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


Selection from Cites & Insights 7, Number 5: May 2007


Making it Work

What’s “it”? Libraries. Social software in libraries. Balancing existing needs and new possibilities. Expanding patron involvement without biasing the library toward its richest and most connected patrons. Making libraries more valued and essential cores of their communities. All that and more.

Or maybe, sometimes, the quest for “it”—as in Chrystie Hill’s March 18, 2007 It’s all good post. Setting aside the start of the post (“where it’s at”), here’s some of what Hill says about the “it factor”:

It's that thing that's hard to describe, but that everybody knows about and comes back for. Some people have it. Some people don't. Some organizations have it. Some organizations don't. Some libraries have it. Some libraries don't.

Finding, having or being it is about finding, having and being that thing that keeps you, your organization or your library alive. And I don't mean alive in the you're not dead, so you must be alive sense of the word. I mean it in that verve, vim and vigor sort of way. I'm talking about meaning, relevance and maybe even emotional draw. I'm talking about charisma and magnetism, maybe even charm…

I know it can't be the same thing for everyone. And I know I shouldn't try and essentially define it. But I do know that we've lost it when we stop at content or collections. It is dependent on human connection. It might even be about conversation and collaboration. This makes me wonder: are our personal it factors the same as our professional ones?...

So now I have to ask: could your personal it factor be the thing that helps your library find, have, and be alive? Or has it already? And does it (also) have to do with connection? How is that different from what we traditionally do or have done in libraries?

Possibilities and Small Successes

Sarah Clark works at a “smallish” university (4,000 FTE) in a medium-small town (17,000) with an “awesome” public library, according to her February 20, 2007 post “Town & gown: Notes on our new resource sharing program” at The scattered librarian. Some city residents could make good use of academic library materials once in a while—but not often enough for the $20 “community borrower” cards. Some commuter students could use public library resources, but if they don’t live in town they’re not eligible for a library card. Enter the university’s serials librarian and the director and head of ILL at the public library. Here’s what they came up with:

1. If a patron at library A is looking for a book that library A doesn't have, they or the librarian can pull up the OPAC for library B and see if Library B has it.

2. If Library B has the item, Library A calls Library B, and the item is checked out in Library A's "name". Library A is responsible for keeping records of which patron has which book in case of problems, and will charge the patron to recoup any overdues/lost book fees that accrue.

3. The patron will be given a receipt at library A with the title of the book, which they present at the main desk of library B to pick up the book. When the patron is done with the book, it can be returned to either library (though we prefer library B, for obvious reasons).

The two libraries are five minutes apart, so transportation’s not a big deal. Both libraries have posters explaining the system (in place for three months so far) and it’s been written up in the local paper. It’s not getting a lot of traffic yet—two or three transactions a week—but that isn’t the point. “Those who have done it like the system, so hopefully word of mouth will grow the system.”

What do we have here? Real, ground-level intertype cooperation that appears to suit this particular pair of libraries. No new technology (assuming both catalogs are web-accessible). Presumably no elaborate set of rules and operating agreements. It might be just the ticket for certain other combinations of libraries. How do you find out? Here’s Clark’s closing comment, directed toward other academic librarians:

[H]ow strong is your library's relationship with your local public library? Go over and introduce yourself to your counterpart, volunteer, offer to do a bit of training on Library 2.0 “stuff,” or even work together on a joint outreach project like our resource sharing scheme. There is a lot of overlap between the users of the public library and academic library, and by working together we can support each other, strengthen our presence(s) in the community, and create plenty of win-win situations.

When tags work

I don’t use LibraryThing (at least not yet)—but that doesn’t mean I don’t find it interesting. Tim Spalding (founder) posted “When tags work and when they don’t: Amazon and LibraryThing” on February 20, 2007 at Thing-ology blog.

It’s a long post—eight print pages—discussing an interesting comparison. “Both LibraryThing and Amazon allow users to tag books. With a tiny fraction of Amazon’s traffic, LibraryThing appears to have accumulated ten times as many book tags as Amazon—13 million tags on LibraryThing to about 1.3 million on Amazon.”

