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

Selection from Cites & Insights 5, Number 3: February 2005

The Library Stuff

Walt Crawford

Holt, Rachel, “Musings of a nextgen librarian,”, January 2005 ( newsletter/archives/jan05rholt.htm)

Holt offers characteristics that “we”—apparently, all MLS holders in a certain age range—share. When has there been a generation all of whose members share all primary values? What are those key characteristics? “First, and most importantly, we have chosen to be librarians” (as opposed to taking it on as a second career). [Emphasis added.] “Second, and perhaps most obvious, we have a very high level of comfort with technology…. Third…we have a shared cultural experience with the generation following us, the Millenials…. Fourth, we are the first generation of librarians to have experienced the library in its most modern mutation. We were the first students to use online library catalogs… Fifth, and most enjoyably, we bring a strong desire to do away with dusty librarian stereotypes and revise the profession for the culture at large…” Before that list, Holt tells us that Nextgens are “often viewed by our colleagues with a mixture of bewilderment and mistrust… Then we open our mouths and say words like “social responsibility,” and boy, you can just hear the arms crossing and the noses sniffing in libraries everywhere.”

I’m not sniffing (well, I am; I’m getting over a cold), but I am bewildered. Online catalogs have been around for more than two decades now, so either Nextgens are older than I think, or there’s a sloppy claim there. I know that SRRT precedes Nextgens by quite a few years: “Social responsibility” (whatever its merits) is not a rallying cry new to this generation. There are a lot of older librarians with a “very high level of comfort with technology”—and I’ll go out on a limb, but I’ll bet there are some “Nexgen” MLS-holders who aren’t all that comfortable with “computers as helpmeets, avatars, gateways, and tools.”

What’s bothersome in this screed is the implicit “and you’re not” that runs throughout it. Holt asserts that people who enter the workplace as librarians are “unique in many of our institutions” and strongly implies that (all? most?) older librarians reached that path “through recession or industry belt-tightening.” She certainly implies that older librarians just can’t be as tech-savvy as Nextgens.

Holt and (all?) her peers “want to sit at the grown-ups’ table.” Part of that might be getting over your good self and how you and your peers deserve special treatment. If you’re special, show it by doing good work. “Offer a fresh voice” by all means—but make that voice count by saying important things, not by harping on how special you are because you’re young (and we’re not). The antepenultimate sentence of this three-page article (which I recommend that you read, since I’m probably being way too harsh), reads: “We’re not trying to steal anyone’s job, wipe away the traditions of the profession, or show disrespect to the people who have done this before and who do it better than we ever could.” I have a little trouble buying the last clause of that sentence, and that’s a shame.

A walking paper cluster

Aaron Schmidt at walking paper (www.walkingpaper .org) has provided a series of thoughtful, provocative blog entries over the last few months. Last month, I mentioned his “top ten things to stay tech currents” and “tech needs pyramid.” He’s kept it up—and, in the first instance here, provided an indirect response to my July 2004 (C&I 4:9, p. 14) comments on his May 17, 2004 posting “Once bitten” (which discussed the extent to which library ebooks were being pushed by producers more than requested by readers—while books on MP3 appear to meet a real user demand). Here’s my thought, “which could turn into a full-fledged essay or article”:

In the case of ebooks (and particularly dedicated ebook appliances), libraries were “getting out ahead” of patrons—demonstrably, since the number of consumers who purchased ebook readers for their own use is so small that nobody’s ever offered an estimate. My guess is that it’s almost always a bad idea for public libraries to try to be ahead of their users in adopting new media, particularly new circulating media. Instead, I believe, it makes sense to be a little behind: Ready at the point where a new medium serves more than the most privileged set of “haves” in the community. But that’s still rough thinking, and far be it from me to criticize library actions.

“Serving two masters,” posted December 12, 2004, considers the fact that “many public library users…are not terribly adept with technology” while other users “work with technology on a regular basis and have fairly high technology expectations.” As he notes, there wouldn’t be a problem “if we had unlimited fiscal and temporal resources”—but in the real world, libraries need to find balances. Schmidt notes, “There isn’t one answer that will apply to all situations,” since every community is different, but does offer four general suggestions: “Include technology in community surveys… Mine public services staff for information [on patrons’ technology skills]… Do trial projects… Spy [see what’s happening elsewhere in the community].” It’s a recommended essay in general. I wish more people would mention the worth of true trial projects, “dip[ping] your proverbial toe in the water,” with the recognition that a trial is always a success even if the end result is not retaining a new service or technology.

And here’s Schmidt’s indirect response to my offhand thought last July:

It is most realistic for libraries to aim to be as current as their surrounding community. Less realistic but perhaps more appealing is the notion of libraries being their community’s technology mentor. While I think certain situations warrant that the majority of a library’s attention be given to making sure people’s basic needs are met, I think there are some scenarios in which libraries could lead their communities by purchasing certain types of technology. More on this later.

I hope Schmidt does a better job with his last sentence than I’ve done—offering more thoughts later—because he’s actually out in a public library and because I respect what he’s saying. Not that there’s a necessary contradiction: Libraries can be slightly behind the community in adopting new media while leading the community in certain types of technology. Maybe what I should have said is “slightly behind the early adopters.” (At this point, I’m impressed enough with what he’s saying that I’m considerably less likely to expand my own comment. Why do the work when someone else is doing it better?)

Too much fun: December 16, 2004

Here Schmidt comments on the “Digital Photo Effect,” which he picks up from Rajat Paharia’s rootburn log. Requoting:

What’s the DPE? My ability to produce and acquire has far outstripped my ability to consume…. This has a couple of ramifications:

1. I feel behind all the time.

2. Because there is so much to consume, I don’t enjoy each individual photo as much as I did when they were physical prints. I click through fast.

