What we have and what we do

28 June 2014

This morning I gave the keynote talk at the ALIA WA Symposium.

Below are the text (more or less) and slides from my talk: What we have and what we do.

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Last year I was at the ALIA National Advisory Congress in Melbourne. We were discussing the future of libraries (of course) and I posed the question - "Are libraries important because of what we have, or are libraries important because of what we do?"

Today, I'm not going to talk about the future of libraries. If we want libraries and librarianship to be different in the future we have to change them now. So I'm not going to talk about the future of libraries, I'm going to talk about the present of libraries. I'm going to talk today about what we have, and what we do.

What we have

So what do we have? Here's a non-exhaustive list:

  • books, newspapers and journals
  • historical documents and realia
  • specialised databases and information products
  • internet access and public use PCs
  • space and buildings - this is increasingly important in inner-urban areas where space is at a premium, but importantly it's also space where it's ok to loiter.
  • money - even if it sometimes feels like we don't have enough
  • staff who are good at organising things and finding connections

What we do

If I was to summarise how librarians tend to describe what we do, it would be two things.


  1. connect people and ideas by making knowledge findable

This first point is of course why some people say that librarians aren't needed any more, because we have Google. Indeed, many in our profession tacitly agree with this. This is evident in the overwhelming prevalence of commercial catalogue and discovery software solutions within libraries. These tools are not built by librarians, with the particular needs of our communities in mind. Instead of building them ourselves, we spend our time trying to train our patrons to use generic tools that usually aren't intuitive or well suited to their needs. Little wonder then, that many librarians focus more on the second task:


  1. solve group-action problems by providing access to knowledge as a public good

Kathryn Greenhill and Con Wiebrands call this 'free and easy access to content'. They also point out that when it comes to digital information, services like the Pirate Bay and Bi-torrent do a better job of it than libraries do. Super cheap copying and distribution of information is a feature of the internet, not a bug. If the only difference your library makes is providing an inconvenient legal way of accessing information that can otherwise be accessed conveniently and illegally, you're in trouble.


You're probably thinking at this point that I'm making libraries sound somewhat irrelevant. Not at all. We're in the knowledge business, and the reason there are so many other entities in this space is that with knowledge comes power.


Last year statistician Erin Jonaitis summed up what this means for librarians in one of the most important sentences ever tweeted. She wrote:

If knowledge is power, then a key part of professional ethics for information professionals should be: Who are you empowering?

The tricky thing with Erin Jonaitis' question - "who are you empowering?" is that it doesn't quite go far enough. A couple of months ago I mentioned this quote in an article for In the Library with the Lead Pipe about privacy, technology and empowering our users. Bobbi Newman wrote a very considered response, emphasising that libraries need to be approachable and noting that:

anything that could be interpreted as “come to the library, we’re smarter than you” might not be the message you want to send.

So the challenge is to work out how to help your community to empower themselves.

This is the real driver behind things like the Maker Movement and libraries building hackerspaces. I've always disliked the use of the word 'consumption' in relation to cultural works and information. A novel or TV show is not something you consume like a hamburger. That's why we have secondhand book stores but secondhand hamburger stores haven't really caught on. But there is a difference between passive interaction and active interaction with cultural works and information - that's the difference we're starting to see return.


Although he still refers to consumption of media, Clay Shirky explains this very well in his book Cognitive Surplus. Shirky writes:

Human motivations change little over the years, but opportunity can change a little or a lot, depending on the social environment. Flexible, cheap and inclusive media now offers us opportunities to do all sorts of things we once didn't do.

But of course, we did used to do some of these things. The Three Little Pigs, the King Arthur stories, Auld Lang Syne, mud brick houses, quilting, the Waltz: all of these are examples of cultural works produced, shared, altered and reproduced countless times over decades and centuries to the point where they were given special names in the twentieth century to differentiate them from the new, passive forms of mass entertainment.


They became 'fairytales', 'folk art', 'classical dance', 'traditional song'. The Maker Movement, Citizen Journalism and 'viral memes' are just names for a natural human instinct to share and re-make. As we were reminded at the Victorian State Library's Makerspace seminar earlier this month, the idea of something called 'collaborative culture' is only possible now in the twenty-first century, because before the last couple of centuries calling culture collaborative was a meaningless tautology. When Shakespeare wrote his plays, audience participation was a given.


