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What Do Libraries Call Users, and What Do Library Users Think of Themselves in relation to Libraries?

 

Do library users think of themselves as library “patrons?”

In American Libraries Magazine, Anthony Molaro wrote a piece titled “Just Who Do We Serve?”  There, Molaro mentioned an interesting fact that caught my eyes. Did you know that library users actually preferred to be called “member” rather than “patron”, “customer,” or “user?” According to a recent survey, that is the case.

“You Must Focus on Connection Management Instead of Collection Management” R. David Lankes posted in his Work In Progress blog a while ago. He details a strategic planning session in which library consultant Joan Frye Williams decided to end the eternal debate about what we should call library patrons by asking them directly. Unexpectedly, those surveyed responded that instead of being called a library “patron,” or “customer,” or “user,” more than half preferred the term “member.”

(Side note: Some information about the survey mentioned is found at http://www.newlibrarianship.org/wordpress/?page_id=1052 . See the second comment by Lankes. Thanks to David Lankes for the link.)

Throughout my entire library career since early 2000s, the term that refers to library users which I heard most from the library staff was “patron.” I don’t recall any library staff calling a library user “customer” or even “user” back then.  As a very new part-time library assistant, I took it that this term “patron” meant pretty much “customer” in the sense that it is the customer (=patron in the library) that is the king.

At that time, I found the term “patron” odd and was curious about the fact that libraries were so patron-oriented. As a total library novice, I found the term ‘patron’ antiquated. (Could be just me, I admit.) Secondly, I just had no idea that libraries I frequented had such a patron-oriented culture even though I was a good library user/grad student. I was greatly impressed and amazed at how seriously the library staff take each and every small comment they receive from their “patrons.”

Now of course, I no longer feel the same curiosity about the term ‘patron,’ as I was brainwashed through my formal LIS education. (Kidding, kidding… ) But I still feel odd calling a library user “library patron.”   When I hear the term “patron,” I automatically think of patrons of the arts and culture, like the Medici who were the patrons of Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Now, certainly library users don’t consider themselves as playing the role of that kind of “patron.” Do they? If patronage means just some support, probably a term for this type of patronage that library users can better relate to would be rather “friends of the library.”

Library membership = CVS or Costco Membership?

I am not against the idea that as the library staff, we do and should strive to create and support the maximum satisfaction of library users. I am just pointing out that there seems to be some interesting difference between how libraries and library staff view library users in their operation and how library users consider themselves in relation to the libraries they frequent.

Side note: I have realized that I often use the term “user” to refer to library patrons. But that’s just because I work mostly in the context of web services. I use this term ‘user’ out of habit, not as any result of reflection. Interestingly, I found that some who work in the areas of web design and development (not library-related) actually prefer a term different than “user.” Jenifer Hanen, a web developer/designer, said once on Twitter that she preferred “people” or “customers / clients” opposed to “user.” I am guessing here, but it is probably because all the other terms than “user” seems to imply that they are not just some abstract entity that comes into a website and click links but the actual people with certain interests and preferences etc.

The survey result that Molaro cites seems to point out the very same kind of  interesting difference that I have noticed between how libraries and library staff view library users in their operation and how library users consider themselves in relation to their libraries. It shows that library users (in lieu of no better term here) think of themselves as library members rather than library patrons, library customers, or library users.

Molaro continues to detail his view on what each term is likely to signify. According to him, “library patron” as a term represents the worldview in which libraries are indebted to them, patrons. By the way, this matches with what this term brings to my mind.

“Library user,” on the other hand, makes Molaro think of those who consume without creating. And he opposes to the use of this term because, in his opinion, this term implies that the users need something the library offers but the library do not need them.  I disagree on this. I actually like the term ‘library user’ because it always reminds me of the fact that there are many other places where they can go for their information needs. It reminds me that libraries are not the only source for them and it is unrealistic to, say, argue that all library users should start their research at their library homepage rather than Google. But again, this could be just me working mostly in library web services.

Molaro likes the term “library member” since he thinks that this term implies ownership and an active role. And he says “people served by libraries view themselves because they carry a library card.” Now, I am in 100% favor of library users or patrons or members having the feeling of ownership and active role in relation to their libraries. But I do not think that library users prefer to be called library members because of the feeling of ownership and their active role in libraries.

I carry and use the CVS and the Costco card. This doesn’t make me feel ownership towards these companies, or in any way I imagine myself playing an active role in them. Am I a member? Probably,  since I have a card, a membership card.  If the membership costs money, then, definitely the term, ‘membership’ is more fitting because it implies that some kind of services and privileges are rendered to me once I join (whether free or not). I get points at CVS and enter/buy stuff in bulk at a lower price at Costco with my membership. Now as a library member, I don’t pay the membership fee, but I get to borrow books and other library items. So there, in my mind, I am a member in relation to my local library just as I am a member of CVS or Costco.

