Sunday, June 27, 2004

Urban Libraries and the Scan

Yesterday (Saturday) at the ALA Conference, I had a chance to talk with the Urban Libraries Council's (ULC) Forecasting Study Group about the future of libraries generally, and urban public libraries specifically. There are about a dozen people on the Study Group, and several other library directors showed up for the discussion. Joey Rodger, the soon to depart President of ULC, also participated in the discussion.

During the first hour of the conversation, I never mentioned the Scan. The Study Group had been involved in making recommendations to the ULC Board about how to think about the future in their environment. Andrew Blau had led a discussion with the ULC Board about scenario planning in the Global Business Network model.

The goal of scenario planning is not predict the future. Instead, the idea is to construct alternative views that are outside of your natural inclinations and ideas. What might the world be like if this trend continues, or if the current realities play out logically? What do the demographics tell us about the future? It has often been said that science fiction is never really about the future, it's about the present. In the same vein, scenario planning isn't about knowing the future, it's about understanding the present. Good scenario planning lets you see what's happening now a little differently.

Good scenario planning is also remarkably labor and cost intensive. So the ULC Board has been struggling with ways to create a futures-based planning process that can be broadly useful without breaking the bank.

A big part of the discussion before we talked about the Scan was centered on what the role of the public library would be in an age of information plentitude rather than information scarcity. Much discussion ensued about the role of the library in building community. The remarkable Herb Elish, director of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, talked about how public libraries make social engineering decision every time they decide where to place a branch library. Do you place the branch in the center of a culturally siloed (by nationality, race, income) community, or do you place it on the borders between different communities, to encourage people who might never meet otherwise to interact in this space?

Next, the directors talked about library staffs and what's happening on that front. Several noted that they have hired Generation X and Generation Y librarians, with resulting generational and culture clashes between these generations and the Boomers (in the interest of full disclosure, I'm a Boomer, due to turn 49 next week). One director related a story about a leadership program that she had been involved with in her home state. Those two masters of library leadership, John Shannon and Becky Schreiber, were leading a discussion about the changes in how people seek information. They related their own experiences in using libraries less as they seek answers on Google. The participants in the program, librarians who are expected to be the leaders of our profession in years to come, mostly people in their 30's and very early 40's, tried to tell John and Becky that they weren't really finding what they needed. Forcefully but diplomatically, Becky and John tried to convince these folks that, yes, indeed, they are finding what they need, thank you very much. The new leaders simply can't face the reality that traditional reference services are being eclipsed by Google and Yahoo.

Ginnie Cooper, director at Brooklyn Public Library and chair of the committee, talked about how most of the top companies in the US at the turn of the 20th century no longer existed at the turn of the 21st. The few that are still around have drastically changed their businesses. She specifically noted that GE made and sold light bulbs in 1900; today they still sell bulbs, but now, they outsource the manufacture and just put them in GE-branded boxes. Instead, GE makes its money on finance and medical imaging technologies, business models that didn't even exist in 1900. This made me think that the library of the future may have automated and hidden their finding services so completely and so effectively that the public face of the service will be utterly different.

Joey suggested that ULC might consider encouraging a skunkworks, maybe five libraries that would implement off-the-wall ideas as a testbed for new ideas. Herb said that this was a great idea, but in order for it to work, the libraries would need to bring in people from outside the profession as a reality check, to challenge preconceptions and prejudices. I reminded them of the old saw, "We don't know who discovered water, but we know it wasn't a fish."

After an hour of stimulating discussion and a 20-minute break full of lots of smaller, equally intriguing conversations, I gave an overview of the Scan, focusing on the landscapes, the dominant trends (decrease in guided access to content, disaggregation, and collaboration and context), and the three themes (self-sufficiency, satisfaction, and seamlessness). I hit a couple of the major factors as they apply to public libraries: the "third place," the changes in the profession, the collections grid (Lorcan and Eric Childress would disavow the grid if they knew how quickly and shallowly I covered their brilliant concepts), and I wrapped up by saying that if we never ask the unaskable, if we refuse to think the unthinkable, we will never reach beyond our current reality. And the current reality will not hold.