If libraries and librarians are to continue to provide value to our communities, we need to understand and become part of this conception of culture as shared and collaborative. In March this year, Stanley Wilder gave an amazing talk as part of his interview before becoming Louisiana State University's Dean of Libraries. I encourage you all to read it. Wilder quoted Ronald Dow, who once said that, "A library is a place where readers come to write, and writers come to read". Dow and Wilder of course both recognise that the reading writers and the writing readers are the same people.

For culture to be liberated, collaborative and shared, open access to the products of that culture is necessary - whether by legal means or otherwise. It's no coincidence that the return of culture as a collaborative force built on re-use and sharing has come about at the same time as the rise of Open Access publishing. The whys and hows of open access academic writing are fodder for a great deal of impassioned dialogue. My own disappointment that even ALIA's professional journals are not published open access is well known. Open access is about moving from passive to active interaction as much as it is about business models and paywalls. That's why Micah Vandegrift, in his talk The miseducation of Scholarly Communication emphasised being proactive about advising academics of their options when licensing their work. Vandegrift favours open access, but his point is that rather than trying to enforce open access mandates, librarians should give academics the information they need to empower themselves when negotiating with publishers.

Open like a question


The arguments about openness in publication licensing and access are just the tip of a much larger iceberg waiting to sink the good ship Old Library Practice. If libraries want to remain at the centre of vibrant and vital cultural conversations, we need to embrace a much more radical idea of openness across everything we do. Discussions about Open Access and Open Data are just the beginning. What librarians need to do now is ensure that our libraries and services are open like a question. If we want libraries with writing readers and reading writers, if we want to be librarians who help people to empower themselves, then we need to learn the difference between open questions and closed questions. Closed questions, with a yes or no answer, leave the librarians in control of the conversation. We need a librarianship of open questions. We need to stop asking 'Did you mean?' and start asking things like 'How do you want to feel?'

That means asking ourselves questions too. Questions like "How do we help people to develop and act upon new thoughts about using our collection: thoughts that we simply can't think ourselves"? It means making the term 'community-led librarianship' a tautology just like 'collaborative culture' used to be. Libraries that are open like a question don't just provide answers. They provide environments that enable their communities to ask more questions.

I said earlier that I'm not talking about the future of libraries today. Librianship that is open like a question is already practised. Tim Sherratt the Manager of Trove at the National Library of Australia, is fond of talking about the interesting collections of images and stories Trove users have brought together. One Trove curator has created dozens of lists about lawn mowers. This is not something that the National Library staff would have thought to do, but one man's passion has created a curated collection – all because the staff at Trove built a tool and then got out of the way. At the New York Public Library, they are building something using at least two layers of collaboration. Firstly, NYPL is asking the community to help them to transcribe the text from their collection of New York City restaurant menus dating from the 1840s. But the library has also created an API to allow software and website developers to use the transcribed information from the menus to build or enhance other projects.

At the National Library and the New York Public Library they are using what they have, to open up new possibilities for what their communities can do.


If we think about the traditional way of training librarians to perform a 'Reference Interview', the key point is that the process is designed to find out what people are really asking for, because often questions are asked in indirect ways. A patron asks for the section holding books about the French Revolution, but by performing a reference interview we discover that they really want is a copy of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France.

But what if that's not actually what they wanted at all? What if what they really wanted was to feel what the French Revolutionaries felt? To understand what late eighteenth-century Paris was like? To appreciate why French peasants wanted to chop off the heads of aristocrats, and were willing to actually do it? What if they didn't know the specific thing they were looking for because they weren't looking for something specific at all?

One of the dangers in thinking of libraries as an information service is that we start thinking our job is always to provide answers. Community members come to us with a question, and we immediately try to close down their options. The classic reference interview is about taking an open question like "What do you have about the French Revolution?" and turning it into a small closed question, like “Can I borrow a copy of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France?

Mitchell Whitelaw from the University of Canberra has worked on this problem for several years. Whitelaw builds what he terms 'generous interfaces' to allow and encourage people to explore digital archives and collections in a non-linear way that encourages serendipity. His Manly Images. project, for example, allows us to explore the Manly Library Local Studies image collection by starting with either a decade or a keyword from the photo title. Whitelaw calls his interfaces 'generous' because they make it easy to wander purposefully. You don't have to be looking for anything specific in the Manly Images archive to find something interesting or moving.


