If Information is Food, What Does It Mean to Say, “You Are What You Eat”?

I recently watched a TED talk by J.P. Rangaswami entitled “Information is Food”. His premise (for those of you who aren’t going to watch the video right now) is that information is the input for the mind just as food is the input for the body.  Our creation, cultivation, and consumption of information follow similar patterns to that of its food model. In essence, the information we take in to our bodies shapes our minds just as the food we eat shapes our bodies. He ends with a question: what would we do differently with our information consumption if we treated information as food?

This particular TED talk got me scribbling notes even before it was over. As someone who thinks of himself as an information professional, the idea of information being akin to food brought up some disturbing questions and line of thoughts. If information is food, what does that make a library? In accepting that “information equals food” analogy premise for the purpose of this blog post, I’m not sure it’s a good thing for libraries.

Even before this TED talk, there was a “library is an information buffet” analogy that existed; that a library had something for everyone’s taste. But in looking at the real food equivalent, the buffet has come to symbolize the growing rise of obesity in the United States. People have taken the guideline of ‘all you can eat’ as a challenge and put enough food into their bodies to blow the doors off their daily recommended caloric limit. Could a similar parallel be drawn between the constant contact of mobile devices, the near limitless number of internet sites, and print, television, and radio broadcasts? In working on portraying libraries as being “more than just books”, there is a push to showcase other media: DVDs, CDs, magazines, tapes, and now the expansion of digital content. Are we now setting up our own buffet in this age of information excess? Are we part of a overarching system that works to cater to the (for lack of a better term) information obese?

In taking this food buffet analogy further, librarians strive to not make distinctions between certain types of information. It would be like placing the crème pie and vodka penne sit next to the salads and Greek yogurt and telling people there was absolutely nothing different between these dishes. It’s the same as having book displays with Salman Rushdie and Jonathan Franzen sitting next to Fifty Shades and the Snooki novel. Whatever you want to read/eat, this is a judgment free zone. In fact, we encourage you to stuff your face/mind so long as you keep coming back. That doesn’t sound healthy in the slightest in either way that you consider it. This basic premise that “all books are equal” falls flat when so many librarians rely on book reviews to assist in collection development. Material is purchased on the good words of another as to why it would be an asset to a collection. Someone made a judgment to purchase a title over another title with a lesser recommendation. Why this sudden façade of neutrality when it hits the shelves?

One might argue that it is imperative for the librarian to be neutral in order to allow the library member to make a decision on the basis of their own preferences. I can get behind that notion up until the point where the person asks a librarian for a recommendation. After years of careful cultivation of the literature expert image, this is where our bias should show and work toward recommending better literature. This is not wholesome ignoring the wants and preferences of a library member, but showing our expertise in steering people away from junk food literature to the nutritionally sound prose. People are still welcome to pick up that Big Mac equivalent of a book, but they should be aware of the grilled chicken salad-like hardcover.

Some of my readers are probably wondering how this squares with a belief in information access. Such an important principle and concept is not lost on me here; I am still a believer and an advocate for it. But I can’t help but feel that the reality creates a fine line between unfettered and reasonable. I would always try to lean in favor of the former in terms of materials, but as a member of a profession that claims expertise in information cultivation, I cannot help but think that such a skill be applied to make it more in line with the former. In light of the food analogy, it behooves us to point out the better information and literature.

Nor am I advocating for censorship either. Go on and buy the Snooki book or Fifty Shades because of the popular demand for such titles, but there is nothing that says one has to highlight or prominently display the ownership of said items. Inclusion in the collection does not mean it has to be marketed or advertised in light of better options. Such material and its ilk can reside with the rest of collection.

Granted, not all libraries fall into this analogies so neatly. The narrower the collection, the less buffet-like the results are. This puts public libraries firmly in the Golden Corral camp with school and academic libraries in the middle somewhere and special libraries somewhere at the bottom. Just like many bloggers that write about libraries, your mileage from this post may vary on the basis of type.

Librarians like to imagine that they are curators and cultivators of information, but when the goal is to collect the best of the broadest amount of media and materials, I think it can get a bit murky. If information is food, then librarians are nutritionists. People will consume what they want when it comes to either food or information, but that doesn’t mean that librarians can’t work to make a difference in educating their patrons about sources, in pointing them to better authors and materials, and cultivating better information consumption practices. The Twinkie and the celery stick can sit next to each other on the shelf, but their nutritional information gives away what they offer the body. Librarians should consider the same examination of information nutrition when purchasing materials, making recommendations, and caring for their communities.

TEDxLibrariansTO Video

At the invitation of the TEDxLibrariansTO organizers, I made a video about their theme “Librarians as Thought Leaders”. Even at eight minutes, I feel like I scratch the surface regarding some of the issues I bring up. However, I feel that TEDx conferences are merely places to plant idea seeds and foster conversations. In that spirit, I hope the video does just that.

