Information is not free

Seth Godin blogged recently about his idea to transform libraries for the 21st century. Apparently he’s been talking to librarians who are unhappy that their DVD circulation is up (as it would be, in this economy when people are looking for cheap/free home entertainment). But I think he has some things very wrong:

They can’t survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don’t want to own (or for reference books we can’t afford to own.)” I have yet to see the person able to afford all the books they will ever need in their lifetime. Or a personal subscription to all the magazines they might want to read, or all the databases they might need to consult. It reminds me of the quote by Malcolm Forbes: “The richest person in the world – in fact all the riches in the world – couldn’t provide you with anything like the endless, incredible loot available at your local library.”

I’m not sure I’d want to live in a world where we only had access to the ideas we could afford to buy.

The information is free now.” Information is never free. Libraries and librarians work to provide access (using your tax dollars) to hugely diverse, authoritative sources of information in many formats. Yes, there is more access to information than ever before but access is not equal for all. I know Godin’s rebuttal would be “buy a cheap netbook & mooch off a neighbor’s free WiFi” but there are still people who don’t have the money or comfort level with technology to make that happen. Librarians are useful because we’re professional searchers; able to help people formulate their questions, refine their ideas, and locate the best information to match those needs. Just because you can type into the Google search box doesn’t mean you’re an information expert.

My last thought: in many communities, the public library is the last truly democratic place. Anyone can come in, anyone can read for free, anyone can meet freely. There needs to be at least one place that is open to all in every community, and the library is as much a place as it is a collection.

How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand


From my last post – this was the only book referred to in the New South Wales matrix that I hadn’t yet read. So I set out to grab a copy of How Buildings Learn and discover more about its metaphor for a potential library future.

I think I have always been interested in architecture – take me to any city and I am perfectly happy wandering around to see what I can see in the streetscapes. I knew why I had this interest after a 1997 college guest lecture by James Howard Kunstler. As deeply ashamed as I was at the audience, some of whom booed his talk and belligerently challenged both his ideas and authority in the field, I had a growing sense of excitement and identification. Kunstler was my kind of guy – someone who had figured out that people’s relationships with their surroundings profoundly affect their sense of development as a people. “Is this a place worth caring about?” he shouted, showing slides of all-too-familiar suburban landscapes where big box stores held dominion over the horizon and token landscaping replaced once thriving & complex ecosystems. It’s no wonder young people feel alienated and isolated, he claimed, pointing to the lack of sidewalks in housing developments and the proliferation of bland “places” that resemble nowhere in particular.

His ideas resonated with me and I was grateful to find the words for things I sensed but was not able to articulate. I found this to be true of Brand’s book as well: although one can read this book through the photographs, illustrations, and captions alone, the narrative Brand created is a good one indeed. My favorite reading “moments:”

He quotes from Jane Jacobs on the costs of new construction: “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must come from old buildings.” (p. 28) This quote faces two photos – one of the carriage-style garage where Hewlett-Packard took shape in 1939, and the modest interior of a 1970s garage in Palo Alto where Steves Jobs & Wozniak invented the Apple computer.

In a strange way, libraries are always old buildings because we store the past – we are the metaphoric “old building” that provides a foundation for today’s thinkers to build upon.

On p. 188, Brand points out the difference in philosophy of an architect who thinks of a building as a way to manipulate the power structure of those who inhabit it, and the actual inhabitants who will inevitably shape it the way their lives evolve: “A building is not something you finish. A building is something you start.”

Libraries are changing organisms just as our users are changing organisms. Our future depends on being flexible, modular, and providing the raw space in which change can flourish.

“Anticipate greater connectivity always.”

Beyond being an excellent example of Strunk & White style, this simple declarative sentence is what we should do for our institution as a whole and for the learners that come through our doors. Brand uses this as an introduction to a paragraph on the Berkeley’s Wurster Hall conduits, built into the fabric of the building anticipating lots of lovely coaxial cable for television in every classroom. Instead, it proved to be a great way to network computers as the Internet revolution arose. What else could it have connected? Had this empty, “useless” space not been provided, there would have been no opportunity to help the building keep evolving with its inhabitants.

Architecture turns out to have a lot in common with libraries. We deal on a human scale, and help people create places worth caring about, worth inhabiting, and worth growing.

Bookend Scenarios – Public libraries 20 years in the future?

The State Library of New South Wales did a little future forecasting and compiled their results in a nice white paper called Bookend Scenarios (pdf). Although they were focusing on particularly Australian concerns, I was surprised by how applicable their vision is to American libraries. We face very similar challenges to our services, and it’s worth taking a look at this report if you are concerned about the public library and its future incarnations.

Above is their matrix of change, with a sector for each of four scenarios named after seminal monographs: nonfiction for generalized scenarios, and fiction for the niche scenarios. The predicted outcomes of each scenario will depend on variables in our socioinformatic landscapes.

Right now, I’d say the average American public library is in the How Buildings Learn quadrant – technology is accelerating & formats are unstable but library services & buildings are expanding to meet community desires. Barring some global catastrophe after Peak Oil, I’d say American libraries are typically headed for a mashup between the Neuromancer and Fahrenheit 451 scenarios. In particular, I think that electronic formats will win the day for most sources of nonfiction and the physical paper-based book will become the province of fiction exclusively. I don’t think that we will suffer from the lack of relevance forecast in the Fahrenheit 451 scenario, but I do believe we will find value in the Neuromancer prediction: people’s skepticism of information could be tempered by situating librarians as arbiters of content, where we help users discern bias and conflicts of interest in the production of specific pieces of information.

