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If we challenge each other; we all win February 18, 2010

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Those that read my last post know that I recently attended a lecture where the speaker more or less told me that my question was not important.  This obviously did not make me happy and I came home and quickly sent an email to this individual as well as making a post that addressed the issue.  I then wrestled with whether or not it was politically a good idea to call someone out by name when disagreeing with their position on an issue.  After some time for reflection, I decided that while I thought it was clear that I was not engaging in any sort of personal attacks it was just a better decision to leave names out and focus solely on the content of my argument.

I just want to provide some additional details that may have lead to this speaker dismissing my question.  I am doing this to create a segue to another point so please do not feel that this is just going to be a continuation of the topic I discussed last time.  That being said, the additional details have to do with a lecturer beforehand asking us to think up really tough questions because apparently this speaker liked tough questions.  So, I went out and read like crazy and found a book where this speaker is quoted saying that new names for libraries are fine and then a few chapters later saying that libraries need to hold on to the name ‘library’ because it is a strong brand.  As a result, I presented the speaker with what seemed like a contradiction and asked if he could clarify which position best reflected his actual belief.  If that seems like a hard question, it’s meant to be; partially because that was what we were asked to do and partly because this speaker said that there is no such thing as maintaining a neutral position and anyone who tried to do so actually had no position.

Afterward, I wondered if I would have been better served lobbing up a softball about government bureaucracy’s affect on the public library agenda.  Then, I remembered this speaker’s call to action.  This individual asked us to rise up to the level of other professions.  The speaker continued by saying that students of medicine, law, and business come into school with big aspirations but library students, relatively speaking, do not.  If you look at the world of medicine, law, and business it is full of people asking each other the hard questions because when they challenge each other then everybody becomes stronger; everybody wins.

Here is the problem that I have with this speaker telling me that my question on library branding is not important.  In my case, I am challenging this person’s position (or, in this case, lack of one) but in the case of the speaker, this individual is simply devaluing the topic that I brought up.  To take this a step further, I have taken a clear position on the Amazon Kindle as well as e-readers place in libraries.  If someone disagrees with me, I would welcome a discussion where we could both present evidence to back up our opposing views and see if we can change the opinion of the other person.  What I am getting at is that because I have decided to publish my opinion then I feel that I have an obligation to back that up.  In the world of social science, where librarianship sits, there are no absolute correct answers and everything is debatable so all we have is the data, research and evidence to try and show that an idea is relatively better than another idea for a given situation.  It is really the best that we can hope for.  Therefore, if we are going to get to the best solutions to problems that we face then we have to be willing to ask the hard questions of each other and we have to equally be ready to back up our positions.  To finish with my example, what I don’t feel is an option for me now is to just say e-readers aren’t important, there are more important issues, don’t ask me about the Amazon Kindle, don’t challenge my position.  At the end of the day, we all really just have opinions backed up with varying degrees of evidence.  If we challenge each other and look at evidence that supports another point of view it adds to our knowledge base even if it doesn’t change our opinion.  In short, we gain from these types of debates, we are more able to add content to the general knowledge base that benefits from being more clear and robust, we all win.  However, when we just dismiss each others questions, we contribute to the stagnation of the knowledge base and perpetuate the peddling of stale, tired ideas.

Compare the novel, cutting-edge research that comes out of the medical and business sectors with the mostly safe, uninspiring reports being issued from the library sector.  (I’m speaking relatively of course, I know there is some extremely cutting edge ideas coming out of the library world.)  I don’t think this is because there is a lack of new and interesting ideas in the library sector but I think it is because we are not challenging each other enough.  If we follow this speaker’s words, and not his actions, we can aim our sights higher and aggressively pursue new ideas that will benefit our users, and then we can all win, not just those of us who work in the library sector but those who could benefit from libraries, and that includes everyone.

