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

Selection from Cites & Insights 7, Number 13: December 2007

Making it Work Perspective

On the Middle

If you’re not 100% with us, you’re against us.

Very few people will say that outright. In the so-called good old days of the ‘60s, they used another version: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. That may sound more nuanced, but it’s not, given that the people saying it define whether you’re really “part of the solution” and the definition is usually pretty absolute.

Cut me some slack on this one. I lived in Berkeley (and either attended or worked at UC) from 1962 through 1976 and most of 1978-79. I encountered good examples of absolutism on both sides, as well as groups operating more moderately to make progress. I have a pretty good idea what I’m talking about: I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.

If balance is boring, being in the middle can be worse. A surprising number of people and groups try to define the middle out of existence. Extremes are inherently more exciting and taking extreme positions is more likely to yield fame (or at least notoriety). But most of us live most of our lives in the middle, and I believe most sustainable progress comes from the middle.

This scattered Perspective continues the longest Perspective in the previous “mostly-essay issue,” Cites & Insights 7:9 (August 2007), On Disagreement and Discussion. (If you haven’t read that issue, please do: It’s one of which I’m particularly proud. This essay also continues some of October 2007’s Making it Work in a slightly different context.) A few bits of that essay, dealing directly or indirectly with “all-or-nothing”/black-and-white mindsets, may help set the stage for this end-of-year rant.

It is tough to disagree with some people, either because you perceive them as so powerful that they can do you harm or because they have a tendency to take disagreement badly and have cliques ready to jump on you for disagreeing. I see good, vigorous disagreement within “trusted circles” where we’ve all pretty much agreed that disagreement is OK. I see good, vigorous disagreement with people so remote from the field that they’re unlikely to notice or care. Then there’s that tricky middle section…

[Comment from] Pete Smith: …Circles always form. If you disagree with one part, you disagree with all, and I’ve seen that in various online discussions. Also, our times seem to be marked by a weird sort of non-absolute absolutism—those who are not with us totally are totally against us.

My response: Great statement there–something I’ve talked about but rarely so concisely: “Also, our times seem to be marked by a weird sort of non-absolute absolutism- those who are not with us totally are totally against us.” I’ve run into that time and time again, on topics as diverse as ebooks, the One True Path for Open Access, and copyright–the last from both ends of the spectrum. And, at times, on the Library 2.0/social software area, although less so there as time goes on…

Some forces discourage disagreement, including groupthink, excess civility, open hostility to disagreement…

[Not] Going Back

I was going to recount some of my own experiences being attacked by one or both “sides” for not agreeing with them 100%. That turned out to be a bad idea. Just skimming through some of the history was discouraging but reminded me that, in many ways, these are the good old days.

Briefly, though, I’ve had experience:

Ø      Being labeled an anti-ebook Luddite, dinosaur and Darth Vader because I wrote an essay that was not sufficiently enthusiastic about ebooks.

Ø      Being labeled anti-copyright because I support fair use and refuse to use the terms “piracy” and “theft” for casual file sharing.

Ø      Being labeled a pro-copyright extremist because I oppose illegitimate file-sharing, believe copyright has a useful role and don’t agree that, because infringement by digital copying is easy and widespread, it’s therefore proper.

Ø      Being labeled as supporting an unchanging status quo because I favor thoughtful, incremental, balanced evolution over revolution and think “transforming” as a short-term objective doesn’t make much sense for institutions with strongly favorable public images.

Ø      And, of course, being labeled anti-Whatever Bright Shiny Thing you choose to name if I raise doubts about its universal applicability and immediate efficacy…and sometimes being accused of that because I quote somebody else.

Then there’s Library 2.0. Back when I was young and even more foolish (December 8, 2005), I said this about my own [non-]involvement in that discussion:

On one hand, I don’t really enjoy being called a naysayer, I don’t really enjoy confrontation, and I have no desire to discourage enthusiasm for new ideas and services.

