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

Selection from Cites & Insights 6, Number 11: September 2006

The Library Stuff

D-Lib Magazine 12:3 (March 2006): What do you do with a million books?

That’s the theme for half a dozen articles and the title of an introduction by Gregory Crane. Rather than commenting on each article, I’ll suggest you read the whole group, thinking about them critically. The distinction between “image books” (“raw digital pictures of books with searchable but uncorrected text from OCR”) and true digital texts is interesting. Crane suggests vast collections of “image books” could “arguably retard our long-term progress”—but you need to think through Crane’s definition of “progress” to evaluate that assertion. I’m skeptical of the idea that a digital library “automatically learns as it grows larger” or that “documents can learn from their users”; I tend to regard learning as the sole province of humans and other animals. To me, “intelligent digital libraries” is an oxymoron. Crane speaks of “a shift that may eclipse the significance of print.” I’m not sure. I could take issue with more of Crane’s commentary, but that’s beside the point.

I found myself annotating other papers less heavily. There are items I found odd, such as the lead sentence in “Early modern culture in a comprehensive digital library”: “One could argue that there are no true libraries with millions of volumes”—apparently because “no single human being can make productive use” of large collections. That’s a very odd definition of a library.

An interesting theme and a fine example of what makes some magazines and journals more than just sets of independent articles. In some ways, this issue would work better as a print publication.

Farkas, Meredith, “A big fat done stamp (and some advice),” Information wants to be free, June 16, 2006.

Meredith Farkas finished writing her book—a big one, around 100,000 words (like most of my early books, but not recent ones). She notes the extent to which she “literally did nothing but work on the book” for the past few weeks—that rush you get when you’re almost to the end of a marathon project. She offers ten pieces of advice, all well worth reading. I’ll note a few here (each sentence has a paragraph attached in the post).

     Don’t spend more time thinking about how it will get done than doing it.

     Take advantage of high-energy times.

     Read your publisher’s submission guidelines. And read them again.

     If you can’t multitask well, then [don’t].

Go read the original (even if I might question one or two points) and the comments attached. And, of course, congratulations, Meredith!

“It is what you make it,” Redhaired future librarian, June 15, 2006

“A recurring theme I have been noticing lately is that library school is not intellectually rigorous enough.” Thus begins an extremely cogent one-page post that fleshes out the title.

In a sense, library school is what you make it. It is entirely possible to sail through library school without really engaging your brain, especially if you’re bright (which I think aspiring librarians tend to be). At the same time, though, there are meatier things to think about…

Redhaired mentions some of them—library education itself, libraries through the lenses of philosophers, the intellectual foundations of librarianship, how humans deal with information. If you’re in library school and don’t feel intellectually challenged, “why not seek out the harder instructors” and take other steps to make your own challenges?

I haven’t been to library school, but I did get my BA at UC Berkeley in the 1960s. What Redhaired says of library school today was certainly true of UC Berkeley back then: What you got out of it depended largely on what you put into it. They didn’t give you much of anything (except the knowledge that if you didn’t motivate yourself you’d be one of the 33% who would flunk out or drop out), but you could get a world-class education.

Long overdue: A fresh look at leadership attitudes about libraries in the 21st century, Public Agenda, 2006, 81 pp. ISBN 1-889483-87-7, $10, available for free downloading at

What? Another report on public libraries and where they stand? Yep—this time from the Americans for Libraries Council with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The report’s introduction says it “explores the true position of public libraries today, in the minds not only of library users, but of the people who run libraries and those who provide oversight and funding.” The study is said to be “the first step in the development of a national agenda for libraries and library funding in the 21st century.” Talk of a “national agenda” makes me nervous—as does any sense that library funding should be addressed on a national basis. I really believe that local public libraries are a very good thing.

Who is Americans for Libraries Council (an awkward name)? It’s Libraries for the Future, or, rather, the new organization of which the older LFF is the program arm: The website is

As with other survey-based reports, this one says, “There is a future for public libraries in the Internet age,” with 78% of those asked saying “something essential and important” would be lost if their libraries shut down. Most people think public libraries spend money well and a bare majority says they’d favor tax increases if their libraries needed more money. Public libraries rate an “A” grade more often than any other public service the study asked about. Further, “advanced computer users and families with higher incomes are even more likely to use public libraries and the technology services they offer.”

