20 June 2006

Library stew : Have you checked your library values lately?

Why are librarians and their supporters (and I count myself as one of those) closing their eyes to the impending doom which is the shift in our modern cultures from physical to virtual knowledge?

Well, I don't know about you, but here's my story. First of all, I was attracted to the library as a moth to light a few years ago due to the vast amount of metadata and hidden knowledge within. My big passion back then was Topic Maps which is a standard for better navigation through vast amounts of metadata. A few of my personal interests also drove that metadata passion, like my obsession with Claudio Monteverdi; I wanted to create a portal for all things Monteverdi, his life, contemporaries and otherwise.

So what does a moth like me think about that shining light that draws me? You would think that by watching my fellow moths flying about that I would get the hint, but I'm not smart enough to admit that the light can be rather deadly; I'd rather just go there, never to distract my furious flapping of wings with silly things like contemplation.


A lot of talk has gone down on the recently created Next Generation Catalogs for Libraries mailing-list, most of it deals with how we should deal with the OPAC issues such as what it should do, how it should do it, who's it for, how do we promote it, et cetera. A lot of the discussion has revolved around "here's what others are doing, we should do it too!" Which is wrong.

I keep pestering people about this stuff, but please at least consider what I'm proposing; test your users! I know this may sound a bit stupid, but how can you be so sure that the systems we give to our users are the systems they want? Have you tested to make sure that what others are doing is what our users want us to be? I know it says in various mission statements what we and our patrons are all about, but I fear that they have not been updated for a while, resting in isolation on some very old and conservative ground rules for what a library is all about. Usually they look a bit like this ;

The library actively supports learning, creative and intellectual endeavour and the dissemination of knowledge, ideas and information.

This is a fantastic statement which you can fill to the brim with all sorts of activities, systems, culture, people and organisations. it is one of those statements which makes me proud to be working for a library! Seriously!

But let's get to the meat of the matter, and look at a typical set of library mission statements (picked at random from around the world [kinda] and anonymized [certainly]) ;

  1. We are to ensure that a significant record of our country and our countrymen is collected and safeguarded
  2. We shall meet the needs of our users for rapid and easy access to our collections and other resources
  3. We shall demonstrate our prominence in our nation's cultural, intellectual and social life and to foster an understanding and enjoyment of the library and its collections
  4. We are to ensure that our nation's people have access to vibrant and relevant information services
  5. We are to ensure our relevance in a rapidly changing world, participate in new online communities and enhance our visibility

By the numbers

1. is fine and dandy; it is an important part of the library's undertaking to preserve stuff, a lot of it probably useless to 80% of the people, but that's not the point here. Far too often though, the library is given tasks of archiving the type of stuff that nobody else cares about, which in fact goes against the common notion that libraries should provide access to stuff of popularity; how can we when we're to spend 80% of our time dealing with obscurities? Anyways, point 1 is fine.

2. Did you notice the words "needs" in there? It did not say "functionality", "what we think they want" or even "library values." Think about it for two seconds, and then tell me wheter you've tested your users needs lately. Oh, and this one also mentions "rapid" and "easy access", two things library systems has along track-record in not doing.

3. This is the one I call the "snob directive", and I shan't dive too much into it, but it does promote the idea that we're to "foster an understanding" of what the library is all about to all of society. But do we truly know that ourselves?

4. is really just an IT version of point 4, and probably where libraries currently are the most stuck; we offer them bucketloads of crappy information services, and I'm suspecting that this is because it's too hard to do point 2 properly. In reality, why are these two even separate? They are essentially the same thing! The only reason they probably are separated is because 20 years ago IT and real-life merged pretty poorly; it's time to perhaps update and remove this point alltogether.

5. is a bit of rehashing what the other directives have said with an ephasis on "online" and "new" and "up to date" and that sort of thing. The keyowrd here is "relevance" though, and let's think about it for a second; how are we to be relevant to people? Doesn't that somewhat imply we - golly gosh! - test our users needs?

Too much

There's too much second-guessing our patrons needs, too much focus on "library values" (which usually means a good session of commitee charades!), and way, way, way too little testing to see if our assumptions are right, our foundation is solid and that we truly are relevant to our users. Why is that?

Are we too afraid the answer might be something that alters the purpose of the library? Is that what it all amounts to? Because, frankly, I'm getting to a point where "library values" are nothing more than conservatism for the sake of being conservative thrown around by librarians who can't seem to deal with huge change. We claim to be into blogging, wiki's and all that fadangled new whizmo-zing-tech stuff that goes on these days, and, you know, as far as I can tell we're into a lot of that and not into perhaps, you know, what we should be into? Have you tested to see if our users wants us to blog? Have you tested to see if they want a wiki? Have you tested to see if they want us to be Google? Have you tested a user lately?

Just a thought. Now go and test, and let us know what you came up with. I'm dying to know.


At Friday, December 01, 2006 2:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Libraries are dead - or at least they will be in their current form.

We've moved beyond the printing press into a world of digital self-service information and the old Librarian and her Library just don't mesh with that reality.

Information is no longer just in books and journals, it's in blogs and wikis and intra- and internets. It's no longer about MARC records or DEWEY, but about social networks, folksonomies, topic maps, tagging, and faceted taxonomies.

We don't go ask librarians where to find information any longer. The reality is that we _all_ just use Google.

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