On the other hand, I am seeing a certain degree of “or thinking” going on, and the term itself draws a circle: This is Library 2.0, and everything else is Old Hat Library 1.0. Since I firmly believe this is all a continuum, and I’m not that fond of disruptive thinking and the ease with which people can be labeled as Luddite/old and ready to be put out to pasture/whatever, this is troublesome. I continue to believe that words and names matter, and wonder whether the rallying virtues of “Library 2.0 outweigh the confrontational drawbacks. “Wonder” in this case really does mean “don’t yet have any firm opinion but am continuing to read, explore, and think”

On the gripping hand, I see a growing number of explicit “middle people” getting involved, trying to make sense of all this from an and, not or perspective, and am encouraged by this–and wonder whether it doesn’t make sense for an “accidental elder” like me to just stay out of the discussion for the moment.

Continuum. “And, not or.” Gray. Balance. All related to the middle—the area between extremes. In my case, “for the moment” turned out to be “for 31 days”—the Library 2.0 and Library 2.0 single-perspective issue of Cites & Insights came out precisely one month after that Walt at random post. That issue is by far the most widely read issue of C&I.

I was in the middle when it came to Library 2.0. I still am. I think it’s wonderful that people are saying Library 2.0 is all about understanding your patrons in your community, then using tools that will help serve those patrons better. I consider it unlikely that the majority of “Library 2.0”-style implementations was preceded by that level of understanding—but I could be wrong. I’m certain it doesn’t make sense for every library or every librarian to use every tool that could be considered Library 2.0—and, no, I don’t suggest that anyone takes such an extreme view.

Magical Thinking and the Excluded Middle

There are two kinds of people…

You can finish that any number of ways, including the classic middle version: “…those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don’t.” I’m not even sure that one’s right, but it’s more plausible than most dichotomies.

Recently, one dichotomy seems to be “those who believe libraries are in peril and those who don’t.” I commented on this in October’s Making it Work from one perspective—but it’s also worth pointing out as a forced dichotomy. Here, though, there’s another oversimplification: the term “libraries.” It’s quite possible to believe some libraries are in peril and others aren’t. I’m in that camp. Academic libraries in academic institutions that have lost their sense of mission and seem to be rethinking themselves as nonprofit University of Phoenix branches: Those libraries may be in peril. Public libraries that focus on the most technophilic and wealthiest fraction of their communities and favor those who don’t use libraries over those who do—they might be in peril. Any library with no librarians paying attention to the community, to new possibilities, to contemporary needs (and tools) may be in peril. The bulk of libraries? Not in peril, in my opinion—which doesn’t mean they should be frozen in time.

The effect of dichotomies is to exclude the middle. Those who dichotomize are trying to force people to take one side or the other, even when the truth lies somewhere in between. In most elections, that may be necessary. In most of life, there are usually a lot more than two viable positions.

Then there’s magical thinking, imbuing catch phrases with the power to shape reality. It seems to interfere with logic—or is logic “so last century”? (Another one of those phrases that has the effect of fingernails on a chalkboard.) Consider this syllogism:

Ø      The vast majority of Americans—of all ages—support and use public libraries.

Ø      The vast majority of Americans equate “library” with “books.”

Ø      Therefore public libraries should transform themselves for the “post-book era,” so that they’re not identified with books.

That’s magical thinking. Next comes the dichotomy: Either you get it or you don’t. Either you understand the need to transform your public library into [Insert Hot New Role Here] or you should retire. You can name your own.

Let’s try another one—although this time the minor premise isn’t quite as certain as above.

Ø      Slightly more than one-tenth of one percent of adult Americans (but less than three-tenths of one percent) are regular visitors to Second Life.

Ø      Regular visitors to Second Life appear to spend four to six hours a day “in world,” which leaves little waking time for libraries or other non-work pursuits other than sleeping and eating.

Ø      Therefore libraries should be populating Second Life because that’s where their patrons are.

If you don’t believe libraries should devote lots of time and money to Second Life—well, you know the sentence: You Just Don’t Get It.

