Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 10, Number 7: June 2010


The Zeitgeist

There is No Future

That’s an alternate form of Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s title for the February 1, 2010 post at Academic Librarian that leads off this discussion: “Nothing is the Future.” I liked that post a lot—along with follow-on posts on a number of blogs. Let’s consider that post and reactions—and follow it up with a range of other discussions on library futures.

If you’re one of those who responded to B-T’s title with “Huh?” and didn’t read the post, you could think of it as And Thinking (Inclusionary Thinking) applied to library futures, where—as with futurism in general—it’s all too common to use Or Thinking (or Exclusionary Thinking), to assume One Future.

Prognostication isn’t something librarians tend to be good at, just prone to. We often have to hear about the future of libraries from people who aren’t, it turns out, from the future. (Or at least I don’t think they are). The future of libraries is Second Life. Wait, I mean Facebook. Or maybe it’s Twitter. It’s librarians in pods. Etc. The beauty of talking about the future is that it never happens…

The kindest interpretation of statements like “the future is mobile” or “the future of reference is SMS” or “the future is librarians in pods” or whatever is that the librarians are trying to create that future by speaking it. The incantation will somehow make it so. At the very least, perhaps everyone will believe it’s true, even if it’s not, and that’s good for speaking invitations. After all, the future never arrives, so it’s not like we can verify it.

The less kind interpretation is that the authors of such statements are reductionist promoters, reducing a complex field to whatever marginal utility they’re focused on and claiming that this is the future, while simultaneously promoting themselves as seers. They’re hedgehogs with their one big thing, but perhaps aren’t aware it’s their big thing, not the big thing. I suppose it’s all part of “branding” themselves…

The obvious and most likely statement is that nothing is the future, as in no thing is the future, period. Anyone who tells you different is just plain wrong. With technology, it should be clear to anyone who bothers to see past their obsessions that formats and tools die hard. Some people like to imply that if librarians don’t take up every new trend they’ll become like buggy whip makers. I should point out that there are still people who make buggy whips. Buggy whips aren’t as popular as they once were, but they’re still around. There are even buggies to accompany them.

I could stop here, as that last paragraph is the heart of this commentary. You do know that vinyl (LP) record sales have been climbing for the last several years—and, from what I can see, there may currently be more innovation in new turntable designs than in new CD player designs? “Formats and tools die hard”—unless they’re inherently self-destructive (e.g., 8-track tape).

Communications technology seems to drive speculation on the future of libraries. There’s some new tool--Facebook, IM, Second Life, the telephone, cable television, etc.--and it’s going to revolutionize libraries. Except it doesn’t. If the new technology succeeds at all in libraries, it will join most of the older technologies rather than replace them.

What older communication technologies have gone away completely? The oldest is probably the letter, but libraries still get letters… They’re not as popular as they used to be, but that’s only because we now have an electronic equivalent…

…Students email me all the time for help. It’s a reliable medium where significant questions can be asked. A student just emailed me to set up a research consultation. She sent a 254 word email that included a two-page attachment. It’s difficult to ask serious research questions in a text message. I have no problem with SMS reference, and I think we’ll be adding it soon. But if there are students for whom a library without SMS reference is invisible, they probably aren’t very good students anyway and no amount of reference will help them succeed.

Here, B-T gets into a problem with some futurism—the claim that, if libraries don’t start doing X right now, they’ll be invisible to all those people for whom X is the only medium. Are there such people? Probably. Are they going to have a variety of other problems with an “If you don’t use My Current Favorite Technology, you don’t exist” attitude? Almost certainly. On the other hand, that final sentence is more combative than it needs to be—and, after others called him on it, B-T rethought what he was saying.

If librarians still interact with their users through letter, telephone, and email, there sure seems to be a lot of past in this future. There’s always a lot of past in any future. We are living in the past’s future, and we still have most of it with us. What is the chance that our future will somehow be different?

The set of things that make up the future is inherently built on the set of things that make up the present, and the tendency is for that set to become more complex, not simpler. Suggestions that, for example, iPads are going to replace desktops and notebooks (or even netbooks) are popular but counter to reality for most things. Smart phones haven’t replaced cell phones across the board (or even in a majority of cases). Cell phones haven’t replaced landlines for most people in countries with strong, well-priced landline systems. Most sensible ebook advocates (and quite a few who are less sensible) now recognize that ebooks should complement print books, not sweep them off the face of the earth.

You can plug in any term you want, and know that when anyone tells you that thing is “the future,” they’re wrong. And to be clear, my criticism isn’t of any particular services or trends. If there’s a new, popular way for librarians to communicate with or reach out to library users, by all means librarians should adopt it, or at least experiment with it. My criticism is the hype and the reductionism, and the implied claim that some librarians really know what the future holds, and that it just happens to be centered around whatever they happen to like at the moment. Maybe they’re convincing themselves, but they’re not convincing me.

Well said. What of the comments? Most (not all) were supportive (I noted that I’ve been saying similar things for more than a decade—while failing to note that B-T’s take on it is refreshingly different). Tim Spalding found it necessary to take more whacks at librarians.

One person argued that libraries “need to quickly jump on the bandwagon in order to stay relevant”—that slow adoption of even faddish technologies will cause them to become obsolete. B-T responded that he’s not arguing against adding tools, he’s arguing against hyperbolic and apocalyptic rhetoric and cited the example in the comment:

“If libraries are slow to adopt ‘faddish’ technologies (whether or not they fade in a few months) they will quickly become obsolete (in the view of patrons) in this on-demand age.”

What does this really mean? If EVERY library doesn’t adopt EVERY tool/software/service model that YOU say is crucial then they will ALL become obsolete? That’s what you imply, and there’s no way something that extreme could be true.

Dave Tyckoson noted that “libraries are actually very good at adapting to change”—without, in most cases, losing sight of fundamental functions and missions that don’t change rapidly. Ammie E. Harrison had a useful real-world perspective on the “do it MY way or you don’t exist” idea:

I may receive a text message that needs a different “venue.” When I ask the person to email me, they do not balk and act as if I requested for them to chisel the information into a stone tablet using cuneiform. They send me an email and are often delighted that I am willing to take the extra step to help them.

Something is the Future

Tim Spalding offered this on February 2, 2010 at LibraryThing. He calls B-T’s post excellent and an attack on “a certain form of insipid library futurism.” He offers a reason for the oversimplifications:

It starts, I think, from the popularizers and enthusiasts who take up new technologies and communicate them to the great mass of librarians whose life revolves around other things. To get through the clutter—to be one of the things you take back from a weekend of ALA or PLA talks—the message is simplified and the rhetoric ratchets up. “This is useful” loses out to “this will save you.” As it passes through libraryland the cycle repeats in spirals of simplification and amplification. Over and over I see broader intellectual discussions of technology and the future of libraries reduced to trivial and ephemeral exhortations like “every library needs to be on Meebo!” or “the future is SMS!”

I’d like to believe that, but I think there’s a lot more than cutting through the clutter. In any case, that’s not where Spalding is going:

At the same time, you’re missing something. I don’t know if you’re missing it for real, or just in this focused expression. But there’s a powerful “yes but here, and it needs saying—shouting even!—lest people take the wrong thing from your post.

For all the nonsense and hype, libraries are subject to an extraordinary and rapid cultural change. They have already changed drastically—especially if “libraries” means what libraries mean to culture generally, and people who don’t work in them.

Libraries are in the “information business” and this business is in one of the most profound transformations in human history. This isn’t buggies vs. Stanley Steamers—different ways of getting to the haberdasher. It’s horse-and-buggy culture vs. everything the car has brought…

The world is changing, and for all the noise about this or that technology, I don’t think libraries are dealing with it squarely. (Forget Web 2.0; libraries haven’t really ingested Web 1.0 yet.) “The future is X” isn’t the best response to that change, but it’s a response.