Something is going on here—something with broad implications for tagging, classification and “Web 2.0” commerce. There are a couple of lessons, but the most important is this: Tagging works well when people tag “their” stuff, but it fails when they're asked to do it to “someone else’s” stuff. You can’t get your customers to organize your products, unless you give them a very good incentive. We all make our beds, but nobody volunteers to fluff pillows at the local Sheraton.

Maybe that’s all I need to quote—and it’s an important comment for libraries adding tagging facilities of various sorts. Spalding says, correctly I believe, “To do anything useful with tags, you need numbers. With only a few tags, you can’t conclude much. The tags could just be “noise.” He offers as an example the LibraryThing tags for Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. Tags include “apples,” “office” and “quite boring.” OK, if those are the only tags, they’re a whole lot less useful than, say, “Social evolution,” “Civilization—History,” “Ethnology,” “Human beings—effect of environment on,” “Ecology—effect of human beings on,” “Culture diffusion” and “Social change.” (If you don’t recognize those labels, check Worldcat.org!) But those aren’t the only tags; there are more than 3,900, and a tag cloud shows “anthropology” and “history” and—well, let’s face it, some of the LibraryThing tags in the cloud (“culture diffusion,” “social evolution”) could have come from LCSH (or CIP?).

The long discussion includes interesting points about folksonomy, large numbers and making sense out of data. Looking for something on evolution? By raw number of uses, Jared Diamond’s book is a good candidate—and as Spalding says, “That’s crazy.” Ernst Mayr’s What Evolution Is wasn’t tagged with that word as frequently, but “evolution” represents a much higher percentage of the tags for Mayr’s book, making it a better choice.

Spalding admits there’s no clear line between uselessly-few and usefully-many numbers. “Ten tags are never enough; a thousand almost always [are].” He offers some reasons Amazon’s tagging isn’t working; “It’s not your stuff and it’s not your job” may be primary but it’s not the only reason.

If you’re considering tagging (for your catalog or elsewhere) as part of patron involvement in your library, you might want to read Spalding’s post. He includes a set of suggestions “How to make ecommerce tagging work”; you might consider how and whether those suggestions work when you replace commerce with library and customers with patrons.

Where is the line?

That’s the title of Steve Backs’ February 21, 2007 post at Blog about libraries. Backs starts by quoting from a comment on a previous post, where he suggested that “public service librarians must be technologically literate and that they must be willing to help people use the computers in their public libraries.” Here’s the quoted portion of the comment:

When libraries were solely about books, did we teach the illiterate how to read? Did we teach librarians how to teach people to read? Rarely that happened, but mostly we didn't do those things.

My offhand answer is the same as Backs’: “Well, yes we did. Literacy programs are an established service at public libraries throughout the country” and is one of PLA’s proposed service responses.

Backs recognizes librarians do have limits:

[W]e cannot teach people to use a computer in a reference interview, we cannot afford to immerse ourselves with an in depth tutoring session on setting up an email account with one patron while five others await our assistance with other matters. Like many reference librarians, I deal with this tension every day and I understand that there are truly times where the best answer to their request for help may very well be to send them elsewhere for assistance or instruction. Some people need to take a class (which we offer), some people need to take a little initiative, and some people need to understand that it really isn’t our job to do the work for them.

He sees a whole range of things that fall in the middle—cases where it really is appropriate for a front-line public librarian to provide technological assistance. There isn’t a list; “there will never be a list.” Backs believes librarians need a reasonable comfort level with computers (and how they’re used in the librarians’ own library), at which point they should be able to draw “the line” between what’s reasonable and what’s going overboard.

Banks notes one aspect of being comfortable with technology: “I have a well developed understanding of what I don’t know.” Here’s a distinction:

By contrast, a librarian with a low level of computer competency, someone who is very unsure of themself around computers is also someone who doesn’t even know what they don’t know. For me, it is fairly easy to help patrons solve many problems with our computers and I have little trouble establishing the boundaries of service. For the librarian who is uncomfortable around computers, those boundaries do not exist because they don’t ever really know whether the patron has a reasonable request or not.