By now, some readers may be thinking “Walt Crawford thinks public libraries should only be about books,” or “Walt Crawford thinks librarians should leave Second Life entirely alone,” or “Walt Crawford thinks print books will never go away,” or maybe “Walt Crawford doesn’t believe in change.” Or maybe not—I’m guessing people who dichotomize that readily and read that poorly don’t read Cites & Insights. (I love my readers and assume their intelligence. I may insult it once in a while, but I still assume it.)

That’s excluding the middle. It’s painting me as anti-X because I’m not 100% pro-X. I don’t think or believe any of those things.

I do believe public libraries should have books at the core of their services now and at least until there’s clear evidence of a general long-term shift away from book reading (and that, even then, books as records of humanity’s culture and achievements will continue to matter for libraries). I don’t see that happening now and regard it as unlikely during my lifetime. Since there simply is no decline in book sales or U.S. public library circulation, it’s ludicrous to extrapolate a trend leading to zero. I also assume that nearly all public libraries are about more than books and have been for a very long time.

I do think Second Life is a long shot as a large-scale long-term phenomenon (which says nothing about virtual worlds in general). Even its founders admit that (at least) nine out of ten people who try it don’t like it. Can you imagine how librarians would feel if nine out of ten people who read a book decided they’d never read another one? Does Second Life have uses that might make sense for libraries? Probably, for some libraries; probably not for others.

I do think print books are highly developed technological artifacts that serve the needs of long linear narratives exceptionally well. I don’t expect them to “go away” or decline significantly during my lifetime.

There’s something comforting about magic. You don’t have to look for facts. You don’t have to weigh alternatives and recognize that different people have different preferences and needs. Just come up with pat phrases, say them often enough and maybe they’ll come true. What the heck: Maybe if Lee Rainie and friends dismiss people like me as “Lackluster Veterans” often enough, we’ll die off or Get With The Program—another great fingernails-on-the-chalkboard phrase. Then again, maybe not.

Others in the Middle

Not that I want to label anyone else as being nonexistent, irrelevant or boring, but a fair number of thoughtful people take positions somewhere between black and white. If it seems as though I’m adding discussions that broaden what could be considered a negative essay—well, yes, that’s true. I believe great things can come from the middle. I don’t regard any of the people I’m quoting as middling, mediocre or boring. I do regard them as ready to take non-extreme positions while working to improve libraries and librarianship.

creating a flat library and the culture of maybe

Aaron Schmidt posted this on September 30, 2007 at walking paper ( Schmidt directs a young public library with rapidly growing circulation and a building that’s already out of space. He wants to see that library grow in a sensible manner. The post is well worth reading for his discussion of a relatively flat organization—but also for his “cultural” aim. He’s trying to avoid a Culture of No—but he’s not quite ready to assert a Culture of Yes either:

Instead of a Culture of No, I’m aiming to create a Culture of Maybe. You might not be surprised that employees really appreciate being able to discuss library issues without fear of judgment or other negative reactions. Here are some ideas for creating a Culture of Maybe.

Encourage collaboration. Collaboration needs to be at the core of how things are accomplished. It isn’t just a method of working on discreet projects, but rather a complete way of communicating and acting. Challenges to this include staff involvement with many aspects of library service, some of which might be outside their traditional area of interest or expertise. (At the NPPL it is very apparent that we>me. The group does a fantastic job of brainstorming and refining ideas.)

Listen to everyone. This doesn’t mean that everyone is always right, but it does mean that their ideas deserve consideration. Staff need to know that presenting ideas that don’t get put into practice is not an indication of poor performance and that they won’t be penalized in any way for doing so.

Let natural talents develop. People are happy when they can do what interests them. People do their best work when their happy.

Make people responsible. This is not about being able to blame someone if things go haywire. It is about letting people know what they’re responsible for and that their actions have a direct impact on the operation of the library. If employees see the direct impact they have, they’ll be more likely to take pride in what they’re doing. An essential part of this is providing the freedom and resources to allow people to actually do their job.

