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June 21, 2006

Hiatus

.: It's been two weeks since the last post. I was in Baltimore for SLA, and spent a few days there afterwards, visiting DC and Annapolis. I returned to Edmonton on June 18th.

The pace of dealing with two concurrent jobs is consuming much of my time these days, so I will be taking a brief respite from posting on STLQ until further notice. You may see posts from other STLQ contributors in the meantime. Thanks to all who continue to read and support this blog. - Randy

June 7, 2006

The 24 Theses: The Library Revolution Will Be Blogged

.: I long ago gave up trying to be one of those library bloggers who blog each bit of library news, trends, gadgets or technologies. The wheat has been separated from the chaff, and this little bloglet fell distinctly in the latter category. To be an effective blogger means to scout constantly for pertinent items and to be able to post about them (cogently) pretty much the instant that they appear. Steven Cohen has it down pat, but it wasn’t for me. Sometimes, however, something comes along that catches my eye that I want to make sure that I think about, pass on and maybe even write about. A recent post to Karen G. Schneider’s Free Range Librarian blog is one of those somethings. If you haven’t yet read it, go read it now.

The first item in what I’ll call the Progressive Librarian’s Manifesto is:

All technologies evolve and die. Every technology you learned about in library school will be dead someday.

A fellow librarian responded: “that the book is also a technology that may die is not necessarily a good thing.” Books are, of course, a technology that did not exist before a certain point in time, but will they die or will they evolve? What is a book but a chunk of information, organized and sometimes indexed, delivered in portable form? It’s interesting to note that, using this definition, most “e-books” aren’t really books at all (thinking of netlibrary here). However, e-ink and FOLEDs may change this. I think the future book will look very much like the portable information tablets that were used on Star Trek: The Next Generation, if, that is, the world can ever agree on standards that ensure that your information content will work on my device. Think about it: there are “standards,” real and de facto, in the paper-book world: most books are generally one of 3 or 4 sizes; most consist largely of black print on white or beige paper; most have type not smaller than a certain size; many have images containing a certain level of detail and captions that must be legible. The future book will likely have several things in common with all future books that speak to our books’ versions of portability, durability, legibility and (let’s face it) markability. My point is that technology—any technology—is only a tool with which we as librarians satisfy information needs. Any technology that is no longer useful, that is either not needed or has been superseded by something better or easier to use, will die out. As information needs change, so must our tools. Until there is a true electronic equivalent of paper books that can be as familiar and flexible and ubiquitous as books are currently in our homes, classrooms, and libraries, no librarian should think that books are in real danger of going the way of the 5 1/4” floppy disk. On the other hand, standing orders and approval plans, ever-expanding responsibilities and our own noble sense that each library must function as a stand-alone repository of knowledge have let us get a bit lazy when it comes to books. Do we really need a copy of Plato’s Republic in every library in every nation? How about Fast Food Nation or Who Moved my Cheese? The point I’m trying to make is that there are space and money gains to be made in resource sharing, digitization, and other initiatives that will allow us to populate our bulging shelves more thoughtfully and effectively. (What if Netflix offered books?!)

You fear loss of control, but that has already happened. Ride the wave.

I feel certain that this is a true statement, though I cannot say why or on what levels. We certainly cannot control user behavior and can only anticipate (not control) user needs.

I think that this item is a companion thesis to “The user is the magic element that transforms librarianship from a gatekeeping trade to a services profession.” There is tremendous tension in librarianship today between the “old guard” librarians* and recent graduates and others who are embracing and calling for change. “Our profession is in crisis!” you are wont to hear and read. Our profession has been in crisis of one stripe or another for decades now,** and it is this thesis that really illustrates this. It’s the Gatekeeper Librarians who fear loss of control and are hence threatened by Google, threatened by new librarians, threatened by change. But it is not only the custodians of traditional library materials (i.e. books) who are resistant to change but reference librarians, technical services librarians, interlibrary loan folk and administrators, profession-wide. I have heard librarians over the years eschew web redesign and usability studies because the library web site “is a tool just like any other reference tool and must be taught to our users”, librarians pooh-pooh federated search because it dumbs down complex interfaces and prevents confused undergraduates from exploding terms and using thesauri, librarians halt progress in interlibrary loan and document delivery because it might result in “too many” requests. Is it really a bad problem to have if users are knocking down our doors? Why is it that librarians and library staff are so resistant to making our materials and services easier for patrons to use?