There’s more here and it’s worth considering, including this final challenge:

I said in my previous post that providing assistance to patrons on our computers is not a choice. Perhaps that should be rephrased to say that providing assistance to patrons on our computers is a choice, but we choose not to do so at our peril. We create expectations by providing the computers in the first place. If we don’t think we should be helping people use computers, then not only are we not providing a level of service that is a reasonable expectation, but we are also missing opportunity after opportunity to connect with patrons and demonstrate our worth.

A couple of slow notes

Mark Leggott began the Slow Library “movement” a few months ago; the blog (loomware.typepad.com/ slowlibrary/) began in November 2006. Excerpts from what Leggott sees (in a February 27, 2007 post) as the six key concepts of Slow Library—which is not another name for Library 2.0.

1. Education: Everyone and Everywhere—Any Slow Library approach assumes education (bidirectional) is a primary ingredient and outcome…

2. Community: Participate and Preserve—A close-knit community is especially important on the staff side to ensure that the people building the services and resources work closely and collaboratively… Expanding this community (locally and beyond) and preserving the knowledge generated is fundamental to ensuring that the community thrives…

3. Local: Small-scale and Granular—Whenever possible grow information services and resources using local talent…

4. Craftsmanship: Open and Sustainable—Craftsmen (craftspeople?) care about quality and longevity. In the information universe the best way to ensure the craft and product are strong is to support things open: source/standards/data/information/knowledge…

5. People: Capacity and Passion—I have yet to meet a person in this sector who couldn't learn what they needed to do as long as they have the passion. Take that away and all the skills and knowledge in the world will only take you so far…

6. Enjoyment: Savour the Unexpected—What can I say. If it ain't fun it ain't on. Don't stop colleagues from asking completely asinine questions and let the weird ideas flow.

I think Slow Library is an interesting approach. When I consider the obvious parallel (the Slow Food movement), I characterize that concept (perhaps incorrectly) as being about mindfulness, locality and non-homogenization: That is, paying attention to your food, using local ingredients and following local traditions and methods where feasible, and celebrating the variety of life rather than providing the same exact french fries and hamburger everywhere on earth. So if the library equivalent is that library services and new developments should be considered mindfully (not blindly adopted or rejected), that each library is local and should be part of its own community, and that libraries should be diverse, not homogeneous—well, I’m with you all the way.

John Miedema posted “Library 2.0 and Slow Library” to the blog on March 7, 2007. Some of that post (all of which is worth reading):

As I see it, Slow Library helps clarify where Library 2.0 fits in a broader view of libraries…

Patrons. Library 2.0 reaches out to library users wherever they may be found, local or global, real life or Second Life… Slow Library is more concerned with the patrons in its own neighbourhood.

Different motives for the open catalog. Library 2.0 may be interested in the global networking possible through an open catalog. By contrast, Slow Library sees it as an opportunity for the community to put its local stamp on the library catalog…

An anchor in real life. Every other week you see another article about the end of books. Books will persist, but it is a tempting pitch for those trying to find funds for library technology… Slow Library keeps the mission of the library rooted in the real world.

Food for thought here—your own regional cuisine, ideally prepared with almost all of the ingredients harvested within a hundred miles or less. (Easy for me to say: Other than coffee, chocolate, mangos and pineapples, there’s precious little that a Northern Californian would lose!) Slow Food can be fast—but it’s never Fast Food. Slow Libraries won’t be behind the times—but they won’t rubberstamp what the “cool library” is doing just because it’s new. That’s the way I read it. If I’m wrong, blame me, not the Slow Library folks.