Library Branding. Important or not? February 16, 2010

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So, if you do any reading on how to make yourself stand out in a crowd, many professionals will advise you to write a blog.  However, the one caveat that often accompanies this advice is: keep it positive.  It’s a sound warning.  No one wants to listen to someone constantly complaining about everything that’s wrong.  Moreover, if one of the reasons for your blog is to grab the attention of potential employers than it’s important to consider how your blog makes you look.  Who would want to work with someone who is always whining and negative?

It is with this call for caution in mind, that I enter into this blog post with some trepidation.  I want to make it extremely clear from the outset that I have no personal problem with the person who claimed branding was not very important.  However, when this person opened up the floor for questions, I asked whether there were any benefits or drawbacks from branding libraries by other names such as: Idea Stores, Discovery Centres, Learning Commons, etc.  This person responded that libraries have much more important issues to worry about at the moment.  While I say again that I have nothing bad to say about this person as a person I was more than a little offended that my question was so casually dismissed.

What this person may not be aware of is an incident that took place in early 2009 and which was reported in ALA President Camila Alire’s blog where the mayor of Philadelphia was trying to justify the closing of eleven library branches by claiming that they were “knowledge centers” and “community-based learning centers” and thus not libraries.  Here we can see that for some libraries, their very existence is tied into how they are perceived in the public.  Politicians spend a considerable amount of time deciding just the right words for their ideas because words and brand do impact end-users perceptions.  When the term “bailout” was polling low the US Government had to aggressively flood the media with terms like “rescue plan”, “stimulus package”, and “economic recovery plan”.  The plan is the same.  The only difference is the name and yet it affects the feelings of message receivers.

In fact, this person referenced a survey where a number of people were given a set of questions and asked where they would go for information.  The responses included friends and children but did not prominently feature the library.  When it was revealed to these respondents that they could have found the information to answer all the question at the library they were surprised.  They then made the recommendation that Information Centre should be included in the name because they didn’t know about all the information-gathering services available.  This person scoffed at these findings saying that because they had put so many resources into gathering these results they felt they should change the name to Library and Information Centre but this person wasn’t aware if that made any real difference.  Well, I think it would be important to do some research to see if it has had an impact.  I think it is so easy to get lost in our library silos where we know every product and service offered and the value of those products and services.  However, if you ask people what they think and there is a disconnect the problem may very well be that we are not properly marketing and branding our products and services.

I am not advocating for the library to become the “Library and Information Centre” or any other fancifully creative name.  However, since some libraries are trying to create new brand identities I think it warrants investigation and I by no means think it is a trivial concern.  Why was there so much coverage of the iPad when it was released?  The most important reason is that Apple make high-quality products but secondly, they have a great brand.  Libraries already have the most important component of a successful business, we have a great product.  Maybe we just need a better brand.  I don’t know; but I do think it is at least important enough to talk about.

An example of librarian advocacy February 14, 2010

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Today’s post will be a short one but I just wanted to share one example of what I was referring to when I talked about marketing one’s value as a librarian.  Obviously, there are many ways to do this but one way is to get yourself published on the opinion page of a news site.  With the current cuts in budgets everywhere there has never been a better time to get out and defend our work.

For example, The Santa Rosa School Board is considering cutting 7.5 librarians positions to address budget deficits.  This led Cathy Collins to respond with this article.  However she does note that: “since our job is to help others shine, public relations and advocacy have, perhaps, not been a priority for us.”

I think advocacy does have to become a priority.  As we can see even victories like when the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics recently won funding for a new library they didn’t leave room to fund the salary of a librarian in their $1.1 million budget.  The buildings alone are not enough.  Research has shown that school librarians have a positive effect on children’s education as well as creating a greater balance between students with ample access to a vast array of resources and those with less opportunities.

With the recession, budget cuts have to be made and I am not claiming that other public services are not valuable but I am stating that library services are just as valuable.   I think, though, that they are not often perceived that way.  There has been a lot of talk lately about not wasting a crisis.  I think we need to take this opportunity to promote the value of libraries in venues outside of the library world.  With government officials everywhere looking to cut corners we need to let them know about the value we know that we provide.  Let’s follow Cathy Collins example and take our message outside of our silos and to the wider mainstream media outlets.

