Value-Added: Be Part of the Journey

When I began my professional career, I took a lot of pride in testing the limits of what I could do. I wanted to be the best reference librarian, the best teacher, the best administrator. I measured my value in exhaustive and exhausting projects and lists. The more accomplishments I could mark off the list, the more presentations I delivered, the more valuable I had become.

I felt a compulsive need to prove myself.

After a few years that wore thin. I still enjoyed turning in my best performance and getting big things done, but the satisfaction of each accomplishment was disproportionate to the amount of energy I was pouring in. I was getting tired, frustrated and more than a little bit bored.

And then something significant happened. I decided to focus less on what I could accomplish and more on what I could help other people accomplish. I discovered the joy of being part of excellent teams.

I lead a great team in my library. Every member of my team has a super power, though a few of them don’t quite realize it yet. The best part of my work is finding ways to help other people discover their super powers and ways to make those powers more useful. I also enjoy the challenge of finding ways to let their super powers increase my own.

Today my team said goodbye to Matthew Ownby. Matthew was offered an excellent opportunity with a major news company. It wasn’t a gift he sought. It was a gift that found him because he is excellent.

Matthew joined my team last September, which means he was with us about 9 months. In that time, he brought fresh perspective, aesthetic talent and good humor to projects we had already been doing. Matthew wasn’t always about doing new things. He was about doing useful things in a new way. He helped make us better.

And now that he’s left, people ask if I’m worried or scared to be back in the hunt so soon for a new team member. The truth of it is, I feel happy. I am proud of we did and excited to see what lies ahead for us all.

Too often, I think, organizations hire people on the belief that they need stability and some mythological thing called “long-term fit”, the person who is going to stay for 30 years. That is, I think, the wrong approach.

Better to hire the person who can move you forward, the person who can add value and help you become what you aren’t yet but need to be. Better to hire the person to whom you can add value as well, and then, when the time comes, part ways better off for the experience. Be it 9 months or 30 years, these are the people you need on your team.

I am grateful to have such people my teams, both in my library and in various projects outside. It is often humbling to find myself useful to excellent people. It is great fun to be part of their journey. Adding value and having value added — both are inspiration and a catalyst for the excellence I so often crave.

Why SEO Matters to Librarians

I spent last Friday at the Knoxville-based Social Slam, an annual one day conference about social media as a tool for business marketing and communication. As usual, I found myself powerfully inspired by ideas from a bunch of folks in professions outside my own. This is how professional development is supposed to happen. Toss yourself headfirst into a gathering of smart people with adjacent but different interests from your own and start talking.

As an educator and librarian, I found a lot to learn from small business owners, marketing reps and social media mavens. I will post some of those lessons along the way.

I arrived late, missing the morning keynote. My first session was a primer on search engine optimization, or SEO. SEO is a series of skills, design practices and habits intended to improve a website’s ability to be found.  Information is not scarce. Attention is scarce. Getting found is as important as having something unique and useful to offer. If you can’t get yourself, your business or your cause found online, you might not exist. There are several essential habits to make your online presence more findable. The panel talked about the importance of clear, accurate metadata. They discussed the usefulness of well-crafted headlines and tagged images. All of these SEO-related suggestions are habits of good web design. They shouldn’t surprise anyone, least of all librarians. They make websites, including library websites, findable.

Librarians care about SEO because we need our sites to findable. Students Google my library pages more often than they click to them from college pages.  I have seen members of my own team Google to our page rather than use browser bookmarks. Google (okay, and maybe Bing) are the gateway to getting found and being used.

Nothing shocking. That did not catch me off guard. Librarians should care about SEO because we need to market ourselves and be found.

Then the conversation turned to the social graph and the work Google and others are doing to personalize search results based on shares, clicks and other social metrics. Wonder why Google Plus exists? Google needed to get access to lots of social information about web user behavior and most of the best data was locked up in Facebook. Google Plus exists to shape what users find when they search. Google wants to learn enough about your interests and patterns of web use to predict which 2 or 3 sites will be most useful from a search results page of 23,000,000. They give you thousands of pages of results but really only care about the first few on that first page. They want those to be right, accurate and contextually relevant. They are getting better at it.

