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Reflection: Hyperlinked Communities

Catching up with the recording of Michael Casey’s chat with our class (Casey, 2020), I took note of how the two biggest recent changes he has helped implement at the Gwinnett County Public Library (GCPL) are of an analog, brick-and-mortar variety: removing the reference desks and organizing the non-fiction collections by BISAC instead of Dewey. Even the third major change, introducing the Open+ system to allow users self-service access to certain locations when staff are not there, is more about increasing in-person, physical access, even though its execution of course requires networked technology. This gets to the idea that a hyperlinked library approach is about a lot more than just incorporating as much digital interactivity as possible; the philosophy is fundamentally about a willingness to look beyond old paradigms and make design changes of all kinds to improve service. As Stephens (2017) contends, old school versus new school is a false choice. Casey’s initiatives with GCPL answer the big question that Stephens says we should ask: “What would make [our users’] lives easier?”

The other module 5 readings show a lot of evidence of library professionals looking at their work through the “lens of compassion and empathy” Stephens advocates, focusing at least as much on physical interaction as digital. Lauersen (2018) gives a keynote address for a UX conference, yet his focus is entirely on the human element, especially the diversity and inclusiveness of libraries. Dixon (2017) details inspiring library programs that have helped gather together diverse elements of specific library communities for challenging discussions on social issues and local history. Smith (2017) informs readers of the Madison Public Library’s efforts at “reorienting the library toward community-led initiatives” by soliciting program concepts and execution from the community. Even North Carolina State University’s Instagram campaign for the opening of its Hunt Library was a way to get students to engage with the library as a physical gathering space where creative ideas could be catalyzed, recorded and shared (Casden, Nutt, Lown, & Davidson, 2013). This latter initiative certainly exemplifies the kind of “interaction across virtual and physical planes” that Stephens (2016, p. 41) says is essential to reaching out effectively to library communities.

As a little postscript, I also want to note how much I appreciate Casey (2020) reporting on how staff have been included in the development of GCPL’s programs. He and Savastinuk (2007) emphasized this in Library 2.0’s Chapter 7: Getting Everyone One Board. Seeing that kind of follow-through, and in these particular contexts, is helpful and encouraging.

Casden, J., Nutt, M., Lown, C., & Davidson, B. (2013, April 29). My #HuntLibrary: Using Instagram to crowdsource the story of a new library. ALA.org. https://acrl.ala.org/techconnect/post/my-huntlibrary-using-instagram-to-crowdsource-the-story-of-a-new-library/

Casey, M. (2020, February 18). Michael Casey Recording [Class video conference]. SJSU.edu. https://287.hyperlib.sjsu.edu/blog/michael-casey-recording/

Casey, M. E., & Savastinuk, L. C. (2007). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service. Information Today.

Dixon, J. (2017, October 23) Convening community conversation. Library Journal. https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=convening-community-conversations-programming#_ 

Lauersen, C. (2018, June 7). Do you want to dance? Inclusion and belonging in libraries and beyond. Christianlauersen.net https://christianlauersen.net/2018/06/07/inclusion-and-belonging-in-libraries-and-beyond/

Smith. C. (2017, June 25). Madison’s library takeover. American Libraries. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/blogs/the-scoop/madisons-library-takeover/?utm_content=buffer8a08c&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Stephens, M. (2016). The heart of librarianship: Attentive, positive, and purposeful change. ALA Editions.

Stephens, M. (2017, April 20). Libraries in balance. Library Journal. https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=libraries-in-balance-office-hours

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Book Review: BiblioTech

John Palfrey’s BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google (2015) passionately argues for libraries and librarians to embrace the digital and invest heavily in creating networked platforms with other libraries in order to maintain relevance in the increasingly competitive and corporate information economy.  In an early chapter, Palfrey outlines the paradox that libraries face in the digital age: “Libraries are expected to provide more services, across more formats, than ever before, but with fewer resources” (p. 27). Given the torrential proliferation of information and yet the preciousness and precariousness of funding for libraries, Palfrey’s signal directive is for libraries to engage cooperatively in constructing networks of “shared open-source platforms, shared professional development opportunities, shared collection development, and coordinated mass digitization” (p. 125). 