Tim Sherrat, wrote a while ago about 'the archives of emotion'. The emotional and subjective nature of archives and library collections is something he speaks and writes about often. Sherratt's ongoing Invisible Australians project, for example, seeks to provoke emotional responses to what is in the archives, as much as providing new gateways to information.

Whitelaw and Sherratt's work shows us what can happen when we take a more active stance as librarians. They aim to provide understanding and pleasure as much as information. Their tools provoke questions as much as providing answers.

Being open like a question also means moving away from the toxic idea of librarians as instructors, teachers and intermediaries. The phrase 'information sherpa' was being bandied about a few years ago as a new model for librarianship. I hope this phrase dies a lonely and horrible death. It is the conceited humble-brag of librarians that we serve our communities by dutifully leading them up the mountain of learning to the glorious view from the peak of enlightenment. This is a closed view of the world that assumes there is one peak to climb, and that we know the way to the top. But we cannot lead our communities up the peak, because it is a mountain they build themselves as they climb it. The information sherpa thinks the point of climbing the mountain is to get to the top, but the point of climbing the mountain is to have the experience of climbing the mountain, and the knowledge that comes from that experience. Librarianship that is open like a question understands this. I'm going to give you two more examples to illustrate what I mean - The Bridge, and The Bicycle.


The Bridge

It is often said that librarians are lousy at marketing. Often we look around our buildings filled with wonderful things, and ask each other how it is that some members of our communities don't know what services we have to offer.

I'm starting to think we've got this disastrously wrong. Marketing isn't the problem. If people don't know what we have, it's because we're not part of their world. The problem with librarians isn't that we're lousy marketers, but that we're too passive. The story of the bridge shows this clearly.

Earlier this month I was listening to Kathy Hayter from the State Library of Queensland. Kathy was speaking about her work at The Edge, the State Library's huge creative makerspace. The team at The Edge empower community members by encouraging them to teach each other, with many of their programs run by passionate volunteers. But The Edge team don't just wait for people to find them. The troubled teens of Brisbane are too intimidated to come to The Edge, worried that respectable middle class people like me will scorn them or throw them out. So The Edge staff walk down the river and set up under the bridge, where the street kids meet. They bring secondhand smartphones and show them how to make documentary films using a phone camera. And they invite the street kids to come around to the back entrance of The Edge, after hours, and help them to record their own songs, design a CD cover, and package it all up. At the end of the day, those kids feel a little more trusting, a little more valued, and a little more part of the Brisbane community. And they say things like "I never thought the government would let a kid like me inside a building like this." Empowerment like that doesn't happen because The Edge is good at marketing. It happens because they're good at being proactive. It happens because they bother to think about how to serve the kids on the margins. It happens because they make the effort to walk down the river and sit under the bridge, where the street kids meet. The Edge isn't simply a building, it's an idea about community empowerment.


The Bicycle

The bicycle, on the other hand, wasn't an idea about empowerment at all. Originally the bike was simply a toy for wealthy men with too much time on their hands. But the bicycle has become something much more than a simple piece of recreational equipment.

When American social reformer and suffragette Susan B Anthony was asked about bicycles in 1896 she said, "Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world." Anthony wasn't saying that the bicycle had led directly to women's emancipation. She wasn't claiming that it was the will, destiny or purpose of a bicycle to emancipate women. Her point was more subtle than that. The impracticality of corseted dresses when attempting to ride a bike had provided an acceptable excuse for the Rational Dress movement. The speed and small size of bicycles enabled women the freedom to travel alone to a workplace or the next village, free of chaperones, watchful family members or public transportation options. Bicycles, in short, enabled greater freedom for women to escape the constraints of appropriate behaviour.

Bicycles continue to have this effect, which is probably why they are the target of so much anger. Whenever any government in English-speaking nations tries to spend money on bicycle infrastructure it is greeted with vitriol from people who think that the only appropriate use for roads is the automobile. We snigger about the so called MAMILs - the Middle Aged Men In Lycra. Everybody complains about hipsters and their inappropriate fixies without gears or even, sometimes, brakes. As George Bush might say, we hate their freedoms.

