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

Selection from Cites & Insights 8, Number 8: August 2008

Making it Work

Possibility and Reality

Don’t pay much attention to the pretentious title. If you’re not given to thematic organization, think of this as a new version of The Library Stuff: a bunch of library-related items I thought worth noting and commenting on. If you are given to thematic organization, the common theme is, I suppose, pragmatism. These aren’t primarily about philosophy; they’re about practice—what actually works (and doesn’t) in libraries.

As usual, arrangement is primarily chronological—beginning with a post from July 2007. Or, rather, two posts—one from Jeff Scott noted directly and another one, from Jessamyn West, cited by Scott.

The future of libraries or getting them what they want

Jeff Scott posted this on July 19, 2007 at Gather no dust (

Of all the technology initiatives that go through, the only ones that are noticed are those that are most dear to the users.

Libraries, overall, are still centers for books, information and internet access points. The top reasons someone doesn't use a library are lack of time, money, or interest.

Scott notes that the first can be “solved” by being open 24 hours a day—but that’s rarely feasible. The second happens when someone’s use is blocked because of unpaid fines. The third? “Those who simply don’t want to use the library,” either because they’re not big readers or they prefer to buy books—“usually the former.”

Those three reasons mean “there will always be a…population that won’t enter the library even with…incentives.” Scott doesn’t see much point in going after non-readers. Otherwise, “just extend hours and get the stuff they want”—simple enough if the money’s there.

Scott looks at some reports on the future of libraries and books. He notes Jessamyn West’s examination of Wisconsin Public Library Consortium’s study The Wisconsin Library User (and Non-User) II. The study found people particularly wanting more hours and more “CDs/DVDs/videos that I wanted”—but also found that 49% of those surveyed had either no internet access at home or only dial-up, “a pretty sobering takeaway when you’re trying to provide more and more services online.” West quotes part of the survey’s conclusion:

So, this information presents a juncture: On one hand, if you interpret the results literally you could make a decision to reject technology and focus on building a collection around personal enjoyment for Wisconsin residents. On the other hand, these same results may suggest that initiatives and library services need to be marketed in such a way that resonates with current conceptions of a public library. To this end, I would suggest an exploration of branding Wisconsin library services to more effectively market services. But, regardless of the direction taken from the juncture, a heightened focus on Wisconsin public library customers and customer service is essential in order to expand and maintain your current brand loyalty.

West questions that: “Do they really think that the solution to getting more people to perceive value from the libraries’ technology initiatives is to just find a more effective way to market them?” She suggests other questions—and notes that librarians need “to make sure we’re counting the right thing.” Scott notes that his library is counting “2.0” services and adds:

They are certainly not off the charts for technology usage. I could incorporate these stats into my monthly report, but it would just be another stat that my funders would ignore. Impact is from action, not necessarily from usage of technology…

I would say this report confirms that many of these technology tricks are not going anywhere. Even marketing won't work. I have had a twitter feed from the library for some time, but I only have one user who is actually from the city. There is no way to hit this crowd or go to them since online, they are invisible. Too often, a library puts out a great website that uses social networking sites, only to have other librarians say how great and progressive it is. However, most people who are resistant to 2.0 say, "Does this initiative help check-out a book, or increase a core stat?" Usually, the answer is no. I have had more success in getting non-users by expanding the print sources of the library's news. The best way to get users in the library is word of mouth. They can come once to find bad service and never come back. If you have fantastic service, enough for people to talk about, then you don't need any marketing for that.

It’s certainly not that Scott’s a Luddite. He blogs regularly. His library, City of Casa Grande Public Library, has a Twitter feed, an active library blog incorporating an events calendar sidebar and various new-item sidebars (in addition to Scott’s director’s blog), podcasts, a flickr account, e-newsletters and more.

He quotes the Wisconsin report, noting that most users and non-users weren’t interested in technology initiatives (except for wi-fi)—but that non-users tended to say they’d use libraries more if they were easier to get to. As for Casa Grande:

In my community, a recent study showed that two of the top three things our citizens love are the library's collection and hours of availability. So…I can create a myspace page for the library, but ordering the right books and being open the right hours are the real keys to get users and non-users. That's it, no magic bullet.

That Wisconsin survey

You can reach The Wisconsin Library User (and Non-User) II (35 pages) at Library_User_2003-2007.pdf. It’s an interesting document. I, too, wonder why people who use libraries “rarely” are classified as non-users rather than users, at least without a more specific question. (I’d consider someone who uses a public library at least once a quarter to be a user—but someone who uses it less than once a year essentially a non-user. Is once a quarter “rarely” or “somewhat regularly”?) It makes a big difference: For 2007 responses, you get 50% non-users in the first case—but only 17% don’t use libraries at all.