What does this look like? “Instead of storing redundant sets of physical materials, libraries will begin to share access to commonly held digital materials […] Libraries and their partners in archives, museums, and funding agencies [would] work together to create common cloud-based infrastructure as well as materials and code” (p. 93-94). If libraries team up to form such larger systems, each location serving as a node and access point of those larger systems (p. 114), then a kind of strength-in-numbers effect can be leveraged, increasing offerings to all participants while reducing redundant labor (p. 153). Digital technologies make this kind of robust networking possible, and the ramped-up competition of the information economy makes it necessary. Palfrey points to interlibrary loan (p. 185) and OCLC’s WorldCat (p. 124) as precedents — cooperative ventures which substantially benefited libraries. But he characterizes his vision of networked platforms as a much more fundamental overhaul, not merely an add-on to an existing system that otherwise functions fairly similarly to how it did before. Palfrey’s re-envisioning of how libraries can work provides a possible answer to “The Challenge” Michael Buckland (1992) laid out nearly three decades ago: “The longer term, more interesting question is: How could library service be re-designed with a change in technology? This is a matter of how to do better, different things.” 

Elsewhere in his book, Palfrey acknowledges the successes of makerspaces and digital media labs in libraries, especially those aimed at kids like YouMedia (p. 76). And like other commentators in the field, he suggests libraries continue moving from a materials-focused identity to a service-focused one (p. 115). In a sharp phrase, he writes, “The powerful core idea is to focus less on books per se and more on knowledge transfer within a community” ( emphasis added, p. 73). Activities that support these kinds of knowledge transfers are what Palfrey believes should be emphasized in libraries as places. Palfrey also points out that, in an increasingly overwhelming information landscape, librarians have the “competitive advantage” of being professionals at “sorting credible from less credible information” (p. 142). 

Palfrey calls for increased government funding while suggesting that a deus ex machina in the form of a philanthropic icon — an Andrew Carnegie for the 21st century — wouldn’t be so bad, either. He argues that, among the wide array of public infrastructure spending, libraries provide a relatively high return on investment: “Compared to most other shared public costs, such as education, security, and health care, libraries do not require big money. In relative terms, tiny public investments in libraries go a very long way” (p. 19). Regarding where this money should go, Palfrey suggests much more of it needs to go to research and development, to enact changes assertively rather than merely react (217). This echoes Mathews (2012), who wrote that “Instead of assessment, we need to focus on R&D” (p. 8). That is, to innovate rather than react.

If tech companies have so far proved more agile and creative at producing digital infrastructure and serving users of new media, why should the public care if libraries catch up and establish equal relevance? And what if libraries aren’t up to the challenge? What if they are too slow? Throughout the book, Palfrey makes clear his belief that libraries, as they have existed since the mid-1800s, have been fundamentally democratic institutions, important to the survival of democracy itself: “Libraries provide access to the skills and knowledge necessary to fulfill our role as active citizens. Libraries also function as essential equalizing institutions in our society. For as long as a library exists in most communities, staffed with trained librarians, it remains true that individuals’ access to our shared culture is not dictated by however much money they have” (p. 9). Palfrey is consistently strident on the need for noncorporate information sources and gatekeepers, while warning that corporate players are more than ready to monopolize this field should libraries falter (p. 104).

Palfrey’s basic arguments speak both practically and morally to the survival of libraries, and his vision of libraries being intricately and robustly networked with one another, on every scale from regional to global, is one I hope libraries achieve. If there is any limit to his vision, I would say it is in his eagerness to turn the page on the paper book as part of this overhaul. My hunch is that, as both work and leisure activities become increasingly dominated by screens, people will continue to want to engage with paper books and other traditionally tactile materials as a way of taking a break from screens and direct digital mediation. He claims that, for digital natives, “physical life and online exploration are not separate worlds. Their reality is not ‘online life’ and ‘offline life’–it’s all just ‘life’” (p. 46). He doesn’t leave room for the possibility that reading a screen and reading a bound book on printed paper could be phenomenologically different, which recent research shows may be the case (Evans, Nowak, Burk, & Willoughby, 2017).

Personally, I found sitting down with a paper library copy of BiblioTech and a pencil in hand to be a comforting respite from all the screen-based reading and typing I had been immersed in for all of my other school assignments. And it appears I’m far from alone in wanting to keep a lot of books around; students across the globe feel the same value that books and other physical materials contribute to libraries as “Third Spaces” (Leferink, 2018). Libraries must stay attentive to this, too, if they are to distinguish themselves from all the other options out there in today’s attention economy.

