Back to busyness

I have been back working in public libraries for a few weeks now and it’s great to feel useful and able to help people with their questions. In general the level of sophistication in regard to technology related questions is notable. Many in our population have become quite adept at using and navigating the Internet and all of the associated technologies. The days where it was assumed that the older generation did not ‘get’ this stuff are behind us. Many people are curious about things like ebooks and will ask about them, even if they decide not to give them a try – just yet.

The busy libraries where I work require an agile mind that can handle a day of mental gymnastics, able to negotiate the barrage of unique questions in quick succession.

portsea_pier_01042014This week I was lucky to work some shifts on the mobile library truck. I took this photo near one of our stops, during a short break.

I have been reacquainting myself with the different Library Management System, as well as the different procedures and work-flows associated with a large and multi-branch public library service. I feel very much welcomed back and I am appreciative of that.

Zombies and the future of libraries

What do zombies have to do with the future of libraries you may well ask? In ‘reality’ if there was a zombie apocalypse, libraries would perish along with all of humanity. And being zombies, one would hardly expect them to have an active interest in the future of libraries or indeed any intellectual pursuit.

Like many librarians I have been thinking about the future of libraries a lot lately. It is a hot topic in the library world, mainly due to evolving technology, the proliferation of internet-connected personal devices, and the cheap and easy access to eBooks. The spread of the World Wide Web did not result in the end of libraries, but it has reduced our physical non-fiction collections substantially. Now with the second wave of internet-enabled technologies, does anyone need to go to a library at all to get hold of the reading material they want and need? Perhaps that end is in sight and this has resulted in a lot of talk amongst library professionals. So what are we here for?

The Victorian Public Libraries 2030 Strategic Framework was published in 2013 after 18 months of intensive collaborative discussions by public library staff in Victoria, of which I was privileged to be a part. Future scenarios were discussed in detail, how these scenarios might unfold, and what might be the key drivers to certain future scenarios. The drivers were identified as: technology, environmental issues, commuting, economic problems, health, increasing ageing population, cooperative endeavours, education and lifelong learning. The final stages of these discussions allowed us to add public libraries into the scene, thereby discussing how best to address and take full advantage of some new unfolding situations. Two future scenarios emerged: the creative scenario; and the community scenario. Both of these scenarios described the future public library as a community space.

Library as ‘community space’ has already had a whole lot of verbiage. Isn’t that what public libraries have always been? Perhaps I am not old enough to remember the places of shush, where reading books was done alone and in silence. There is value in the concepts of place-making, maker-spaces, and community collaboration. This has been, and continues to be, my experience of the library. The only quiet library space I can recall is the reading room of the State Library of Victoria; otherwise libraries are full of conversation, activity, people traffic, meetings, entertainment, coffee, and laughter. Oh, and books!

Personally, I am typically bookish, introverted, nerdy, and self-motivated. I like to explore notions on my own. This is the main reason why I love libraries. I enjoy following a pathway through literature that is entirely determined by me and as a result of my reading. I have described this as ‘delving into the book’; it is an entirely unique journey that begins and ends with the book, with regular forays online when new information is needed. I concur with the words that Nancy Pearl wants as her epitaph, “I’d rather be reading.”

The IFLA/UNESCO Public Library Manifesto 1994 does not mention the book at all, despite being written pre-internet. The manifesto defines public libraries as “the local gateway to knowledge”, and is essential for “fostering peace and spiritual welfare through the minds of men and women.” Key mission number two, “supporting both individual and self conducted education”, validates my own habits. Public libraries are seen as fundamental to democracy, prosperity and knowledge, so how can anyone consider a future without libraries?

At the recent ALIA Future of the Profession Summit Mark Pesce urged those librarians present to share their knowledge in order to plan a future for libraries. He reminded them that “the culture of sharing has its origins in the library.” And while “the light of knowledge shines more brightly than ever before, from two billion smartphone screens”, this is an opportunity because it is librarians who are the experts “in an environment of informational hyperadundance.” While the librarians in Victoria did just that last year, the resulting framework is one interpretation of possible future scenarios. The trick is in being able to recognise the triggers and apply the strategies at the right time.

Neil Gaiman is an enthusiastic supporter of libraries and he explained recently that “everything changes when we read”, that “libraries are the gates to the future”, and by closing libraries “you are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.” A dire warning indeed!

So back to the zombies… Dr. Matthew Finch is responsible for The Zombies of Tullamore:

In an interview with Corin Haines he talks about his approach to attracting people into the library. By choosing a theme that excites the imagination of a particular audience, he uses the activity to enhance the literacy experience within the library. I’m sure lots of librarians and teachers do this already, but this is a good example of how to do it well and to instill the learning opportunity into the activity. It is more than just a trendy promotional hook; it is immersive learning through role play and self discovery.

