Research can be hard. That’s okay.

Joe Hardenbrook has written a great post on the issue of making (re)search exciting or fun, which you should all read.  It drives home some opinions that I bet a lot of us share, mainly being that research isn’t necessarily exciting.  And that any “excitement potential” held in a research project is dependent more on the subject matter and the researcher than it is in any tool at hand.  Kudos to Joe for speaking plainly and truthfully on this subject.

This “make research fun” issue is something that I often struggle with, especially when reading some LIS blogs and Twitter streams that veer into the subject.  “How do I make research exciting?”  “How can I make this assignment fun?”  “How can I keep them interested enough to see all of ProQuest’s search refinements?”  “Will they pay more attention in my one-shot if I launch into a stand-up comedy routine?”  I don’t buy into the argument underlying questions like those.  I’ll speak candidly here: I do not believe that it’s our job to make research “fun.”

I’m not a killjoy at work, and I promise that Steeleworthy’s Office Hours is not all doom and gloom, but neither am I some one who is going to pretend that research is something it’s not. Research is work.  Research can be frustrating.  Even for the best researchers on the planet, research can be difficult.  The advice and consultation I give can definitely help researchers of all kinds (students, faculty, staff, community members, etc) make their research more efficient by systematizing their work and improving their search precision, and this will make their work easier had they not spoken to me first. If our researcher’s excitement or interest is piqued in the research process – if they found cheap thrills as librarians and archivists do when they’ve found the needle in the haystack – then I’m thrilled and I know I’ve done my job. But “excitement” should not be our primary measure here.  Our main purpose (our main duty) is to collect the best of the world’s information, master its systems, and then help others access this information and master the systems themselves.

What it comes down to for me is how we present ourselves and our work to our users.  Our users don’t expect us to be fun-makers.  Our users come to us because they need help finding stuff.  If we can put a smile on their face along the way, then we’re doing them a service, but only if we’ve helped them find that information in the first place.

I’m going to end this by quoting Joe:

I’m a realist: Will they be excited? Chances are, no. But will they think the research process seems a little more doable and will they be willing to seek help? Yes.

We’re here to help people master research. In many ways, the library is where the job gets done at university. I really do hope that everyone enjoys their work, whatever their work is. And I also hope that everyone enjoys the classes they are enrolled in and the assignments they are working on. But those assignments are still work, and I don’t want to play down the effort required to get the job done.  I have an excellent demeanour with my users and I’m confident that many of them see me as a team player who will help them through their research. But I won’t lie to them. I’m not going to say that some one is going to have a blast writing an essay when really they just want to have watched last night’s season premiere of Revenge.  Instead, I speak honestly to my users. “Is this going to be work?” Yes, probably.  “Is it going to take some time?” Yes, likely.  “Is it going to be the worst thing to ever happen in my life?” Not at all.  “Are there tools and techniques I can use to make my work more efficient?” Yes, definitely.  “Can you help me?” Yes, obviously. I am already.

September Projects, 2013

I’m stating the obvious by telling you that September is a busy month in academics.  The start of the school calendar changes the mood, tempo, and pulse of a university campus, and it shifts things at the library into full gear as we roll out all programming and services. Here are a few of the things I’ve been contributing to lately, which has kept me busy in a good way (as opposed to the bad kind of busy).

Changing liaison duties

I’ve taken on liaison duties in Sociology and Social Work while a colleague is on sabbatical this year, and I’m also part of a group that is expanding the Library’s services to the University’s students who are cross-registered at the Balsillie School of International Affairs.  This has already translated to a large increase in my in-class instruction, especially for Social Work, which is its own Faculty and has its own small library. Taking on these subject-based duties has been a great opportunity since they’ve given me greater everyday contact with faculty and researchers whose work touches on socio-economic data or would benefit from research data management support and consultation.  Simply put, it’s a lot easier to push data management planning when you already have a built-in relationship with the researcher, so I expect my subject-based work in Sociology and Social Work to benefit our RDM programme.

