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.

Happy 2nd Anniversary from IL2009

I’m excited to celebrate 2 years of blogging here! I wanted a new place to collect library thoughts so began this blog at IL2007 in order to do just that. This has been a great space for me to explore the random library, education, and literature-related ideas that flow through my head. Sometimes I feel like I should have named this blog schooling.ME because that’s a more accurate way to describe it 🙂 Having a dedicated blog space has really helped me to think deeply about all the bits and scraps I read about in my RSS feeds, tweet about on Twitter, and text about with friends.

That said, there are even more issues (relatively speaking) this year at IL as compared to two years ago. I have been following the Twitter backchannel chat and trying to pull out the themes that seem to be dominating the conversation this year:

THANKS. First, thanks to all who attended our presentation yesterday, with @lorireed & @librarianbyday & myself (@erindowney). For the lady in the audience who wanted to learn more about RSS, I recommend my wiki at http://cyber64edu.wetpaint.com/page/aggregators%2Freaders and to follow up with http://tinyurl.com/2rf25c . Good luck and drop me an email if you’re not feeling it gel for you!

PART ONE from Bobbi Newman
PART TWO from me:

NOSTALGIA. Despite our love of all things shiny & techno, there was a lot of talk in the keynotes about the solitary experience of reading, the scent of paper, and the sensory cues that tune us into this alternate world of deep contemplation. Although we acknowledge that libraries provide a new and wonderful node of community convergence, walking the line between preserving that singular & personal experience with information and the collective experience with the same is proving difficult for us emotionally. (Imagine how this affects how our patrons see us!)

CONTROL. Directors and other decision-makers are no clearer, according to attendees, about the fact that controlling dialogue online is at best illusory and at worst dictatorial. Transparency and extension of professional trust is the sentiment of the day. The boat has sailed: Internet communication means that we’ve created a sort of uber-democracy where voices cannot be stifled, no matter how much we may not want to hear them. The new proactive approach to service is to constantly scan the conversation and to become a part of it in productive, positive, and meaningful ways. Not participating is no longer a viable option.

LEARNING. Folks have expressed in various forums that libraries are still doing something very well – being one of those places where true learning can take place and personal passion can be pursued. Traditional schooling and the idea of teaching is transforming mightily, and the attendees here seem to be of the opinion that creating life-long learners is a process happening outside traditional institutions of learning. But this means letting go of our egos and seeing ourselves as coaches or facilitators rather than “teachers,” and is a point of friction.

RADICAL CHANGE/BUREAUCRACY. This dichotomy is not working for people. Librarians need to be set free to experiment, to fail, to try and dabble and poke about in order to bring about the change that’s needed to keep up with our users. The world is moving very quickly, and we stand the chance to exponentially lose street cred & relevance. Red tape, delays, paperwork, and other things keep us lumbering along like the dinosaurs (and many see us this way). Flexible, nimble, and ephemeral teams are more relevant as an organizational structure for today’s library.

From my perspective, these were all topics we were talking about 2 years ago at IL2007 but today’s conversations are much more intense. Transformative change only occurs when we can get our home institutions on board and gain critical mass with our own coworkers. If IL2007 was “try something new,” IL2009 is “DO something NOW!”

The year in ed

I wanted to cap off this year’s blogging with a good activity. So I decided to use Wesley Fryer’s prompt to read the posts nominated for Most Influential of 2008 in the EduBlog Awards.

Chris of BetchaBlog posted on the New Digital Divide. Just more anecdotal proof that the education field is suffering from the same (digital?) malaise as the library field:

I think what often shocks me the most about teachers who don’t take technology very seriously, is just how far behind they really are. They don’t have any idea just how out of touch they are with the kids they teach each day… kids who in most cases are far too polite to say anything about their teachers’ lack of technology understanding. But trust me, they know who you are…

Some of the classic excuses for why some teachers don’t integrate technology might include the following… how many have you heard before?

  • “Im retiring in a couple of years anyway” (yes, but your students are not)
  • “I’m too old to learn this stuff”
  • “I’m too busy, I don’t have the time”
  • “I have too much content to get through” (this one is usually followed by “you just don’t know what it’s like”… ah, yes, I do.)
  • “I don’t really like computers” (you don’t have to like them, you just have to use them)
  • “I just don’t understand technology” (as though they think no one has noticed that yet)

Chris goes on to say he’s most scared about the growing chasm between the “information-wills” and the “information-will-nots.” I hear that! Honestly, this has nothing to do with age – I meet just as many younger folks who use these excuses as older ones.

Reading all the nominated posts was a pleasure – it was great to hear diverse voices in the field from all around the world! The international nature of online education dialogue is really what will help change the nature of “doing school” in the 21st century. It’s not going to be just one school or one state/province/district or even one country – I now truly believe that the education revolution is going to be driven from a global perspective. Is there even any other? Thomas Friedman only said what was obvious: the world is flat, and we affect each other more than ever on a daily basis.

I can only hope that holds true and that this magnificent online educational community will grow, keep learning, and use their voice to speak for true change and authentic learning experiences for students the world over. This movement is more important than ever: if we’re all too busy and cannot make the time to do the important work of our day, what sort of example will we set for youth?

the long hot summer

While Scott McLeod notes that global changes are necessary for our American schools to break out of the old mold, our friends across the pond in England are also considering broad, sweeping edu-reform.

Via Schoolgate from the Times Online comes this report from the IPPR: Thursday’s Child. A quote from the exec summary:


Besides this plan for a more continuous school year, they also indicate an intense discussion of the role socioeconomic disadvantages play in school readiness and motivation – I’d like to read the whole report one day! (It’s behind a pay wall.)

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