Technolust – the fifth column of the information counter-revolution

I’m going to start with a story about growing up in Tasmania in the 1990s.

The economy wasn’t great, with unemployment at around 11%, no economic growth to speak of and a high State debt. In these formative years, I was surrounded by both the defeatists and the hopelessly optimistic. Many said that the Tasmanian economy had no hope and had been on the downward slide since the end of Transportation. Others dreamed of the One Big Project that was going to save us all: the Mt Wellington cable car, the Oceanport cruiseship terminal, the enormous pulp and paper mill, the largest catamaran factory in the world.

The Oceanport company turned out to have $1 to its name, the catamaran company went bankrupt, the pulp mill dream ultimately saw a prominent businessman gaoled for bribery, a Premier resign in disgrace and the state’s largest company fall into receivership. The cable car dream quietly slinked away, only to return recently as the economy again started to go sour.

But in the intervening decade, Tasmania’s economy flourished. There was no One Big Project that achieved this. There were however lots of small projects. There was the ongoing success of the King Island Dairy. There were dozens and dozens of independent bed and breakfasts serving a growing tourist trade. There was the ever expanding Taste of Tasmania and Ten Days on the Island festivals. There were interstate expansions of home-grown beer and seafood brands Boags and Tassal. There was no one big project, just one big vision – a vision based on contested but broadly shared values of wholesome clean produce, pride in work and lack of pretention. Tasmanians still complain about their economy, but the improvement is obvious to someone like me who left 12 years ago.

Tasmania’s problem wasn’t a lack of big projects, funding or infrastructure.

It was a failure of self-belief. Continue reading

Dear CEOs and senior managers, it’s no longer ok not to know how Social Media works

Imagine if Canadian library managers decided not only that they were uninterested in hiring French-speaking staff, but actually banned their staff from speaking French, making signage in French or providing materials in French. Imagine speaking French was dismissed as a frivolous waste of time when people could be productively communicating in English. Imagine they did all this whilst millions of English-speaking Canadians were learning French and starting to speak to other information service providers in French. There would be outrage and bewilderment in the community and among other librarians. Yet this is exactly the scenario in which many library services (and libraries within larger organisations such as Universities) find themselves in relation to social media and mobile online communication more generally.

I’m attending VALA 2012 this week and so far the unifying theme has been social media and making library services mobile-friendly. I hope to absorb many interesting ideas that will find their way to becoming future blog posts, but today’s is really a frustrated plea. Already I have had several conversations with colleagues in the industry who understand where we need to going, but have been stymied by more senior managers or boards who simply don’t or won’t understand what the rise of social media and mobile computing generally means for information service delivery.

The inertia and complacency displayed by the managers of these organisations is mind boggling. Do they honestly think that social computing is a niche fad that is just going to go away? Facebook is about to launch its Initial Public Offering of shares – in the middle of a recession. Documents filed as part of the IPO show that Facebook’s net income last year was US$1 Billion, with 483 million daily active users in December globally. Facebook alone has over 10 million users in Australia – a nation with a total population of only 22 million. And you think it’s just for kids? Of Twitter’s 106 million users worldwide in 2010-11, more than half were 35 years or older. That membership has already doubled in the months since. Some fad.

Veronika the Librarian prepares to die

Librarians are ‘Information Professionals’ – if you don’t think social media is relevant to you and your job, you need to retire or leave the industry. Librarians are in the business, as Felicity Gilbert put it so well yesterday, of finding contextually relevant information for people. More and more, that context is online using a social media channel. If you aren’t interacting with your patrons on Twitter, Facebook and whatever else becomes huge next, you are doing several things:

  1. Telling your community that you don’t want to help them.
  2. Telling your community implicitly that you don’t understand them and the way they interact with interesting people, and by extension that you don’t care about them and their interests.
  3. Telling the world you are marginal and irrelevant to their daily lives.