He identifies “why Zombies are good for libraries:

  1. Zombies attract kids and teens of all backgrounds.
  2. Zombies remind us that libraries are about more than shelves.
  3. Zombies promote choice and independent learning.
  4. Zombies may decay, but immersive literacy lives on.”

A lot more about the future of library profession can be found here.

This is what I know:

  • People will keep creating new content: fiction and non-fiction.
  • People will want to read that content for a multitude of reasons.
  • People will always expect and deserve to get unrestricted access to reading materials.
  • Technology will continue to evolve and change the way we live.
  • Library funding will continue to be threatened.
  • Librarians will continue to want to organise content.
  • Libraries will continue to be adapted and adjusted to accommodate the new.
  • Fun makes learning easier.
  • Zombies are fiction.

P.S. R. David Lankes talks about the future of libraries in this presentation From Loaning to Learning

On my eBook shelf

So I spent an afternoon traipsing around the city shops of Melbourne in search of two particular books. I asked at the desks and eventually conceded that these two titles were not currently available in print. Neither were old or obscure titles. I want to support local businesses in preference to large multi-national companies that monopolise the market. Alas this was not possible.

The next day when seated at my desk with blisters on my feet I quickly and easily and cheaply downloaded the two ebook versions onto my iPad. I find that my eBook shelf is gradually filling up (if that is possible?!) Talking with colleagues at work, who share a love of books, reading, and techno-gadgets, we compare our eBook experiences. One person deletes the books she buys after she has read them assuming they remain on her invisible purchases sitting in ‘the cloud’. None of us seem to mind what format the book is in, and ultimately it is all about the content and getting our hands on it when we want it.


On my iBooks shelf 

1.  The biology of belief: unleashing the power of consciousness, matter and miracles by Bruce H. Lipton Ph.D. (2005)

2.  Wheat belly: Lose the wheat, lose the weight, and find your path back to health by William Davis M.D. (2011)

3.  Make shift happen: Changing how you look by changing how you think by Dean Dwyer (2012)

4.  Expect more: demanding better libraries for today’s complex world by R. David Lankes (2012)

5.  Walden: and on the duty of civil disobedience by Henry David Thoreau via Project Gutenberg

6.  Beatles Yellow Submarine by Subafilms Ltd. (2011)

7.  I quit sugar by Sarah Wilson (2012)

8.  Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne (ebook edition 2010)

9.  Leaves of grass by Walt Whitman (ebook edition via Project Gutenberg 2008)

10. Living as a river: Finding fearlessness in the face of change by Bodhipaksa (2010)

11. Rainbow’s end by Rex Ellingwood Beach (1971) (ebook edition via Project Gutenberg 2004)

On my Bluefire Reader shelf

53 documents (either PDFs or ePubs)

Relating to work, food & health, and study

How does your library grow?

In keeping with the National Year of Reading, I continue to write about the monthly themes, and for September it is “grow”. My focus is on public libraries.

Many people assume that public libraries keep all of their books, and when not being borrowed, they sit on the shelf or are kept in storage somewhere. However this is a myth. In reality public libraries have very limited space and books don’t often remain in any one spot for very long at all. It is a dynamic process of purchasing, processing, sorting, shifting, distributing, displaying, shelving, re-shelving, retrieving, loaning, issuing, returning, re-shelving, repairing, evaluating, sorting, boxing, and at the end of its use – selling in a book sale or sent on to some other need. There is often not a mysterious “stack” of old books preserved for prosperity, unless the library is the National or State Library.

Public libraries attempt to manage this dynamic process with a Collection Management Plan that addresses the demographic of their users to try to predict demand. This plan offers guidelines to manage donations, weeding, purchasing, and when used in conjunction with a clever Marketing Plan, should maximise the collections full extent.

Often people generously offer their pre-loved books thinking the public library will cherish them as much as they have, whilst in reality they are often boxes of dog-eared, smoke-saturated, food-stained paperbacks that only add workload and obstacles to an already jam-packed library work space and work load. The local public library does not have the capacity to “grow” to this extent. There are exceptions of course, and sometimes the books donated are real treasures.

Direct request from customers for popular books and other resources proves to be a useful way to grow the collection while responding to local demand. But it can’t be the only driver because often there are fantastic things that exist that people aren’t aware of, or know that they want – yet. This is where the librarians craft comes into play and they can shape the collection with their expertise, worldly knowledge and creativity.