What do people want? More convenient hours; better internet access to catalogs and databases; more computers in the libraries; and more reading hours, homework help, and study space. They expect all the usual things, including a good collection of books.

For some reason, civic leaders view the variety of library governance structures within America’s public libraries “as a major stumbling block,” along with “lack of marketing, impassive advocacy and isolation from the community.”

That’s the short form; the report provides more detail. It’s clear that traditional library services and collections continue to matter. It’s also clear that people want a “quiet oasis” in which to learn.

One depressing section: “Leaders say libraries are indispensable but vulnerable.” One “business leader” says libraries “don’t matter to me” and compares them to Brussels sprouts, while another asserts that people working in libraries “find the profit motive repugnant.” Those may be exceptions. Or maybe not: They may explain why most people seem willing to pay more taxes for better libraries while “local leaders” consistently said tax increases are never seen as a favorable option. (The study involved 34 leaders.)

The report asserts four areas where libraries “could play valuable community roles” that would “likely endear them even more to civic leadership and public alike”: providing teen activities (“safe spaces”), improving adult reading skills, assuring access to government information and services, and “always provid[ing]” public access computing.

The report includes “community profiles” of Louisville, Phoenix, Providence, Salinas, and Chattahoochee Valley (Georgia) based on focus groups; number sidebars show sources of revenue and revenue per capita for each library system—but no output or effectiveness measures.

The full text and results of the survey appear, so you can evaluate possible bias (other than the natural bias: the study only includes people willing to answer a long telephone survey).

A number of bloggers commented on the study, noting some possible contradictions—and in at least one case, contrasting the “quiet place” finding with all those library people who tell us to “stop shushing people.” Maybe we need a happy medium, tough to do in smaller branches: Quiet spaces for reading and noisier spaces for those who feel the need to be noisy.

I still question the need for a “national agenda” for public libraries. Libraries are local institutions; their agendas, funding, and political organization should be local—as should most library marketing. Infollectual put it well in a July 19, 2006 post:

Perhaps libraries should be branding themselves to their local culture. A public library should be branded differently than an academic library. And a library in a metropolitan city will be branded differently from a library…in a rural township…

As one blogger noted, public librarians should not take this additional confirmation of how much they’re loved as an excuse to avoid change or rest on their laurels.

Lupien, Pascal, “Virtual reference in the age of pop-up blockers, firewalls, and Service Pack 2,” Online 30:4 (July/August 2006): 14-19 (and responses by Luke Rosenberger, Peter Bromberg and others).

Lupien (University of Guelph) discusses technical problems in VR, particularly full-featured VR with co-browsing. The title states some of the problems—that is, interference with security systems. Early on, there seems to be a little confusion between chat reference (which could be carried out nicely by IM) and full VR, but that doesn’t keep the article from being an important read. Later, IM is offered as an attractive alternative to software-based VR. Lupien doesn’t see ready solutions (other than IM).

Lupien’s article did not go unnoticed by libloggers. Luke Rosenberger of lbr posted “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear” on June 27, 2006. He notes the article as “a sobering reminder that no matter how much we perfect our interviewing and researching skills, it does no good for the patron who’s unable to connect to our service, or gives up our service, because of technical problems.” As noted in Lupien’s article, Guelph saw a 30% drop in VR use when they changed software. Lupien’s article deals with older VR platforms, but Rosenberger says it would be a huge mistake to dismiss it on that account. He offers a local study: an examination of more than 7,000 L-Net transcripts for mid-March to mid-June 2006. “A whopping 39%” of the sessions were unsuccessful (the only message was the initial question) for one reason or another. That’s using OCLC Flash; he knows of no similar study for’s Ask-A-Librarian.

But after I read Lupien’s article, it occurred to me that, disappointing as it is, Caleb’s 39% figure only reflects a subset of the patrons we’ve missed out on—because it counts only patrons who attempted to connect. That means there’s another, unknown percentage looming behind that… Is it any wonder…that so many libraries are finding that the balance between feature-rich VR software environments and relatively simple but apparently reliable IM environments is tipping more and more in the direction of IM?

