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

Selection from Cites & Insights 6, Number 9: July 2006

The Library Stuff

ALA, The state of America’s libraries, April 3, 2006

“Libraries just aren’t what they used to be. They’re more—and better.” That’s the upbeat start of a 13-page “Executive Summary.” Some bullet point headings on the first page: Libraries and librarians are good citizens; Americans appreciate libraries and librarians; Libraries are keeping up with the times—and with the public’s needs.

The most interesting part of the report may be “Strong support for public libraries,” the results of a survey conducted in 2005 for ALA and The Campaign for America’s Libraries. Fully 89% of Americans reported being satisfied with their public libraries, with 70% extremely or very satisfied; that’s a 10% increase since 2002. Echoing other surveys, this one found that roughly two-thirds of Americans own library cards and visit the library at least once a year. Use of key library services has increased since 2002: 81% of library visitors take out books (up 14%), 54% consult the librarian (up 7%), 38% take out CDs, videos, or computer software (up 13%) and 22% attend special programs (up 8%).

What’s more, 85% of those surveyed agree that their library deserves more funding (unfortunately, surveys aren’t ballot boxes, as we just found in California, where low primary turnout played into the anti-tax contingent’s hands). One result is a little odd: 60% say $25 or more per capita should be spent on libraries (up 9% since 2002)—but the average per capita expenditure in 2003 was $29.60.

The rest of the report covers various library areas. I didn’t realize that 94% of public libraries serving more than 5,000 people provide literacy services; that’s good to know. Otherwise, most of this is stuff any American Libraries or Library Journal reader will already know—but the audience for this report reaches beyond librarians.

Block, Marylaine, “Say it with pictures,” Ex libris 276 (March 24, 2006)

Block worries about the “musty, forbidding image of libraries” persisting in America—although one might argue that “skyrocketing usage numbers for America’s libraries” undermine the reality of that image. Block believes “images dominate our thinking,” and may “trump reality.”

The answer? Pictures. She wants to see lots of pictures of libraries in action—images of libraries as they are used. She offers lots of examples and suggests adding images to library websites and displaying them on Flickr.

She has a more ambitious idea: A Day in the Life of America’s Libraries. She proposes it as “a project for ALA or PLA to undertake, with ALA publishing the book.” She urges readers to talk it up and contact their councilors.

I wonder. Picture books are expensive to publish using traditional means. They’re still more expensive on a per-copy basis using publish-on-demand, but the up-front capital costs are smaller. I think the idea is intriguing, but would be major (in time and money) to carry out, and wonder whether there would be an assured audience large enough to justify the cost.

I also suspect the proposed title won’t work—that “A day in the life of” is pretty well tied up as the start of a title for picture books. (ALA Editions almost certainly couldn’t publish Libraries for Dummies either, for similar reasons.) Still, it’s an interesting idea. Maybe I’m wrong here…

A white paper on the future of cataloging at Indiana University, January 15, 2006.

Among the current stream of “cataloging papers,” this 31-page document strikes me as unusually well balanced and thoughtful. Prepared by a twelve-person Task Group on the Future of Cataloging, it identifies a wide range of trends, offers recommendations for strategic directions, and concludes:

The need for cataloging expertise within the I.U. Libraries will not be diminished in the coming years. Rather, catalogers of the future will work in the evolving environment of publishing, scholarly communication, and information technology in new expanded roles. Catalogers will need to be key players in addressing the many challenges facing the libraries and the overall management and organization of information at Indiana University.

A few notes from a white paper worth reading in its entirety. The group concludes that, in its current state of development, “Google Book Search is not likely to have much impact at all” on traditional cataloging: “Google is in the indexing business. It is not in the metadata business.”

The group agrees with Thomas Mann: Full-text searching does not eliminate the power of subject cataloging. They doubt the utility of relevance ranking for bibliographic data—one of the few times I’ve seen a question raised about “relevance.”

The group sees the need for libraries to serve senior faculty as well as incoming freshmen, and recognizes that scientists have different types of library needs than humanists. It sees that catalogers will need to work with different kinds of metadata.

