Ten Things I Know About Libraries in 2006 (A Response to “Libraries are Obsolete”)

Are Libraries limited, obsolete? I don’t think so…

Into my email box, from Nathan Rinne, Media Cataloging Technician at the Educational Service Center in Maple Grove, MN, comes a link to an opinion piece in the Lawrence, Kansas paper: http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2006/oct/02/libraries_are_limited_obsolete/ I’ll quote a bit of it here, as author Mark Hirschey urges readers not to want a new downtown library because everything is online and young people aren’t using libraries. He offers three points:

1. Libraries are inefficient. Like me, kids seek fast, convenient access to up-to-date information. That’s available on the Internet. In this new information age, libraries are an obsolete place to store and disseminate information. Rather than speed access to reliable, up-to-date information, libraries provide only remote, slow and inconvenient access to limited and often outdated information.

Go to any library. The stacks are empty; it’s the computers that are busy. Then ask yourself if it makes sense to locate those computers in one central and remote location, like a downtown library, or instead locate the computers where kids, seniors, and everyone else wants to use them.

2. Libraries are limited. Everybody wants access to reliable information. The Internet is a gateway to unlimited data and information about government, business, and the community. Multiple information providers on the Internet make fact checking easy and reliable. No single person, such as a librarian, can or should be relied upon to verify accuracy. Single sources for information verification are inefficient and potentially dangerous.

3. Libraries are obsolete. Modern information technology involves two-way communication between providers and users of information technology. With instant messaging, blogs, message boards, and email, the Internet fosters information sharing among virtually unlimited numbers of information providers. Computers are communication devices that bring communities together.

That’s a lot to take in..and frankly it rattles me to the core. I worry that folks in Lawrence might actually believe these thoughts about libraries, when in fact, many libraries are thriving or looking for ways to constantly improve.

This reminds me so much of our discussions in my Intro to Library and Information Science class here at Dominican. Teaching this semester has been good for me. I’m revisiting so much foundation and big picture thinking about libraries. I think it’s a good balance for looking at the future and Library 2.0.

Last week, in my LIS701 section, we discussed Collection Development. One of the students raised a hand and asked how I felt about collection development in the age of the Long Tail….what a great question! I didn’t have an answer because my brain was turning and twisting around solid collection development policies and newer factors, such as Netflix, Amazon and of course Chris Anderson’s incredible thinking.

Submitted for your approval, then, are these ten things I know about libraries in 2006 — colored by my immersion in our foundations as well as my work with technology, Web 2.0 and strategic thinking and as an answer to Mr. Hirschey and for the folks in Lawrence, Kansas.

#1 Libraries are not going away.

They are not obsolete. They are not passe. There are many libraries here in the US and in the world that are at the top of their game: offering fast access to online resources, the Web and more as well as building physical collections and inviting spaces for their users. The best libraries are also recognizing that, yes, people do want access to computers and want to do things there. Creating content, sharing a picture, checking out the hottest viral video on YouTube — are all in the realm of savvy, 21st century libraries. It’s still about access to the sites folks are interested in, and talking about! The best libraries are not running from social sites like MySpace or Flickr, instead, classes are offered to educate young people and parents.

The “Library as Place” should not be lost. I agree there are negative stereotypes, and some libraries put barriers up, but our buildings can become thriving community hubs. The folks at Princeton Public Library get this. They realized that people wanted to watch soccer, so they opened up their meeting room.We had suddenly become THE place in town to watch soccer! In fact, by the time we reached the match between France and Brazil we had a large crowd of about 70 who had gathered to watch and cheer on their team. That’s important for community. And it’s not just about crowds, it’s about quiet spaces to read or reflect, a room for three or more to gather and collaborate, a safe haven for teens to game, dance and be. I hope Lawrence doesn’t lose this place.

Please read: http://librarygarden.blogspot.com/2006/10/library-as-place.html

#2 Online Social Libraries Build Community

Mr. Hirschey notes: “With instant messaging, blogs, message boards, and email, the Internet fosters information sharing among virtually unlimited numbers of information providers. Computers are communication devices that bring communities together.” Yes, computers are tools — communication devices, but what librarians bring to the table for all of these tools is a way to use them to further the mission of the library, give it online presence, and create virtually what has happened in libraries for years: conversation and connection with information and each other. The blog-based book club, the “What’s New” blog at the smallest of the small one person library, and any of Ann Arbor District Library’s blogs, including the director’s blog and gamers blog, all build in my mind a sense of community. A feeling of connection. The librarians create the tool, post content and participate in the conversation, centered around library users. The fact that the library carries this presence into the online world not only promotes the library’s value but hopefully makes it findable by community members.

#3 Libraries do need to focus on emerging trends, tech or otherwise, to be nimble and viable

Maybe some libraries are not as focused and forward-thinking as some of the institutions we always talk about. In this time of advancing technologies and rapid change, we should focus on these trends and be ready to act. Not blogging at your library yet? It might be time. Not investigating the social spaces, or having a staff summit on emerging social technology trends? Now is the time.

Starbucks will be selling Books

The same can be said for other types of trends. I received an e-mail a few days ago from Starbucks, promoting the fact they are starting to sell books, will be having author signings in their stores and would I like to preview an author talk via video? Looking at what’s happening in the business world, across cultures and at the socio-economic factors that influence people’s lives in the context of the library and its functions is a necessity. Have you read The World is Flat? Nickel & Dimed?