Set deadlines and stick to them. All of this free flowing conversation and discussion is great, but it must result in something. Decisions should rarely be final, however. An initial deadline and a secondary evaluation point can be set, the latter providing another opportunity for reflection, reevaluation and refinement.

Schmidt isn’t abdicating his role as director. He’s also not saying he’ll say “Yes” to every idea—but he’s trying to avoid a general air of negativity. Sounds good to me.

Should we take off those training-wheels?

Meredith Farkas posted this on October 7, 2007 at Information wants to be free, continuing a multipart conversation on the “training-wheels culture” that some librarians assert is too common in librarianship. I won’t go through the whole controversy. Briefly, the issue is whether librarians are too quick to ask for instruction in areas where they should be able to figure things out for themselves, or at least try on their own before asking. Dorothea Salo called librarians “a timorous breed, fearful of ignorance and failure.” To some extent, Farkas agrees: She’s been surprised by the number of people in her courses asking for help who she thought should have tried something before asking for help.

There definitely is a lot of risk aversion in this profession. I think we’re getting better, but a lot of libraries do not create an environment where people feel comfortable failing… Why do some people feel like they can’t learn something unless it’s literally handed to them? Why can’t people look things up or just — as Dorothea says — “beat software with rocks until it works?”

We talk a lot about diverse learning styles and being sensitive to those styles. I’m someone who doesn’t learn well by reading step-by-step instructions. I learn by seeing someone do something or by trying to do it myself. I remember in math class once, I came up with my own way of solving certain problems. While I’d always come to the correct answer, I’d get points taken off (remember, in math class you always had to show your work) because it wasn’t the way we were taught in the book. This is just the way I am. I learn in my own way. And I’ve been wondering if maybe this has something to do with learning styles. Maybe some people just can’t go into a wiki and learn how to use it. Maybe they need a facilitator around to show them how things are done before they feel comfortable doing it themselves. And if that’s the case, then should we really be pushing them to learn in a way that runs counter to their own learning style? Should we be like my math teacher who penalized me for learning in a different way?

Here we get to the middle: Is it reasonable for librarians to work this way? There’s no answer here but at least Farkas raises the question. She also points out one reason it’s problematic, at least if too many librarians behave this way:

The thing that concerns me most about this learning style or culture or lack of curiosity is what it means for their future in implementing technologies. Whether this is a learning style issue or not, librarians are doing themselves (and their library and their patrons) no favors when they take no responsibility for their own learning. If someone can’t figure out (or be bothered to figure out) how to subscribe to RSS feeds in an aggregator without explicit instructions from their instructor, will they be able to evaluate and implement technologies at their library? Will they be able to keep up on their own as technologies change? Will they be able to learn how to use the new things that come along without a class?

These are small excerpts from a six-page post worth reading, as are 14 pages of comments). Farkas finds the “training-wheel culture” dangerous—but thinks you need to understand what’s going on, not simply decry the problem. She also recognizes her own past: “I was one of those kids who never wanted to take off the training-wheels or the water wings.” She feels lucky that she was pushed out of her comfort zone.

We’re in different parts of the broad middle (the area between extremes), which is as it should be. I agree with Farkas (and Salo) that contemporary librarians do need some curiosity and a willingness to learn some things on their own. On the other hand, I wonder whether a typical librarian needs to learn how to install MediaWiki (another example Farkas uses) on their own?

The comments are lively. Dorothea Salo says that at some point your learning style is no longer an excuse. Mark Lindner thinks Salo’s analysis overgeneralizes and raises two interesting questions:

What I would like an answer to is why librarians are having an issue with people asking questions? Seriously, why are librarians questioning other librarians asking questions?...

My other question centers around why in the heck do some of these librarians assume that everyone has the same priorities and interests that they do? Even someone who needs to know something may not be so interested.

