Librarianship has lost its focus – our professional concern for people has been eclipsed by a preoccupation with collections and technology. This is understandable. Historically, libraries have been centered on bringing the world to our members through our collections. This problem of access was important to help solve, meeting a vital societal need. Likewise, our focus on information technologies and the web is natural, too. Throughout the years, these tools have presented some outstanding challenges, though generally they have aided tremendously in our mission to expand access to accumulated cultural knowledge and output. But our fixation on collections and technology is no longer serving us – nor our members.
Let’s take a closer look at our attention to the web. Web technologies are tools, but we’ve been concerned with them as ends in themselves. “We need a responsive library site!”excited web librarians might say. What they mean is that the library needs to deliver information in a convenient way. “The library would benefit from a vibrant Facebook profile,” another librarian might say. This is probably true but only because having a vibrant Facebook profile can create conversation and community connections.
Take a look at the debate on what to call the people who come into our institutions – patrons, customers, users, members, etc. I would argue that the rise of the ugly word user in our profession and others is, at least in part, tied to this shift in focus away from people and onto the tools they use, as if their tools define them.
Finally, our spotlight on tools can also be found in the titles of conference sessions and articles. Oftentimes, the technology functions as the subject, while the outcome – if it’s there at all – is the predicate. Our communities, again, if present at all, are unspoken direct objects. Here’s what I mean:
- Augmented Reality & Next Gen Libraries
- Top Technology Trends
- Gamifying Your Library
- 25 Mobile Apps for Librarians
- Circulating iPads
This is a subtle but meaningful difference. Focusing on the technologies rather than the outcomes changes the way we talk about these topics and the way we learn about them. When we aim for the outcomes, we’re more likely to think deeply about the problems we’re trying to solve and consider multiple strategies that speed us to our goals.
Let me be clear: I’m not downplaying the importance of technology in libraries or setting up a false dichotomy. As a profession, librarianship has developed many mechanisms to learn about technology and the web. This is important, and we need to keep learning about the broader world of resources that can help us efficiently deliver our services. But let’s shift our collective eye to learning about people first, so everything we know about technology can be put in service of supporting meaningful goals.
SHIFT THE FOCUS
Our collective focus on technology also prevents technology from being as deeply integrated into our libraries as it should be. When we fetishize technology, we can only look at it shallowly. When we depend on emerging technology librarians to be the ambassadors for relevant technologies, we take the rest of the organization off the hook.
In fact, if we put the emphasis on people, library technology will become even more important. Currently, it is all too easy to implement tech solutions halfheartedly, check the box that the project is complete, and more or less be done with it. Think of our websites, catalogs, and self-check machines. There’s plenty of room to improve these things, but since we can check the box of “yes, we have those” we don’t strive to do better. In the future, when we emphasize peoples’ needs and their ideal use of libraries, we’ll spend a lot of time ensuring our technology is useful, usable, and desirable. “What sort of checkout experience are we providing members?” is a much bigger and important question than “Are our self-check machines working?”
Once we shift our focus the right way, we can encourage larger efforts. For instance, in addition to the Library Information Technology Association, we need the Library & Community Knowledge Association. In addition to the conference Computers in Libraries we need the conference People in Libraries. A complement to the American Library Association’s (ALA) TechSource? You guessed it: ALA PeopleSource. When we focus on people, we can acknowledge that technology is an important but subservient tool that helps libraries meet the needs of their communities.
This first appeared in “The User Experience,” a column I write for LJ.
I recently downloaded the second mixtape – Acid Rap – from Chicago’s up and coming Chance the Rapper.
Listening to the track “Acid Rain,” a line made my ears perk up: “And I’m still Mr. YOUmedia.” Whaaa? Rap Genius confirms: And I’m still Mr. YOUmedia. Sure enough, Chicago Public’s YOUmedia was one of the places Chance the Rapper started performing.
“It was a really ill thing because it was smack in the center of downtown, so anybody from any school could come there because every train comes to the loop [downtown]. I met damn near all the producers on #10Day through this library. It was the spot.”
Consider this a complement to the “I graduated from the library” Bradbury quote we like to trot out. Clearly, a lot of creative output is the result of some sort of library use. But in most cases libraries have been neutral in that they don’t care if they’re for enjoyment, learning, inspiration, etc… or any combination. So what makes this example so great is that YOUmedia isn’t neutral in this way; it has the goal of helping kids create content. This example illustrates that creation focused libraries can have a significant impact.
Dabble is a community marketplace for people to discover, teach & host unique and affordable one-time classes. Did we mention that all classes are held in-person and cost just 20 bucks?
Their explanatory video is a bit long, but you’ll get the drift quickly.
Are any libraries taking as user-generated of an approach to their programming? I’m not saying that all library should be taking an approach like this; there’s real value in librarians assessing what folks want and then providing events in response. But utilizing a mechanism like Dabble does could be a really nice compliment.
She’s met latchkey kids and answered teens’ questions about sex – and took advantage of the opportunity to talk to them about diabetes and high blood pressure. She helped a victim of domestic violence find safe shelter and get medical attention. She encourages library visitors to use the hand sanitizer that’s always available to reduce the spread of germs. “Everything is an educational moment,” Pogue says.
She listens to the worries of the elderly, the unemployed and the homeless who turn to libraries for help and safety, and directs them to social services when appropriate.
“It takes a nurse to put a gentle hand on theirs and say, ‘I’m here for you.'” Pogue says.
How about we do less handwringing about electronic content and spend more time developing programs like this?
The way we beat our competitors is by delighting and surprising our customers. We win with outstanding customer service. We win by appreciating our fellow workers.
Southwest Airlines – now the biggest domestic carrier in the United States – is the only major airline that has never declared bankruptcy. It has lofty customer service and corporate culture ideals and they’re supported by smart business decisions.
There’s all sorts of great stuff about organizational culture and service leadership in this history of the airline: Luv and War at 30,000 Feet.
Have you seen this project by the fictional Department of Urban Betterment? It is a pretty neat repurposing some (largely) outmoded infrastructure to something else: an honors system book swap.
I know the word “library” has a few uses but I’m also a bit sad that we haven’t elevated it beyond the common “pile of books” use.
Like LibraryYou, here’s a great example of a library collecting content from their community. The Skokie Public Library also does a nice job highlighting what their patrons are making in the library. I’m a big fan.
[Thanks to Toby for telling me about Skokie Stories.]