The table of how often users interact with the library during a four-month period is interesting. Two-thirds never accessed library materials or services by PC from home or office, while half did ask questions of librarians (and 85% located materials for personal enjoyment). The survey finds that even non-users agree that “public libraries are a vital municipal service.”

Looking at interest in technological initiatives, saying users were interested in wifi may overstate the case: On a scale of -2 to +2 (where -2 is very disinterested and +2 is very interested), being able to use wireless internet at the library had the only response above 0—but at 0.05 with a standard deviation of 1.82, it’s hardly a clarion call.

Here’s the bottom line: 98% of library users were very or somewhat satisfied with their public libraries (77% very satisfied)—and so were 79% of non-users (40% very satisfied).

In interpreting the report, it may be worth noting that conclusions about marketing are one person’s take, the consultant who wrote the report.

As a sidenote, the survey included a household income query—and 15% of respondents refused to answer the question. I’m with them, but I’m not sure I buy Morrill’s assertion that “there is no reason to believe that households with higher income levels would refuse in greater proportion to households with lower incomes.” I think there’s good reason to believe that “comfortable” and affluent households make a point of not advertising their income.

Reading the report in its entirety, I’m with West: I don’t see how it justifies the suggestion that marketing will bring in more users. Maybe I’m missing something.

Enrollment may be down, but Library numbers are up, up, up

Michelle Boule posted this on August 22, 2007 at A wandering eyre ( Given the doom and gloom we’ve heard elsewhere about falling use of academic libraries (which tend to raise Jessamyn West’s question—are you counting the right things?), this one’s refreshing. Portions:

I work at the University of Houston and most of the staff this year was disappointed to learn that our enrollment numbers were way down for the current semester. Classes started Monday, along with all the usual hubbub…

Despite enrollment being down, I am pleased to say that out of roughly 32,000 students, over 11,500 of them came into the library on Monday and Tuesday. That is 11,500 on each day! Good for us. I think they are here for multiple reasons. Some of the reasons are good, some are not that great, but they are here in the building. Below are the reasons I think students are coming to our building:

·         We have the largest number of computers in any one place on campus.

·         We have free printing, for a few more days anyway, and the students know it.

·         We let students eat in our library.

·         Our staff answers their questions. We often get students who have been sent to a couple different places to find the answer to a question that a phone call could have solved. We try to solve it or at least send them to the right person.

·         Students can manage their accounts with some IT staff who have set up house by our reference desk…

·         If people have questions, we answer them. We do not send them elsewhere…

·         There are a ton of study spaces, tables, nooks, and crannies where students can meet and relax.

·         We have stuff they want: computers and printers. OK, honestly, I did see students checking out a lot of books yesterday…

·         We try to help them. Did I mention that yet?

The moral is: I believe our students come to the library because we try our best to be helpful and we have stuff the students need. I think, biased though I may be, that our library gives better customer service than any other department or service office on campus and the students know that. Not that we are perfect, but it is nice to know that they like us enough to be here, in our building.

It may be true that much (most?) use of academic library resources, particularly licensed resources, is or will be virtual—but Boule gives us a number of reasons that the building (and the staff within it) still count. Particularly when the staff answers student questions instead of sending them elsewhere…I think she may have mentioned that. (I’m guessing that UH staff manages to balance the “give ‘em a fish” and “teach them how to fish” aspects of academic library reference work—particularly at the start of the year, when students really just need that fish.)

A Jeff Scott Trio

Scott was on a roll in September 2007, with three posts I thought worth noting and commenting on—all from Gather no dust (, dated September 10, 18 and 24, 2007, respectively.

10 ways to hack your local library

Scott riffed off lifehacker’s post on getting the most of your local library online. This post seems aimed directly at Scott’s users, and offers an interesting perspective: Basically, how to make your library most effective on your behalf. Think of this as honest marketing, and there are items here that many other libraries might use. Scott’s top ten, with some of his notes and my comments (mine are not indented):

1. Check out Books

Right now, you are probably thinking to yourself, "Is that really a tip?" or something to the extent of "duh, I knew that." Many patrons do not fully grasp how important it is to check out books. When you check out a book, it goes right into our stat counter and we realize that you, our patron, like the book. If that book is checked out several times, we buy similar books to that same book…

I suspect this is something many library patrons just don’t think about: Public libraries retain items and purchase new items based, in part, on what’s circulating—so making sure to check out the books you like helps assure there will be more like them.