Rosenberg says “it’s time for the VR vendors to rethink their approach” and provide a bare-bones “VR lite.” He suggests that VR clients and vendors “may have one more chance to create a VR platform that is truly, radically customer-centered and library-friendly. That is, if it’s not too late already.” In comments, Bill Drew asked why libraries didn’t just use IM—and Rosenberger noted the missing functionality, primarily being able to “queue, route, and distribute incoming calls across a group of librarians available to receive them.”

Peter Bromberg of Library garden devoted three posts to Lupien’s article (July 12 and 18 and August 16, 2006) under the title “Is virtual reference successful? (Hint: yes it is).” In the first part, Bromberg takes issue with Lupien’s assertion that “evidence indicates that libraries are not satisfied with [VR]”:

Say what? Aside from the fact that the statement is so overly broad as to be false on the face of it (which libraries? which services?), it’s not about whether the libraries are satisfied with the service. IT’S ABOUT WHETHER THE CUSTOMERS ARE SATISFIED WITH THE SERVICE. [Emphases in the original.]

He notes that the Lupien article never mentions customer satisfaction, that “VR customers love and rave about the convenience” and “love and rave about having a live person available to assist them with their information needs,” that VR “has changed our customers’ perceptions of what libraries can offer them” and “has helped to make libraries more relevant to our customers by meeting their needs and exceeding their expectations.” Bromberg has been involved with New Jersey’s QandANJ VR system since its inception and has “looked at thousands of transcripts and thousands of customer feedback forms.” He knows “usage is through the roof” and “our customers tend to be very satisfied.” He quotes feedback, cites “hundreds of pages…with thousands of comments that go on and on…” and notes “many other successful collaborative VR projects like those in Maryland, Colorado, and Cleveland.”

Comments begin with two agreeing with Bromberg—despite the complexity of VR software, patrons love it. Then Morgan Fielman says Bromberg “seems to have missed the point of this article, which is primarily about software,” going on to say that Fielman’s library will soon drop VR software due to problems, asking “how can customers be satisfied when the software we use is so poor?” and arguing for IM reference—which, as already noted, can’t handle the collaborative model very well.

Lupien himself provided a long and perhaps unfortunate comment, saying not only that Bromberg (who he addresses as “Peter”) “has indeed missed the point of the article, to the extent that it appears that he has only skimmed the piece and zeroed in on a few phrases, quoted out of context.” He asserts “the entire piece is focused on user satisfaction and on helping libraries to improve the user experience.” That caused me to reread the article (as I was writing these comments)—and, I have to say, that focus is well hidden! I read the article the same way Bromberg seems to read it: As a litany of librarian complaints and software problems, with no sign that thousands of patrons apparently use and appreciate VR. Lupien seems to have concluded that no VR software works and basically tells “Peter” to ignore his own successes and “develop a better understanding” of the literature on VR. He speaks of “dismissing anyone who dares to criticize VR as a service” (which Bromberg did not do). It’s a rather astonishing, dismissive comment.

Part II consists of two responses, one to Morgan Fielman, one to Pascal Lupien. Bromberg says he understands that the Lupien article was mostly about the software—but it’s not clear what versions of software, and if it’s old versions “then most of the article is, at best, moot.” Bromberg takes issue with Fielman’s question (“how can customers be satisfied?”), saying it’s the wrong question.

The question is “Are customers satisfied?” The answer in our customers’ experience is yes, they are satisfied. We didn’t find this out by polling 20 libraries [as Lupien did]. We found this out by asking the customers.

To Fielman’s conclusion, “original VR supporters have realized that this service just isn’t cutting it,” Bromberg responds, “[O]ur service has been cutting it for almost 5 years, and we have the hard data and glowing customer comments to prove it.” He offers other reasons that other VR services might not be cutting it: Training, staff enthusiasm, customer service standards, quality control, 24/7 availability—“and finally…do you consistently and effectively market your service to your customers?” He suggests answering these questions before blaming the software and ends that response: “While the current glitch here and there can be a real and undeniable pain in the ass, it hasn’t prevented us from delivering a high quality and slightly mind-blowing experience to our customers.”