I am not saying that this is the mental perception that libraries want their users/patrons/members to have in relation to them. I am simply saying that this might be the actual mental image that most of our library patrons/users/members have about their relation to their libraries.

The Million-Dollar Question

If libraries want those people who sign up for a library card to feel the ownership to their library and play an active role, what can they do to achieve that?  Molaro thinks that perhaps “Preferred Member card” can help in this respect. He says:

Much like other organizations, institutions, and businesses, libraries should consider implementing a preferred member card program. This preferred member card could be purchased through an annual fee and would have perks and privileges. For example, hot new bestsellers are purchased for regular library members and extra copies purchased for preferred members. Perhaps preferred members would not be subject to late fines, or entitled to extended loan periods, being cited on an honor roll, or invited to a special party? The preferred member card could be a part of a larger membership and fundraising drive. Much like NPR or PBS, libraries can incorporate preferred membership drives into their National Library Week or National Library Card Month promotions.

Well, what do you think? I am divided on this idea for many reasons. And I am not going to go into those reasons here, because at this point, many of us, librarians, will have minds bouncing left and right and up and down just thinking about those reasons and what the best direction would be. So it might be the best to let them percolate a bit before shooting ideas to the sky.

In the meantime, it would be worthwhile to just break down the question to see where the difficulty exactly stems from. It really originates from the conflict of these two things:

  1. How do you make the library members care about their libraries?
  2. Anyone can become a library member (no investment required) and there is nothing they gain by being an active member (no incentive provided).

Just as a reminder, we all know that libraries do 2. intentionally as its mission is not to generate profit but to provide equal access to information for both the under-served/underprivileged and the well-to-do. Now 2. has the problem:  no investment and no incentive. Human beings tend to care much less about the things they get for no investment; they are also highly likely to be involved very little with things that they have no incentive to do so.  So 2. creates an obstacle to achieving 1.

How can libraries achieve 1. without endangering 2.?  That’s a million dollar question for libraries.


Usability in Action (1) – Don’t Offer Irrelevant Options in the First Place

Many assume that adding more information would automatically increase the usability of a website.  While there are cases in which this would be true,  often a better option is to make that needed information not necessary at all for a user to make the right choice in the first place.

I found a good example recently at work. All state university libraries in Florida started allowing students in any state university to borrow from other state university library. This service was launched with the name, U-Borrow. It’s faster than the traditional ILL (interlibrary loan). It also offers a longer borrowing period.  It’s a great service for library user

In order to advertise this service and make it easier for users to discover, the search result screen in the library catalog now shows the U-Borrow option as a link (as shown below).

Search Result Screen from the Library Catalog

Search Result Screen from the Library Catalog

If the user clicks the U-Borrow link, the computer presents the search search result done in the union catalog. This allows the user to see what state university library may have the item s/he is looking for that is not available in her or his own university library, and to request the item from the closest library from his or her own.

But there is one problem.  Since the original search in the user’s own library catalog was not restricted to a particular format, the U-borrow link also presents items in all formats that match including online resources(see below). But(!) the U-borrow service does ‘not’ apply to online resources.

The Search Result from the Union Catalog

So the current solution is to bring this information to a user’s attention when the user actually clicks any record for an online resource in the search result list.  See below the screenshot where it says “this item is not available through the UBorrow Service.”

Catalog Record with a Note about U-Borrow Restriction

Catalog Record with a Note about U-Borrow Restriction

This is a solution. But not the best solution. If a user gets to this page, s/he is likely to just click the link on top and get frustrated instead of examining the record fully by scrolling down and recognize the note at the bottom.

So in this case, the best solution would be to make the U-Borrow link in the first screenshot result in only the items available through the U-Borrow service. This will obviate the need for the user to heed later the note about certain items are not available. By removing irrelevant options in the first place, we can allow users to make the right choice without making a conscious choice.

Can you think of similar examples like this? Guiding people to make the right choice by providing information is good. But all the better if the right choice can be automatically selected based upon the previous option.

 

Making Years of Service Meaningful – My thought on #hlth

By now, I believe almost everyone in the library-land would have heard about the Harvard Libraries Town Hall meeting debacle. (If not, see this post by Tom Bruno.) Like everyone else, I don’t have an inkling about whether the reorganization going on at Harvard is going to succeed or not.  But the news somehow made me think quite a bit about this :  As the library staff work at the same library for many years, how can ‘____’ make the years or service meaningful as their contribution to the library beyond mere loyalty?