Social media and the associated instant, personalised mobile information solutions are where libraries must go to ensure we are fulfilling our mandate. This is no longer something than can be allowed to remain with ‘the young ones’ or ‘the techies’. This is fast becoming core knowledge – just as I’m expected to be able to assist a 5 year old to find dinosaur picture books, a 72 year old find a new crime author and a 45 year old find information about writing resumes all on the same desk shift, every librarian needs to understand the dynamics of social and mobile computing and our place, as information professionals, in that world.

VALA 2012 has thrown up all sorts of challenges to the librarians attending: Do you actually understand the back-end of your library management system? Do you know what people are saying about your library service on social media sites? Do you know what keywords your patrons are using on search engines to find your website? How can members communicate with your library when they are waiting for a bus, walking down the street, in a cafe…? Can they do so at all? Is your online presence mobile-optimised? And if the answer to any of these is ‘no’, what are you going to do about it?

Talking about eating your lunch

Libraries that don’t strongly enter the mobile social computing space will soon find themselves having their own ‘Kodak moment’ – having invested heavily in a once-important service they will wake up one day to find that nobody is interested in what they are providing. For the lucky senior managers this might not come until after they retire, but for the rest of us there are no options. Whomever is ultimately responsible – Boards of management, Communications departments or IT departments – need to either get with the program or get out of the way. Not having a social media presence is, for a library service, the same as refusing to have telephones. Possibly, it’s worse. People aren’t talking about what they ate for lunch on social media – if you’re not around, they’re talking about eating your lunch. They’re talking about what they know and what they want to know. They’re talking about their information needs and wants. They’re talking about your organisation. Are you talking to them?

*in case you were wondering, today’s title is inspired by this article on SOPA.

Blogs and the post-paper library

My title this week is a little provocative. I’m unconvinced of the imminent, or even eventual, complete death of all ‘dead tree’ publishing. Much, however, will move to electronic and just as we in wealthy nations say we live in a ‘post industrial’ economy even though there is plenty of industry happening in our countries, so too we will soon enough move to a ‘post paper’ publishing norm.

I find myself reading and talking a lot about ebooks lately. Librarians have been struggling to work out how to move from a system based on lending and storing physical information items (books, magazines, compact discs etc) to one based on lending electronic files (ebooks, audiobooks, music, video). The biggest problem we face is that treating an electronic file the same as a physical item is inherently nonsensical.

A cup of ocean

As I have noted previously, the physics of electronic files and modern computing means that every time you move a file you make a copy, and every copy is a perfect copy. If you can make hundreds, thousands or millions of perfect copies for a marginal cost of zero, then lending someone a copy doesn’t make any sense. It’s rather like sitting in a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and offering to lend someone a cup of sea water.

This is an ‘inconvenient truth’ for authors, the publishing industry and particularly copyright lawyers. When making a copy is as easy as clicking a mouse, and distributing something electronically without making a copy is physically impossible, any system for encouraging creativity and the dissemination of ideas which is based on restricting copying is ….well, let’s be polite and say it’s unsustainable.

What does this mean for libraries? At the moment, it means a big fight with publishers. Publishers recognise that treating electronic files as if they are physical items is ridiculous, but they also recognise that it is the only way they can maintain the status quo in publishing and, for many of them, it may be the only way they can stay in business at all. The biggest fear for publishers is that because ebooks are so easy to copy and distribute, essentially for no cost, if they allow anyone except key partners like Amazon and Apple to distribute their books then they will soon find themselves bankrupt. As Fast Company reported recently, even using Amazon itself is enough of a problem. Publishers have been extremely reluctant to allow libraries to do anything with ebooks other than treat them just like physical books, with virtually none of the advantages of ebooks being allowed. The demands of publishers are ridiculous. The problem is that they are also highly rational.

Red herrings

Is this all just a distraction from our real mission? I’m beginning to think so. Confused by the past necessity to store and organise physical paper objects, and fearful of being ‘left behind’, librarians have allowed ourselves to become distracted. We should forget about storage and lending for a few moments, and think about what it means to freed from their grasp.