Responding to Lupien (noting “I’ve read his article through thoroughly a few times”), Bromberg says he doesn’t consider himself a proponent of VR. “I consider myself a proponent of libraries” and regards collaborative VR as one high quality service to offer patrons [Bromberg likes “customers”] where and when they want it. Bromberg’s willing to hear problems with current VR software—but in context and tied to customer impact. “I didn’t get this from Lupien’s article.” There’s more, including Bromberg’s note that he does keep up with VR literature. Lupien included a comment about “jumping on that user-centric high horse,” to which Bromberg responds:

And if speaking from a place of fact and experience instead of conjecture and generality puts me on a high horse then what can I say? Giddyup.

Lupien responded again (still first-naming Bromberg, which in context appears belittling), saying the article’s assertions “are not based on conjecture. They are based on personal experience, documented cases in the literature and the experience of other libraries.” He goes on to assert that, in a VR project he’s involved in, “All of the individuals who have tried VR feel that they are not able to serve their patrons well.” [Emphasis added.] He mentions a literature review again—which seems to suggest that Lupien’s literature trumps Bromberg’s real-world experience. Lupien reiterates, citing many “well written pieces which challenge the usefulness of VR” and expects to see even more such articles “as more and more libraries either shut down their VR service or move to IM reference.”

By this point, it’s clear that Lupien is not looking at problems with some VR software in an effort to improve services. He’s painting with a broad brush, attacking all VR services and seeming to say “one project” is either mistaken or irrelevant compared with his “far larger number of cases.” He says software versions are irrelevant—that new security features will inherently create problems no matter what VR software you choose. That’s quite a claim!

Lupien argues IM is more reliable and stable, doesn’t force patrons to “jump through hoops,” and is more user-friendly. He makes no effort to address IM’s lack of support for queuing, distribution, etc.

Part III addresses the use of IM software instead of VR. Bromberg agrees that IM is a “perfectly good tool for reference work” and for other forms of library communication, suggesting every library should offer IM as a point of contact. Then he goes on to reiterate the things VR does that IM doesn’t do: multiple librarians monitoring a single screen name and 24/7 availability via cooperative/collaborative staffing.

Bottom line: Beyond the fact that VR software gives us the power to offer convenient, relevant, 24/7 service, it gives us the power to change peoples’ perceptions about libraries. I would argue that we have done just that. In my book that far outweighs any of the downsides that Lupien raised about the buginess and technical limitations of VR software.

Bromberg also apologizes for the “snarky tone” of Part I and honors Lupien’s work. That’s nice. I would suggest Lupien owes Bromberg a similar apology for the dismissive tone of Lupien’s comments.

Maness, Jack M., “Library 2.0 theory: Web 2.0 and its implications for libraries,” Webology 3:2 (June 2006).

I’m not sure what to make of this article. Maness discusses “Web 2.0” briefly and “Library 2.0,” but cites Paul Miller’s writing as framing Library 2.0, which strikes me as peculiar. He notes that Michael Casey coined the term but faults Casey for defining the term “very broadly, arguing it applies beyond technological innovation and service.” As do many of those who use the term. Stranger still, Maness “attempts to resolve some of this controversy by suggesting a definition and theory for Library 2.0,” which may be presumptuous. How does he define it?

The application of interactive, collaborative, and multi-media web-based technologies to web-based library services and collections.

Maness “suggests this definition be adopted by the library science community.” Hmm. He limits “Library 2.0” to web-based services; so much for library gaming nights and outreach to teenagers. He explicitly says that Library 2.0 involves “multi-media experience.” So much for user annotations on catalog entries, blogs, and other text-only services. “Both the collections and services of Library 2.0 contain video and audio components. While this is not often cited as a function of Library 2.0, it is here suggested that it should be.”

That specification would certainly “resolve some of [the] controversy” by vastly reducing the scope of Library 2.0. Maness seems to say that a Library 2.0 service must involve user participation in the creation and content; that’s certainly not clear in most discussions. RSS feeds for new book titles aren’t Library 2.0 by Maness’ standards: They’re neither multimedia nor user-created. Maness requires that services be “socially rich” and ”communally innovative,” also vague criteria that many innovative web services won’t meet.

When the definition doesn’t fit, Maness ignores it: IM reference is Library 2.0, even though it’s purely textual. VR is apparently even more Library 2.0.

