Future of Librarians


by Will Sherman

The Internet’s unforgiving speed is forcing split second changes on a profession that dates back millennia. But while many describe upheaval and chaos, is the revolution really that untidy? Some librarians, after all, make it look easy to adapt.

In all, twenty-seven librarians and thinkers weigh in on the current evolution of librarianship. (We would appreciate your contribution too!) They also ponder how to remind the world that they exist. Nearly everybody extols the advancements of Web 2.0. Yet as social networks light up, what about those left out in the dark? Let’s begin, however, by taking a closer look at the very words used to describe the changes facing librarianship today:

Terminology 2.0

“Library 2.0”, which is an extension of Web 2.0, is used so commonly that “L2” has long since become a recognized abbreviation. It has caught on, but it’s still not agreed upon.

“I think Library 2.0 is a terrible term and should absolutely be banished,” says T. Scott Plutchak, Director of the Lister Hill Library at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Why? It’s too ambiguous, and is used to express whatever foggy definition the term’s user might think applies. “Since no two people really use the term in the same way,” Plutchak says, “there’s no way that it can really be useful in professional discourse. I think it’s lousy.”

Worth noting that at practically no other point in our conversation does Plutchak use such strong language – that fact is far from shocking. In addition to abhorrence of the term’s lack of utility, I would argue that there’s something else underlying some peoples’ aversion to “Library 2.0.” Names of professions, like the names of people, become intrinsically wound up with identity. A presumptuous nickname, whether applied directly to a person or one’s profession, can thwart communication by its offensiveness as much as by its ambiguity.

Improved communication is what motivates Jeff Barry, a librarian and book designer based in Buenos Aires, to also avoid the term. To him, Library 2.0 sounds like a buzzword developed by vendors. That quality, he fears, will inhibit peoples’ receptiveness to the concepts behind the term, which feels are good: the intelligent evolution of library services and technology.

Yet “Library 2.0” is already spilling out onto blogs outside libraryland, getting “believed in” by this online strategist. One can hardly blame such satellite commentary; I have used “Library 2.0” and “L2” on numerous occasions, albeit oftentimes with an unclear definition in mind. In my experience, acceptance of the term is much more common than not. And obviously, there is a strong 2.0 timbre sounding from librarians themselves.

Michael Stephens, author of Web 2.0 & Libraries: Best Practices for Social Software, applies the “2.0” appendage liberally. Not just libraries; Stephens talks about “2.0 attitudes,” a “2.0 philosophy” - even a “2.0 world.” He’s hardly alone. Helene Blowers' successful Learning 2.0 program is designed to get librarians up to speed with Web 2.0 technologies so that they can better provide services and work together. As the term’s apparent originator, Michael Casey, comments on Barry’s blog, it’s “logical” to name Library 2.0 after the Web 2.0 tools that help to power it.

Barry seems to be reacting to the acoustic dissonance of the term more than anything - it’s the word, not the concepts behind it, that is the problem. Plutchak, however, finds fault with the meaning, albeit foggy, that he sees many people attaching to “Library 2.0,” implying a “paradigm of libraries that are more supportive of change.” According to Plutchak, libraries “have always been very innovative,” and recent technology is just the “latest evolution in something that goes back thousands of years.”

I agree. The “2.0” appendage seems to highlight the hubris of technology - it grants us the confidence to draw a line in the sand between a couple of years ago and the rest of history. I would hope that nothing about librarianship, or the world for that matter, could be labeled as if it were a software product, brand new and obsolete tomorrow.

Yet at the same time I understand the historic, intrinsically human impulse to reach out to today’s technology when seeking ways to describe and understand the world. There is nothing unnatural about the way in which “2.0” has cropped up alongside staple words like business, education, and life.

Nevertheless it’s potentially counterproductive to effecting change in libraries, if not downright offensive. Barry hopes that eventually the new services often described as “Library 2.0” be called “the library.” But Plutchak sees the “library” as something becoming less and less important, while the “librarian” (no name change or 2.0 appendage required) steps up to an increasingly needed role of consultancy in today’s society, no matter where the information comes from.