When people talk about what they love about libraries or why they value them, they are almost never talking about the ability to search and retrieve information. The slippery slope we are now upon began when librarians misconceived their role as search and retrieval experts and then freaked out when Google arrived. We were never particularly good at search and retrieval. I recall going to the State Library of Victoria a few years ago and requesting a particular government report from several decades earlier. The State Library of Victoria is a closed stack reference library, so I didn’t question whether the report would be where the catalogue said it would be. Alas, the staff couldn’t find either of their two copies. If the SLV can’t perfect it, what chance does your library have?

What libraries really excel at, and what has always excited people about them, is their browse and discovery service. This is what librarians should be concentrating on in new, exciting and uncertain times. It is the ability to discover and make connections between information and ideas that lies at the heart of public libraries. This is where the value really lies – and it doesn’t require you to even necessarily have a collection. What it does require is more than just a computer and a search engine. Google might be able to organise the world’s information, but we still need librarians to help us make connections between the various things we are reading, watching, noticing and saying.

Missing the blogs for the ebooks

A good illustration of how past practice is blinkering librarians is the way we consider blogs as part of the library’s collection of resources. Generally speaking, we don’t. But why? Why are we so obsessed with post-paper idea packages in the form of ‘ebooks’, yet we ignore post-paper idea packages in the form of ‘blogs’? Whilst we wrestle with magazine subscription agencies and journal database vendors to work out ways to make their content available to our patrons, we ignore what’s under our noses and available for free. A blog is often no different to a journal – you can even search the ‘back issues’.

In 2010 Pew research released a paper, widely reported, that claimed the rise of Facebook means blogging is over. Far from ending, however, the Age of the Blog may well just be starting. Just last month The Economist ran an article about how Economics blogs have influenced the actions and discussions of central bankers, professors and economists, and will continue to do so. Economics blogs are taking on the role formerly played by journals – but with a wider range of views available, and much faster publication time.

What we’re really seeing here is not the beginning of the end for blogs, but rather a slow change in focus. Whilst ‘personal’ blogs were originally prevalent, the serious, considered (and longer) posts are now becoming more popular. As these resources grow, librarians need to be alert to opportunities to make their patrons aware of the riches available. Simply Googling some keywords won’t necessarily find you the blog, or the collection of blogs, that you are looking for. More importantly, you might be looking for a journal or book, not realising that what you want is actually located in a series of blogs.

The paperless book, the paperless journal

The genius of the blog as an invention, and its likely longevity, is borne out by the fact that some people are currently trying to re-invent it.

Todd Sattersten is busily experimenting with Every book is a startup. This project is supposed to be an attempt to find a new publishing model in the electronic age. Sattersen explains in a post at World Media Trend.

The project is meant to poke at the boundaries of traditional publishing. The book was created around the idea that new material will be released over time, culminating in a finished work early in 2012. Readers are encouraged to constantly give feedback about the material.

New material released over time, with readers encouraged to give constant feedback. Sound familiar?

Elsewhere, the focus has been not on books, but rather on scientific journals. The great discussion in scholarly publishing at the moment is around ‘open access’ publishing and how science can be rescued from the Bizarro-World of commercial scientific journals, where scientists pay the journal to be published, then provide their services for free to review other articles, before paying a hefty fee to access the articles after publication.

Once you start to question the model, however, inevitable questions arise, like why some journals are still published in physical form only, why it all takes so long, and even whether articles need to be published together with others in a regular journal edition when they could be posted online as they become ready for publication/sharing.

Some have provided long explanations of what is wrong and what scientists are looking for, some have explained why scholarly publishing doesn’t work any more and how Google doesn’t really help, and some have suggested new tools like Twitter may be the solution. There are even academic papers written about it. All complain about how long it takes for articles to be published, retracted and amended. I would suggest that what these authors are looking for is simply a robust online publication environment, and a bunch of good librarians to help them make connections and find new information. What they’re really wanting is peer-reviewed blog posts, but they’re trying to complicate matters.

These are simple examples of what librarians could do in a post-paper word – there are plenty more. In ignoring the rich information world of blogging, librarians miss an opportunity to provide guidance, connections and new ways of seeing.

