Antifragile Libraries pt 2: Antifragile librarianship

In my last post we considered the idea of Antifragility and how libraries might consider making our collections more anti-fragile. Today I’d like to discuss how we take the antifragile concept further by considering an antifragile approach to discovery, as well as exploring librarianship as a tool for antifragilism.

Arguably, the whole idea of libraries, particularly public libraries, is inherently one of antifragility. The public library allows those with an interest in knowledge or ideas to pursue that interest, without requiring the individual means to fund it. The more our world changes, the more valuable the public library becomes as a source of ideas, information and inspiration. Our communities become stronger and more resilient as they share and discover old skills, new ideas and inspiring stories. Continue reading

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

Not just an Academic question: Why Open Access matters for public libraries

I’ve been thinking about writing a post on Open Access for a while. The recent tragic death of Aaron Swartz seems like an appropriate time to do so.

I didn’t know a lot about Aaron Swartz before his death. I’d read about him ‘stealing’ millions of JSTOR articles, but hadn’t remembered his name. Now that I’ve read more about him, one thing has become clear: whilst Aaron Swartz will be remembered as a hacker, he should be considered a librarian hero. Continue reading

Libraries as software – dematerialising, platforms and returning to first principles


Ever since I read Marcus Westbury’s article about Renew Newcastle, Cities as software, last year I’ve been thinking about how the concepts he writes about can be applied to libraries.  For those who are less text-centric, Westbury also gave a talk at Tedx Newie.

Cities as software

The principle is fairly straighforward, but like many ‘disruptive’ ideas it is only obvious after someone has articulated it.  Westbury’s insight was to realise that the problems of stagnating, post-industrial Newcastle were not caused by the decaying buildings or ugly streetscapes – the ‘hardware’ of the city.  And since there was no hardware problem, building new office blocks or spending money on street beautification wasn’t going to work.  The problem with Newcastle was a ‘software’ problem – so many shops were boarded up, so many businesses struggling along, that it had become impossible for any new businesses to succeed.  What Newcastle needed was for someone to hack the planning, regulatory and real estate systems to make the place vibrant again, thus attracting new business and a new sense of civic pride.

Thinking about cities as a combination of ‘hardware’ (buildings, streets, parks) and ‘software’ (laws, rules, traditions, business models, cultural norms) is a useful conceptual model because it allows us to separate out things that are often conflated.  A heritage building, for example, is hardware, because it has physical form.  But it is also software, because it has cultural value and often a legal identity as having heritage value.  The software determines what can be done with the hardware.

Libraries as software

The software/hardware framework is a good way to think about what libraries are really about as we move further into a world of post-paper publishing.  What libraries have all too often focussed on in the past is hardware – buildings, books, journals and rooms.  Librarians get caught up in hardware questions continually – hardback or paperback, how many PCs, should we buy Blueray discs, lend Kindles, subscribe to downloadable talking books, throw out our cassette tapes….?  In this context, we can consider things like journal databases, ebooks and other downloadables as hardware as well – we treat these things as artifacts, things to be collected and stored.

Hardware is what decision-makers and funders think about – books, buildings and, if we’re lucky, computers. Hardware is easy to understand, easy to provide once-off grants for and usually offers a photo opportunity.  The problem with hardware, however, is that it’s useless without software. Marcus Westbury recognised this in Newcastle and if librarians are to fulfill their real purpose (and keep their jobs) they need to recognise it too.

The real value of libraries is not the hardware.  It has never been the hardware.  Your members don’t come to the library to find books, or magazines, journals, films or musical recordings.  They come to be informed, inspired, horrified, enchanted or amused.  They come to hide from reality or understand its true nature.  They come to find solace or excitement, companionship or solitude. They come for the software.


Dematerialising could be the best thing that ever happened to libraries.  With the Open Access movement gathering steam, Open Source so entrenched that Red Hat made $1Billion annual revenue in the last year, and more options than ever before available to authors wanting to be published, we are at the beginning of a completely new era in the way information and art is disseminated.  If your business model relies on the idea that you provide access to otherwise restricted informational and cultural artifacts your business isn’t going to be viable for very much longer.  This applies whether you’re a publisher, bookseller, newspaper proprietor, television executive or librarian.

How we change the software – the services we provide, the way we make information findable, how we help people to make connections between things – will determine the future of libraries and the communities they serve.  This has a connection with the ideas I wrote about in Return to the coffeehouse – how to turn your library into an ideas factory, where we considered the importance of ‘platforms’ in building new ideas and services.  The dematerialised library – the library as software – provides a platform for the community to use in their quest to understand and enjoy our world and their place in it.  It becomes a true information and culture service rather than merely a technology for sharing and shipping informational and cultural artifacts.

What is a library?

Libraries are a technology for free, large scale inter-generational transfer of knowledge and culture. The fact that they have performed this purpose through the distribution of information technologies such as scrolls, codexes and newspapers for hundreds of years is merely a reflection of the technology available at the time. It’s time to reconsider our purpose.  Instead of processing, moving, accessioning and purchasing physical or digital items, librarians are better used to organise and share information and stories. Libraries run like this become creation engines.  They become more about creating and sharing a community’s ideas than providing access to the ideas of others.  Thinking about your library like this provides space for some innovative new approaches.

Consider Darien Library, which offers their community print-on-demand technology for both pubic domain works and self-publishing .  Or think of the academic libraries that publish works written by staff at their own university – a practice so widespread that Purdue University Press has published a book about successful library publishing strategies.   Now prepare for your brain to melt and read Nate Hill’s plan for world domination public libraries to become a local-publisher/Kickstarter/creators-&-writers-club mashup with not only completed works by local writers on their catalogue, but local works in progress on their catalogue.

Letting go of the desire to maintain ‘quality control’ and encouraging members to share their stories, like Darien has done and Hill proposes, can help libraries and the communities they serve reach their full potential.  Letting go of control allows libraries to encourage the development of innovative ways to create, store, retrieve and share stories and ideas.  In this model libraries cease to be a gatekeeper and become an enabler – helping our communities to share, learn and connect in ways that are otherwise not possible.


With these sorts of ideas in mind, and inspired by the ‘Apps for Democracy’ project in Washington DC, in 2011 the State Library of Queensland ran a competition called Libraryhack and opened up library data to innovative web developers.  The National Library of Australia has been working for some years to integrate data from a number of collection databases both within the NLA and in other organisations.  They have released a number of APIs  and rumour has it they are soon to release a single API for ‘Trove’,  their flagship information portal.  This will allow others individuals or organisations to create their own interfaces and tools to use Trove data. Meanwhile, Jason Griffey has created something potentially more subversive by forking the PirateBox to create LibraryBox  – a tiny, portable and off-grid wireless distribution point for ebooks, downloadable audio and any other electronic content libraries care to distribute.

These sorts of projects are just a taste of the sort of thing librarians could be turning their minds towards.

Wasted on the desk

At VALA2012 Eli Neiberger talked about librarians being ‘wasted on the desk’. His view is that instead of hanging around waiting to help people read spine labels, librarians should be ‘out the back’ building amazing tools like Griffey’s Library Box or the Trove API. Renew Newcastle operated mostly as a negotiator and explainer – they worked through the contracts, laws and regulations to work out how people could do what they wanted to do.  Rather than just providing access to information, libraries should be more active in finding solutions to help people use information. With ‘Open Government’ initiatives gaining traction in many nations, notably in the US under the Obama administration, Craig Thomler recently wrote about government agencies feeling that it was a waste of their resources to be making their data more usable.  Freedom of Information for them begins and ends with making the data available, whether it can be easily understood or not.  This presents a great opportunity for National, State and local libraries to make government truly open by building tools and standards for usable data. This could be extended to enable the creation and useful application of other local information, data, stories, expression.

All of this means we need to think more on Neiberger’s observation that people are now starting to pay for convenience rather than access.  Libraries were once at the forefront of providing both access and convenience, with early OPAC technology at the leading edge of what was then possible.  The general state of libraries’ information delivery is now so far below what people expect that we are being told en masse that “your library website stinks and it’s your fault. A good place to start afresh might be this article from Designing Better Libraries.

Allowing innovation to operate without capital

Marcus Westbury talks about Renew Newcastle a lot, and recently he followed up his Tedx talk with another one – this time talkling to architects and designers. Again, I was struck by something he said about what Renew Newcastle set out to do, because it applies just as equally to libraries.  Westbury’s comment was that Renew Newcastle set out to ‘enable innovation without the need for capital’.  If we combine the ideas of Westbury with Steven Johnson’s ideas about platforms we can envisage the library as a platform for enabling innovation, learning and cultural development to occur in our communities without the need for capital.  Isn’t that a lot more compelling than a place for lending books to people?

You need an R&D culture, not an R&D department


A couple of weeks ago, a tweet popped up in my feed just begging for a click-through:!/redgirl13/status/174178017218805760

What Gilliian was so excited about was this post by Daniel Messer on the Letters to a Young Librarian blog.  The core of Messer’s arguments is this:

Libraries need their own R&D Departments. We have Circulation, Reference, Information Technology, and so on. We are sorely lacking in R&D.

I can see why some librarians were enthused by this proposal. It stands to reason that if something is important it should have its own department and funding.  There’s just a small problem – Messer’s solution is destined to fail.

The problem with an R&D department is that it will perpetuate exactly the problem Messer has identified.  Libraries already have R&D departments, it’s just that they are largely outsourced.  We outsource development of cataloguing classification systems to organisations like OCLC and the Library of Congress.  We outsource our ILS to software vendors.  We outsource our journal databases to other software vendors and publishers.  We outsource the development of hardware like PCs, microfilm readers and printing facilities. Some libraries outsource their physical processing to specialist companies.  Others outsource the selection of new material.  We do all these things because it is perceived to be easier, or more efficient, or higher quality.  Often it is.

As Messer has identified, however, there is a problem with outsourcing like this – the priorities of the organisation doing your research and development often has different priorities to your organisation.  As a Systems Librarian, I spend a lot of my time dealing with this reality.  The problem I have with Messer’s solution, however, is that it simply replicates this problem within the organisation.  If you bring all your R&D in-house by creating an organisation called ‘The R&D Department’, what happens when they realise their small team and small budget can’t solve every problem at the same time?  The have to prioritise. Somebody’s ‘top priority’ will be pushed down the list.  Pretty soon you’ll be writing blog posts bitching about the R&D department and suggesting libraries need to become more efficient by outsourcing their R&D to vendors.

What libraries – and other service organisations – need to do is not create an R&D department but rather create an R&D culture.  Given the whole point of libraries is to facilitate research, one would think we should have a head start! Organisations like Google and Gore don’t rely on R&D departments to do all their research and development – both famously offer/require staff 20% of their paid time for working on whatever R&D project takes their fancy.  Tim Harford writes about adaptive organisations like Google and Gore in Adapt: why success always starts with failure.  One of his main points is that (As Messer himself describes) those at the ‘front line’ are best placed to understand what is needed in terms of developing new strategies, procedures or tools.  R&D is not just about new tools – it’s about new processes, new services, and new concepts for delivering those services.

Messer himself gives us a perfect example – he developed a small program to get his ILS to print patron names on a receipt printer.  Messer didn’t work for ‘the R&D department’ when he did this – he was running Circulation. Messer’s role had a enough ‘slack’ in terms of how he spent his time to allow him to research what he needed to do and develop and test it.

The challenge for libraries then is not to build a new department, but to create the space and encouragement for staff to undertake research and development as simply part of their job.  Last week Rory Litwin wrote in a rather more controversial blog post that

In order to make a claim to professional autonomy, librarians need more than a set of admirable values to justify it. They need a body of professional expertise that is incontrovertible, made up of knowledge and skills that others recognize required extensive education to gain. They need to be able to make the case that what they offer as professionals is something that other people cannot do nearly as well. They need to show that what they do is not only interesting and admirable and important, but that doing it takes expertise, and that they possess that expertise.

Litwin goes on to say that the solution is for librarians to forget all about this newfangled blogging business and only share ideas about librarianship via scholarly journal papers and discussions based upon them.  Presumably by writing letters to each other on parchment using a feather quill.*

Whilst I think Litwin is profoundly wrong about how professional expertise should or should not be shared, he’s quite correct that for Librarianship to be taken seriously as a profession we need undeniable professional expertise, not just values (although we still need the values!).  How we develop, share and prove that knowledge is the matter of several different but equally robust opinions.

Tying these two demands together – better research and development for the tools we need to do our jobs, and a stronger focus on robust research within the profession – I see the need for two different types of research and development.  What Messer is asking for is really more support within libraries for R&D to solve the organisation’s own internal problems – whether it’s a bit of computer code, a better internal process, a new machine or a different way of organising rosters. That is, better production technologies.  What Litwin is asking for is a stronger commitment to R&D focussed on the needs of our patrons. That is, better products and services.

These R&D needs can not be left to an ‘R&D department’, because the willingness and indeed the responsibility to develop and share new ideas, processes and technologies is what makes librarianship a profession rather than just another service role.  What is needed is a new approach to library management.  When librarians and other library staff are removed from the silos of traditional departments; when they are given dedicated time and support to develop new tools, new processes and new services; when librarians are rewarded for experimenting and sharing their findings: that is when R&D in libraries will flourish, and librarianship will secure its place as a vibrant and respected profession.

*As Rory notes in the comments, my paraphrasing may be overly harsh.  You really should read the original post yourself.

How do you measure the rate of mind expansion?

Gardening and the library

No, I’m not talking about weeding.

Anyone can plant some seeds and grow something – but the appetite for gardening advice in the form of books, TV shows, magazines, websites, clubs and nursery staff continues to grow just as surely as backyards shrink.  Imagine telling Peter Cundall or Monty Don that they should stop writing books, making TV shows and offering gardening advice, because anyone can grow plants and, you know, we’ve got mail-order seed companies and planting calendars.  The idea is absurd, yet this is precisely what happens when people say that we don’t need librarians because we have Google and ebooks.

The question and answer machine

Most people can read a book (or write one), or search a keyword or phrase on Google or Bing – but that doesn’t mean they’ll find what they really want – whether that’s the satisfaction of reading a book they really connect with or understanding the origins of Buddhism.  Librarians are connectors – helping our patrons to work out what it is that they actually want, and then assisting them to find it.  Those who see libraries as a pre-Google question and answer machine fail to grasp what it is that we do as librarians.  At their most basic, libraries can be this – someone comes in wanting to know the capital of Belize and leaves knowing that it is Belmopan and not Belize City.  But what if they wanted to understand Belize’s place in the relationship between Enclosure in England, the French Revolution and the United Fruit Company?  Or what if they don’t know they want to know about Belize?  What if the question is whether any countries other than the UK have God save the Queen as their national anthem?  Or they’re an orchid obsessive?  Or they just want to find some South American novels originally written in English?

A lifetime of Warhammer books

You could find an answer of sorts to all of these questions fairly quickly using a search engine.  A really good librarian however, can introduce you to things you (and indeed, they) never would have thought to connect to what you thought you were asking about.  When you think about it like this, libraries aren’t really about answering questions – they’re about expanding minds.

This is why the long, slow decline of Teacher Librarianship is so worrying.  (There may be some hope that this is finally being recognised – the winner of the inaugural Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership award for Primary Teacher of the Year was won by Jo Sherrin, a teacher-librarian). I’ve written about school libraries in the past, but even more important than the library is the librarian.  The high school librarian who introduced me to George Orwell’s 1984 did so because she recognised that it was the right book for me to read at the time.  It opened up a whole new world of literature to me, leading now just to Orwell’s other works (Animal Farm and more profoundly for me, Down and out in Paris and London) but thence on to Camus and others.  I was saved from a lifetime of Warhammer books by that one conversation.

Getting kids to read more interesting and challenging books is valuable in itself, but the effect is far more profound than that.  A variety of reading material, and a nudge towards quality writing, leads to broader thinking and exposure to new ideas.  It makes people more creative, and more empathetic.  There’s evidence that it also makes people healthier.  None of these are direct results – in fact, the benefits are very unlikely to come if they are the reason for reading.  If someone reads a novel because she thinks it will make her a better person, the effect will probably be lost.  Think about the difference between a kid reading a school reader because that’s the number they are up to, and the look on their face then they are deep in Tintin and the Cigars of the Pharaoh, or Specky Magee and the boots of glory.


This is what John Kay refers to as obliquity, in the book of the same name.  Some goals can only be achieve indirectly – the generic gains from reading for pleasure are exactly this type of goal.  So libraries are about expanding minds, but they only work if this is done indirectly.  We don’t hold talks called ‘how to stop being a racist bigot’ – instead, we hold book talks where we introduce readers to novels based on characters they might not normally empathise with if they met them in the flesh.  We don’t hold lectures on the dangers of Facism or Communism, but we do stock Schindlers ark and The gulag archipelago.

This sort of role requires nuance, tact and above all, continuous professional development.  It’s not good enough to be an expert on crime novels or Scandinavian history.  Librarians need to be able to do more than just find the right subject heading or know their Dewey numbers.  This is why programs like ALIA’s ‘Certified Practitioner’ accreditation are so important.  I am hopeful that this will soon become a requirement for librarians to gain and keep employment, rather than simply an interesting addition.

Measuring the rate of mind expansion

The other challenge we face, more than just the need for continuous development of skills and ideas, is the need to measure what we do.  This applies equally to special, academic, school and public libraries, but may end up being hardest for public libraries, as they are expected to do such a wide range of things.  If the effect libraries have is oblique, how on earth are we to measure how effective we are?  If our job is defined as lending books, then the measure of success is easy – how many items did you loan, and how many times?  But when more books and other services are delivered electronically and our role becomes more that of a ‘culture broker’, how do we measure it?  How do you justify your job to a skeptical finance committee when you can’t directly measure the effect?  You can’t very well present a chart with the rate of mind expansion in the suburb and how much is due to the library.  How do you measure rates of empathy and intellectual ferment?  And if you can’t, what measures can be used to determine how effectively libraries are doing their job?

I don’t really have any answers in this post, just questions.  I welcome any ideas in the comments – this is something we’ll all be grappling with soon enough.