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Technology & Libraries: Now & Into the Future

ThomasMary Augusta Thomas, Deputy Director of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries (there are 20 of them), presented her views on technology and libraries in her keynote talk on the third (and final) day of Computers in Libraries. Given the Smithsonian’s preservation mandate, it was unsurprising for Thomas to say that knowing our history is important. Managing the past helps us plan strategically for the future. At the Smithsonian, new research methods, new discoveries (even new species), and new technologies change how people work. However, they still rely on the library for information. The library has moved into data curation and open access, for example, and will be creating profiles for Smithsonian researchers.

Thomas thinks that the mission of libraries will not change, but the mission statement and the way librarians accomplish their mission will change. Smithsonian libraries were embedded before the term embedded became popular. Their new mission statement is:

“The Smithsonian Libraries promotes new ideas through knowledge sharing. We play a dynamic role in advancing scientific and cultural understanding and in preserving America’s heritage. Our expert staff and extensive collections are a crucial resource for research and education communities at the Smithsonian, within the United States, and around the world.”

The Smithsonian continues its international exchange programs, although most is now done digitally. Future librarians, according to Thomas, will have highly developed skills to collaborate and cooperate. In the future, you may not know your users. Librarians need to learn how to tap into their community. Collaboration is crucial to this, as is knowledge management.

As library print collections move from books on shelves to special collections, library strategies much evolve. The act of discovery will not be dependent upon printed books. Technology will be important as libraries move into the future, as it has always been. Library as place will change as librarians give up ownership in favor of access. What happens to library? A quiet place to do research? An information commons? A person going around with a backpack? Community space? Whatever future libraries look like, what remains constant is the desire of librarians to want to be better than we are now. We want to be engaged with users and have our collections to relevant to their needs.

Practice Tactical Urbanism

Urban planner Mike Lydon, principal of Street Plans Collaborative, explained the origins of tactical urbanism in this morning’s keynote talk. As an advocate for making more livable places and better cities, he told stories about projects designed to give space back to people. Most of these projects started from unsanctioned, grassroots activities, some of which were actually illegal at inception. One person, for example, painted a crosswalk on a street. He was rewarded by being arrested.

Mike Lydon

Temporary projects, such as temporarily closing streets to create bike paths or pubic parks, often are sanctioned by governments, probably because they’re not permanent installations. However, it’s not unusual for temporary projects to become permanent, as governments discover that people like them. In Brooklyn, outside Lydon’s office, his firm worked with a group of partners to turn parking lot into a plaza with places to sit, trees, and a mural on the ground. Retail sales in the neighborhood exploded. Transforming parking lots into parks and plazas, putting up wayfinding signs to encourage walking in neighborhoods, and slowing traffic by altering curbs with traffic cones, according to Lydon, started as guerrilla projects.


His methodology is simple: Build. Measure. Learn. Start small and get your prototype in the ground as soon as possible.

What does this have to do with libraries? Lydon is a big fan of little free libraries, which fit well with his philosophy of making citizen-centered spaces. He would like to see libraries no longer regarded as closed spaces defined by book collections. He ended by suggesting that cities are the original internet, filled with random connections, and libraries are the servers.

Libraries as People, Place, and Platform

RainieCatLee Rainie, Director, Internet & American Life Project, PewResearchCenter, returned to Internet Librarian for the 4th time as a keynote speaker. This year he presented the results of the Center’s most recent research about public library usage. He had good news and bad news to report.

His first point was that libraries are deeply appreciated, even beloved, in their communities. Having a good library indicates a strong community. An impressive 91% of those Pew surveyed said that libraries are important to their communities and 76% said libraries are important to them and their families. Not only do they like libraries’ promoting literacy and providing free access to books and other materials, they like librarians and think librarians are very helpful. In fact, only firefighters and nurses are held in similar esteem. Rainie suggested capitalizing on this by having a tug of war between firefighters and librarians and holding a Jeopardy-type contest where librarians would probably “kick ass.”

What do people do in public libraries? They use the internet for research and for fun. They sent and received email. They looked up health information and visited government websites. They paid bills online and took online classes. When people don’t use libraries, it’s frequently because they believe they can find information on their own.

Libraries have a public relations problem. People want the library to be technologically advanced, but don’t think the library has done a good job of keeping up. They don’t tend to know all the services that libraries offer. This is where librarians need to be more aggressive about selling themselves.

Rainie presented copious data on the diversity of library users. Women use libraries more than men and there’s low usage among those over 65 years old. Similar statistics hold true for library website users. One key to usage is children. Those with children at home use libraries frequently. Capitalize on this by seeking out “Mommy bloggers” in your neighborhood, recommended Rainie. The “detached population,” where the library is not part of their lives, is a fertile field for growth, since they don’t use the library, don’t have library cards, don’t have family members who are library users, and don’t even know the location of their library.