I expect your post will get wide circulation. It says something that hasn’t been said before as well. But if it prompts librarians to dismiss technology’s impact on the future of libraries, it will do great harm. Instead, I hope people use your essay as a way to “kick it up a notch” intellectually, get past the small stuff and confront the very real changes ahead.

Why does Spalding believe libraries aren’t coping? Hard to say. It’s an assertion, along with the “most profound transformation” assertion. The final paragraph is peculiar—since nothing in B-T’s post says “ignore technology.” Not for the first time, I wonder at Spalding’s ability to lecture librarians on what they should do…without much apparent knowledge of, or interest in, what they are doing. B-T responds first—and doesn’t disagree with Spalding. Or maybe he does:

If anything, I think the heated rhetoric makes it easier to ignore the difficulties of changing significantly or improving services, especially in a large library. Libraries can be sclerotic organizations, but in dealing with a large system there are a lot of people who need to be convinced and a lot of effort to make significant changes. There are bureaucracies to please and committees to form that have to be managed effectively. I see a lot of cheering, but not much discussion of how to persuade the powerful but unpersuaded that such changes are indeed good for libraries and their users. There’s a lot of complaint about systematic barriers but not much discussion of how to use or bypass them.

“The world is changing” is not persuasion; it’s empty rhetoric. Any argument that ignores actual use of libraries and library supporters is likely to be ineffectual, because it conflicts with the real world. The second comment—from a new LIS student—notes that library schools are definitely “embracing Library 2.0” (whatever that is)—but also that “no one is ever going to abandon old fashioned books.” That’s an overstatement—I’d guess millions of people will do so, if only to make a point—but it’s a useful one. (Another library student partly disagrees…and, unfortunately, talks about taking an LIS path “which is basically Luddite,” a term that really doesn’t help at all.) A bit later, we get one of those cases that makes you wonder about supposedly tech-savvy folks like Spalding: The final comment is clear-cut spam, and (at this writing) has been on the blog for more than a month. Is it only us Luddites who actively prevent spam comments?

Re: Nothing is the Future

Also on February 2, 2010, by “Andy” at Agnostic, Maybe. (This blog is quasi-pseudonymous—Andy’s last name turns up often enough in other social media, linking to posts, but he chooses not to include his last name in his “About the author.” Curious, that.) Andy has another take on B-T’s post:

I feel that there is an excellent lesson to his post: while librarians can and should act as leaders for their patrons, they should also be followers and listeners. I see librarians as bridging the gap between the past and future, interacting on a medium of the patron’s choosing. While we should have an eye to emerging technologies to gauge their development and adoption by society as a whole, it behooves us to remain mindful of the established and accepted communication media.

[“Media” isn’t the word Andy repeatedly uses as the plural of “medium,” but I’m unwilling to use his word.] He seems to be saying libraries should start using new communications tools as soon as they’re available (“the patron’s choosing”):

[P]eople still interact with the library using letters, telephone, and other last established technologies. There should be no rush to usher to declare these media dead in the favor of what holds the current fancy of the technological vanguard.

I’m not sure I’ve seen anybody call for libraries to abandon email, postal mail or phone service. So I really see this as a call to adopt new techniques as soon as (what? one? several?) patrons show any use of them.

I applaud Andy’s call for attention to local needs—and have no problem with Andy’s suggested alternative, “People are the future.” But I get confused by a footnote that, among other things, includes simple Or Thinking: “as all forms of television and movie content make their way to online.” That’s a given, that The Future for visual content is online? Amazing how easy it is to slip into Or Thinking.

In the comments, Tim Spalding speaks of “library obstructionists” and the need for “library futurists” to tell libraries what’s coming and what they should be doing. He closes, “In sum, don’t give your patrons what they want. Do a little bit better?” Better by whose standards? Peter Bromberg says that might be fine changed to “Give your patrons what they want and do a little better.”

Another response appeared on February 3, 2010 at librarytwopointzero, and it’s a short and somewhat difficult one. I think citing my four year old Library 2.0 and “Library 2.0” as a good previous discussion of B-T’s theme is odd, and I wonder about this:

Repackaging the library may seem foolish to some, but I think we may all agree doing everything the same, everyday is dull and repetitive. Yeah, second life maybe not the future or blogging, but at least you may improve the service and your own skill set.

And, for that matter, this:

[P]eople today have adapted to the web 2.0 idea for career reasons just as much for helping users. In the world today our library careers are based on short-term contracts. What we learn and can transfer to similar roles are as important to us as ever. Without a new skill set to assist our resumes we are dead in the water.

I was not under the impression that most (American, at least) librarians based their careers on short-term contracts. Have I missed something? I do agree that adding new skill sets probably improves your future hirability—although I wonder whether claiming to use Second Life or various “2.0” tools constitutes demonstrable new skill sets.

Andy was back with a second response on February 3. This time, he’s arguing that B-T’s post is not a response to Library 2.0 as such (or to Library 101, not at all the same thing). Then things get strange:

Mr. Bivens-Tatum is addressing all forms of library future hyperbole. While Library 2.0/101 make an excellent target for such criticism, the logic presented also makes an excellent case for the librarians who are overly cautious and/or completely rejecting minor changes to the practice and profession (e.g. the people who make the overzealous argument that rejects any new service, program, event, material, web tool, or website based on their own biases without patron consideration or input). It’s a dangerous, dismissive, and ultimately untenable position to maintain in this information-communication revolution. It’s antithetical of the evolution of knowledge and ultimately critical of anyone working on better content delivery, regardless of their means and methods. If the zealotry of the web 2.0 techno-narcissists with their grand prophetic-like innovation announcements is bad, then their counterpart in the sneering cynical criticisms of pompous ludbrarians rejecting deviance from the status quo is equally harmful for rational forward looking discourse.

Huh? That straw man—pompous “ludbrarians” rejecting change entirely—is burning pretty brightly at this point. Andy throws in a bell-curve chart that says B-T’s argument “refutes” two relatively small groups, which he characterizes as “We are OK as we are!” at one end and “We need to change now!” at the other. But those are not the extremes, at least not as I read the literature and hear from librarians. The extremes are “No change whatsoever is needed”—a group with an astonishingly small population, as far as I can tell—and “Radical change is needed now!”—which is, I think, the other end.

If the middle is where most of us are, and I believe that to be the case, then the middle must be “We’re always changing, but it’s an evolutionary process.”

The last paragraph is interesting:

It’s really time to get past the crap, get over our hang-ups, and talk like adults. This divisiveness that has been generated is really beneath a profession who values the free exchange of ideas. Let’s start acting like it.

Fine, except that “ludbrarians” as a term incites divisiveness; it’s spreading the crap, an odd way to get past the crap. The second response, from Kimberly, emphasizes that in an odd way:

Your last paragraph resonates with me, as well. I am currently in library school and there was one class last semester in which I spent a lot of time frustrated with future ludbrarians and felt myself getting closer and closer to the right end of that spectrum.

So a paragraph calling for adult discussion and against divisiveness is met with being “frustrated with future ludbrarians”—which works against divisiveness how?

Preaching and Persuading

That’s Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s followup, on February 3, 2010 at Academic Librarian. He’s puzzled by parts of Tim Spalding’s response:

What puzzles me was how anything I’ve written could prompt “librarians to dismiss technology’s impact on the future of libraries.” I’m not even sure how anyone could do that. My point was more that no one technology is going to be the future.