2. Don't see it, ask us to buy it

The library purchases books for you to use. Librarians rely on reviews and circulation statistics to make decisions on purchasing. We don't always catch everything. We rely on patrons to tell us what books they want not only by the number of times a book or books are checked out, but also by what is requested to purchase…

How many patrons ever have the temerity to suggest a purchase? (Note me here not raising my hand.) How many public libraries pay close attention to patron requests, presumably allowing for the edge cases? I’m guessing nearly all.

3. The world is at your fingertips with Interlibrary Loan

Did you know that most libraries can almost any book in the United States through a process called Interlibrary Loan (ILL for short)? Need some obscure title that is out of print? We can get it. Looking for some genealogy information and it's only in that one book in New York? We can get that too. If we don't have it, you can even check what library does on The turnaround time is often amazing. My library gets it back to you 10 days from a request on average!

Many libraries are in local or regional consortia with even faster procedures, since for many of us 10 days doesn’t seem all that fast.

4. Don't know what to read, ask us or Ask us anything, really!

We have many resources and we are trained to pull out your likes and dislikes so that we can recommend books to you. Librarians are here to field just about any questions….

Scott goes on to note that, for complicated questions, you might spend hours with Google when a call to the local library “can get the same information in five minutes.” An interesting combination of reader’s advisory and reference in one point.

5. Be our Friend and you get a longer check-out (teachers and homeschoolers too)

Almost every library has an organization called the Friends of the Library. They are there to help support the library for special projects, marketing and more. If you don't have time to give, you can just pay for a membership…

An interesting pitch for the Friends group. Since my library’s standard checkout is Casa Grande’s extended checkout for Friends (and teachers and homeschoolers), I checked and don’t see any similar privilege here. (Our Friends group operates a lobby shop 33 hours a week.)

6. Ask us for services

We rely on feedback from customers so if you want the library to have certain resources or services, ask for them. Some libraries can even provide services at a cost. For instance, we sell flash drives for $5…

As with #2 and #4, this one stresses feedback—and encourages people to make themselves part of the library community.

7. Return books

Again, this may seem silly, but we really need the books back. It takes an awful long time to replace the books and we are often so nice we give you the benefit of the doubt even if you have had it for three months. Don't be mean to us, return the book, even if it is late…

Here’s one I might word differently—that is, return books not only because it takes a long time to replace them but also so that other people can read them.

8. Ask about our services

Many libraries have expanded services, ways to help you keep track of your books (Library Elf), ways to have books sent to you by mail (books by mail) and many other services. We try to market, but if our library brochure had all of our services on it, it would be lost in a sea of text. So ask us about whatever is on your mind…

Two, four, six, eight, what does this list appreciate? Patrons asking—the theme for items 2, 4, 6, and 8. Not a bad pattern.

9. Databases are good

Yes, you may look at a library website and wonder, “What the heck is a database?” As Terry Dawson would put it, a database is something with data in it :) A database is a warehouse of online information that you cannot find by using a search engine…. [Offers some examples of needs and databases]… Did I mention this was free?

10. In fact everything is free

Books, movies, music, online information, even items that can be downloaded from the web. The library may not be the fastest to get a book or movie, but it will get it, and it will be free to you.

I’m sure many libraries have put together lists like this—but the informality here and its presence on a director’s blog make it interesting and effective.

All the technology you can get your hands on…

This is a long post (with a long title only partly noted above) about planning and its merits as illustrated by his library’s success stories. I won’t excerpt the whole thing, but it’s interesting to see how one library in a rapidly growing community (with good local support) is coping with change. The post is also, inadvertently, a testament to the unstable nature of the web. The first two paragraphs include three crucial links—not one of which worked in June 2008, nine months later.

Scott begins by noting an ALA report that library technology infrastructure (space, bandwidth and staffing) is being pushed to capacity and that libraries need more technology planning and dedicated support.

Reports like these two years ago addressed out of date computers. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation remedied that situation. However, with all these new computers, bandwidth is squeezed. Furthermore, libraries must find ways to sustain and support this level of service.

I was in the same boat two years ago. I had 11 old Gates PCs that were installed in 2001. These computers were five years old by the time they were replaced. MySpace crashed the computers every time. We also had to manually sign up users on a clipboard.

In 2006, he put together two grants and a capital improvement project to replace the 11 old PCs with 38 new and better-equipped PCs…and could get more, if space was available. Severe weeding of the paperback collection provided a short-term solution.