Interactive curation

The future for public libraries is not collection but curation of information sources – not in the simplistic manner of a account, but in a robust and personalised way. When our members ask for recommendations or assistance we should be able and willing to direct them to a range of publications from physical books and traditional journals to whole blogs, individual posts and even perhaps Twitter accounts and the like. Just because ‘its all online’ doesn’t mean people won’t need help to find it or know about it. The need to organise information in a meaningful way doesn’t diminish in a post-paper environment, and neither does the desire to discover new ideas. Curation and assisted discovery will take new forms as we bring together speakers, hands-on learning, online information and interactive storytelling. Librarians who ignore these opportunities are unlikely to have a future. Those who embrace them now should expect an exciting one.

Evolution, the death of librarians and the end of history

Today aspiring book restoration librarian @hanmunn alerted me to a back and forth in the LA Times about libraries, librarians and whether one can survive without the other.  These two opinion pieces fairly neatly sum up a larger series of skirmishes that have been occuring on the margins across at least the English speaking world, but particularly in the UK and US as their governments seek ways to cut spending in economic recession.

Libraries versus librarians

The original piece by Regina Powers complains that politicians keen to cut spending on libraries but wary of the political ramifications of closing libraries have chosen to cut professional staff (staffing being the largest cost in most library services).  Thus the service level is compromised, but the buildings stay open.  Dan Terzian counters that now that we have Google and the internet librarians are outdated and libraries should just hire liberal arts undergraduates.

In my view they are both a little right but in the medium to long term both wrong.  Powers is  right to point out that a library without librarians is ‘like a hospital without doctors’, but Terzian is right when he says that libraries need to change in the digital era.  Strangely, however, Terzian’s example of why librarians are no longer needed (the success of the New York Public Library) is a long list of projects best planned and implemented by librarians – whose training and experience is directed exactly towards such things as “e-publications, crowdsourcing projects and a user-friendly online library catalog”.  These are indeed the sort of thing that libraries should now be concentrating on, and the best people to lead and implement such projects are librarians.

There are two basic flaws with the argument that libraries no longer need librarians because we have search engines and the internet:

The filter bubble

Firstly there is the issue of bias, echo chambers and what has come to be known as ‘the filter bubble’.  Exclusively relying on computers and, in particular, the same search engine/s to seek information can trap people within one particular view of the world or at the least obscure relevant information.  Relying on automated ‘spiders’ to categorise information does indeed help us to answer simple questions quickly; but if the purpose of libraries is to ‘spread knowledge’ as Terzian claims, or to ‘expand minds’ as I wrote in my last post, then the abilities of Google, DuckDuckGo or any other search engine to find ‘facts’ quickly is not nearly as relevant as one might first imagine.

The end of history

Secondly, there is the question of what librarians do ‘behind the scenes’ and where search engines and other discovery tools find their content in the first place.  Google’s project of digitising thousands of books could never take place without the prior thousands upon thousands of librarian-hours spent organising, cataloguing and storing the books in the first place.  Database products like ABI/Inform or General Onefile need information professionals to compile them.  “Crowdsourcing projects” need professionals to direct and lead them.  User friendly library catalogues need professional information organisation and retrieval experts to design them.  The problem with the argument that the internet is an adequate replacement for librarians is its myopically arrogant assumption that we are living in the end of history – or at least the end of the history of information.  As if no new work is necessary to record, store and organise information, culture or history.  As if somehow the birth of Google was ‘Year Zero’ for information management.