* I do not mean the “Old guard” to indicate anything disparaging about librarians over 40 nor about the value of many years of work experience.

** See Chapter 1, “Introduction: Crisis culture and the need for a defense of librarianship in the public sphere” in John E. Buschman’s Dismantling the Public Sphere: Situating and Sustaining Librarianship in the Age of the New Public Philosophy. Westport: Libraries Unlimited, 2003.

Finally, the tenet that really spoke to me was:

The average library decision about implementing new technologies takes longer than the average life cycle for new technologies.

I’m not suggesting that libraries adopt every new thing that comes down the pike or buy every gadget appearing in Wired, but in order to remain vital in our users’ lives, we must stop being afraid of failure, stop insisting that things be perfect before they are rolled out, and stop judging technologies unworthy of our blessing or our use. Public, school, and academic libraries must become nimble, adaptable organizations that are not afraid to say yes. There are several theses in this meme that suggest that libraries must change faster, meet users where they are, and meet users’ needs no matter what they are; these are the most important, in my mind. We have been surpassed by the Internet (let’s face it, we’ve already lost that battle when even we begin most searches with Google), and in order for libraries to continue to exist as place, we must give the users what they want, when they want it, and in the format and location that they want it. If we don’t, librarians will be the next elevator operators.

I suspect that the “discussion with the passionate young librarian who cares” centered around the average library OPAC and its inflexibility and near-complete opacity to users. Compare the average library catalog to even the “worst” internet search engines. There are thousands of very, very smart people dedicated to figuring out how to turn keyword searching of billions of web pages—most of which are crap—into a reliable list of links to the information that we seek every day. Reliable links to information? Isn’t that what libraries are all about? Why is it, then, that ILS vendors aren’t working feverishly to break out of the OPAC mold, striving for interoperability, harnessing the power of the 2,000-plus MARC fields and subfields? I’ll posit that it’s because their primary customers aren’t library users, who take their business elsewhere very quickly when they don’t strike gold in the library. ILS vendors’ primary customers are librarians who are very much invested in preserving the status quo. To paraphrase the Manifesto, “the average significant development to a library OPAC takes longer for the vendor to implement than the average life-cycle of that technology.” Compare Integrated Library Systems to flickr, which recently implemented a significantly different iteration of their user interface. It was not labeled “flickr 06,” “flickr 2.0,” or “flickr PS,” it simply was. The flickrites have already made changes to that new interface, I’m sure at the behest of the very vocal user community. It’s companies and services like flickr that will be alive and kicking in the future.

There is much more that I could write about the new Manifesto, but mostly I want to cheer. No, I don’t think that libraries should throw the baby out with the bathwater, but instead of grousing about falling reference statistics and empty buildings, we should be innovating, meeting our users halfway. The dam is leaking, but it likely won’t break substantially until one of two things happens: inflexible librarians rotate out of library organizations or a critical mass of users go elsewhere permanently. I believe that there is also enough buzz in non-library literature about the “peril” that academic libraries are in to effect some change there.

We’ll see.

[True Confession(TM): many thanks to libraryman Michael Porter for much food for thought and many of the above ideas, gleaned from his Most Excellent "Keep up!" workshop. OCLC, you need to offer that workshop many more times a year than you do now; it's among the most important things you do.]

[Please note: Cindi also posted this to her blog, Chronicles of Bean.]

The Fragility and Shelf Life of Digital Data

.: Bob Michaelson posted a link to an interesting article on the looming crisis involving the storage and preservation of digital data. The article is titled Fragile digital data in danger of fading past history's reach. The key problem of course, is that digital storage media keep changing. A book is a book is a book. The paper may deteriorate over time, but the format hasn't changed for millenia. Except:

The problem is that, compared to the sturdy format of paper and books, digital information is extremely fragile, disappearing as software becomes obsolete, hardware breaks down and viruses wipe out volumes.