Luckily, I have a host of solutions to deal with this issue. My community passed a bond in 2006 for a new library and a renovation/expansion of the existing library. When completed, the library will provide access to an additional 130 computers. A total of 166 computers for a community of 38,000 people. All these projects will be completed between 2009 and 2010. The community is growing, but computer growth should outstrip population growth unless we have over 100,000 people in three years.

What about the short term? My library has the problem of bandwidth. From the time we open to the time we close, we peak out our internet bandwidth. This is with 1.5mbps. High for 1999, but painfully slow today…

As Scott notes, the U.S. lags many nations in typical broadband speed. He’s hoping to jump to 6mbps—but will that be enough for 166 computers?

What else are we doing in the short term? We are expanding access with laptops. We don't have a laptop loan program, but we allow our teen group to use our ten laptops during their weekly four-hour program…

We also have a bookmobile. It not only carries books and materials to various locations, it also has a satellite dish to provide wireless internet access wherever it goes…

These are success stories. Scott talks about planning and sustainability; you may find that section worth reading on its own. One point in the library’s technology planning, along with assuring staff training and having hot spares for public access computers:

3. Understand what the library can and cannot do. (There must be a point at which the library can refer to the patron's technology equipment manufacturer such as for wireless internet.)

A good library can be many things to many people—but there are always limits, and it’s helpful to recognize those limits.

The five dollar flash drive

This is a short one, a specific success story that’s being replicated in other libraries. Part of Scott’s post:

I had mentioned in my post "10 Ways to Hack your Local Library" that we sell flash drives for $5.

Patrons create documents and think they’ll be there when they return. So the library, like many others, began to sell diskettes and recordable CDs—but that created more problems. Some computers have diskette drives, some don’t. (Scott doesn’t mention that diskette drives really haven’t worked very well for at least five years—you’d be lucky if half the diskettes were readable on another computer.) Few PCs had both diskette drives and CD burners. Staff suggested locking down diskette drives and CD burners and relying on flash drives (that is, USB 2.0 ports).

This seemed a bit severe, but I understood why… Patrons do not know which computers had floppy or cd available, so just enabling a flash drive seemed viable…. However, the technology was not readily available or affordable in town.

… In order to solve the problem, I decided the library should sell flash drives to the public. I remember Webjunction gave away flash drives as a promotion. They weren't that big, usually 128MB, but it was a neat marketing trick. They can provide something useful and it also has their logo on it.

Scott went looking for a similar deal—and found it, in his case at He was able to get 250 256MB units, with library logo, for $5 each—to be sold at cost. (This was in August 2007. Prices may not be lower now, but capacities should be higher.)

Once we had the drives and advertised them, it spread like wildfire. Even the local schools are telling their students to buy the flash drives at the library. Patrons are buying them four at a time. Some people are coming in just to get the flash drives.

So I have been able to provide a resource to the community, without cutting off an essential service, plus I have word of mouth marketing that anyone would kill for. Just think of this story:

"I went to plug in my flash drive on my work computer when my co-worker asked what that was. I told her that it was a flash drive that the library is selling. (She holds up the flash drive that has the library logo and url.) Co-worker says "Wow, I didn't know libraries did that."

Next stop for her was the library.

How many libraries do this? How many could? If you have a Friends shop (as we do), it’s a natural—and if you were or are selling diskettes, it’s certainly a natural upgrade. As Scott points out in a comment, even a 256MB flash drive is the equivalent of 88 diskettes. And the logo does make it a good promotional item.

Five dollars is an unusually good price—but there are competitors. I’ve seen quotes of $8.75 each for 1GB drives (quantity 500) or $10 for the 1GB pen/USB drive combos (quantity $250); you can certainly get 256MB drives for $5.75 each (quantity 250).

Moving On from Arizona

Just to be clear: The commentaries that follow are not about Jeff Scott posts!

Are the users ahead of us?

That’s Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s question in this September 19, 2007 post at Academic librarian (blogs.princeton. edu/librarian/). It’s an interesting question, one that doesn’t have a single answer. B-T notes an Inside Higher Ed suggesting that, while today’s undergrads use lots of information technology, they don’t necessarily expect ubiquity. (The article, “Students’ ‘evolving’ use of technology,” appears at 09/17/it). For example, while 74% of students surveyed have laptops, more than half of laptop owners don’t bring them to class at all, and only a quarter bring them to lectures at least weekly. And students don’t necessarily think that social networking sites have a place in the classroom—they “may want to protect these tools’ personal nature.”

