Find the edge, push it

Back in February, I participated in a SirsiDynix Institute round table with Steven Abram, Michael Stephens and Michael Casey. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but I came away with the impression that we’d barely scratched the surface on a number of questions Steven asked. Time was limited and the format and venue just didn’t accommodate everything that could have been said. That, of course, is one of the reasons why we have blogs: to follow-up and extend.

One of the questions posed to the panel was, where can Library 2.0 make a difference now? Where is the action?

I had mentioned four particular areas where I thought L2 could be a change agent: technology, policy, programming, physical spaces. It’s important to note that these four areas of change are in no way inherently “library 2.0″–just a part of the conversation. I think it’s also important for me to admit that beyond technology, I really cannot write with any authority about policy, programming, or physical spaces, but I can identify good elements in each and voice an my opinion as to what I believe is good practice in each realm.

It’s difficult to have a conversation about what’s new in librarianship these days without bumping into terms like RFID, blog, wiki, and IM. There’s little doubt that technology is poised to play a defining role in the future of librarianship. The question is how, to what degree, and what will it look like? I certainly see perils–some of which have already manifested themselves, *cough* .. RFI .. *cough* D … I think we run the risk of chasing our tails in a frenzied loop, driven by tech for tech’s sake. Always remember that when considering new technology, be mindful of “the process”–your existing methods and how new technology will impact it. After all, we share a relationship with technology, we don’t own it. If we’re unrealistic about that relationship and where it’s going to go, we run the risk of burning ourselves in a flash of limerent passion.

So, what is the good stuff? As always, my response is, “that depends”. Lately I’ve been beating the OPAC drum because I believe it’s a fundamental library tool that’s being neglected and passed over for more interesting or hip technologies. I believe in the socialPAC–we’ll see where that goes, though. Michael Stephens does an inordinate amount of work trying to get libraries to adopt blogging. We’ve realized some very positive returns from our blogging initiative at AADL. In less that a year, we’ve managed to accumulate a sizable archive of quality content that belongs to us and invites community involvement. The model works and it adds tremendous value to our organization.

APIs have become vogue and we’re seeing both the term and the technology itself sink into the library vernacular–at least in the blogosphere among library techies. I think the fact that we’ve witnessed some real successes with technologies like mashups, metadata and microformat-based tools has given rise to a general acceptance that the API is a critical business tool. I’m keen to see what arises from projects like unAPI and OpenURL. The idea here is to get away from technology that no longer works well, or doesn’t live up to today’s computing standards.

I don’t want to speak much on hardware, because that is a bit of a sticky wicket. The problem with hardware is that it’s always there and I really don’t believe that hardware provides as much ROI as the judicious use of software can. As long as you have the right hardware for the job and enough power to drive your applications, you’re set. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be experimenting and researching ways to use new hardware–we just need to be careful because hardware vendors often promise one thing while practicality demonstrates another–tablet PC, anyone?

I’m grateful to the administrators who toil over policy development. Well, I’m grateful to them when they produce policy that makes sense! I’ve always been of the opinion that if the majority of people ignore a particular policy, it’s bad–I think there is a little bit of acknowledgement of that going on these days as we look around and see a number of institutions relaxing rules and taking the opportunity to foster environments that are more inviting and less punitive. AADL, for example, now allows patrons to enjoy a beverage anywhere in the library so long as it has a lid. The old stereotype of the cranky librarian shushing anyone who dares to converse above a whisper is slowly eroding. I’d like to see fines disappear–some libraries are adopting very lax fine policies. Fines do nothing but scare off potential users and disenfranchise those who have accrued a balance. Friendly phone calls ought to accompany invoices. Your facilities could have all the right components for an immersive library experience, but if the policies are suffocating, expect users to go elsewhere.

While we’re at it, reconsidering organizational structure is not a bad idea. My guess is that a more Google-like approach to staffing in key areas may help foster innovation. In other words, libraries might benefit from flattening out the organization structure of its employees in areas where new ideas are being developed and tested. Staff members need to have a realistic sense that they can approach anyone else in the organization with ideas and proposals instead of scheming up ways of floating them through layers of bureaucracy with the fear that they may be trampling on someones toes. Bureaucracy is an innovation killer.

Good policy can also pave the way for radical transformation in programming. In addition to the regularly-scheduled programs like story times and computer classes, I’m continuously impressed with the quality of guest speakers and other events our community relations department puts together. Programming is such an important tool for reminding your community that the library is alive, full of hope and opportunity. Lately, with the addition of gaming juggernauts like AADL-GT, we’re seeing an upsurge in the amount and quality of teen programming in libraries everywhere. Teen programming is tremendously vogue right now and is vital to the fiscal health of our libraries in the future. We ought to be hiring and encouraging the very best teen librarians we possibly can right now–they need to be courageous, energetic visionaries, much like our own Erin Hemlrich (who ought to be blogging!). Courageous, because aside from the perceived taboos that need to be broken in order to get teens excited about the library, getting teens excited is not easy–it takes guts to engage those hypercritical hormone-factories. Gaming programs have a huge potential for return, if done right. Eli Neiburger and Erin have put together a gaming initiative that would knock your head off if you saw it–it’s so good that it actually impresses the kids who come to it. And come they do–well over a hundred participants often show up for events.

Programming is also receptive to the adaptation of new technologies. Creative and judicious use of streaming audio/video, VoIP, wifi, electronic signage, even our own existing databases can yield results that look highly produced and professional. Attention to detail and a mindset that demands quality will create a product that our users will respect, and in turn, they will feel respected by us. True, money plays into a lot of these programs, but not always, and not as much as one might expect by looking at the finished product–be wily and get it done right!

We’ve just successfully opened the new Pittsfield Branch Library–the latest addition to the AADL system. It’s a beautiful library–my favorite so far. In addition to bright, airy, open stacks and a quiet reading room with a fire place that overlooks protected wetlands, it features a generous kids area replete with toys and game computers. Also, directly in the center of the building is an interactive Bernoulli machine exhibit–a joint venture between AADL and the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum. The exhibit allows visitors (mostly the children) to press a pneumatic button that launches balls up a 20 foot tube where they are shot out into a spiral funnel that winds the balls back down another tube into a collection chamber with a spinning disc that sends the balls careening over buttons that light up various panels. The balls then fall back into a pinball-like queue where they can be launched, once again. It’s really quite impressive. I also think it was a courageous move to put it in there due to both it’s size and the amount of activity that it garners. It’s definitely a draw for the 2-8 year-old crowd!

The point here is that physical space plays a major role in defining both the mission and purpose of libraries. I’m glad to see that larger and larger areas are being devoted to youth and teens. Having those resources brings in the stay-at-home parents with their children and starts a process of acclimation that primes the pipeline with future (tax-paying) patrons. Clean, accessible and uncongested computer rooms are essential to providing connectivity to those who may not have it at home, or who may not even have a home (we ought to be thinking about programming for the homeless, as well). Book stores have coffee shops, libraries should too, with free wifi so that the Borders down the street doesn’t steal our business.

Okay, so I’ve taken a few scribblings and turned them into a long-winded brain-dumpish post. What can I say, I love what I do, and I believe that libraries are an oasis. Like most everyone else, I think we can do better. If nothing else, “Library 2.0″ reminds us that it’s an exciting and challenging time to be a library.

[tags]library, libraries, Web 2.0, Library 2.0, SirsiDynix, OPAC, innovation, technology, policy[/tags]

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