This is a tough question as years of service doesn’t necessarily equate with how much contribution you make to the library you work at.  It’s a tough question because improving on whatever you learned already is almost always more difficult than learning it first time. This is also a tough question whether you are a library employer or an employee (fill the ‘____’ above with either library or the library staff) as this is something both an employer and an employee should work together.

As a library employee, I think about this more and more as I am getting out of the new librarian phase. Being a professional librarian for more than 3 years now, it is hard to argue that I am still new at this point. I try hard not to settle in the everyday work that is familiar to me and not to get comfortable with the status quo. I try to keep taking up on a new project that would improve library’s services and operation even if no one is asking for it. I try to learn new things even if that would not affect the work I do immediately because I know that in the long run, there is a good chance that the stuff I am teaching myself today would be come in handy.

What I am trying to is to meet the challenge of how to make my years of service meaningful. I want it to represent the amount of experience and knowledge I have as a librarian, not the mere number of years I was staying at one place.  That is a tough call.  Many librarians face this challenge in one way or another, as they gain more experience at their workplace unless they are continuously hopping from one job to another for higher rank/salary, which will also make it inevitable to learn some new skills and assume new responsibilities).

Now shifting the focus from employees to employers, even to observers who do not know the internal workings of the Harvard libraries system, what made the librarians and library staff at Harvard most upset about the town hall meeting seems to be the feeling of betrayal, aside from the unclear meeting agenda and the lack of answers to obvious questions. It appears that many Harvard library staff were loyal to their workplace (legitimately perhaps considering its collection size and scale of service) and took pride in working there, which is reflected in many staff’s long years of service (i.e. low rate of staff turnover). However, the unclear messages from the top and the impending layoff announcement seemed to have demoralized them, as shown in one of the comments in this LJ article “After Furor, Harvard Library Spokesperson Says ‘Inaccurate’ That All Staff Will Have to Reapply” :

“I acknowledge that change is inevitable, but what I feel, after yesterday’s meeting, was the unnecessary devaluation of the librarians and library assistants, many of whom have worked at Harvard for decades and are experts in their particular field or have particular skills. I didn’t feel we were valued as employees or as persons. So many of us asked after the meeting yesterday, what was the point of the it? Why call a meeting when there are no answers ready for our biggest questions? Was the purpose of it to instill fear? Because, sadly, that was the main result. Fear for ourselves and for the future of one of the best library systems in the world.”

In her blog post “on #hlth and bearpoking,” Jenica Rogers pointed out why the years of service argument would work against the library staff in the re-organization situation rather than in favor. As she correctly notes, effectiveness, relevance, skills do not correlate to years of service by themselves. To the management, this argument has no real merit.

This is a valid point. In times in which permanent jobs are a joke, asking loyalty for employees is an absurd idea. The flip side of it is, however, that it would be equally silly for employees to think that loyalty itself would have any significant meaning (beyond maybe the fact that the low staff-turnover rate will save operating costs related to hiring replacements), particularly when the employer goes through re-organization (based upon the belief that the ‘past’ operation was not optimal ).

But nothing is ever so black-and-white. As a 100% observer, I would have liked to see what systematic incentives and measures Harvard libraries are creating in order to help its staff to continuously improve their skills and knowledge in their jobs. More so when they are planning a big layoff and asking all their staff to submit a summary of their skills and qualifications. (I am not even going to comment on how bureaucratic and utterly ineffective this sounds like. )

I believe that experienced library staffs are not just employees with the long-years-of-service tag on them. Some of them may be chair warmers. (Yes, we have all seen chair warmers!)  ‘But’ many of them are the precious enablers in library operation and the best deliverers of quality library service.  This is not a ‘sentimental’ argument. Losing these people will cost the organization no matter how hard it is to quantitatively measure its impact.

You may say those people with good performance will be saved one way or another. But what I am saying is that an organization has the responsibility to beclear about what it values in its employees.  As an employer, an organization may ask for and demand whatever qualifications it sees fit for employees to be equipped with. But it would help employees if an organization can state them clearly and, if possible, provide concrete steps to take to actually attain that goal.

So looking forward, I suggest any library that goes through re-organization should ask this question: What kind of system do you have in place to help and enable for your staff to stay relevant, skilled, effective, and efficient over the long period of time? What are the standards you would like to see in your staff in terms of skills and knowledge? Why are those relevant skills and knowledge in your organization in light of its mission and vision? What kinds of initiatives and activities would you like your staff to work on and be engaged in on a daily basis?  Communicating clear answers to these questions alone would greatly alleviate the concern of library staff during any reorganization process.  I hope that Harvard libraries staff would use this reorganization as an opportunity to ask these questions and get satisfactory answers.