Plutchak again underscores the importance of terminology: “we often talk as if ‘libraries’ and ‘librarians’ are synonymous - they’re not.” Which would imply, I think, that without libraries, collections and storehouses of information, librarians could push off into uncharted waters as consultants navigating a wider world of data. Says Daniel Lee, research librarian at Navigator Ltd, “libraries are buildings and they don’t do anything – it’s the librarians and staff that make things happen in any library. They are what’s most useful.”

Library, Library 2.0, or Librarian. Or something else entirely. What is the best term you would use to describe the profession’s relationship to the current changes in the information landscape?

Or is terminology not that important after all?

“I’m not that sure it matters what you call it,” says Steven Bell, author of Academic Librarianship By Design, “but it is something we need to acknowledge because of the way people interact with the web and websites, and their expectations as information users.”

Old Vs. New

Plutchak raises the possibility that librarians who express frustration with the slow pace of change could be using local problems to paint a global picture. But among those I interview, complaints of an old guard holding back progress are common, almost routine and often accompanied by allusions to an enormous, fitful struggle between old and new.

David Lee King, a Digital Branch & Services Manager at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, tells me that the “library/information world is in the midst of a revolution” and that librarians need to be “highly adaptable” although some “have a hard time with that.” Librarians and library staff who refuse to change are, he says, a “huge problem right now.”

Laura Solomon, a Web Applications Supervisor at the Cleveland Public Library, says that she hears various complaints from colleagues in different libraries about their inability to effect change because of resistance from the old guard. She sees an “internal battle between the ‘Get Its’ and the ‘Don’t Get Its/Don’t Cares.’”

Paul Pival, the Distance Education Librarian at the University of Calgary, also cites “Librarians who aren't willing to learn about new technologies and methods of communication” as something holding libraries back. When asked if Library 2.0 would create a chaotic revolution, Solomon tells me, “frankly, I think we’d be lucky to get as far as that.”

These commentaries would reveal that the sum of certain peoples’ routines and attitudes are slowing the pace of change. Furthermore, as the world outside libraries accelerates forward, resistance to change is causing the gap to stretch further between libraries and their social relevancy.

Stephens says that libraries’ greatest challenges “come from within” citing “institutional inertia” and a “lack of focus on trends and the future.” He urges libraries to keep a close eye on how businesses adapt to change, as well as the power of blogging, and says, “libraries that embrace these ideas and attitudes will overcome the challenges of budget, limitations of space and mindset.”

A tall order for librarians playing tug-o-war with the “Don’t Get Its,” not to mention the “Don’t Get Its” themselves. Yet while resistance appears to be common, are retrograde tendencies a true reflection of the profession as a whole? American Library Association President Loriene Roy, after all, tells me, “Libraries are versatile, surprising, and adaptable institutions.”

But why would such a versatile institution employ so many “Don’t Get Its/Don’t Cares”? Is this old guard really an unbending force that simply won’t listen to reason? Is it them that’s holding back the more progressive librarians? Or is perhaps it the way in which these people are being approached – or not approached – that is preventing the ball from rolling as it should?

Blowers’ first approach was a relative failure. When trying to effect change by teaching Web 2.0 skills, she was only reaching about 60 staff. She changed her approach, and now over a hundred libraries on three different continents have participated in her Learning 2.0 program (this despite the “2.0” appendage).

In fact, Blowers tells me that it hasn’t faced any resistance by library staff; instead librarians have “readily welcomed” her approach to learning. It probably wouldn’t surprise Plutchak or Roy; that libraries and librarians are adapting, as they always have, is nothing revolutionary.

Interestingly, however, Blowers is careful to point out to me that it’s the non-tech “things” in her program that she considers most important to teach people - these involve exploring cultural change and developing a continued readiness to adapt. But there’s something strange about that message of adaptability being delivered in such a 2.0 bottle. Why does social software have to embody the concept of adaptability? Why this particular toolset, and not the one that came before it?

Plutchak says that while “right now people are enamored of blogs and wikis and Facebook,” five years from now will usher in a whole new set of tools. Jenna Freedman, a Reference Services librarian at Barnard Library, points out that social software doesn’t mark the first time that Web 2.0 technology is simply adding to her job description. “I bet,” she says, “the reference librarians of yesteryear griped when they had to add telephone reference to their list of responsibilities.”