My approach and those of the librarians I’ve critiqued might be formulated as one between preaching and persuading. There’s an evangelical tone distinctly present in some of this. It’s always a stark dichotomy. Do what I tell you the future is or libraries will die! It’s so hyperbolic it’s hard to take seriously. I, for the most part, am the converted, and I still find the preaching grates on me.

B-T contrasts this with, for example, the “blended librarians” initiative, which involves serious discussion and reasons to change: “There’s nothing apocalyptic or hyperbolic, but neither is there any attempt to avoid serious thinking on the problems we face if we don’t make some serious changes.”

Changes have to be specific and they need reasons based on a common mission. What are we supposed to be doing and how can we do that better? Will this new tool or organizational change help us accomplish our mission? How? If people are agreed on what the goal should be, and it’s clear how introducing change X will accomplish that goal more effectively without creating havoc, they’ll be more likely to accept it. Politics is about compromise and progress often consists of gradual but constant change.

If you want to lower morale and create chaos, by all means come storming into your workplace with sweeping revolutionary changes that upset everyone and try to implement them because this is the “future.” To discuss contentious issues of change and try to move forward, hype doesn’t help. Hype hurts. Hype alienates as much as reaction.

B-T is very clear about true reactionaries: “My opposition is to all future hyperbole and all reactionary stances. The radical and the reactionary have very similar mindsets, both uncompromising.” He also believes libraries aren’t “perfectly okay as they are” and that “none need to change everything immediately.” [Emphasis added.] The range of truths (not “the truth”) lies in the middle.

Change isn’t made by a blog or from a conference podium. Changes are made in offices and conference rooms, in whispered hallway conversations and lunchtime banter. People are persuaded less by bold proclamations than by calm conversations and careful evidence. But the people doing the persuading need to think concretely and strategically. The moral support they might get from true believers is useful in its place, but more useful are arguments, evidence, and strategies of persuasion.

And these arguments and evidence must be particular to a given library. Nothing is the future for libraries because libraries are all different. The pressing changes needed in my library are not the same as the ones needed at the public library down the street. Futures have to be envisioned in particular places to solve particular problems and negotiated with particular audiences, but it’s hard to make a big name for yourself with that sort of thinking.

Good stuff. Here’s another point—one that becomes obvious the more I write and think about this stuff, and one people should consider. If there is a significant mass of true reactionaries, people as fervid about changing nothing as some “library futurists” (scare quotes intentional) are about the need for radical change everywhere, I can guarantee you this: They’re not hearing you. They don’t read blogs, they sure as hell aren’t on FriendFeed, they don’t read Cites & Insights (it’s not fully professional literature)… By yelling at them, you’re wasting your breath and alienating those of us in the middle.

One (anonymous) commenter asks an interesting question: “Does anyone have any documented cases of librarians actually claiming that ‘We are okay as we are?’” B-T says he’s definitely heard librarians say “more or less just that” and “seen them fight any change at all”—but also that “the hyperbolic and apocalyptic approach can make anyone who isn’t as hyperbolic and apocalyptic seem reactionary by comparison.” I don’t doubt that there are some librarians (mostly near retirement—what field doesn’t have people who stopped thinking years ago and are just putting in time?) who brook no change at all; as noted above, I’m pretty certain these people are not and will not be engaged in this discussion.

A lay librarian’s thought on “Nothing is Future”

That’s Bohyun Kim, on February 4, 2010 at Library Hat. Kim thinks her reactions to B-T’s posts (and responses) “have gotten surprisingly long,” but at some 460 words (plus intro and quoted material) they’re really not. (I’m not quite sure what a “lay librarian” is—Kim has an MLIS, is in a professional position and is professionally active.)

Kim quotes Derek Law saying [academic] libraries have failed to step back and view their roles in a broader context. As Kim puts it, “The problem seems to be that overall our library world appears lost on what a library should be in the future.” There’s a lot of conversation about the new and catching up, lots of “Have tos” but less focus on “Why” and “For what.” Kim thinks librarians have been “working hard and frantically” on catching up with the latest trends’’—”Yesterday wiki and blog, today Facebook and Twitter, tomorrow mobile websites, content, and devices.”

But, now that we have done so, are we significantly better off? Have our efforts significantly changed the way our users and our parent institutions perceive us? Why this nagging suspicion that we all seem to share and worry about, i.e. libraries are still ill-prepared for whatever the future will bring about? Why doesn’t this doubt cease that we are running in parallel with our users and parent institutions rather than running together as a team?

I think a root issue here—the future role of a library in its parent organization—needs to be read differently for public than for academic libraries. For public libraries, the relevant “parent organization” is, or should be, the community—not Parks & Rec (if that’s where the library lives) or the City Council (if the library’s an independent department).

The Lesson of Library History

Wayne Bivens-Tatum again, this time on February 15, 2010. The start:

Some librarians seem to be obsessed with technology and its relation to their own obsolescence, maybe because they falsely believe that librarians are slow to adapt to technological change. In the counterfactual world of luddite librarians, perhaps libraries would become obsolete. But we’re not living in that world.

That introductory paragraph requires careful reading. B-T is not saying there are no reactionary librarians; he’s saying the field as a whole is not all that slow to adapt to technological change.

He’s willing to label one comment as being hyperbolic and apocalyptic, namely “if libraries are slow to adopt ‘faddish’ technologies (whether or not they fade in a few months) they will quickly become obsolete (in the view of patrons) in this on-demand age.” Hard to disagree that that comment is hyperbole. But this time around, B-T wants to talk about technology and libraries rather than hyperbole.

He doesn’t understand the fear of obsolescence.

What is this fear based on? My commenter seems actually to think that if all libraries are slow to adopt whatever technology is hot at the moment, then people won’t use libraries. There’s no evidence or argument to support such a hyperbolic statement. Would anyone these days claim that a library is going to become “obsolete” because it’s not represented in Second Life?... As long as scholars are doing academic research, libraries will not become obsolete. Will libraries change? Definitely. Will things be vastly different in 20 years? Probably. But the future of academic libraries is as dependent upon the future of higher education and the commercialization of scholarship as it is on instant adoption of any given communication technology.

While B-T clarifies (portion omitted) that he’s primarily concerned with academic libraries, I believe the fear of rapid obsolescence for public libraries is similarly ill-founded. He also doesn’t buy the “slow to adapt” argument and, in this case, cites history, noting a Robert M. Hayes article.

MARC, DIALOG, OCLC, RLIN—all created in the late 1960s! Libraries were creating OPACs in the 1970s. How many department stores had online searchable catalogs in the 1970s? From microfilm to digitization, from punch cards to OPACs, from the telephone to IM, librarians have been adopting new information technologies for decades to provide library users with improved access to information. Far from lagging behind, they’ve been pushing the technology to its limits in their search for improved library services.

As one who’s been involved in that pushing since 1968, when I designed and implemented my first library automation system—and who knows that automated circulation systems were already in use in the 1960s—I applaud. And, of course, “the entire technical infrastructure of libraries is still evolving” and will continue to. B-T says academic library users gain more benefit from a link resolver than from Twitter; I suspect he’s right.

Then we get to the nitty-gritty, and here I recall the same appalling (and, frankly, pointless) 1971 article quoted indirectly:

Sure, there has always been resistance. The [Hayes] article has a great quote from a 1971 College & Research Libraries issue: “In sum, our experience with the computer in library operations has been one more replay of The Emperor’s New Clothes, and what we were led to believe were distant mountains laden with gold, available merely by boring a drift in the slope, turn out, upon close inspection, to be the hairy buttocks of the well-fed computer industry. And from such a source we have gotten exactly what we should expect.” But what should be clear is that while there are obvious dead ends (such as library catalogs based on IBM punch cards in the 1950s) to feed such resistance, the resisters in the aggregate always lose.

