Random Questions on Future Libraries from Scott McLeod

I enjoy reading Scott McLeod’s blog, Dangerously Irrelevant, because it challenges the status quo. He asks the questions that make us uncomfortable about the future of education (which is inextricably tied up in libraries, of course). He’s posted some questions as a result of some recently completed speaking gigs. I answer them here.

1. What constitutes a “book” these days? When books become electronic and thus become searchable, hyperlinkable, more accessible to readers with disabilities, and able to embed audio, video, and interactive maps and graphics, at what point do they stop becoming “books” and start becoming something else?

Most of us refer to the material in our collections as “items” rather than “books.” Because so many of them are not books anymore! We’ve been circulating records, tapes, CDs, DVDs, and other media for a long time now, so this is actually not a new concept. Libraries are story repositories, and whether those stories are accessible through hypertext, games, songs, movies, or any other form of media is sort of… um… irrelevant.

2. The Amazon Kindle e-reader currently allows you to annotate an electronic book passage with highlights and your own personal notes. Those annotations are even available to you on the Web, not just on the Kindle device itself. As Seth Godin notes, there hopefully will be a day when you will be able to share those notes with others. You’ll also be able to push a button on your e-reader and see everyone else’s notes and highlights on the same passage. What kind of new learning capabilities will that enable for us?

Just as today, your chosen learning community’s notes and annotations will have the most relevance for you. In the face of all the junk that will emerge (ever bought a used textbook in college with crazy unrelated notes in the margins?!), the people whose opinions matter most to us will guide our reading experience.

3. If students and teachers now can be active content creators and producers, not just passive information recipients, doesn’t that redefine our entire notion of what it means to be information literate and media fluent? Are our librarians and classroom teachers doing enough to help students master these new literacies (for example, by focusing on student content creation, not just information consumption and/or interpretation)?

Yes. No. The NETS standards and AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner, among others, should be used by teachers in every discipline to measure student learning. But they are typically only being used by librarians, which is unacceptable. Administrators must reemphasize the library as the hub of student learning, not just an adjunct classroom space. Librarians should be the Lead Learners in every school building, and every teacher should be required to consult with them on a regular basis in order to build lesson plans that incorporate appropriately awesome information sources (see, not just books!) with the aim of total information literacy.

4. The Cushing Academy boarding school in Massachusetts may be the first school in the country to have its library go completely electronic. In addition to using library computers, students now check out Kindles loaded with books. How tough would it be for other schools to move to this model (and what would they gain or lose as a result)?

Pretty tough with the Amazon business model available today. Developmentally appropriate and appealing texts are not always available in Kindle formatted e-books for young people. I have the inkling that they may have done this for publicity – where is their librarian in all this? It’s fairly suspect that their librarian is not the one in the spotlight here, it’s the school’s headmaster fronting the change. Take that as you will.

5. When books, magazines, newspapers, reference materials, music, movies, and other traditional library content all go electronic and online – deliverable on demand – what does that mean for the future of the physical spaces known as “libraries?” Mike Eisenberg said to me that we already should be taking yellow caution tape and blocking off the entire non-fiction and reference sections of our libraries. As content becomes digital and no longer needs to be stored on a shelf, with what do we replace that now-unused floor space: couches, tables, and cozy chairs? computer stations? meeting space? And if we head in these directions, what will distinguish libraries from other institutions such as coffee shops, community centers, and Internet cafes?

Public libraries are already converting reclaimed floor space into community areas, meeting rooms, and other usable spaces. And the difference between us and a coffee shop is that we’re a neutral space, a space in which all are welcome. Haven’t you seen coffee shops run off teens hanging out without buying coffee?!

What has, does, and will distinguish us from these spaces are LIBRARIANS. Your barista doesn’t know how to help you find a price guide for 19th century china dolls, or figure out what the primary motivations were of the Romantic poets, or locate the best resource for building an addition to your house (as well as getting the right permits for local construction!). We do all that and more on a daily basis without breaking a sweat – we’re trained information professionals.

6. Our information landscape is more complex than ever before. We still need people who know how to effectively navigate these intricate electronic environments and who can teach others to do so. But does that mean we still need “librarians” who work in “libraries?” Or will their jobs morph into something else?

Oh, they may call us something else. I personally like the Australian libraries calling themselves “knowledge centres.” But our essence will remain the same – people who are intimately familiar with locating and manipulating information. The information changes – we only change in response to its evolution.

7. How much of a librarian’s current job could be done by someone in a different location (for example, someone in India who answers questions via telephone or synchronous chat) or by computer software and/or an electronic kiosk? I don’t know the answer to this question – and I suspect that it will vary by librarian – but I do know that many individuals in other industries have been quite dismayed to find that large portions of their supposedly-indispensable jobs can be outsourced or replaced by software (which, of course, means that fewer people are needed locally to do whatever work requires the face-to-face presence of a live human being).