Outreach to Faculty and Students

This term, I’m offering a full slate of seminars on research data management, bibliometrics, and data access through the library. I developed these seminars with a graduate student/faculty audience in mind, partly to help the Library increase its presence within graduate programming and in the university’s research enterprise. While I don’t expect large numbers because this is the first time in a few terms that we developed a suite of seminars with graduate or faculty research in mind,  I do hope they begin to build on our growing profile as a center of research facilitation on campus.  (This could be a blog post in its own right; I may have to write more on it in the future.)

Citation management

Our Library has taken a close look at RefWorks and has also considered what kinds of citation management systems our users use.  What we’ve known all along is that many people use RefWorks and many people do not.  We asked ourselves why we commit our support only to one service when our users will always work with their personal preferences in mind, and we decided that giving information and advice on RefWorks alone just doesn’t cut it.  If we are to support or know something about citation management and research management, then we shouldn’t limit ourselves to only one tool.  Going forward, our library is now supporting RefWorks, Zotero, and Mendeley by offering instructional sessions, consultation, and in some cases, even research collaboration between the researcher and the librarian through these tools

Data and Statistics

Don’t think that this project or the next (RDM) are subordinated to the others I’ve mentioned because they’re at the bottom of this list.  That’s far from the truth as both areas have seen significant change in the past few months.  On the Data and Stats side alone, data librarians in Canada are busy dealing with a new EULA for Canada Post postal code products (e.g., the PCCF) and what it means for researcher access and use. This issue alone has eaten up probably half of my time in the past two weeks since the new EULA changes long-standing practices for researchers who use these products, and the library, which administers licences on their behalf. A lot of time has been given to consultation within the data community and within the library to produce new practices, and I’m now rolling out a PR and education campaign.  If you are Laurier faculty and use postal code products, be on the look out for more news on this very shortly.  If you’re faculty at another university in Canada, you may want to contact your own data librarian.

Research data management

RDM has been the largest part of my work at Laurier.  We’ve been developing a research data management programme, based largely on consultative support that helps researchers and research groups learn about and then develop flexible data management plans that speak to their current and future research needs.  Next month, I’ll be attending CASRAI’s ReConnect2013 conference to build upon my current knowledge and to see and learn what others are doing in this area across Canada and in other jurisdictions.  We have a couple of RDM projects on the go already, and I would like to increase that number on campus since the service the Library provides offers clear benefits to the researchers in terms of meeting funding obligations, providing research management planning, and improving access to and citation of produced work after the research has ended.  Laurier researchers: let’s chat.

The Beastie Boys Library Sabotage Mashup

While I generally don’t get too geared up for zany library funtimes (because I want people to take me seriously since I do serious work), this video is definitely worth watching.  It mashes up one of the greatest bands of the late 20th century with a little LIS:

Happy Monday!  Now everyone go listen to favourite Beastie Boys album on rdio

 

Work with me: Limited Term Business Librarian Opening

The Laurier Library is searching for great candidates for another limited term posting.  We have a 1-year, limited term part-time appointment for a Business and Economics Librarian at our Waterloo campus.  Working with our other Business and Economics Librarian, the person who takes on this position will hit the ground running and be quite busy interacting with the School of Business and Economics – the largest faculty at Wilfrid Laurier University.

I promise that this would be an incredible learning opportunity for new or recent grads, and also a chance to gain and build upon your existing experience with business and economics librarianship. 

The Laurier Library : We Mean Business
The Laurier Library : We Mean Business

Business and Economics students at Laurier work with stats and data quite a bit, so I expect to collaborate often with who ever fills this position.  I’m happy to answer any general questions you might have about the posting, the university, and living in Waterloo, Ontario.

See our Business Librarian posting here.  The application deadline is August 5, so start moving on this one soon.

-Michael.

Recently published : Incorporating Online Instruction in Academic Libraries

Here’s my opportunity to influence all of your summer reading lists. The article that I co–authored with my colleague, Pauline Dewan, Incorporating Online Instruction in Academic Libraries: Getting Ahead of the Curve, has just been published in the Journal of Library & Information Services in Distance Learning.

