Library Camp ’06: a brain-dump

We couldn’t have asked for a better group of people at the 2006 Library Camp, last Friday. Many of the attendees were from in-state, but several logged a good number of travel hours to get here. It was for those, especially, that I was nervous, hoping that the format would yield some discussion worthy of their troubles. It did, and I had a great time.

I apologize in advance that I’m leaving out a lot of (probably important) detail in this post. During the talks, I chose to put my laptop away and not take notes–I wanted to be as engaged as possible. My mind is not exactly clear at this moment, either. The time between then and now has consisted of Easter preparations, Easter itself and the wholesale carnage that ensues when a two, five, and seven year old are all in various stages of a candy binge.

Getting Started

Friday morning began with coffee and bagels (thank-you Talis!) and a short meeting to put together the agenda for the day. As an open space event, this meant that the attendees themselves were responsible for the day. As we went through introductions, I jotted down some of the topics people were throwing out which generally came in the form of specific ideas or reasons for attending:

  • How to get buy-in for new ideas.
  • Gaming in libraries.
  • Integrating searches. (Don’t remember the specifics on this one)
  • Personal digital asset management.
  • How do we make it easier to find info/material?
  • How can L2 make patrons happier?
  • Disconnect between techies and non-techies (this is a big one)
  • Web 2.0: where to go to now?
  • If you build it, how do you get them to come?
  • How to combine new technologies with the OPAC
  • How do we make the OPAC better?
  • How do we get the library out of the library?
  • Which tools are other people using?
  • Just attending to spy on us!
  • How should libraries handle emerging technologies?
  • Strategic planning? What should we be planning for?
  • Alternative methods of circing material.
  • Getting user feedback.
  • How do we measure success?
  • When explaining web 2.0, how do you answer “So what?”
  • Just plain curious.

From the final schedule, you can get a general sense of which topics were hot. Feeling a little like a kid in a candy store after this exercise, I took part in the two “Bridging the Gap” sessions.

Bridging the Gap

The title “Bridging the Gap” hearkens back to a blog post of mine about some of the deep divisions between tech and non-tech staff in libraries. Priming this discussion took very little effort, because it seemed to be something that resonates strongly on both sides of the aisle. The group’s numbers favored the techies (and, as I sometimes find, the techie non-techies or non-techie techies) but the discussion did not turn into a gripe session, as I had feared it might, rather a very candid discussion about where problems exist in our organizations and how to address them. A number of people had some very good things to say here and the time quickly slipped by.

There is a level of miscommunication and mistrust that seems to have saturated the relationship between library and IT staff. Many veteran librarians feel threatened by technology because they are not as adept at incorporating it into their profession as their greener counterparts. This feeling is entirely understandable. In fact, one library’s approach was to ask existing managers if they were comfortable, willing, and able to facilitate the appropriation of emerging technologies. If they were not, then their position would be redefined. In other words, someone else would take their leadership position. While my initial reaction was to think this policy was harsh, I have to wonder whether protecting people’s egos is worth sacrificing innovation.

Another participant has put a great deal of thought and effort into making the IT staff/rest-of-the-library relationship work. (I think it was Sean Robinson, Information Technology Manager for Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, IN) His approach was to radically transform the IT department in such a way that customer service became the modus operandi. By instilling simple policies like, “answer the phone with a smile on your face” to broader, more radical attitudes, such as “always say yes“, he has been able to earn back a good measure of trust from his users. How did he find out what was bothering them? He sent out an anonymous survey via HR asking staff what they hated most about IT. Among answers like, “you never return my calls”, or “it takes you forever to fix my problem”, was a very interesting comment, “You guys have all the control”. Even though it makes perfect sense, I had never really thought about the fact that we could be perceived that way–it’s a completely valid observation. In many ways, IT departments do have “all the control”. It stands to reason, then, that finding ways to put control back in the hands of staff can help to alleviate the problem. The “always say yes” policy is part of that initiative. My feeling is that, instead of blindly saying “yes”, however, we can work together to achieve a shared vision. By improving communication, we can improve service through the combining of ideas, alternatives, and possibilities.

The second part of the discussion focused on technology and the patron. We talked a little about the OPAC here, knowing that another session was forthcoming on the very topic. The general feeling was that many of our OPACs simply do not return friendly results. One comment was made along the lines of, “patrons shouldn’t need to be a librarian to search the catalog”. I feel very strongly about this as well. A great example is the fact that most author searches require last-name first. Someone mentioned that they wanted Amazon or Google-type searches that would do spell-checking and suggest alternatives.