An ARL library may benefit from a lightweight content management system open to multiple authors and collaborative editing. Does that mean the director should figure out how to install MediaWiki? Probably not. It means they should ask someone on staff (or in IT) to set up a wiki or find another fast-n-easy solution. The director almost certainly has better things to do with their time and curiosity. Lindner got a little upset with extremes later in the post:

I admit that there are some librarians who definitely have problems with their approaches (or non-approaches, if you will) to learning. But there is an awful lot of “preaching” in the biblioblogosphere lately about those “others.” Certainly not a good way to bring anyone on board. As I said at the end of one of my recent posts: Veiled name-calling, belittling, “just get on board,” and “my way is the right way” are not disagreement and they are certainly not discussion. They are condescending, they are threatening, and they are wrong.

You won’t be surprised that one (pseudonymous) comment had The Answer, yet another classic way to exclude the middle. This charmer asserted that “all of the people you know” who favor training-wheels culture are “baby boomers” and celebrated: “They’ll all be gone soon and we won’t need to worry about this any longer.” Gen-gen is ever with us; sometimes it’s just unusually ignorant and offensive.

Farkas engaged in the conversation:

When I get asked to put something on the Library Success Wiki for them, I tell them how to do it themselves and provide a link to an editing guide for MediaWiki. Sure, it’s easier to just give an answer or put the info in myself, but it doesn’t do anyone (me, them, their library) any favors in the long run.

That marks a clear difference between our shades of gray—and here I believe we’re both right. My new job involves editing content on a wiki-based platform and soliciting material for it. I will explicitly invite people to send contributions to me if they don’t have the time or inclination to learn wikitext, if they don’t find the MediaWiki editing environment friendly—or if they already have something that would improve the wiki. By doing it for them, I’m doing the library field a favor.

Dean C. Rowan thinks it’s unfair to characterize librarianship as risk-averse, noting that American corporate enterprise “is profoundly timorous and risk averse.” He finds librarians more ready and able to experiment than others. Then he says:

“Training wheels culture”: the phrase is condescending and–no little irony–itself a fitting instance of the behavior it seeks to condemn, a facile, sweeping diagnosis that gets to the heart of nothing. It’s also completely counterproductive. I thought libraries (not to mention schools, apprenticeships, mentors…) were poised to welcome all manner of queries and requests for assistance before judging the motives or lack of incentive of the inquirers. It does no good to denounce the very groups we seek to assist as lazy or uninterested.

Natalie Stephens begins a five-paragraph comment in a slightly different part of the middle thus:

I’ve been in work environments where looking up an answer yourself is hands-down the preferred method of resolving a problem, and I’ve also been in places where the easiest way to create a sort of social capital with your colleagues is to ask them questions and allow them to give you answers. Often you find out things you didn’t even know you would want to know, and they like feeling capable of instructing others, not to mention the benefits of reinforcing their own knowledge.

Sometimes—for some people, on some occasions—it’s essential that you jump in and try things before asking for help or a canned solution. Sometimes it isn’t. The matrix is complicated and uncertain. In practice, I don’t think the “extremists” in this discussion were actually at any extreme. Dorothea Salo wasn’t saying “everybody should always beat on software with rocks first, period.” Neither Mark Lindner nor Dean C. Rowan was saying librarians should always be excused for lack of initiative and curiosity. In one or two other cases—posts elsewhere that weren’t directly part of this conversation—I’m less certain.

On her own blog (Life as I know it), Jennifer Macaulay agreed with Farkas that we need to understand what’s happening when people seem to demand training wheels—and added another possibility:

In my experience, people are not encouraged to play, to try new things, or to figure things out on their own. As technology becomes more pervasive and more complicated, IT departments are desperate to prevent users from being able to cause major disruptions. They are employing security software, firewall rules, etc. in order to prevent users from doing damage. Software manufacturers are following suit by locking down operating systems, software packages, etc… People are discouraged from doing things that may cause problems or may go against the norm—and are thus, fearful of getting viruses, corrupting their computers or making a move without tech support. Can you blame them?