These children are using a computer to help them solve their homework problems

This (with other reports, presentations, and articles), is the culmination of a large project Pauline and I undertook to assess our Library’s online teaching and learning programme in 2012. During the course of that project, we conducted a thorough literature review and analysis of the state of online instruction in our library, and generally in North America. The recommendations we made regarding goal formation, acquiring stakeholder buy-in, technological formats and delivery, and organizational change, can speak well to many libraries’ online teaching and learning programmes.

We also have an extensive bibliography that touches on policy, analysis, information literacy, and organizational behaviour – check this out because we’ve done a lot of heavy lifting, which may you help you in your own work.

Happy reading,

-m

Making Things Happen and Getting Things Done

This post has been a long time in the making. Several weeks ago, my fellow librarian and friend, Meg Ecclestone, wrote about maintaining subject expertise in LIS. This is a good topic to discuss in any profession, but it’s especially so within academic librarianship since we’re constantly interacting with researchers from so many different fields. Of course, how exactly a librarian should maintain subject expertise is not a new concern that’s recently bubbled to the surface, so I won’t speak too much about it, especially since Meg did a good job summarizing some tips on this issue. Instead, it got me thinking about Making Things Happen and Getting Things Done (which are two unofficial slogans of the MLIS programme at Dalhousie University’s School of Information Management).

At the heart of things, Meg was talking about professional development. How do you stay ahead of the game? How do you keep up with new developments in your field, or how do you stay proficient in your work? Some professions require constant credential re-certification (which is a good thing – think about that the next time you’re in hospital), while others have a more informal approach. Recently, I’ve been fortunate enough to have started a new position, so I’ve had a number of conversations with people about how to keep your skills sharp and find positive gain. For those of you looking for a quick way out of this post, know that the answer is found in hard work and perseverance. For those of you looking for detail, I offer some advice, below. These suggestions are not new, profound, or original. But I think they bear repeating because they are so consequential to getting ahead and finding personal fulfillment on the job.

Steeleworthy’s Advice on Making Things Happen and Getting Things Done (Regardless of Your Profession)

  • Meet People.

Whatever you want to do in life, you’ll never get to do it unless you get out there and meet people. Most people are good people, most people want to meet other people, and most people want other people to succeed. We are social creatures. People like to share knowledge, expertise, and experience, so you have a lot to gain by going to events, arranging informational interviews, and developing a presence on social media. The message here is clear: meeting people helps you learn things and do things. You stand to live and work in an echo chamber if you do not meet others inside and outside the library. And you never know what sort of opportunity these new colleagues might bring. If you are not convinced, I invite you to read Graham Lavender’s post on how networking brought clear gains to his everyday life.

  • Do Things (or: Make Mistakes) (or: Learn).

My advice is to just do things. Understand that some mistakes will happen along the way, and that is okay. Do not be afraid to try a new workflow, to take on a new project, or to state an opinion. If you don’t give yourself the opportunity to try new things, it will be very difficult to master anything at all. I promise you that you will make mistakes. There will be times when you will do something wrong or will be completely misinformed. But so long as you keep yourself open to new ideas and are willing to treat these experiences as learning moments, you will likely come out ahead in the long run. Have faith in your ability to get the job done and in your colleagues’ ability to offer help and guidance along the way. And remember, there is no try. Only do. It’s cliché now, but it’s true.

  • Read. Write. Learn.

I don’t care if you prefer the scroll to the codex or the stone tablet to the electronic tablet; your preference for format is inconsequential. What matters is that you read. You must read and you must stay informed on advances and arguments and debates in your field. But it doesn’t end there. For the love of all things holy and sacred in your world, write. Reading the latest material and the classic volumes is not going to get you anywhere if you cannot explain your opinions on the subject matter. The act of writing will help you understand what you have read, and it will help you express your thoughts on the matter. This is why I blog. When I blog, I force myself to think closely about a subject and to express an opinion. That opinion may be wrong or misinformed at times (see: Do Things, above), but it’s part of the learning experience. Reading – and writing – is how you can take command of your subject matter. So start a journal or a blog, or create a Tumblr to get all your thoughts in one place (like commonplace books of old). And consider writing for publication. You will be better for it, and you will help others better themselves, too.

  • Form Opinions.