They always lose because they’re always in the minority and in general they’re always wrong. The early adopters are also in the minority, and they’re often wrong in the particulars, but error spurs innovation as surely as success. Technological innovation doesn’t hit every library equally, making nonsense of claims about “libraries” becoming obsolete if “they” don’t adopt some change wholesale. There aren’t universal solutions to universal problems. What we have, and what we’ve always had in librarianship, are librarians working away in various places experimenting and exploring, trying to figure out if some new technology will improve library services. When they show that it can, word gets around, the idea spreads, and other librarians give it a try regardless of the resistance. “We’ve never done things this way” loses force against “This worked at other places, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t work here.”

Hardly the rantings of a reactionary. B-T is suggesting that evidence is more useful than rhetoric and that local solutions work better than universal nostrums.

B-T quotes Hayes on the future of libraries—noting that forecasts of their demise have been heard for “at least the past three to four decades” but that they’re likely to continue to be essential. Hayes is an And thinker: “It is also a fact that the effect of electronic information resources was to increase not decrease the use of the library. The various forms of publication are complementary and mutually supportive rather than being substitutes for each other. The use of any of them leads to increased use of the others, and the library serves as the agency for access to all of them.”

B-T closes:

Libraries are not going to become obsolete. That statement is more provable than its contradiction, because at least I have precedent on my side. The claim that libraries will become obsolete for whatever reason has nothing to support it, and certainly not the false belief that librarians don’t adapt well to technology. They’ve been doing it for decades and doing it successfully. If you want to see how librarians will adapt to technology in the future, just see how they adapted in the past. The lesson of library history tells us to expect adaptation, innovation, improvement, resilience, and endurance. I find that a more positive and more believable statement than any amount of panicky hyperbole.

I don’t have a lot to add. Comments begin with Meredith Farkas thanking B-T for the post and noting the problems with universal nostrums. “Every patron population is so different and we need to be cognizant of their culture and how they use technology and meet them where they are. It’s all about our users.” Most commenters applaud (fairly standard for liblogs and other blogs), although Amanda does fear for the future of physical academic libraries. (Meredith clearly does not.)

How can I wrap this all up? First of all, no, Wayne Bivens-Tatum was not just offering a pale echo of what I did in 2006. I was focusing on one ill-defined bandwagon; he’s looking at a tendency that has some overlap with that bandwagon.

Second, it strikes me as implausible that B-T’s posts could be read as supporting reactionary librarians, as saying “we don’t need to consider change at all.” I believe he is making the case that hyperbole and apocalyptic predictions damage the case for change, by overstating and by turning off those who might otherwise favor incremental changes.

Third, it seems utterly clear that there are people calling for libraries (all libraries?) to jump on every fad for fear of becoming obsolete—that may be a straw man, but it’s one capable of making comments.

Fourth and finally, for now, the goal of adult discussion is a good one—but claiming you’re against divisiveness is hard to square with tossing out snide labels for those who disagree with you. If you call someone a Luddite or a ludbrarian, don’t be surprised if they think of you as an asshat. Who knows? You may both be right. (And, to be sure—but I think it’s worth repeating—those who are truly reactionary aren’t engaged in these discussions because they’re not involved in social media or reading gray literature.)

Various Library Futures

Here’s a range of commentaries about the future(s) of libraries and library services. If you keep in mind the discussion above, it may help—particularly the possibility that overstating the need for drastic immediate change may hurt the goal of continued library improvement. As usual, items are generally chronological.

Musings on Periodicals

This one’s from February 8, 2008—a long time ago, but the post is an evergreen. It’s by Iris Jastram at Pegasus Librarian. Jastram has shown herself to be an And thinker (or Inclusionist)—and a smart one at that. This is no exception.

Personally, I love electronic journals better than print journals in most cases. There’s just so much more you can do with them… So faced with a list of journals and the choice to continue with the print subscription, flag them as candidates for e-access only, or cancel them entirely, I’d go with the electronic version in a heartbeat for many, many titles.

Then comes the “however” cases—areas where she’s not ready to see print go away:

Periodicals that include ads or images that aren’t indexed or included in the electronic version. I spend enough time with my American Studies students (and my colleague spends even more time with her History students) finding ads and images that being forced to give up basically our only accessible copies of these ephemera makes me weep for the students of 20-years-from-now who will be basically prevented from pursuing whole swaths of research topics.

Periodicals that include or are primarily composed of fiction, poetry, or art. These genres are used in many ways, some of which are enhanced by electronic access, and some of which are decidedly NOT. I want to leave the door open for the later cases.

Periodicals that are routed and that a) don’t have good alerts built into the electronic version or b) are routed to people who don’t care for alerts because they and their workflows are set up to need the thing itself sitting and staring at them before they’ll be reminded that they actually did want to sit down and read for a while. I’m that way, myself, with some things. Not with my professional journals, but with some things, so I can entirely sympathize.

Strong as I believe the second case is (does it really make sense for architectural and art journals to go e-only?), the first one is particularly compelling. I did a substantial research study that relied entirely on ads in PC Magazine during its first 20 years—research done at the college library my wife was then director of, which had a full run of bound volumes. Without those, the research would have been impossible.

Jastram also offers four questions and one assertion for other periodicals. Summarizing slightly: Does access include PDF full text? Is perpetual access included? Is the interface usable—with understandable search results? Are there RSS and email alerts for new issues (and searches)? And the assertion: “It sure would be nice if we could still send articles to other libraries via Interlibrary Loan.”

Oddly enough, there were no comments—and the only trackback is from, well, Iris Jastram, on February 25, 2010, as another biennial serials review comes around. She cites the two-year-old criteria, which she says really helped—as they should, since they’re good ones.

Why has it taken so long to comment on this post? Because it never fit neatly into a Making it Work essay. Why am I including it in a “future” discussion? Because criteria like these continue to matter, particularly given the all-too-common assumption that what seems to be true for sciences (a future of only e-journals) is and should be automatically true for all other fields. It shouldn’t. The hard sciences are not the soft sciences are not the humanities.

The library real-estate bubble

I’ve mostly abandoned posts from Dorothea Salo’s former blog, Caveat Lector, because she abandoned it for what appear to be sound reasons—but she also left it running (at cavlec.yarinareth.net). I’m going to make an exception for this one, from September 30, 2008, because it raises interesting questions about near-term futures for academic library systems (that is, all of the libraries on a given campus)—and because Salo is asking questions, not presuming to know all the answers.

At a Purdue symposium, she was told that Purdue had closed many of its small branch libraries—moving the collections, reallocating positions, closing the spaces. This encouraged her to think about “library real estate” and to wonder whether lots of small branches make good sense.

The other day I was walking from a meeting with a valued colleague when she started on what I believe to be the Librarian’s Eternal Plaint: not enough time in the day. We all say that, every last one of us. I do. You do. We all do. Her edition contained something I don’t always hear, though. “… and we have to keep the library open and the desks manned somehow!”

Hm. Do we? I wonder. Do we have too many desks to man? Too many rooms and buildings to monitor (and clean, and secure, and provision with terminals and e-reserves scanners and circ gadgets, and route materials to, and put signs in, and…)? Maybe some of the staff and resource overhead that goes into routine space management and service-point provision could find more productive uses?

Here’s the key: “I don’t know the answer; I’m not being a fire-breathing revolutionary again. I just think we…ought to be asking the question, instead of treating the spaces as sacrosanct.” Salo considers embedded librarians and the desire for unstructured time with faculty (harder to do when you’re “chained to the desk” in a small branch); tradeoffs involved in maintaining space and in giving it up; and more.