Early next year, on the Pew website, will be a quiz widget asking “What kind of library user are you?” If libraries put this on their website, Rainie is convinced usage will go up, since “quizzes are like catnip for internet users.”

When Pew asked for library patrons’ wishlists for new services, the answers were extensive but undifferentiated. People want new technology but they also want quiet study areas. Some want books moved out of the way to free up space for computers. Others don’t. There’s no clear mandate revealed by the data.

Where Pew did see a mandate—intervention into community life. As local newspapers fade, the library can take on a local civic role, distributing local civic news. People would like the library to become more involved with local schools and with literacy training. Some libraries are setting up “help desks” for local entrepreneurs and helping businesses cope with information overload.

The new library is all about people, place, and platform. Libraries need to address market and cultural shortcomings, such as skills training in new literacies, pre- and after-school programs, English as a second language, credentialing competencies, filling gaps in the local media ecosystem, and helping local businesses and non profits. Libraries should become “serendipity agents of discovery” and move unafraid toward the future.

Although Rainie’s talk was couched entirely in Pew’s public library research, academic and school librarians can take some knowledge nuggets home as well. Still, it would be nice if Internet Librarians weren’t regarded only as being in the public sector


Research Meets Reality

Unisphere Research has been doing studies on library budgets and spending for the past few years. In a Friday afternoon session, Thomas Wilson, Unisphere’s president, presented recent statistics to a panel with real world experience in many spheres of the library market. The panelists, Dick Kaser (Information Today), David Lee King (Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library), Frank Cervone (Purdue University Calumet), Mike Diaz (ProQuest), and Joe McKendrick (Unisphere) reacted to the numbers, giving the audience their interpretations of what was behind Unisphere’s findings.

Panelists react to Unisphere's statistical findings

Panelists react to Unisphere's statistical findings

Not too surprisingly, King and Cervone had different approaches to the materials on which they spend money. Public libraries don’t buy scholarly journals; university libraries do. Both are interested in ebooks, but the type of titles are very different, with publics looking at popular fiction and universities opting for books that support the curricula. Diaz commented that libraries, at this point, often want titles both in print and as ebooks.

All agreed that cloud computing would have an enormous effect on library services going forward. The influence cloud computing would have on library budgets could depend on the size of the library and which services could migrate to the cloud.

It’s always interesting when statistical tables, which were the slides on the screen for this session, take on a life of their own as people explain them in the contexts of their working lives.

Going Boldly into the Present

Michael Edson, Director Web Strategy & New Media, Office of the CIO, Smithsonian Institution, delivered the keynote speech on the third day of Computers in Libraries. He began by telling the audience to “Go boldly into the present.” The present? Huh? Edson continued, “To talk about where we go from here, you have to think about where we are and where we’re going to. We’re no longer in a culture of continuity.”

When he began at the Smithsonian, Edson thought strategists were visionaries. He’s now concluded that strategy should be a physical tool, a shared story, that makes something happen. We’ve been galvanized over the past few years about how quickly things disappear. We need tools to think about new ideas. Innovation is an endurance race.

Snap out of the idea that strategy is about the broadcast idiom. He cited books written between 2002 and 2006 that recognize the importance of community. These ideas are absent from strategy workshops. You can build real strategies from the long tail, Joy’s law, cognitive surplus, network effects, and Moore’s law and mobile, and the recognition that every user is a hero. We’re not in a read culture, it’s a read/write world. We can build on these ideas, they’re not new anymore.

Big piece of what we think of as the distant future is here now. It presents us with a real, bankable opportunities. For example, the World War II Museum in New Orleans sees results of digitization as a reputation and revenue builder. Cheap platforms and successful examples are all around us in abundance.

What can we do differently to create value? How do we pivot? Edson described five patterns.

1. Extraterrestrial space auditor: Compare what organization says it does with what actually happens.

2. On ramps and loading docks: Innovation is likely to happen somewhere else, not inside walls of organization. How can we get ideas and volunteer labor into our organizations. Think expansively about what a platform is.

3. Edge to core: Innovation happens at the edges, but edge innovators need a commons

4. Focus on the mission: Have big, audacious goals

5. Place the bet. It’s all about execution.

Michael Edson

Michael Edson

Finally, ask yourself, what world am I living in? What impact does my country, my city, my organization want to have in that world? What should I do today? This is your job and society needs you to succeed at it. Think big, start small, and move fast. Go boldly into the present.









Battle Decks

All is not serious learning at Computers in Libraries. Thursday evening featured Battle Decks: Dead and Innovative Technology, where “battlers” faced an array of slides they’d never seen and had to create, on the fly, in front of a large audience, a coherent presentation, theoretically about the theme of dead and innovative technology. Not only had they not seen the slides before, they had to get through every one of them in 3 minutes. Since battlers controlled the clicker, they had to move quickly through the slides, without pausing to scrutinize them. It was a fun evening!

Battle Deck contestants and judges

Battle Deck contestants and judges