Category Archives: The Profession

Why don’t people appreciate Libraries (and thus Librarians)?

Over the past week I have participated in a discussion on an ALA listserve titled The Marginalization of Librarians.  It has been interesting to read the perceptions of librarians (from ‘special’ libraries, academic,  public libraries etc…) about themselves.  It seems like there are two streams of thought arising:

1. Those that believe that libraries and librarians have great resources which just need to be marketed better.  Only if people (members of the public/academics and other users or non-library users) knew what we had, would they come to appreciate libraries and thus librarians.

2. Those that feel that librarians and libraries have missed the mark.  It is not about ‘marginalized librarians’ but actually about marginalized communities.  Libraries and librarians have not effectively sought out and developed approaches for library staff to work with communities to discover what needs they have and discover from target groups what the libraries role could be in fulfilling these needs.  (To clarify, this is not outreach – it shifts what we are doing when we are in the communities from talking to listening.)

I am wondering after 50+ years of marketing, if libraries have possibly hit their saturation point?  Are non-library users/sometimes library users at the point where they are so inundated by marketing messages, that libraries are just one other small piece of the chatter?

How do we know that the messages we are sending them are applicable to the possible barriers they face accessing library services, especially in an environment when many people perceive information being available over the internet?  I know this is really distressing in an environment where we proclaim that librarians provide more accurate information than search engines, but – if people are satisfied with their search results – who really cares?

Is getting up on a soap box and talking about the services we have created for the ‘non-converted’ not a little backwards?  Have we talked with them to see what they feel the role of libraries should be?

I don’t think that using marketing to scream about how valuable we are will make a difference to a large segment of the community.   Actually, I know it doesn’t. (Don’t get me wrong, marketing can and still plays a valuable role for libraries – especially for those that regularly access our marketing tools).

Also, I definitely don’t think that making the public’s response to libraries personal and talking about Librarians being marginalized will do the profession (or library service development) any favours.  It doesn’t address the underlying issues, and does not change anything about libraries from the public perspective – other than viewing us as a bunch of whiners.

It is time to stop this self destructive behaviour and time to start creating solutions to ensuring our continued relevance to existing and potential user groups.  The issue is not that people don’t appreciate libraries or librarians, the issue is that they need to see themselves, and their needs reflected in the services provided.   Only then will they appreciate libraries, librarians and library services.

~ Ken

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Is Information Management No Longer Needed?

Hi… I just partook in a debate at Dalhousie’s School of Information Management Information Without Borders Conference.

I thought I would put up my speaking notes – just to see what people think about the content?

Be it resolved that because information is becoming universally accessible, information management is no longer needed (Side – Affirmative)

Neither today’s complex online information environments, nor community based information environments, were created through the methods and practices of what we call “information management”.  They have either previously existed or evolved – despite those methods and practices.

*         Today’s information environment is too big, and growing too fast to be managed by the methods and practices of “information management”.   We do not have the people, the money, or the skills to bring our “order” to the information environment, nor should we try.  (for those that are currently trying to do this –  the post 9-11 information management industrial complex is a very costly undertaking has raised a number of profound concerns, including privacy, the intended use of the information collected, and ultimately who has access)

*         The aim of what we call “information management” is to centralize, constrain, and mediate information.  This is fundamentally at odds with the information environment which is now decentralized,   free and unconstrained, and with no barriers or distinction between information creators and users (goodbye truth tellers).

*         In fact, “Information management” has become a process for creating barriers to information.  Inevitably it is about gate keeping, editing, and selecting … what we refer to as censoring.   In our efforts to “manage information” we have created culturally biased subject headings and systems which require an MLS degree to use.  (Today I am going to hang out with some ‘Indians of North America’ – this includes an elder – she is a ‘gifted woman’)

*         We have made information managers, not the people we are supposed to serve the central focus of our work.  We have “selected” what we believe are the “most relevant materials”, often not the most relevant materials to the whole community.   Some would call this censorship.

*         Additionally, Information management has served only a small “elite” segment of the population.  The efforts of information management have been focused only on certain media favoured by select classes and cultures, while ignoring the rest.

  • To some extent, those forgotten segments of the population have benefited from not having their knowledge indexed and locked down by information managers.  Information exists in many communities, and continues to exist and be free, because we have not intermediated and commodified this information

*         Information management has been and continues to be part of a system which imposes costs, restricts free access to information and extracts excessive profits from information.