Similarly Eric Lease Morgan, Head of the Digital Access and Information Architecture Department at Notre Dame Libraries, asserts that it’s a mistake to associate a profession, like librarianship, with its tools. Instead, it’s about the goals that it wants to accomplish. Just as carpenters are not “hammer specialists,” neither are librarians’ jobs bound to leather bound books, he tells me.

So what’s so historically special about Web 2.0 in libraries?

The answer might be as simple as: it’s happening right now, and it’s happening fast. Karin Wittenborg, University Librarian for the University of Virginia, which recently partnered with Google Book Search, describes libraries’ greatest challenge as openness to “rapid change” in order to “serve the fast-changing needs and demands of…students and faculty.”

But how, exactly, do libraries plan to do this?

The Business Model

In meeting the challenges of rapid change, many librarians point to the business world’s swift application of the internet and Web 2.0 to better serve their clientele. Businesses are typically keen on survival in a world of fierce competition which is new to libraries, and it would serve them well to take cues from the pros. A necessary model, I am told, if libraries are to stay relevant in this “2.0 world.”

Stephens talks about meeting “retail expectations” which include “experience, choice, service and branding.” He notes the excitement he feels before going to the Apple Store in Chicago, the intentional experience created by Starbucks, and in turn decries the prohibitive signage he finds at many libraries. “I'm sorry,” he says, “but a sign stating the rules of the building on the front door is not encouraging.”

Yes, it’s easy to point out where libraries are bleak and businesses sleek. But in the rush to measure up and even make up for lost time, I think libraries should remember that they simply are not Starbucks, nor are they sales outlets for iPods. This extends beyond the literalism of debating whether or not libraries should serve coffee. Rather, it has to do with a fundamental distinction between what libraries do, and what businesses do.

One of the primary distinctions is as follows: while businesses make it their business to collect personal data, libraries have traditionally been defenders of patron privacy. Jessamyn West, co-editor of Revolting Librarians Redux, compares the confidentiality and neutrality provided by librarians to that of doctors and lawyers; it’s invaluable because it’s so rare in our society. Apart from disputed USA Patriot Act incursions, “what you do in the library, stays in the library,” she tells me.

The problem seems to be that up till recently, information retrieval wasn’t such big business. At least not to the degree of Google, whose enormity also gives it an upper hand in defining the rules of the game and forcing libraries to think much more competitively than they have in the past. Now, many look to Google, not the library, when seeking information, Netflix when seeking movies, Amazon when looking for books. These and other online businesses have an insatiable appetite for personal data; privacy is often forfeited by the consumer, in exchange for the convenience of the service.

What businesses do with personal data depends, but what libraries do is almost certain: they won’t divulge it, at least not without a fight. In yet one more reason for librarians to become more technologically competent, West warns, “the more libraries outsource services - and even products, like eBooks and whatnot - the more that data is potentially outside our ability to keep private.”

Now let’s revisit Plutchak’s distinction between “libraries” and “librarians.” According to him, the two words are not synonymous and in fact “libraries” are phasing out of importance. Conceivably, therefore, libraries could eventually cease to exist while librarians thrived. But I wonder: without a library, where will patrons’ information-gathering activities not be monitored? The adeptness of a librarian in connecting people with information is a valuable service, but sheltering patrons’ privacy is priceless.

Still, the business model resonates strongly with librarians. Both Google and Netflix are successful because they bring their products and information “directly to the user.” says Solomon. “Any aspect of a library that forces the user to come to them, rather than the other way ‘round, is problematic.”

Chad Boeninger, Reference & Instruction Technology Coordinator at Ohio University, tells me that “business as usual is not going to bring more users into the library,” pointing out that inhibiting policies – no cell phones, no food or drink, etc. – are going to have to be altered so that libraries can “cultivate a new group of patrons.” It’s a whole new generation that likes to bring technology to learning places, talk in a normal voice, drink coffee and surf the web using free wi-fi, he tells me. “Not adapting to change is a very bad business model.”

But as librarians re-organize the way they serve their patrons, it is critical that they narrate, and create, a strong distinction between themselves and the business world. While libraries seek better ways to reach the patrons, the patrons must retain the ability to access the sanctuary provided by the library. The neutrality of the librarian and the privacy provided by the library are unique, attractive features. Getting rid of those would also be a bad business model.