Reorganization can be painful. But reorganization without a clear vision and goal and the road-map to achieve the goal would be disastrous. I am worried about the possibility of library re-organization done in the absence of clear vision and strategies. I am concerned about the possibility that libraries may dive into reorganization in lieu of establishing first assessing clearly where they want to go and how they plan to get there.

Sadly, the data from Ithaka S+R Library Survey 2010: Insights from U.S. Academic Library Directors doesn’t make me feel so optimistic. (See this blog post “My peers are not my tribe” by Jenica Rogers and despair. 65 percent of US academic library directors confirmed that their library does NOT have a well-developed strategy to meet changing user needs and research habits!)

I do so hope that this is not the whole story. But are you surprised at this finding?

Published! Chapter 8. Mobile Use in Medicine: Taking a Cue from Specialized Resources and Devices

The presentation that I gave with my colleague, Marissa Ball, at Handheld Librarian Online Conference II (February 17, 2010.) is now out as a book chapter in the new book published by Routledge, Mobile Devices and the Library: Handheld Tech, Handheld Reference (ed. Joe Murphy).

This is the first time my article has been published as a book chapter. So I am pretty excited. On the other hand, I am realizing how much time can pass between a presentation and a publication.

Almost two years have been passed since the presentation, but many of the observations we made in the presentation seem to still remain the case so far. Still the time passed alone makes me think that perhaps it’s time to revisit what I have reviewed back then two years ago…

You can see the original presentation slides here: http://www.slideshare.net/bohyunkim/mobile-access-to-licensed-databases-in-medicine-and-other-subject-areas.

Before becoming the book chapter, this presentation was also published as an article in The Reference Librarian 52(1), 2011.

I greatly appreciate that my library purchased this book as part of the professional development collection for the library staff.  (I didn’t get a copy of the book probably because the copyright belongs to the Taylor and Francis, the publisher of The Reference Librarian, on which the article originally appeared…)

I took a few shots from the book processed today at the library.

First page

 

Mobile Devices and the Library, Routledge, 2012

Contents

 

Two Simple Ways to Upgrade the User Experience of Your Library

If you ever had the feeling that your library space might look somewhat dull and unexciting, there might be some relatively simpler ways to change that.  The university I work at has two separate campuses and I work at one of them.  But this week, because of some committee work, I spent time at the other (BBC) campus. This was actually the first time that I had time to look around the library there. And I immediately noticed these colorful chairs on the first floor.

Colorful Chairs

Colorful Chairs at Florida International University BBC Campus Library

The library building at the BBC campus has a pretty traditional look. The building is clean and neatly kept, but the colors of the wall and the carpet are neutral and conservative. While this might induce the sentiments suitable for serious study and concentration, the uniformly neutral colors may also create an impression that the library is dull and boring.

I was quite impressed by how these several colorful chairs do a great deal in counteracting such an impression. Considering that re-painting or re-carpeting is quite expensive, adding some color chairs like this can be a simple and effective way to create a more positive impression about library space to users.

While I was hanging out at the first floor, I was looking for a power outlet to plug in my laptop.  The BBC campus library has power outlets on the floor in addition to some on the walls. This is a great feature because often users would be studying in the middle of the library space where they would be too far away from the walls.

Power Outets

Hard-to Notice Power Outlets

However, the power outlets are not very visible in its white color. Considering that a lot of library users look for power outlets, it would be great if they are made visually more prominent.

To come to think of it, hard-to notice power outlets are a problem in other places. At any coffee shop, the tables near the wall where power outlets appear are often the first ones to be taken.  The same goes for the chairs near power outlets at an airport.  I would be delighted if I can easily locate a free power outlet at a coffee shop or an airport. This means that easy-to-notice power outlets are one sure way for coffee shops and airports to win me over as their client.

Granted power outlets are not the major function of a coffee shop or an airport. But if it is an amenity that is highly sought-after by users, then why not make it easy for them to find and use it?

I wonder what other secondary functions or non-major amenities of a library are frequently used by library patrons and how we can make them stand out more. Perhaps, libraries can match those features with services or resources that they want to promote for a better marketing effect.

 

Beyond the Middlemen and the Warehouse Business

No Hyperbole

Seth Godin recently wrote a blog post about the future of the library. His question is mostly directed to public libraries, and so many responses came out already. (Among many see the posts by Bobbi Newman, Nancy Dowd, Buffy Hamilton.) But the question applies about the same to academic libraries. Godin’s argument goes like this:

  1. Librarians and libraries’ value lie in playing the role of the middlemen between the public and scarce content (books/information ).
  2. Books and information are no longer scarce and rather abundant in the digital era.
  3. The public can now directly access books and information without mediation by librarians and libraries.
  4. Therefore, libraries and librarians may become no longer needed.
  5. In order to avoid extinction, libraries and librarians must change from being the middlemen and the warehouse of content.