Kathy Ennis and Lyndsay Rees-Jones of CILIP say “Market your value as a librarian” February 10, 2010

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Today, we were fortunate enough to host Kathy Ennis and Lyndsay Rees-Jones from CILIP.  It was a great presentation, full of energy and enthusiasm and lots of content with no filler or reading from PowerPoint slides that audience members could easily read themselves.  At the cornerstone of their presentation was one simple message: Librarians are important but we need to market our value and showcase the unique skills we have to offer.

This presentation goes so well with my post yesterday about marketing the value of the public library.  In addition, we need to market the value of the public librarian and every librarian.  We had a discussion about what makes a librarian; what skills does a librarian have.  I think there is a tendency to be to modest when describing the role of the average librarian.  Some words that emerged were good listener, good customer relations, multi-tasker, team player, organised, etc.  All of these are true but in this tough economy if a local or council government or company is looking to cut corners and that is all you have to offer it is likely they will see you as replaceable.  We next looked at a different set of skills such as: collection development, metadata creation and integration, knowledge of classification and cataloging systems, as well as the legal side of information managment which includes understanding copyright laws, Freedom of Information, Health and Safety, etc.  In fact, seeing this list of specialised skills growing to cover the white board gave me a lot of encouragment and made me feel much more confident.

I wrote very early on about the constant question that almost every library student receives when he or she says that this is what they are studying and it is something around the lines of: you need a degree for that?  As much as you try to have a thick skin, I think those types of questions can get to you.  You start to think maybe I will be replaced by Google, perhaps I am becoming obsolete, I suppose anyone with a good set of general skills could probably be a librarian.  It’s not true though and seeing all the unique skills we bring to a position today really helped me see that.

In addition to hammering into us the need to stand up for ourselves and loudly proclaim how valuable we are they provided us with a number of practical tips and idea.  Some I had heard before such as clean up your online brand and try to make a distinction between your personal and professional identities on the Web.  Even so, I agree that this is an important issue and one that I am still working on.  Another was a classic piece of advice which is to get business cards.  Of course, I have always wanted to have some but I could never budget for them.  They let us know about a website, VistaPrint, which prints business cards for free.  In addition to just having business cards, they recommend that when you collect someone else’s business card that you write some information on the back such as where you met that person and what you talked about.  That makes so much sense but I had never thought of it before.  Lastly, they had us write some examples of what we have learned in the last six months.  There were some great examples and sometimes you are so busy in the present you forget how much you have developed and grown.  To help with this they recommended regular reflective journalling which I have been hearing a lot about but have not been doing enough of so this was good motivation to get going on it so I can better track my progress.

All in all, it was a great presentation with not even one dull moment.  If you get a chance, be sure to go to any workshops offered by Kathy Ennis and Lyndsay Rees-Jones.  It is sure to be a very worthwhile investment of your time.

In search of the most ethical revenue streams for public libraries February 9, 2010

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So, I am officially back to school and well into my first week which has been great.  It feels so good to have some structure in my life again.  Today, we looked at a number of possible revenue streams and discussed which ones would be the most ethical.  In this case, ethical meant charging only for services that are not core to the library’s mission and which would not increase tiering or social exclusion.  We arrived at the following list of ideas:

  • Charge for access to special databases such as those for local history studies.  The justification for this charge is because the service is not part of the core mission.
  • Charge for computer access past a certain time limit.  For example, Internet access is free for two hours but after that there would be a small fee to continue.  This is a revenue stream that works much like late fees it only charges those who use a resource so long that it prevents others from accessing that same resource.  Though, we did discuss how late fees continue to pop up as the number one reason why lapsed users stop coming back to the library.  Someone suggested setting up an automatic email system to let users now a day or two in advance when their materials would be due back but we discussed how those most affected by late fees may not have regular internet access.  However, I think there must be some way to send a message via text as almost everyone has a mobile phone these days.
  • The last one that we all agreed on was charging to use spare rooms on a sliding scale based on the income of the organisation using the room.  Of course, the obvious problem is when groups want to use the room who are not officially organised as a charity.  In which case some thought it should be free but I think there could still be a small fee, I mean much smaller than anywhere else but just enough so other organisations don’t complain about unfair treatment.