Although there are many folks in other countries who could answer basic factual questions through outsourcing, I would never imagine that I could replace, say, an Indian librarian in the same manner if only for the simple fact that I don’t have an entire lifetime sunk into reading Hindi-language books (not to mention absorbing the culture). The best librarians have been voracious readers and consumers of text/stories/movies/music since their wee years. It has an enormous effect on our ability to match the right person with the right materials. There is a lot of nuance needed, as well, in a good reference interview. Can an outsourced, distanced librarian help determine what the patron really needs instead of what s/he thinks s/he needs? You’d be surprised at the average library user’s inability to articulate clearly what information they need because of gaps in their existing knowledge – which is of course not their fault, but it’s why we have librarians in the first place.

8. Can a librarian recommend books better than online user communities and/or database-driven book recommendation engines? For example, can a librarian’s ability to recommend reading of interest surpass that of a database like Amazon’s that aggregates purchasing behavior or a dedicated user community that is passionate about (and maybe rates/reviews) science fiction books, and then do so for romance, political history, manga, self-help, and every other possible niche of literature too?

Maybe. Some librarians are better at this than others. (Keep in mind that purchasing behavior doesn’t indicate enjoyability.) Most of us librarians are already out there in those book communities, in LibraryThing and Goodreads and blogging and sharing and Amazon rating and everything you have mentioned. I think the real question is: without librarians, would these online resources be as awesome? 😉

9. If school librarians aren’t actively and explicitly modeling powerful uses of digital technologies and social media themselves and also supporting students to do the same, should they get to keep their jobs?

If they’re not at least actively learning about these things and trying to use them, then no. I don’t expect every single librarian to become a social media expert, but if a digital tool exists to help you do your job better then you better be using it. It’s not about using shiny new things for their own sake, it’s about finding the right tool to manipulate information.

And if they are doing so individually (which is what we want), what’s their responsibility to police the profession (and lean on those librarians who aren’t)?

You can lead a horse to water… ultimately, we have the responsibility to move our profession in the direction our patrons are leading us. We can choose, in our own institutions, to educate our fellow librarians or even get sneaky and coerce them into trying new technologies so that they can recommend them to patrons. Because the right information that our patrons may need in the future is not always going to be textual; it may be a tool.

10. There is no conceivable future in which the primacy of printed text is not superceded by electronic text and media. If that future is not too far away (and may already be here), are administrators doing enough to transition their schools, libraries, and librarians / media specialists into a new paradigm?

Nope, they’re not doing enough. Not collectively, anyway. But can you blame them? What with No Child Left Behind and testing and pep rallies and the weight of collective school culture and tradition, how on earth can they transition into a new paradigm? We need radical change for education – revolutionary improvements rather than incremental attempts at change – in order to move into the new information world of the 21st century.

4 Comments on “Random Questions on Future Libraries from Scott McLeod

  1. Excellent responses. Loved the textbook analogy in particular. I read the McLeod piece & wondered how anyone still thinks that most school libraries are about "books" as opposed to "resources". Also, I appreciate your acknowledgment of the fact that school librarians (and research/info lit skills) are not always as central to the curriculum as they should be. I can't wait to share this with my colleagues (and administrators).

  2. A great post. Thank you. One quick thought for now: a more thoughtful response from me later…Aren't your libraries full of "books?" I think they are. It doesn't matter what you or I call them, the average person on the street calls them … (drum roll, please) … "books." And books are changing, which means you'll have fewer and fewer of them on the shelves every year (except for archival purposes), which means you won't need as much shelf space or floor space or library workers to shelve / organize or … (and the same is true of all of your other hard media resources too, such as CDs, DVDs, newspapers, magazines, microfiches, government reports, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and so on)

  3. Kris – thanks for reading. What really scares me are the virtual schools that aren't actively providing ambient library services for distance learners. But that's a whole other topic – first, we have to get to the point where it's just as important to have a credentialed & knowledgeable librarian in your building, as, say, a principal.Scott – Yes, you raise a good point. To the general public, the library "brand" is still the good old book. What we need to do collectively as a profession is to tweak and transform the brand into a more inclusive concept – why I like the Shanachies' idea of the story-centered library so much. (http://www.shanachietour.com)And I'll concede the fact that automation and digital copies of books means we'll need fewer hands pushing carts up and down the stacks, and we will probably gain back some space that can be used in other ways (I'd like to take out a range of shelving or two and create some recording booths, myself!). Our image as a book warehouse will hopefully merge with the concept of being a place where you can also create your own stories, and remix existing ones.But we will need more people than ever helping us to sort through the avalanche of content that is going to be available online. If we purchase access to a digital copy of a book, we are then obligated to make that book findable – which, in the 21st century, is a lot more complicated than plopping it on a shelf and wishing it the best of luck before weeding season starts. It's up to us to start creating relevance and pushing the information out into the world. For every best-seller like the Da Vinci Code that will be tagged and labeled and linked by the average person, there are many more works out there waiting to be discovered.One of the best qualities a librarian can have is to not only give the patron what they need today, but to anticipate what they might need tomorrow as well. Since we're the ones jumping into the ocean of information every day as part of our jobs, we're in a unique position to match people with resources they didn't even know existed. And that's why we have librarians – not because everything is findable in a miscellaneous world, (http://bit.ly/everythingmisc) but because it's nearly impossible to find what you need if you don't know what to call it, or don't know that it exists at all.

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