A few objections can be immediately raised by library-insiders:

  • Libraries are more than warehouses of books, since they provide valuable services, programs, and physical space.
  • It costs to obtain information, which makes it, by definition, not abundant.
  • Information is not so easily accessible considering how much instruction librarians have to provide the public regarding how to use them.

While these objections may well have some points, would they make sense to library users?  Are library users convinced that these objections prove the sufficient value of libraries and librarians?  If you work at an academic library, you would have met at least one academic who asks why a library is still needed. They say everything is online. I bet you have immediately cited the objections above. Did those objections convince the person?  If you work at a library, you would have met a library user who thinks librarians are mere clerks who purchase and shelve books. Did bringing up the points cited above persuade the person to think differently? Or did you just get a shrug out of the person?

To the eyes of most library users, the most important benefit lies in books and articles, not in reference, instruction, or any other library services or programs. So they regard libraries as warehouses and librarians as middlemen. If the survival of future libraries depends on the users’ perception and judgment on the value of libraries, the concern Godin expresses is not necessarily hyperbole.  And this public perception of libraries and librarians as warehouses and middlemen signifies the failure of proving the unique value of a library in the digital era.

What now?

What will take to persuade users to become the advocates of the future libraries? I don’t think raising the objections cited above will do the trick because they have been failing for a long time. Despite our best efforts, reference volume is going down and the place of library instruction in a curriculum is mostly marginal. If the cost for information goes down sufficiently and users can get faster and easier access, they may be willing to pay content-providers directly than libraries (indirectly through tuition/tax).

Looking back at the past and picking up the things that already have been tried with little success will not take us very far. And we don’t want to bet the future of libraries entirely on the current states of academic libraries being an accreditation criterion or those databases having unfriendly user interfaces.

Let’s Dream an Infectious Library Dream Together

I think it is time to stop arguing about how valuable libraries already are and start building some new visions about the future library. One idea that frequently comes up is the library as a community center connecting people with information. It’s not a bad idea, but it needs more details. How are libraries going to connect people with information in the way the mediation of libraries and librarians is ‘welcomed and appreciated’? Do our current libraries have a seed of the future libraries that beyond doubt presents indispensable value to library users? While possibilities abound, we do not have many convincing and attractive visions of future libraries that make sense to our users.

Here are some random ideas to start with. Not necessarily daring, inspiring, and by no means exhaustive or revolutionary but just to ignite more conversation. It is not easy to imagine things that do not exist yet. But right now, we need more imagination than criticism or skepticism. I hope and believe that if we have a worthwhile vision, we will be able to work to obtain sufficient resources to make it happen.

a. Libraries as TechShops?

This idea can apply to not only public libraries but also academic libraries such as an engineering or a design/architecture school library.  Library users will go to libraries to check out technologies, learn and experiment, and collaborate on projects using the tools, learning resources, and staff knowledge that libraries offers.  See the details of this idea here:

“Is It Time to Rebuild & Retool Public Libraries and Make “TechShops”?” – Make Magazine
http://blog.makezine.com/archive/2011/03/is-it-time-to-rebuild-retool-public-libraries-and-make-techshops.html

b. Libraries as Production Agencies?

The role of libraries has been traditionally focused on services that bring a third party’s product to users. But what if libraries place more weight on creating products of their own? Users will go to libraries to look for content that is curricular, educational, local, or for entertainment. Such content will not be simply curated and listed together but be produced as a complete stand-alone product. This will take libraries into the realm of content business.

c. Libraries as Institutional or Regional Knowledge Management and Preservation Agencies?

Even though libraries are already assuming this role to a certain degree, envisioning the future libraries as mainly a knowledge management and preservation agency will bring a significant shift in the library operation. Libraries will actively collect, curate, and provide access to the knowledge asset generated by an institution or a region that it serves. It will also function as a support center and a hub for those who create and produce such knowledge asset.

d. Libraries as a Competitive Intelligence Center?

Librarians could be trained to specialize in collecting, comparing, and analyzing data, which will only increase in volume in the digital era. Offering competitive intelligence service and products can significantly increase the value of libraries to the decision makers whether administrators in academia or small business entrepreneurs. The service and product offered in this case may be similar to those of corporate libraries through fee-based services.

e.  And many many more…

Add you own ideas here.