“Get connected”

Brian Mathews has “a campaign idea” in this March 18, 2007 post at The ubiquitous librarian. Excerpts from the post, omitting the specific concept (go read it yourself):

Don’t tell me you have a million books, and offer classes, and have great reference assistance—show me! I kind of think we overemphasize quality, rather than utility. Give me context that applies to my life. Why should I use the library? Why do I care? Build stories that show snapshots of patron use. Give me a potential need and solution. And make it real. It can’t be someone reading a script, or looking too posed. It can’t be too neat or too obvious. I don’t want generic examples of how wonderful the Library is or how to use Boolean or telling me how important peer review journals are and how bad Wikipedia is. Show me what my peers are doing. Make me think “huh.” Redefine the Library through actions….

Sit and watch your patrons sometime and build your advertising around that, not around what you think your library is or wish it was. Help them to see the value of the Library and how they can “get connected” with us and with each other.

A big theme of mine is to attempt to reduce the idea of the Library being a place that students have to go, and turning it into a place that students actually want to be. No one wants to do homework, but if they have to, why not give them a proper environment?...

Does “getting connected” work as well for public libraries as for academic libraries? Does a single national theme for all forms of libraries make sense? I don’t have answers, but I think Mathews raises an interesting alternative view for marketing libraries.

Library blogs aren’t all for patrons

Kathryn Greenhill posted “Internal library staff blogs” on March 22, 2007 at Librarians matter. She notes a pilot WordPress internal blog at her library, one that went live as the library was being remodeled and originally tried to cover the whole library “and replace a few email lists.” That was “a bit too confusing for most people, I think”; the blog will be revamped into a reference desk blog. Her post discusses staff buy in and management support, particularly since “the advantages are long term ones—mainly an easily searchable archive.” A bit more:

We are treating the internal blog as an experiment and a training opportunity. We can get used to the interface and iron out any problems before we implement any other blogs aimed at our community.

If an internal blog is replacing some email communication, there comes a point where buy in becomes less voluntary. It’s just annoying to have two places to check for the same information, so someone is going to have to formulate guidelines about what goes on the blog and what is emailed. Clear guidelines, which are sensible and useable. I think it will take more than just that to make people change their habits. Especially when it is actually easier to send an email than post to a blog.

A reference blog seems like a natural—if it’s easy to post to, part of daily life for reference librarians and not Just One More Hassle. Greenhill offers some thoughts about aggregators (web-based ones won’t work for internal blogs) and why it’s necessary to “work out ways to sell” Library 2.0 stuff to staff.

Involving more staff

Which leads naturally into Jenn Riley’s March 27, 2007 post at TechEssence.Info, “Involving more librarians and library staff in library projects.” Extensive excerpts from a post that deserves to be read in full:

I was at a meeting of librarians and library staff recently in which the topic of how to involve more individuals in technology projects was raised. One individual made a particularly salient point—that librarians and library staff be given opportunities and encouraged to participate in technology projects, rather than being given a timed ultimatum to do so.

This is a wise approach to a thorny problem. Overall directions of libraries are changing, and it is essential we involve more staff in technical activities and allow our positions to evolve. We must re-imagine our methods while keeping our overall goals in mind. But telling our staff they must change for change’s sake, and to do it right now isn’t the answer…

Instead, be moderate. Your staff have a great many valuable existing skills and initiatives that they shouldn’t be asked to just ignore for the sake of something new. By setting up an environment where experimentation is encouraged (but not mandated on a schedule), you allow individuals to react once they see or think up something that is meaningful to them, in their own area of expertise. Give them the opportunity to take ownership of an initiative, on their own or in partnership with a few of their peers. Rather than seeing a technology project as something thrust upon them, they are likely to see it as their own project, as a new means to do the things they love about their jobs.

Technology projects take time—more time than any of us would like. Use that time to your advantage. Start with a few led by particularly visionary individuals. Their success will likely breed more success in the form of new projects from new individuals that wouldn’t have been the earliest adopters. The cycle can continue…

We need change in libraries. We have always needed change, constantly evolving into institutions meeting the needs of our society and its information. But blind change can be just as damaging as no change at all. Simply telling your staff they must participate, even take leadership roles, in technology initiatives is the easy (and ineffective) way out. Instead, give each individual the opportunity to participate, and the resources to capitalize on these opportunities. The initiatives that emerge may surprise you. Allow early adopters the room to experiment, and give the rest time, resources, and flexibility to find their own way.