*         Today’s information environment does not suffer from any of the limitations of “information management”.  It can provide expansive, unbiased, universally accessible, barrier free information to all who seek it, represent all communities and cultures, allow all views and voices to be presented and heard.   It does not require any of the “restrictions” our concept of information management has sought to impose on it.    The information environment has already moved well beyond “information management”.

  • The final barrier to the universal access to information is us.  The question remains are people in the information management field ready to accept this, and get out of the way – allowing everyone the opportunity to truly universally access information

Final note – debates are meant to be fun, so those information management folks reading this should take it with a grain of salt, but if anything – does it not raise a few issues which we, as information managers, may need to resolve?

~Ken (special thanks to my co-panelists for helping to create this content)

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Fact-finding: Not an ethics-free zone

Hey folks – I’m popping back in here to guest-post today. Still doing the PhD student thing and still won’t be back around regularly. But here’s something I thought we in libraryland should be thinking about. -Greyson

Canadian author/storyteller Ivan Coyote recently published an article about the importance of respecting people’s preferred names and pronouns. The article opens with the following anecdote:

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a young woman, a college student, who claimed that her professor had assigned her entire class a special little assignment, for extra credits, for students who could track down my legal name and bring it to class. This young woman had tried and tried, she said, to find it online, but couldn’t, and she really wanted those extra marks. Would I be so kind as to just tell her?

I took a deep breath. I was flabbergasted, skin crawling with chill fingers at how totally creepy this felt, an entire college English or writing or queer studies or whatever class assigned the task of violating my privacy for extra credit at school.

Go read the article, really. It’s good. But not what this post is about.

This post is about another article, “Teaching Students to be Rude,” that was written in reaction to Coyote’s column. In this response article, journalist Bert Archer does two noteworthy things that we need to discuss.

  1. Asserts that fact-checking (or, in LIS-speak, information seeking) is a nearly “ethics-free zone” and certainly impolite and invasive
  2. Argues that librarians are very useful because we can and will find anything

You may be wondering what the connection is between librarians and some alleged college student trying to find out Ivan Coyote’s birth name. The connection is Bert Archer’s mind. Although Coyote doesn’t say that the student was a library student (and, in fact, implies the contrary, as library science is a grad degree in North America), Archer assumes it.

Why would Archer assume that it was a library student doing this invasive information-seeking? Because, in Archer’s words,

“I think this sort of assignment is exactly what I expect from librarians.”

Think about that for a minute. Let it sink in. Teaching students to dig up people’s private personal information is “exactly what I expect from librarians.”

Scary.  

We may need some librarian PR here. But not the usual kind. Archer got the “not everything is on the Internet” memo. His experience as a journalist has taught him to value the information retrieval expertise of librarians. He knows that, even in the era of Google and Wikipedia, “Unsearchables remain.” He writes,

“Reporters at the Toronto Star, for instance, know how useful librarians can be. They can ask their in-house librarians anything, and get an answer back quick.”

I am flattered by Archer’s (only nearly true) assertion that librarians can find anything. However, librarians also have ethics and are both students and creators of information policy. Library associations have taken more than one major professional stand in favour of protecting personal privacy.

Skill without ethics is not my librarianship.

It’s not the American Library Association’s librarianship, either. Yes, “Access” is the first of the ALA’s listed Core Values of Librarianship, but it’s immediately followed by “Confidentiality/Privacy.” Also among the core values on the list are diversity, the public good and social responsibility – all items that might give pause to an information professional digging up the birth name of a gender variant individual just to feed the public’s curiosity. The Code of Professional Ethics for Librarians is also offered for guidance when values – e.g., the free flow of information and patron privacy – may conflict with each other.

Archer implies that, were he writing a biographical dictionary entry on Coyote, he could ask a librarian to find out Coyote’s birth name. Honestly, many librarians (especially given a decent research budget) probably could obtain nearly anyone’s birth name, medical histories, library borrowing history, and various other bits of private information. However, would we provide that information to be published? I’d like to think that most of us would not. I would sincerely hope that if Archer asked his librarian to find Ivan’s birth name to publish, the librarian would contact Ivan and subsequently let Archer know that it was inappropriate to include such information in the entry.