Maness gets into deep water when he suggests Library 2.0 “will know when users are lost, and will offer immediate, real-time assistance”—in other words, Library 2.0 will monitor user behavior as a matter of course. What a wonderful idea; maybe NSA can provide grants for such monitoring!

There’s a lot of ideology in this paper. Maness states flatly, “Media created by the Web on the Web belongs on the Web”—although, to be sure, “the Web” does not create anything. We read that blogs and wikis are “fundamentally 2.0” even though most are text only and many blogs do not allow for user input (in the form of comments). Maness suggests rethinking the “very notions of ‘reliable’ and ‘authoritative,’ so that blogs can be treated as equals to books.” (Turns out we don’t need to worry about blogs and wikis being textual: Maness knows that they “will almost certainly evolve into a more multi-media environment as well”—all of them?)

Maness expects users will be able to ”see what other users have similar items checked-out”; confidentiality doesn’t seem to play a role in this version of Library 2.0. Library 2.0 is “completely user-centered and user-driven” (emphasis added).

“Library 2.0 recognizes that human beings do not seek and utilize information as individuals, but as communities.” I’m not sure what to say about that sweeping generality. I believe most of us did and do frequently seek information as individuals. Maybe I’m insufficiently communitarian for this version of Library 2.0.

Plosker, George R., “The time has come for visual search,” Online 30:4 (July/August 2006): 45-7.

Has it? Plosker notes some recent developments (adding Grokker to EBSCO, some new facilities in Factiva), but the column really adds up to a question: “Is it possible that visual search is finally becoming a tool that will add value, and therefore attract more usage, now that it is part of key vendor offerings?”

It’s a good question. I wonder whether there’s a good answer. I’d love to see some research—showing that people use AquaBrowser or Grokker or other visual search systems, that they use it more than once, and (toughest to study) that they gain value from it. I agree with part of Plosker’s conclusion: “Integrating knowledge of visual search into your storehouse of online tools is probably a good thing.” I wonder. Sure, some users are “more visually inclined”—but do visual reorganizations of textual information add value on a continuing basis? They look pretty. Do they improve user access and satisfaction? That’s an honest question; it would be nice to see researched answers.

Porter, Michael, “Netflix takes libraries to school,” Libraryman, June 6, 28, 29, 2006 (three posts), and David Lee King’s “Adapting the Netflix model to libraries,” David Lee King, June 29, 2006.

Porter says Netflix is a library and library collections “blow Netflix away”—but libraries lack Netflix’ infrastructure, “including appropriate pricing.”

Libraries just don’t have the series of web services and efficient, market expectation meeting delivery that it takes (and will increasingly take) to succeed and thrive in a world of increasingly important information delivery and content provision.

“As non-profits, couldn’t we just charge cost for an expanded level of service for patrons that selected to buy in.” My hackles go up right there, because that’s not the way it works—the “expanded level” becomes the base level as the original base level gradually degrades. Porter dismisses that with “it is an increasingly ‘content, not containers’ world now.” I’m not even sure what that means.

“People…don’t give a hoot if they get what they want from the local library, from Amazon or from iTunes. A huge percentage of folks don’t even give a hoot if they have to PAY upfront for a service that might be free (but more slowly delivered and/or less easy to access) at their local library.” Yes, and if people are happy as clams to pay for their content, they’re always going to get faster service somewhere other than at the library. We need bookstores as well as libraries, at least in a predominantly capitalist mixed economy—and we need Netflix as well as library DVD collections. Porter thinks there’s something wrong in the fact that he uses and loves Netflix even though there’s a public library less than a mile from his house. Why is that wrong? Why should he rely on a single service point?

Porter seems to argue that only fear of “rocking the boat” keeps libraries from instituting tiered service, with (naturally) superior service only for those who pay. At least one comment disagreed: “No, charging for expanded levels of service is not something public libraries as tax-supported institutions should do.” In Part II, Porter says that ideally, he agrees but “shifting attitudes, markets and methods of service provision make me think twice about this conceptually.” He makes four points:

     “Core services” would not cost any more than before. “The same free services would still be the same free services.”

     Some libraries already charge for some ILL.

     If Friends groups can take in money for things they sell, what’s the difference?

     Libraries that are part of Open WorldCat are or will be getting proceeds from the “Buy it now” program.

“So, depending on how the systems we are discussing were set up, it sure seems like it could work…. it certainly seems that both libraries and patrons could benefit greatly from it.”

Steve Lawson commented, wondering about fairness rather than legality: “I would be afraid that there would be a temptation to put those paying customers to the top of the hold queue. The public library is one of the few egalitarian institutions in American culture, and I believe that many people love it for that.” He also wonders why Netflix-style services would drive new people into public libraries: “Isn’t the great thing about Netflix that you never have to go anywhere, but you can just stay at home and watch DVDs?”

I’m with Lawson on this one—and “the same free services” in a part-pay, part-free situation do have a way of deteriorating. When city councils are strapped for funds, they can look at that nice new income stream and say, “Why not just charge $2 for each book you circulate?” and libraries competing with Netflix won’t have a good answer.

David Lee King seems to back Porter’s idea, using Web2.0 companies as examples (where you get basic free service but pay for additional service). King’s up front: Those who pay get weighted holds and other special services in addition to mail delivery of videos—and suggests adding tiered service to other library services. You want a new book? You’ll have to wait: Those who pay already have the first 50 holds.

Porter’s Part III asks, “Why compete with Netflix?” He raises some odd side issues, such as the fact that Fedex isn’t as “wired” as it was (because overnight delivery is now standard)—but Netflix uses “snail mail” from the U.S. Postal Service for its dazzlingly fast performance. Porter’s reason to compete with Netflix? “So that we can continue to offer our services to users in the next 10-30 years.” Which to me seems to require argumentation as to why not competing with a successful private business (which will raise all sorts of legal issues if it’s direct competition) is going to put public libraries out of business.

Porter claims libraries circulating entertainment “have lost circulation and market share.” I doubt that, and Porter doesn’t cite proof. He claims Netflix is decreasing “business at the libraries circulating this exact same material” with no proof (and damn few libraries offer 60,000 DVDs!). As Lawson says in a new comment, “It is also entirely unclear to me that Netflix is currently eating libraries’ lunch.” He notes that DVDs at his library are in constant circulation. That’s true in my town as well, and I’d guess most people hereabouts can afford (and probably have) Netflix.

Part IV of this series appeared in early July, making much of Netflix’ “Top 100” feature and showing that libraries have a lot of copies of Netflix’ top 50—but that’s silly, because what makes Netflix work is the 60,000 (not 50) titles, and the millions of copies that circulate all the time. WorldCat libraries seem to have 50,000 copies in all of those top 50 titles; I’d guess Netflix itself has more than that.

That’s not my major objection. My major problem is the idea that libraries must somehow best commercial enterprises—and should be willing to charge to do so. It doesn’t work that way. It should not work that way. Libraries should no more try to put Netflix out of business than Netflix should or does try to put libraries out of business.

Yes, some people will pay for instant gratification, and keep on paying until they run out of money. If libraries desert their egalitarian natures to try to compete with businesses serving those desires, I believe they will fail—and that businesses will properly demand that libraries shut down such unfair, partly-tax-supported competition.

Rosenberger, Luke, “Anonymity vs trust,” lbr, June 4, 2006. htm

Rosenberger points to other posts relating to perceptions of virtual reference and the idea that “the choices we make when we seek information are driven by trust.” Students in focus groups regard trusted people as the preferred path to trusted information—and understand that anonymous strangers online are not trustworthy. He considers three points (discussed at greater length):

     What if our insistence upon anonymity and professional distance from all VR patrons is actually turning some patrons away, and reducing the acceptance of our services?

     What if perpetuating…”librarian vs. Google”…is misleading… No librarian is ever going to out-Google Google; but then again, Google is never going to out-librarian a good librarian either.”

     What if hiding behind these policies of anonymity is actually reducing the professional perceptions of our field?”

Rosenberger is not suggesting that librarians abandon patron confidentiality and the option of anonymity; he’s suggesting that patrons should have the option of knowing who they’re talking to. “Maybe we will find that we need to rethink our models a little.”

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 6, Number 11, Whole Issue 81, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at OCLC.

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