Wednesday, May 9, 2007

My love/hate relationship with Library 2.0

All the libraryland articles and blog posts on Library 2.0 started becoming tedious almost instantly. How many articles can one person read about gaming in libraries when what you really want to read about is forming a reference collection development policy, or how to get your city to install enough electrical outlets for your computers? All the chatter about wikis and IM reference and why your library should have a blog just bored me to tears and I started ignoring it as so many trendy buzz words strung together. I also resented being made to feel guilty because I don't spend my days working on wikis or creating gaming programs for my patrons. But there really are a lot of useful ways to make our libraries more present online and therefore more relevant to the lives of many of our patrons, or those who should be our patrons.

I certainly think that the time for IM reference has come, though I'm not sure we all need to hire a Gaming Librarian . Maybe I'm just jealous because my library doesn't even have an assistant director or intact carpeting. I have no issue with gaming, in fact I attended John Beck's talk on the Gamer Generation at PLA last spring and he had some really great points about the kinds of skills developed through gaming. But what are our responsibilities as librarians? If people who sign up to use the internet at my library chose to spend their hour playing Runescape I'm certainly not going to stop them (though a few of them look like they could use some fresh air and exercise) but I'm also not going to suggest we buy a Wii for the library, especially since we don't even have the money for updating our computers. The job just seems so specific, like having a whole position devoted to music because the AudioVisual Department head can't possibly be in charge of movies AND music AND audiobooks. (Or do other libraries with more robust salaries already separate these positions?) At any rate, I'm very curious to hear about the new Gaming Librarian's progress and how it affects his library, and whether other libraries find room in their budgets to add similar positions.

Another interesting piece of 2.0 news is that a $40,000 grant was just awarded to Alliance Library Systems in Illinois to provided consumer health information services within the online environment Second Life . The grant from the National Library of Medicine/Greater Midwest Region will allow ALS to "provide training programs, outreach to virtual medical communities, important consumer health resources, and one-on-one support to Second Life residents." Libraries have been getting involved in Second Life for a while now, but I think the implications of this sizeable grant are pretty fascinating.

What I'm worried about is all of this being taken to a level that is no longer patron-friendly, or rather is friendly only to patrons using newer technology resources. For example, this blog post categorizes "no cell phone" policies as "unfriendly," and suggests that we allow library patrons to use their cell phones in libraries so they can text message librarians for help. One could argue that anyone too lazy to walk up to the reference desk when they are already inside the library may not deserve our help, but more relevantly, what about the ways in which cell phone usage disturbs other library patrons who are trying to read or study? A recent editorial from a disgruntled library patron addresses this very topic. And this is just the guy who bothered to take the time to write to the newspaper. How many other patrons feel that their libraries are no longer useful as places for research or study? Do we really want to cater to one patron at the expense of another?

Clearly, there needs to be a compromise between traditional and newer library functions that some of the 2.0-ers aren't quite grasping. Integrating new technologies into libraries should not be done at the expense those who are using "1.0" resources such as, say, books. Our patrons should still be able to come to the library and read quietly or work on their resumes without being disturbed by groups of teenage boys playing video games like the author of the editorial above. It's not fair for some patrons to be able to behave in ways that inhibits other patrons from being able to use the library for what they need.

One great example of an innovation to close this gap is the installation of cell phone booths at UMass Amherst's Du Bois Library which allow patrons to talk on their phones in the library without bothering other patrons. With prices starting at $2,400 it probably isn't financially feasible for many libraries right now, but it's nice to see that these products are out there and that solutions are possible.

Another concern is the way librarians are being perceived, and the trend to talk about 2.0 librarians as if they are a separate breed when in fact ALL librarians should be up to speed on new technologies and trends. Remember when card catalogs gave way to OPACs? There was no label for librarians who embraced that change vs. those who didn't so why create a false dichotomy now to alienate our professional peers? Change is slow in public libraries, and resources are scarce. This perceived division of 2.0 Librarians vs. Those of You Who Refuse to Get With the Program isn't particularly helpful to anyone.

Some things that are helpful include free online programs like 23 Library 2.0 Things and professional symposiums like this one sponsored by ALA. Hopefully, some education and professional discourse will help to work out the kinks and find something that will work for everyone. We just need to not lose sight of the fact that many patrons are just looking for a good book.


Kevin said...

Basically, ever since the World Wide Web came into existence librarians have been annoyingly giddy about every permutation of technology as something that "transforms the profession," that liberates librarians from their dowdy, musty image.

The truth is, the tasks are different but the job remains the same: helping patrons get the information they want or need. A hundred years ago that might have involved finding a book or sending a package; today it might involve finding a book, accessing a website or writing an email.

I see the gaming issue in terms similar to yours. A century ago one of the debates about public libraries was what kind of books should they include: were books by living and relatively lowbrow writers a suitable use of public money? Many librarians said no: in 1885, one of the books the Free Library of Concord declined to make available to the public was Huckleberry Finn.

I'm not saying that Runescape is comparable in esthetic or intellecutal merit to Huckleberry Finn; I'm simply saying libraries have always and will always struggle with the issue which public tastes and enthusiams does the library exist to accomodate, and which are better left to businesses. I'm with you on the whole issue of a "Gaming Librarian." When the Concord Free Library finally decided to carry the works of Mark Twain, I doubt they decided to hire a "Lowbrow Dialect Works by Southern Authors Librarian."

Librarians need to stop using buzz words to characterize something as totally new. The job stays the same. The tools we do it with change. That's all.

Kevin said...

Ever since the rise of the World Wide Web, libarians have been giddy with every new permutation of the technology as something that "transforms the profession," that liberates librarians from their dowdy, musty image.

The truth is, our job is what it's always been: getting people the information they need. A century ago that might have involved finding a book or sending a letter. Today it might involve finding a book, writing an email, or accessing a website.

Gaming represents another phase of an issue librarians have always struggled with: as institutions that exist to educate as well as entertain, how far should we go in accomodating popular tastes? Over a century ago librarians debated whether they should put "lowbrow" popular authors on their shelves. Some librarians said no. In 1885, the Free Library of Concord declined to make Huckleberry Finn available to their patrons.

I am NOT saying that runescape is aesthetically or intellectually comparable to Huckleberry Finn. I'm just saying the gaming issue represents an issue we've always faced.

Regarding having a "Gaming Librarian:" when the Concord Free Library finally decided to make the works of Mark Twain available to their patrons, I seriously doubt they hired a "Lowbrow Dialect Fiction Librarian."

Anonymous said...

I really liked the title of this blog post. I have to admit, that I'm one of the librarians that gets giddy over new technologies. This can't be at the expense of overall good library service, however. We need to have reasons for using certain services, such as blogs to provide something of value to our patrons. A blog, just for the sake of having a blog, is not much at all, unless it gives our patrons something that they need and want. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

the.effing.librarian said...

like your is curious how the profession has suddenly adopted an us vs them mentality between 2.0/computer users and not. I work with several librarians who would *never* try any 2.0 tech, but are extremely competent librarians whose expertise I use regularly (to answer regular/email/chat reference). it's crazy how people freak over technology (pro and con): like everything else, I always ask what are you trying to do? what tools are best for the job? When my boss says we need a wiki, I ask what the purpose would be? just to say we have one? or does the wiki solve a communication problem? it's like a blog: what't the point? but I like people who link similar/disparate ideas so I'm able to follow different stories to help me form opinions. so anyway, you can visit my page and read "I can fly" which is my take on the 2.0 thing. cheers.