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February, 2010:

A lay librarian’s thought on “Nothing is Future”

Wayne Bivens-Tatum, a Princeton librarian and the blogger of Academic Librarian, wrote a post “Nothing is the Future” a few days ago, which resulted in many comments including the very excellent one from Tim Spalding at LibraryThing.  In his comment in Thingology, Tim Spalding warns about a potential misreading of Bivens-Tatum’s post suggesting that people should use his essay as a way to “kick it up a notch” intellectually, get past the small stuff and confront the very real changes ahead.” Bivens-Tatum also posted a response, “Preaching and Persuading,” making it clear that that his target of criticism is not the adoption of any new technology in libraries per se but the manner in which new technologies have been adopted so far in libraries.

Here are some of the thoughts that came to my mind while reading these blog posts, which have gotten surprisingly long.

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In his article, “Academic Digital Libraries of the Future: An Environmental Scan,” Derek Law writes:

“We have reached a point where entrenched and traditional organizational settings give rise to organizational clashes, as new issues and content emerge which do not fit historical patterns. The bundling of functions has imperceptibly changed, but we have become so busy and adept at keeping the library efficient and well manage  that we have lacked the space to step back and observe it from a higher level. …… Libraries have fallen into the trap of substituting means for ends and have not considered what is in the interest of their parent universities. It is, then, the purpose of this paper to review and scan the landscape facing university libraries and to attempt to identify the key competencies or core areas of work that the profession needs to grasp as its key to the future.”

His statement is targeted for academic librareis, but the diagnosis may well resonate with any rank and file librarian at differnet types of libraries. The problem seems to be that overall our library world appears lost on what a library should be in the future.

I realize that it is hard to articulate this impression of mine, particularly when there is so much conversation about new technologies and trends that libraries have to consider and adapt thier services for. What I am trying to get at is that most of the conversation is about what’s new and how to catch up. The numerous things get swiftly classified under the “Have To” category from this conversation. But they don’t always seem to have a clear relevance to “Why” and “For what” let alone “How To.”

Today’s library world, which resembles almost the Warring States period of China a long long time ago, unnerves me sometimes because everything seems to be geared towards catching up with the latest trends. Yesterday wiki and blog, today Facebook and Twitter, tomorrow mobile websites, content, and devices. Libraries and librarians have been working hard and frantically.

But, now that we have done so, are we significantly better off? Have our efforts significantly changed the way our users and our parent institutions perceive us? Why this nagging suspicion that we all seem to share and worry about, i.e. libraries are still ill-prepared for whatever the future will bring about? Why doesn’t this doubt cease that we are running in parallel with our users and parent institutions rather than running together as a team?

Staying up-to-date for the future is of course great. But what are we staying up-to-date for? There is no shortage of what libraries may become in the future: a digital repository, a learning commons, a place for innovative user experience, an information hub, what have you. But how do we get there where these visions are from here and now? Where are our blueprints, not another list of to-dos seemingly dislocated from the vision?

This brings back a question I often think about.  What kind of an agent a library is in its parent organization as a whole? Is it a dynamic, creative, competent, and energetic enough agent that can lead a change it desires through its parent organization?  If libraries are not currently such agents, how do we begin to become so?  Changes at these two different levels -internal and external- seem to be intertwined.  If we can at least begin to form some answers about these issues, maybe we will finally be able to spend more time on working towards making actual changes to the future of libraries rather than talking about it. Just a thought of a lay librarian.

Persistence and Some Other Virtues for Solo Web-Services Librarians

Last September, I did an online presentation through OPAL (Open Program for All).  The topic was “Web Services for Underfunded and Understaffed Libraries.”   After the presentation, I uploaded my slides on SlideShare and then completely forgot about it.  A few days ago, I got an email from SlideShare that notified me the number of views of these slides.  How interesting!  Anyhow, so I remembered. Right, I did that presentation, and what was I thinking back then?

I felt funny realizing that what was a burning question to me only about four months ago seemed already close to some distant memory.  The presentation was part of my efforts to make sense of the challenges and difficulties I have encountered at my work as a new solo web librarian at a small academic library.  I was feeling overwhelmed because I was fully aware of many innovative things I wanted to try, but also there was a very clear limit to what I could do in reality.  Also I was somewhat depressed by the fact that some really awesome things other libraries were doing couldn’t be done for various reasons related to limited resources, funding, staff, etc.

Does the fact that I almost forgot about the presentation mean that I came to some kind of  conclusion on that topic?  Well, probably not.  I think it would be more accurate to say that I have rather gotten used to my environment.

However, now that I look back, I think I learned something about patience in getting things done.  Trying new things requires dealing with some procedures and forming a teamwork  whether it is with some university offices or within one’s organization.  Inevitably, it takes time and efforts – sometimes in a seemingly inexplicably large sum.  Unfortunately, there is no real shortcut in dealing with all the steps whether it is bureaucracy or paperwork.  So what becomes quite important is, more often than not, persistence.

Persistence is also an important virtue and one of the most valuable weapon in a solo web-services librarian’s arsenal.  I mentioned in the presentation that almost everything technology-related becomes the responsibilities of web-services librarian in a small library. So, it is unavoidable that things that need to be done pile up while one solo web-services librarian tries to get all the technology-related things requested as well as other things s/he deems to be important done.  Some of them cannot be done in the time frame desired and/or requested.  Some of them have to go down on the priority list, so that more important things, which keep popping up anew, can be taken care of. But if there are things that need to be done whether it is next month or next season, they have to stay on the list and a solo web-services librarian needs to find time for those.  This sometimes requires persuading others and enlisting their help.

Oh, and resourcefulness. That probably would make another blog post. So I won’t talk about it here.

Another thing that I have learned since the presentation is that one library can’t do all and each library’s environment is unique.  This seems quite an obvious thing to say.  But still many times, libraries waste a lot of time trying to replicate what has been done successfully at other libraries without realizing that there are very different dynamics at work.  Particularly for small libraries, it only makes sense to focus a small number of things that they can excel at rather than spreading thin their resources and staff in many different things.

From time to time, I think I should remind myself of these new lessons I have learned, so that I won’t get unproductively frustrated or disappointed and stay positive and efficient at the same time.

The question which still remains in my mind as an unanswered question is how a solo web-services librarian should deal with necessary R&D.  Unlike at larger libraries where there are multiple programmers and a large IT staff for example, it is extremely difficult for a solo web-services librarian to engage in any productive and meaningful R&D activities because there are so many daily tasks to be handled that come before R&D.  (Also remember many of these librarians are trained first as librarians and not necessarily magical in programming and writing codes?)  On the other hand, without R&D, a solo web-services librarian is likely to be burned out and  get outdated at the same time.  Sadly, I don’t see any systematic support for R&D in small libraries.

This is probably not an issue that can be solved by a lay librarian nor at the scale of individual small libraries.  My hope is to see some larger agencies that  support continuing education/R&D for library technology staff – maybe funded by multiple libraries – and those libraries again committing themselves to allowing time for such continuing education for their technology staff.  Oh, well, wouldn’t that be nice?

For what it’s worth, here is my past presentation at OPAL. I am glad SlideShare sent me the notice. Otherwise I would have completely forgotten about all these questions.

OPAL Program Archive: http://www.opal-online.org/archivelis.htm (Sep. 17, 29009)

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