Open mouth, insert foot. This kid is going in for the kill.

This is related to reading and writing, but it’s important enough to be its own action. It’s important that you formulate opinions on topics, and not only in your writing. Remember to speak up, be heard, and contribute to the teams you are a part of. The workplace is a team environment and people are going to want to know what you think. Don’t worry too much about being misinformed. It’s worse to be stubborn than it is to be misinformed, because those who are misinformed still have the chance of taking in the bigger picture and learning an issue fully. I want you, whoever you are right now, to not be afraid to open your mouth and insert your foot at your next meeting.  You can always take your foot out and apologize and learn from the mistake (see: Do things, above).

  • Ask Questions and Take Advice (See Also: Meet People).

When you’re new to the workplace or the field, you will be surrounding yourself with people who have a lot of knowledge to share, so pick up this wisdom whenever you can. Show yourself as willing to listen and learn (be willing to listen and learn, for that matter). Don’t be afraid to ask questions; there are no stupid questions. And though you may have to schedule a different time, never turn down an invitation for coffee with a colleague. Listening to people and taking advice are the first steps you can take to turn your book-smarts to street-smarts.

  • Make goals, set timelines, and assess your work.

I’m not asking that you let Google Calendar rule your life. I am suggesting that you’ll never get something done until you turn it into something you can work toward and schedule time for. And be prepared to assess your work. Don’t aim for perfection on all things or you will start suffering from the law of diminished returns. Instead, aim for excellence, pat yourself on the back when you get it, and evaluate how you can do better the times you wish you did.

So there you are: good pieces of advice to live by. I’ll summarize it all by mentioning the official slogan from the university where I took my BA: Age quod agis, or, What you do, do wellI am certainly no wunderkind in my field and I don’t profess to be one at all. But I do give it my all at work to carry my load, contribute to the team, learn from my colleagues, and make a difference in my field.  And there is fulfillment in that.

The former director of my library school once playfully remarked that many people are ultimately hired based on whether the hiring committee wants to work with them at 8:30 on a Monday morning, and I think there’s some truth to that. So many of my suggestions above are social in nature. They are about learning from and contributing to the workplace.  And that’s how you make things happen and get things done: find your niche and do whatever you can to make a meaningful contribution and to make yourself amenable to your peers.  That’s how you make positive results for yourself in the end.

Thoughts on CARL’s Research Data Management Course

Last month, I attended CARL’s 4-day course on Research Data Management Services in Toronto. (Jargon alert: CARL is the Canadian Association of Research Libraries). This was an intensive week of collaborating on research data management (RDM) practices and creating a community of practice within Canadian academic librarianship. Our concern for sound RDM practices at Canadian universities brought together librarians with all kinds and levels of expertise so that we could share tools and develop action plans that will make a positive impact in this field.

1. Research Data Management, Data Lifecycles, and Research Data Lifecycles

What is research data management? I won’t go into textbook-detail suffice to say we’re talking about systematic practices that govern how research data are defined, organized, collected, used and conserved before, during, and after the research process. That sentence is a mouthful and it covers a lot of ground, so I suggest you look to Chuck Humphrey’s Research Data Management Infrastructure (RDMI) site for a more focused definition. Chuck is hailed in Canada for his data management expertise, and he led many sessions at the workshop. He explains that:

Research data management involves the practices and activities across the research lifecycle that involve the operational support of data through design, production, processing, documentation, analysis, preservation, discovery and reuse.  Collectively, these data-related activities span the stages of project-based research as well as the extended stages that tend to be institutionally based.  The activities are about the “what” and “how” of research data. (source)

Chuck’s website is a great introduction to the existing RDM gap in Canada, and we referred to it several times in the course. It neatly summarizes key information such as the shaky progress and history of RDM in Canada, where the Canadian RDM community stands in the world today, the differences between data management and data stewardship, and why the Canadian research community should focus its attention on building infrastructure to support RDM as opposed to building a national institution to guide it.