Better librarians

Terzian and others seem to think that library science students are still just taught the Dewey Decimal system and Library of Congress cataloguing rules.  I went to library school eight years ago and learned neither.  Instead, we were taught XML and Dublin Core, along with theories of information management and access.  These days students are being taught Java. What Terzian (without realising it) is really demanding is better librarians and better librarianship.  The traditional ways of providing library services are indeed mostly doomed.  It does not naturally follow that librarianship is irrelevant, however. Professor Dave Lankes makes this point in a recent vlog post.  Continuing the doctor analogy, he points out that in the nineteenth century medical doctors’ traditional practices were increasingly becoming irrelevant.  Rather than disappearing, however, they embraced the new technology and became associated with the new ways to doing things rather than bleedings and questionable tonics.  We can take this idea a little further – should we really be exploring a future with fewer libraries, but just as many librarians?  Is it the case that rather than sacking librarians and keeping libraries, we should close libraries and keep the librarians?  Doctors aren’t just found in hospitals.  They do home visits in densely settled areas of the world, travel with the troops on battlefields and in Australia we have long had the Royal Flying Doctor Service operating in remote areas to fly a doctor to the patient rather than moving the patient to a hospital.  In a digital, online context, all these could be models for future librarianship.

Evolution, not revolution

This is not about librarians simply wanting to keep their jobs.  This argument is really about who controls access to information under what circumstances.  Are we going to invest in a citizen-based human information design and management structure, or are we going to hand control over to private companies, legally bound to maximise profit?  It’s about librarians better articulating what they do, and doing it better.  It’s about arguing and displaying the value (in both monetary and intrinsic terms) of libraries, librarians and citizen-centred knowledge.  When it comes to keeping, organising and disseminating information and knowledge, the key has always been evolution.  In this field we should always be wary of revolutionary theories – they always lead to loss of information, knowledge and culture.

Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf and the Australian publishing industry

A couple of weeks ago I attended Book Camp Australia, an unconference held at the Wheeler Centre as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival and put together by if:book – the Institute for the future of the book, based in Brisbane.

I had high hopes for Book Camp.  The theme was to be the future of books and reading, and I imagined interesting discussions with authors, librarians, editors, publishers and readers all bubbling with ideas about how books, story-telling and reading culture might look in a decade or two.

The idea of an unconference is to dispense with the presentation of papers and simply create space for the interesting discussions most people tend to like about conferences.  The big danger with any unconference is that you are at the whim of the attendees, their knowledge, interests and attitudes.  Book Camp ended up being a huge disappointment.

I should say at the outset that this was not because it was badly run.  if:book did a great job of bringing in interesting attendees from the USA, organising the day and bringing it all together.  The problem was that the majority of attendees worked in publishing as editors or in managerial roles and the bulk of the rest were authors who also dabble in editing or other publishing roles to pay the bills.  This gave me an insight into how Australian publishing is approaching the challenges and opportunities of online and digital publishing – a frightening insight.

Here was a group of people, presumably the most energetic and forward-thinking in their organisations, who were entirely focused on how they could maintain the status quo of twenty years ago.  Pre-occupations were how to ensure publishers could make money and who should be allowed to refer to themselves as a publisher. Very little energy was expended talking about how new technologies like the iPad could offer exciting new ways to tell stories.  The one exception was tellingly a session without any publishers in the room (they were all downstairs at another session).

It was profoundly depressing to sit in a room presumably filled with the best and brightest of Melbourne’s publishing houses and hear someone asking “are you talking about ebooks or real books?”  The same closing session included an exchange which really highlighted the dearth of deep thinking in the publishing world.  Someone asked what role publishers might have in ‘the long tail’.  The response was that ‘publishers make most of their money from the long tail’ because the costs for author advances, publishing and marketing are already sunk, so selling backlist copies is the most profitable aspect of the business.  No consideration was given to the alternative (and I suspect intended) meaning of ‘the long tail’ – books that don’t get published at all in a physical publishing world, because projected sales are so low that it isn’t profitable.  Today’s publishers are silent on this question.

Earlier in the day I joined a session where I heard:

  1. Australian publishers can’t really make any decisions because they’re all branch offices of UK and US based houses.
  2. Authors can’t add up so they need publishers to do the accounts and look after legal issues.
  3. Most people in the publishing industry don’t understand the finances and rights breakdowns of ebooks.
  4. Publishers are necessary for ‘quality control’
  5. Lots of ‘crap’ is being published.

It was at this session (“What is a publisher”) that i really wanted to pose the question “are publishers necessary any more?” – but I chickened out because the mood seemed a little too bitter.  When publishers use an opportunity like Book Camp to talk contradictory nonsense about the absolute need for them to exist and be in control, one has to ask if the publishers doth protest too much.