Digging up and/or publishing someone’s private personal information isn’t, as Archer states, “Rude.” It’s a violation of privacy. Rude is interrupting someone, or not saying “excuse me” after you belch. Librarians are not known for being rude. They’re particularly not known for violating people’s privacy. And I think it’s a matter of concern that Bert Archer, and now perhaps many people who read his column, think they may no longer be able to trust their librarian with that potentially-embarrassing health or legal question they have.

Let me set the record straight here. Dear world: If you disclose to your librarian, in her/his professional capacity, something private about yourself, we are duty-bound to keep your confidence. Even if you are a public figure, famous author or movie star.

Not because it would be “rude” not to. Because we have professional ethics.

I understand that I will likely differ from Archer on many questions of ethics, as he also thinks it’s just fine and part of the job for a journalist (or, presumably, a librarian) to “ask a heaving mother for a picture of her just raped and murdered child.”

I hope I don’t differ from the majority of librarians on such questions, though.

 -Greyson

Disclosure: Ivan Coyote is an acquaintance of mine. Don’t know if having met in person, or having overlapping social circles, makes a difference here, but there it is in case it does. 

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People Who Can and Should Influence Change in Libraries

As library systems struggle with finding their relevance within the continuously and rapidly changing digital world, there are a number of things which we (library staff) all need to keep in mind.

The first point is probably the hardest thing to digest – to a certain extent it doesn’t matter what we think – what matters is what others think of us.  As libraries move to re-invent ourselves, which I would say we are doing at a relatively more rapid pace than we have in decades, stop any person walking on the street and ask them what they think of when they hear the word library.  I will put my money on one of the following three responses – books, fines or librarians shushing.

This provides us with what at times feels like an insurmountable set of issues to overcome.  Not only do libraries need to re-invent themselves, we also need to do it while conveying the message externally (in a way that addresses some of the traditional perceptions of libraries the community has come to know – an institution where people still experience barriers to accessing information or having social exchanges).

For this post – I want to write a few thoughts about how to influence change within libraries.  I think it is important to identify the types of attributes the ‘ideal’ staff member would have to possess in order to be able to work within an environment where change is occurring, to address and influence the above issues….

  • A person who sees the need for change and innovation, not only from the perspective of staff but through the lens of library users and non-users. Now it is important to acknowledge that there is a clear delineation between innovators and leaders verses managers.  Innovators and effective leaders who can drive a change process can come from anywhere within an organizations structure.  The issues is, do we allow that to occur – or do we limit it to the detriment of libraries?  Lets use private industry as a case study – if someone on staff within a large corporation has a great idea – would they stifle it because of the ‘level’ the person is within the organization?  For profit industries have a motivation (money and profit) which drives improvement.  Public service organizations also have a motivating factor – better customer experiences.
  • A person who is able to be humble and move beyond their role as ‘expert’.  Becoming an expert in engaging, finding the appropriate role for facilitating the link between people and information (or maybe even people and people), and linking and visualizing the role in which libraries can play in community, is a different kind of expertise that being a spokesperson who informs people of information or existing programs.
  • Someone who can move beyond the perceived barriers to community led work (resources, role of services, the unknown), and not allow these barriers to stop them from trying it.
  • A willingness to seriously accept trial and error – and report on the learnings that occurred when trying new and innovative approaches to working with community.  Anyone who says they ‘have got it’ to working with community – needs to re-evaluate.  When one person has always ‘got’ the answer for community – they need to review the concepts behind the engagement process.
  • A willingness to shift library based responses from ‘no’ it does not fit within our mandate – to how can we work with the community based information needs to make it (or them) fit within the libraries mandate.  If community members are expressing that they see a link between the library and their need, we should be encouraging staff to find the linkage – otherwise it is another lost opportunity for library service development.
  • An acknowledgement that the penalization of community and the concept of librarians as stewards (keepers and holders of information) is outdated.  Libraries once possessed warehouses of information – which community members can now find on the click of an iPad or laptop.  We are no longer entitled to creating barriers to large numbers of potential library users – especially when we should be trying to entice them to use library services, rather than limiting community use.
  • It is important for the ‘ideal’ community based library staff member who wants to be innovative to think about our role in the information exchange and how we engage with community outside the confines of the physical library branch.

This is only a starting point – and is internally focused…. Next we need to convince the really important people, community members, about the changing nature of libraries and our continuing relevance in their lives.