“We’re not here to be slick,” says Freedman, or to “make money.” Raymond Barber, the Senior High Core Collections editor at H.W. Wilson, points to the efficiency of library self-checkout systems, but worries about “the loss of personal contact between librarian and patron.” Martín Harfagar, founder of the TransAñihué Community Library located on a remote island in southern Chile, is seeking to turn away from the cold, impersonal design of Santiago’s city libraries, and create a library that will restore the “fullness to the path between the person and the book.” To Freedman, it’s about “living up to librarianship’s reputation for good service.”

Of course, I would think that good businesses also do achieve a “reputation for good service.” In this sense it’s wise for librarians to, when applicable, follow suit. Especially when making acquisitions. Stephens cautions against “technolust,” and extols Web 2.0 for creating affordable solutions that diminish the need for overpriced solutions from vendors. West laments a “ ‘keeping up with the cool kids’ vibe that is hard to ignore,” and says it’s oftentimes best that librarians do just that - ignore it. To her, it’s important that librarians “honor where they’ve come from, as well as where they are going, in order to choose appropriate technologies but not be force fed.”

And choose they do. Librarians are citing blogs, RSS, video conferencing, and a variety of other Web 2.0 technologies as empowering tools of the trade. Phil Bradley, author of How to Use Web 2.0 in your Library, sees plenty of potential in Library 2.0, which he describes as “simply an incarnation of what Web 2.0 can do.” According to him, it offers the hope that instead of being a hindrance, “technology can start to help…give librarians a voice, and one that travels further.”

Marketing Librarians

No matter how improved a library is, it is important to narrate, evangelize and educate potential patrons in order for the institution, and the profession, to remain robust. Many librarians note the ease and affordability of social software as a budget-friendly marketing solution for libraries. But there is also room for improvement in the application of technology to these ends.

“I think that the biggest part of Library 2.0 that is being overlooked right now is online marketing and outreach,” says Sarah Houghton-Jan, Web Services Librarian for the San Mateo County Library in California. She advocates paying closer attention to local bloggers, review sites, and opportunities for libraries to reach out via social networks. “If we don't, we continue down this insular path that has gotten us to the situation we're in now, trying to catch up with the rest of the world,” she says.

But Stephens points to a study showing that while 84% of internet users begin searching with a search engine, only 1% start with a library website. This might signal the need for an even more momentous, dramatic approach to reminding the world about libraries. Solomon, for instance, would like to see a collective PR campaign like “Got Milk?” to convince the public that libraries are necessary in the first place. “Libraries keep selling themselves individually,” she tells me. This is fine, but it needs to be coupled with a broader approach in order to have a greater effect.

Better marketing of libraries is a “huge issue” to Meredith Farkas, author of Social Software in Libraries, who emphasizes the importance not just of libraries, but how to use libraries. Student and faculty library users are either unaware of, or unable to use, the databases in her library. More than simply announcing the existence of these tools, Farkas tells me, librarians need to offer educational workshops.

It seems this educational approach brings the added benefit of delivering a sense of ownership to the library user. Empowered with the ability to manipulate the tools that only librarians have traditionally had access to, patrons would begin to positively valuate their experience and participate more, just as many internet users are doing with social software and networking websites.

Similarly, Farkas encourages libraries to implement viral marketing strategies such as teen advisory boards, which are more time intensive than expensive, and ultimately effective: “People would rather hear that something’s cool from their peers - whether it’s teens or faculty members,” she says, and points to a couple examples of successful teen advisory boards in libraries.

So there are success stories, although apparently extensive room for improvement. One flaw might lie in what is actually getting marketed. Despite my concern expressed above for the disappearance of the library, Pival observes that efforts to market libraries to teens are very successful. His concern, however, is that the librarian is being left out of the story.

To address the decline in visitors to the reference desk, his library is thinking to scatter laptop-equipped staff out around campus - meeting students where they are. Pival also talks about how his staff has “embedded” librarians in faculties, thereby creating stronger bridges between the academic library and the rest of the school. “Getting ourselves in front of our patrons, virtually or physically, seems to be the key…marketing does not seem to be a strong point for libraries, and it needs to be.”

