Neither far out nor in deep

Spending time by the coast tends to put me in a reflective mood and I often find myself replaying the previous year’s events over in my mind. So while I was on vacation a few weeks ago, I found myself asking, how did we get to Library 2.0? Thus, I began to think about this post. The Library, as an institution, has touched its edge to the currents of a new technology. As a result, it’s spawned what seems to be a rather pronounced, and disruptive eddy in the course of events that is all-things-library. But, as with all eddys in a larger river, the edge is constantly shifting, temporary and insecure. And yes, libraries are feeling a little insecure, right now.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it? Insecurity? Severe cases can hinder and even cripple, but when you blend in other qualities, such as courage, vision, passion, and experimentation, the result can be something quite disruptive and impressive in its own right. What strikes me about the Library 2.0 movement is that it is born from, and exists in, a constant state of insecurity. The form it has taken, however, is far from insecure.

So what does that mean for Library 2.0, and why is it important? Insecurity is an indication of risk, which is something we should all tolerate a little of. There is no guarantee that the work we put in to adapting 2.0-related ideas will have a net positive effect on our organizations and so the willingness to experiment on our production environments becomes a necessary aspect of L2. That, of course, is terrifying.

So let’s take a look at exactly why L2 is so scary and try to deconstruct the rational from the irrational.

“Patron’s may complain” (see flickr complaints). Often times, we seem so afraid of risking a patron complaint that it keeps us from pursuing something potentially interesting. To some extent, I believe that patrons don’t have all the information to know what’s best for them. That’s what we’re there for–to create the services they never dreamed possible, right? At any rate, it’s impossible to please everyone, all the time. Yet, even if an experiment fails and ticks off a group of our patrons, isn’t that worth the right to experiment in the first place? I believe so. The government is not the only group of people who can inhibit innovation… our users can too. Keeping a vigilant eye on them may not be a bad idea (see Gwinnett CPL). I’m of the opinion that there is no moral equivalency between our mission and that of those groups that seek to ban “offensive material” and filter our Internet connections. They’re wrong, we’re right, period. Part of our mandate is to carry a community, even when a group of its citizens are acting like idiots.

“It may not work.” Well, of course it may not work, whatever it is. That’s the point of experimenting. And when it doesn’t work in a production environment, you may be embarrassed or even chastised–so what? Failures tend to tell us more about ourselves than our successes do. It’s quite possible that a miserable failure could lead to an even greater success. So analyze your failures, find out why you failed, where things went wrong, and what changes you can make. This is common sense, of course, but I think we tend to forget that the library environment is exactly the right place for experimenting because it is so forgiving. I think I’ve mentioned before that such an environment is our ace in the hole, as it were, with respect to our commercial competitors and our ILS partners/vendors. You will fail sometimes. Eventually, something you do will suck. Oh well. Get over it and try something else.

“Yikes, how do we keep up with our own growth?” If you have this problem, then you’re already the envy of other libraries and you’re finding little sympathy for this particular difficulty. Rapid growth of a service, while an indication of success, can be a major problem, especially if you’re not equipped to deal with it. Rapid growth can bite you in a number of unpleasant ways. First is the “victim-of-your-own-success” syndrome where you’ve created the impression in the minds of other departments that your department can create and deliver pretty much anything. As a result, the line, “Oh, we’ll just have [insert your department here] do it” becomes all-too-familiar. Of course you’re already up to your neck in projects.
Manage people’s expectations accordingly. The idea is to achieve superb customer service, but remember–that’s the journey, not where you are right now. If you allow people to expect a level of service you cannot reliably deliver, you are actually providing poor customer service and misrepresenting yourself in the process.
The other potential pitfall is that a service will outgrow the ability of its infrastructure to support it. You need to always think about extensibility–how to practically manage and accommodate growth. Don’t paint yourself into a corner. This could come in the form of outgrowing current server hardware, overwhelming staff with service requests, overtaxing existing collections, or something else equally vexing. Think about what success means to your organization in these practical terms.

Sustainability – Growth and sustainability go hand-in-hand. We ought to hone our soothsaying abilities enough to know what is sustainable and what is not. When we add a service, the worst thing we could do is to shut it off because we can no longer support it. That sets a bad precedence, and is not the type of expectation we want to foster in our users. How will they trust us enough to use new services if they’ve been burned in the past? Bear in mind, this is different from removing a service that doesn’t work well. I’m talking about removing a service because we can no longer support it, fiscally or otherwise. Evaluate your capacity to carry a new service indefinitely.

“What about outside factors?” Like.. well.. DOPA? There is no way to ensure that we’ll always have carte blanche to do what we want in the world. Take a moment, every now and then, to meditate on how blessed we are to live and operate in a free and open society. Then get real. There are certain things we cannot control, some things we can. DOPA is a great example of this because it’s clearly a highly political piece of poor legislation that is as unconstitutional as it is unenforceable. We’re also loosing the PR battle–I know this because I’ve heard, a number of talking heads on several different media outlets, complain about libraries supporting perverts and child porn. Yes, it made me angry, but pragmatically, it means we’re getting our hats handed to us. Clearly, this is an issue that our leadership is more equipped to handle on a federal level. Locally, however, are we doing anything to explain our position to our own users who may be hearing the same things? My point is that when outside pressure is applied against our organizations, we need to know our patrons will stand with us. Will yours?

FUD – Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. It’s subversive, passive, and crippling. Remember SCO’s lawsuit against IBM over Linux? Well, everyone with a clue in the open source community knew it was bogus, but enough FUD was generated by the lawsuit that the growth and adoption of Linux decelerated significantly. When it comes to technology, I see similarities in the library world. Not necessarily due to someones lobbying efforts, but because a large number of our colleagues are very unsure about the impact of technology in our organizations. As a result, they feel threatened. It’s a gulf we need to span. Those of us who are more comfortable with technology know that most of those fears are unfounded–it’s our job to reach out and reassure our peers, to help them understand that while their role in a 2.0 world may be different, it’s no less important.
FUD can come from almost everywhere. It’s one of those things we need to be able to identify and stop before it gets out of control. It’s stopped by the absence of ego and the presence of cooperation, education and understanding.

We should relinquish central coordination?? – In some cases, you bet. Especially when it comes to adding social-based services. The term “Radical Trust” has been tossed about in regard to this. In order for some things to be successful, we’re going to have to let the reins slip a little (sometimes a lot) and let our users take over. Given our profession’s obsession with authoritativeness, it’s hard, I know. Get over it, and remember, authority and social participation are by no means mutually exclusive. The two can exist quite nicely in parallel.

So what happens if we don’t experiment? Well, being a father of three young kids, I tend to think of it this way: It’s 3 AM and your newborn has woken up with a particularly nasty diaper. You are really not in the mood to change it, but you think, “What will happen if I don’t change it?” Besides being neglectful of someone you love viscerally, you know the alternatives are not good. In other words, changing the diaper is the only option. Let your mind go down the path of complacency. Let it go waaay down that path–five, ten, thirty years. If you care about the wonderful institution you work in, you don’t need an answer to this question.

Hinchcliffe has a wonderful post describing the idea of viral feedback and network effects. He explains that the “physics of the web” have changed and evolved to the point where the game has changed, whether we like it or not. Every day, a higher proportion of our population begins to lead a life that has one foot in the physical word and the other online. In fact, I believe that the online world often allows people to express their true persona with fewer inhibitions than “real life”. Online interaction often closes the gap between minds–a phenomenon that can be mutually beneficial to libraries and patrons. But timing is critical: we need to be gearing up to enter into this game during its disruptive phase–not after.

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