I have no useful contemporary experience to offer—but I do remember Berkeley’s branch system, back when I was an ILL page (and got to visit most of them). Unless I’m mistaken, Berkeley did consolidate some smaller branches into larger ones, and I’m pretty sure it worked to the benefit of all concerned. There’s not a single answer to this set of issues, but it continues to be a set of issues worth considering.

libraries might not provide content in the future & it’s okay

That’s from Aaron Schmidt on March 4, 2009 at Walking Paper—and he starts by noting that he finally decided to join Netflix based on the “Watch instantly” feature and his realization that he could support Netflix and his local rental store.

Then he says how smart it is for Netflix to offer streaming-only subscription plans—based on a story in PC World claiming that this would happen “soon.” It’s now May 2010 and apparently “soon” has been deferred. But I’m more interested in this sentence and facts not in evidence, the exclusionary thinking:

This is a way for them to not only increase revenue but also it is also a way for them to transition people through the death of physical formats. (Emphasis added.)

Schmidt doesn’t say “this would be a good hedge if physical formats declined.” Nope, it’s apparently a known quantity: “the death of physical formats.” There’s One Future and it doesn’t include physical formats. At all. And Netflix is guiding us there (or was, before their plans changed—remember last month, when I quoted Netflix’ CEO saying the company would be mailing out DVDs through at least 2030?).

He doesn’t stop there. “Holy smokes, the situation is absolutely incredible.”

The iTunes Music Store is the world’s largest music retailer, newspapers are shuttering and magazines are going web only. I can download 80% of music and movies I want for free? Are you kidding? No? Awesome!

The celebratory sense here is more than a little disturbing; the conversion of a few papers shutting down to “newspapers are shuttering” (with an implicit “all”) and one magazine dropping its print edition to “magazines are going web only.” This is generalization gone gonzo. “Incredible” is the right word, as in “lacks credibility.” (The post linked to quotes somebody else—”John Gruber of Daring Fireball”—with the punditry that moving to web-only is likely to be “ever more frequent…as the recession deepens.” I went to that original post, and here it is in its entirety, evidence and all:

I have a feeling that print publications turning into online-only publications is going to be a recurring theme during this recession.

So what gives John Gruber such deep insights? He’s a 27-year-old technology pundit who runs the Daring Fireball technology blog—that’s his full-time job (according to Wikipedia, where he’s famous enough for an article, noting that every source in the article is another website—so much for Wikipedia’s famed rules for sources). In other words, he’s a blogger (and a self-described Apple fanboy). His background in journalism and knowledge of magazine economics? Nonexistent. (The accuracy of his “feeling”? The number of print magazines turning online-only in 2009 was a single digit—three, I believe.)

Now we get to the heart of Schmidt’s post:

It really doesn’t matter if we stop providing content in the same way. It might be the best thing to happen to public libraries. Yes, there will be some access equality issues that need sorting, but if we don’t have to concern ourselves with making sure people have access to content we’ll have more time to create excellent programs and experiences based around content and conversation.

Yep—giving up books and other circulatable objects might be a great thing. Sure, Aaron. And “sorting out” access issues is just one of those minor issues. Here’s the close:

If anything, we should consider books, movies, music and computers loss leaders and show people what we can really do for them once we’re lucky enough to have them in our buildings.

Programs and conversations: That’s more important than circulatable materials? That’s the future of public libraries, and it’s a positive one? I find that hard to believe—and I suspect most funding agencies would find it a bit tough to swallow as well. Particularly given Schmidt’s example of how public libraries can prosper: Gaming tournaments.

A few items from two dozen comments might be worth noting. Jonathan Rochkind sees a future beyond content provision (and if that means that good public libraries do more than just provide content, I fully agree)—but isn’t ready to give up content without a fight:

It may (soon) no longer be necessary to have a whole bunch of content in one place to provide a good research environment. But that’s not the only reason libraries have been in the content provision business. We’ve also been in that business in order to provide affordable access to content via collective purchasing and cooperative sharing, access to content individuals would not be able to afford on their own. This is a common mission to both public and academic libraries in fact.

“caleb” interprets an OCLC report as saying that “it’s not the books or the content at all that matters,” that “libraries are transformational because they are safe and ordered public spaces.” As a role of libraries, yes; as the role, public libraries are an expensive way to provide “safe and ordered public space,” if that’s all they’re good for.

Terry Dawson is a little more down to earth: “Yes, we are increasingly a community center. But let’s not kid ourselves: it’s access to materials and the Internet that are bringing people to our doors. Kathleen de la Pena McCook has famously noted that information equity is the core value of our profession…” And, as to those shared gaming experiences: “True as far as it goes, but the ‘shared experience’ part of our service is still only a small fraction of the ‘circulating materials’ part of our service.” I’ll highlight Dawson’s last sentence: “We need to intentionally prepare for changes, but I’m not ready to shrug off materials provision in the future just yet.” I’d add that “just yet” is likely to be a very long time.

Patty nails it: “Why would I want to go to a library to exchange thoughts and ideas about materials that I have found and (using the examples you have cited in the first six paragraphs) paid for outside of the library?” She can go to an online community; she can go to Starbucks. I disagree when she says “the only reason why people are flocking to libraries today is because of a bad economic situation” (emphasis added)—that’s counterfactual, since library circulation has been rising for many years, boom or bust.

Some people say that it’s not OK for libraries to be cut out of digital distribution (and they probably won’t be)—but in two cases, I fail to see recognition that digital is not necessarily becoming the sole means of distribution any time soon. I got involved, saying (among other things):

I think tens of millions of Americans–let’s say roughly half, since the median household income in March 2007 was $48,201 in 2006 dollars–may not agree that stuff is so cheap they’ll just buy everything for their ebook devices because it’s so convenient. Those are the people who need libraries with good circulating collections. (Remember: Median: That means almost exactly half the households in America have *less* income. And that’s gross income, not spendable.)

One commenter said nobody browses the stacks in their library. I found that not true in the libraries I use, and Terry Dawson said the same and continued:

This is not the time to assume that content is passé, nor that broadband access to a variety of electronic media will be universally available. Even people who can buy a Kindle or iPhone and subscribe to Netflix are likely to support public library collections for those less affluent.

Sure, we’re developing a mobile website, etc. But we’re putting even more effort into collecting physical items. Materials aren’t loss leaders; they’re the core of our services, and will be for the foreseeable future.

A fair number of posts commented on this one. One of the more astonishing ones is “Inherit the Wind” by Jason Griffey, posted March 10, 2009 at Pattern Recognition. Here’s what Griffey believes:

·         It isn’t likely that any major national newspaper will still be in print in 5 years.

·         Magazines will almost certainly follow…their collapse may be more slow motion because they have a different advertising base, but it will come.

·         Hardcover books are next to go. They are, in effect, just publicity engines.

·         After that, I’m betting that the slowly-dwindling dead-tree printing that is done becomes, essentially, a beskpoke process where there are paper-fetishists who purchase “books” for their sensory natures. But 99.9% of publications will be digital.

The first one might be a trick: There are only two national newspapers at this point, USA Today and Wall Street Journal. The second is actually increasing circulation, the first isn’t. I suspect Griffey doesn’t just mean those two, though. The rest are simply assertions, coupled with a snide comment in the last one about those who prefer print books. I’ve never thought of calling Griffey a digital fetishist, but maybe that’s appropriate. In the next paragraph, he calls this a “5-10 year spiral,” so I guess all print publishing will be gone by 2020, right?