Marketing tends to benefit from creative approaches, as well. While Gene Ambaum says that the library-themed Unshelved comic strip he co-creates wasn’t intended “to promote libraries or library use, it has the effect of doing both.” Not to mention book promotion, which has had measurable success. Ambaum also notes an intensely online consumption of the comic strip, yet another indicator that the internet is certainly a viable place to market libraries.

Wittenborg says that in addition to student and faculty advisory boards, Web 2.0 technology is used at the University of Virginia to evangelize services and receive feedback. Roy lists several budget-friendly marketing tips for librarians, including “having a message” and “personalizing contact” through social technology including the phone, IM and blogs.

And if anyone were to question the urgency for libraries to be better marketed, Nicole Engard, a Metadata Librarian at Princeton Theological Seminary, highlights it: “There are community leaders out there writing to their local papers to say that libraries are not necessary - that average people using internet cafés can do everything we (librarians) can,” she says, citing a need to “get out there and show the world that libraries are not just about information and books; we are about finding the right information - trustworthy information.”

Consensus would have to be reached on exactly where to get out to and what world to show. Both local outreach and the “Got Milk?” approach have their respective merits, and might work well together if coordinated properly. But even a national campaign would be limited to one nation, and its message accordingly homogenized. Libraries aren’t milk, and the most successful libraries will be the ones that reflect their respective communities, whether located in a big city, small town or an impoverished third world country.

The Digital Divide
On Añihué Island in the south of Chile, there is no electricity or running water. There is, however, a library. Among the 85 families that inhabit the island, about 50 people have become inscribed patrons. Five children, plus a couple adults, regularly check out books.

It’s strange. The development of a library – as with any cultural institution or museum – would seem to be the domain of a more highly developed community than that of Añihué Island. First take care of running water, one might conclude; then talk to me about a library.

Harfagar, an architect based in Santiago who founded the library, himself says that if a survey of the archipelago were conducted, the people might respond that they need “decent roads, or a post office, or good quality employment, or a school nearby for their children. Or,” he adds, “possibly a library.”

But Harfagar makes it clear that the library is not the result of a survey, nor is it intended to meet a quota or increase literacy by a given percentile. In fact, when I ask him why Añihué Island needs a library he says, “It doesn’t need one.”

Instead, he seems to measure the library’s successes with anecdotal examples of how it has become “like one more neighbor,” while not imposing itself upon the islanders. Looking to expand the collection from its current 900-or-so items, Harfagar foresees highly specialized book purchases that reflect the needs of the community, harmonizing with Barber’s words, “I know that while there are some resources that almost every library should have, that every library is also unique.”

Harfagar thinks that digitization is inevitable, someday, but says that the need for developing “identity and local spirit,” beforehand. This also involves improvements in infrastructure, as digitization could only come after ensuring “potable water, sewage, a clean environment, electricity, health and education. These would come before technology,” says Harfagar.

The austerity of the islanders’ living conditions is remarkable. All but neglected by their regional government, the islanders live, as Harfagar puts it, very close to the earth. Their material plight serves as an extreme metaphor for the developing world. Commenting on the state of libraries in Argentina, Barry says, “It's difficult to foster the development of a library culture in less developed countries,” and notes that both the concept and the institution of libraries are overshadowed by more immediate concerns.

In exceptional situations such as Añihué Island, where a library is achieved, an intimate understanding of the community – and the physical poverty itself – is critical to becoming a relevant neighbor. Harfagar tells me, “The tiny population and characteristics of Añihué Island, with a rainy climate and slower pace of life, make for a small-scale library with less membership than others, but this makes sense within the logic of the way things work there.”

When discussing technology in Vermont’s rural libraries, Westnotes that “progress is slow” and that even if librarians were to implement Web 2.0 technology to serve their patrons better, it “wouldn’t make a difference,” to rural community members who currently don’t use the internet that often. Also noting low turnover among librarians, West tells me, “most people don’t mind or, frankly, they don’t live here.”

Again, a slower pace of life. In communities where the evolution of technology is less accelerated, the people have different needs, and will respond better to those who address those needs. Harfagar reminds us that the percentage of the world’s population that owns a computer is, or at least only recently was, in the single digits.

Further exacerbating the digital divide are politics. While the government of Chile boasts high rates of computer penetration in low-income households, Harfagar points out that the hardware and software is usually obsolete or defunct, even if anybody were to know how to use it. The number of households with computers ends up being a meaningless statistic, he tells me; one that is used as a device for political gain.