Do you have your own vision of future libraries? Let’s dream an infectious library dream together until we get to have multiple convincing pictures of the future library. Only two rules:

(i) Do not restrict your vision by current library structure, services, programs,  staff, funding, or other existing conditions.
(ii) Imagine the value of a library that will appeal more to ‘users’ than to librarians.

 

 

Library and IT – Synergy or Distrust?

In my previous blog post, I asked why libraries are not actively encouraging those who are novice coders among library staff to further develop their coding skills.

I was surprised to see so many comments. I was even more surprised to see that the question was sometimes completely misunderstood. For example, I never argued that ‘all’ librarians should learn how to code (!).  Those who I had in mind were the novice coders/librarians who already know one or two programming languages and struggle to teach themselves to build something simple but useful for practical purposes.

On the other hand, all comments were very illuminating particularly in showing the contrasts between librarians’ and programmers/IT professionals’ thoughts on my question. Below are some of the most interesting contrasts I saw. (All have been paraphrased.)

Librarian (L)
– I am interested in learning how to code but I lack time. Most of all, it is hard to find guidance.

Programmer/IT professional (P)
– There are lots of resources online. Don’t make excuses and plunge in.

L is lost in learning how to code while P thinks everything needed can be found online! Interesting, isn’t it? Ls and Ps are likely to be coming from two completely opposite backgrounds (humanities vs. sciences) and cultures (committee and consensus-driven vs. meritocratic and competitive).

Librarian (L)
– IT distrusts the library staff and doesn’t even allow admin privileges to the staff PCs.
– IT people are overprotective over their knowledge. Not all but many IT tasks are relatively straightforward and can be learned by librarians.

Programmer/IT professional (P)
– Librarians require an MLS for even technology positions. That is crazy!
– You are arguing that librarians can learn how to properly program in their spare time without gaining the proper theoretical understanding of computer science and training in software engineering. That is crazy!

L thinks P should recognize that library staff do work in technology just as IT does and wants P to be more open and sharing instead of being mysterious.  On the other hand, P wants to see L value programmers and IT for their expertise and thinks that an MLS is an unreasonable requirement for a technology position at libraries. I think both parties make excellent points. About the over-protectiveness, I think perhaps it is half true but half likely to be a communication issue.

And here are some of the most valuable comments:

  • Librarians tend to miss that there can be an overlap in the role of IT and that of librarians and regard them as completely separate ones.
  • The management buy-in is important in promoting technology in a library. A nurturing environment for staff development can be quite helpful for the library staff.

I think these two comments are very close to answering my question of why libraries don’t actively encourage and support those among the library staff who know how to code albeit in a rudimentary manner to further develop their skills and apply them to the library context. Although almost all libraries today emphasize the importance of technology, the role of librarians and that of IT, librarianship and technology are often viewed as completely separate from each other. Even when there is an interest in incorporating technology into librarianship, both libraries and LIS schools seem to be puzzled over how to do so.

It is no doubt a tough problem to crack. But it explains up to a certain degree why there is not much collaboration found between librarians and programmers (or IT in a wider sense) at most libraries. Why don’t the library and the IT at a college/university, for example, form a closely-knit educational/instructional technology center?  While reading the comments, I kept thinking about the story I heard from my friend.

My friend works at a large academic library, and the university s/he works at decided to merge the university IT and the university library into one organization to foster collaboration and make the two departments’ operation more efficient. Two departments came to reside in the same building as a result. However, there was so much difference in culture that the expected collaboration did not occur. Instead, the library and the IT worked as they had done before as completely separate entities.

The university administrators may have had the insight that there is an overlapping role between the library and the IT and seen the potential synergy from merging the two units together. But without the library and the IT buying into that vision, the experiment cannot succeed. Even where a library has its own IT department, the cultural difference may hinder the collaboration between the library IT and the rest of the library staff.

How can the gap between librarianship and IT be bridged? As I have already said, I don’t think that the problem is to be solved by ‘all’ librarians becoming coders or IT professionals. That would be implausible, unnecessary, and downright strange.

However, I believe that all libraries would significantly benefit by having ‘some’ library staff who understand how programming works and so all libraries should support and encourage their staff who are already pursuing their interests in coding to further develop their skills and deepen their knowledge. (This is no different than what libraries are already doing regarding their paraprofessionals who want to pursue a MLS degree!)  Even when those staff are not themselves capable of developing a complicated, production-ready software system, they can easily automate simple processes at libraries, solve certain problems, and collaborate with professional programmers in troubleshooting and developing better library systems.