Search is getting personalized. As social interactions are folded into search algorithms, the social media footprints of a business or individual becomes more important. The panelists demonstrated how tools like Google Author can lift a blogger up search results and how Google Business listings can create a strong initial landing page in Google results. Well-focused content on Google Plus, Twitter and other sites can tie users to your site and create a kind of gravity toward your pages. Better yet, their check-ins and mentions can create a kind of gravity to bend their friends and their friends’ friends search results toward your site. This is important to librarians for a few reasons.

Librarians must understand and help others to understand how search works. It isn’t only about keywords anymore. Things are more complex.

Librarians need to know how content providers can shape their rankings to become more visible in a targeted market.

Most interestingly, SEO in the age of social search means that search results are personalized. Two people logged into their Google accounts can search for the same topic at the same time and get very different results. The age of one-size fits all library instruction is going away. Search is personalized; the results are custom-tailored.

We are just at the beginning of this new kind of search. I wonder what it will mean for phone-based reference consultations. “Go to Google, type this, visit the third link down” type information won’t work anymore.

We have to let people know how this kind of searching works. We need to advise them on the benefits, which are many, and help them opt out if they wish to do so.

I did a quick search on librarians and SEO and didn’t come up with much. Most people, like me, have been coming to the topic from the perspective of marketing their sites. SEO is how we get found.

I left the session realizing that my profession keeps getting more and more interesting. SEO is about how search works. If we can’t master that concept, we can’t be effective.

Libraries Help People Get Better Questions

Last week, I wrestled a bit with articulating what libraries contribute to the college, school or community to which they belong. As usual, I overgeneralized a bit, ramped up the enthusiasm and tossed in a double dash of hyperbole. That’s just how I roll. I had some really get conversations with people, librarians and not librarians, about those posts.

For me, everything comes back to curiosity. Libraries are places that should promote and reward curiosity. And so, the treat of the library as a knowledge place isn’t only about finding answers, it is about learning to ask the right kinds of questions. John Spencer writes about this in his recent post, “In Defense of Librarians“. He writes about his school age son, but his observations might apply to all librarians, I think. You should take a look.

Here’s the question for conversation: Should librarians be more about the questions or the answers? Which is more important? How does a library that values excellent questions look? What does a question-centered library do differently?

The Problem with Librarians

You may noticed I have using the blog to work through some ideas about libraries, what libraries are for and what libraries need to do next. This whole series of post is not born from existential dread. Some of my colleagues across the profession are freaking out about the pace of change and the emerging service models that may be necessary to serve our patron-base well. I don’t feel that concern. I hope my recent posts don’t contribute a defensive tone to the conversation.

Libraries do not need to be defended. They do, however, need to be explained. This is the work librarians need to be doing. Librarians need to stop justifying the continued existence of our services and start finding ways to articulate what those services are about in ways that people actually understand.

Librarians are the problem. Many of us became librarians because we love to search. We had professional training that taught us how to search. We build every system and service around the idea of search and then, incredibly, when talking to our patrons we evangelize about the joys of search and forget that they are there for discovery.

I serve in a community college library. For the most part, my patrons are faculty and students. Most of my faculty don’t do research. It isn’t part of their professional program and it isn’t required for promotion. My faculty are there to teach. Most of my students have never done scholarly research, don’t know how to do scholarly research and will likely never have to do scholarly research in any professional capacity. Most courses don’t even require a research paper or project.

How strange then that, when I celebrate the value of their college library, I wax rhapsodic about the joys of research. I extoll the moral virtues of time spent prizing through the wealth of human knowledge using a panoply of tools and devices to find the absolute best sources for their particular need.

This is madness. Their needs, for the most part, are not particular. They don’t need to devote hours to exquisitely refined search strings and terms. They need to discover. They need to get curious. They need to explore.

Librarians worship the search process. We want to help our students focus and refine their search strategies. This may be madness too. Most of my students come to me with no clear sense of what their research project is about or why they are being asked to do the research. Asking them to find focus is a non-starter. We should spend more of our time helping them find connection to the work they are doing in class.

Students cannot meaningfully focus their research before they have connected to the purpose of that research. This is true of everyone. All professional or amateur researchers come to their search with a deep sense of connection. They are compelled by an urge to know or understand some specific thing.