Is Chile the only country where this happens?

Getting people up to speed technologically is a lot more complex than sending them computers, even if the computers work. West tells me that the Gates Foundation putting computers in libraries is hardly analogous to the Carnegie Library constructions of the past, “it’s a different thing,” she says, “a really different thing.” West devotes much of her time to helping people in rural Vermont catch up to basic technological skills. She and many others are working tirelessly to fill a gap created by the introduction of computers, but no assistance and training for community members.

West tells me that many of her students simply don’t know other people who can help them with computer problems, making her job more or less critical. She seems to have a similar importance to the libraries she routinely attends to, having helped bring wi-fi and even to “strongarm the cable company into coming and doing the install.”

“No,” she tells me, rural libraries will never fully catch up to big city libraries, and then asks me, “should they?”

Good question. If a library isn’t seeking to be the most cutting edge, then what is it doing? What is the purpose of a library in the first place?

Harfagar places a strong emphasis on the formative role of the library that he envisions. He talks about the library being a place where the local fishermen, farmers and especially their children can let their imaginations set sail. He goes on to say that in such primitive communities, the physical world is all there is; if the library can open up the mind to a new world, it will allow for added appreciation of the immediate, physical world.

He says that “information,” such as reading the weather report to find out about what to wear tomorrow, is different from “formation,” which is knowledge that you internalize and carry with you to have a more meaningful impact on the community, such as one who studies up on the roots of global warming and effects a more lasting change.

While Harfagar isn’t unraveling a fiber optic connection between mainland Chile and the island of Añihué, it appears that the library is much less passive than one might assume from the “neighborliness” he alludes to. Rather, it seems the library is assuming the role of an educator, responsive to the community and its pace of life, but guiding it as well. The purpose of the library is to challenge and improve the community, in the case of Añihué Island, as a friend, not an imposed literacy project.

As a friend to the community, however, the library should deliver some basic skills to equip people with necessary skills for their own wellbeing. The need for emergency preparedness is something that the library can meet, even in some rural, less technologically literate communities.

West encourages “baseline technology know-how,” noting that with increasing e-government in the United States, computer literacy is becoming an absolute necessity. She points to taxes, interaction with elected representatives, and the infamous example of Hurricane Katrina, where people were forced onto the internet to fill out FEMA forms. “If you didn’t know how to use a computer,” says West, “it was a terrible time to have to learn.”

Libraries, which are so often esteemed the loser – or losing party – in a world whose information has gone online, are nevertheless proving themselves to be essential resources for technology, technology training and vital resources found online.

Chris Zammarelli, a University of Maryland graduate student and Brookings Institute library assistant, talks about how United States libraries are becoming “de facto e-government resource centers,” and cites both the electronification of libraries and the increasing sophistication of library patrons as the cause for library staff having to “learn more about IRS and Medicare forms and things of that sort than we've ever wanted.”

Yet another argument for the necessity of libraries, and one that in many cases will apply to the poorer segments of the United States. Although conceivably the librarian could survive as a freelance consultant removed from the library, there are many who vitally depend upon the library.

“Space and resources are valuable,” says Barber, who sees many of the Saturday patrons at his local public library as having “one thing in common; they don’t have access to a computer or resources at home.”

Nor do some have a home. The free public library is often the only place with public restrooms, and the public library is often the only place where the poor and marginalized are welcome. It’s also a place where people who take care of children seek refuge, it’s safe, and it’s getting rarer. As Roy reminds us, “libraries are still social institutions and can be centrally positioned to assist their communities, especially those who are often ignored, overlooked, or under-included.”

Digitizing Physical Space
Even in more affluent circumstances such as academic medical libraries, physical library space is being promoted – even created – as a result of technology. Plutchak points out that due to an increase in available information online, a patient center library was created at his University’s clinic to give people the physical space in which to receive, process and gather around a new surplus in information. He tells me that in the print world, the patient center library was not a priority.

New library space may even bear the image of that which inspires it, molded around the habits of patrons who demand that their search for information, space and social connections resemble how they find things and interact online. Pival tells me that the University of Calgary’s new library building is being designed with collaborative spaces that “seem to mirror the plethora of social spaces found online these days.” Underscoring a paradox, the physical building even has the words “Digital Library” in its title.