If you’re wondering whether Farkas is a hidden extremist, her June/July 2007 American Libraries column makes things fairly clear. She offers “ten timeless tech tips,” two of which are “Avoid technolust” and “Consider your population”—the latter specifically suggesting that hot new tools might not serve your library even as they work great elsewhere. The whole column is worth reading.

A few notes from Pete Smith

Pete Smith blogs at Library too (havemercia.wordpress. com). He’s a British librarian and clear fan of the middle. Take a June 4, 2007 post, “Middle gears.” In part:

Middle gears. Yes, this is what we need. Less of the ‘end of the world is nigh’ thrill ride of the Saviours of Libraries, more the less thrilling but more rewarding steady approach based on balance and seeking to serve all users and services, not just the ones you are comfortable with.

Eleven days later, Smith takes on the extremes directly in “‘When two tribes go to war.’” In part:

Two stereotypes enter. One stereotype leaves. Welcome to The Public Library Dome….

In one corner, Libraries Are About Books. The key is the brand, books are the brand, diluting the brand will destroy libraries through lack of focus.

In the other corner, Books Are The Past The Brand is Information and Exchange. The key is change, change is social computing, resisting change will destroy libraries through irrelevance.

Both positions find support amongst librarians; not all librarians subscribe to the Library 2.0 model, as an example. Both positions have some merit. But as extremes, they have the problem of polarising ‘debates.’

Is there a ‘middle ground’ to be found. Walt Crawford thinks so, and I agree on this. But what does this middle look like?

Well, I think it takes its character from a careful consideration of the new, alongside an honest appraisal of existing systems. It takes time to adopt new things, not because it is change resistant, but because it has a duty to its public as a whole. And because of that duty it does look into new services, such as digital libraries and social computing.

Books play a role in the Library of the Middle. They are a key part of the public library brand; currently they have the widest acceptance and will continue to do so for some time. Any attack on books is seen as an attack on the library ideal, and aside from the virtues of books we cannot afford to alienate so many people…

Digital resources must play a role. Increasingly people are used to this mode of access, and materials are more and more commonly issued digitally. Social computing is here to stay and offers libraries new ways to communicate with their users…

Above all there should be a move from the sterile oppositions which bedevil discussions around libraries. We can have both books and digital; continuity and change; the old and the new.

On July 4, 2007, Smith considers another pat phrase:

How useful is ‘just do it’ as advice? It’s a nice slogan, but it short-circuits any consideration of issues people might have…

I know it’s a slogan. It’s just a judgmental one, bordering on the hectoring. ‘We will help you do it’ would be better.

In a fine example of what being in the middle can mean, all of a September 10, 2007 post, “Why librarians?”:

Librarians make collections live.

Or we should.

A building full of books is not a library. A building full of books and people issuing them over the counter is not a library- no matter how nice the building, or the people, or the coffee. If all a library is is a collection of books and a means to hand them out, there is no need of any people.

A library is a collection managed, promoted and cared about by people. It is also the services that make that collection meaningful and useful to the people who come into the library.

Right now that collection is rightly dominated by books, but no service can assume that now is forever; so we need to explore other areas such as online materials and digital collections, and the services that go with them.

Too much of the current library debate seems to want either to move libraries back to cosy book-collection-from-home for the genteel ‘who wish to make use of it’ without having to worry about those who might want to make use of it but don’t know how; or into a book free gaming and technoheaven for a notional youth. Neither extreme is a library; one is a limited and limiting anachronism, the other preserving a name without the meaning to go with it.

A wise man once said ‘a library is a growing organism.’ And as it grows it needs people to care for it, guide its growth; to make it live. That is why librarians.

Do remember that Smith is in the UK. The public library debates there are quite different from debates within the US—or at least I believe they are. Nonetheless, what Smith says bears thinking about. Smith’s middle position can only be seen as a call for the status quo by one who reads with mental blinders.

Will slow reading be a casualty of fast libraries?