So, my question was not so much about librarians as individuals as about the strategic direction of libraries whose primary concern is providing, packaging, disseminating, and maintaining information, resources, and data. And I am glad I asked my half-baked question. You never know what you will learn until you ask.

The way we communicate, Facebook, libraries, and life

Monday this week, Facebook announced its new messaging system. The new messaging system is Facebook’s attempt to unify SMS, email, instant messaging, and Facebook’s existing messaging service in the already powerful and vast social network platform with five hundred million users. I highly recommend actually watching the video included in this announcement because it explains well as what Facebook regards its new messaging system.

The main idea is to create a Social Inbox that unifies all different modes of communication based upon one’s social network, thereby giving the context and the priority often needed for us to move through different emails and messages. It is a smart move by Facebook.  And it’s a reason for one to worry even more about our putting too much of our (not even just social) lives into one private company’s hands whose business plan is yet to be known. What will Facebook take from us once it decides to make money out of what they own, i.e, data of our lives?

According to Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, the inspiration for this system came from a number of high school students who use mostly SMS or Facebook and rarely e-mails because e-mails are too formal and slow. So what does the Facebook messaging system offer to satisfy the teenagers’ needs for faster and more informal communication? Messages with no subject line, no cc, no bcc, one thread, and no need for paragraphs. Messages are sent as instant messages on Facebook, or either as an email or an SMS message depending on what the recipient “friend” prefers.

This sounds somewhat similar to what Google has attempted early this year with Google Wave but actually more ambitious. Also while the purpose of Wave was never quite clearly defined and focused too much on the real-time aspect of the communication, Facebook’s advertising for its new messaging system is simple and and to the point. It focuses on the convenience you will enjoy if you adopt the Facebook messaging system as the main platform for  your communication needs. That’s a much better sales pitch than real-time communication.

Facebook

Facebook by sitonmonkeysupreme in Flickr

Although Facebook explicitly specifies that its new messaging system does not intend to replace emails, the arrival of the new Facebook messaging system makes me worry about whether I will be soon living in the world inundated with the briefest messages like SMS and Twitter regardless of what setting I am in – work, family, friends, business, entertainment, culture, sports, etc.

I have recently realized that more and more people adopted the trend of forgoing the traditional greetings and sign-offs in their emails. No “Dear/Hi/Hello”, no “Best/Thanks/Cheers/Regards”, and often with not even the sender’s name in the email body. This SMS-like terse email trend is catching on thanks to the prevalence of smart phones.

Granted that typing itself is pain on the phone sometimes. It is only reasonable that the communication device we use determines the mode of our communication. However, this kind of e-mail style written on the phone is now becoming popular in normal e-mails that people compose in front of computers. Why bother with greetings and sign-offs if others do without them? So now everyone is sending emails like SMS messages. I confess that I initially felt quite far apart from those teenagers who complain that e-mails are too informal and too slow. But then I myself am not free from typing away on the phone terse and even cryptic emails trying to send out responses promptly on the go. And it is in an utterly informal fashion that I chat, vent, and joke with people on Twitter.

So the changes in the way we communicate are not just happening among teenagers. The informalization of everyday communication is happening to all of us. And one day, the mental reflex that interprets the terseness and informality of a message as rudeness may be regarded as a mere relic from the pre-digital age.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO LIBRARIES? Many libraries are already in Facebook and Twitter sending out and exchanging informal and brief messages. Some of the libraries also offer SMS as an option for users with research or reference questions. So are libraries going to be communicating with users in this increasingly more informal and faster manner?

Text a Librarian from http://www.textalibrarian.com

This would probably true for most library services. However I doubt if this would very much change the nature of research assistance that libraries offer. At least until we find a way to “think faster” rather than merely to communicate faster what we have thought.

Actually “communicate faster” may be an entirely wrong mantra for research as it may deprive you of the opportunity to critically reflect on the thoughts you have formed through research. Perhaps you made wrong assumption. Perhaps you missed an argument somewhere building up to your big proof.

How do librarians help users to do research better when the common mode of communication and information consumption becomes ever faster, immediate, and hectic? How do libraries show and persuade users that there are different gears they will need to use when they are in the middle of research while still engaging them and be responsive to the faster and more immediate communication channels that users make use of everyday? Certain services libraries provoke are simply not suited for the faster and immediate mode of communication and that’s due to the nature of research , not any fault of libraries.

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ps. On a personal note, I am intrigued by this passage in the Facebook announcement: I’m intensely jealous of the next generation who will have something like Facebook for their whole lives. They will have the conversational history with the people in their lives all the way back to the beginning: From “hey nice to meet you” to “do you want to get coffee sometime” to “our kids have soccer practice at 6 pm tonight.” That’s a really cool idea.”

