SLA IT Bulletin: Digital Focus: Michael Stephens

The kind folks at SLA IT Bulletin Digital Focus have given me permission to reprint the interview they did with me last summer here at TTW as part of my digital portfolio. I really appreciate it.

Interview with Michael Stephens – Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Dominican University

For those who may be unfamiliar with you or your work, could you provide a professional description of yourself?

I’ve worked in libraries and LIS education for 18 years. My public library career spanned 15 years, and included positions in Audio Visual, Reference,  and Networked Resources. Throughout that time I was using technology and teaching staff and our public to do the same. I saw the advent of our public library’s first Internet connection and jam-packed lecture-style “What is the Internet?” sessions all the way through launching the SJCPL blog in 2003. The opportunity to teach as an adjunct in the Indiana University SLIS program also put me on the path toward the PhD: in 2004, I was awarded an IMLS-funded fellowship to the doctoral program at the University of North Texas’ Interdisciplinary Information Science program. I joined the Dominican GSLIS faculty in the Fall of 2006a and just completed my second year of full time teaching. I love it! 

Running parallel to the professional timeline above is the fact I started my blog Tame the Web on    April 1, 2003. Since then, my blogging life has grown as well. TTW just turned 5 and I’ve been blogging for ALA TechSource since 2005. I also found my way to Flickr, my favorite social site of all, and to LastFM, Facebook, and YouTube. I still use Flickr the most and enjoy the engagement with others in the professions as well as others who share my interests outside of libraries.

I also do a lot of speaking around the US and internationally. It does my heart good to get to present some of my thinking to others and hopefully inspire them. I usually end my talks with something like: “Go forth! Make libraries better!”

I did seven presentations in five Australian cities this spring, sponsored by the library consortium there. It was truly life-changing to travel that far and get to interact with library folk. I learned a lot and also realized we all face many of the same challenges, no matter where we are.

As someone who is involved in library education, how are you helping to develop the next generation of librarians?  What do you believe the future of library education will look like?

One thing that brought me to Dominican was the emphasis on truth and service in the university’s mission and philosophy. I think it fits well with my personal philosophy of teaching. Preparing new graduates to deal with constant change, use emerging technologies to further the mission of their institutions, and meet the needs of library users while never losing sight of our foundational values and principles is very important to me as an LIS educator.

I wrote about this at TTW as part of a meme that asked educators to share what they want for their students. I want my students at Dominican and any of librarians I talk to to realize what great opportunities there are for libraries and librarians in this ever-changing world if we pay attention to these skills:

If we learn to learn, it doesn’t matter that this week’s hot technology is Twitter and next week’s even shinier tool is something else. We can still figure it out, use our foundational knowledge to make sense of it and decide if it works in our situation. I teach blogging in many of my classes but the real skill I want my students to get is that they can master any technology/system I put in front of them or their new employers may put in front of them and make it work. Blogging is just the vehicle, like using any of the tools we cover in tech-based classes. If we look at current job descriptions right now, some employers are asking for experience with  social tools, open source software, and “emerging trends.” If I can give students a learning laboratory or sand box to try some technologies in the context of meeting a library’s mission or designing a new service (complete with planning, implementation and evaluation), then I’m preparing them for what they will encounter in practice.

If we adapt to change, we aren’t thrown every time the world shifts. That’s one of the most important things I think we could do for students in LIS education – show them that everything will change. What we’re doing in now in libraries is similar but still very different than what folks did 50 years ago. Think about the next 50 years. What’s going to happen when models like the Maricopa County “Deweyless” library or user-based tagging in the catalog really go mainstream. Should we still be teaching curriculum from the 80s? The 90s? I think not. So this  one goes double for LIS educators. I need to stay on the curve (hopefully ahead of it) to keep changing course specifics to adapt to each shift we go through.

