The front line is everywhere

28 August 2011

In my previous post post I finished by writing that librarians need to become more pro-active. Today’s post attempts to expand on how we might go about this and why it is needed.

The Gatekeeper on the Mountain

The traditional approach to librarianship might be called the gatekeeper on the mountain - waiting for people make the trek to ask you for information, then deciding where they can look. It’s an approach that insisted that children only have access to particular parts of the collection, that library patrons must ask for permission before being granted access to special or restricted collections and that preservation of the physical stock and its organisation was the most important thing - patrons really just get in the way.

Librarians were some of the first people to recognise the potential of both the early internet and the world wide web, and enthusiastically got on board. Strangely, however, the huge disruption caused by the rise of the internet and the world wide web has still only had a marginal effect on the way we actually do our jobs.

For many librarians this may seem like an outrageous thing to write. After all, aren’t we all skilled in using online databases to find journal articles? Aren’t we teaching patrons how to use tools like, Proquest and our own ‘Online Public Access Catalogues’? We can code HTML! We digitised our local history! We talk about ‘the interwebs’! Ironically!

Well, yes, that’s all positive and nice, but the currently prevailing ‘new’ approach to libraries tends toward being pro-active within the library - no longer a gatekeeper, but still on the mountain. So we have ‘roving librarians’, face-out displays and shelf-markers with QR codes. We’re getting in patrons’ faces a bit more and marketing the collection - as long as people are already engaging with the library, preferably by being inside the building.

A revolution needs revolutionaries

The most important effect of the world wide web on librarianship is yet to be addressed - how do we most effectively do our job when library users don’t need to come into the building to use the library? How do we steer patrons/customers/students to interesting and relevant information or cultural artifacts when we can’t see them and they can’t see us? Up until now our response to the rise of worldwide, wireless and electronic information transfer mechanisms has been evolutionary. That’s not going to cut it. The profound change in the management of information and cultural artifacts caused by the rise of the internet and the world wide web cannot possibly be overstated. Tim Berners-Lee is a revolutionary figure at the level of a Napoleon, Henry Ford or Qin Shi Huang. Just as there was an Industrial Revolution, we are still in the throes of an Information Revolution - and a revolution needs revolutionaries.

The job of a librarian is not merely to develop a nice collection of reading and other cultural material. If you want to sit at a desk, recording what crosses it and waiting for somebody to ask you for it, become an archivist. Being a librarian means actively helping people to find information and recreational culture. In a post-internet world, it means pro-actively doing it. For goodness sake people, it’s not about the books! Your job is to help people make sense of the world - a world overloaded with both information and misinformation. Our future approach needs to be proactive outside the library - we need to get off the mountain and become a real ‘street corner university’. Libraries often boast that with 3G mobile computing, phone apps and websites, the library can be anywhere. When libraries can be anywhere, librarians need to be everywhere.

Six models for pro-active contextual service

If public librarians really believe that ‘libraries change lives’ they’re going to have to start providing contextual pro-active service. Luckily, we already have some models for how this might work.

Starting conversations

The National Library of Australia’s online collection tool, Trove, is actively marketed through a Twitter feed with links to interesting digitised newspaper articles, artworks, ephemera and other items from the collections of the National Library and other associated cultural collecting institutions. Tweets are often relevant to things that are in the news, or in season. This service is a good way of marketing the existence of Trove, but also pro-actively pushes out information without Australians (or indeed, anyone) having to think to go to Trove and look it up. The State Library of Victoria provides a similar service.

The public waiting room

First Bank provided a model for libraries to follow when they devised a clever strategy for getting passengers at Denver Airport to visit their website. Advertising signs displayed pictures of various public-domain books, with a QR code to enable passengers to download the book to their smartphone for free, via First Bank’s website. For a really useful service libraries could simply omit the website and allow immediate downloads, or provide links to the relevant place on an e-lending service such as Overdrive.

Partnering for new uses

The New York Public Library ran a program in 2008 called ‘Design by the book’, teaming with Design Sponge to let five design students loose in their archives to search for inspiration. By turning the experience into a series of online videos, the library not only pro-actively made use of their collection, they also brought these treasures to a wider audience.

Research units

In "Newspapers are dead, long live libraries" we discussed the research papers produced by the Australian Parliamentary Library and the Commons Library in the UK. Recently I discovered the Colorado State Library does something similar, but with a specific focus on libraries themselves, with their Library Research Service.

A picture tells a thousand words

Information is beautiful is another, even less conventional example that libraries should consider. At the infographic has been elevated to an artform as the team there look for new and interesting ways to make complex information easily understandable in one image. Their most famous project is probably the Billion Dollar Gram, but there are many others. Imagine your public library producing something similar for your local government area or state at budget time.

Taking it to the streets

Finally, we come to a concept that really got me thinking about this topic in the first place - Radical Reference. Radical Reference started at the 2004 Republican National Conference in New York City. In its original conception it was designed as a way for a group of professional librarians to use their skills to assist people demonstrating outside the conference. Radical Reference librarians arrived armed with 3G smartphones, maps of the area, information about the legal rights of protesters and a big sign advertising their service. Whilst Radical Reference claims they are a-political, and they do assist anyone who asks for help, their focus has been on providing reference services at protest events.  In 2008 an IFLA paper was written about their service model.

The exciting thing about Radical Reference is that it is an excellent example of pro-active contextual service delivery. Radical Reference put together a kit of answers to the questions they think are most likely to be asked, but they also are prepared for anything. Support is provided by librarians ‘back at base’ either over the phone or online, but the service delivery point is literally on the streets. Using this sort of model, libraries could provide regular in-context information services where people actually are - in the park, at the farmers’ market, outside the football game and so on. Another way of thinking about this, particularly for libraries like mine that operate in reasonably dense inner-city areas, is as a twenty-first century version of the mobile library services we used to offer. Instead of a bookmobile, however, you can now serve citizens outside the library building with just the librarian and a laptop or tablet computer. The Mobile Librarian doesn’t need a truck license - she can simply set up in the cafe, market or train station. Combined with a version of the new fashion for microlibraries you could combine this flexible service with a small hardcopy collection.

Once you start thinking about ways to pro-actively provide information and use the resources we have, it’s easy to come up with new ideas. Australian Rules football games often have an associated Twitter hashtag (eg #aflcatshawks). Proactive libraries might take the opportunity to tweet links to historical records they hold for one of the teams, or information gleaned from the biography of one of the coaches, using the hashtag. Local libraries could develop apps that don’t just allow them to search, reserve and renew physical items and ‘borrow’ ebooks from the collection but also act as a community information and news portal - something like a combination of Flipboard, Overdrive and Worldcat, delivering content to members before they’ve even asked for it.

And so on.

True Librarians don’t wait

So step away from the reference desk and right out of the library.  The Information Revolution needs revolutionaries -follow Che’s lead and come down off your mountain and into the streets. When it comes to the war on ignorance, as Rage Against the Machine once told us, the front line is everywhere.