Ideas that we didn’t like included:

  • Raising late fees.  At first, I was for this as I figured it is a fee that can be avoided so why not increase a penalty fee rather than start charging for services.  However, after hearing the statistic about lapsed users I changed my mind.  It is terrible to think that public libraries are losing members because some have a few pounds in late fees stacked up in a corner somewhere that they are unable to pay and as a result they now avoid going to the library.
  • A premium rate request service.  This would be a fee that would allow some to get requested materials faster than others.  Here the problem is the idea of setting up tiering where some members received better service just because they had more money which isn’t a system that really gels well with the pubic library’s mission.

I think there are a few other ideas that I first heard about on the Infopeople Podcast but have since expanded on.  These are:

  • Selling advocacy or special issue library cards.  These would just be regular library cards with no special benefits but users could pay for them and they would get a card that just looked a little different identifying the issue they wanted to fund.  Now, I think this would require a lot of pre-planning and transparency.  Ideally, it would look like this:  First, there would be a board with a list of special projects and how much they would cost.  Next, users could pick one of the ’causes’ and give a donation to that cause and receive a library card that was designed to reflect that they supported this idea.  Lastly, as money came in the board would reflect how close the library was to reaching certain goals and when it got to a certain money area a product or service would be purchased and everyone would see the result of the campaign.  The issue is that those with the money to give would see their ideas come to fruition over the ideas of others who weren’t able to give.  I think that is an issue but I think these projects would all be non-core and it would be good for the community to see their gifts having a direct impact.
  • The last idea is to sell bags instead of books at book sales.  I thought this was great because instead of trying to decide whether each item was worth a certain amount, the user paid for the opportunity or the experience of digging through the materials and stuffing as many as they could into their bags.  However, I mentioned this in class today and my classmate said that a library he knew tried this idea and some people were upset because they didn’t want a bag full of books they just wanted one.  Of course, there is no reason that it couldn’t be both ways.  Either buy a bag or buy the books individually.  The one thing about the podcast that I really did like was the idea of not organising the books.  Many people found that this made it more fair.  Otherwise, certain sections would get picked over early but having the material unorganised meant that there may still be hidden treasures buried about all throughout the day.

I’m definitely thinking about Illinois as I write this.  I think aside from these little gimmicks to pull in a small amount of extra funds here and there we really needed to be out there promoting what a valuable service we provide.  I love the recent Snapshot Project that has been taking place which is just short videos put on YouTube showing the variety of services available at the local public library.  I feel sometimes we take ourselves for granted and we forget that not everyone knows everything that we offer so we need to continue to be out there even after the funding crisis ends letting everyone know how amazingly important the public library is in every community.  It really is.  There is no other institution like it but as Rachel Van Riel lets us know “public libraries are one of the few organisations which routinely deliver much more than they claim.”  While I think it is a good idea to regularly try to brainstorm new revenue streams I think moreover we just need to be out telling our story louder and more repetitively in ways that are more sticky just like the “big brand names” do.  There is no doubt that we can sit around in a circle together and agree on the value of the public library but its time to really take that message to the people.  If we do, then maybe we won’t see funds slip away from the source where they can really add up…. the ballot box.

Do e-readers really have a place in libraries? February 4, 2010

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I have to give credit to Wayne Bivens-Tatum for writing an awesome post about how libraries should deal with new technologies.  I think that people do expect libraries to look current and up-to-date to a degree but I don’t think they expect libraries to be ahead of the curve.  While relaxing a bit on trying to make use of every technology could take some of the thunder out of the next emerging issues themed conference (or unconference as the case may be) it actually leaves libraries in a good position as they can let the market have its say first before just jumping in to uncharted waters.