Brief Items

Abram, Stephen, “Fad or trend,” Stephen’s Lighthouse, May 9, 2006

This one surprised me, given the source: “One of the key tricks in innovation is trying to figure out whether something you’re looking at is a fad or a trend.” Although it’s an interesting discussion, Abram finally comes down where I would expect: Urging librarians to try out as many things as possible even if they’re fads. “I think that we can learn from fads and it’s not frivolous…It probably doesn’t matter that we’re exactly right all the time. Those folks who have a small closet or hard drive full of old early stage software, old ebook readers, PDA’s, phones, palm size PCs, games, have learned things earlier than others. They are better prepared to evaluate the next stage in the trend… By trying new things and checking them out, we learn how to ask better questions.” Maybe—if, in fact, those who buy into every new fad do learn to distinguish between fads and trends, as opposed to trying to convince everyone else that it’s all Hot, New, Happening, and Vital.

Dempsey, Lorcan, “Lifting out the catalog discovery experience,” Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog, May 14, 2006.

This post looks at the discovery aspect of online catalogs as part of a broader view, and suggests that this portion “will be increasingly disembedded, or lifted out, from the ILS system, and re-embedded in a variety of other contexts.” He suggests some contexts (with examples as appropriate) and how those contexts might change discovery. I won’t attempt to summarize; it’s not that long an essay (essentially 2.5 pages) Well worth reading and thinking about: How do catalogs fit within a wider context?

Lawson, Steve, “A biblioblogger visits the local branch library,” See also…, June 7, 2006.

I couldn’t resist this, and can’t really offer any advice other than: 2006/06/a_biblioblogger.html. Go read it.

Lawson, Steve, “Towards better online conferences (part one),” See also…, May 10, 2006.

Lawson offers interesting thoughts about “real” conferences and online conferences, and the possible disadvantages of free online conferences (such as the HigherEd BlogCon). Lawson’s raising issues—explicitly not saying “this must happen now!” or “online conferences are broken!”

He notes that many of us go to conferences more for the interstices than for the programs: “I’d say that the part of the conference that appears in the program is less than half the story… The attendees are the conference.” Since I find that informal communications represent about 90% of ALA’s value for me at this point, I can’t disagree. How do you “hang out” at an online conference? “There is no hotel bar to hang out in, no mealtimes to bring people together in groups.” He suggests a semi-official “backchannel” open to wildly off-topic remarks.

He agrees with Steven Bell: “When any program or event is free those who registered have less of a commitment to attend.” There may be other ways to assure attention.

Speaking specifically to the priced ACRL online conferences, he wonders just what problem ACRL is trying to solve. He believes HigherEd BlogCon had a problem with “thousands of visitors but little interaction,” and doesn’t know whether charging would change that.

A thoughtful post, with quite a few good points packed into two print pages.

“New study shows reference alive and kicking,” Retrofitted librarian, June 2, 2006.

The study’s picked up from Library Journal—and basically says that the sad old “55% rule” (that reference librarians answer about 55% of questions correctly) is based on a limited view of reference work. This study, done in a dozen Southern California public libraries, used a “truly representative field sample” and yielded a 90% success rate: “In 90 percent of the cases in this examination, a panel of reference experts determined that librarians recommended an accurate source or an accurate strategy in response to a user’s query.” The “half-right reference” observations always seemed improbably negative.

Tennant, Roy, “Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat,” TechEssence.Info, May 15, 2006.

It’s tough to comment on any of TechEssence.Info’s excellent essays without wanting to comment on them all. This one offers Tennant’s “best advice” on pulling off victory in a project when the prospects look bleak.

Key points: Focus on what’s important, make quick decisions, give it all you’ve got, plan what you can, arrange for backup on critical tasks, communicate well and often, and roll with the punches. Each of those introduces one or more paragraphs of Tenant’s typically tight prose. Good stuff.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 6, Number 9, Whole Issue 79, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services,

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