Librarians are deeply connected to the experience of search. It is our professional joy. We need to stop forcing that joy onto others. They will never love it as much as we do. They shouldn’t need to. What we believe to be the joy of search is actually the joy of making connections. We should share that joy instead.

We live in a post-search world. Just a few years ago, a curious person needed to dig deep and develop complex search rituals to have their curiosity rewarded. That is no longer entirely true. Information now comes to us more than we go to it. Through news media, blog feeds, podcasts and automated search strings, we can bombard ourselves with highly-personalized streams of relevant, interesting information.

The trick is knowing what to do with that information. Students have a very hard time with this. They have a hard time connecting the literary analysis of “Young Goodman Brown” with their own lives. When asked to write about a major social issue, they struggle to decode the latest geopolitical buzzword while ignoring the question they actually care about, which is something like “why aren’t there more small businesses in my hometown”.

Librarians have the skill, knowledge and tools to help these students connect with their own learning but we must stop doing a few things first.

  • Stop worshiping search. Enjoy the process. Share that joy with others but don’t expect them to enjoy search as much as you do. Search is your fetish. People don’t need to share it.
  • Stop talking so much about research. It doesn’t mean what you think it means and it usually sounds like a painful obstacle to climb before discovery.
  • Stop organizing libraries and webpages around the tools of discovery. Normal people don’t know what to do with it. Organize those pages around the process of discovery. Make the tools available where they are needed. Don’t expect people to reach into a deep, dark toolbox and spend hours thinking up ways they can use each.
  • Stop using the word “database” so much. There has got to be a better word. If you figure out what that word is, let me know.
  • Promote curiosity. Our collections are fascinating. Make connections from those collections to real life.
  • Be specific. Don’t say that the library is a place to learn. Everybody gets that, but nobody really knows what that even means. Say instead, “the library is a place to learn about math or science or politics or health or…”
  • Don’t just say the library is a place to learn about x. Show them. Make connections visible.

Librarians needs to stop thinking and talking about libraries as primarily being places for information. The world is awash information. Our patrons are seeking relevance. That’s what libraries are really about. It is time to start talking about them that way.

What libraries are for. (take 3)

Last night, I posted my attempt to sort through a few ideas about the role college libraries play for students and faculty. I went to bed bothered and woke up bothered. That post was well-intended but missed the actual points. I went too far in some areas and not far enough in others. I created the wrong impression that most information is easily available online. This may or may not be true. What I did not say is that, increasingly, the best information (timely, reputable, accurate, quality-reviewed) is not available for free online. More and more often, the information and cultural content we expect to be free is locked up behind pay walls. You have to pay to access. Sometimes, you have to pay to discover. This is a problem libraries help solve.

Consider this post as third draft of an evolving essay on what libraries are about. The first two iterations are here and here.


I serve as library director for a community college in Tennessee. The work is fun, challenging and, at present, a bit bewildering. Models of library service are quickly changing. The internet has matured and now underpins pretty much everything we do. The internet provides the plumbing for how we work, learn, communicate, socialize and entertain ourselves. Our daily lives are exponentially richer with information.

Information is a loaded term. What we call “information” is usually a mental short cut used to discuss a bunch of processes, experiences and feelings for which there is no good language. Information isn’t a thing. Information is a lot of things. Think books, articles, essays, stories, documentaries, data, code and conversation. It makes the head swim. All of these things and much more get packed together as information. This is where problems set in.

Librarians have been trained to believe that our primary job is to provide information. This is only true in a minimal sort of way. Librarians who still believe their primary function is to provide information are freaking out right now. Providing information is what Google does. Google does that much faster and much easier. Google still doesn’t always provide some kinds of information as well as library collections but that is often beside the point because faster and easier almost always trump better.

People are lazy. Don’t get upset. I’m not just talking about you. I include myself here. If I can find something quickly and easily that meets my need “well enough”, I don’t dig deeper. I stop with Wikipedia or the first 5 links on Google. Librarians who still believe we are competing with Google are at loose ends. The war is over. We lost. Come back home.

