Access isn’t a fad: Tech-washing libraries

flickr photo shared by BioDivLibrary under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

MPOW is going through some major changes this year – the library director retired this month, the institute has a new strategic plan, and I’m trying to figure out what the future holds for the library. It’s exciting but also a bit daunting because of the regular “why do we have a library?” questions, which are usually followed up with a, “isn’t that what Google is for?”

So with that on my mind, the recent post by the regularly insightful Sarah Glassmeyer entitled, “The Tech-Washing of Information Access” really hit home. My reaction was a raised fist in solidarity and a “duh”, but of course I deal with this issue daily. She describes the situation where technologists discuss solving information access issues, and yet not a single librarian is involved in the conversation. She ends with this:

I worry that grant monies and other capital (human and otherwise) is going into projects and schemes that may not go the distance needed when looking at information access and preservation issues. Fail fast and fail often is great, but not when institutions that have been around for hundreds of years are pushed out of the space and then, after failure, an information desert is left in the place where a library once stood. Yes, libraries should change to meet modern needs of information consumers, but how can that happen when we’re continually left out of the conversations that dictate what the important needs of the future are?

The way things are funded on a grant or project basis, long term access is hard to account for. The assumption is that somebody, either a vendor or non-profit, will maintain it. Good luck with that. When the project is no longer deemed profitable, valuable, or necessary, it will disappear. (RIP Google Reader!) Libraries and librarians have been in the business of figuring out how to maintain collections of things for the long-term as the world around us changes – keeping things going between the grants and funding cycles. We need to consider that just because the funding runs out or the topic is not longer in vogue, the utility of the information doesn’t disappear. Librarians, we need to be shouting this and getting it into the conversation. There are several technology folk out there who get it, and know they need to keep us in the loop. Unfortunately now with the ease of digital collections, lots of people think they get preservation and access from a library angle. It’s great until their attention moves on to something else, and we’re left with a gaping hole.

So that’s part of my explanation of why we still need a library. Of course funding is the other critical issue. If you know how to make “long term, reliable access and discovery” sound exciting, let me know!

Which then leads me to a tweet I saw this morning:

People love gushing over cool, old collections of stuff that have been saved, preserved, and digitized by libraries and archives. Take that cool shark painting I’m using for this post that was uploaded to Flickr by the Biodiversity Heritage Library. I’m happy they had the funding and support to do that. I am not happy that a lot of cool projects that leverage these efforts gloss over the work of libraries and archives. Ignoring or minimizing their contributions jeopardize their existence. In some ways it’s comforting to see that digital humanities are as bad at is as the sciences, but really it needs to stop.

Librarians – to serve, protect (and entertain)

flickr photo shared by North Carolina Digital Heritage Center under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

The role of librarians, libraries, why I’m a librarian, what’s the meaning of it all, and what the future holds has been weighing heavily on my head for a while. It kicked into a high gear this past fall when the institute I work for had its 10 year, external academic review. “Why is there a library?” was asked. “Because it was part of the original plan 60 years ago” is a terrible answer (and not the one I gave). The process of the review helped remind me why we’re here and remind those around us: We’re the collective memory. We preserve access for tomorrow. We have a broad view that fills the gaps of individual projects. That eye on yesterday, today, and tomorrow is critical in the library’s success.

This morning I read Sarah Glassmeyer’s post “What is a Librarian?” and it resonated with me. Her reframing of Ranganathan’s Five Laws Of Library Science are timely and make the reasons why they’re important more explicit. It also encapsulates a lot of my personal philosophies and motives which reminds me why was drawn to the profession, and why I tend to approach my hobbies the way I do. I don’t like books, but I love context, connections, and curation. These motivations have guided my approach to my work in transportation (and also my DJing).

To quote one of my favourite bands, I’m here “to serve, protect, and entertain.”

This ethical frame is even more pertinent this morning as Stewart Varner’s account of how his and Patricia Hswe’s article in American Libraries was hijacked by the editorial staff. From my reading, it seems that the editors at American Libraries really screwed the pooch in turning the article into an advertorial piece for a vendor without making it explicit with the authors, not apologizing, or making it clear. The discussion I’ve seen on Twitter and Facebook has been a mix of “American Libraries sucks!” (which I can’t speak to, since I don’t read it) and “vendors are the worst!”, which doesn’t totally seem to the be the case here but it also reflects the messy relationship with librarians, professional associations, and vendors.

