.: 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 Any technology that is no longer useful, that is either not needed or has been superseded by something better or easier to use, will die out.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.
[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.]