A failure of imagination – the problem with format neutrality

I often hear librarians promoting their ‘modern librarian’ credentials by saying “it’s about the information, not the container”.  By this they tend to mean that librarians in a world of instantly downloadable ebooks, subscription journal databases and multiple other formats for audio, visual and written works should be format-neutral.  That we should not be concerned about in which formats information is available, as long as it is available somehow. But what if it is about the container? 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:


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.

From selection and recommendation to curation and suggestion


A couple of weeks ago I went the the VALA 2012 conference and saw an inspiring keynote closing address from Eli Neiburger.  Whilst the talk itself was great, it was the question and answer session afterwards that inspired this particular post.  Eli was asked about the skills new librarians will need, and the first thing he said was ‘curation’.  But what exactly is this, and why is it different to what we’ve always done?

Curation and selection are opposites

Imagine a military museum with a particular number of rooms and a certain number of weapons on display.  You follow the path from room to room and stand behind the velvet rope looking at the exhibits.  This is the world of selection, where a limited number of items can be collected and stored in a restricted space.  Every poor decision about what to collect costs money and time, but more importantly also has an opportunity cost because something else could have gone in the space.  This physical reality has led to the traditions of commercial publishing and newspapers, as well as selection and collection development in libraries.

The world we live in is decreasingly bound by these realities.  On the internet, the opportunity cost of hosting a file is approaching zero, such is the cheapness of computer storage.  In this new world, the options available to military weapon enthusiasts look more like this.  If Neo wants to know where the most interesting guns are, he’ll need help, especially if he wants to find one of these  (thanks to Eli for the tip).  He’ll need a curator.

Curation provides guidance.  it doesn’t restrict choice, but rather opens doorways.  It is a way of making sense of an endless number of choices.  it’s a map – patrons can wander off the map if they like, you’re just giving them a place to start based on what you know.  The other key difference is that selection takes place before an item is available to your users, whereas curation simply makes it more visible after it is available to them.

This reminded me of an important distinction regarding how librarians provide personalised service.

A good book

Public librarians often get asked to recommend a good book to read.  All of us have fallen in to the trap of then immediately doing so.  This may feel like we’re providing great service, but it is actually an example of very poor and thoughtless service.

What patrons of course mean by ‘a good book’ is ‘a book that I will appreciate reading’ – not ‘a book you enjoyed’.  For this reason librarians long ago invented ‘the reference interview’.  This handy tool works for most enquiries and is needed because most people need a bit of coaxing to explain exactly what it is that they are looking for – whether it’s a book on dinosaurs or the latest Stephen King novel, it’s surprising how difficult it is to work out sometimes.

So once you’ve worked out what they are actually asking for you might then simply try to think of what you have in the collection that is most like that thing.  If you’re providing fiction books, this can get tricky.  It means you’re either going to fall back on one or the other of the following strategies:

  • recommend something you have read that you really enjoyed and is somehow ‘similar’ to what they say they enjoy.
  • recommend another author based on the genre of the books they tend to enjoy.

Neither of these is really all that useful – one of them is essentially spam, whilst the other could have been provided by Amazon or LibraryThing.  These patrons come to us because they want suggestions about what to read next that will expand their world and provide meaning to them in their current state of mind.  If they wanted more of the same they could have found it.  They’ve come to you because they don’t want more of the same (even if they don’t know it).  To serve these patrons properly you need to  make a psychological and verbal leap from recommending to suggesting.  The School of Life’s Bibliotherapy service is an example of the sort of thing we need to aim for.

If you are recommending something, it’s more personal for both them and you.  People think of ‘recommend’ in the same group of words as ‘guarantee’.  When a patron wants help to find a new book for recreational reading you can’t take the risk of recommending, because what they are actually asking for is assistance taking a leap into the unknown.  You can minimise the risk to an extent, but they want a bit of risk in their choices because that’s how we find interesting new ideas, new ways of seeing and new art-forms. If you recommend something you are implicitly bearing the risk that they won’t enjoy it.  Do that enough times and nobody will ask for your recommendations any more.

All this is much harder, of course, but Librarians exist to help people expand their minds.  In postmodern libraries we need to do this by curating and suggesting, rather than selecting and recommending.

Using risk-reward calculations in the library

Since my post before Christmas on maximising the idea-generating ability of libraries, I’ve been thinking a bit more about how we design space and experiences in libraries, and why.


Public librarians talk a lot about risk.  Nearly always this is in the context of how to reduce risk – whether it relates to the risk of lost or damaged stock, perverts exposing themselves, patrons complaining to their local Councillor or the ubiquitous repetitive strain injuries.  Patrons often seek to reduce risk in the library as well, although usually it comes to our attention when they seek to reduce risk for others – the risk their children will read books including violence, profanity, or, god-forbid, gay penguins; the risk someone will spill their coffee on a book; the risk someone might use our computers to look at pornography; the risk that children might enjoy themselves whilst at the library.

This concern about reducing risk leads inevitably to myriad rules in an attempt to reduce or, as modern corporate jargon has it, ‘manage’ risk.  So we have rules against eating and drinking; rules requiring photographic ID and proof of address to be able to borrow items; rules about accessing particularly old, fragile or rare books; rules about mobile phone use; rules about who can access what on which computers under what circumstances; rules about talking; rules about not taking library books into the toilets…


Ostensibly, this inclination to create rules to reduce risk is due to the desire (and pressure) to create, if not a safe environment, an environment with the appearance of safety.  Libraries across the western world pride themselves on being both a welcoming and safe place.  This is a noble aim, but alas it has a fatal flaw.  A safe place for ideas all too often leads to a place for safe ideas.  This is not conducive to a creative, vibrant and intellectually rigorous society.


I’d like to propose a different way of thinking about risk in the library.  Instead of simply focussing on risk as something to be reduced, we should start to think about it as one part of a risk-reward ratio.

Taking the risk of patrons spilling food and drink as an example, library managers might weight the risk against the reward gained by allowing patrons to bring in food and drink – allowing them to stay longer and have a more pleasant experience.  Each library or part of a library would need to make this calculation separately – what is right for the Melbourne City Library is not necessarily the same as what is right for the Bodleian.

Once you start looking at things you have already identified as risks in this way, you can make a more rational and realistic decision about whether it is a risk that needs to be eliminated, reduced, managed or ignored.  More than that, however, you can start to look at all aspects of library service through the risk-reward lens.

Organising space

All libraries, particularly public and academic libraries, have problems managing different expectations and needs among their patrons when it comes to noise and space.  Rather than letting this degenerate into an ongoing skirmish between grumpy child-hating old codgers and irresponsible young people with no parenting skills, it may help to think about how we allocate space in terms of a risk-reward continuum.  Many academic, and some public, libraries assign different rules about noise, mobile phones etc to different areas in their buildings.  This is seen as a compromise and usually considered in terms of specific actions that are banned or otherwise restricted – use of mobile devices, volume of conversation, working in groups.  These are useful compromises, but they tend to stem from a desire to reduce complaints, rather than consider the problem in a more systematic way.

A different way of looking at the problem is to consider patrons or students not so much in terms of differing needs or differing tolerances but rather as having different attitudes (at any given moment) to risk and reward.  A student who wishes to do some group study for a couple of hours has calculated that the risk of gossiping instead of studying is outweighed by the potential reward of gaining a better insight into the subject by studying in a group. Or perhaps the potential reward will be to copy someone else’s class notes, or the opportunity to flirt with Jane’s friend Sally.  For another student the risk of not getting any study done in a group is too high, so they might choose the quiet study area to ensure the chance of a reward in the form of understanding Darwin’s writings on Galapagos Island finches.  Perhaps even the quiet discussion that happens in the study carrells is too much for the Professor who needs to immerse herself in an ancient Latin text.  She may calculate that the risk of failing to fully engage with the complicated text is too high even in the quiet study area, and that she needs a private room.

These calculation have nothing to do whether the Professor is an outgoing and sociable person, or the students wish to ace their tests – they are simply risk-reward calculations for the immediate future.  Rather than seeing patrons as fitting in to a fixed ‘type’ – mother with young chlidren, senior citizen, teenage student – we need to provide a range of options depending on their particular need at any given time.  Rather than providing space based on an assumption of what particular types of people will want, we can arrange things so that various ‘appetites for risk’ are catered for.  You might map it out like this:

The US Treasury Bonds of publishing

Thinking about risk-reward calculations can also be a way of thinking about how you provide services.  Just as the finance industry uses concepts like Modern Portfolio Theory to think about appetites for risk, so too we can use the concept of risk-reward ratios to decide what material to suggest to readers.

The modern fiction publishing industry has a very sophisticated system for appealing to the natural risk-aversion of the average reader.  The whole concept of genres is designed to reduce risk.  Once you find a book you really enjoy, all you have to work out is what genre it is from and you have a way to identify other books that you also may enjoy simply based on genre.  This can be very broad or very narrow.  The masters of low risk genre fiction are of course Harlequin Mills and Boon, whose finely differentiated formula-fiction could be considered the US Treasury Bonds of the book world – even if they’re not to your taste, the risk that they will have a surprise ending is near zero.

Choosing resources based on risk

The risk-reward frame also provides new ways of looking at collection development.  You might consider whether the risk of the encyclopedia set being out of date before it arrives is outweighed by the convenience of owning the material outright and having access to it even when your internet access is cut off.  The reward of 24/7 access from anywhere to your journal database is weighed against the risk that someone will want an article from 1982, which isn’t available in full text but would be if you kept you hardcopy back issues.

Considering how patrons make decisions about resources can also be seen this way.  Rather than one patron being old-fashioned and another demanding and modern, one might simply consider them to have different understandings of risk and reward.  For one, the risk of the Wikipedia article being written or edited by an idiot or a liar is too high, even though the reward is that they don’t have to wait for the library to open, then find the relevant article in the index of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Someone else might consider the question quite differently – the risk of the Britannica article being out of date may be higher for them.

In an ideal world (all other things being equal, which they never are) we would provide a wide range of material in a wide range of formats – because different patrons have different risk calculations.  Just because something is ‘the latest’ or ‘how everyone finds things now’ doesn’t necessarily mean you should prevent patrons from using other sources if they are still available.  On the other hand, the risk of a particular format becoming impossible to use (eg. a microform or electronic file format for which reading devices no longer exist) needs to be considered.

Quantifying risk in the library

A question that we might need to consider is – how can you quantify a patron’s appetite for risk when it comes to library services?  Should you try?  If someone asks for reading suggestions should we ask them for a rating out of 100 for their appetite for risk?  I’m not sure this is necessarily a useful approach, but considering what to suggest based on an understanding of how much risk they are willing to take with new authors, genres, styles or concepts would certainly be useful.  Comments are welcome!

Letting the patron decide

Ultimately, our goal when looking at libraries through a risk-reward frame should be to put risk assessment into the hands of the patron as much as possible.  Instead of trying to regulate behaviour based on our assumption that all patrons are risk averse, we need to let them choose for themselves.  The coffee they bring in may help stimulate their brains to come up with new ideas.  The conversation at the next table might give them the idea they need to start their new novel.  The screaming boy in the non-fiction section might seal their decision never to have children.  The choice, wherever possible, should be left to the patron.

(minor edits made to fix embarrassing typos on 3/1/12, 7.20pm)