If we scan the horizon, we’re trendspotting for the future. I am so inspired by the librarians who try new things, who look outside the field and bring things back.  If we become trendspotters, we have a good chance of creating the next big thing.  We might simply ponder, for example, what the popularity of a certain technology might do to library service.  Or what bigger trends will mean to libraries in the next 10-20 years. I watch Apple, Starbucks and Borders right now amongst many others. Couldn’t we have a genius bar in our libraries (I know the library in Delft does!)? Couldn’t we tap into marketing the “third place” the way Starbucks does so well. And isn’t there a place for the new concepts Borders will be offering: digital downloads, media creation, etc.

If we make sure to be curious about the world, it makes all of the above super easy. Ask questions. What are things going the way they are?

If my students leave my classes as curious librarians ready to figure out the next big thing and make it work in their libraries, then I am doing my job.

The future of LIS education? Great question that I often wonder about myself. We go in cycles: an ALA president or two will make it a focus for their year in office and then the next president is on to something else. A library school will make great inroads into a new area of tech (like San Jose State University’s SLIS Island in Second Life) or improved distance education. And along the way we’ll have lots of conversations about the impact of technology on education in general. What does this mean for LIS education in 10 years? Library school needs a shake-up. Let’s do a complete review of curriculum. If we’re starting to rely more on outsourcing, do we need a full semester of AACR2? We should integrate ever-evolving technology into our courses and teach the students how to manage that change

Much of your work is dedicated to the use of technology in libraries.  What influenced your decision to focus on this subject?   Why did you decide to become active in the field?

I’ve always been drawn to technology — all the way back to my first Apple IIc. It excites me to see how technology can help us extend ourselves creatively and socially. I used my first computer to write up my papers at IU and to participate in the not yet online fan communities I belonged to. I mailed things to people then!

The online services and the Internet made this oh so much easier. I vividly remember those early days of discovering what people put up on their first web page. My learning was framed by popular culture: X-Files fan sites, lyrics servers, movie pages, and the more personal pages of those early Web citizens. 

Look at how far we’ve come in a little over 15 years. The opportunity to participate and extend yourself online into a community based on your interests is there for the taking.

What does Library 2.0 mean to you?  In your opinion, will there be a Library 3.0 to follow?

Library 2.0 is a philosophy of library service discussed, dissected and diluted throughout the profession for almost three years. It’s a way of describing a conversation – a very important one that addresses how the physical and virtual space of the library is presented, how policies are created, and how services will be be evaluated and changed according to user participation. The name spoke to me – it worked. I’ve written about it. But it was also just a way to describe the conversation. We’ve come a long way in the discussions. I think the term will describe a moment in time when we realized how quickly the world was changing and libraries needed to repsond. It’s happened before. It will happen again.

I taught a seminar on Library 2.0 this last semester with three components: an exploration of emerging technologies in libraries, a focus on the physical space and library policy, and readings from LIS theorists and Web 2.0 experts. I was pleased to see my students discover Michael Buckland’s manifesto on redesigning library services, the way I did when I was writing my dissertation. What I wanted them to take away was a that “bigger picture” view: it’s not just a blog on the library Web site but capability for collaboration and participation behind it.

I’m sure we’ll see someone somewhere attempt to use Library 3.0 as a means to sell something, get people to a conference or some such. I don’t think it will stick like L2 has. I do agree, however, with Dr. Wendy Schultz, who also wrote a piece for OCLC NextSpace magazine where I wrote about Librarian 2.0 — it will be a progression to a more evolved space fully grounded in the library tradition – “the knowledge spa.”

Some libraries are slow to adopt technological solutions like Web 2.0 software because they question the value its use can contribute to an organization.  What are your thoughts on this? 

I would tell them to look at the library mission and vision statements. Is there a statement about promoting access or offering technologies to meet the changing needs of the user? If so, that’s a perfect reason to explore what 2.0 tool might work well for fulfilling that mission. Blogs work well – and you don’t even have to call them a blog. A blog can become an easy to configure content management system that hosts all of your content. To me, it’s a good fit for many libraries that want to save time with their Web presence. 