B-T (who also teaches) doesn’t think his students are ahead of him (admittedly, he seems pretty current on tech). Some of what he says:

Yesterday, I asked my students about their IT knowledge. Since we have a class blog that becomes an integral writing assignment for the course, I wanted to know who had blogged before. Only one student, who had signed up for the course partly because he liked the idea of the blog. A few students read blogs, but mostly those of their friends…

To shift the subject slightly, the library just started hosting blogs, and I created one for the philosophy department… I don’t think I’m going to use the blog for a while, because I don’t think it will be read by my target audience, in this case philosophy professors and graduate students. I’ve talked to some, and while some are very cutting edge, most are very traditional is their approach to information. They read scholarly journals, not library blogs. They’re happy emailing me with problems; they don’t need to IM me. The graduate students may be different, but not necessarily…

I often read library blogs that argue we should be adopting new information technologies because that’s where our users are at. I’m not so sure. I think that those librarians are ahead of their users in this respect, as I believe I’m ahead of most of my users. As a reason to change, catching up with the users might not be a very good one, because I suspect most of the users might not be caught up with us.

Does this mean we shouldn’t play around with new modes of communication and information technology? Certainly not. It just means that some of the urgency of calls to change ring hollow for me. We must change quickly and now! But that urgency doesn’t seem to fit the facts.

To be honest, most of the techie blogs I read are by public librarians. It’s been a long time since I worked in a public library, but I would think the typical undergraduate at a four-year college is technologically ahead of the average public library user…

So is it the case that in either academic or public libraries the users are ahead of the techies? Or are they just ahead of the luddite librarians, if there be such? How wired is the general populace or the average student population? Are they really ahead of us?

As becomes clear in the comments, B-T is not against keeping up and trying new things (hey, he also made a wiki for his reference department). “I'm mostly saying I see an evangelical zeal in a lot of the change rhetoric that I think is unnecessary.”

Three big things

That’s the title of the second of two related posts. Aaron Schmidt asked a bunch of people “What are the most important things on which libraries should be working?” and published the results (he asked them to limit their lists to three things) on November 6, 2007 at walking paper ( The quoted question is also the post’s title. Abbreviated versions of the responses—go to the post for more detail:

Jim Scheppke, Oregon State Librarian: Early literacy services, moving products and services to the web, thinking and planning for the coming ebook revolution.

Mary Auckland, UK library consultant, focusing on university libraries: Ensuring students get the information sources to complete their courses, delivered wherever they are—and providing varied study spaces.

Alan Kirk Gray, Darien Public Library: Becoming more efficient (in part by lots of outsourcing), benchmarking and adopting best practices, and banding together in ten-library peer groups to contract for full-blown website redesigns. (I can’t summarize that third one: go read the post.)

Sue Polanka, Wright State University: Creating content, reaching users at the point of need, watching to be sure libraries don’t pay for content that could be freely available on ad-supported systems.

Barbara Kesel, Washington County Cooperative Library Services: Community involvement (in both directions), recruiting great people, making the library experience enjoyable and fun.

You can probably guess I don’t believe libraries need to be spending loads of time in 2008 planning for “the ebook revolution”—but that’s just me. Of the few comments, one argued that the most important thing is marketing and advocacy and took the startling view that “if we don’t raise the awareness of the value of libraries nationwide…it does not matter what we do—we will not survive.”

Steve Lawson posted his own response on November 7, 2007 at See also… (, offering his own three choices, with a paragraph expanding on each one. His three:

Exploit diverse networks of libraries and librarians rather than seeking to create monolithic groups. Pursue openness whenever possible. Keep asking yourself and your users “how can we help our users kick ass?”

Pay attention to the last two words of the second sentence: Open is great, but it’s not always feasible. (I’m not arguing with Lawson—I’m supporting him.)

Consider these lists. Note that these weren’t listed as “what my library should be working on” but “what libraries should be working on.” Of the 18 items, which do you think are most important—or is it sensible to posit a single list that applies to all libraries?

What your community wants

That’s not a post title. It’s a catch-all for portions of three very different posts that struck me as related: “Some thoughts and quotes about authenticity,” posted by David Lee King on November 15, 2007 at his eponymous blog (; “Social networking,” posted by Ben Daeuber (I assume, given the domain name) on December 26, 2007 at Info breaker ( and “Technology saturation,” posted by Jenica Rogers-Urbanek on January 3, 2008 at Attempting elegance (

King talks about the difference between the experience an organization wants to provide and what it actually provides. Does a library’s mission statement match what happens there every day? If the library is a community gathering place, how come people are “told to be quiet, to turn their cell phones off, and to please drink that coffee outside the building”? Then he moves on to the “digital community,” which “tries to gather, but quickly finds no place to gather at all, because the website is no more than an electronic brochure with links and a catalog database—so they gather elsewhere.” He suggests that libraries should give some hard thought on what they want the end result to be; “even better, ask your customers what they want their end result to be”; create a strategic plan, mission statement, etc. that focus on reaching the desired end result; teach the staff how to deliver that end result “physically and digitally”; and redesign the website so it focuses on providing the desired end result.

