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September, 2009:

Present Policies for Future Special/Archival Collections

If you have a brand-new library for a brand-new organization, how would  you build special collections for the organization?  Ironically, it is easier to work on special collections when you already somehow have some stuff under the category of special collections. This is the case whether there existed any concrete plan and guidelines for collecting items for the special collections or not in the past. Most old libraries and archives have lots of backlogs that they need to work on. There is not much time to spare on collecting items for the future special/archival collections.

On the other hand, if you are a new library for a new organization, it is hard to think of ways to build and preserve special collections for the future. Special collections mean literally items with special values, and those values are often determined by their enduring historic value and also their rarity.  So how can you claim documents that are one month old as an item for special collections? And what can a new library do for the not-yet-existing future special collections?

There is a unique opportunity for a new library that belongs to an equally new organization. The library can systemically plan and collect important items from the beginning of the organization’s history.

The challenge is, however, how to identify the materials that will have a historic importance in the future. Some of the materials are easier to identify. For example, today, I have deposited the first three items for the space given to the medical library inside the university’s institutional repository.  Those items were the program, the invitation, and the ticket for the new medical school’s white coat ceremony for its inaugural class. Yes, these items are right now only one and a half month old. However, not many people would dispute the fact that many years later, these items will attest to the significant moment of the school’s official opening. However, the historic value and importance of some other items may well be much more difficult to determine.

How do you selectively collect items when their values are not yet tested by time? You may end up with junk. On the other hand, if you wait too long, you may find that important items have been already lost because no one was planning to systemically collect them for future reference.

So, what policies can guide a new library, so that the library can build a rich special/archival collections for the organization it serves? Collect first then weed later? Or collect items only after a certain amount of time? Add to these difficulties the fact that most of the items that will be collected for the future special/archival collection will be in a digital format. In what system are you going to store them in a way that the future library staff can go through later on to determine which to keep and which to discard?

Being a new library planning a rich future special/archival collection doesn’t seem so easy.

Information Unfettered – Augmented Reality

We often say we need to go online to find information about something. But the piece of information that we want is mostly about physical things in the real world. When you assemble scattered data and bring relations to one another, those data produce additional information because they were given a context, which is essential to human understanding.

Now we can bring those data to our current surroundings to gain an immediate understanding about our surroundings in real time. Apps on smart phones are ready to give us “Augmented Reality” (AR).

You place your smart phone in front of you and scan your surroundings. The smart phone can show you the menu or restaurants that you are passing by. Check Yelp. The nearest subway stations from you? Use Nearest Tube. Want to layer a Real Estate filter on the world and find out the prices of houses on the street you are walking down? Try Layar.

“When I shift my thinking about AR apps to the physical library space I see our whole collection opening up before our eyeballs. Imagine the ability to walk down an aisle and see the reviews and popularity of an entire shelf titles just by pointing the camera lens on your phone at the spines (or outfacing covers),” writes Helene Blowers in her blog, Library Bytes.

When I think about AR, I see the whole world, the real physical world in which I move, live, play, and work, being transformed into a gigantic library. The library is no longer one place where you go for information. AR brings information to the world and makes it a library of your own. This library is not only extremely fun because you can interact with it in real time, but also immediately intelligible. Your perception is augmented by your mind. Information is provided in its context. This library is the real world layered with information over it. AR presents the world infused with information, an amazing library that is your breathing, living environment.

Recently, the MIT Media Lab developed a wearable computer which brings information on the object you are holding or looking at to any surface. Can you imagine? You can walk around and find all the information you want about anything you would like, and you may not even need a smart phone to get the information or to manipulate it.

Perhaps we really won’t need a library in the future because the library will be with us anywhere we go.

  • Layar, worlds first mobile Augmented Reality browser

  • TED talk: Talks Pattie Maes and Pranav Mistry demo SixthSense

Libraries – Organizational Culture

Libraries often talk about changes. But for an organization that aspires to achieve a significant transformation from a real-time learning and information center, there seems to be not so much discussion about the change of organizational culture. Even at libraries where librarians are appointed as faculty rather than staff, there is often a strict hierarchy of ranks, and this hierarchical culture may hinder open discussions on various issues.

What is quite interesting is that librarians themselves are quite well aware of this issue. In “Views and Dreams: A Delphi Investigation into Library 2.0 Applications,” Jenny Bronstein and Noa Aharony present the survey results to the question of how probable and desirable for all library staff members to collaborate in the development and/or planning of new library services, procedures, or policies. The result showed that while 73 percent thought it was desirable, only 30.5 percent believed it was probable. So while the majority wants something, the same majority also understands that it would probably not happen.

This survey results emphasize the gap between what librarians deem to be desirable for libraries and how present libraries as organizations are likely to respond to various challenges that they are facing.

I think that the gap may be partly the result of libraries’ hierarchical organizational structure and conservative and reserved organizational culture. I often wonder how great it would be if librarians can work at libraries that are more like innovative think-tanks than any run-of-the-mill companies, where staff are encouraged to experiment and to openly discuss issues about library programs and services. But the reality is that we want to make libraries a civilized workplace!