Enjoy. And leave your thoughts and comments here rather than on the YouTube page, please.

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. 

Salem Press Blog Awards 2011

This year, I will be a judge for the Salem Press Blog Awards. I won First Prize for Best Public Library blog last year and I was thrilled when Peter and Mirela asked me to judge the contest this year. I look forward seeing the nominees (as well as adding them to my ever increasing Google Reader feeds).

If you want to see the winners from last year (as well as the other blogs nominated), Salem Press has left them up on their site. You can also see who else was nominated in the various categories.

Not to co-opt this post with another contest, but TED is having auditions for TED talks. You need to create a one minute video to start (due April 25th) and they are looking for crazy fun uses of technology. So, take your chances with either/both!

Would You Like Fries With That Checkout?

In watching the ever brilliant Sir Ken Robinson’s most recent TED talk (seriously, read this post and then go watch it above, or vice versa), I thought of one question to ask my professional peers in libraryland:

Are you a fast food or Zagat/Michelin type of library?

Fast food is structured around standardization; the ability to create a reliable product quickly and efficiently. There are policies, there are rules, and there are no exemptions. It is about getting a product to a patron; they can take it or leave it.

A Zagat or Michelin restaurant is made around the local tastes and influences; in essence, a local experience. These are places where chefs create meals that resonate with the local populations, tailored and customized to the local flavors and traditions. It is about a personal product crafted to the person; it is made for them.

People can easily find a standard product for books, movies, magazines, and music in other places: it’s called a bookstore. Why on Earth would libraries attempt to recreate such a standard presentation and product? Is it the difference between doing what it easy and doing what is good?

So, I ask again: are you a fast food or Zagat/Michelin type of library?

ALA Annual Countdown

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Like many of my fellow professionals, I will be attending the ALA annual conference this week in Washington DC. I’m excited to be attending my first annual national conference; I’ve attended my state conference a number of times over the past couple of years. After the Midwinter meeting, I’m pretty interested to see what the full deal looks like. (And I’m looking forawrd to the eventual end to all of the email and snail mail that I’ve gotten in the last two weeks. I almost threw out the envelope with my conference card in it because it was in the same mail pile.)

I will be crossing off one thing from the career bucket list: presenting at ALA. On Saturday at the Washington Convention Center (Room 203), I will be one of the speakers for the “Advocacy and Social Media” program sponsored by REFORMA and PLA. I will be giving the full account of the saga of the “People for a Library Themed Ben & Jerry’s Flavor” campaign, from the start to finish (virtual finish, because there isn’t much left to be done). For this talk, I’m going to be taking TED Commandments to heart; I hope to make it a fun experience for all those who attend.

I’ve been refining my notes for the talk, but I’m having a hard time getting myself to settle down and give a few practice talks. I’m confident in the material that I have and the style I wish to present it in, but I have yet to time it out or figure out some of the smaller details. I find that rehearsing makes me more confident and relaxed for the real deal, but getting myself to settle down and rehearse… that’s another deal. Still, I will have something to say that Saturday and it will fill up 15-20 minutes of program time (or possibly 25).

The other part of the appeal is the location itself; I’ve been meaning to visit Washington for a long time. As a history buff, it’s just one giant location loaded with items from the nation’s past. I’ve penciled in some tourist time, but it’s not a lot overall so I have to pick my sights carefully. Hopefully, I will not get consumed in the other activities (both conference and social) that I will not be able to take the time. But at least Washington is a short trip away from New Jersey, so I can always come again at a later time.

For those interested, I have constructed a “ALA newbie” list on Twitter. You can follow the tweets of people attending their first conference. I’m looking forward to checking in on the list and see how other people’s experiences are going.

I’ll see people in Washington. If you see someone who looks like this, be sure to stop me and say hello!

TEDxNJLibraries Takeaway

cropped-tedxnjlibraries[1]This past Friday, I had the privilege of attending the TEDxNJLibraries conference at the Princeton Public Library. The theme for the conference was “Culture and Community”, a pair of topics that was deftly addressed by the speakers chosen. As the afternoon progressed, I heard passionate speeches about people, places, and circumstances that moved the speakers. As the world shifts and the lines of connection grow thicker, in the days afterward, I found myself asking, “What does culture mean? What does community mean?” The amount of isolation that exists in the world is dimming as the means of communication grows faster, cheaper, and more prevalent. This is not to say that culture and community are disappearing, but the walls between different forms of them are becoming translucent and permeable.