All good advice, even if I still find “customers” to be the worst of several possible words for those who use and pay in advance for a library. (The new suggestion “members” isn’t bad; “patrons” and “users” are both fine—but customers is too mercantile for my taste.) But King’s second point raises an interesting question: what if your patrons really don’t much want the library to be a “digital community”—if they’re not particularly interested in “gathering” there? (Do your MySpace- and Facebook-using patrons want to friend the library? I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it’s not always Yes.) My guess is that, in some communities, there is considerable desire among library patrons of that community to interact with the library—and that in others, they want a useful space to do database research, find and renew books and the like, and aren’t much interested in an online community. I stress “of that community” because I don’t buy the idea that the world is your online user community. I could be wrong here: Maybe every town and city is chock full of people in that town and city just waiting for the chance to annotate library catalog records, comment on blog posts, provide online feedback and otherwise participate in online communities. But maybe not.

The Info breaker post noted a post elsewhere about information literacy, in which the blogger wondered “how well the average librarian would do if asked to help someone embed a video and catalog, er, I mean tag it, digg it, furl it, stumbleupon it, or otherwise advise on how to make the information discoverable.” To which Daeuber, a “real live librarian who works at a real live library answering real live information desk questions,” provided some typical questions he’d been asked that day. This wasn’t a refgrump—these were all reasonable questions. For example:

How do I sign up for a computer? (several times)

Do you have any books with pictures of flowers that I can paint still lifes from?

Where are the resume templates?

Do you have anything on Howard Hughes?

Where are the back issues of Newsweek?

Commenting further:

Information Literacy is not about knowing which social networking tool du jour is the new thing. It’s not about knowing Web 2.0 tools, search engines or the Reader’s Guide….Should I have, or am I even capable of having, accounts on and knowing the ins and outs of MySpace, Facebook, Digg, StumbleUpon,, Library Thing, etc? Probably not.

Perhaps we just need to wait for this space to shake itself out…

Until then, however, librarianship remains much more boring than that. Teaching people how to sign up for an email account is about at “Web 2.0 as my job gets. I’d rather focus on what continue to be core library skills, knowledge of your physical and digital collections to answer real life reference questions and get people real life resources.

I question whether librarians should be expected to know the ins and outs of every social networking program any more than they should be expected to be able to help patrons do crosstabs in Excel—or build SQL joins. I wouldn’t expect a librarian to help me formulate a book template in Word; why would I expect them to help me embed a video?

On the other hand, there may be libraries where such knowledge is a reasonable part of the job—in film-school libraries, for example, or if you’re a librarian in a media creation center in a well-to-do urban library. In those cases, your community may have different expectations that you can reasonably strive to meet—but your community is out of the ordinary.

Urbanek-Rogers comes at it from a different perspective, suggesting that tech-oriented librarians may operate “in something of an echo chamber.” She was visiting friends and family and saw how a bunch of other people operate. Some of her list:

A friend who lives and dies by email and blogging in her professional life working in state politics, but struggled to get the iTunes store set up for her 11-year-old daughter…

A friend who “doesn’t have time for email,” who, when he last went online to find the answer to a question he had about his new stereo, realized he had over 200 email messages and just ignored them.

My mom, who has a desktop computer, a photo printer, a regular printer, a digital camera, a cell phone, and digital cable with a DVR…but no internet connection, and no home phone number to allow dial-up.

My aunt, who is a regular public library user, both for (a huge number of) books and computer use, who refuses to get digital cable or a home computer with internet access. She has an email address (Gmail, set up by me) which she’s never used.

A friend who knows that his girlfriend and his teenage daughter both have MySpace pages, but has never looked at them — “I don’t bother. They’re smart people. They won’t get in trouble, and I just don’t care that much.”

It would be stressful for Urbanek-Rogers to lead her life as these examples do.

But for each of those people, it’s normal. It’s easy. It’s what it is. It’s their life, and they’re happy with that… Computing and the internet are everywhere, but they’re also not… You can use your cell phone to make calls, send texts, take pictures, and surf the web, like I do, or you can say “I don’t need it to do that” like most of my family does. You can obsess about keeping on top of your email, social networks, and online presence, like I sometimes do, or you can just ignore the web’s communication possibilities when it’s inconvenient, like my two friends do. Everywhere, and not.