I am inclined to think that if somebody asserts that having the entire conversation history of his or her life in Facebook is a great idea, then that somebody may as well not know much about life, which is filled with more things that we would rather forget than remember and with more break-ups and fall-aparts than happily-ever-afters.  Is it really sufficient to place the people we know into two categories, friends and non-friends?  Are those going to be the categories that we apply to the people we meet throughout our lives?  Of course, Facebook doesn’t have the evil plan to make our human relationships flat and shallow.  But now that friend-ing, poking, status-updating, liking, and brief messaging seem to be just  good enough, are we willing to go beyond that?  I believe we all have the need for hiding ourselves from time to time behind “the arbitrary ten digit numbers and bizarre sequences of characters.”  But Facebook thinks that’s anachronistic.

What is your management style?

Jenica Rogers wrote a thoughtful post today about management at her blog, Attempting Elegance. In her post, “Lessons Learned: Micromanaging,” she reflects on her management style as a new library director. She talks about how her personal strength and talent at project maangement has unexpectedly become a problem in her work as an administrator.

I think it would be a good practice to reflect upon one’s own management style whether one is a manager or not as we all have to manage at least our own time and work. Furthermore, as professional librarians, we are also often put in a position to manage temporary, hourly, and student employees or even volunteers.

My own management style is actually a complete opposite to Jenica’s. I love delegating and long to delegate more of my work, so that I can focus on and spend more time on certain projects that really need me. Just unfortunately, right now I don’t have many people to whom I can delegate some of my tasks.

I confess when I was in library school, I didn’t pay great attention in my management class. I figured I would be a lay librarian and I wouldn’t have much need for management sorts of things. I soon realized that that was a pretty wrong assumption. I recruited a couple of students in my first year as a professional librarian after I realized that I could not keep up with all the tasks by myself. Since I worked with students before and it worked so well at my previous workplaces where I was a paraprofessional, I thought it would be a piece of cake. How wrong I was! (And also that made me realize how great a manager my boss was.)

A Very Young Dancer

"25/365 from 'A Very Young Dancer' by Jill Krementz" Photo from Dream Diary in Flickr

The problem I had was that, unlike Jenica, I didn’t do enough micro-managing. For example, I expected my students to read up stuff that I gave them and then to apply what they learned to work, which I showed how to do just a few times in front of them. Of course, I supposed that they would ask me any questions as they arose, work and behave professionally, and appreciate the freedom and trust I gave them. And by all means, the tasks that I assigned them were the simplest ones, at least in my mind.

What I was doing wrong was to treat my student assistants in the way I like to be treated. Not that there is anything wrong with the Golden Rule, the mistake I made was to think that my student assistants would have the same kinds of needs and work styles as I do. I love working independently and excel at setting up projects and getting things done without much direction or guidance. Whenever I spot a problem, I am happy to do my own research, solicit feedback without being prompted,  make decisions to fix the problem, and accomplish goals that I see as my responsibilities. On the other hand, I do not enjoy spot-checking others’ work or writing reports about things that have been done.

Now this tendency of mine would work great if I were to supervise someone exactly like me. However, you can guess this wasn’t the case with my student assistants. Now that I think about it, the freedom and the trust that I placed upon them could have been baffling and confusing to them. They may not have fully understood exactly what the tasks were and, more importantly, how meticulous their work had to be for it to be useful to others. A lot of things that I expected my student assistants to be able to do themselves and apply to their tasks may well have been simply beyond their capabilities. In retrospect, they would have benefited from personal attention and lots of directions and guidance as well as frequent check-ups to ensure that they were on the right track. But as a complete newbie manager with the natural tendency of macro-managing (if that is a word), I completely missed all of this for a while. The result was, well, not quite great. Some of the work that was done by student assistants had to be redone by me, and some of the projects didn’t get finished.

It took a while for me to realize that the failure came from me just as much as from my student assistants. I wasn’t managing them in the way that they needed me to. I treated them as if they were just like me. While this may well be a good rule in ethics, it certainly is not so for a manger.

I read somewhere that treating everyone equally is not a strength of a manger. A good manager treats everyone differently because everyone is different (with different strengths, needs, and work styles). I would probably never be a micro-manager as I believe that everyone should achieve a certain level of expertise (i.e. independence) in their areas by learning their work and doing it well through practice and that all of us do our best work when we are internally motivated, not externally. However, we all need different things at different times in different projects. A good manager is someone who can see the needs of those who s/he manages and can offer what is needed for each individual at a given time. And there, the distinction between micro-managing and macro-managing may well be irrelevant. That I now know from my mistakes. What is your management style?

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