A Reader’s Communion

Being a librarian, I often enjoy deeply delightful conversations about the love of books as objects. Places with books are places of power. Thoughtful people often try to describe the joy they feel at simply standing in a library or bookstore, surrounded on all sides by so many books. They can sense the psychic thrum of books waiting to be read, which is to say they feel a keen awareness of their own curiosity and native weirdness.

I often remind people that a library’s books are meant for borrowing. They can find them, use them, take them home at no cost. It may surprise you the number of people who recoil in a kind of horror at the thought. Oh no. I couldn’t. I prefer to own my own books.

I get it. Books are precious. Brand new, first-owner books are a powerful fetish. Used books found in a used book shop are like mysterious treasure bottles washed randomly, wonderfully on your personal shore. Ebooks ward against the boredom of grocery store lines. Audiobooks fold the time-space continuum, transmuting the experience of a 35 minute commute into a momentary jaunt, a kind of teleportation.

Recently, I had opportunity to read a borrowed book from the library. This, for me, is no uncommon thing. This particular borrowed book, however, happened to have one of the old stamped date due pockets in back. The book itself was first checked out to someone three months after I was born.

Understanding that this book and I were roughly contemporaries, I became curious to know about its life. Not the title but this very book, specific.Stamped date due pocket for borrowed library book

The pocket was a parade of dates: 5/31/1974; 9/4/1975; 6/3/1976; 2/4/1977; 5/23/1980; 8/6/1981; 8/20/1981; 5/10/1982; 5/22/1982; 6/4/1982; 8/12/1982; 5/26/1983; 1/29/1985; 10/19/1989; 7/20/1992; 2/1/2002.

What hands had held this very book while I was still learning to focus my eyes and grasp objects? What secret places — living rooms, bed rooms and apartment balconies — had this book seen? Where had this book gone and been?

I wondered about the reader who read this book a few months before Star Wars lit across its first screen. Did they know how much movies would come to embody our mythology? Did they care?

A sequence of three dates in May – June of 1982 where, perhaps a slow reader wandered casually through the pages, not finishing, stopping by to beg renewal for another few weeks at a time. Or maybe this was a time in their life interrupted by catastrophe and distraction. The illness of a loved one. An illness of their own.

Or, instead, during those same six weeks, a bevy of readers waiting impatiently to have their turn at that month’s hard-to-find book discussion group selection. There was no Amazon. People waited for things.

There is the mystery of the book’s resurgent popularity between 1980 and 1983 and then three year rest between 1989 and 1992, which was a mere nap compared with the long hibernation between 7/20/1992 and 2/1/2002.

And how did it feel for this book to be lifted from the shelve on February 1, 2002? I imagine it would have seemed a kind of liberation, as if waking anew to one’s purpose after a long, dusty dream.

And, finally, the mystery of whatever checkouts we cannot see beyond 2002, an event horizon in reverse, an interregnum between present and past that we cannot imagine because the library no longer stamps date due slips.

As I am reading, all of this serves to remind that books are all infused with holy and mystical purpose, but borrowed library books, perhaps more than all others, connect us to the unseen community of other eyes, hands and minds. A date stamped library book is a talisman of time travel, connecting us in communion with the readers who came before and the readers who will come after.

This is not a thing I can easily tell people in a casual conversation standing in a hallway. So I am telling you, so you can understand and, perhaps, yourself reach for a dusty date-stamped book to borrow.

Market Less. Partner More.

I’ve spent the last two days at a summer workshop for the Tennessee Electronic Library (TEL). TEL is a collection of article databases, eBooks, and other online resources available free of charge to all Tennessee state residents. TEL helps people find jobs, research their family history, learn languages, practice for college prep and career certification tests and do all the kinds of research needed by students from kindergarten through college.

If you live in Tennessee, you should take a look. If you don’t live in Tennessee, I hope you live somewhere with a state government willing to put money into funding the intellectual infrastructure of your community.

TEL is terrific, but this post isn’t about TEL. It is about the ways we talk about our libraries. The theme of this year’s workshop was “Go TEL it on the Mountain”, a bit silly, yes, but focused right at the heart of something I have been thinking a lot about lately. Marketing.

My library is terrific. We have great stuff. We have comfortable spaces. We are friendly. We like to help people learn things, and we are pretty good at it. How do I make people understand how terrific their library is and make them want to use it more?