One would hope, however, that physical library space won’t be a 1:1 mirror of the Internet. The frenetic nature of online activity would hardly be conducive to a environment in which patrons seek refuge from distraction, and embrace lengthy periods of time in which to delve deep into their thoughts and research. Balancing the digitization of content with today’s students’ “different ways” of studying, where they group together and reconfigure spaces, Wittenborg notes a continued need for “‘analog’ places to read quietly and learn together.”

Naturally, many libraries are facing a reorganization and reutilization of space that already exists. Oftentimes it involves massive removal of books. St. Claire talks about the transformation of that “warehouse in the middle of campus” to an important center for a successful lifelong learning program, a video collection, café, an increasing number of study group rooms and more electrical outlets for laptops. She also notes that they threw 400,000 books into storage.

Similarly, Bell’s library is also carting books off into storage, and replacing stacks with computers as “wireless is becoming ubiquitous” in his library and all the academic libraries he knows about. “Technology is forcing libraries to eliminate book warehouse space,” he says, “and to replace it with people spaces that are inviting.”

But could this happen without technology? In distinguishing the TranAñihué library from the cold, inhuman public libraries of Santiago, Harfagar demonstrates a similar “progressiveness” on Añihué Island, despite the rustic backdrop. It seems that regardless of how one integrates with the community - whether walking in the mud and drinking mate with the islanders, or employing social software to interact with a more high-tech neighborhood, the success of a library seems to rely largely upon empathy.

Inside-out library

In addition to interpretations of what a library is, so too have some fascinating manifestations been realized. Apart from Web 2.0 interactivity being adopted by librarians, there are various projects underway which have potentially dramatic effects on librarianship today and in the future.

One of the least novel is book digitization, which arguably began with Michael Hart, the inventor of the eBook and founder of Project Gutenberg. It’s a noble, open source effort to make all the world’s public domain books free for readers to own on their own person computers or data storage devices. Hart draws many distinctions between Project Gutenberg and Google Book Search (GBS), another massive digitization effort that provides the user a dramatically different experience.

“With Google's eBooks, it's more like reading over someone's shoulders - you pretty much have to leave most of the control to them,” says Hart. He goes on to cite GBS’s eventually expressly stated purpose, that it is “a means for helping users discover books, not to read them online and/or download them.” But he finds fault with the “seeds of great disappointment sewn” by GBS’s 2004 media blitz that gave the impression of “what appeared to be a new public eLibrary.”

Project Gutenberg, on the other hand, is about as open as it gets, designed to give the end-user complete control. Books can be downloaded, fonts adjusted, corrections (should they be necessary) made - or any other modifications. Not just complete ownership, Hart advocates extensive ownership. He repeatedly points out the increasing capacity and affordability of electronic storage, that petabyte drives will be available the not-too-distant future, and “every word ever published could be stored on one petabyte. Now that is a library!”

This power of storage further reveals the meaninglessness of using libraries as collections warehouses. Pulling out this carpet from under the supposed (for some at least) identity of librarians, a redefinition of the librarian’s role, and what the library is, must entail a discussion of how libraries are to continue providing a safe place where librarians help connect the dots, but stay neutral and don’t snitch.

A library housing free, open source eBooks – or a librarian helping someone manage all the freely obtained information contained on her personal petabyte – sounds great. However Hart says very little about the role librarians will play in a world of digitized content. Perhaps just reflecting that GBS, through Google’s financial prowess, is the one who has managed to answer libraries’ dreams of digitization, Manager of Library Partnerships Ben Bunnell does talk a lot more practically about the effects of digitization on libraries. Unenthusiastic about calling GBS itself a library, Bunnell tells me that it’s best described as “just a tool for libraries and librarians” while “libraries have become centers of our community and librarians have become stewards of information.” He cites two major benefits of library partners – eliminating the delay of interlibrary loan, and dramatically improved ease in searching the full text of books.

Until Google came along to foot the bill, the cost of digitization has been just too high for many libraries. Project Gutenberg has an army of dedicated helpers who scan and enter books regularly, but their pace of production is no match for Google. Wittenborg explains that the University of Virginia “needed Google more than they needed us,” describing how GBS gave their long-term (since 1993) digitization efforts a “turbo-charge,” and says, “we can focus our efforts on areas where we can add value to digital information, such as how to use digital texts in scholarship and teaching.”