References

Buckland, M. K. (1992). Redesigning library services: A manifesto. Chicago: American Library Association. Retrieved from: https://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/sunsite/Redesigning%20Library%20Services_%20A%20Manifesto%20(HTML).pdf

Evans, M.A., Nowak, S., Burek, B., & Willoughby, D. (2017). The effect of alphabet eBooks and paper books on preschoolers’ behavior: An analysis over repeated readings. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 40(3), 1-12.

Leferink, S. (2018). To keep people happy … keep some books. Next [Blog]. Retrieved from: http://www.oclc.org/blog/main/to-keep-people-happy-keep-some-books/).

Mathews, B. (2012). Think like a startup: a white paper to inspire library entrepreneurialism [White paper]. Retrieved February 16, 2020, from VTechWorks: https://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/sunsite/Redesigning%20Library%20Services_%20A%20Manifesto%20(HTML).pdf

Palfrey, J. (2015). BiblioTech: Why libraries matter more than ever in the age of Google. Basic Books.

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Foundational Reflections

In the early readings for this class, I’ve already been exposed to three different library manifestos of sorts, one from each of the last three decades. The oldest, Buckland’s Redesigning Library Services (1992), is the one that is actually labeled a manifesto in its subtitle. Despite being almost thirty years old, it delivers many insights of present-day relevance. One that struck me particularly is Buckland’s claim that the changes from analog to digital handling of information have led to “an entirely different perspective: from a library-centered worldview to one that is user centered.” This is an important dynamic of the digital age, and one that libraries are still figuring out how to grapple with. What does it mean when libraries no longer dictate the terms of information access? Libraries have to try to stay relevant and helpful, despite the rising popularity of resources like Google and Wikipedia that are easy to use and available from any device with an internet connection, irrespective of place or the presence of librarians. For anyone looking at the situation, not just critics, this would seem to pose a real threat to libraries. 

The second manifesto (a manifesto-as-manual, you could say) is Library 2.0 (2007), in which Casey and Savastinuk provide a vision for reestablishing libraries on firm ground, albeit a ground that is constantly shifting. They urge libraries and librarians to embrace participatory service, especially the potential of digital technology to engage users. Despite Library 2.0 being well over a decade old, libraries still have a lot of work to do in this regard. Also, it’s important to note that Casey and Savastinuk’s approach is not solely concerned with the digital. Fundamentally, they ask: “What are your users doing elsewhere that they could be doing through your library?” (p. 34). Many of these activities will involve digital technology, of course, due to the extent to which such tech is woven into daily life. But it’s not just tech. The general rise of maker spaces in libraries is a phenomenon that responds to such needs outlined in the book.

It does seem that Casey and Savastinuk overreach at times. In Chapter 5, for instance, they write, “Through the use of blogs, wikis, podcasts, tagging, and other ways of structuring data, it is now possible for users to have as much—if not more—control over the actual content of the Web than corporations with an official Web presence” (p. 59). This exaggerates the extent to which users’ voices can dominate over corporate presences, which after all still control much of the structure of the technology we use as well as associated advertising in many cases. Also, in the wake of the 2016 hacking and Facebook-facilitated fake news, this quote hasn’t aged well: “The participatory Web has limitless fact checkers, editors, and rewriters, making it almost impossible to lie to this new world of users” (p. 60).

The third manifesto I’ve read for this class is BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever In The Age Of Google by John Palfrey (2015), which I’ll cover with more attention in my upcoming context book review. It shares some of the major concerns of Buckland, Casey and Savastinuk, and has many strongly-stated ideas for how to bring libraries right up to the cutting edge of the networked present.

References

Buckland, M. K. (1992). Redesigning library services: A manifesto. Chicago: American Library Association. Retrieved from: https://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/sunsite/Redesigning%20Library%20Services_%20A%20Manifesto%20(HTML).pdf

Casey, M. E., & Savastinuk, L. C. (2007). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service. Medford, N.J: Information Today.

Palfrey, J. (2015). BiblioTech: Why libraries matter more than ever in the age of Google. New York: Basic.