If they still only view libraries simply as a ware house of books, of late fines and fees or shushing when people talk in the library…….  then we have a 😦 future..

~Ken

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Librarians in a World of Austerity: What is Our Role?

Let’s be honest… things are starting to look pretty bleak out there.  Not to sound like a pessimist, but just to review a few historical facts since 2008:

  • Curent unemployment rate in the US % 9.1, Canada 7.2%, England 7.6% (this does not include underemployment – which is reflected below in US Department of Labor stats)

  • Global inequality is on the rise (and Canadians are beginning to outpace Americans!)
  • Austerity is kicking in across Europe and may be coming to a community near you soon.

And in response to the last fact, I recently read a newspaper article based out rural Manitoba (where I grew up) which literally scared the cr@p out of me.  Why you may ask yourself?  Well feel free to give it a read.  Although this is just a letter to the editor, this should really send off some alarm bells.  There are people who are raising similar justifications for the current economic conditions in the United States, England, and I would presume – we will soon be hearing voices like this attacking the diverse people of Canada.

I think of youth in my home town who may read a piece of information like this and the impact the information can have on their belief system.  I remember how much of a sponge I was as a youth, and without someone else providing alternative narratives through other sources of information, this could have formed the ‘truths’ for myself and many other youth as they develop into adulthood.

As providers of information how should librarians [yes both those socially conscious and other librarians] respond?

So librarians, are we non-biased providers of information?  Do we passively respond by providing the general public with access to ‘well balanced’ information sources?

Are we agents of social change?  Are there certain social truths and absolutes which librarians are willing to take a stand for?

I personally think that avoiding issues and not taking a stance (complicit as it is) is also a stance.
_______________________________________________________________

Whatever the possibilities of freedom we may have, they cannot be realized if we continue to assume that the ‘OKAY WORLD’ of reality is the only world there is. Society provides us with warm, reasonably comfortable caves, in which we can huddle with our fellows, beating on the drums that drown out the howling hyenas of the surrounding darkness. ‘ECTASY’ is the act of stepping outside the caves, alone, to face the night” Peter Berger (149-150)

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How academic libraries annoy academics

Here’s a story I’m telling because I think libraries need more allies in the academy. As a librarian-slash-researcher-slash-professor I have these weird insider/outsider (or emic/etic) experiences with academic libraries from time to time. In these experiences (here’s one from last year) I can absolutely rationalise why libraries as institutions are behaving the way they are, yet I am also acutely aware of how these behaviours serve to irritate and even alienate academic faculty members based outside the library. The faculty members where I work my research-librarian job value librarianly expertise. They also pretty much never set foot in any of the libraries on campus, to my knowledge. I think this story exemplifies the reasons behind this behaviour.

A little while ago, I  got a revise & resubmit decision on a manuscript under review. As part of the revisions, I needed to find a couple of citations  for something I’d written. I knew what source I wanted to use, and checked the book’s availability in the OPAC. Its status was “available,” so I schlepped across campus in the rain (of course) to get it. However, the book was not on the shelf.

I logged into the nearby library computer terminal to verify that the book was still supposed to be available. This process took me 4 minutes of standing there waiting for the login to load, authenticate and update software. I checked the record. It still said “available.” I second-guessed myself and figured maybe I’d just missed it, so I decided to go back to the shelf and look again. In order to do this I had to log out of the computer to protect my private library account information that I’d had to input as part of the 4-minute process to check the book’s availability status. Back to shelf. Still not there. Checked all carrels and book trucks on the floor. Nowhere to be found.

So, in an attempt to be helpful, I logged back on to the computer terminal and eventually clicked the “report a problem” button on the record’s display. In the form provided, I explained that the book, while listed as available, was not on the shelf, and that given that I didn’t find it lying around anywhere on book truck/carrels or anything on the floor, it might merit placing a trace on the book so it could be found and/or be labelled lost/missing and replaced. I added that it’s was a fairly hot new volume, so I was sure I wouldn’t be the only one looking for it.

Then I logged out and left the library, of course getting caught by the gates on my way out because any public library books in my bag trip the academic library gates all the time and vice versa.

Got back across campus to my desk. Electronically, without leaving my seat, and using Google rather than a library database, I found an openly-accessible article or two that would suffice. Then I received an email from the library, thanking me for reporting the missing book and informing me that requests to have books traced have to be made in person at the circulation desk at the appropriate branch where the book should be located.