There’s plenty of ways Australian publishers can become relevant in the new paradigm.  I say ‘become’ rather than ‘remain’ because they are not relevant now.  Being a branch office of a multinational, ‘managing’ instead of innovating, isn’t relevant.  The current industry is heavily dependent on government grants and the largely outdated parallel import laws that force booksellers to buy from ‘Australian’ publishers where possible.

Imagine a tablet publishing industry based in Melbourne, however.  Imagine teams of writers, graphic artists, animators and programmers producing exciting and immersive story experiences – not quite traditional books, not really films, not particularly games, but something else.  Imagine a publishing house app that simply delivers the latest installment of quality storytelling to your phone or tablet device for a monthly fee. Imagine any number of other exciting projects.  That’s what I expected to be talking about, but the Australian publishing industry seems stuck in a sickening torpor.  Like former Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf claiming everything in Baghdad was under control as American tanks rolled into view behind him, Australia’s publishers seem unwilling to admit that they are about to be crushed by the future.

The front line is everywhere

In my previous post post I finished by writing that librarians need to become more pro-active. Today’s post attempts to expand on how we might go about this and why it is needed.

The Gatekeeper on the Mountain

The traditional approach to librarianship might be called the gatekeeper on the mountain – waiting for people make the trek to ask you for information, then deciding where they can look. It’s an approach that insisted that children only have access to particular parts of the collection, that library patrons must ask for permission before being granted access to special or restricted collections and that preservation of the physical stock and its organisation was the most important thing – patrons really just get in the way.

Librarians were some of the first people to recognise the potential of both the early internet and the world wide web, and enthusiastically got on board. Strangely, however, the huge disruption caused by the rise of the internet and the world wide web has still only had a marginal effect on the way we actually do our jobs.

For many librarians this may seem like an outrageous thing to write. After all, aren’t we all skilled in using online databases to find journal articles? Aren’t we teaching patrons how to use tools like, Proquest and our own ‘Online Public Access Catalogues’? We can code HTML! We digitised our local history! We talk about ‘the interwebs’! Ironically!

Well, yes, that’s all positive and nice, but the currently prevailing ‘new’ approach to libraries tends toward being pro-active within the library – no longer a gatekeeper, but still on the mountain. So we have ‘roving librarians’, face-out displays and shelf-markers with QR codes. We’re getting in patrons’ faces a bit more and marketing the collection – as long as people are already engaging with the library, preferably by being inside the building.

A revolution needs revolutionaries

The most important effect of the world wide web on librarianship is yet to be addressed – how do we most effectively do our job when library users don’t need to come into the building to use the library? How do we steer patrons/customers/students to interesting and relevant information or cultural artifacts when we can’t see them and they can’t see us? Up until now our response to the rise of worldwide, wireless and electronic information transfer mechanisms has been evolutionary. That’s not going to cut it. The profound change in the management of information and cultural artifacts caused by the rise of the internet and the world wide web cannot possibly be overstated. Tim Berners-Lee is a revolutionary figure at the level of a Napoleon, Henry Ford or Qin Shi Huang. Just as there was an Industrial Revolution, we are still in the throes of an Information Revolution – and a revolution needs revolutionaries.

The job of a librarian is not merely to develop a nice collection of reading and other cultural material. If you want to sit at a desk, recording what crosses it and waiting for somebody to ask you for it, become an archivist. Being a librarian means actively helping people to find information and recreational culture. In a post-internet world, it means pro-actively doing it. For goodness sake people, it’s not about the books! Your job is to help people make sense of the world – a world overloaded with both information and misinformation. Our future approach needs to be proactive outside the library – we need to get off the mountain and become a real ‘street corner university’. Libraries often boast that with 3G mobile computing, phone apps and websites, the library can be anywhere. When libraries can be anywhere, librarians need to be everywhere.

Six models for pro-active contextual service

If public librarians really believe that ‘libraries change lives’ they’re going to have to start providing contextual pro-active service. Luckily, we already have some models for how this might work.

