Keynote from NLS6: Moving Beyond Book Museums

Based on my speaker’s notes and my imperfect adrenaline-fueled memory of that afternoon, and minus some asides that make no sense if you weren’t there (bananas!), this is approximately the speech I gave at NLS6 in February. Enjoy!


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Hello. Thank you. I’ve had a wonderful time here this weekend, and meeting you all has been lovely. You’ve been kind and generous and thoughtful and funny and interesting, and it’s been my absolutely pleasure to be here.

You’ve also reminded me of something that I really do believe, but that is easy to forget: that even though things in libraries are chaotic and changing and weird and intimidating and seemingly insurmountable, you all exist. You’ve reminded me that there’s a world full of people coming up with smart solutions to the issues in front of us, full of crazy brave energy, and even when it seems like the future’s pretty challenging, all I have to do is look over my shoulder to see that the next generation of smart people is right behind me, waiting for the chance to shine. Thank you for that reminder.

So. Weird and intimidating and insurmountable or not, this is a brilliant time to be a librarian.

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Seriously. It is. Here are some things I know to be true.

Historically, libraries have been pretty much book museums. The internet changed crucial things about how people access and think about information. Therefore the internet changed crucial things about how libraries position ourselves in our communities. And so our professional identity is in question. Our sense of purpose is a bit at sea. Then add in that economies are pretty terrible worldwide, and funding for libraries feels like it’s at a record low, and in some places it actually is. And mix it up with the truth that the future is now, but most certainly it’s unevenly distributed. Even in the midst of such abundance, fair and equal access to information is still a dream, not a reality.

That’s a downer.

But! But! It is still a brilliant time to be a librarian. Even with all those things being true. Why?

Because we are on the cusp of something absolutely remarkable. Think about all the things you heard here in the last two days. Discussions of the Edge and the Cube, of urban informatics and information jobs that don’t have librarian in the title. All the things you discussed, all the ideas you chewed on and played with and wondered about.

That’s all real, and just as true as my depressing facts about libraries. Right now, as the future comes slamming into our lives in ways we hadn’t anticipated, didn’t expect, and aren’t quite ready for, just about anything is possible. Hell, everything is possible. Some of it’s going to be hard, and some of it is going to continue to be unevenly distributed, but there is so much possibility that I can’t help but think that it’s a brilliant time to be a librarian.

I’m a bit biased in this, in that I’ve had the relative luxury of watching this revolution in libraries happen for the whole time that I’ve been clued into libraries. I started my time at university in 1994, and that’s when I got my first email address and had daily access to computers with always-on fast internet connections. And so I was paying attention as only an eager university student can when the IT staff installed NCSA Mosaic on all the lab machines, and introduced my generation to the world wide web. The graphical browser had arrived, and it quickly and with all due speed usurped our existing systems.

That happened to all of us, in one way or another, but I think that my window into the information revolution was apt for the path I’ve taken. My most serious educational years, and my development of my own perspectives on information, learning, and libraries, were all influenced by the evolution of the web. So I’ve moved through my education about libraries and the early part of my professional career with a clear sense that there was a revolution happening. And revolutions change everything, sometimes blowing things up while they’re at it.

But the other thing I know is that librarians like beginnings, middles, and ends, with all data in carefully coded slots. And you never know where a revolution really ended until someone writes the history about it… and we haven’t written that history yet.

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So we don’t know yet where we’re ending up. The revolution’s not over, and librarians don’t know where we stand in this shifting and changing landscape.  But the damn thing started nearly 20 years ago. And my concern is that we should be responding by now.

I mean, we sort of are. But we sort of aren’t.

We have online catalogs, now… and they’re mired in MARC records and they still don’t really make sense to the average user, and they sure as hell aren’t Google.  And we’ve started digitizing our archives and special collections, but how long have we spent arguing about archival standards for .pdfs, and cost recovery on “extra” services like digitization, and what sort of discovery tools are we providing for users to get at our online things? And reference works are moving online, but not one of them can beat Wikipedia for ease of access or completeness – library resources are still locked into a paradigm that puts them behind a library-provided portal, and that values the traditional authority-based publishing process. Pick your own example. You can all come up with one, I’m sure, of the thing you look at in this field we all love and say, “That’s just not good enough.”