Basically, we librarians are terrible at collectively standing up to vendors to treat us with respect, such as not doing advertorial bait and switches. Sometimes the rhetoric gets out of line, but at the core it’s the lack of trust and respect by all involved. If the products were good, fairly priced, and responsive to our needs, then it would be great. This is where professional associations would fill a great need – to facilitate broad industry negotiation. Perhaps I’ve been too involved with SLA, but I don’t see that ever happening. (You can read some of my concerns about “vendor partners” here.) We need to do better though if we actually want to protect. The interests of libraries should benefit as wide of an audience as possible – and that isn’t mutually exclusive with our late market capitalism. So when stuff like this goes down, speak up and address the issue in the moment. Right now it’s editorial transparency from a trad magazine. Tomorrow it will be something else. Keep going though, so we can continue to serve, protect (and entertain).

Remember when you were young? Avoiding generational conflict.

flickr photo shared by USDAgov under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

I’ve been thinking about generational conflict a lot lately – we just finished our annual fundraiser at the radio station, which is a time when volunteers new and old really get a chance to mingle. I had lots of great conversations with new undergrads about their classes, music they’re digging, and cat videos. I also sat through soliloquies from some veterans about how things used to be back when they were young. It was like those cliched “When I was your age…” tales only they didn’t allow for any dialog – just listening to stories about “the good old days”. It totally annoyed on several levels, but mostly the missed opportunity for the vets to learn from the rookies. We’re all pretty much on the same footing, and I don’t think the vets remember that.

Remember when you were young? Remember when you were first starting out?

I try to.

When I was first getting into libraries, I was totally one of those young guns who thought I knew more than anybody else and that we needed to raze the system and start new. I kind of went to library school out of spite to fix things that I thought reflected outdated ways of looking at libraries and information management. I’ve mellowed some, but I still think we need to make sure the voices of new professionals are heard. I worry about many SLA members not seeming to understand the worries, concerns, and issues of new librarians (or whatever you’re called).  Not only is it hard to feel heard, but the opportunities to learn and grow are often stifled. I sometimes wonder if it’s because human nature makes letting go of things difficult, or is this like a form of professional helicopter parenting?

I worry we’re going to drive away or wear down a generation of librarians through this ineffective management and poor communication. Mentorship should be able to address this to a degree, but it alone is not enough.

I try to be mindful of this as much as I can when working with others. We need to think about the opportunities we had (or wish we had), and how to make sure similar opportunities are available for coming generations. I’m talking about responsibilities, work, and professional growth. This little empathy and memory could go a long way.

So in my renewed effort to do something about it, I’m trying to figure out ways to work with a broad group of people who want to get stuff done to make the opportunities and learn from each other. I will also continue to try and give newer people a platform to speak their case to those who need to hear it. The hardest part, and most frustrating, is working through quagmires brought about from stale practices and poor documentation tactfully. Inertia is hard to overcome, but we need to push through it. If not for ourselves, but for those who will follow.


Don’t Be Like Me – On hypocritical advice

flickr photo shared by Blue Mountains Local Studies under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

Yesterday on Twitter I got into a discussion with one of the sagest librarians I know – Anna Creech – about being honest and realistic to aspirant librarians/archivists yet still promoting more diversity in the ranks. The conversation kind of ended with a well intentioned, but also kind of part of the problem LIS professor chimed in with some super Pollyannaish points. She’s not entirely wrong, but it also reflects a generational and situational issue where well intentioned advice from people who are established in their careers often misses the mark because the landscape has changed drastically post-2008. “Careers ain’t ever gonna knock.

This is a hard line to walk – I don’t want to tell kids, “There’s no future.” I also don’t want to make them think the road ahead is sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. One of my fears is that my natural cynicism (thanks mom) leads me to focus on what I don’t like about librarianship, and the troubles. Let’s face it – it’s not all doom, but the future isn’t quite rosy yet. I worry that I might throw up barriers to potential new librarians with my bad attitude, particularly people from diverse backgrounds this profession actively needs: non-hetere, non-white, non-cisgendered, first generation college educated, and so on. Balancing realism with encouragement given the budgets and changing missions of libraries is hard. But whatever, I went to school and got the job and I shouldn’t rain on other people’s parades because they want to do the same.