It turns out, we were never actually really at war. Librarians have adopted the tools of the information revolution and are using them in incredible ways. It is time to stop despairing and hand wringing. Librarians have never before had access to such powerful, efficient and effective tools. We can pick up these tools and use them to begin a library renaissance, but first we need to understand what it is we need libraries to do. Here a few suggestions:

  1. We need for the information that is available today to also be available tomorrow.
  2. We need to lower the cost barriers of information getting and sharing.
  3. We need to curate collections that create context so that resources are available in ways that speak to each other and contribute to a broader, more accurate understanding. This is done partly through our decisions about what we collect. Maybe more importantly, this is done through decisions about what we don’t collect.
  4. People seek relevance. Information now comes to us. We don’t often expect to have to go to information. The ease of getting “informed” tricks our minds into believing that all information is created equal. The problem is that information comes to us randomly and may or may not contribute anything useful. Lots of signals create lots of noise. Libraries can reduce the noise by selecting a few signals to spark good ideas.

This last point gets to what I want to say. I work with college students. Most of them have grown up in the world where the internet has always been available. Sometimes I get depressed because they don’t seem curious. This is baffling. We live in an unprecedented age of knowledge creation and sharing. As a species, we are using incredible information technologies to learn faster, share that learning and increase the human body of knowledge at an exponential pace. Why aren’t my students more curious?

I see two reasons. First, many are survivors of a drill-and-kill educational system that trained them to suppress their natural curiosity. Curiosity slows things down. Curiosity is the enemy of the highly structured lesson plan. They come to college stunted by a kind of intellectual PTSD. They are master gatherers of information but they choose the information they gather selectively according to one major critieria: “is this going to be on the test?” If yes, they capture the information in notes, review and regurgitate. If not, they omit and move on.

This isn’t really their fault. Like all traumatic stress survivors, they need counseling, perspective and time.

There is a second problem, and it effects all of us. We treat our information streams like an all you can eat buffet. I’ll take a little of this and little of that and make a crazy meal of sorts that may or may not nourish me properly. Our minds are stressed by the speed at which we are required to assimilate new information. We have trouble making time to find meaningful associations. We are ridiculously well-informed but often feel like our minds are out of our control. We stop putting things together. We stop having new ideas. We are overwhelmed. We are bored and restless and seek endless entertainment to distract ourselves from our ennui.

Libraries should promote and reward curiosity. This may be the most important contribution my library can offer my college. How do we do this? I’m still working through that. I need your ideas.

We need to think of the library less as a research paper tool shed and more as an intellectual supplement, something that amplifies the teaching and learning that occurs in the classroom.

We have the tools. We can develop the expertise. It is definitely time to stop moaning about the lack of curiosity and engagement inside our students’ minds. The college library is not an antiquated artifact of pre-internet society. The college library, the real college library, might just now be getting born. A kind of mind laboratory where new ideas are made, tested, and improved. A safe haven that rewards curiosity and encourages deeper exploration.  A relevance factory where information is just raw material, not an end product, and where ideas get connected with experience. That is how relevance gets made. That is how learning happens.

Libraries are Relevance Machines

Note (11am on 23feb2013): I was frustrated with some of the ideas in this post and took another pass on this. See it here.


I had a fascinating conversation with my teacher friends today about what libraries are for. More specifically, we talked about what they need their library to do for them.

I have written about this before, but today’s conversation placed things in a new light for me. Not so long ago, libraries were places for information. Libraries collected the best information, kept it organized and ready for use when needed. This was the information warehouse model. Libraries collected the best books and housed them in buildings organized by myriad, fetishized principles that made information discovery a pretty efficient endeavor, once a person understood how the systems worked.

The Internet changed all that. We no longer expect to have go someplace to discover information. Information comes to us. Lots of information, in fact. Floods of information. So much information that our world is a noisy, busy, sometimes terrifying place. For the most part, we don’t have to dig too hard to find basic facts, get data or discover opinions.

We have a new problem. Since most information seems so easy to get, it is difficult to compare multiple pieces of information and assign meaning or value to it. Put another way, now that information is so easy to get, all information appears equal. It is far more challenging to discern which information is likely to be most useful or relevant to a particular need. It is more difficult to take that information and create useful knowledge.