The bicycle is a useful metaphor for open librarianship. Librarianship that is open like a question doesn't provide empowerment for library users any more than bicycles provided empowerment for women. Bicycles merely provided a means for women to empower themselves by enabling them to pursue a wider range of options.

When libraries introduced internet-connected PCs and, later, wifi, the same thing happened. Like the bicycle, access to the web opens up an enormous number of opportunities otherwise not available. Like the bicyle, some people still resent the presence of PCs and wifi, and belittle their importance. Every time someone complains to you that there are kids playing games, or that someone is using the public PCs for internet dating instead of research, remember the bicycle. Having shared experiences is crucially important for the emotional and social development of children, and that online game may be the key to their participation in the schoolyard conversation tomorrow. And finding a future supportive and loving spouse could be the most important thing your library enables someone to do in their entire life. This is why librarians should actively resist the filtering of internet connections, the tracking of our members' online behaviour, and charging for general web surfing and webmail use. These things are like giving a nineteenth century woman a bike but only allowing her to ride it around the backyard.

That's what I mean by librarianship as an open question. It requires a willingness to feel uncomfortable, because open librarianship allows people to escape the constraints of appropriate thought.


Open Librarians

Which brings me to my final point. I want to talk to you about talking to you. I was given the honour of opening today's Symposium because I like to share ideas with librarians. I'd love to hear more voices involved in those discussions.

I'd love for organisers of a Symposium in Melbourne to be trying to choose between 10, 20, or 30 amazing West Australian librarians to fly across the country to be their keynote speaker. I'd love for there to be so many Australian librarians writing high quality professional blogs that it is impossible to keep up with all of them. I'd love for Australian Library Journal and Australian Academic Research Libraries to be just two of dozens of well known Australian librarianship journals packed with quality articles. I want fifteen Australian librarianship podcast channels on my phone. I want a librarianship that is like our libraries – full of writing readers, and reading writers.

If we are not talking to each other about what libraries are for, what is and is not working in our libraries, and what we are trying to achieve, then we are not a profession. You are all in a lecture room at the State Library on a Saturday morning because you care about libraries. If you want to be a professional in an exciting and dynamic profession, you need to get involved in professional discussions - put forward ideas, and articulate considered responses to what you see happening and being discussed. Doing this takes a certain level of courage. You could embarrass yourself. You could be ignored. You might be revealed as slightly hypocritical. Having the courage to take that risk is what separates professional leaders from passive spectators.

If you are a manager of other librarians at any level; If you have a blog, or a Twitter account; if you are given the opportunity to speak at a conference, a workshop or something similar - you have a responsibility to use that platform to encourage others to use their voice, and join the conversation. As library leaders we need to be opening access to write, speak and be heard, as much as opening access to read, watch and listen.

If these ideas make you uncomfortable, consider this: If we are passive in the way we interact and communicate with each other as professionals, how can we ever fully embrace a proactive, empowering model of librarianship? How can we be open with our communities, if we're not open with our profession?


At the beginning of this talk I asked "Are libraries important because of what we have, or are libraries important because of what we do?" I think I may now have an answer to that question.


The destruction of the gatekeeper model and the rise of open access and the maker movement, far from destroying librarianship, actually point us back to what we should have been concentrating on all along.

The important thing about libraries - the thing by which our work should be measured - is this: What do we enable people to empower themselves to do with the things we have been entrusted to keep for the common good?

I mentioned earlier Clay Shirky's statement that “Opportunity can change a little or a lot, depending on the social environment”. Our role, as much as anything, is to ensure that the part of the social environment for which we are responsible provides as wide a range of opportunities as possible. That is,

It's the opportunities we help our communities to identify and grasp using our resources and collections that makes libraries, and librarians, necessary.

For libraries to be truly great, truly empowering and truly valuable, we need a librarianship that is open like a question, that empowers like a bicycle, and that goes to places where it doesn't feel comfortable.

My challenge to you is simple.

Firstly, don't waste today. Learn as much as you can in the sessions, and talk to as many people as possible in the breaks. Secondly, when you get back to work on Monday, ask yourself a simple question:


"What am I going to do today to help my community to empower themselves?"

Then ask yourself that question the next day, and the next day, and the next day.

Special thanks to Katrina McAlpine for reviewing an initial draft of this talk, ALIA WA for flying me over to Perth, and the Creative Commons community for enabling me to use their awesome images for my slides.