In a world that has cars that drive themselves, incredible processing power in our smartphones, and amputees with robot arms they control with their brains, I expect more from libraries than crappy OPACs and tepid forays into digitization. I expect better than venerating our tradition as book museums.

Of course, here’s the thing. I’m a library director. I’m one of our vaunted leaders, and I’m one of the people who should be providing direction and a plan of attack, developing strategy and vision. And I will tell you frankly that I don’t think that my library is on par with nearly-magic robot arms, either. So when I condemn the progress libraries have made, mine is included! I’m not responding the way I wish we were, either, and I know why: Because it’s hard, and I’m not quite sure how.

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There’s clear evidence from both anecdote and survey that we lack compelling visionary leadership. There are a lot of compelling voices, and a lot of visionary figures, but we lack compelling practical visionary leadership.

Here are some more facts. These are from the 2010 Ithaka S+R study of library directors. Ithaka is the group that produces JSTOR, and S+R is their research arm, looking into issues of scholarship, digitzation, publishing, teaching, and learning. Good stuff. I keep hauling this data out, and I’m waiting eagerly for their next data release on libraries so I can have new numbers to use… because these are depressing. But they’re real. So here it is:

65% of respondents do not feel that their library has a well-developed strategy to meet changing user needs and research habits.

63% of Library Directors don’t feel they have enough information to deaccession print journals available online.

75% of Library Directors still think it’s very important that libraries be “gateway”s for information access.

I have serious arguments with the 63-75% of my peers who gave those answers, and I’d like to whack most of ‘em upside the head. Print journals are dead, libraries are no longer gateways for users, and we need some goddamned planning and strategy. End of story.

And as I noted, I’m also culpable here. While I love my library and my staff, we are not building mind-controlled robot arms. I think we’re doing really good work to move ourselves, our institution, and our services forward in meaningful ways. But despite that, we’re not building mind-controlled-robot-arm quality services and initiatives. And I think we need to be, collectively. The future is knocking, and we’re pulling the blinds and waiting for it to come back after we’ve had a chance to tidy up the parlor.

Many of us who could be driving our future from a position of strength and leadership aren’t doing so because, frankly, it’s hard. And we don’t know how. We’re not ready. So we need leadership, plans, and vision. And 63-75% of library directors can’t figure out how to do that.

Depressed yet? Let me keep going. We particularly need them in emerging areas. Because, come on, we’re all practical and functional and smart enough to figure out public service, book processing, and all of our traditional core areas. We’ve got that down, man. We’re good at it. Service is what we do. I mean, all those services can be improved, and they can all be innovation hubs, but they’re places where we’re already comfortable. We’re god at making plans and strategizing about information literacy and community building.

I’m thinking about our areas of discomfort.

Digitization in all its big messy glory.

Patron-initiated knowledge creation.

Publishing and how the industry is changing around ebooks.

Publishing and how we might participate in it.

Publishing and how patrons might participate in it.

Collection development and how patrons might participate in it.

With all those boundaries between our work and the user opening up, then we get to digital and media literacy. And then someone throws in big and open data, and what are we supposed to do with that? Well, maybe software development is the way to go. But we’re not so great at that, either. We usually rely on vendors. Except their products are largely crap, too, and sometimes they’re actively antagonistic to our needs instead of supporting them.

And that’s just some of them. (Seriously, are you depressed yet?) There are more areas of discomfort now, and there will be new areas of discomfort that pop onto our radar tomorrow, because someone somewhere is gonna build a cool thing that libraries will need to respond to in creative and useful ways.And our leadership isn’t ready for it. We don’t have a practical or sustainable vision from our leaders of what to do now, and do next.

And I’m not saying that cool shit isn’t happening in libraries: It is. It really, really is. Amy Buckland at McGill is working on digitization in their archives and special collections on a scale that we don’t often see, and she’s got big ideas about libraries and publishing that I’m looking forward to seeing materialize. Two guys I know, Jason Griffey at UTC-Chattanooga and David Fiander at University of Western Ontario are both working on wireless library projects that would allow each of us to walk around with a battery-powered wireless downloadable ebook library in our backpacks.

Here’s my issue: Those are just three of my friends. There are thousands of those projects out there. Each of you could think of a half dozen professional friends, new grads, mentors, colleagues, who are doing really cool things. But in my experience, doing cool things isn’t enough. In my experience, the coolest projects aren’t scalable. they only work because of the circumstances in which they were built.