I do think some new developments do lend themselves to early adoption or at least consideration but I think at this time I am ready to say that the e-reader is no such development.

First, the market is just way too unstable right now and there is still a lot of tweaks that every producer needs to work out.  I know that I can be really hard on the Kindle but the fact is they were the first and let the hype get ahead of them and now they are capitulating every other minute and they just don’t seem to be in control at all anymore.

They seemed to want to stick to this whole e-ink idea and support that format by really archaic accessories like the Kandle.  Then, it seems they have decided to abandon the e-ink and move to a touchscreen.  They seemed to want to stay in control of pricing their products and as we have all seen they lost that battle as well.  In a moment of panic they even went back in and removed content remotely from user’s device again (same link as preceding) after admitting what a terrible move it was last time.

By turning a critical eye to the Kindle’s latest set of problems, I am not endorsing the new Apple iPad.  Though some have already run rampant with visions of futuristic library filled with a wall of tablet computers, the iPad has its own set of issues not least of which being the price.  The other issue is with EPUB the e-book format supported by Apple.  While EPUB, which is a free, open standard is an improvement on the proprietary format Amazon was licensing it still needs to be worked on to better support graphic novels and technical manuals.

Still, after all of these issues, I think the biggest problem right now is the restrictive licensing for most products with DRM at the moment.  I have mentioned before that I feel libraries more or less had to give up full ownership rights to journals but they shouldn’t give up the fight on books so easily.  Publishers as well can hopefully see the market in selling works with no DRM.

I do think the day of the e-reader in libraries will come but I don’t think there is any rush to get there.  In the meantime, librarians need to be actively involved in the conversations surrounding e-books and e-readers to try and influence decisions so they work on the library’s favor.  When libraries assemble and speak with one common message they can be a powerful force.  So, on one hand libraries should give some new technologies time to mature a bit before buying in they should also make their voice clear.  Libraries need a product that is accessible to all and fully supports all manner of material and libraries need to have some sort of control or ownership over digital files.  They need to fight for more open systems like BBC writer Bill Thompson has been advocating recently.  As of right now, even with all the excitement and media attention, I have to agree with Yale Librarian Joe Murphy; e-readers have no place in libraries… for now.

Where will the new repositories of knowledge be? January 25, 2010

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I am preparing for next term which starts a week early for me with an intensive week-long course on building digital libraries.  I was scanning some books today to get ready and came across the following quote which doubtlessly has been written countless times in other library-related tomes.  The quote is: “Libraries are society’s repositories for knowledge: temples, if you like, of culture and wisdom (Witten, 2003)”

Yes, Mr. Witten, I do like .  However, how long will libraries retain their temple like presence in society?  A few disturbing trends do paint a rather ominous picture.  One is the latest news from Amazon that they will make a new royalty model for ebooks which reflects an agency model instead of a wholesale model.  What this means is that Amazon is accepting that for electronic titles they are merely acting as an intermediary connecting a buyer and seller which differs from their operations in physical materials requiring titles to be bought and warehoused.  This is all being seen as a preemptive strike against Apple.  While this may result in better profits for publishers it also pushes electronic titles back further away from libraries.  Of course, Amazon was already dealing in licenses but maybe in the wholesale model talks could have continued to try and get Amazon to sell actual copies of digital works to some like libraries but now the whole metaphorical framework has changed.

Not to be a doom-sayer here but there is more: EBSCO has moved into become the exclusive distributor for a majority of popular magazines.  The more that these exclusive deals start to take place the less options that will exist for libraries when it comes to purchasing.  In this way, the fates of publishers and libraries are inextricably linked with publishers getting scared and feeling like they have to move into these types of deals to stay afloat.  One more piece of news: a handful of authors that once opposed the Google Books Settlement have now decided to support it.  Again, I use Google Books, it is a good service but they will more or less have a similar near-monopoly like EBSCO but over digitised books.

