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Innovation or Adaptation

I’ve been thinking a little about innovation in libraries. I consider myself a fairly tech savvy person. I enjoy learning about it, messing with it and so on. However, it is frustrating to me how much library “innovation” is merely taking some other web app or tool and cramming it onto the library despite it’s lack of relevance or usefulness.


This is one that I’m constantly arguing with people about. Tagging is great! It works very well on things like delicious and even smaller services like Library Thing but I’m not sure it’s relevance in libraries. Why? Because for these to work, there needs to be lots of people tagging. So while your potential Library Thing audience is the entire English speaking world, the audience for a university or public library is much smaller.

Real Success

So the question is what do we as libraries do? I’ll admit, I’m not quite sure. Surely, though, we can do something better than creating a seldom read wiki or taking up space in second life. The greatest library success lately is without a doubt Google Books. Today alone I chatted with a individual from Germany who found a Turkish census book in our library via Google Books. He received info on his old village, we got to shake the dust off a book that’s so old no one bothered to recatalog it in LC.

Our Position in the World

We are at a crossroads now. We will never have the adaptive and technological capacities of Google, but we do have something: recognition and trust. So we are torn between the dual motives of completely recreating ourselves vs. focusing in on our strength (i.e. books and published information). I’d like to see a focus on what we offer that is unique and building innovations from there rather than spending time playing catch up.


The ALA just finished creating a report on core competencies of a library education.

I’ll admit, I’m rather skeptical about these reports. Often they are so large and so overwhelming that their true impact is diluted. Nonetheless, this may serve as a fundamental shift, so it’s worth taking a glance at.

Core Competencies

This is the meat of the report. Here are what they identify as the core competencies:

  • Foundations of the Profession
  • Information Resources
  • Organization of Recorded Knowledge and Information
  • Technologies Knowledge and Skills
  • Reference and User Services
  • Research
  • Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning
  • Administration and Management

What does it mean?

The first one to jump out at me was ‘research’. Note, this is not reference. This is the whole ‘deliver me a ten-page paper on the history of the codex’ type stuff. Hmmm. No. I’ll admit I like research. I think it’s fun (hence my excessive use of the library as an undergrad and choice of it as a career), but this is hardly a core competency of a librarian.
In fact, I’ll go a step further. The focus on research at the graduate level is bad for the profession. Personally I agree with my old instructor who claimed that we should “kill the term paper. . .Kill it DEAD”. The truth is that most of my fellow students will not be researching in their careers. And many of those that do only appear to do it out of pure necessity. Really, I’d love to see a cut on the number of library publications and a bump in article quality.


I was disappointed in this section. It, like any discussion of technology in the library school is weak and unfocused. First it should be pointed out there are only 4 subpoints compared to 11 for “Foundations of the Profession” (including 1J “effective communication techniques (verbal and written)” What? Is this a job ad?).
The subpoints talk about ability to assess and apply and so on, but nothing about being able to use technologies, to develop or implement. Now I know that one cannot be an expert on everything, but there can never be a good solid evaluation if there is not at least some knowledge of how things work. Really, this is just a half-hearted attempt to mention technology without any really substantive effort to increase tech literacy among graduate students.

In the end

I guess in the end, though, it’s not too bad. There wasn’t nearly as much fluffy stuff about history, ethics and things like that (those were all grouped under the first point). I was happy that there is an emphasis on management as well as actual tangible skills such as reference. The question is will this report actually lead to anything?

Well, now that it’s summer, I’ve lost my assistant meaning I’ve been spending a lot of time doing the boring ‘gate-keeping’ style work that I hate (manually adding entries to the catalog, putting those little bar code stickers on books). As a result, there has not been a lot of fun at the ol’ library lately.

However, there has been some nice meta-fun analysis. So I thought I’d throw out a couple of articles that I constantly refer back to when I’m working on a project or thinking on career stuff. They both are computer oriented, but I think they summarize how work and life should be approached.

The first is the Hacker Attitude. The two points the author, an open-source evangelist, makes that I like are. .

  1. The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved. This is a nice remainder to always approach every situation fresh, to enjoy the act of investigating, planning, and creating something new and better.
  2. Boredom and Drudgery are Evil. Maybe this one appeals to me more now that I am doing a lot of boring work. But it’s a good chance to reevaluate processes and to make them more efficient so, at the very least, people who come after me won’t be bored and grumpy.

Which leads to the first virtue of a programmer .

  1. Laziness. Boredom and laziness go together and both are bad. Furthermore, it helps to remember that the virtue of laziness frees up more time to look creatively at problems, to make a place better.
  2. Than, of course, there’s the of . . .