Michael Stephens at Tame the Web has posted a inspiring code of conduct which belongs to the Menasha Public library staff. There are two agreements, one for staff and one for supervisors. The agreement is so simple and commonsensical. After all, one of the items in the agreement is “Everyone will say good morning, please, and thank you to everyone with good will, no matter what their relative position.” Someone may wonder what kind of code this is if it states such an obvious thing. However, kindness and respect begin with small steps and those small steps can have a big impact on the morale of a library staff.

Robert Sutton, a professor in Stanford Business School regards nasty and demeaning behavior as something similar to an infectious disease in his book, The No Asshole Rule. Even without explanation, we understand from experience that our emotions are easily transferred to others and that particularly negative emotions are powerfully infectious.

Now, this is something all supervisors need to keep in mind in my opinion. It is impossible for one to be always happy and cheerful. There are days on which one is down, tired, and grumpy. But if you are a supervisor, you have the obligation to stop those emotions from getting in the way of interacting with your staff. If negative emotions from peers have a negative impact on people’s emotions, how greater the impact would be when those negative emotions come from their bosses?

Like many people, I had the experience of working with a boss who sometimes became cranky and moody. My boss was usually cheerful, but sometimes I could tell that s/he was grumpy. S/he was in many ways a wonderful supervisor, but what I most admired about her/him was that when s/he was having a bad day, s/he rarely failed to tell me so directly. As a result, I was rarely stressed out nor wondered if it was something I did wrong. Of course, theoretically we all should be able to separate our life from work and put aside our personal issues. But when that fails, the best thing one can do is to simply admit it. This will prevent others from assuming that you are mean and nasty. Even Sutton points out that almost all of us turn into temporary assholes from time to time and we can always overcome the asshole inside us by recognizing it.

The fact that emotions are infectious is not a necessarily bad thing. That means that if you are nice to someone, that itself may suffice to make the person happy. Although this seems like such a trivial thing,  it is not. Just by saying “Good Job” or “Thank you”, you may just increase the level of your staff’s job satisfaction by a notch!

Sutton also demonstrates that there is a clear inverse relationship between workplace productivity and efficiency and the nasty and demeaning behavior among workers.  As Kate Sheehan points out in her posting as a TTW guest, while this usually works as a sufficient reason for for-profit organizations to establish and practice no asshole rules as their hiring guidelines while libraries, like most non-profit organizations, deal more in intangibles and don’t look to the balance sheet for guidance.

So in these critical times of rapid changes and numerous challenges, libraries struggle to be a “civilized” workplace. I know that this is a desirable goal and we should all try to adopt and practice such a code of conduct like that of the Menasha Public Library.  Still, I wondered for a minute if we also need to address a more fundamental issue such as whether the current organizational structure and culture of libraries can enable and support the libraries of the future that all of us seem to want – innovative and inspiring information and learning commons.

Magic is more in your staff than in technologies

Roy Tennant recently posted “The Top Ten Things Library Administrators Should Know About Technology” in TechEssence blog. Among the ten things, what I like most is No. 4: “Maximize the effectiveness of your most costly technology investment — your people.”  In the other post, “Your ideas for “Top Ten Things“” a similar suggestion appears: “Allow your staff time and resources to experiment – even if nothing comes of it. Innovation comes with risks.”

I wholeheartedly agree with these as a solo web services librarian. One of the challenges for solo web-services librarians is the scarcity of R&D time. It may be true that technologies are getting easier and cheaper all the time. But that doesn’t mean that there will be less things that the staff should learn and experiment with every day. Actually, more technologies usually require more human efforts for maintenance.

As a librarian who work in e-resources management (ERM), I am often surprised by the fact that most people are simply unaware of how much maintenance is required to make those electronic resources to be accessible by one-click as many library users expect. There is no magic in online resources that would make accessing them more easy and efforless than in print resources. There are systems to be configured, maintained, and updated on a daily basis, and there are people who are configuring, maintaining, updaing those systems every day. If a library user is clicking one link and is taken to the full-text page of an article immediately, that means that a lot of people spent a lot of time on making that happen wihtout an error. Technologies do not necessarily cut down on the work that the library staff have to do in order make those technologies work as expected. Many users take it for granted that links in OPAC records work. But they rarely think about how many times catalogers have been updating those links over and over again in order to keep them up-to-date.

In a similar way, technology librarians have the burden of learning new technologies, deciding on whether they would be a good fit for a given organization, implementing them the way they would get widely adopted, tweaking them in the way that they would fit better with either users or staff’s workflows, and supporting and maintaining them so that they would continue to be tools that boost productivity. Even if it were true that technologies get cheaper and easier all the time, it isn’t true that technologies simply work and work better and better all the time.

Most solo web services librarians know too well that they have to continuously train themselves and learn new things. But not often are they given sufficient time to do so. And that is because there are many more urgent day-to-day tasks to be taken care of.  It is important to complete those tasks in a timely manner. However, without sufficient time for R&D, learn, and experiment, technology librarians are likely to be either burned out or become less effective. On the other hand, they are likely to blossom when encouraged to experiment and take initiatives in new technologies. After all, they are the ones who love to work with technologies and want to show how those technologies can improve everyday work.