And all of those people—and their children and grandchildren—are our users. We, with our particularly echo-y vision of technology, are not our users.

Indeed. And to bring this up to date, I note recent reports showing that broadband penetration in the U.S. is starting to stall out (at less than 60%)—and that many of those who don’t have it, don’t much want it. I see some bloggers responding that there needs to be advocacy, or there need to be national programs, or… And I wonder why. For many people, quite possibly 40% of the population, broadband at home would not significantly enrich their lives in ways that matter to them. And, by the way, many (most?) of that 40% are also library patrons…

the goblin and gaming

Sorry, Josh, but I couldn’t resist. Joshua Neff wrote “Et in Arcadia ego” on January 23, 2008 and followed up with “World in motion” on January 25, 2008, both on the goblin in the library(

In the first post, Neff cites a post that links (approvingly) to an op-ed article (on an extreme right-wing website) that laments gaming in public libraries and calls it part of the dumbing down of American youth. I was surprised by the attitude of the post and not surprised by the eloquence of Jenny Levine’s response—a response Neff also cites. Some of what he says:

Is the public library “brand” books? Most people I know seem to think it is, and I would agree it’s so. But libraries in general have never been solely about books, and if public libraries were ever about just books, it was certainly long before I was born.

Even if public libraries have been about books more than other forms of media, so what? I know, I know, librarians are supposed to be the champions of the written word, defenders of literacy. Well, I’m not. I mean, I love books, sure, but I love movies and TV shows and theater and music and games at least as much. And I think the idea of libraries being primarily about books–-and books being primarily about education and intelligence–-is wrong to the point of being dangerous…

Reading text is not inherently better than watching a movie or playing a video game. There’s no conclusive proof that it is. There is evidence that different people learn and are engaged by different methods. Some people are more engaged, more provoked to thought, by visual and/or active media, like watching movies or playing video games.

People who read books less than they watch movies or TV, play games or sports, hike through woods, play music, garden, knit, or bake are not necessarily stupid or illiterate. People who read lots of books are not necessarily smart or wise. Let’s get rid of that notion right now.

Libraries can’t be all things to all people. It’s probably not feasible for a public library to also be a gym, a dance studio, and a carpentry workshop. But if public libraries broaden what they offer their patrons, turning the library into a video arcade…well, I think that’s awfully smart.

The comments were interesting. One commenter accepts that video and games have places in libraries but questions the equation of print literacy and videogames. “I think there is a correlation between time spent reading and an overall ability to think clearly and articulate one’s ideas in an effective way.” Another commenter felt Neff had pushed the argument too far, saying “literacy is the most important skill for a child to have to succeed in school. Literacy is basically required to succeed in society… Books cannot be left out of the equation. They are not optional, everything else is.” At which point, Neff agreed: “Yeah, I may be taking the argument a little too far…”

The second post reflected that. Excerpts:

Thinking about it some more, I believe my last post was a bit over the top. Yes, I think reading and literacy are important. No, I don’t think playing video games is a substitute for reading. Something pushed my buttons, which prompted me to write that post. I realize now what those buttons were.

If I see one more blog post or comment, one more newspaper editorial or letter to the editor, one more magazine article or TV commentary about how video games or peer-to-peer filesharing or cell phones in public or text speak is going to cause the downfall of Western civilization, I’m gonna barf… Western civilization has survived phonographs, radio, moving pictures, jazz, rock & roll and hip hop. People have been whining about a decline in literacy since the Great Unwashed Masses got access to literacy, and yet society marches on…

If a library becomes a video arcade at the expense of quiet reading spaces during normal hours, I can see cause for concern. If a library discards books that are still being used in order to make space for wide-screen TVs and gaming consoles, I’d wonder. The slogan “If you’re not gaming you’re losing” doesn’t do it for me. But those are extremes. It seems clear that many libraries have added gaming to other services and programs without disrupting existing services, and I’m hard-pressed to say that games in general are somehow inferior to DVDs or, well, a great many page-turners. And I’m with Neff on being more than a little tired of the ongoing bemoaning of how we’re all going to hell because we no longer have 100% literacy and 100% appreciation for the classic novels. Not that we ever did, but historical accuracy has never been a big point with the declining-civilization folks.