Another reason that libraries should be participating is because of the importance of content. In NextSpace, I urged library folk to understand content. “This librarian understands that the future of libraries will be guided by how users access, consume and create content. Content is a conversation as well and librarians should participate. Users will create their own mash ups, remixes and original expressions and should be able to do so at the library or via the library’s resources. This librarian will help users become their own programming director for all of the content available to them.”

Seattle Public Library has a list of  aims to fulfill the library’s mission on the web site. One of them states that the library will provide:

Appropriate technology to extend, expand and enhance services in every neighborhood and ensure that all users have equitable access to information.

That says to me that the library should be striving to offer access to social software as well as use the same tools to put services where the users are working and living online. Some folks may be curious and want to explore YouTube or Facebook, others may want guidance in the form of a library program about the benefits and dangers of the new online world, while some may want to create something new and send it out into the social networks. All of these things should be an option at the library. It pains me to see the other side of the coin: libraries blocking access to social sites for various reasons: perceived lack of bandwidth, inappropriate use of resources, or because it was making teenaged users rowdy/aggressive. See my discussion of such a ban on teenagers in my hometown of Mishawaka, IN at Tame the Web.


How do you keep yourself informed about changes in technology and in the information profession?  What resources do you rely on most?

I rely on the web and my RSS feeds for a lot of my keeping up. I monitor a lot of librarian’s blogs because the conversation is so rich and deep as well as many blogs outside our field. Since coming to Dominican I’ve added feeds from higher ed resources as well. I read but not as much as I’d like. Summer 2008 is mine to get caught up with the stack of books I’ve been collecting. 

I also listen to as many folks as I can when I’m travelling to speak or attend a conference. Those conversations – voices from the field – are very important to me because each year the goes by I am another step away from practice. I can’t effectively teach if I don’t understand what it’s like in the trenches. 

I was sad to see Business 2.0 go out as a monthly magazine, but I religiously subscribe to Wired, Fast Company, MIT Tech Review and Entertainment Weekly. Each one of these keeps me informed in different ways.

Will technology ever replace the librarian?  If not, what influence will technology have on the future role of the information professional?

Librarians will never be replaced. The job titles, duties and locales may evolve, but the foundational values and ethics of the profession will stay the same. 

The most wonderful think about emerging technologies is many of them bring the librarian to wherever the user is online. So our humanity can come through – it’s not just a box on the library Web site – it’s a person you are talking to. The library is human is one of my favorite points about the evolving, hyperlinked library. Human conversations and the human touch are valuable assets to libraries.

Just as other professions evolve, so will ours. I’m excited to see libraries in 10-20 years. 

In your opinion, how can today’s librarian contribute to the innovation of the field?  What suggestions would you have for those who are interested in making an impact on the profession?

Today’s librarian in any library setting can contribute in many ways: exploring emerging trends and applying them to libraries is just a beginning. I’d advocate for librarians interested in creating change to find a social network – the Biblioblogosphere, Facebook, etc — and participate. Comment on others work, create posts or content, etc. I’d urge new grads and LIS students to find a mentor who’ll help and encourage. I’d urge librarians and LIS educators to be a mentor in every possible way.

To make this work I’ll address library administrators for just a moment: PLEASE create a climate of innovation, trust and forward-thinking in your libraries so your staff can innovate and try new things. Support and radical trust must come from the top for these things to be successful. You don’t have to know every little thing about technology just let your staff report out as needed, let them prototype and just say “yes.”

Personally, I would suggest to anyone wanting to make an impact on the profession that they do good work, learn from mistakes, play well with others, and report on their successes and failures. Library bloggers are alive and well and there will always be room for another reasoned and pragmatic voice. As for this interview, if it inspires librarians to share their ideas and “pay it forward”, I will be deeply satisfied.


Michael Buckland:

Wendy Schultz:

Stephens on Librarian 2.0:

Stephens on Mishawaka Library Ban:

Seattle PL: