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

Public libraries, research and a little bit of Redmond Barry

Things have been a little quiet here at It’s not about the books, but over at In the Library with the Lead Pipe I’ve just published my first article. I’d like to see more rigorous research conducted by and for public libraries, so we can really test whether we’re meeting our missions. ‘What we talk about when we talk about public libraries’ is my exploration of the opportunities we have and the current hurdles in our way. You should read it if you’re into that sort of thing.

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

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 Scoop.it 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.

What libraries can learn from public transport ticketing

Recently I had a bit of a run-in with the bureaucracy running Melbourne’s new(ish) public transport ticketing system, Myki.  It got me thinking about introducing new technology into libraries and how many of the lessons that apply to new technology in public transport ticketing also apply to libraries.  Both of us are in the business of providing public goods to the whole spectrum of society.  Here are six lessons we can learn from the mistakes and occasional triumphs of public transport ticketing around the world.

Identify the problem you are trying to solve

With any new technology – whether it’s a new social media platform, a new metadata standard or a new way of tracking items in your database – the first question you should answer is “what problem is this going to solve?”  If you can’t think of one, it’s worth reconsidering whether you are just sating your techno-lust rather than providing productivity increases or genuine new services to your patrons.

The Myki smartcard system in Victoria has cost AUD $1.35 billion to implement, with ongoing cost of several hundreds of thousands more.  Bemused passengers have continued to ask what was wrong with the old system.  While the Metcard system using cardboard cards with magnetic strips had problems, the enormous cost of the Myki system doesn’t appear to have come with an equivalent increase in functionality.  The system should provide useful data on travel patterns and does enable passengers to casually travel through tiketing ‘zones’ without having to worry about buying a second or special ticket, but these advantages have been marketed poorly and there is little indication as to what the primary advantage of the new system is over the old one.

Policies should not be determined by the technology

Policies – whether on how many items can be loaned at once or how much a ticket from A to B costs – should be determined by what is fair and reasonable within the budget available.  When you start making policy based on the restrictions of the technology you have chosen, alarm bells should ring.  The should ring even louder if your policy is based on the restrictions of a technology you are no longer using.

Myki and e-books display both sides of this common problem.  Under the Metcard system Melbourne was divided into three public transport zones, with the ticket price increasing when passengers crossed a zone boundary.  The principle was that passengers travelling further should pay more, but the inner zone cost twice as much as the two outer zones, reflecting the more frequent and available services in the inner city.  When Myki was introduced, instead of just validating your ticket on entry, there became a requirement to ‘touch off’ to ensure the lowest fair.  The new technology had difficulty working out where it was, however, and eventually the government decided to effectively remove zoning on tram and bus trips travelling between zones.  This policy change was not based on any philosophical change, but rather a reaction to a new technology that could not do the job.

In libraries, we see the other side of the coin when it comes to e-book lending.  As I’ve argued before, lending e-books in the same way as we lend physical books is inherently ridiculous.  E-book technology allows unlimited perfect copies to be made simultaneously available.  E-book ‘lending’ should, at the very least, allow anyone who wants to ‘borrow’ the book to access it without having to wait for someone to ‘return’ it.  But publishers have forced libraries to treat electrons the same way we treat atoms – and librarians have agreed, because our patrons are demanding access to ebooks and aren’t interested in the broader ramifications.  These ebook lending practices are based on a legacy technology – paper books, rather than utilising the functionality of the new ebook technology.

Ensure your solution is not over-engineered, or under-engineered

Just as it is important to ask ‘what problem is this solving’ it is also important to ask ‘is this the best way to solve the problem?’  There were several problems with Melbourne’s transit ticketing system in 2001.  Were there $1.35B worth of problems?  Possibly not.  Indeed, Myki demonstrates how it is possible to simultaneously both over-engineer and under-engineer a solution.  The cost was mostly due to the fact the Victoria’s government decided to start building the new system from scratch, instead of starting with an ‘off the shelf’ solution.  Melbourne’s ticketing system and transport routes were deemed more complicated than other systems using smartcards and thus we needed our own bespoke tickets.  But this complex and costly system has been plagued by poor design and hardware that is simply not up to the job.  The most famous recent example is the short battery life of the machines ticket inspectors use to check the validity of tickets.  These machines have batteries that go flat a few hours before the inspectors’ shift is over, meaning they can’t do their job for a large portion of their shift.

In libraries, its always good to consider whether the technology you are about to introduce will provide a great service to the public, or will simply confuse and frustrate them because it is less than fully formed.  Early adopters of ebook technology made this mistake and now  have drawers full of clunky e-readers to show for it.  Likewise, you don’t want to pay for a Rolls Royce with a Toyota Corolla will do the job just fine.  You could spend a lot of money building a Fab Lab or an ‘Experimedia’ multimedia workshop – but if your community only requires a tool library or a copy of Photoshop on one PC then you have just wasted a lot of money and space.

Make it easy for infrequent users and tourists

Recently Victoria’s new government announced that they were pulping millions of dollars worth of one-use Myki cards and would remove ticket machines from trams.  This move, in addition to a previous decision to discontinue ‘short trip’ tickets – means the cost for a tourist to travel a 500 metres in central Melbourne jumps from around $2.00 to a minimum of $13.80 ($10 for the card plus $3.80 for a two hour ticket).  In addition, tourists will first have to find a Myki card retailer to actually buy a ticket, as they won’t be able to buy one on board.  Helpfully, if all this is too much hassle for you while you’re in town for a few days, if you are caught without a ticket in this Bizarro World system you get slugged with a $180 fine.  Welcome to Melbourne.

Libraries are often associated in peoples minds with arbitrary rules and regulations.  Some of these are necessary to ensure we provide equal access to our collections or to minimise stock loss, but some are simply petty, inefficient or unnecessary.  It’s also worth looking at your processes and what technology and services you provide.  How easy is it for a tourist to pop in and send an email home?  Do you provide quick access to daily newspapers and local street directories?  Do your staff know where the nearest post office, bank or public phone is located?  These things matter when you are a stranger in town.

Avoid replacing old barriers with new ones

Sometimes, even when you have ensured the new technology is solving a problem and the policies are right, you still find yourself creating new barriers just as your replace the old ones.  Metcard had a barrier to infrequent travel between zones for those with periodic tickets in only one – you had to buy a second ticket for the extra zone to supplement your periodic ticket.  Myki overcomes this barrier by automatically calculating the fare, but the new system creates a new barrier by removing on-board ticket purchasing options.

Libraries should be mindful that we are not creating new problems at the same time we solve the old ones.  Will your RFID-enabled auto-return system have unforeseen ramifications?  Will your new virtual desktops cause USB stick incompatibilities?  (Hint: yes, they will). It’s important to be able to answer these questions before you commit.

Consistently provide excellent customer service

Finally, whatever you do has to be supported by consistently excellent customer service.  That means staff who are not only enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the new technology, but also empowered to find solutions when things don’t happen as expected.  The experience that prompted this post was an example of rigidly enforced rules, poorly trained staff and a culture of buck-passing and the ‘customer is always wrong’.  The problem was a card which got lost in the mail, but rather than enthusiastically trying to solve the problem, using the features of the system (ie the ability to wipe the original card remotely), or even apologising, I was told bluntly that I would have go pay an ‘administration fee’ for the privilege of actually getting the service I had already paid for.  Whilst eventually it was sorted out, it took intervention from another angle and a Myki staffer defining it as a ‘defective card’ – their system seems to have no allowance for cards being lost in the mail.

Does your library offer excellent customer service? Consistently?  Really?  Some ‘secret shopper’ tests might surprise you.

To sum up, what you should be aiming for is an experience akin to catching a train in Tokyo.  An experience where a customer who can’t speak the local language can still easily find the train they need to catch, buy a ticket quickly and easily, know the train will be perfectly on time, validate their card through the gates knowing there is no ‘wrong way around’ or ‘upside down’ way to insert the ticket, and then pay the difference between the ticket they mistakenly bought and the ticket they should have bought when they alight.  That is, a system that is easy to understand, easy to use, forgiving of mistakes, and friendly and unintimidating.  If you can do that, you’re on the way to a world-class library.

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.

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 Ancestry.com, 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 informationisbeautiful.net 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.