Griffey is consistently an exclusivist, a Digital Futurist with no room for anything else:

As the analog dies and the digital rises, unless we get in front of the content providers and claim our place at the digital table, we run the risk of being increasingly marginalized.

How clear-cut can you get? The new always destroys the old; just because that’s almost never been true until now, “we” must assume it’s true for the future.

What’s the problem here? It is, I believe, that the nonsense of asserting that physical media are all going away—and the celebratory tone of that nonsense—gets in the way of rational discussion of what to do about digital resources. That’s a shame, because digital is no more disappearing than analog is. Some commenters on the original post are absolutely right: It’s not OK to simply accept the idea that digital distribution can or should lock out libraries. That’s not true for ebooks, journals and classical music right now; it should not be true in general. Keeping libraries and free distribution in the loop will require compromises—probably accepting limited DRM with the effect of putting digital copies into the same only-one-circulation-at-a-time realm as physical copies, but without the stringency of some DRM. I see no reason to believe libraries can’t function in that role. I also see no reason to believe digital distribution will be the be-all and end-all.

Here’s how Terry Dawson puts it in “The Death of Content?”—a followup post at the New Cybrary on March 5, 2010:

I think we need to be serious about content provision in new ways. It doesn’t bother me that users will get new content in new ways—I enjoy streaming Netflix too—but we have an interest in assuring that diverse content is broadly accessible. Although equity of access and quality shared experiences are both critical for public library, the importance of access will continue to be primary for the foreseeable future. I suggest we need to do several things:

·         continue collective action on DRM legislative issues. ALA has terrific resources on this, and we may currently have a more receptive audience in Washington than we’ve seen for awhile;

·         our market muscle may not be huge, but it exists: we can encourage vendors to broaden offerings and make them easier to use and license, e.g. Overdrive’s adoption of MP3;

·         continue to develop other digital resources via digital and digitized collections, robust vital websites, chat reference and the mobile web

·         continue to help our patrons know that however content and information channels change, however the digital divide evolves, librarians have a commitment to helping them get access to the resources they need;

·         continue to do our best to work with currently available media—seems like a no-brainer, but people are borrowing more books than ever. [Emphasis added.]

Libraries’ role as content providers cannot be a warehouse function only, but needs to look forward as well as backward. Libraries’ role as an agency of transformation needs both sacred communal space and connection to unlimited possibilities. Digital excitements notwithstanding, the novel and the picture book seem stronger than ever and not likely to go away soon. I’m glad teens can play Guitar Hero here, but that doesn’t supplant the importance of a parent with a toddler in their lap reading Goodnight Moon. Some parts of libraries’ transformative power are more intimate than they are collective.

This is an inclusionary stance that keeps libraries in the loop for all forms of content. Focusing on some of Dawson’s ideas seems much sounder than claiming that physical is going away. If at some distant point, most physical content does go away, librarians will still have roles considerably more sustainable than as custodians for community centers.

10 questions about books, libraries, librarians, and schools

That’s from Scott McLeod on Dangerously Irrelevant, posted November 3, 2009. I only encountered it because Doug Johnson cited and quoted a big chunk of it at Blue Skunk Blog on November 5, 2009. McLeod is an academic dealing with schools (that is, K12 education)—and Johnson’s a school library person.

McLeod’s questions, with portions of his expansions and some of my comments:

1. What constitutes a “book” these days?

His expansion cites all the supposed advantages of ebooks, so his real question is whether book continues to be the right term.

2. [You can annotate a book passage on the Kindle and might eventually be able to share those annotations.] What kind of new learning capabilities will that enable for us?

Apart from DRM issues, I wonder whether his future scenario—push a button on your ereader and see “everyone else’s notes and highlights on the same passage” is utopian or dystopian. It’s a different kind of reading, one that may frequently complement but hardly replaces solitary reading. I, for one, hate it when someone’s annotated a library book: I’d rather do my own interpreting, thank you very much. But different uses for different tools…

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?

The paragraph asks whether librarians and teachers are doing enough to master these “new literacies.” I’m inclined to suggest that this question is about 15 years late—and that things like the iPad may push back in the “recipient” direction—but still worth considering.

#4 is about the Cushing Academy, that “bookless” wonder. “How tough would it be for other schools to move to this model (and what would they gain or lose as a result)?” Interesting question—and as long as “or lose” is part of the consideration, worth discussing.

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?” [Emphasis added.]

Pure exclusionary thinking, amplified with the “all go electronic and online.”

#6 speaks of an increasingly complex information landscape, says we still need people to navigate and teach navigation—”But does that mean we still need “librarians” who work in “libraries”? Or will their jobs morph into something else?” Valid question, I suppose, once you’ve gone along with the earlier premises.

#7 suggests outsourcing librarians’ work, and it’s one of those questions you could apply to any profession or field, certainly including education professors.

8. Can a librarian recommend books better than online user communities and/or database-driven book recommendation engines [such as Amazon]?

Since I rarely ask librarians for book recommendations and since I find Amazon’s aggregated reviews nearly useless, I won’t comment here.

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? 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)?

Whew. Confrontational, much? Are school librarians provided in sufficient number and with sufficient resources so they can all be doing this stuff without abandoning their patrons? I emphasize all because of the second question: He’s pushing for universalism.

10. There is no conceivable future in which the primacy of printed text is not superceded [sic] by electronic text and media. [Emphasis added.]

Really. [He’s an education professor and this was clearly a carefully-prepared post, so I’m not going to quietly correct the spelling error, as I normally do when quoting posts.] Given that sentence, is there any point in repeating the question?

He used these questions in a couple of conferences, assuring librarians that he has nothing against them and “was just asking questions that I thought the profession should be discussing.” That’s nonsense—some of those questions are loaded enough and include assumptions such that “just asking questions” doesn’t cut it.

He quotes some reactions. They’re hard to interpret since we don’t know what else he said. The direct commenters include one who notes how cost-effective a cheap picture book can be and the unlikelihood of providing Kindles for all the students in a typical school. Joel VerDuin offers a detailed set of answers to the ten questions, and an interesting set it is. He wonders how seeing everybody’s notes on a piece of text would make things better; he wonders how students and teachers haven’t already been content creators with “paper, pencils, markers, paint, words, gestures…”; he suspects a school librarian may think about book recommendations in a way Amazon can’t; and he calls #9 “nonsense thinking”—the idea that job role “A” is “the perfectly correct and perfectly agreed upon role” and that you should be fired if you aren’t doing “A.” He points up something that struck me and may help explain why some librarians felt that McLeod was negative about librarians:

These are not the types of questions one would ask if one was seeking dialogue and understanding. These appear more to be along the lines of, “I have a preconceived notion—please tell me why I am wrong.”

McLeod responds—and in doing so makes his exclusionary thinking even clearer. He mentions things that “went away” when people felt they no longer added value—like travel agents, newspapers and publishers. “And marketers.” Right. As for #9, he uses “new paradigm” and basically says those who fail to adapt should be fired—and fails to recognize the possibility that his “new paradigm” isn’t one everybody agrees on. I love one sentence, since it carves out disagreement so neatly: “Does anyone in the know think that mastery of social media isn’t an important skill these days?” If you disagree, you’re not in the know.

One comment (from a teacher) is so error-ridden I shudder to think this person’s charged with creating literate children. “Donna” offers a detailed response that shows enormous good sense; she’s an elementary school librarian. If you’re interested, read her comments at the post itself (#23—scroll WAY down). Gotta love her response to #9:

9. Should administrators, school board members and political leaders get to keep their jobs when they overload their most technologically savvy instructional leaders with menial tasks and cut paraprofessional staff to the point librarians are reduced to clerks and a babysitters for teacher conference periods?

