Librarians and Serendipity

A couple of interesting ideas have converged this week and I think they are worth looking at together. First Seth Godin set of a firestorm amongst librarians, when he wrote about the future of libraries (and librarianship):

We need librarians more than we ever did. What we don’t need are mere clerks who guard dead paper. Librarians are too important to be a dwindling voice in our culture.

It is really an excellent post and highlights a lot of what I have been saying for a while about libraries being spaces for learning and creation, and not repositories of content.

A recent post by Kent Anderson at The Scholarly Kitchen interpreted Godin’s post and some other recent writings on the subject as a problem of tying the librarian too closely with the library.

Librarians have a lot to offer, but as long as they are tied to libraries, the calculation will continue to be:

  • book warehouse shrinks > need fewer librarians

I think there is danger in taking this approach. I think there is a lot of hope for libraries in the future, just not as books warehouses. The danger is that as libraries recreate themselves back into something more interesting than book warehouses, librarians will miss out on participating in that creation.

The problem isn’t about linking librarians with libraries, it is in linking libraries with books–or any content for that matter. This obsession with the library as warehouse is really just a blip in the long life of libraries–one that has otherwise been centred on libraries as active spaces for knowledge creation. If we go back to that model, it doesn’t matter if libraries are filled with books and manuscripts or iPads and Kindles, what matters is that libraries are filled with people. And the role of the librarian is to promote serendipity…to act as provocateur…to re-shuffle the shelves and to curate collections in ways that make people think.

As Ethan Zuckerman recently pointed out, people are going to be longing for serendipity. The library is one place (virtual or digital) that may be able to provide it. The lingering question is whether librarians will have the toolset to run these spaces.


Activating Prayers

I am very pleased to have an article in the most recent issue of Glimpse Journal, all about text. The article was informed by my recent research on the use of digitization in the Tibetan diaspora. I had been studying the impact of digitization on the scholars of Tibetan and Himalayan studies, but found a fascinating side-theme about the use of technology to replicate prayers and sacred texts within the community.

Changing Education Paradigms and Libraries

I really enjoy the RSA Animates series. This one from Sir Ken Robinson about changing education paradigms is particularly relevant to libraries. He speaks in part about divergent or lateral thinking, and of a study that showed that divergent thinking decreases with the level of education.

I wonder if this is in part a sign of the failure of libraries to support divergent thinking…Libraries (and museums for that matter) should provide a complement to formal and structured learning. A place to explore the informal, the unstructured and the lateral. I’ve met dozens of people who have told me that libraries and schools were their primary places for learning because they just couldn’t fit into the structure provided by school.

The downfall, of course, of changing our educational institutions to accommodate lateral thinking is that you loose the people who like and need the structure provided by the Enlightenment-inspired systems. Libraries and schools need to work together more to provide the opportunity for multiple styles of learning and learners.

“We had this crisis. We told you about it. You didn’t listen.”

Barbara Fister of the ‘Library Babel Fish’ blog recently posted a rather scathing response to an article in The Scientist about the danger of journal cancellations by academic libraries. Worried that the cancellation of journals due to library budget cuts will affect scientific research, the author quotes one scientist, “it’s time for faculty to stop being complacent about library cuts and put pressure on their administration to increase resources.”

That’s all well and good, administration should increase resources to libraries, but as Fister points out, the problem is much, much deeper then journal subscriptions. This is about understanding that the whole model is broken. She says to faculty:

You continue to equate prestige with the traditional way of publishing things, and even when you have the option of self-archiving your work to make it accessible to those poor suckers who lost library access, you can’t be arsed (as my English friends would say). This is not a library problem. This is your problem, and throwing more money at it, gratifying though that may be for libraries, won’t fix anything. (more here)

Will libraries survive or thrive?

Dan Greenstein did a particularly nice job at the recent ‘Survive or Thrive’ conference of explaining the current relationship between academic libraries and their parent organizations (universities) and the impact of the current fiscal crisis on that relationship.

I particularly appreciate that he focuses not on what we can do in libraries going forward, but what we ought to be doing. One of the things he points out is that most libraries spend most of their budget on their general holdings (that is, the things that are not unique). He argues that we should be spending our time/efforts/budget on those things that make us unique.

He emphasized that libraries needs to move quickly–and as a community–to develop services.

Yes, it’s long (45 minutes) but worth it.

[talk] Dan Greenstein at Survive or Thrive conference from UKOLN on Vimeo.

10 principles for good technology

In the 1980’s, Deiter Rams wrote the “ten principles for good design” (sometimes referred to as the “ten commandments of good design”).

The principles came from a time of self-reflection when he and others in the design world were a bit concerned by the state of the world – “an impenetrable confusion of forms, colours and noises.”

  1. Good design is innovative
  2. Good design makes a product useful
  3. Good design is aesthetic
  4. Good design makes a product understandable
  5. Good design is unobtrusive
  6. Good design is honest
  7. Good design is long-lasting
  8. Good design is thorough, down to the last detail
  9. Good design in environmentally friendly
  10. Good design is as little design as possible

Sometimes these days I feel about about technology (educational technologies in particular) the way Rams was feeling about design. To be honest, most days the web feels to me like “an impenetrable confusion of forms, colours and noises.” So what if we borrow Rams principles and apply them to technology? I think they fit pretty well. I think there are some powerful ideas in looking at technology this way and I could probably go on and on about each of these (I particularly like 10) .. but for now I will just leave you to think about this:

  1. Good technology is innovative
  2. Good technology makes a product useful
  3. Good technology is aesthetic
  4. Good technology makes a product understandable
  5. Good technology is unobtrusive
  6. Good technology is honest
  7. Good technology is long-lasting
  8. Good technology is thorough, down to the last detail
  9. Good technology in environmentally friendly
  10. Good technology is as little technology as possible

When one door closes…

Last week as the New York Public Library opened a new branch in Battery Park, Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer said,

Any day we open a library is a good day.

Meanwhile, Boston announced the closure of perhaps as many as 10 of its 26 branch libraries and Los Angeles announced huge budget cuts that will likely mean similar closures.

As someone who spends more time thinking about academic libraries than public ones I am interested in the language used on both sides of the debate to characterize libraries. And while I am saddened by the potential closure of so many libraries (mostly because I think once you close a library you are never really likely to get it back…despite the new NYPL branch), I am almost more saddened at the language used in the American Libraries article to describe libraries.

Libraries are about books and librarians,” said one of the Boston residents protesting the closures. And BPL’s president Amy Ryan called librarians “information navigators” and said, “we can’t take a car designed in the 1970s onto today’s information superhighway.”

I think they are both wrong. If you look at the opening of the NYPL branch it seems to me that the most important thing in public libraries are the people who go into them. As much as I hate to say this (being both a fan of books and a librarian), we can’t build or sustain libraries for books, information, or librarians, we have to build them for people and communities.