The Data Lifecycle (Source: UK Data Archive)
The Data Lifecycle (Source: UK Data Archive)

Beyond talking about what RDM is and isn’t, we spent a lot of time studying where RDM sits within the research lifecycle. Many people are familiar with the data lifecycle model since it introduces us to the many facets of data management, however, the CARL course proposed that we instead examine data management practices as an integral part of the larger research lifecycle. Rather than focusing only on data at the expense of the larger research project, the course facilitators asked us to apply RDM within the entire research process, using the following model from the University of Virginia:

Research Lifecycle (Source: UVa Library
Research Lifecycle (Source: UVa Library)

The salient point is that research data management isn’t limited to only the data life cycle; it affects the entire research process. (A simple example: data management strategies should be discussed well before data are created or collected.). Furthermore, if we want to develop sound RDM practices, we need to think like the researcher, understand the researcher’s needs, and include our work within their processes. If you’re not working with the researcher, then your RDM plan isn’t working.

2. Local RDM Drivers and Activities

If understanding what research data management is and where it affects the research process was one takeaway of the course, analyzing our local data environments was another:

  • RDM drivers, such as your library’s consortial collaborations, number of staff, existing IT relationships, administrative support, etc., are the parameters that shape and support your local RDM programme.
  • The activities in your RDM programme, meanwhile can be broadly categorized into the four areas: collection, access, use, and preservation (note: activities can fall into more than one category, and the order is not linear).

Discussing the things that affect our data landscapes and the activities we could perform helped us understand what is possible at our own libraries. I think a lot of us found this useful because all of our unique circumstances (e.g., library and university sizes, existing infrastructure and knowledge, etc.) can make RDM a bit nebulous at times. Although our focus is the same – RDM – our individual goals and aims might be different – are we building our technical capability, or are we designing soft systems that focus on relationships? Are we only collecting new locally created data, or will we also gather existing, completed projects?  The answers are going to depend on your local situation.

RDM activities within the research process.
RDM activities within the research process.

 The course facilitators were careful to help participants understand RDM as a necessarily scalable enterprise. Don’t create a monster RDM plan. Instead, contextualize your local RDM drivers and your library’s capabilities and desires so that you can mitigate the risks of creating an RDM plan that doesn’t fit your organization. The aim is to create a system and process that brings clear benefits to the researchers.

3. Planning… and Doing

The final takeway from the CARL RDM course, which you may have noticed I’ve been building up to, was straight-up, no-nonsense, get’er-done planning. The course facilitators built opportunities for real action into the course, which is probably one of the best parts of the week. Generally speaking, the academic enterprise undertakes a lot of talk and high-level planning before things happen.  This is often a good thing (read: I demand critical inquiry), but it can also stifle action (read: I despise institutional inertia). However, this CARL course found a way to bring together discussion and action. It gave us theory, but it demanded practice. Before the week was out, we had all talked about 3-year planning, considered how such a plan might look locally, and started to write one. Of course, these drafts aren’t ready for prime time, but my point is that before I came back to the office on Monday, I already had written the skeleton of a research data management plan that shows my library’s potential RDM activities and stakeholders, outlines activities and scopes, and offers timelines and deliverables. It didn’t make me an expert (and neither do I claim to be one), but it did offer some tools to help the library step out and make positive change.

So was the CARL RDM course money well spent? It sure was.  It’s not too often you come back from an event with a new community of practice, insight on a vital part of the research enterprise, and a plan to put everything in action. Hat’s off to the course facilitators for putting on such a great week – I think you’ve started something necessary, and good, for Canadian research.

(And some time next week, I’ll start gathering up some of the key readings from some of the bibliographies they presented us…  I’ll try not to turn the next post into a lit review, but it may come close to it.)

Reflecting on 2012

Porter Airlines Boarding Passes2012 has come and gone, and it’s been quite a year.  If you’ve been following along on this blog or elsewhere, then you probably know that my theme for these past twelve months has been “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” Since starting a term position as Government Information Librarian at Wilfrid Laurier University, I split my time between Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Waterloo, Ontario. So, not only do the students at the Library’s Second Cup know my name and face, but so do some of the stewards and other professionals at Porter Airlines in Toronto. I’m now part of the jet-set, and I can also rhyme off CANSIM tables to you like nobody’s business.