On the other hand, Donna has “a very large imagination fed by all of those dreadful plain print children’s books that can conceive of a future which does not economically support the complete transition to electronic text and media for everyone.” So, you know, she’s not in the know—she disagrees with McLeod’s Single Future.

“Brian,” #24, gets some of that too, beginning with a pungent paragraph:

This whole discussion makes me wonder if anyone writing articles or giving presentations in the educational field has a sense of reality.

He’s another one who wonders who’s going to pay for all those ereaders. He thinks some of the questions are like “what will the oil company employees do when all the cars run on hydrogen?”

Doug Johnson quoted the questions (in full) without adding much beyond his own prefatory remarks. He thinks librarians (school librarians?) tend to be “a professional echo chamber in our journals, blogs and conferences” (which is why there are no differences of opinion ever in C&I, right?) and that librarians need to “explain our values and mission and realities [to people like McLeod] without sounding defensive, self-serving or reactionary.” I’d comment that it’s tough to avoid being defensive when someone appears to be attacking you. While Johnson didn’t comment directly on the questions, his readers did—22 comments to date. The first is from Joel VerDuin, already noted above—and he considers a defensive tone predictable because of the question wording.

Libby—an academic librarian—responds to questions 3, 7 and 9. She doesn’t see students as content creators as “new in any way”—after all, assigned essays are content creation. For #7, she notes some of the things she’s currently doing for students that couldn’t be outsourced effectively—and she’s another one who finds that #9 “just pushes my buttons and makes me mad.”

I don’t think that not being on the very cutting edge of technology even makes school librarians mediocre. Many of the university students I work with know how to use social media to the hilt (for personal use, at least), but can’t write a bibliography entry. Why shouldn’t the school librarian who doesn’t quite get Facebook, but knows that every one of his/her students leaves understanding what a bibliography is, how to write one in some approved style, and how to get help learning other styles keep their job, and indeed be acknowledged for this contribution to the students’ education?

Michael Doyle has a little fun, and I love his start:

Futurists are charlatans, and they know it, we know it, but it’s fun to gaze into crystal balls, so we play the game.

Like fortune tellers and seers, they state the obvious in deep and mysterious ways, which is not hard, since the future is (in our heads, anyway) deep and mysterious.

Scott McLeod has a nice side job stirring folks up. So long as he doesn’t get swallowed up in his own hype, he performs a necessary service, and he performs it well.

Doyle also takes issue with the start of #19 (“There is no conceivable future”)—it “either reflects brilliant tongue-in-cheekiness, or a lack of imagination.”

Erin Downey Howerton, who I hadn’t previously encountered, writes at schooling.us (schoolingdotus.blogspot.com) and offers a set of answers for McLeod’s questions on November 3, 2009. Howerton seems pretty clearly a fan of digital technology (she works at the Johnson County Library). A few of her comments, paraphrased or quoted:

#1: Libraries have been circulating media beyond books for a long time—and I like this: “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.” I’m not sure I agree 100% with “irrelevant” (I’m sure I wouldn’t, actually, because the medium does affect the story in many cases), but the idea of “libraries as story repositories” is one I’ve been pushing for considerably longer than the Shanachie folks she links to.

#2: Your chosen community’s notes may be relevant; having all the notes may be more distracting than helpful.

#5: Howerton doesn’t challenge the single-future premise (I suspect she may agree), but does have an answer for how those library spaces would differ from other community spaces: “What has, does, and will distinguish us from these spaces are LIBRARIANS.” Would that be enough? (I started to write “Will that,” but that accepts the all-digital library as a probable future, which I don’t.)

#7: Here, the answer is locality—good librarians are steeped in the needs and resources of their community, and you can’t outsource that. (She also brings up the art of the reference interview—getting the patron from what they ask to what they need—if indirectly.)

#9—here, unfortunately, Howerton seems to be on McLeod’s side: “If they’re not at least actively learning about these things and trying to use them, then no.” And, unsurprisingly, she doesn’t challenge the start of #10 either.

McLeod also commented and absolutely insists that physical media are going away, and rapidly at that. He brooks no disagreement on this issue. Which makes honest discussion difficult. As VerDuin puts it, McLeod isn’t so much asking as asserting—and only accepting discussion within his own parameters.

Futures thinking and my job in 10 years

“Thinking about the future is very hard.” That’s how John Dupuis begins this December 17, 2009 post at Confessions of a Science Librarian. Dupuis loves to do it—but notices that the more he thinks about it, “the harder it is to pin down what I really think is going to happen” for a variety of reasons.

When I started work at York University in 2000, we seemed on the verge of an incredible digital transformation, out with the old, in with the new, print is dead, everything will be online in a couple of years.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Progress towards the digital utopia has been slower than I thought, uneven and halting. I’m somewhat surprised by how many print books I still buy and often surprisingly gratified that they’re still getting used. Even if everything we had in print was also online, would people be ready to completely abandon print? Journals yes, books, give it another few years.

So far, so good—but now Dupuis again thinks we’re “on the verge of an incredible digital transformation”—and this time he thinks “it’ll happen faster than we expect and will be more all-encompassing and transformative.” He does admit that he could be wrong. As you can guess, I think it’s likely that he’s wrong, perhaps because he’s tending toward The Future, and The Future doesn’t exist.

Dupuis quotes a futurist and makes a good case for “futures thinking”—an awkward phrase that seems to mean thinking about possible outcomes and how what we do today does or does not prepare us for a variety of futures—or, maybe, moves things toward a preferred future. Most of the post discusses the process of “futures thinking” and some of the questions Dupuis has—and you’re better off reading the post than reading a summary I might prepare.

Dupuis asks 28 questions. Some of them seem to involve a lot of underlying assumptions, a lot of “when” rather than “if” (e.g., “post media singularity/Open Access revolution” issues and “what will be the last print book I buy”), but maybe that’s my uncharitable reading. I know Dupuis thinks hard about these things; go see what he’s thinking about. One oddity: He closes the post—which might be an excerpt from a chapter of a book he’s writing—by asking readers to respond to some of it. There have been no comments in four months. I’m not sure what that means.

Our Future from Outside the Box

If that last item was mostly a pointer rather than a discussion, so is this one, to the following URL: staging.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/alcts/confevents/upcoming/ala/future.cfm. (Or just Bing the phrase above—it gets you to the same place or an equivalent.)

You may know that ALA Midwinter Meetings are supposed to be meetings, not conferences—except for the ALA President (and a few ALA offices), you’re not allowed to have programs.

You may also know that this particular rule behaves oddly. There are the equivalent of preconferences at Midwinter, there are discussions that look an awful lot like programs (I was part of such “discussions” as part of LITA Top Tech Trends for several years)—and there are symposia. Such as this one, an ALCTS symposium held all day Friday during the 2010 Midwinter. A bunch of “cutting-edge thinkers” prepared opinion pieces on future issues—and the site links to all those opinion pieces, eleven in all.

I’ve glanced at the opinion pieces. I wasn’t at the symposium and don’t know how things went, so I’m not going to comment on them. Do recognize that some of these are very drafty (including typos), and I’m pretty sure that was deliberate. I find some of them absurd, some exclusionary…and some well worth thinking about. (Two of them I find pretty much sensible, but those are by Virtual Friends so maybe that opinion doesn’t count.)

Did this symposium reach wonderful conclusions? Will it make a difference? I have no idea. You can go read the papers and see what you make of them.

Yesterday’s libraries, tomorrow’s libraries—12 differences

Doug Johnson of Blue Skunk Blog sets forth 12 oppositions in this March 2, 2010 post, planned for a recorded presentation on library futures for a school audience. Here are the first five:

1. Yesterday’s libraries were all about books.

    Tomorrow’s libraries will be all about readers.

