Are Libraries Missing (Half) the Boat?

2013/5/25 (Saturday) | Filed under: Libraries

“Oh, you must really love books”, people have said to me when they learn that I have a Masters Degree in Library Science.  Well, sure, I love books, but not extraordinarily so.   And I do have a passion for libraries—not so much because they house books per se, but because they are among the few institutions in our society that genuinely facilitate self-empowerment.  Acting upon the truth behind the cliché “Knowledge is Power”, libraries can be thought of as empowerment engines.  Their raison d’etre is to help people connect with the resources that might satisfy their information needs – whatever those needs may be.  It is because of this ethos of non-judgmental respect and empowerment that I still proudly identify myself as a librarian—even though I have not worked in a “library” for decades.

Much has changed during those decades.  Are libraries still relevant today?  My former knee-jerk reaction (“Of course!”) has given way to a more nuanced position.  I feel deeply committed to that ethos of information-based empowerment that libraries for so long championed.  But libraries have lost their near monopoly on this ethos.  Many information services today exemplify similar values.  Internet search engines point searchers to relevant resources without judging what that information might be used for.  The practice of open tagging (and resulting folksonomies) enables us to collectively build keys of access that validate our individual and shared perspectives on the world.  Wikipedia and other “information commons” explicitly recognize and share the bounty of our common wisdom and cognitive surplus.  Do libraries still have a special role to play?  I’d like to think so.  But I think they are missing the boat.  Or, more to the point, half of the boat.  Here’s why.

The dramatic changes wrought by technology upon the information environment can be considered from two interrelated perspectives: form and directionality – both of which have been brought about by the liberation of information from physical to electronic media (“atoms to bits”)

Form refers to the proliferation of “containers” in which information is expressed.  Books and other paper-based forms used to dominate the information environment.  But today’s landscape is crowded with an ever growing array of audio, video, graphic, online, virtual and other forms of information.

Directionality, on the other hand, refers to the patterns of how information flows among us.  Until recently (with notable exceptions like letters to the editor or “public access” TV that nobody watched) opportunities to reach thousands or millions of people were rare – except for the privileged few who “owned a printing press” (or broadcast station).  Now that’s changed.  Opportunities to share information with the world beckon from all around.  As Clay Shirky has asserted, we are “living through the largest increase in human expressive capability in history.”

Together, these changes of information’s form and directionality are having an unprecedented, profound effect on our society.  They are altering how people relate to information and to one another, challenging the very foundations of many of our cultural institutions and, as David Weinberger so eloquently describes in Everything is Miscellaneous and Too Big to Know, changing the nature of knowledge and meaning in our world.  It’s a big deal.

So, how have libraries, these information-based empowerment engines that have inspired me and so many others, reacted to this emerging, robust information ecology?  Wikipedia’s description of libraries provides an important clue:

A library (from French “librairie”; Latin “liber” = book) is an organized collection of information resources made accessible to a defined community for reference or borrowing [that] can include books, periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, films, maps, prints, documents, microform, CDs, cassettes, videotapes, DVDs, Blu-ray Discs, e-books, audiobooks, databases, and other formats.

downloaded from Wikipedia May 25, 2013

This description of the role of libraries reflects an admirable response to recent proliferation in the form of information, but is virtually silent in terms of changes in its directionality.  Put another way, libraries are increasingly effective at helping their users to access information in its many forms; but they don’t appear to be paying much attention to helping their users to take advantage of new opportunities to express their own information.

To be fair, this is not entirely true.  Libraries have traditionally enabled users’ self-expression via exhibit spaces and bulletin boards or meeting rooms.  Moreover, in recent years libraries have invested heavily in providing public access terminals, and have made serious commitments to helping their users take advantage of many of the Internet’s social tools – like by helping them join Facebook or Twitter, or set up a blog.

People tend to think that information only flows INTO libraries from the outside world...

But, sincere and useful as these services are, they are not “baked into” the identity of libraries, as illustrated by the Wikipedia description.  Ask anyone on the street what a library is, and their answer is almost sure to describe the library’s role entirely in terms of helping their users to access other people’s information.

But if libraries are to help their users relate effectively to the changing information landscape, to continue being “information-based empowerment engines”, then they need to take their role in facilitating expression just as seriously as they do their role in facilitating access.  The value proposition of libraries has long been, “We will help you access the vast array of information that originates outside the library’s community”.  But, to facilitate information empowerment today, the value proposition should be amended to include, and we will help you share your knowledge and information, and connect with one another.”

... rather than flowing in many directions, as is typical of the emerging, robust information ecology.

But, is this an overextension of the library’s role?  Aren’t there already plenty of other new services (Facebook and Twitter come immediately to mind) that are dedicated to facilitating expression and connection?  Why should libraries bother?  Why should they burden themselves with yet another role, when they are already struggling with their “primary” role of facilitating access?

