each library. No two libraries are truly the same, yet we try our damnedest to standardize and homogenize them through our approaches to collections, services, and design. Why is that?

I’m certain that I’ll get some pushback on this post in terms of people pointing to examples of libraries bucking or discarding something that is seen as a perfectly acceptable constant. I’m certain they exist and I applaud their efforts, but I still feel that the majority of libraries are woefully fixed to certain professional constants that may not be relevant, useful, or even pertinent. I’m looking forward to a deeper discussion in the comments.