Pardon me, but if we aren’t watching for big business picking away at some of our core functions and services and acting, we may be in trouble and the bleak picture Mr. Hirschey paints may turn out to be true.

Have you seen http://www.sjrlc.org/tradingspaces/welcome.shtml? Or http://www.newground.com/company/news_media_npr.shtml

Which leads me to…

#4 Libraries need better marketing strategies and a reinvigoration of the brand

Alane and folks at OCLC always fire me up about libraries and their place in society — especially with the most recent Perceptions report. Alane notes in her talks, such as the one I attended last May at Metropolitan Library System, that we need to reinvigorate our brand. How do we market library services to our users, so they don’t believe, for example, that “libraries are limited.” In my mind, a well-run, nimble, user-centric planning library that has a grip on technology (and how it serves users) is unlimited in what it might provide. The barriers, of course, money and staff!

#5 Technology changes, but libraries don’t

I’ll borrow here from Karen Schneider and the “user is not broken.” Each wave of new technology will cause some uproar, backlash and innovation. Watch for it. Watch for the libraries that may soon innovate a way to make the Netflix model work for materials or make great strides in making our collections and catalogs easier to use, in ways we might never have even considered.

#6 Libraries will benefit from the next wave of MLIS grads

I am invigorated by my students. By their questions — and some of them ask HARD questions. I don’t know they answers to all of them, so I’m learning too. I hope I always will be. I do know – when these folks hit the door of your library to interview, be ready! Versed in our foundations, core values and, hopefully, a good dose of technology, social tools and user-centered planning, these graduates will take your library farther and into spaces that might surprise you. Let the breathe. Let them play. And encourage them.

#7 Libraries need to serve all users and offer them materials and access of their liking

How dare anyone refer to someone’s reading/surfing/listening interests as “trash.” if you are a librarian and you’ve said that, for shame! Build collections for all as you can afford. Don’t ignore new ways of access, such as tagging. Make a place for the haves and the have-nots to come together, use a computer, and create something — anything — and give them ways to share it online.

Hirschey does make an interesting point about providing places for folks to connect. Some libraries have created magnet sites, mall-based branches and other centers that offer access. This is a fascinating idea to consider. Maybe a putting everything downtown isn’t the answer, but dismissing libraries as instituions is not the answer either.

#8 Librarians can be guides, counselors and teachers

Hirschey states: ” No single person, such as a librarian, can or should be relied upon to verify accuracy.” But librarians are trained to understand authority, reliability and offer suggestions for resources and information. A 21st Century Librarian can be a guide to the glut of information and content out there, pointing out ways to understand where content comes from.

What about those folks that finally check in with the online librarian and say “I’ve been looking for a long time for my answer..help!” The librarian will point them probably pretty quickly to an answr. Let’s hope they’ll remember that librarians can speed the process of finding answers.

Librarians can also be counselors, helping folks find their way at a time when maybe some caring interaction with a single person might just be what the doctor ordered. please see the Feel Good Librarian for examples that will move your heart of this in a real library. Finally, the role of librarian as teacher, as instructor, is not going away. The best librarians embrace this role, find ways to teach well, and look for ways to instruct users in the library or in social spaces. Any library could launch a “Learning 2.0″ class for patrons — making sense of social tools and what it means to be open, participatory and free-flowing. I see this as a perfect role for the information professional…guide, encourager, teacher.

I wonder if Mr. Hirschey has met any of the librarians currently working at the library who are seeking input and are being so transparent with their plans for expansion?

#9 Libraries need to share their stories

One of the things we wrestle with in libraryland, beyond marketing ourselves yet closely related, is demonstrating value to our community. I don’t know anything about the Lawrence library. Today, in light or Hirschey’s piece, there may be some kerfuffle, maybe even some scrambling to find a way to repsond. I see they do have a survey on their Web page to gather users opinions.

I’d hope they’d respond, via a blog for example, and address Hirschey’s points and point out how the library does add value to the community. How professionals trained to assist folks with their information and entertainment needs are a valuable asset to the community. There are library success stories to tell in Lawrence, I’m sure, as well in libraries and those libraries’ communities everywhere. Tales of the knitting group. A snippet of dialog between a mother and her kids enjoying storytime together. And more…

Look around your library. Listen. What stories do you hear? What stories are you telling?

#10 It’s up to us

All of these things, user-centered as they may be, depend on us — librarians — to advocate for funding, to market ourselves and our services, to prove value, to build bridges, to bring community together, to innovate, to change, to hold our core values close yet not be afraid to break down barriers. it’s up to us.

I hope the folks in Lawrence have a long conversation about the purpose of libraries. I hope they get the library facility and online community the ciitizens want. But before we label libraries as obsolete, inefficient or limited, lets’ look at what’s possible and not be afraid to make a difference.

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Don’t miss the Librarian in Black’s post on this article as well: http://librarianinblack.typepad.com/librarianinblack/2006/10/libraries_are_l.html

Special thanks to Michael Casey, Curtis Rogers and Peter Bromberg for insight, editing and for inspiring me in their own unique ways!

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