Reflections on New Horizons

TRUE NORTH

Pressure ridge and melt water at the Geographic North Pole.
Photo credit: Christopher Wood. Source: Shuttershock

There is a beauty in isolation (when it is temporary), giving time for reflection and connection with the rhythms of nature (which the Stoics recommend for a quality life). This week I edited an article about alignment of ancient sacred sites (to compass and other directions), and found out that there have been at least four North Poles over the last 100,000 years, some on different continents. This got me thinking about the librarian’s compass and how we use it to help our patrons and ourselves navigate the world of knowledge and the “incoming world” of new things.

LIBRARIANS AS ETHICISTS AND PHILOSOPHERS

Among the directional and grounding tools, librarians have their code of ethics and values, which includes privacy for example. In using artificial intelligence learning systems and other activities, librarians can choose to follow the Apple model (where data gathering and searching is local and private, with reduced data vulnerability) or a Facebook model which is nonlocal with no privacy (Griffey, 2019). Just because people are willing to trade privacy for convenience (Terdiman, 2018) doesn’t mean librarians can’t advise their patrons about the risks.

UNDERSTANDING AND USEFULNESS

Librarians can bring context, meaning, and a way to think about what we know and what is happening to us and our environment. The content is not as important as what we think about it and how we use it. Context can be everything. On the other hand, the quality of the content is important and always has been to librarians, so there is a balance between delivering good quality content and being available to put it in a context. For example, the useful and ubiquitous technology Blockchain creates an unbreakable record that cannot be changed, engendering trustworthiness, and is used in education, medical records, smart contracts, etc. But that trustworthiness “should not be confused with the quality or value of the contents” (McArthur, 2018). For example, medical records in this format cannot be tampered with—however, over time biological beings change, and the record may need metadata to be useful such as a timestamp.

GLAMOUR AND GET-DOWN TOOLS

No one tool can do everything (yet). Some fancy new tools hardly get off the ground. GoogleGlass lasted barely two years. My hiking group was climbing a mountain when a stranger with a GoogleGlass joined our group. He was meeting his fiancé at the top, when he would propose and capture the moment. Our group of six hikers universally felt something wrong—it turned out that we were there for the big “moment,” and it did not go well. The “gear” interfered with good eye contact between the couple, and he ended up recording a refusal. This aesthetically pleasing wearable technology did not fit with the human need for intimacy for that occasion. As we evaluate new technologies for our patrons, we must ask: Does it solve a problem, improve a life, add convenience, is it human friendly? And when the answer is yes, we still need to be ready to let go when it no longer serves.

We must also not fear new technology, not fear not having it, and not fear our own ignorance about it, but own it and move forward with constant learning (and thereby constant change). Learning is a librarian’s identity (Raine, 2016). Media hype things, including library media. But the truth is that much change is evolutionary and not revolutionary. Not all disruptions are catastrophic ones. I am saying this during the current pandemic, for which we cannot predict the final outcome. So far this year, more people have died of flu in the U.S. than have died of coronavirus worldwide. We need to be vigilant, but perhaps not panicky. Here is a great video from an ICU doctor at a COVID-only hospital talking about tools and safety (sorry it is 45 minutes long, so when you have time it could be informative and empowering).

LOOKING AT LANGUAGE AND FUNCTION

I so appreciate Professor Stephens’ great attention to vocabulary in his writings and lectures (Stephens, 2019). In several of the recent readings he assigned to us, we are cautioned that the Internet of Things is not really about things, but about the platforms that support communication to and from things (Borowicz, 2014; OCLC, 2020). But “The Data of Things” just doesn’t have the ring to it that “The Internet of Things” has. Things are not smart—the platforms are.

While things aren’t smart, we do have “machine telepathy” in a way—defined as communication without wires over long distances. Machines do not have imagination and intuition. This is what librarians bring to the new technologies and what they want to engender in patrons. Again, how and why do we want to use new (and old) tools? There are no rules about that nor should there be. Just as Professor Stephens frequently advises allowing patrons to use libraries in ways that work for them, so too for technology. If we approach new technology not necessarily as something to be mastered—instead explored by librarian and patron–but as something that may help us master our lives, then libraries and their services can be truly functional.

CREATING CONTEXT AND MEANING

What librarians bring is context to knowledge and information, and how to think about and use new things. Virtual reality and artificial intelligence provide potential new experiences but not how to incorporate them. Giving patrons the experience in a library or librarian setting (outdoors even).

One of things that improves lives is widespread infrastructure—indoor plumbing is my number one, electricity, highways, medical facilities, and of course the Internet. Libraries as part of the social infrastructure will probably last. “Libraries don’t need reinventing per se,” says librarian Matt Finch (Parashiv, 2017). He advocates a storytelling approach, discovering voice and place for your community, and what is unique and compelling about it.