2. Yesterday’s libraries were all about getting information.

    Tomorrow’s libraries will be all about creating and sharing information.

3. Yesterday’s libraries were all about silent individuals.

    Tomorrow’s libraries will be all about active groups.

4. Yesterday’s libraries were all about term papers.

    Tomorrow’s libraries will be all about multimedia projects.

5. Yesterday’s libraries were all about bricks and mortar, tables and shelves.

    Tomorrow’s libraries will be all about online services, digital resources.

This all leads up to the assertion that today’s libraries are all about transition, exploration, planning, survival, optimism and opportunities—”or they’d better be if there are to be libraries tomorrow.”

I read Doug Johnson because he writes well and says interesting things. In this case, one big problem is a repeated phrase that Johnson may not actually mean: “all about.” Because, you know…yesterday’s libraries were not all about books unless yesterday means many decades ago—and tomorrow’s won’t be all about readers. The same throughout.

Put it this way: If tomorrow’s public libraries (and, I suspect, school libraries) are not at least partly about books, at least partly about getting information, at least partly places where silent individuals can learn, at least partly about term papers, and at least partly about bricks and mortar—well, then, maybe there won’t be any libraries.

One commenter—BabetteR The Passionate Librarian—said this nicely. Her comment:

Do they have to all be either/or? Cannot most be both/and?

The next commenter chose to add even more OR statements, more “all about” oppositions. In responding to comments (almost all of which applauded the dichotomies), Johnson said “I am sure this will not be a total dichotomy. More poetic license in pointing out the differences for now.” But, Doug, couldn’t you get the poetic effect without as hard-line a phrase as “all about”? Even “mostly about” would be better…but, I suppose, less striking.

Thinking about library futures

Seth Godin wrote a brief and deeply ignorant post, “The future of the library,” saying the role of libraries should be to “train people to take intellectual initiative.” Why? “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)” and some librarians Godin talks to tell him that free DVD rentals is their primary business. Oh, and, of course: “The information is free now. No need to pool tax money to buy reference books.” Indeed, his opening line is “What should libraries do to become relevant in the digital age?”—which means he regards them as currently irrelevant (emphasis added).

His factual basis for all of this? Hey, he’s Seth Godin: He don’t need no stinkin’ facts! Nor does he brook any back talk: Godin’s blog, for this guru of social media, does not allow comments.

Terry Dawson responded in a January 11, 2010 post at the New Cybrary. Portions:

Godin seems to assume that libraries are now irrelevant, that books are passe or that people can afford all the books they want and all other information is available free online… [He] begins with the preconception that we’re already irrelevant…

Our library circulates a lot of books that people either don’t want to own or can’t afford--and that’s not just reference books. DVDs are hardly the number one thing our library does: most of what we circulate is books and the number of books we circulate has been growing every year, and holding steady as a percentage of circulation for several years…

Godin’s assertion to the contrary, information is not free, and that which is apparently free comes with hidden costs. Not everyone can afford even most of the books they’d like to read, nor highspeed Internet connections, nor the databases that hold information they’re seeking…

I didn’t elaborate on Godin’s prescription, one that Dawson finds elitist (with good reason). Here’s what Dawson thinks libraries can do to stay relevant (those final words are mine):

·         recognize that our core functions of education, connection, information equity and opportunity have not changed, though the delivery methods have

·         make books and other media available in a variety of formats to meet user needs…

·         train people to become savvy consumers of information resources, help provide tools and instruction in their use--and give needed assistance where savvy is lacking

·         provide formal and informal community spaces

·         have a sophisticated understanding that although the public needs equity and “information wants to be free,” publishers and creators of information content want to put food on the table…

·         find a variety of channels to push information and learning opportunities out into their communities…helping leaders and non-leaders alike find ways to meet their needs

·         actively promote family literacy

That’s a good list, and Dawson says his library is doing these things already.

We’re hardly sitting around unhappily contemplating our DVD circulation. Education and libraries are for everyone. We’re looking to the future—and it’s exciting.

Nicely put.

The World Without Public Libraries

Here’s another one where I’m mostly pointing. March 9, 2010, by Andy at Agnostic, Maybe. A 3,000 word discussion of how public library functions might be replicated if public libraries disappeared. It’s interesting and I might pick at pieces of it—but it’s not a prediction. I agree with one underlying conclusion (that libraries should focus on local strengths, serving their own patrons and community) and disagree with his presumption that libraries don’t fit into any government spending niche (he seems to ignore Parks & Rec, which are also neither life-and-death services or absolute necessities). I certainly agree that too much time and energy is spent hand wringing and invoking “dire warnings of our demise.”

Go look. It’s an interesting commentary.

Checking Out the Future

Also a pointer, albeit with considerably less enthusiasm. This is a 24-page PDF issued in February 2010 by ALA’s Office of Information Technology Policy (OITP) and written by Jennifer C. Hendrix. Searching “checking out the future” requires fewer keystrokes than the URL. After skimming through it, I think I’ll choose not to comment at all. Maybe you’ll find it convincing, invigorating and useful; maybe you’ll consider the literature review to be broad and balanced. Or then again, maybe not.

Report on the Modernisation of Public Libraries

I’ll close with this one. It’s from What’s Next: Top Trends, “The diary of a supposed futurist,” dated March 29, 2010—and is distinctly British, which means the writer is dealing with a far different set of public library realities than in the U.S.

The writer favors public libraries—and sees “promotion of reading and the celebration of physical books and local history” as key missions, and actual librarians as important to that mission. He’s commenting on a national report that he finds too negative—but does find some good ideas.

He likes the idea of a universal library card (which may make sense in a nation where most library funding is national) and a national library database—but not the idea of returning books to one library that are borrowed from another. Here’s one that I feel is very bad advice—or at least it would be in the U.S.:

5. Stop trying to please all of the people all of the time. Young children and seniors are the key target markets for local public libraries. Secondary audiences might be kids wanting to do their homework, people wanting to interact with government services and people running their own businesses. As for teens forget them. They have already been lost, although they might come back when they get older.

Wow. American libraries have not, by and large, given up on teens—and teens certainly haven’t all given up on libraries. On the other hand, “do not make libraries loud” is, at least in part, a good idea.

Best quote in the report? Public libraries are …”one of the few remaining community facilities. Where else is there free and safe community access”?

A with Australia, the UK’s public libraries are not American’s public libraries are not Canada’s public libraries. I believe local will continue to be more and more relevant in all cases (and that local funding and control of libraries in the U.S. is, on balance, a very good thing)—but systems in different nations, those that actually have broadly available public library systems, are all different.

There is no future for libraries. There are many futures, with lots of uncertainty and overlap. You can reasonably predict that most of what’s important today will continue to be important in the future—and that new elements will be added, with proportions and priorities shifting. Inclusive thinking can get us there; dichotomous, exclusionary thinking can set us up for failure—and unthinking adherence to the status quo would certainly do so, if this particular straw man represented a significant part of library leadership or practice. I don’t believe it does. If it does, there is little hope, because those who are wholly committed to an unchanging status quo are not paying attention, almost by definition.

The introduction to this essay ended “possibly branching out to other aspects of futurism and predictions, if space allows.” It appears that the last three words are controlling in this case, particularly given that the source materials for that “branching out” are roughly equal to those already used. Space doesn’t allow; some other time.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 10, Number 7, Whole Issue 130, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written by Walt Crawford.

This issue sponsored by the Library Society of the World (LSW).

Comments should be sent to waltcrawford@gmail.com. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2010 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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