Herb noted that we can't be a successful third place if all we offer is the sort of dry materials that frequently characterize the lower right hand quarter of the grid (sorry, Lorcan and Eric---it was my interpretation, not your ideas!) This kicked off a discussion of how important well-curated special collections are to furthering the mission of the public library. Several directors noted that the best exploitations of the special collection were being done by people who came from a museum or public relations background.

Joey and Herb stressed that a true leader needs to create a compelling vision of where she is leading people, rather than giving them reasons simply to tear away from the old stuff. Joey noted, in a phrase I am sure to steal in the future, Moses was able to get the Hebrews to follow him for forty years in the desert because he provided a vision of a Promised Land before them, he didn't reinforce the memory of Egypt behind them.

The next part of the fast-moving discussion centered on the changing roles of reference in the public library. One director noted that Adult Service in general is not adopting to the new world as effectively as Children's Service has. Reference librarians still consider themselves the "priestly class" in libraries, even if that opinion does not permeate the whole institution.

Barbara Gubbin, the director of the Houston Public Library and a member of the OCLC Board asked about the role of public libraries in the new wave of worldwide immigration. She and Dr. Wai-Fong Lee, a trustee of the King County (Washington) Library and a board member of ULC, noted that this is not a US phenomenon; as Eastern Europe has opened up and tried to integrate more with the EU, there are millions of people immigrating across that continent. There are Asians and Africans on the move within and outside their continents. Joey noted that Gary Strong (late of Queens Borough Public Library and now the dean of libraries at UCLA) said years ago that "Community information is now your locality and the country you came from." Through e-mail, online newspapers and radio broadcasts, and relatively inexpensive air fares, the isolation of the immigrant is a thing of the past, and many immigrants live with one foot in their current home and one in the home of the birth (or their parents' birth).

Patrick Losinski of the Columbus Metropolitan Library asked about the passage in the Scan that notes that there have not been demonstrable improvements in library productivity that are attributable to increased automation. I noted that it has only been in the last couple of years that the economy as a whole has been able to measure the productivity impact of automation in non-manufacturing industries. I offered the opinion (and that's ALL it is) that library operations have always been resistant to numerical assessment. It is possible to compare how many hours it took to build a Chevrolet Impala in 1958, and how many hours it takes to build a 2004 Impala, and to see how productivity has changed in those years. There is little baseline information to compare in libraries, especially in public services.

Finally, we talked about what "seamlessness" means in the context of the Scan. I talked about how I see this as being willing to let go of our traditional desire to get the customer in the door (whether that door is physical or virtual) and presenting our services where our putative clients are, allowing them to get to those services directly. I said that we might want to consider spending less time building library web sites and more time building connectivity with the web sites to which those clients already go.

I closed by suggesting that we need to change our dialogue in the profession. I said that we need to have a public debate with a "resolved" that might read, "RESOLVED, that libraries need to get out of the cataloging and reference business and move into the information and community businesses." I said that perhaps our cataloging services need to move from the front, the gateway between the user and the material, to the back, as the invisible guide to the information that user needs. Reference perhaps will be about collecting and organizing information in the background to ensure that within the proper context the user will find exactly what she wants without any apparent external intervention. Community building will be using our resources to create and support communities of interest, be they vocational, ethnic, national, political, or personal interest. The session effectively ended when someone asked me, "Does OCLC know you're talking like this?"


Alane said...

Well, some people at OCLC know we are, don't they? But lots don't. As my first boss and mentor, Alan H. MacDonald, used to say to his young and feisty librarians at the University of Calgary: it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission. So, it's all his fault.

brennan said...

you should never call Herb Elish "remarkable" because of his greedy money hungry hands tens of thousands of people lost there jobs and a company that he had taken healthy was left crippled once he left. Elish is the worst kind of person there is in this world.