A great idea proves not to be scalable because it’s small and focused and the second it goes big it fails somehow. An awesome information literacy tutorial only works because it’s tailored to the community it was written for, so when you try to make it applicable at your place, the whole thing has to be restarted from scratch.

Or it’s not reproducible, because it’s hyper-local and you need the resource set of Institution X to pull it off. I cannot do at SUNY Potsdam with my 25 staff what Amy can do at McGill with the resources of a research university. Full stop.

Or the best new idea requires skill sets we aren’t training for and don’t have, except for a dozen people who are all being hired by Google, and that one guy who can write his own ticket and you could never afford him anyway. Or even smaller scale: Griffey shows me his LibraryBox and enthuses about how straightforward it is, and I totally want to make one to take to every meeting I ever have and insist that people download the files we’re going to be working with instead of printing them out… and then my eyes glaze over when he starts talking about the code that you need in order to set one up. I, um, was hoping for a nice little point and click and stick the cord in the hole kind of interface and he’s talking about GitHub…

Or, most important, not enough people are standing up in venues where they can be heard and saying, “Hey! I did this thing! See my thing? Let me show you how I did my thing and how you could do my thing, so we can make more things like my thing, and we’ll all benefit!” There are tons of great websites out there, showing, sharing, and demonstrating results… but there are not nearly as many pages included in those sites that say “and here’s exactly how we made this, and here’s our license that openly allows you access to all of our work so you can do it, too.”

In short, we’re doing great things, but not in the best, most practical ways that would benefit our bigger communities as a whole, and we don’t have leaders who are standing up and saying, “here, this is really useful and here’s how you can do it too.”

So that’s enough of depressing. All that’s true, but it’s still a brilliant time to be a librarian, and I want to encourage all of you to help us all by being a better kind of librarian in this brilliant time. The question is: How do we model and build new cool shit, and develop librarians who can be our practical visionaries in these areas?

Three ways. And they all start with you lot, with your energy and your excitement and your ideas, and your relative lack of preconceptions about how this all ought to work.


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I need you all to stop fearing failure. There is genius and glory in our messes, and as Stuart Candy made clear, we cannot possibly predict what will come next. The future? It’s a giant chess board of infinite possibility and endless surprise. So we can’t fail making the wrong choice in that universe of billions of options. To anchor it down a bit, there is a TEDx Flint talk by a man named Peter Bregman in which he discusses fear and learning. In it, he talks about children. He notes that these small humans throw themselves face-first into life, toddling and falling through their environments for months on end as they explore, feel, smell, and lick everything they encounter. He says we lose something as we grow older, wiser, and taller. He says, “We learn by falling face first into the unknown, and then exploring our surroundings when we get there.” He goes on to suggest that if you know the falling is coming, it’s scary. Adults know the falling is coming. Our wisdom and experience tell us to stop licking everything we put our hands on. And as we work to protect ourselves, we don’t learn.

In short, Bregman asserts and I agree that if we want to learn, we have to feel the uncomfortable emotions that go along with learning — there’s no other way to do it. You can either stay comfortable, or reach for more of your full potential. You have to choose. Since Ruth Kneale took ObiWan in her talk, I’ll take Yoda. There is no try. And you WILL fail.

The best example I ever heard of this came from a workshop I attended about implementing new technologies in libraries, sometime more than 5 but less than 10 years ago.  It’s a good one, and stuck with me. In the early ’90s, a group of library technologists sat down and worked out the best possible technology implementation for their campus, studying what was available, how the industry was growing and changing, and they came to one conclusion: Gopher was the way to go. They worked out an implementation plan, put all the pieces into play, and launched what was certain to be a big leap forward for information access at their institution. And just after they launched, you know what happened? I said “early 90’s”. NCSA Mosaic was released. And Gopher  became exactly 100% the wrong solution to their problem, even though it was absolutely the right answer up until launch day. Things changed, and it was the wrong one immediately after. They were right, until they were wrong. There was nothing they could have done to prevent that, and nothing they could do once it had happened. It just was.

So you’ll fail. It happens. But you’ll learn from it, and you’ll move on, and you’ll know that you chose to stretch yourself and you lived through the experience. And then it’ll be time to save the world. again.


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Because you’ve also got to stop waiting for a hero.