I’ve been stressing on this question for a while. Wondering if I had the right bookmarks, posters and other promotional knick-knacks. I’ve been thinking about our website design to see if it communicates fully what we are about. I do surveys. I follow up on requests and invite users to serve on a library experience panel. These are all good things, but, it turns out, aren’t the only things.

Like most librarians, I’m good at doing library. I’m bad at marketing.

The workshop keynote and other presenters crystalized a few key things I’ve been thinking about but kept trying to wrap in too many words. (Shout out to Amy Pajewski, Heather Lambert and Erin Loree.)

So here it is. The advice I needed someone else to say aloud so I could get it all to fit inside my head.

Librarians love library stuff, but nobody else cares. Stop talking about your stuff. Nobody cares about your stuff. They only care about what they can do with your stuff and how your stuff makes them feel. Talk about that instead.

Stop shooting random library stuff into the world through untargeted, unspecial emails, tweets, and signs. Nobody reads them. You are just making people feel tired. You are making yourself feel tired.

Think about your community. Think about your neighborhood. Think about your teams. What do they need? What are they about? What are they trying to accomplish? How can you help them do that? Talk about how you can help them. Find ways to help. Offer partnerships.

This is going to make you uncomfortable. It is going to get awkward. You are going to need to go where your people are.You are going to need to get outside the library. You are going to need to listen. You are going to find out what your people really want and need. Some of it will be easy to provide. Some of it will be inconvenient. Library service should meet people at the point of their need, not the point of our convenience.

And let’s be real, okay? I get all inspired talking to the all the super-smart people at the workshop. I get the big ideas. I bring them back to work with me and they collapse upon first contact with reality. Being successful requires a plan. Success requires organization and focus. You can’t tell everyone everything. You’ve got to be selective and consistent. You’ve got to spend some money and time. On day two, we learned some practical tips for planning a strategy and organizing the steps into specific, achievable goals. We learned to find an audience and tune our voice to that audience. It takes time. It takes practice. I am ready to get started.

Librarians are missionaries. We keep trying to save the world. We should start by saving our own neighborhoods first.

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.

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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.

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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.

Open community access to wireless is no longer optional for quality library service

I had a peculiar experience today. A community patron called, asking if they could come to the Roane State Community College library to use our wireless to buy books for her 9 year old granddaughter’s Nook. She bought the Nook for her granddaughter because she loves to read, but the grandmother lacks the home internet access required to download eBooks.

She contacted a local public library and was informed that current policies do not allow community guests to access their wireless network with personally owned devices.

The grandmother contacted us to ask if we had freely available wireless access for guests. We do. I told her we would be glad to help her connect and purchase eBooks for her Nook. However, if she just needed free wireless access, she might consider McDonald’s as another convenient option.

She’s coming to visit us, and I am glad. It was a peculiar feeling to suggest that the local McDonald’s might be more conducive place to obtain eBooks than her local public library.

This is not a criticism of our local public libraries. They are doing the best they can with the resources at hand. Just a bit disorienting to ponder this one as a hint of what 21st century librarianship has become.

Open access to wireless internet is no longer an optional add-on for quality library service. Easy, reliable wireless access has become the backbone of everything we do.

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Note: This entry is cross-posted at TBR Mobile Libraries, a new blogging project I am sharing with other Tennessee Board of Regents librarians. That blog is focused primarily on TBR efforts to establish mobile-friendly library collections and services. Occassionally, posts there intersect with concerns of  Ubiquitous. Quotidian., which remains my own personal blog-child.

Let’s stop talking about “mobilization” so we can start talking about mobile learning.

A minor epiphany while sitting in a meeting today. Educators are starting to throw the word “mobilization” around a lot. As in, we are going to “mobilize the college”, or “mobilize the classroom” or “mobilize higher ed”. The problem is nobody know what this means. It sounds very martial. Are we mobilizing now? Excellent. Shall I grab my boots? Will we be mobilizing long? Should I pack a lunch?

The trouble with the term “mobilization” is that it doesn’t convey anything. Mobilization is a process but does not say what is being mobilized and how and where and why. If mere mobilization is our goal, how will we recognize when we have done it? How will we know when to stop?

Much better, I think, for educators to talk about “mobile learning”. That’s learning on the go. That’s learning with mobile devices like smart phones, tablets and laptops. That’s ubiquitous, real life situation, student-centered learning. We can measure that. We can describe that. We can recognize when it has happened and, hopefully, we will know when to stop.