On the matter of getting technical expertise into libraries, Sean Robinson posed another good idea–that libraries “pay it forward”. In other words, if one library has the expertise to accomplish something, then they could help another library complete the same with with the expectation that the second library would, in turn, help out another. I thought this was an incredibly inspired notion, and completely doable! I’ll be the first to volunteer…

Low-hanging OPAC fruit

A discussion about OPACs doesn’t take long to turn into a vendor-roast. Admittedly, there was a little of that going on here–mostly for the usual reasons, all completely valid. From an academic standpoint, access to research databases is also in need of attention. My thought was that, technically, the two things hampering innovation the most at this point are 1) the lack of a meaningful API into our ILS and 2) no standards-based, dynamic index for our research databases. Given those two tools, we could completely transform our interfaces into something truly new and unique.

The problems with our OPACs can be split into form and function. The OPAC interface needs a major face-lift while search functionality and results leave a lot to be desired (relevancy ranking, anyone?)

Alan Gray (Darien Public Library) offered a number of great thoughts on approaching vendors, suggesting that many of the open-source tools now being developed could somehow be leveraged in such a way that vendors would have to take notice and react. The problem with open-source solutions, however, is that even though the software is free, implementation can be impossible for a library without much of a tech staff and support is almost non-existent.

On the subject of open-sourcing code: While I write much of my code modularly so that it can be reused by other people, most of the code behind AADL’s website is highly customized and cannot simply be dropped into place at another site. One of my goals is to get closer to the object model, so that the code can be reused. Much of the code written in libraries is highly site-specific and cannot be transplanted without a lot of work. Can we write code with portability in mind?

So what can we focus on now? Ryan Eby talked about the judicious use of iframes and javascript to embed dynamic content. Those have a number of drawbacks, however, and amount to “lipstick on the pig”. He used III‘s screen file tokens as an example.

Many libraries would like to do a complete overhaul of their websites, like AADL, but are not able to due to technical or staffing constraints. Therefore, they fall back to shoe-horning new features in here and there at the expense of cohesiveness.

Web 2.0/Library 2.0 — What’s next?

I wasn’t sure what this discussion was going to do, or where it would go. I think someone started the discussion by simply throwing out, “so, what now?”

We talked a little about physical spaces and the way they shape the library experience. Alan Gray filled us in on some of the amazing things Darien Library is doing in their new building to foster a closer relationship with the patron. Apparently, they are installing reference “pods” where reference librarians can have one-on-one sessions with people. They’re also experimenting with some IP telephony products.

We heard from the folks at South Lyon who have been featured in both the New York Times and Library Journal for their use of the tablet PC. Hearing them talk, I couldn’t help being reminded that it’s not just the technology that transforms, but how it’s implemented and how committed we are to making it work.

I spoke a little bit about how we handle tech support here at AADL. I mentioned that we have an internal IRC server with a support channel and a web client for our help-desk folks. This allows them to field problems directly to a large number of technical staff.

We talked, quite frankly, about the term Library 2.0, and it seemed to me that most people present had very little problem with the name itself and simply wanted to talk about the ideas behind it. As one person said, “we need to call it something…” We also addressed the “change-or-die!” ideology. Basically, I don’t think libraries will wither away to nothing if we don’t take advantage of emerging technologies and opportunities (the key being opportunity). I do think, however, that we run the risk of missing the boat and relegating ourselves to a myopic role in our communities that will be difficult to break out of if we don’t take advantage of emerging trends–that includes popular culture. Someone else felt that perhaps we are making too much of this and that this kind of talk was part of a larger “culture of fear” that exists in America. It was mentioned that we need to continually reinvent ourselves, just like the business world does. Separating value from fad is difficult, but we shouldn’t ignore the trends.

We spoke a little bit about rising circulation, harnessing the long tail, setting up a Netflix model for patron holds, and a few other material-related topics, such as circulating laptops.

Many thanks to Les Orchard who bailed me out and did a quick intro to


Honestly, I wish the entire day had been filmed, or recorded, or both. I was struck by how fast time went by. Because virtually everyone in every discussion played an active role, a heck of a lot was accomplished. Unfortunately, it doesn’t lend itself to easy blogging because there were no slides, no prepared remarks and very little time to write. As we discussed at the end, the open spaces idea could translate very well to other locales, if you’re so inclined, I’d suggest one in your area.

Library 2.0 Wiki -> Library Camp 2006
The unLibrarian
Les Orchard’s OPML notes (neat-o!)
Ryan Eby

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