Where do you think public libraries are headed in the next 20 years? We will surely follow society’s lead, and the four visions in this fascinating project are distinctly possible versions of our collective future.

A little OT: buttons & widgets are helpful!

Stay home if possible when you are sick. Visit www.cdc.gov/h1n1 for more information.

I looked like this lady last week. Seriously, my friends, stay well and if you need some chicken soup or ginger ale I will bring you some while you stay AT HOME! The last thing I wanted to do was spread this junk around at the library while at a public service desk.

But where did I get such an attractive button? Why, the CDC of course! Many organizations (mine included) are starting to see the benefits of using and creating buttons, labels, and widgets for people to cut and paste into their websites. Keep your eyes peeled for more novel uses of this technology. Interactive widgets (like weather, headlines, etc) are a great way to provide fluid content to users who may not be visiting your website (yet).

Take a look at my sidebar to the right and see how many buttons you can spot. What would you add to yours, or your library’s?

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.

Vint Cerf & friends on Net Neutrality

At Internet Librarian 2009, we got to hear Vint Cerf with Google as our Monday keynote. I found this great video by way of Alec Couros’ blog, which features Cerf talking about the importance of net neutrality.

Net neutrality is a super important concept for today’s Internet users to learn about. Here’s why you should support it:

— Right now, it doesn’t matter what you type into the address bar at the top of your browser. Whether you ask for this blog, Google.com, the New York Times, a friend’s Facebook page, or your mom’s recipe bookmarks on Delicious.com, your Internet service provider (ISP) will serve up whatever you ask for at the same speed. Every site is equal in the eyes of your ISP, and they are *neutral* when it comes to giving you access to these wildly different sites.

Without net neutrality, the doors are open to wealthy corporations and other people with influence to pressure the ISPs into delivering some sites more quickly than others. Or not at all. Can you imagine paying for Internet access and not being able to go to the sites you want to visit? Or having to sit and wait while the “right” sites are being delivered quickly, and your ISP deprioritizes your choices because the site owners couldn’t afford to pay off TimeWarner, AOL, or (your ISP here)?

Net neutrality is something you should know about. It’s a wonderful thing, and it keeps the voices on the Internet flowing in a democratic and fair way. Your choice is what matters – not the choices of the wealthy or well-connected.

For more info and explanation, try the Wikipedia article on net neutrality. SaveTheInternet.com, or the DemocracyNow! video on net neutrality.

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!”

Even more e-readers, and mobile thoughts

At our annual Staff Day extravaganza on Columbus Day, Columbus Metropolitan Library‘s director Patrick Losinski gave a nice keynote about today’s library challenges and opportunities. His library concentrates on three key constituencies: young minds, power users, and virtual users. I think these are three sets of people you’d do well to make your primary service groups…

And speaking of power users and virtual users, I’ve kept rounding up the e-reader news & thinking about the issues. Check it out:

B&N E-Reader goss as well as SCOOP!

Spring Design reader will reportedly feature the Android OS

NYT weighs in:
Libraries & (digital) readers
and also
Brains and electronic reading

Mother Jones on ecological aspects of e-reading

The coming explosion!

Since my last rather ranty post about e-readers & such electronic devices, the field has gotten crowded with competitors and announcements. 2010 is totally going to be the year of the e-reader!

Time previews some of the new devices

Barnes & Noble will have their own reader for customers

Amazon answers with a price cut & international Kindle access!

Speculations over tablet PCs from Asus and Apple include e-reader capabilities & design

LG’s solar powered reader has promising niche appeal, could be huge in remote/rural places & emerging markets like Africa, etc.

And bloggers do the roundup of developments at the AtlanticWire

What this all boils down to, of course, is that computing is becoming even more mobile and interactive. Being able to manipulate interfaces directly a la the iPhone makes tablets ultra-droolworthy, and the emergence of a mainstream e-reader market has come from the desire of the contemporary reader to engage with text flexibly & digitally. Our silicon ways (wouldn’t that make a great band name?) have brought us to an interesting juncture – truly ubiquitous computing may be right at our fingertips.

I’m gonna tweet ur old-skool stuff!

One of the newest trends I’ve been following? Republishing older, public-domain works in installments online. This definitely proves that everything old can be new again! Ranging from the revered and famous to the unknown and pedestrian, people are rediscovering the pleasures of slowly getting a story in bite-sized chunks. Check them out below:

John Quincy Adams’ diary entries brought to you by the Massachusetts Historical Society:
http://twitter.com/Jqadams_mhs

Samuel Pepys can help you relive 1666 all over again:
http://twitter.com/samuelpepys

Dracula is republished in real-time on this blog:
http://dracula-feed.blogspot.com/

Tail-end of the Great Depression through the eyes of a girl in rural Illinois:
http://twitter.com/Genny_Spencer/

The Orwell Prize is republishing the writer’s diaries in blog form:
http://orwelldiaries.wordpress.com/

If you know of others, let me know and I will add them to this post.

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