Breaking down the library walls to open up long-distance collaboration is one of the chief benefits of digitization. In the past, researchers collaborating over large distances would necessarily depend on a slower pace of communication and shipment of rare books. Assuming books simply didn’t get shared as much, it’s clear that more than just speeding up the process of collaboration between more people on a worldwide scale, digitization is creating interaction where none was happening before.

While Hart’s complaints about the restrictive nature of GBS are valid, it is GBS’s denial of public End Users’ access to the entirety of a book (in many cases) that necessarily draws attention to a different purpose to digitization – the digital book as a reference point, a piece of metadata, beyond the words and chapters of a book.

LibraryThing, a social networking site for bibliophiles developed by Tim Spalding, takes it a step further. While in terms of sheer volume, the site has more books than the Harvard Library, there’s not a single “book” in his library…thing. It’s purely metadata, an advanced form of namedropping around which people relate to one another and find common interests while, as more and more data is amassed, the predictive capabilities of automated book recommendation are further finessed.

Marshall McLuhan’s playful prediction that “the future of the book is the blurb” really seems to have come true. No longer is having the biggest, bestest library important – Spalding’s tabs on LibraryThing’s growth seems to mock the majesty of large library collections as he rapidly exceeds them. To Spalding, the quantity of content no longer seems important, but rather the quantity of social data. He expresses a loathing for the term “user-generated content,” because it's dehumanizing and implies an absurd productivity-based outlook when referring to peoples' devotion to their communities. To me, it seems that the data LibraryThing thrives upon is the conceptual antithesis of “content.” It's something immaterial that seems not only to depart from paper, ink and binding, but also from books' full-text digital counterparts. Explaining the effects of social data, such as tagging, Spalding tells me, “It’s taking things that are hard to make social, and it’s making them social in a huge way.”

Digital content is exploding, but what does it matter that in a few years someone could store all the world’s books on a petabyte, or all the world’s content on an iPod? Who would have the hundreds of lifetimes necessary to consume it all? Isn’t the real work about piercing through the data and finding meaningful patterns?

Hart draws a couple of apt analogies to the past, but I wonder whether or not they are relevant to the present, and future of content management. First, he points out that the evolution of books from paper to digital is probably inevitable – as what used to be written in stone is now on paper, what’s now on paper will soon be on screen. Similarly, he notes the exponential growth of and access to book content. “Before The Gutenberg Press the average person could own zero books. Before Project Gutenberg the average person could own zero libraries.”

Yet this enthusiasm for storage seems to overlook the greater effects that technology; not only is it increasing the quantity of content but, more importantly, it’s revolutionizing the way people orbit around that content. Moreover, the traces people leave behind and the patterns that they weave are almost becoming more interesting than the books themselves. In a recent talk to the Library of Congress, Spalding noted that certain aspects of cataloging simply couldn’t be replicated by a collection of full text copies of books, hinting that in some ways the content of the book is less important than the way people use it.

Will this trend continue to the point where content no longer but matters, but rather the idea of it? Or is that foolish hubris, like thinking that need only imagine food, not actually eat it?

One must remember that the cultural changes brought about by the Gutenberg press were extraordinary, and fueled not only by a sudden surplus of content, but also by a new way of interacting with that content. What seems unique about our age, however, is that social interaction is a form of content itself, and it’s up to librarians to take an active role in the creation and collaboration within this ethereal “user generated content.” It's more than just guiding patrons, but making this guidance contribute to the new substance of interaction.

The librarian contingent on LibraryThing does not call the shots. Similarly, the TransAñihué Community Library is just another neighbor. Nevertheless, librarians are indispensable, and nobody knows this better than librarians themselves. As times are changing faster than ever, now is the time to make yourselves known.

2 komentar:

MIMPI mengatakan...

Pa diro..

Pagina kosong mu....tampilan oke, isi bagus2 juga, tapi kok kurang banyak yach pa...hayo dunk semangat....

ahmad s

Sudiro (Diero) mengatakan...

jarang nulis lagi neh...banyak seh stok tulisan dirumah...nanti klo sempet tak upload lagi