Here’s the part where I tell you that I work and teach in a community college library and that this gives me permission to overgeneralize about “kids these days”. Here goes. College students are still smart, but they aren’t curious. Many don’t naturally invest themselves in their own learning. They expect learning to be something that is given to them by a teacher, probably through a series of lectures with accompanying Powerpoint lecture notes. They do not ask questions. They prepare themselves for the project, paper or exam without ever really wondering why they are doing this. Many of these students grew up believing that curiosity was bad because it interfered with the transfer of content required to get them ready for the next standardized assessment.

They don’t see connections, and they are not alone. Many of us are drowning in the information we encounter as random, unrelated factoids or tidbits. Watch a newscast sometime, and then ask yourself, “What am I supposed to understand from this about the world?”

We need to encourage students to be curious. We need to connect them to their own learning. It seems to me that the library is a place that can reward curiosity and foster connection. We can do this by showcasing connections between abstract concepts and everyday life. We can do this by curating collections of books, articles and video to tell a story. We can do this by focusing less on the mechanics of information discovery tools and focusing more on helping people identify and solve problems that matter to them.

Libraries should continue to collect resources, objects and artifacts that best address information needs. Libraries should continue to preserve the integrity of the scholarly and cultural conversations for the benefit of generations to come. We should do these things and do them well. But we should be always mindful that we do these things as a way to gather the tools to meet our true obligation. Our real work is rewarding curiosity and helping people create their own connections.

No News is Bad News

People often say, “No news is good news.” I have said it myself many times. It’s a  lie. This is a thing we tell ourselves when we aren’t sure where we stand or how a  project is really going. This is the credo for the path of least resistance. This is the motto for the path of greatest avoidance.

I run an academic library at a mid-size community college. If you think libraries are drowsy, dull places where routine is revered and nothing ever changes, you are flat wrong. Everything is changing. My library is wrestling with eBooks, eJournals, iPads and other mobile technologies. We are building chat-based reference services and piloting embedded course librarians to more effectively teach our students good information habits. We are reshaping our print collections and working with other departments to develop online learning objects to be used in the classroom. One of my favorite projects at the moment is piloting the delivery of  real-time telepresence research assistance at a satellite campus via the use of a Tandberg hi-definition video conferencing unit. My library is a busy, interesting, and challenging place.

I want these projects to succeed. I want them to solve somebody’s problem. I want them to address a need.

Anytime a team starts a new project, the effort receives the benefit of the team’s full attention. Everyone is paying attention and watching to get to the project off the ground. Quickly after launch, the immediacy wanes and the project becomes a normal part of life. Once the initial vigilance fades, we begin to shortcut our assumptions about how the project is going. We lose touch with reality.

In those first few months of life, we are continually searching for flaws in the project so we can fix them and improve. Eventually, the search for flaws becomes an assumption of strength. In the absence of negative feedback, we convince ourselves that things are going well. If things were going poorly, someone would tell us. Ergo, no news is good news.

The truth is opposite. No news is bad news.

If things are going well and people are being well-served by your product or service, they will tell you. If things are going poorly and people believe or expect something better from your product or service, they will tell you. In either case, clients, customers or patrons are engaged with your service and are willing to invest their feedback into making your product stronger. If no one tells you anything good or bad, then no one is really engaged by your product or service and you are operating in a void. You aren’t meeting a need and no one cares enough to tell you.

Complaints are a sign of health. When people complain and point out flaws, it is a sign that they have a greater expectation of your product or service. Since nothing is ever perfect, some manageable volume of actionable complaints is a sign that people value what you are offering. Act on all reasonable complaints and you can only grow stronger.

When people praise your product and point out strengths, celebrate and work to preserve and increase the specific value they have recognized.

Listen. Be patient. Don’t be defensive. Feedback, both positive and negative, is a sign of engagement. In either case, be grateful.

Silence is the enemy. Silence is deadly. Silence means nobody cares.

No news is always bad news.

What libraries are for.

I had a fascinating conversation with a librarian friend today. We were talking about ongoing collection development projects, the role of eBooks and emerging modes of media. Flashpoint: “But really. Don’t you really think that in a few years people will stop needing us since everything is online?”

In his defense, he was feeling a bit overwhelmed and bewildered by the pace of change. In his defense, there is much to feel overwhelmed and bewildered about.