Taking on a new position in a new city (and new province) means that there has been a lot of learning and adjustment. A new job brings new duties and new work cultures.  And a new city means new roads and neighbourhoods, new cafés and pubs, and new local cultures.  I’ve traded in a Maritime hospitality built on lobster, rum, and sea shanties for Kitchener-Waterloo’s beer, schnitzel, and breads. (and I love bread.  Not kidding). Waterloo has pockets of cool, and I’m getting on quite well here.

I love my job. It has met – and exceeded – my expectations. As the Government Information Librarian, I help the university community access and use government-produced materials in their research. All of last spring’s cuts to the federal government, and especially to Statistics Canada, LAC, and to libraries within federal ministries definitely dampened the spirits of Canadian GovDoc librarians in 2012, but I’m still happy that I’ve been able to help my library’s patrons understand what the cuts mean for them and their research – today and in the future. If anything, these cutbacks have increased the need for local government publications expertise at Canadian universities, and I think the government information librarian’s role on campus is now more important than ever.

My favourite part of this position has been my work with statistics and data. Like many university libraries across Canada, responsibility for socio-economic data at the Laurier Library lies largely with the Government Information Librarian since so many of our statistical resources come from Statistics Canada.  (You can read more about the relationship between StatCan and academic libraries here. This paper by Wendy Watkins and Ernie Boyko should be required reading at library schools in Canada). I’ve long wanted to practice in this field, and I saw this posting as my opportunity to work regularly with the data skills I’ve developed through the years, and to learn even more from a whole new group of data librarians. Nearly all my favourite interactions with faculty, students, and other stakeholders in 2012 are data-related, from helping students acquire data on migration to the far north, to meeting with community members and legislators to explore nation-wide open data initiatives. These are the moments where I see my skills and expertise in librarianship put to action, and the positive contribution I make on campus puts a spring in my step. Data librarianship is an essential part of the academic enterprise; I’ve given a lot of effort in this area, worked and learned from the right people, and made gains for the library and the university. So, I’m willing to smile and say “yeah, I did that, but with the help of my friends, too.”

Scholars Portal HomeWhen it comes to adjustments, I have to say that the thing that took the longest to get used to was the new jurisdiction. I say this to all librarians, young and old, green and experienced: you will never really know how important your consortium is to your daily work until you join a new one. When I moved from Nova Scotia to Ontario, I left the Council of Atlantic University Libraries, ASIN, and NovaNet, and I joined forces with the Ontario Council of University Libraries, Scholars Portal, and TUG.  Now, my online resources are different. The OPAC is different. ILL is different. Committees are different. Organizational cultures and funding are different. Conferences and workshops are different. Support channels are different. Let me be clear: everything changes when your work takes you to a new consortium. Libraries really do things better when they work together. We’re stronger this way. But it’s not until you shift to a new jurisdiction that you’ll be reminded several times daily just how much effort colleagues at your library and at other institutions have put into making things work better, faster, and cheaper for everyone. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

The best example I can give to demonstrate this is <odesi>. Built and managed by Scholars Portal, ODESI is an essential part of socio-economic data discovery at Ontario universities. It is a repository of StatCan DLI-restricted surveys, and it also houses extensive polling data that stretches back decades in some cases. Using the Nesstar data dissemination platform, it helps novice and experience users find information from these surveys and polls, right down to the variable, and it also helps new users perform some statistical functions they may not otherwise have the knowledge to do. ODESI is a vital part of my work and I use it to access survey data almost daily during the school term. But prior to taking this position last winter, I had no access to it since most university libraries in Nova Scotia rely on the Equinox data delivery system out of Western Libraries. Moving to a new jurisdiction meant that not only did my committees and consortial colleagues change, but so too did my tools and resources, and I had to learn how to use new ones – fast. Today, I don’t know how I ever got on without ODESI. But last winter, ODESI was completely new to me because I hadn’t ever worked at an OCUL university. I have great colleagues at Laurier, and they gave me time to get to know this vital tool, but until I moved to Ontario and joined a new consortium, this was a foreign resource.