One of the talks that stuck with me was by Francis Schott, one of the Restaurant Guys. He was talking about the value of places where people can meet, interact, and enjoy each other’s company in the time of the meteoric rise of online communities and social media. In our rush to connect the world, we are touch with some of the things that go with socialization: empathy, emotional cues, and some social norms of civility in interaction. As someone who has followed different stories about New Jersey libraries in the news, I cannot help but wonder as to some of the commenters on some of the news pieces. It is hard to imagine that anyone would actually speak the things that are written if there was a actual human being physically present at the other end of the conversation. In thinking on it further, some of the comments left on library and librarian blogs that I frequent really have me shaking my head. For a more specific example, the people on both sides of any given issue on The Annoyed Librarian blog over at Library Journal really concern me as these commentators are (I can only presume) professional peers. Regardless of how you might feel for the AL, if someone were to say to you some of the comments that are left on that blog, you’d think they were a deeply disturbed or a sociopath.

Even without anonymity, there seems to be some breakdown of social norms. My monitoring of the “Save NJ Libraries” Facebook page has given me a few examples of people actively engaged in attempting to incite people within the group via derogatory comments and inflammatory statements. The practice, colloquially referred to as ‘trolling’, has induced me to keep a close eye on what appears on the page and remove uncivil or inappropriate postings. Even with their real name and picture, it will not deter people from associating themselves with the most ignorant and/or hurtful pronouncements. Likewise, I have seen similar uncivil behavior on Twitter. On one occasion directed towards me, I was told that I was an asshole and blocked by the offended user simply for questioning the basis of their opinion as to a particular stance on a library issue. (I’m not the only one to have a run-in with this individual, as some of my Twitter friends have been told how awful they are for holding differing opinions and subsequently blocked by this individual. It’s a nice validation to know that your experience is not alone and that this person is the issue.) I think this is the rough equivalent of having a near stranger walk up to your seat at a conference, scream obscenities at you, and then ban you from their library in perpetuity for asking them why you put the fiction on the left side of the library rather than the right. And this is supposed to be a professional colleague, one for whom you are looking to rely on for larger national library issues and other important matters.

Even with that said, I think the state of the library blogosphere is pretty civil overall; it is these aforementioned cases that are the exception to the rule. And I’d rather not think that the TEDx conference left me on a sour note for the state of discourse in the librarian social sphere and the greater societal realm. There were great talks about what microfinance is doing here in the United States and in countries around the world. I got to hear about taking jazz to school kids around the country and taking rock music to the Middle East are bringing new perspectives to the next generation. To me, the power of the communication and transportation technologies lies in allowing people to share and celebrate in the other cultures and communities in the world. Even with the advent of the television bringing images of far away lands into people’s living rooms, the instruments and tools of media and mobility today take it a step further in allowing for more immersive travel experiences. You could watch it on television, or you can hop a plane and be there within a day: those are radical experience choices that are becoming more accessible every day.  

As a fleeting thought, I wondered if the library experience is our remaining attraction. In the same way that Starbucks does coffee and Five Guys does burgers and fries, people will pay more for a premium quality product and experience. Translate this over to a tax line or levy and you get roughly the same equivalent. Our competition is not the bookstores, the internet, Google, or coffee shops; rather, our competition is ourselves. It is up to libraries to provide an experience that is reflective of the communities served; I think people want something that reminds them that this is their library in their hometown. While the majority of our materials and resources are national and international in origin, it is the local staff and materials that make the local library experience unique.

Analog Advocacy

I saw this TED talk a couple of days back and posted it on my Facebook account. But it stuck with me over the days since I first saw it (and not just because I’m attending TEDxNJLibraries at the end of this week). Because as much as I work with using blogs, email, Facebook and Twitter to promote my work and connect with other people of similar mindsets, this talk really made me think about how much of advocacy comes back to the personal connection. Whether it is face to face discussion, the pencil or pen written word, or a craft made with one’s own hand, there is still so much power to those objects and encounters in which time is invested.

Don’t get me wrong. The internet is a powerful communication tool. With Capwiz, email lists, Facebook groups, Twitter tags, message boards, and chat interfaces, you can move an idea or concept or call to action very quickly from your desktop to hundreds (if not thousands) of people within your digital reach.  There is still a disparities between internet action and real world action. If someone got 10,000 people to send an email on behalf of libraries, that’s a lot, right? But how does it compare to 10,000 people writing a letter? Or 10,000 people protesting library cuts? The physical presence of the number of letters, nevermind the number of people, provides an assertion of purpose that the email cannot (short of causing an email server to crash, but again, that’s something physical in the act of failing). In the end, the internet is just that: a communication tool.

I’m sure there are people who are reading this and saying, “Yes, but XYZ did this and stopped land development/saved a little girl with cancer/made a government think twice”. My contention is that the majority of those types of online campaigns are merely the exception, not the rule. It tapped into the right kind of public outcry, but I’m willing to bet most cases had a physical “I-called-the-office-of-the-[insert title here]-to-complain” type of component to it.

My overall point is that human beings put greater meaning and value onto things in which we know other people invested their time and talent. As much as we try to direct people to websites, Facebook groups, and preprinted postcards, we should always be working towards that Holy Grail of Advocacy: the person who take time to communicate something personal on behalf of the cause of the library.