So let’s talk about the American Chemical Society.

It looked like a monopoly to me, in my first job out of graduate school. They had the content, they mandated we buy the content in order to be accredited, and they got to set the price on their content which we then had to pay for in order to have their approval of our program. But I was at a tiny tiny college, so who was I to complain? I told my boss it upset me, and why, and paid their invoices with a grimace.

And for the next 11 years, across different jobs in collection development, and watched as the paradigm did not change. And the prices rose. Again, and again, and again. In 2012 it looked like the ACS package — 40 journals serving one of 30 departments on my campus — would cost more than 10% of my materials budget. Costs had increased beyond my ability to pay. And finally, after years of hoping somehow, someone would do something, and something would change, I just said “To hell with it.”

And I did my job, and this time I did my job RIGHT. I worked with faculty so that they understood the issues. I worked with librarians to find alternate solutions. I ran the numbers again and again, and I talked to my boss about the the implications of what I saw there. I tried to negotiate with the publisher. I tried to get our consortium to negotiate with the publisher. Nothing worked.

And so I made the noise myself. We — SUNY Potsdam chemists, our collections librarians, and I — cancelled our ACS package. I blogged about it, telling other libraries that it was possible to walk away, laying out the steps of how I did it, describing what measures we were taking as a result, and asserting that the world probably wouldn’t explode as a result.

As confirmation, the world did not explode.

Interesting discussion ensued, for certain, and some other libraries were empowered to act, others to speak. I received more “thank you thank you thank you” emails and phone calls than I can effectively communicate. They were heartfelt, and they were real, and they mattered — and they were all from people waiting for someone else to be a hero. But if you wait for a hero, sometimes you wait for 11 years and nothing happens. Sometimes you wait longer. Is that the world you want to live in?

I have a tshirt referencing the classic Mario-rescues-the-Princess video games, except my tshirt says “self-rescuing princess.” I have another that says “I am my own hero.” Be your own damn heroes, and rescue yourselves.

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Digitization. democratized information access and creation. Big open data. Digital literacy. Mind-controlled robot arms. These are all new fields for libraries. (Maybe not the robot arms.) They’re all big, and interesting, and absolutely brand new.

You know the best part about new stuff?

Nobody knows what success looks like. No one can tell you if you’re doing it right or wrong. That means you can try anything, and produce anything, and odds are… you’re succeeding. Because, really. Consider:

Do I, with the formal education I received in the late 90’s, really know more about what’s going to happen to libraries as big open data begins to explode in our environment? Maybe, right now, I do (I don’t, actually, but if I did), but it’s only because I’ve spent time educating myself about trends in our industry. You can do that, too, and you should.

You who are younger than I am have a very different perspective on the internet and our current information economy. And that perspective might mean you have an answer that I don’t. So educate yourself, and become the person who knows more than me about what might happen next.

And ebooks. Does someone in my position somehow have a magic 8 ball about what the publishing industry will do next as they flail about looking for a way to preserve their old profit model? Again, if so, it’s only because I’ve done my homework. You can do that, too. Nothing about my position privileges me to be the expert on these topics, or prevents you from becoming the expert instead.

The uncertainty of our future opens the door for new experts, new approaches, and new ideas about how to succeed in that new future. You can be those experts. And I’m not saying we won’t help you, mentor you, or support you — the best of those of us who came before you most certainly will. What I am saying is that YOU should be those new experts. Not us. So …

In this brilliant time to be a librarian, when we don’t know what the future is going to bring but we’re pretty sure it’s going to be amazing, I ask of you:

Redefine success.
Redefine libraries.
Redefine our future.
Don’t let people like me tell you how it should be.
Don’t let people like me tell you you’re doing it wrong.

Grab hold of your brave ideas, and make them real. Make them into scalable and reproducible projects, driven by vision but also by a desire to see every library pick up the concept and run with it in their own way. Use your vision to drive your library forward, to advance the information profession and our societies toward a better future.

Build the libraries we deserve, not the ones we’ve gotten used to.

Make sure that, as was said yesterday, we’re not talking about the same things at the next conference that we talked about at this one. Push your boss, push your library, push the obstructionists. Have faith in yourself, and insist on success, as you’ve defined it. As Ruth said, you have mad skillz. USE THEM.

Be different.
Be better.
I know you can.

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