(For what it’s worth, ODESI, and the people behind it at Scholars Portal have done so much heavy lifting for students and faculty at Ontario university libraries, and I’m grateful I can use this resource and learn on their expertise. I’m also grateful that I can lean on province-wide and regional data committees for help and advice. This is a big shout-out and thanks to some great people out there – you know who you are.)

This is where the post peters out into vague resolutions and outlooks for the new year.  How will 2013 differ from 2012?  Well, I hope to not fly so much (the lustre wears off quickly), and I hope to get involved in more professional activities again. I also plan on finding new ways to up my game at work.  This will involve taking some courses and hopefully using more streaming communications tools to meet with students and faculty. We’ll see where it goes. Happy 2013!.

Link: Measuring a library’s holdings based on its “uniqueness”

Here’s a Monday morning link for all y’all. Dan Cohen notes an interesting way to measure a library’s holdings : by evaluating the collection’s “uniqueness.”

This may be an interesting metric that could be useful at the local-consortial level? I’ll let the Collections Librarians answer that, though.  Read it here:

Dan Cohen: Visualizing the Uniqueness, and Conformity, of Libraries

Adapting to a changed world

A funny thing happened while Mark Lamster was writing about how libraries are more popular than ever for Metropolis Magazine.  Well, two funny things happened.  First, he didn’t really give enough evidence to prove his claim.  And second, he rhymed off the different ways that libraries have manifested themselves through the ages.

(I’m not going to fault Lamster for not sufficiently explaining his popularity claim since I assume that an editor wrote the headline. Besides, this is from a news site that is focused on architecture as opposed to information science. His concern lies elsewhere.)

I think all librarians need to read this article.  And I don’t mean that everyone should skim it between e-mails. I mean everyone should sit down and read it.  It won’t take long to do, I promise, so you don’t have to give me the tl;dr line. What’s so important about this article is that an outside observer is speaking to other outside observers about what libraries have looked like in the ages-old past, in the recent past and present, and what they will look like in the future. Lamster’s article inadvertently explains that the library as so many of us like to think of it – as a wondrous cathedral of knowledge and public reading room – is only a recent understanding of the term. Rather, libraries have been closed buildings with closed stacks and difficult-to-use technologies for centuries. Libraries have been loci of state power much longer than they’ve ever been the democratic, open, free spaces we think of them today. But as society shifted to become freer and more egalitarian, so did the nature of the library shift to become what we know it to be today. And libraries will change again, and again, to meet the needs and opportunities that future users bring.

I’m linking to Lamster’s article because I want to stress that libraries are not defined wholly by their collections. I don’t think that libraries must be filled with books in order to have any use to the world. Libraries with books are great. Libraries with books are beautiful, wondrous things, actually. But have no need to fear the library that has fewer books compared to x years ago. Libraries with fewer books can still be information hubs and community centres. A library that gives up stack space for meeting rooms and research space, that moves books off-site to make way for local business support centres or for information portals such as geospatial data centres, language labs, digitization centres, local collections, archives, etc., is still a useful space that serves the public good.

There’s a good chance some you will object or reserve judgment since the jury is still out on the long-term viability of collection models the prioritize access to licensed material rather than purchasing content outright. Some of the people Lamster interviewed also expressed consternation that libraries are adapting to the digital world in ways that don’t suit them. That’s okay: we can continue Whither Print? debate another time.  My argument is not whether collecting print is good or bad.  My argument is that we must honestly come to terms, as a profession, with the effects that advances in information technology has on our services and spaces. The world around us has changed, full stop. Online information repositories have increased in number and become easier to access, and our users now keep Internet access devices (read: smartphones) in their pockets where ever they go, so libraries must continue adapt.

Don’t fear change, fellow librarians, and don’t fear technology.  Embrace it, because your users have done so already. It’s better for us to be part of the online access movement and be able to guide its direction than to react to it. Let’s build and be present in the networks that link people, the places they inhabit (physical and digital), and the information they seek in their lives.

Part of me is cringing since I’m typing this today, in 2012.  And another part of me wonders if writing this on a blog will only preach to the converted.  That may be so.  But I feel a need to continue flying the flag and to declare what our role can be in this online environment.  I hope you do, too.