Several reasons…

  1. Philosophically, libraries have long regarded expression and access as two sides of the same coin.  In its very first paragraph, the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Manual (8th ed.), a fundamental philosophical document of the profession, declares that “Intellectual freedom implies a circle, and the circle is broken if either freedom of expression or access to ideas is stifled.” (p. xvii).
  2. Actually, though, the “two-sided coin” of access and expression is really not two-sided at all.  We now recognize that information and knowledge exist in a rich, social ecology.  Facebook’s half billion subscribers (to take one prominent example) do not think of themselves simply as consumers, or even producers, of information.  They are also sharing, “liking” and commenting upon other people’s posts and pictures; they are creating their own groups, pages, events and identities.  People are increasingly becoming editors, transferrers, translators, corruptors, gatekeepers, curators, amplifiers, vandalizers and mash-uppers of information.  Libraries that fail to recognize, validate and support the diversified roles of their users within a diversified information environment are being short-sighted, to say the least.
  3. Libraries enjoy certain assets that put them in a particularly unique position to present the whole package of access, expression and everything in between.
    1. Legitimacy: Libraries are established and trusted institutions.  Over centuries of experience, they have earned a reputation for helpfulness, safety, respect and fairness.
    2. Infrastructure: Despite eroding revenue sources, libraries have well-established facilities and systems.   The people who work with libraries not only have a deep and dynamic tradition of knowledge and skills about managing access to information, they also tend to be deeply committed to the ethos of intellectual freedom and empowerment.
    3. Community: Even if they are open to serving others “outside” of their core community, most libraries identify with and are committed to a particular geographic, academic or organizational community.  They don’t have the burden of having to create a community; they are already familiar institutions within existing communities.

This last reason is especially important, because self-expression can be considered through various lenses.  An individual’s expression can be disseminated to the world, or limited to a particular community – or anything in between.  Disseminating one’s information to the world (or, at least to whoever’s listening) can be tremendously empowering; it can create connections, spread memes, enlighten others.  But, when reflected within the context of an existing community, self-expression can have the additional effects of strengthening that community, reinforcing its identity, building social capital.  People express themselves (and react to others’ expressions) differently within an identified community.  A community is its own sort of ecosystem, and the greater the number and diversity of connections within it, the more robust and capable that community can be.

So, what would it look like if libraries took their role of facilitating expression as seriously as they do their role of facilitating access?  Here are some ideas:

Mo feels strongly about love.

Highlight services and tools for self-expression available within the community.  Libraries can organize information about all sorts of expressive opportunities in their communities, e.g.,

  • local manufacturers of customized bumper stickers, magnetic car ornaments (e.g., ribbons), T-shirts, caps, trophies, flags and all sorts of promotional paraphernalia (e.g., pens, lanyards, coffee mugs …)
  • tattoo and body art parlors
  • photocopy and printing services
  • venues for local performances of theater, dance, artwork, music, stand-up comedy, poetry slams…
  • sources (including fellow individuals) for buying, renting or borrowing bullhorns, labelmakers, engraving tools, stencils, audio and video recording and broadcast equipment, etc
  • local interest groups and courses in writing, painting, music, amateur (ham) radio, and so on.
  • donor recognition opportunities in which messages can be displayed (e.g., on a brick)
  • “support ads” in yearbooks, community directories, diner placemats, programs for special events
  • phone numbers for local call-in talk radio shows
  • addresses (as well as instructions and tips) for submitting articles, letters to the editor, and classified ads to local print publications
  • instructions for submitting content to local public access media
  • forms for ordering personalized (“vanity”) or special group license plates

Users are resources, too.  Some of the richest learning resources already available to libraries – but largely unrecognized and untapped – are the users themselves.  Put another way, a great source of information about virtually any subject may be a fellow user.  In addition to satisfying many learning needs, enabling users to share information about themselves – their skills, backgrounds, interests, passions, perspectives – also helps build social capital to strengthen the community.  A library could utilize the group identity features offered by many social networking sites, like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.  Or it could integrate social information into the library’s existing catalog of resources.  I created such a service as a reference librarian for the Ridley Township (PA) Public Library in the mid 1980’s, which simply used paper forms for input and special cards interfiled in the card catalog.

Emily makes a point.

Advertise this!
We naturally think of advertising as a commercial endeavor.  But outside of the commercial realm, advertising outlets can be a viable and potent forum for personal self-expression – for those able and willing to spend the money.  So, helping users be aware of locally available advertising agencies, brokers and outlets is another component of facilitating self-expression for any purpose.

Socialize everything.  Every single resource that the library makes available to its users – every book, DVD, periodical, online resource and so on – can be viewed as an opportunity around which users might connect.  All of these types of resources can be considered as potential objects which people might rank, rate, “like”, endorse, tag, comment upon, write a review about or link to other items.  Libraries could, for instance, help aggregate recommendations and reviews on Amazon or Goodreads from members of their community.  Or, they could go low-tech; imagine a simple loose-leaf binder with users’ hand-written book reviews, along with adhesive labels (like, colored dots) put on the spines of books for which such review have been written.

Broadening the library’s role to facilitate expression and connection is not so much about technology as it is about a mindset of continuing commitment to information empowerment in a changing world.  Experiment.  Peter Lehu, a branch library manager in Philadelphia, for instance, runs a weekly “open mic night” in the community center adjoining the library.  And users themselves may have useful ideas for expressive opportunities.  If librarians can broaden their perspective to appreciate the whole, multi-directional ecology of information and knowledge in today’s world, they can become more relevant, more effective and more valuable information-based empowerment engines for their communities.

 

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