One more somewhat disturbing trend: the move towards cloud computing.  In the cloud model, stored data is saved out somewhere in a cloudy space.  Where you may ask?  Irrelevant.  It’s out there.  Sell your servers, your data is safe.  Proponents will argue that servers in the cloud are backed up and data is safe.  I don’t argue that but having so much centralised data just seems troubling when that centralised place isn’t the library?  (Here is a great article with lots more about cloud computing)

Really, I don’t want to sound too serious about any of this.  I get uncomfortable doing too much crystal ball gazing.  Everything may be fine.  However, I think libraries do need to be on the lookout for any potential Faustian bargains.  For centuries, libraries have stood as cultural temples, preserving ideas throughout history.  Do we really want libraries replaced by a bank of computers spread out in places unknown all over the globe and referred to only by the extremely ambiguous metaphor “cloud”?

Reference:
Witten, I.H. & Bainbridge, D.I. (2003). How to build a digital library, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers: San Francisco, CA.

Would your OPAC benefit from being more modular? January 19, 2010

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Nicole Engard, author of Library Mashups: Exploring New Ways to Deliver Library Data,  was recently on Sarah Long’s Long Shots Podcast talking about all the tools available to libraries through the use of mashups (or combining elements of different web services to create a unique product).  On the podcast she notes that the hardest part of incorporating these modular resources is that first one must ‘break into’ their OPAC.  I just want to say that this is the big problem with proprietary software, it is too slow to respond in a world where new technology emerges everyday that could benefit our users.

Recently, I wrote about how New York Public Library migrated their site to Drupal.  This will make their site much more dynamic and flexible and give all members of staff more power to contribute so their web identity can always stay current.  A few years ago, the National Library of Australia started using the VuFind OPAC which is an open-source project from Vanderbilt University.  I think the criticism of open-source projects is that they are experimental, unstable, and always in beta.  Here though we can see that NLA has continued to use VuFind and I think it is time that other libraries started looking into this as a solution.  Especially when one considers that aside from its collection, a library currently spends the majority of its budget on its OPAC. In a time when budgets are tight these could result in much needed savings.

VuFind is modular by design and that is a good thing as there have been some great products released recently which serve to augment library systems.  The ones getting the most buzz are tools developed from LibraryThing including Local Books, Library Anywhere, and Shelf Browse (pictured above).  These tools have been built to be compatible with most OPACs but that will not always be the case especially if you create a mashup that is specific to your community.  Do you really want to have to break into your OPAC just to deliver better service to your users?

Where else in the world would half your collection fall under WXYZ? January 16, 2010

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Usually, WXYZ is a footnote at the end of most collections with the amount of titles for all four letters weighing in at well under the coverage of a number of single letters before it.  Not so, at the Yorkshire Water Library.  Currently, I am doing a student placement and yesterday I was weeding and reorganizing the annual reports collection and as I was finishing it struck me that half the collection is W and Y.  Where else in the world would half your collection fall under WXYZ?

Google Wave Very First Impression (Do we use new things just b/c they’re new?) January 14, 2010

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First, I want to say that I think that I am coming off as very anti-technology but I am really just cautious of embracing technology that gives us solutions which require us to search out new problems.  In this way, I think it is very interesting that Google Wave has been receiving so much hype but when I went on today to play around a little bit most people were just using it like a standard comments or forum thread.  That being said I do think that the ability to work collaboratively in real time will be a great benefit once all the kinks are worked out and new features are added.  Obviously, it is way too soon to make any sort of verdict on Google Wave but it is interesting to be able to see something like this when it is still brand new.  I know this post doesn’t really contain any real content so I will link off to the Library Journal article that provides a lot more early analysis.  I think I will try to get in on a few more waves over the weekend and then give a much better early review.  By the way, I have a few invites now so if anyone would like one just send me an email.