The idea took me a bit by surprise. It was unsettling to hear a librarian speak the words “everything is online”. That was the kind of talk that used to rile me up in library school back in the early 2000’s. The speaker, usually a politician of some type, would get rewarded by a list of the many things that were, in fact, not online — encyclopedias, newspaper archives, scholarly journal articles, video, contemporary books.

Of course, all of that has changed. Which is to say, all of that is online now.

So here’s the point: that doesn’t matter. Librarians need to move beyond the old idea that our job is to provide a stronghold of printed information as authority against the less reputable, fadish online information sources. This was a dumb battle. We didn’t stand a chance. Mostly because there was nothing there to fight against.

The idea that libraries exist as some kind of print island oasis in a choatic ocean of digital resources is wrong-headed.

Everything is pretty much online now and libraries are more important than ever. Why? Because the companies that have made every aspect of our culture available and accessible to us online, want to sell that culture back to us.

I love Apple, Amazon and Google. They have pushed the information ecosystem forward in a big way. I love all three because they make information easy to locate, obtain and use. But they scare me a little, too. They scare me because they think of information in terms of consumption, as something that is consumed.

Apple’s iPod, iPhone and iPad are the 3 major vehicles for how I interact with my friends, my music, and my news. I love the iPad as an eReader. At the moment, I only read free, public domain or creative commons licensed books on the iPad because I don’t want to pay for my books.

Our library is working on implementing free download of EBSCO eBooks to the iPad and Nook with Overdrive access on the Kindle and iPad to follow. Still, I worry that the logistics of moving an eBook from the library collection to a personal eReader will not be as easy as the process of moving a purchased book from the Amazon or iBook stores to the native eReader apps. Will our patrons be willing to endure a little inconvenience to save money or will convenience win out? History places the chips on the side of convenience.

And so, we work diligently to explore, implement and develop eBooks plans and services that are highly convenient. Not because we are competing with Amazon for book customers or with Netflix for video watchers. We do this because we believe people shouldn’t have to pay tolls to access the products of their own culture.

I love to buy books. People should be free to buy books, but people shouldn’t have to buy them.

Apple, Amazon and Google are helping make sure everything is online. That’s their business model. It is a very effective business model.

Libraries are there to ensure that business models aren’t the only factor shaping the tools and terms of our cultural production. That’s what I find so fascinating about the work librarians should be doing.

For a long time, we worried that the Internet would somehow co-opt us, render us irrelevant and sweep us away. Now, librarians are learning to co-opt the tools of the Web to drive cultural production forward and keep the resources needed for good learning available to all.

In which I wax rhapsodic about having the best job in the world

I have the best job in the world. I’m a librarian.

There’s a lot to love about being a librarian. People think you’re smart. You get to hang out with people who like books. You meet the best students. You help people do things that are either useful or important for them to do. You are always learning and you try to inspire other people to be always learning.

That’s just the getting started list. So, here’s the irony. I have never been so inspired and so enjoyed my work more than  right now when everything the library has been assumed to be stands in question.

Right now, when the printed book starts to seem a little quaint beside eBooks and mobile eReaders.

Right now, when libraries everywhere, including my workplace, are incompletely funded.

Right now, when the presumed purposes and foundations of higher education are called into question and Open Source video lecturers like Salman Kahn are being hailed as the wholesale future of learning.

Right now, when long established models of library service and collection development are falling apart and being reinvented and nothing is entirely comfortable and we never entirely feel like we know what we are doing.

It’s fun.

Here’s why. I am working with groups of people (librarians, faculty and students) who are passionately interested in teaching and learning.

We are building better ways of doing things. We are picking up new tools (cellphone, anyone?) and trying to figure out how to help students reach deeper involvement in their own learning.

We are improvising a bit and sharing what works.

And we are failing together. Failing in new and interesting ways and, hopefully, sharing these failures with each other to get beyond the 10,000 failures that don’t matter toward the one success that does.

Part of this enthusiasm is probably just personality. Maybe I’d be writing this very same blog post if I were a bus driver or a scuba instructor or a mechnical engineer. Maybe. Possibly. Hopefully.

One thing I know for sure: I am at my best when everything is in a little bit of flux and nothing is completely certain. Not your traditional job description for an academic librarian.

What’s not to love?