Are you kidding me?

I was feeling pretty patient, if disappointed, up until this point. But, first it’s raining (not the library’s fault!). Then, the book that’s supposed to be available isn’t there (these things happen…). Then the dinosaur computers suck 10 minutes of my time logging in and out to verify the status of the missing book and report it missing (okay, this is getting annoying and why does the library still use computers with floppy disk drives in them?). And now you want me to walk back across campus in the rain to go wait in line at the circulation desk to tell you the information I already reported to you? (This last bit is where I run out of rationales…um, perhaps someone frivolously made up and emailed fictitious trace reports once upon a time?)

I didn’t file the report. Sorry. Maybe the next person who fails to find this “available” book will do it. Not me. I have work to do. I’m on a schedule. I’ve already located two freely accessible substitute resources online and ordered a copy of the book I wanted from an online book retailer.

This is why people who have the means to do so avoid going into the library. Because the library is stuck in archaic systems that suck time. And those systems are presented as normal. When you’re grant-funded, or you’re racing the publications clock for tenure, time is money. Spending half an hour or more wandering back and forth around campus with nothing to show for it, all because electronic systems of communication aren’t yet in this century, is not normal to everyone. And it’s certainly not normal for the most productive faculty members on our campuses – those whose voices could be the most meaningful as allies.

I want my faculty colleagues to be advocates for our university library. So I do what I can to give them warm fuzzies about it, pointing out new acquisitions in their areas, noting that online access to the Journal of Important Stuff is brought to their desktop by the library, etc. But some days the library doesn’t make this easy for me. Some days I’m afraid to tell them too much about the library, in case they actually try to use it and have an experience like the one above.

I absolutely know there are budget constraints, time constraints, people-power constraints and bureaucratic time-suck constraints on academic libraries. I can explain why any given problem with the library systems might exist. But I can’t make archaic systems less frustrating and more worthwhile for people who have the option to avoid contact with the library most of the time. And those are the same people I really want out there speaking for the importance of the library. What a conundrum.

I’ve been sitting on this post, mulling it over for a while. I haven’t worked in a library in almost 5 years. Maybe I’m off-base here. Maybe academic libraries aren’t concerned with how the power faculty at their institutions perceive them. Maybe it’s all about the students and the have-nots of academia these days. Maybe it should be. I dunno. I do think libraries are missing out on opportunities to win powerful allies, but perhaps this is a deliberate move? Maybe you readers have insight to share?

-Greyson

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Toughening ourselves up as librarian-researchers: Follow up Post #1

I wasn’t aware that I posted my bit about disappointment with LIS conference research presentations smack dab in between the EBLIP6 conference and the launch of the UK-based Developing Research Excellence and Methods (DREaM) project. Serendipity at it’s finest! Thanks for the attention, and for helping me feel less like an isolated downer, folks.

A few interesting things that have come to my attention via links, twitter and the like

In the UK, there’s this Library and Information Science Research Coalition that’s been around for a couple of years now, although I hadn’t heard of it over here in Canada. It was started by the British Library, and CILIP and JISC and a few other partner organizations. The member orgs get together to influence the LIS research agenda. These folks are behind the new DREaM project I referred to above, which is funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and looks cool:

A key goal of the project is to build capacity and capability in the development and implementation of innovative methods and techniques in undertaking LIS research.

Someone also pointed to an article in the journal Library & Information Science Research, which I was vaguely aware of as a journal of LIS research but wasn’t really on my radar as a publishing stuff about LIS research. The article was a commentary bt Ray Lyons on sloppy survey research (that I don’t see openly archived anywhere yet, but hopefully Lyons will do something about that soon), which included the following gem of a statement:

…we in the library and information profession sometimes prefer convenience and expedience over accuracy and thoroughness. Like the most impatient of information seekers, we ignore the fact that inadequate information gathering techniques will lead us quite expediently to the wrong answers.

So true! The same rushed sloppiness we bemoan in information seekers, we too often embody. I mean, I know I do – one of the things I love about being a librarian is that I can beat any of my coworkers in an information duel. I am Quick Draw McInformationist. My “google-fu” is strong and my prowess with controlled vocabularies is stronger. But that’s not the way I should conduct empirical research.

To be continued…Next post will have some thoughts on how we can improve things here/now

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