One comment offers a touch of pushback—an attitude certainly worth considering:

This is a great idea, but only if you also give staff the opportunity to say no to projects. Acknowledge that they are the ones doing the jobs, interacting with patrons, and can recognize if something is going to really bring added value to the services you are offering, or is just so “latest and greatest: piece of flash that just happens to be a bit of buzz that really doesn't do anything cheaper, better, easier, or faster than the way it is being done now.

Chapter 7 of Balanced Libraries: Thoughts on Continuity and Change is titled “Pushing back: Balance or resistance?” It’s not always easy to tell the difference. Riley’s approach—encouraging experimentation but not mandating it—seems likely to minimize pushback. She also notes (not quoted) the need to reevaluate now and then: Are some people always “saying no,” and if that’s the case what does it mean?

Libraries and community development

Deb, the Real public librarian, posted this on April 4, 2007. Apparently many Australian public libraries are within the local community services departments. When she was meeting with other directors in the department, “I expounded that public libraries are increasingly seeing themselves as playing an important role in community development.” She offered an example—briefly, a resident starts a small business selling bonsai plants door to door, stops by the library as okne of those “doors.” Staff members buy some bonsai, invite seller to give a talk about bonsai: lots of people might be interested. Very successful session ensues; people decide to meet monthly to discuss and show their bonsai. “Could they continue to meet at the library? No problem!! Grassroots community development in action.”

There’s more here. “Is it a special sort of community development that libraries do? Does it have a particular context?” She offers examples where she does not believe the library would be involved and concludes:

It’s pretty obvious when you think about it, what we are doing (intuitively) is facilitating opportunities for information exchange based not on print, or electronic information, but on that other fabulous source of knowledge—community knowledge. Sometimes an outcome of this strategy is the formation of groups or looser connections around a community of interest.

ALA’s currently talking about libraries transforming communities. Chrystie Hill and Steven M. Cohen are writing a book on the subject. Here’s just one example of how this can work—even if it’s not necessarily a “traditional” library function. (Or is it?)

A note about “small successes”

When I use that term, it is not intended to demean the success. It’s an attempt to honor it, noting that something doesn’t have to be world changing to matter. The growing set of microloan programs for third-world mini-entrepreneurs is a classic “small success” approach: $25 here and $100 there may mean more in some cases than a multimillion-dollar project. An effective reference blog in a library may do more than a universal blogging program, even if it begins and grows slowly. Two local libraries making a handshake agreement and using (gasp!) the telephone as a basis for communication: it won’t revolutionize either library, but it does provide significant additional resources at the point of need.

Small successes add up over time. For that matter, an individual book is usually a small thing (admittedly not to the author as they were struggling with it)—but put together creatively, they add up.

Problems and Failures

When I started working on this section, I had four clusters of source material: Possibilities, Problems, General Topics, and Longer Items. I’ll save the other two for next time—and I hope that whenever Possibilities and Problems appear together, the first will outweigh the second. So it is this time around.

Rochelle Hartman wrote “Magazines in libraries: Don’t try this at home, kids” on March 17, 2007 at Tinfoil + raccoon. It’s a well-written tale that I can’t really do justice to. The short version: Staff thought it would be neat to organize magazines by subject rather than alphabetically. They did so, with good signage and finding aids. “Response was quick and virulent.” Nobody liked it. The three-month trial was shortened to a month, and then to even less time.

It's made me very thoughtful about change in the library. We thought we were being responsive. Did we hear from patrons that they wanted a change in the magazines? No. We were responding to what we've been reading in the journals and blogs about how libraries should be less library-like. We were responding to how we, as consumers, look for magazines outside the library. Now I'm wondering—when should a library try something new if patrons have not expressed a desire for change? I don't regret our experiment at all. I'm so pleased to work with a staff that is willing to float and try new things, and who are secure enough as professionals to step back and say, “maybe we made a mistake.” I think it's also been terrific to hear so much from patrons. Some days you wonder if anyone pays much attention or cares. It's nice to know that they do. I'm hoping that our responsiveness (to our responsiveness?) is appreciated, even a tiny bit. We are listening.