"Digital media can be very ephemeral. They can decay," says Anne Okerson, of the Council on Library and Information Resources. "For example, will a Word or Word Perfect document still be readable in 10 years, several versions later? Mine aren't ... how about a CD? Doubtful."

Even if the media on which information is saved endure for years, what happens when the technology to extract and read it becomes obsolete?

Jon Prial, IBM's vice president of content management, asks, "If something is saved digitally now, the question becomes, can I save a CD somewhere for 1,000 years? If I can, will there be something to play it on?"

Obsolete formats are also mentioned. At home, I have two reel-to-reel audio tapes, and nothing on which to play them. How many of us still have 5.25" floppies? Camera companies are ceasing or have already stopped making cameras which use film. Audio and video cassettes are the latest technologies to be mothballed by the manufacturers.

It's a serious concern that shows no immediate signs of resolution.

June 6, 2006

Miss This At Your Own Peril: Karen Schneider - The User Is Not Broken

.: Via Kenton's blog, The User Is Not Broken: A Meme Masquerading As A Manifesto by Karen Schneider. It is, as Kenton notes, a must read for all of us, especially any who remain stuck in a 20th-Century mindset. Featuring 24 observations, it is more than a wake-up call for where we are heading, akin to a good slap in the face. Are libraries and librarianship headed the way of the slide rule, typewriter, and 8-track? No longer are users required to begin their information or literature searches with an online catalogue, and yet, with one or two exceptions, collectively we are doing nothing about it. This is but one example of where we remain stuck in an old mindset.

Schneider writes: "Launched after a discussion with a passionate young librarian who cares. Please challenge, change, add to, subtract from, edit, tussle with, and share these thoughts." I will do so here, reprinting the entire post, and encourage you to respond directly to Karen, and to forward her post to others who would benefit from this brilliant entry.

All technologies evolve and die. Every technology you learned about in library school will be dead someday.

You fear loss of control, but that has already happened. Ride the wave.

You are not a format. You are a service.

The OPAC is not the sun. The OPAC is at best a distant planet, every year moving farther from the orbit of its solar system.

The user is the sun.

The user is the magic element that transforms librarianship from a gatekeeping trade to a services profession.

The user is not broken.

Your system is broken until proven otherwise.

That vendor who just sold you the million-dollar system because "librarians need to help people" doesn't have a clue what he's talking about, and his system is broken, too.

Most of your most passionate users will never meet you face to face.

Most of your most alienated users will never meet you face to face.

The most significant help you can provide your users is to add value and meaning to the information experience, wherever it happens; defend their right to read; and then get out of the way.

Your website is your ambassador to tomorrow's taxpayers. They will meet the website long before they see your building, your physical resources, or your people.

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to find a library website that is usable and friendly and provides services rather than talking about them in weird library jargon.

Information flows down the path of least resistance. If you block a tool the users want, users will go elsewhere to find it.

You cannot change the user, but you can transform the user experience to meet the user.

Meet people where they are--not where you want them to be.

The user is not "remote." You, the librarian, are remote, and it is your job to close that gap.

The average library decision about implementing new technologies takes longer than the average life cycle for new technologies.

If you are reading about it in Time and Newsweek and your library isn't adapted for it or offering it, you're behind.

Stop moaning about the good old days. The card catalog sucked, and you thought so at the time, too.

If we continue fetishizing the format and ignoring the user, we will be tomorrow's cobblers.

We have wonderful third spaces that offer our users a place where they can think and dream and experience information. Is your library a place where people can dream?

Your ignorance will not protect you.

Posted by K.G. Schneider on June 3, 2006 10:56 AM | Permalink

Amen to it all. Now, where do we go from here?

June 1, 2006

IoP Librarian Insider

.: IoP's Librarian Insider Issue 7 is available.