Imagine a library that can afford best technologies all the time regardless of costs. Still, that library won’t be the best unless it has techie librarian staff who would work on how to make those technologies fit and work in the way that would best benefit library users and staff. One can buy technologies any time, but dedicated and knowledgeable staff cannot be established in a day. The magic is in staff, more than in technologies.

My MLIS program experience

Thanks to a blog post, “MLIS Programs Need To Be Revamped,” I had a chance to reflect on my MLIS program experience. I am a relatively new graduate. Like many other LIS students, I have attended the program part-time while working full-time at libraries.

Although I wished a few times that I were attending the LIS program full-time, I still think that I learned much more because I was working full-time at various libraries while studying. There are several disadvantages to being a part-time student. Less face-to-face time with your fellow students, LIS professors, less chances to work on any distinct awards or scholarships (mostly due to the lack of time), and less chances to be involved in any student chapters of various LIS associations such as ALA and ASIS&T.

But there are some great advantages as well. One of them is a chance to meet with great librarians and have them as mentors. As in any vocation, what is taught to be librarianship and what librarians actually do every day are quite different. Although it is true that a lot of instructors at LIS programs are either current or ex-librarians, meeting them in a classroom and working with them at libraries are two different things.

In my case, it was working with great librarians that convinced me that I picked the right path. I decided to become a librarian after I quit the PhD program I was attending. At that time I didn’t have a slightest realistic idea about what being a librarian is like other than that a librarian works with books, which by the way is becoming more and more an anachronistic idea. But I knew some good librarians that I respected. I was also extremely lucky in meeting great librarians as my supervisors. They were passionate and knowledgeable about what they did, and this greatly impressed me. My ex-bosses were surprisingly generous in training me and giving me chances to take initiatives. They also were happy to listen to my (many times naive) ideas and to provide guidance and advice.

Many LIS students who work as library assistants are quite knowledgeable and intelligent. They may not know all the details and challenges of librarianship, but often they spent much time in academia (with Master’s degrees in non-LIS areas) and/or have the experience of working for years in other areas as  professionals. (I also believe that it is a generalizable truth that smart people who love to learn are naturally drawn to librarianship.)

Unfortunately, work assigned to library assistants are often clerical and mundane. This can easily depress ambitious budding librarians. I still have the vivid memory of fixing all the broken links in the knowledge base of an open-url link resolver system day after day. It was an undoubtedly repetitive task. But the fact that my boss made efforts to explain to me exactly how open url works and how that creates and solves various problems in e-resources management made the mundane work interesting and more bearable. (And I assure  you, explaining this to newbies is not an easy task.)  At one library, I made several video tutorials. Those who worked on making video tutorials know that it can be quite tedious and time-consuming. But the fact that I was encouraged to document the process, experiment with various tools, collaborate with very smart and cool student workers, and present the result to the library staff made all the difference. I loved working on video tutorial projects.

In addition to having these lucky chances to meet and work with great librarians, I also tried to maximize my advantage as a full-time library assistant/part-time LIS student by picking courses that would have direct bearings on the work I was doing at that time. Right after I worked at a corporate library, I took a course on corporate libraries. While working at a library that was going through some digitization projects, I took courses on preservation management and digital libraries. While working at a reference desk, I took a reference class. And while I was working at a systems office, I took technology-related courses and had a great conversation with a systems librarian who was usually very very busy for a chat. (I was never refused an interview when I requested it for homework!)

Of course, it would be far from the truth if I say that I enjoyed my MLIS program 100 % . I took some classes that I wasn’t interested in because they were required. I did some assignments that I thought were not that helpful. I sometimes skipped classes because I was bored. And many times I wishsed that there were certain classes that I could take for credit, which were only infrequently or not offered at all. There were also classes that I wanted but could not get in because they were already filled up. On the other hand, I also have to admit that there were classes in which I would have been more attentive if I had known that I would be looking for jobs in those certain areas. I also still wish I had more time to interact with faculty/instructors/students in the program while I was attending the program.

But overall, I think it is still a good strategy to work at a library first, see if it really is something one would like to do as a career, and then continue working while attending the program. Working with real librarians, watching them work, and learning from them was the greatest lesson I learned. I hope that many LIS students try working at various libraries in many different areas of librarianship to find out which area interests them most and which type of libraries is the best fit for them.

One thing that surprised me most after I started working as a full-fledged librarian was how much more challenging it is to be a Digital Services Librarian than I thought. I had previous (and strong I thought!) experience in almost all the aspects of what I do right now. Still the level of responsibility and decision-making involved in being a librarian, particularly a solo web services librarian, was higher than I thought. This is a great thing because it proves that librarianship is full of challenges and adventures. I kind of hoped that that would be the case when I was a LIS student. But I am happy that I can confirm it as an actual truth now.