3. Because of 1 and 2, sometimes I don’t even bother.

Paharia notes that this is happening with music and video as well. I offered a mini-perspective last November, “Does the Music Matter?,” riffing off a July 17 New York Times essay, “Can an MP3 glutton savor a tune?” In that essay, Roger Van Bakel notes that he doesn’t make the mental connections with any of the thousands and thousands of MP3 songs he downloads that he used to make when he owned a lot less music. I suggested that Van Bakel might be on to something—that having so much of it so readily available may cheapen the emotional impact of the music.

Schmidt says DPE, a generalized version of MP3 overload/under-connection, “has come up in a number of conversations I’ve had with people over the last few months. I know a number of people [who] have more music than they know what to do with. They have only a vague idea of what is cached on their hard drives, and seem to be not too enthusiastic about most of it.”

Conclusion? Maybe there is a real problem out there—maybe oversaturation does undermine deep connections. Schmidt goes on to bring this back to the library: Libraries can help prevent DPE in patrons through selective promotion, and the values that libraries add to simple media provision can “snap people out of their DPE slumber.” I hope that’s true. I know public libraries add value and need to be aware of and promote that value.

Rss hub-bub, January 19, 2005

This time Schmidt’s just asking for trouble. Noting enthusiasm in the blogosphere about one library vendor adding RSS to one of their extended products (and the predictable “every library and every vendor should be doing this right now” responses from more excitable bloggers), he quotes part of one comment on one post. That comment, from an employee of another library automation company, notes that when that employee has suggested RSS feeds, the general response is “where are the customers who want this?”

He has a point that is sometimes difficult to remember. There are still many, many people [who] aren’t familiar with RSS. Ask your neighbor what “Really Simple Syndication” is. 98% of you will come back having received strange looks, and maybe 1% of you (likely less) will have the correct answer. [Footnote: The missing 1%? You’ll come back with a black eye.]

You won’t get RSS in online catalogs until vendors know that patrons are using it—and, by the way, you probably won’t get it if you’re not willing to pay for it. Sure, it has valuable library roles—but what portion of the community will take advantage of the feeds? Maybe, as Schmidt suggests, this is one of those cases where the library mentors the patrons—“guiding them through technologies they might benefit from learning about.”

He also notes that, if RSS takes off in a big way, it’s likely to be ruined—“If not by some new fangled spam, then it’ll be by the abundant adverts and few full-content feeds. It could be rendered as painful to use as email.” I’ve wondered about that, and noted with a small sense of irony that the RSS feed from one of the top library promoters of RSS feeds is now partially broken (by my standards): It’s no longer a full-text feed, for financial reasons. (And, earlier, notes that he only encountered the comments because he clicked through to the site.)

Interesting stuff. So your library would just as soon drop its new title lists and substitute an automatically generated RSS feed? You tell your patrons, “Oh, we don’t send that email any more. All you have to do is add our new title RSS feed to your aggregator.” What reaction will you get?

I live in a very high-tech community, on a block where most homes are owned by two parents, both of whom work in Silicon Valley. If I went around asking neighbors about RSS, I’m sure I’d get more than 1% success rate—but I’m also sure it would be a lot less than half.

(Last-minute addition: See Trends & Quick Takes in this issue. The latest Pew Internet & American Life study on blogging suggests that Schmidt’s “98%” figure is right on the money.)

Some problems with virtual reference
January 20, 2005

I don’t know enough about how VR, chat reference, IM reference, email reference, and old-fashioned F2F reference actually work to comment actively in this area. I was a bit surprised by some earlier articles seeming to attack VR, particularly since one of them came from an extreme advocate of commercial VR services. In this post, Schmidt points to a more recent piece in Library Journal by Brenda Bailey-Hainer, “Virtual reference: Alive & well,” which points to successes within statewide VR services—and argues strongly against abandoning other forms of reference in favor of VR.

The post considers some inherent problems with VR systems, and is recommended reading on its own. He notes that VR benefits librarians more than patrons; that the systems were clearly built from a library-centric perspective; and that statewide and nationwide VR systems do not connect patrons to their community. “Large scale projects can (somewhat) successfully answer patrons’ general reference questions, but they cannot provide answers to local questions or handle home library specific tasks” (such as those having to do with holds).

Schmidt argues that libraries should try to find ways to be “where our patrons already are”—possibly including IM reference. He also agrees that librarians should find ways to make VR work better.

Right now, though, it is just addressing a symptom—“We need to be answering questions for patrons online.” Perhaps in the future it will be able to address the root problem—“We need to be connecting to our patrons online.”

One of my predictions during the LITA Top Tech Trends discussion at Midwinter in Boston was that at least one or two significant new commentators would emerge from the library blogosphere this year. I gave Schmidt as one example, although he’s been doing it for quite a few months now.

Webster, Peter, “Breaking down information silos: Integrating online information,” Online 28:6 (November/December 2004): 30-34.

Webster provides a quick, clear overview of some “manifestations of an integrated information environment”—ejournals, open online catalogs, metasearch using Z39.50 and other protocols, metadata harvesting, OpenURL, and open access.

The section on “the new gray literature” is provocative and bears thinking about. Webster notes that much of what Yahoo! and Google find “would once have been gray literature.” The controversial part: for many people even on university campuses, “anything not readily accessible via such a search engine has become the new gray literature, useful perhaps, but annoying and difficult to retrieve because it cannot be searched by standard methods.” The scholarly corpus as gray literature: Disturbing, but I’m not ready to say he’s wrong. Worth reading and thinking about.


Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 5, Number 3, Whole Issue 59, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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