My ALA baggage

Before attending large conferences like ALA, I like to gather some of the thoughts I’ve been casually tossing around in my head. I say casually, because I really haven’t given any of them the benefit of any formal thought process.  At any rate, this is the baggage I’m bringing to ALA:

A library on the Edge?

Like two distinct brands of the same religion, librarians are drifting into two camps–those that believe libraries are in peril and those that don’t. Those who find themselves as a member of the former tend to feel that their libraries need to change in a number of fundamental ways in order to remain relevant. Those who identify with the latter group feel that good old-fashion librarianship is still what their users want or need.  They’re the purists. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying this, but I do believe that all of us sit somewhere between these two poles.

This dichotomy yields some interesting implications for discussions about the future of libraries and what we should be doing now and in the future. For instance, if you’re inclined to think that libraries are in danger of becoming irrelevant, you’re probably going to be more open to many of the more radical proposals and developments we’re seeing and hearing of today. Purists, of course, are just as vehement and passionate about libraries, but want to see the core values of their libraries shored up.  To them, good old fashion reference and circulation is what libraries are all about.

So the question is, how do these two groups find a middle ground that will not compromise us into mediocrity? I’m skeptical about the prospect of creating more excellent middle-of-the-road libraries. That’s what most of us are right now.

Web 2.0 is saturated while Library 2.0 is parched

The library corpus cannot absorb all the 2.0 being thrown at it. I see two major problems that are causing a veritable 2.0-anemia.

First, while Library 2.0 may not be exclusively about technology, it’s hitched its wagon to technology in inextricable ways. That means that in order to be deft L2 wagon-drivers, we need to have great technologists and great technology. Libraries have a severe shortage of both and while we may try to make ourselves gleam to one another as best we can, what we really ought to be doing is focusing on how libraries can be attracting new blood into that particular sector of the industry. There is no doubt that great work is being done by a lot of talented people (and they know who they are). But for most of us, implementation is still that big old swollen caveat hanging out there uncomfortably.

Second, after implementation, integration tends to be awkward, at best. There is a fairly severe disconnect between what the 2.0 pundits say (among whom I count myself), and what is really happening. Your library may have, for instance, a Flickr account, IM reference, a bloglines blog, delicious bookmarks, whatever. But are they truly embedded into the way your institution works? In almost every case, this approach seems like throwing seeds into the air, letting them land where they may. I think it’s time to start talking about how we arrange these components into a more suitable constellation of services. These technical elements of L2 must be aligned along our institutions’ field of influence and expertise so that the seams don’t show. Seams send the wrong message, they say we’re being disingenuous and sloppy. In effect, poorly implemented technology amounts to spamming our users and staff with “new features.”

The user is sometimes broken

Sorry Karen, but sometimes the user is broken. And that’s ok. We’re all broken in some way and that’s what makes us human. Let’s not forget that, at its core, the library is a human construct created by humans for use by humans.  I think we can be there to help fix the user, to enable the user to change in the ways that he or she would like.

There will be times when we get it right and the user still can’t handle it, because the user can’t deal.  We shouldn’t change a good thing for him because accommodating him will send us down an endless rabbit hole.  It’s those cases that we rely on our hospitality and deference to help the user as best we can.

The librarian is sometimes broken

Of course, the flip side of this is that, yes, sometimes the librarian is broken too.  In comparison, it’s much easier to deal with a broken user than a broken librarian.  The broken user is a support issue, and support is simply a commodity.  The broken librarian, if not fixed, is an institutional liability.  But God bless us, we’re a compassionate, sensitive bunch and we’re going to tip-toe around that person’s shortcomings and weave them into the fabric of our organizations.  That’s the way we roll.


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