My local library, built in 1985 and almost unchanged since then except for a well-used meeting room, has always looked a little sad to me (although the librarians make it vibrant). During the California wildfires last fall, library visits doubled—relocated residents spent their days in the library (and nights at shelters), kids were being homeschooled, government services were dispensed, etc. Now with the pandemic, the website has had a great facelift, offering 24/7 services and an upbeat, welcoming array of offerings online.

I can’t wait to try some virtual reality and artificial intelligence devices—especially the ones with good instinctual interaction among hands-eyes-voice, such as the HoloLens 2AR headset. Librarians need to feel how it is to use some of these devices and see how useful and fun they can be. But information literacy is not just tech skills, it is also critical thinking and reflection, and “the more mindful use of technologies” (NMC, 2016). Librarians can only use technologies mindfully if they explore them personally and know their community. We need to be willing to do beta tests (Stephens, 2020), and not wait for universal adoptance.

We don’t need to do everything individually, but our team needs to get its feet wet in different areas. Shana Ratner in 1997 wrote in Emerging Issues in Learning Communities “Do what you do best and link to the rest” (Raine, 2016).

Librarians need only be curious, not experts, says Jann Holmquist (2020). He says use the right tool, which can be no tool, or not using a particular new tool in your library. We should be empowered by technology not intimidated. I admit I am moving along that spectrum throughout this course.

An important goal for information professionals, according to Michael Stephens, is “delivering easy-to-use, unique, and just-in-time services to the palm of a user’s hand” (Weinberger, 2012, p. 8). How do we know unless we try them out ourselves or a colleague does? Not only are more services delivered more frequently, but transparency becomes more attainable.

GOT GLOBAL?

If your library’s unique collection can engender global interest, great, share it. If not, and you are serving your community, that’s great, too. Decide for yourself what aids your library needs—it’s good to know what other libraries are doing, but you don’t have to follow them (Stephens, 2020; Holmquist, 2020). “Hyperlocal” (Stephens, 2020) is just as good, serving focused local communities in an intensive way.

Photo credit: Matt Finch

Once the community is known, through active listening, librarians can enable others to build the library of the future (Weinberger, 2014). Again, we are seeing libraries as infrastructure and as problem-solvers:

“Platforms, linked data, and a library graph all move libraries in the direction of becoming an essential part of the new networked infrastructures of knowledge and ideas, not by insisting on being the center of the universe, but by becoming a part of its fabric.”

Our True North is understanding and addressing true needs. Technologies assist librarians and help fulfill the five foundational concepts of networking knowledge outlined by Weinberger in Too Big to Know (Stephens, 2015, p. 4):

1.  open up access

2.  provide the hooks for intelligence [metadata]

3.  link everything

4.  leave no institutional knowledge behind

5.  teach everyone

Librarians can do all these things, and when using the appropriate new and old tools they can do them with more beauty and ease and joy and success.

References

Borowicz, W. (2014, July 19). Why the Internet of Things narrative must change. TNW. thenextweb.com

Griffey, J. (2019, March 1). AI and machine learning. American Libraries.

Holmquist, J. (2020). Jann Holmquist guest lecture for INFO 287. San Jose State University School of Information.

McArthur, D. (2018). Will blockchains revolutionize education? Educause Review.

NMC. (2016). Horizon Report 2016: Higher education edition. New Media Consortium.

OCLC. (2020). The Internet of Things. NextSpace, 24. OCLC.

Parashiv, P. (2017). Creating a voice for the library: Storytelling, experience, and play: Interview with Matt Finch.

Stephens, M. (2015). Serving users when and where they are: Hyperlinked libraries. Draft of chapter for the book An Introduction to Today’s Information Services edited by Dr. Sandra Hirsh

Stephens, M. (2019). Webinar: Heart of Librarianship for ALA [2019].  https://287.hyperlib.sjsu.edu/blog/webinar-heart-of-librarianship-for-ala/

Stephens, M. (2020). Module 10 lecture INFO 287 . San Jose State University, School of Information.

Terdiman, D. (2018). Fast Company.

Weinberger, D. (2012, September 22). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. Basic Books.

Weinberger, D. (2014. Let the future go. The Digital Shift [blog]. Library Journal.

Photo of author holding her dogKathleen is Managing Editor of the Journal of Scientific Exploration, which went Open Access in 2018 when she proposed that to the Society’s Council. She has been supporting authors for 20 years at a number of science societies, associations, publishers, and NGOs. An MLIS student at San Jose State University, she is halfway through the program, focusing on leadership and management and emerging technologies in libraries and other information organizations.

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