Join Stephen Abram, Joe Janes, Karen Schneider, and Roy Tennant as they debate and discuss the latest and most contentious issues in Libraryland. As our library community takes up the challenge of Transforming Texas Libraries, this general session will be like no other: entertaining, enlightening, energizing, and (most importantly) all about the future of libraries and what we, as a professional community, need to do to control our destiny.
Stephen Abram, president, Special Libraries Association, and vice president of innovation, SirsiDynix; Joseph Janes, associate professor, Information School, University of Washington (Seattle); Karen Schneider, research and development consultant, College Center for Automation (Tallahassee, FL); and Roy Tennant, senior program officer, OCLC.
The session was designed as a conversation between the panelists with Roy Tennant as the moderator. He threw out a few provocative questions to start things off.
What keeps you awake at night? It could be a major challenge, something that worries you or a real opportunity that you get excited about.
Karen talked about the reemergence of reference. The kind of reference where you walk to the desk and ask for the population of Alaska is gone, but reference is becoming a specialized tool. Students won’t go to the library as the first place, but they do when they have a specialized need or when they get stumped.
Joe said that the “what’s the capital of Bolivia” ready reference kind of stuff is not over, but it’s such a small fraction of what they’ll turn to us for. If that’s what you convey to people that’s what you specialize in then they won’t come to you when they get stuck. [Excellent point!]
Your expertise is far better used when people get stuck, when they’re spending 45 minutes and getting nowhere, when they’re trying to accomplish something important. He would rather see us positioned as a conduit to the much larger institutions that we represent.
What keeps him awake is that we seem to love to fight about what is a librarian, how do we prepare people, who is, who isn’t. It has to be addressed because it’s always changing, so he’s ok with the conversation, but the temperature of that conversation has risen, and people want to lock that down. The worst time to do that is when everything is up in the air. Absolutely we have to keep having the conversation, and keep doing the same things, but it’s damaging to our profession that we’re crapping on the new graduates. We’re building a wonderful wealth of dinosaur literature. [Dinosaur in the sense that the dinosaurs didn’t die from climate change, they died from failing to adapt.]
Abram worries whether our colleagues are capable of making the changes that are coming. There are tons of people who don’t have a Facebook account but have very strong opinions about it. [They made the argument that how can you have an opinion if you don’t try it for yourself. I would offer that that isn’t the best argument. A glaring example might be heavy drug use. I’m pretty sure not very many people are going to tell me I can’t have an opinion on that without first trying it myself. But a much tamer example might be collection development. We select materials all the time based on what others have said about the item without reading every page ourselves. I personally think having a Facebook page is kind of like putting up a flyer at a local coffee shop – it certainly can’t hurt, but if none of your constituents go to that coffee shop, maybe your library doesn’t need to be doing that. You can certainly make an informed decision without signing up for an account.]
Karen said we are not an evidence driven profession. Someone will say “Our users don’t use Facebook, oh but we block it.” There’s a dogma about tools, about what people do and don’t do, but most of it is not evidence based. [I definitely agree that I would like to see more user surveys – even of the most informal nature.]
Abram – “You were so successful at getting kids not to smoke and drink by banning it.” [I could be wrong, but I don’t think most places are blocking Facebook because they think it’s bad for kids. They’re blocking it because people are hogging the computers. There may be other/better ways to handle the problem, but I think this was a misrepresentation of what’s going on.]
Janes said that when teachers say you can’t use Wikipedia we need to take those teachers aside in the faculty lounge. It’s about how to learn how to use the tool. [Yes! I’m huge on using the bottom of the page in Wikipedia to find articles and websites.]
If you don’t like Wikipedia, fix it. “Like my dad says – if you don’t vote you can’t bitch.”
Karen thinks Wikipedia should have been ours for the taking. Janes agreed, there’s more of us than there are of them.
[I think this argument gives librarians a little too much credit. Wikipedia is not something that can be “fixed.” It is what it is and as such is constantly evolving. Librarians taking over as stewards won’t change the fact that Colbert can ask people to change the numbers on the population of elephants and they’ll do it en mass. Librarian involvement would not change any of the inherent “flaws” of the tool. And there are more of them than there are of us. And they’re much more technologically savvy.]
The next discussion question was: If you could change one thing what would it be?
Abram would change the big picture confidence of our colleagues, give them the confidence to think way bigger, advocacy skills in a much more coordinated manner.
Karen would put a software developer in every library, or every country, or every state. We would be able to write our own software, have incredibly great applications. [I’m a huge fan of Karen’s but I’m thinking she doesn’t really know what all goes in to software development if she thinks putting one in each state is the way to go. (See the comments – she assumed collaboration while I was assuming silos.) At the very least it usually involves teams of people… I’ll take the sentiment behind it though and say that I am so in love with the fact that many talented librarians seem to be embracing open source and excellent things are being developed.]
Abram asked, “Can we develop a user experience?” He also kept talking about how we need more meat in the game, which I think sometimes meant more substance and other times meant more people? But it was an odd turn of phrase and particularly kept turning my non-meat eating stomach.
Janes would like to be able to go into the collective mind of the profession and flip the little default switch from no to yes. [What a lovely way to phrase that!]
Karen said someone will bring up user tagging and the next person will ask how can we control that?
Abram would like to see intergenerational mentoring – young and old know equal amount of stuff that’s different. [I felt this was based on an assumption that all young librarians are tech savvy and that’s just not true.]
Janes said the directors are trying to innovate, the youngns are trying to innovate, but the people in the middle are sitting there with their arms crossed and it’s so disheartening.
Janes tells his grads that there are people who are going to beat you down, you need to figure out how to work together.
They mentioned a Wilson Bulletin from the 50’s saying not to use phone reference – if they’re too lazy to come in they don’t deserve our help. So it’s not a new thing.
Where they start is up to them, where they finish is up to you. [I agree very much with the sentiment that we should provide as many ways to contact us as possible. We can always continue the communication using a more appropriate method.]
Another topic was the idea of risk mitigated by small trials. Janes said for those of you who want to try stuff – the most important thing you can do is fail – then tell us all about it. Maricopa used bisac instead of dewey and the profession was not supportive of the trial. If they had failed it would have “proved” to everyone, but things happen iteratively. We need a few more celebrated failures in this profession. [Oh how I agree with this!!]
Federated search is going to be messy for years. Having all this stuff digital is going to be hard and a mess. Google books the search engine is going to take time to get where we want it to be. It’s going to be very difficult to predict what people are going to want these for and what they’ll do with it.
There’s a different kind of scholarship, authorship, readership, creativity. Movies, podcasts, recordings are all valid formats.
Karen said this is an exciting opportunity for us to become curators – think beyond the books. We have to see it and seize it.
There are 2 sides – designing infrastructure and putting people out there. We have so much to contribute. “Free the authorities.” Show our candy.
The idea of embedded – that everyone is part of a community. Librarians posted comments on local community blogs, engage people where they are. [I think this is a great idea for communities that have that type of public forum or local bloggers!]
Karen said it’s not the user who’s remote, we are. We need to reach out and close that gap. It can be as simple as commenting on someone’s blog. [Though there is the question of how many small rural Texas communities have anyone blogging? But we can take the idea without the methodology – comment in the local paper, local PTA meeting, wherever would be relevant for your community.]
When we see something awesome at a library, why isn’t it in 50 other by 6 months? [Good point.]
Abram suggests reorganization of structure – from hierarchical to team based. Karen doesn’t think it’s the structure. She has been in team based structures are awful and hierarchical that are very nimble. It’s the people that need to change.
Abram asked – how do we do that?
Karen said some of that is teaching the young people how to go in there and not get frustrated.
Janes said that the new people are different and they’re different in interesting ways. They’re different in the way they think, more steeped in the technology. In many important ways they’re the same. They want to do good in the world, fight for access, do reference, tell stories, it’s just that they go about it in a slightly different way.
There is hope for the younger folks.
There was a nice defense of some of the feet draggers – think about their position – they entered the profession in 70s or 80s with a perception about the world – a world and profession that wasn’t going to change very much. But their world and perspective was knocked out from under them and they find themselves in a profession they did not sign up for. It’s not a surprise that some people decide this is all bad. But some decide, “I can be a better librarian.” That’s the way to engage these people. [Here here!]
The tools are better now, so you can do what you signed up for better.
They mentioned vodcasts from Cornell about how to do research. [I would strongly recommend though that if you’re going to have some form of media giving information that you have it in text too – remembering our learning styles – just because we can do video now does not mean that it’s the way that everyone prefers to learn.]
There was a joke about forming a 12 step program for librarians.
There’s the frustration from young librarians, “Why are they treating me like a child instead of a new colleague?”
There was talk that we need to be dong the policy work – the advocacy book. People are in denial about reaching supervisory/management. Janes said that part of it is making that attractive. What people come in wanting to do is this profession, why should they want to do the administrative – they’re not trained for that. How do we recruit people into the field that have this breadth of interests and background and experience? [There was a mention that 65% of incoming librarians don’t want to go into management. My question to that is, not everyone can be a manager, so what % do we need to be interested?]
Karen said that we have some really interesting development going on. We need to know more about them and celebrate them a little better.
The final question was – what one thing would you want to know more about?
Abram wants to know how information becomes knowledge. How do we get better at creating those educational items? What behaviors do we want? If we understood the dynamics of learning, society would be better.
Karen wants to know where Google will be in 20 years. If they’re like most technology companies they’ll rise and they’ll fall. When will their time pass? The Google antitrust is coming.
Janes wants to know what happens. There’s a lot going on and a lot of ways this could go. He can imagine a vibrant future or a very different future where we lose. This moment is incredibly fraught and could go either way.
Abram thinks we can do it.
Karen wants to know how we get through the transition from paper to digital. There will come a time when we make that transition. [I disagree that paper will be gone forever, but I agree that more and more is online and dealing with that transition is important. Providing information digitally removes some of the physical cues about what makes something an encyclopedia article or a journal article for example.]
How willing are we to embrace a world where we don’t own what we curate?
Janes said the library isn’t the building – its every time a person engages. The idea of the library has always been bigger than the building. As the stuff becomes increasingly non physical now its just much easier to do that.
We have to be better online. The kinds of services we offer online have to be better.
The idea of bricks, clicks and tricks:
The people we see in the library are different from the ones coming in online. We need to send the message that we improve access to resources – we’ve got the tricks – like an accountant or a doctor. We can all add and subtract, but we go to the accountant for the big things. We do basic nutrition but still go to the doctor for his medical expertise.
Karen said she goes to a lot of technology conferences, librarians have enormous respect and trust – we need to tap into and take advantage of that.
Janes encouraged us to talk to library school faculty work with each other, take internship students, recruit for us.
Abram urged us to develop a new culture of openness. Librarians need to learn when we study something to death that death was not our original goal.
I thought this ended on a wonderful note and had many wonderful notes throughout, but did tend to be repeatedly disparaging. There was a running joke about presenting a session on how libraries should go back to the good old days and then locking those people in that room and getting rid of them. There was also the overall vibe of “ugh, why aren’t we all doing this already!” and “can you believe these idiots we all have to work with?”
I’m going to quote myself here because this session brought up a lot of the same emotions for me as the future of the catalog session did.
My parting thought on this session is my general personal unease with the antagonistic approach that I frequently see when proposing important changes. I think that this session was well received, but I worry they were preaching to the converted. There’s something to be said for firing up the choir, but in terms of getting new recruits I wonder if we might not catch more flies with honey. “Look at all the wonderful options we can offer our constituents!” rather than “Get with the times or die!” I will readily admit that I’m probably more sensitive than most people, but I don’t see the need to be so disparaging toward what’s come before. Librarians did the best they could with what they had and now we have some great new tools in front of us that will take some time to learn how to use. This is an exciting opportunity! Let’s share that enthusiasm and optimism and try to put aside the negativity as much as possible.
Edited to add: Starr types much faster than I do, so for more on what the panelists said, see her notes.