  3. Hubris. Making something so well the first time that no one can bad talk it later. As someone who has had to clean up others messes and poor planning, this one appeals to me greatly.

How do these relate to libraries?
Well, in short, these are just good elements of project planning and human resources. A friend of mine that does consulting work for international non-profits, has noted that it is important to give all employees — young, old, new, experience — opportunities to lead and create. We sit an enormous amount of potential when we do not allow all employees to try something new and instead relegate them to boring mindless circulation tasks (not that those aren’t important). Still, why waste any potential idea.

I won’t say that he caught me from the start (mostly because I was 5 minutes late for class. Thank you very much flat tire), but Leonard Kniffel editor of American Libraries, did grab my attention very early in his talk on the Googlization of the library when he noted that parading celebrities and high profile people sharing cutesy memories of libraries when they were children may be entertaining, but it can be also be damaging. Why? Because it feeds nostalgia. And viewing libraries as quaint is a short step to viewing them as unnecessary. Yes.

The majority of Mr. Kniffel’s talk focused on what he called the “Googlization of Libraries,” the fate of libraries in an age of global information. The impact of google in particular and the web in general is a favorite topic among the hand wringers of the library world. It’s been addressed (fearfully) by Robert Darton in the New York Review of Books. And positively by those in library blogging world. Mr. Kniffel, though, takes a similar but slightly different path.

Throughout his lecture, he repeatedly describes the alleged conflict between the web and libraries to be a false dichotomy. His lecture was filled with a parade of statistics, anecdotes and quotes from an impressive list of individuals he’s interviewed during his time at American Libraries. Now normally I’m not a big fan of statistics, they tend to obfuscate more than the illuminate. . .But I’m only human, so here are a few that I will probably repeat to my family over Thanksgiving:

  • 60%(!) of adults have library cards
  • Librarians answer 7.2 million questions per week
  • It costs about $34 per person per year to run a library
  • Bill Gates said that if given the choice between books and computers, he’d chose books

I like that quote about Bill Gates specifically. I think we tend to forget that even the most computer savvy individuals enjoy a good book. Linus Torvalds of Linux fame himself just the other day said that reading is his only hobby. But, wait, I’m being sucked back into the false dichotomy.

Mr. Kniffel like many advocates for libraries in the age of google notes that books themselves are a form of technology and libraries have been engaged in technology since the beginning. Even now, in the age of google, libraries are a haven for those seeking technologies. To throw out another stat, libraries are the #1 point of access for people without internet at home. An assumption underlying much of Mr. Kniffel’s talk is that libraries are more than their contents. Libraries are an idea, a place, a service. He noted that libraries should see themselves first and foremost as educators. I’ll admit, I’m sympathetic to this idea. However, I do not exactly like the semi-enlightened image that comes with someone who is seen as an educator. I’d like to think of us more as facilitators. After all, the newspapers have been tripping over themselves with stories of how libraries are a haven in these hard economic time. And we all like to commend ourselves for creating access to differing points of view so others can make decisions. So whether we are facilitating the writing of resumes, the debates of politics, or the renting of old seasons of Seinfeld, we are playing a specific and important role.

Mr. Kniffel ends his talk with a few points about technology. One is that it’s important to remain cautious while looking ahead. Microfilms, as he pointed at, have been found to be very deficient when compared with hard copies (they don’t preserve color, they can digitize a fold. . .forever), but they save on space and thus allow more information to be stored longer. So it is important to ask why are we implementing technology, what do we hope to preserve, what do we want to enhance. Next he answered the statement question of why libraries if it is all on the internet with another question, with all medical information on the web, why doctors. The answer followed shortly when he explained how it’s been found that though children are able to find information and utilize technology quickly, they still, not to surprisingly, act their age when evaluating sources. Bring on the educators. (I’m sorry, facilitators).

Well, things have been cooking in the last few weeks. First, there’s been a lot of buzz about wolfram alpha . Sadly, this one of the situations where the buzz is so incredibly excessive and over the top (I can’t even count the number of times when I read that this is the next google/replace google/eat google wolf-style) that I’m afraid that what looks to be a very good service could actually be ignored. It’s strong at aggregating lots of information, presenting it in a clear and uncluttered environment (and god knows we could always use less clutter on webpages). But it is that, a stop for statistics, referable stats, and such. It reminds me of something but what. . .

Speaking of one stop shops. Much more exciting and much less discussed is the new US government data site. I’ll admit that I started salivating at the mere mention of it. Maybe if the government gave us access to data like it should then we wouldn’t have to have vigilante honorary-librarians take it for us. Now, if only we can take it a step further and mandate sharing data when a grant is government sponsored NIH-pubmed style. Not likely. But at least a librarian can dream.