Instead of saying, “Don’t go to library school,” I’ll continue to suggest, “Get a job in a library.” Any undergrads reading this; seriously, get a campus library job. You’ll never have the opportunity for some paid experience that will help you understand what working in a library is actually about. I think for a lot of people the allure of libraries and archives as a workplace is based in a love of the familiar and nostalgia. A lot of people like libraries and archives because they’re cool places with interesting resources, and for the most part they aren’t evil. Since we’re a career-obsessed society, it makes sense that people feel the need to pick a career early and they’ll go with what they know. So when I tell people, “work in a library,” it’s not only because I know it will help them get jobs after they graduate school, but they’ll have a better notion of the different job functions and concerns. A lot of undergrads don’t get metadata or privacy yet. I hope it prepares them for the kind of work and the underlying philosophies that will ultimately help them be nimble as the ground shifts underfoot. We can’t talk about “new roles for info pros” when many LIS school students don’t even know what roles info pros hold beyond the obvious.

The bigger issue for me is making sure I’m not yet another hypocrite when talking to new professionals. This is a trend that I see too often that the advice from established professionals to students and job seekers is clueless and lacks a certain empathy and self-awareness. The advice focuses on what they feel is important and what they feel should be important, but they seem to forget what it was like to be in school trying to figure out life, or getting an entry level position. That’s totally human nature, but also sounds like they’re trying to pull the drawbridge up on the profession. Myopic. More about that later though.


Why I’m Still In SLA: Big tents and hive minds

flickr photo shared by brizzle born and bred under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

I feel bad about using a pic of Teddies when I have always leant to the Mods, but I think this is a good pic of group cohesion and defiance.

This week the results of the SLA elections were announced this week; Dee Magnoni will be SLA President in 2017. Congratulations to Dee and all the other winners. Commiserations and thanks to all the also rans. Tucked at the end of the official announcement of the election results was a restructuring of the dues structure. The synopsis is that student member dues increase from $40 to $50, retired member dues increase from $40 to $100 (unless you’ve been a continuous member for 45 years), and the new rate of $100 for unemployed members will only be for a year. Members can read a more detailed explanation.

People have reached out to me over email and Twitter to express their concern about the new dues structure, the process, and the future of SLA. I kind of have that feeling of inevitability about it all. We knew dues had to increase because we’re broke, we just didn’t know what it would look like. Now we do. I’m not going to nitpick the changes because I’m not qualified to really speak on association finances and that ship has sailed. These are part of the approved roadmap, so the process has already been set. If anything, I expect more changes like this down the pike. Bitter pills to swallow as we have to adapt to get through this really hard time or fall apart.

One of my good SLA chums who’s still a member (not one of of my good SLA chums who already jumped ship) asked me why I’m still involved with SLA. I’ll admit it’s hard to answer when I don’t agree with the board or many other members of the association. Honestly, in many ways the situation reminds me of Social Security – we pay into it, and try to support it, but those ahead of us in power are making it go bust and there’s not much we can do about it. It is frustrating that many members who likely had the best of intentions couldn’t give up notions of 1995 quickly enough and now SLA is deep in a hole and the path out sucks. Whatever, it’s happened.

So why am I still a member today? The same reason John Cotton Dana organized a group of special librarians – this is the group where I can meet and work with librarians in similar positions and organizations. As a soon-to-be solo librarian in a research library who has to do everything, it’s an obvious fit. I think the reason I still see the value is that I ascribe to a very big tent idea of the profession. You work with information and metadata? DAMS? Whatever you call yourself, you’re probably librarian enough for SLA. I try to look beyond the specifics of my particular situation to learn from everybody, and SLA is the best group I know of for that. It’s the wisdom of the hive mind.

That’s just me though.

To people dropping out, I understand. The value is hard to justify and it does take effort to engage with members (inside or outside your units). I really want to make more ad hoc groups within SLA, but that takes energy and is hard to organize. I do think we, SLA members, can do some great stuff organically. We don’t need to wait for the Board of Directors or HQ to bless it. Members working with members. That’s networking and that’s relatively cheap.

The other thing that concerns me about this is egos. Like the Beach Boys sang on Pet Sounds, “Hang on to your ego.” What do I mean by that? Let stuff go. I think lots of people want similar things for SLA, but we’re focused on details which often sound like another song, Nirvana’s  “Territorial Pissings.” We need to innovate, try things, break things, experiment! That means we need to get over ourselves and any feelings of ownership that are throwing up barriers.

So people who want to change stuff, let’s try and fail and try again and eventually succeed. I know that’s valuable professional development right there.