John Miedema posted this April 30, 2007 at his eponymous blog ( The post covers a fair amount of ground in three pages, and I think the “slow reading” idea is interesting. That’s not the thrust of this essay, but it’s worth quoting most of Miedema’s first two paragraphs—with the caveat that Miedema is not saying all reading should be slow reading, but that slow reading has special virtues:

Slow reading is about leisurely reading a book, maybe just a page or two at a time; noticing the binding, paper and font; seeking out and encouraging local publications; borrowing books from friends and neighbours; reading aloud with your kids; sharing thoughts about what you are reading with family and friends over dinner. It is closely associated with the larger slow movement, as described in Honore’s (2004) In praise of slow.

Slow reading is better for mental and emotional health, socialization, and our global culture. Slow readers seek out local content, providing an audience for local writers whose diversity sustains the larger interests of global media when its formulaic content runs dry.

The post—most distinctly neither anti-technology nor anti-Library 2.0 (Miedema applauds the idea of interactive online catalogs with patron-contributed content, which can help localize the library and the catalog)—deserves to be read on its own. A few excerpts dealing with extremes and middle grounds:

We are in the middle of a cultural shift that is still learning the proper place of digital technology. For a time, we thought that books and libraries would disappear altogether in favour of computers and on-line searching; we were wrong about that; print is more prevalent than ever. But are we as literate as ever?...

I use the phrase ‘fast libraries’ to refer to a trend toward the complete digitalization of libraries. We may never get there, but it is an asymptote toward which we are accelerating. We don’t want to get there.

Notice that libraries talk less about books these days, and more about information. Information is the more general term, representing ideas in all their forms: text and video, print and digital. Information is also a sexier term, better suited to fund raising (with potential benefits for book funds too). It occurred to me yesterday than in this sleight of words, we may be doing a real disservice to the fiction department. Is fiction information? I suppose it is, but when we think of information, it is not stories and the fiction shelves that come to mind. Fiction is a mainstay of slow reading, but it may be eclipsed in the shift to fast libraries…

Slow reading is not just about fiction; it’s about reading deeply and reflectively to understand an issue thoroughly. Few people can do that effectively on-line; the end of books is the end of deep thought. Fast information is great when I need a quick, rough answer, but like fast food it often leaves me hungering for something more substantial.

I think digital technology is terrific for doing what it does best — organizing information, performing tedious repetitive tasks at high speed, and helping me find information. But sometimes it doesn’t make sense…

To support slow reading, libraries do not need to stop growing, but they need to keep their mission rooted in the essentials — books (including the fiction shelves), local libraries, and people living in communities. The library can subordinate technology toward the creation of a culture of reading and writing.

Miedema finishes by proposing that libraries consider “micropublishing” programs to encourage small-run local publications. I’ve discussed this idea elsewhere and think it’s an interesting and natural extension of localized library services, one that contemporary tools make much more plausible. The discussion doesn’t belong here. I’ll refer you to the last of the essays I wrote for WebJunction, “Your community’s stories” (


I believe most of us live somewhere in the middle, most of the time, on most things that matter to us. At least I’d like to believe most of us don’t reduce life to a series of black-and-white, yes/no dichotomies.

As one who lived through the sixties, I’m particularly amused by people (mostly well to the right of me) who equate liberals and radicals. Phil Ochs certainly understood the difference in “Love me, I’m a liberal,” a radical song that demonized liberals and made it clear that true radicals consider liberals to be worse than conservatives. Radicals (on the left or right—I’m not sure there’s much real difference) dichotomize. Liberals dwell somewhere in the middle.

I changed the slogan for Walt at random to “The library voice of the radical middle.” That’s partly a joke—I’m not sure the “radical middle” can exist—but it reflects an underlying truth. I think most growth comes from the middle. I am well aware that some disagree with this, arguing that progress requires extremes. Try as I might, I can’t accept the notion that not embracing something in its entirety is the same as opposing it. Computers are really good at yes/no decisions (it’s all they can do, when you get down to the circuit level). People should be capable of greater nuance.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 7, Number 13, Whole Issue 97, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Director and Managing Editor of the PALINET Learning Network.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services,

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