2.0 and don’t even know it

This one’s a success story, pure and simple, as related by Meredith Farkas in a February 21, 2008 post at Information wants to be free ( You should read the post on your own for the whole story—which, briefly, is Farkas’ experience with the “crazy idea” that, for her library community (specifically distance learning grad students at a relatively small university), it might make sense to order needed books and have Amazon send them directly to the students—who would then return them to the library for proper acquisition and processing.

This is a library that already buys books it doesn’t already own when students request them (in many cases) because ILL wouldn’t work well for distance-learning students—but getting the book in the library and doing quick processing (which might take a day) can add as much as a week to the time it takes to fulfill a student request.

Farkas offers the reasons for a direct-from-Amazon attempt—and the reasons against as well. She also notes that the change wouldn’t affect her own operation but would affect others.

So I tested the waters by talking to our Director and the Coordinator of Technical Services before I actually spoke to the staff I knew it would affect. Our Director was really in favor of our doing anything that will improve the way we provide services. Our Head of Technical Services couldn’t think of any good reason not to try doing it other than the fact that we might lose books and there wouldn’t be a record in our circ system of the students having the books.

Neither thought the problems were insurmountable, so she called a meeting with the people involved. Here’s where it gets interesting:

No one objected to the idea of trying this model out. There were no objections based on the work it would create for them. Instead of talking about why we couldn’t do it, everyone talked about how we could do it. The only issues people brought up were practical ones… By the end of that meeting, we had a plan in place for a pilot project that will start in March and a clear workflow that will require a lot of communication, but is doable. As I said at the meeting, at so many other libraries, an idea like this would have met with so many brick walls. Yes, it helps to be a smaller library, but the ease of pushing this through is a credit to the service-orientation and open-mindedness of my colleagues. I’ve never had an idea of mine dismissed here, which has not been true of other places at which I’ve worked.

As Farkas notes, this idea (which wouldn’t work everywhere, as she also notes) will make a difference for her community—and her colleagues weren’t stuck on “this is the way we’ve always done it.” She bets that a lot of libraries “do a lot of things…without realizing how 2.0 (for lack of a better word) they are. We focus so much on the cool social software-y stuff, when often, what our patrons really want has nothing to do with blogs, wikis or Facebook. What have you or yoiur colleagues done at your library that maybe isn’t super-sexy, but really illustrates your/their responsiveness to patron needs?”

As one commenter noted, this wasn’t a “let’s do this and see what happens” initiative—it was a case where patrons have a clear need that this process could solve. “The 2.0 initiatives I’ve undertaken at my job that have met with the most support are the ones that I can relate to a current problem, as opposed to the projects that I know will improve a services that no one’s currently complaining about.”

Just a few thoughts on sustainability…

In order for libraries to be sustainable, we need to abandon the notion of sustainability.

That’s how Helene Blowers’ April 10, 2008 post at LibraryBytes ( begins—in boldface—and I find myself taking issue with it, but only in part.

In general, I think Blowers makes a good case—that too many librarians get hung up on long-term sustainability, focusing too much on the long term in areas where the long term may not matter.

Stop focusing on the long-term issues and solutions. Change your thinking and shift the emphasis to trying things out as short-term ideas that have no longevity.

The notion that every idea we plan to test out must be designed for long-term commitment, so that we can sustain it for-eveeeeeeeer, easily paralyzes and keeps us from moving forward. How about replacing our thinking with piloting ideas as simply short campaigns?...

There’s more to the post—and in general, I agree. Assuming there’s a reason to try an initiative that can be helpful this year, it’s usually not important that you may not want it five years from now. We need test cases. You do need to try some things that appear appropriate and useful for your community, in the knowledge that they may turn out to be flops.

Blowers notes a number of short-term campaigns. They all sound like good things, none of them requiring long-term sustainability. But they all have one thing in common: They all had commitment for the short term. They were, I suspect, known to be sustainable for a known, limited time.

That’s an important distinction. If a library starts a blog and it turns out not to be serving its purposes a year later, no problem—refocus the blog or shut it down. But if a library starts a blog, publicizes it, and has no posts after the first month—well, that just looks bad.

Maybe it’s the difference between sustainability and follow-through. Projects may not need sustainability, and for some projects worrying about long-term sustainability can defeat short-term worth. But projects do need follow-through: A commitment to provide the resources to give the project a fair shot. That wiki with six pages (and a dozen more filled with spam) and another 20 links to pages that never got built; that blog with four pathetic posts that sits there unread and unupdated—they’re like announcing a story hour program and failing to have a third story hour. It’s not a matter of sustainability, it’s a matter of follow-through. If you can’t follow through for the short term, you’re not testing something, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 8, Number 8, Whole Issue 105, 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 Leadership Network.

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