Starting conversations

The National Library of Australia’s online collection tool,Trove, is actively marketed through a Twitter feed with links to interesting digitised newspaper articles, artworks, ephemera and other items from the collections of the National Library and other associated cultural collecting institutions. Tweets are often relevant to things that are in the news, or in season. This service is a good way of marketing the existence of Trove, but also pro-actively pushes out information without Australians (or indeed, anyone) having to think to go to Trove and look it up. The State Library of Victoria provides a similar service.

The public waiting room

First Bank provided a model for libraries to follow when they devised a clever strategy for getting passengers at Denver Airport to visit their website. Advertising signs displayed pictures of various public-domain books, with a QR code to enable passengers to download the book to their smartphone for free, via First Bank’s website. For a really useful service libraries could simply omit the website and allow immediate downloads, or provide links to the relevant place on an e-lending service such as Overdrive.

Partnering for new uses

The New York Public Library ran a program in 2008 called ‘Design by the book’, teaming with Design Sponge to let five design students loose in their archives to search for inspiration. By turning the experience into a series of online videos, the library not only pro-actively made use of their collection, they also brought these treasures to a wider audience.

Research units

In the last post we discussed the research papers produced by the Australian Parliamentary Library and the Commons Library in the UK. Recently I discovered the Colorado State Library does something similar, but with a specific focus on libraries themselves, with their Library Research Service.

A picture tells a thousand words

Information is beautiful is another, even less conventional example that libraries should consider. At the infographic has been elevated to an artform as the team there look for new and interesting ways to make complex information easily understandable in one image. Their most famous project is probably the Billion Dollar Gram, but there are many others. Imagine your public library producing something similar for your local government area or state at budget time.

Taking it to the streets

Finally, we come to a concept that really got me thinking about this topic in the first place – Radical Reference. Radical Reference started at the 2004 Republican National Conference in New York City. In its original conception it was designed as a way for a group of professional librarians to use their skills to assist people demonstrating outside the conference. Radical Reference librarians arrived armed with 3G smartphones, maps of the area, information about the legal rights of protesters and a big sign advertising their service. Whilst Radical Reference claims they are a-political, and they do assist anyone who asks for help, their focus has been on providing reference services at protest events.  In 2008 an IFLA paper was written about their service model.

The exciting thing about Radical Reference is that it is an excellent example of pro-active contextual service delivery. Radical Reference put together a kit of answers to the questions they think are most likely to be asked, but they also are prepared for anything. Support is provided by librarians ‘back at base’ either over the phone or online, but the service delivery point is literally on the streets. Using this sort of model, libraries could provide regular in-context information services where people actually are – in the park, at the farmers’ market, outside the football game and so on. Another way of thinking about this, particularly for libraries like mine that operate in reasonably dense inner-city areas, is as a twenty-first century version of the mobile library services we used to offer. Instead of a bookmobile, however, you can now serve citizens outside the library building with just the librarian and a laptop or tablet computer. The Mobile Librarian doesn’t need a truck license – she can simply set up in the cafe, market or train station. Combined with a version of the new fashion for microlibraries you could combine this flexible service with a small hardcopy collection.

Once you start thinking about ways to pro-actively provide information and use the resources we have, it’s easy to come up with new ideas. Australian Rules football games often have an associated Twitter hashtag (eg #aflcatshawks). Proactive libraries might take the opportunity to tweet links to historical records they hold for one of the teams, or information gleaned from the biography of one of the coaches, using the hashtag. Local libraries could develop apps that don’t just allow them to search, reserve and renew physical items and ‘borrow’ ebooks from the collection but also act as a community information and news portal – something like a combination of Flipboard, Overdrive and Worldcat, delivering content to members before they’ve even asked for it.

And so on.

True Librarians don’t wait

So step away from the reference desk and right out of the library.  The Information Revolution needs revolutionaries -follow Che’s lead and come down off your mountain and into the streets. When it comes to the war on ignorance, as Rage Against the Machine once told us, the front line is everywhere.