Don’t expect Hartman’s library to wait for patron requests before making any changes. As she knows, that’s no more workable than adopting every new idea regardless of the patrons. This is a fine example of something that might have worked, didn’t (in this community), and benefited the field because Hartman wrote honestly about it. (This might be a failure in general: Many magazines don’t categorize well.)

More than one liblogger has discussed collegiality as a possible obstacle to change. Joy Weese Moll offers advice on blending collegiality and change in a March 22, 2007 post at Wanderings of a [student] librarian. (“student” is in the banner but not the page title that an aggregator uses; Moll recently graduated from library school). Excerpts:

You can be collegial and make changes in your library at the same time. It takes some finesse. Sometimes, it takes some patience, but not as much as you might think.

…some strategies:

* don't surprise everyone in a meeting with your idea—have an ally or two briefed beforehand to show support

* solve problems that everyone knows exist rather than tackling the ones that only you see…

* remember that sometimes it's easier to get forgiveness than permission—for small things that you can do yourself or with a small group of like-minded individuals, present a fait accompli

* do your research—show examples of other libraries doing what you propose

* write really professional project proposals—especially, if they aren't part of your organizational culture because they will often get approved just because they look so good

* use the words “pilot project”—a lot

Steve Lawson noted the problems some of us were having with Bloglines for a while. He also noted that Flickr had problems—sometimes yielding, ahem, dodgy pictures when you expect innocent family photos. He was aware that Five Weeks participants had to be warned that Bloglines was having problems. He continues (in a February 19, 2007 post “When good sites go bad” at See also…):

And the fact is, it’s Flickr and Bloglines this week, but next week it could be Blogger and Typepad (both of which have had their rough spots over the years) or FeedBurner and PBWiki (neither of which have ever given me trouble, but if they did, I would feel hung out to dry).

I’m not sure what the lesson is here. It would be nice to think that we could do all this ourselves, or minimize dependencies as much as possible, but most of us can’t write this software or even host it ourselves, and there may be features that we want to take advantage of (such as the subscriber count in Bloglines or the social features of Flickr) that simply couldn’t be duplicated.

I guess the questions to ask are “what could go wrong?” (though I don’t think I would have thought of the Flickr-photo-roulette thing until it actually happened yesterday); “how risk-averse am I?” (or “… is my institution?”); and “what is my exit strategy?” (e.g., do you keep your own blog/wiki/photo backups in a format suitable for importing to another application if your current application becomes unusable?).

We already know from our experience with library catalogs that putting too much faith in vendors can be a mistake. Are we making the same mistake with social software?

I’d like to offer answers, but I don’t have them. Lawson’s hardly an alarmist; these are legitimate concerns.

To close, I’ll point out a non-library blog post (with an enormously long set of comments) that might be worth reading as a slight cautionary tale, even as you substitute “patron” for “customer”: “Top 5 reasons why ‘The customer is always right’ is wrong,” posted July 12, 2006 by Alexander Kjerulf at Chief happiness officer (positivesharing.com). The post itself is at positivesharing.com/2006/07/why-the-customer-is-always-right-results-in-bad-customer-service. Briefly, the five reasons are that it makes employees unhappy; it gives abrasive [patrons] an unfair advantage; some [patrons] are bad for [your library]; it results in worse [patron] service; and some [patrons] are just plain wrong. That’s just a few words from a six-page post followed by 50 pages of comments (when I previewed it in early February 2007—there may be even more now). Are your patrons always right? Read the post; think about it.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 7, Number 5, Whole Issue 89, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at OCLC.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services, http://www.ybp.com.

Opinions herein may not represent those of OCLC or YBP Library Services.

Comments should be sent to waltcrawford@gmail.com. Comments specifically intended for publication should go to citesandinsights@gmail.com. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2007 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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