The Long Tail is a concept coined by Chris Anderson in 2005 and when applied to the library collection is easy to understand. If a library were to buy copies of the latest popular release in quantities to supply the demand and responded each time to every best seller, the shelves would soon be lined with multiple copies of last year’s bestsellers and little else, and look like a short stumpy tail. It would be like a drinks refrigerator filled with one brand of beer, or just beer. Which might be fine for beer drinkers, but not so for those who prefer champagne or tea or green smoothies. The Long Tail theory shows that by offering an array of many different titles on a diversity of subjects that often the quirky niche subjects get a space on the shelf that will be justified when it is inevitably matched with the diverse and quirky interest of a customer. And to paraphrase Tim Flannery, “The continued existence of the species depends on diversity.” When you apply this to humans then our existence depends on a diversity of attitudes, interests and knowledge that can only be gained by offering a wide range of topics for investigation. A browse along the shelves of the non-fiction section  will show books about beekeeping, how to work a room, bushcraft, Hagar, heavy metal music, the cats pyjamas, work abroad, survival, ideas, Shakespeare (of course), Henry Lawson, travel, art, architecture, computer help, languages, pregnancy, health issues, etc, etc.

The serendipity of browsing library shelves is a well-known and enjoyable pastime and many have commented on this human behaviour. Bryan Loar of Brave New World says that by using the online catalogue and reserving items ahead of time then “self-directed discovery has been lost”. Professor Todd P. Olson of Berkeley in California values the experience of browsing the library’s shelves so much that he has launched a fundraising campaign towards the “continuation of library collections to ensure that the joy of discovery will continue for generations into the future”. Steve Penn talks about how “you walk around the shelves and suddenly find something that you weren’t looking for but seems just right for you.”  Maria Popova of Brain Pickings worries “that we are leaving little room for abstract knowledge and for the kind of curiosity that invites just enough serendipity to allow for the discovery of ideas we didn’t know we were interested in until we are, ideas that we may later transform into new combinations with applications both practical and metaphysical.” And I could go on…

So eBooks and other electronic resources seem to offer a solution to the problem of relieving limited physical spaces in libraries, but restrict the valuable and enjoyable experience of browsing for the serendipitous find. Again I try to imagine the library space where much is only available as an electronic file or online. An electronic collection can grow beyond imagination, storing and preserving every book forever! Of course the preservation of electronic files is another complex issue altogether. But as Seth Godin tells us “Librarians who are arguing and lobbying for clever ebook lending solutions are completely missing the point. They are defending library as warehouse as opposed to fighting for the future, which is librarian as producer, concierge, connector, teacher and impresario.”

Well Seth Godin doesn’t have to convince me that libraries are not just warehouses for books, but if our buildings are not growing with new physical materials, and our collections are “hidden” in the “connected” cyber-world, then who and what is in the building? And how can the average Joe Blow discover, develop and grow with that serendipitous ah-ha moment of stumbling across that book that will change his life? I think it was Og Mandino who told the story about how he was destitute, homeless and was on his way to buy a gun to kill himself when he stumbled into a public library and this “saved” him and turned his life around. That weird unkempt, smelly, apparently homeless person who visits your public library every day might just stumble across his/her saving grace.

In the past I have thought that perhaps the library could display images or video on large screens of these hidden resources. Libraries do this now and have been for some time. And although it might create visual interest, it is just another screen in a world where screens proliferate. And the images would be limited and could not portray the full extent of the collection. And these have tended to be rather static displays even with the inclusion of video segments. Library catalogues could be (and perhaps are being) developed whereby the screen is used to display current catalogue items in a way that is more dynamic and interactive, uses multi-media, and has the ability to display at random or by selection, when not in use by a customer.  Perhaps the items displayed could be recommendations that respond to the person who passes by based on their past loans. I am sure the current technologies in Library Management Systems and RFID could already do this, however then we get into the murky waters of intrusion and privacy.

Question: Libraries in 2030?

The theme for August from the National Year of Reading 2012 is “question”.

So my questions relate to “What will the library look like in 2030?”

What will a library look like when all the books are eBooks? Will physical books survive the tsunami of eBooks?

Will the prophesized vision of the library from the original Time Machine movie be our reality? I recently tried to remind some colleagues about the scene from this movie where the dusty books in the Grand Old library disintegrate at the Time Travellers touch, and they all looked at me with blank stares alarmingly similar to the blank stares of the future human race in this movie!

When searching YouTube for a clip I found this Lego version:

How will serendipitous discoveries occur?

How will the curious readers find great reading material unfettered by firewalls, logins, advertising, and Big Brother watching?

Will the “library as haven” as quoted by Alan Bennett become a quaint memory of a bygone era? This article reports Alan Bennett and others campaigning against library closures in the UK last year.

The Library Book is a collection of short stories about libraries offered by Alan Bennett. One story The Defence of the Book by Julian Barnes provides a vision of one possible future if library closures occurred.

This image from The Time Machine of the library of the future has always stuck in my mind:

Country connections

Library services in the 21st century rely heavily on electronic resources and the internet. We hear of the demise of the physical book and ebooks are being chosen as a preferred format by many people. Google has stolen much of the research assistance once done by Librarians. We are far from card catalogues, limited physical collections of books, and even library standards like the LCSH are being replaced by tags.

While the World Wide Web has increased and broadened information accessibility, it has also radically changed the working lives of Librarians. And there is more to come. Where will we be when a library can’t purchase an item whether it is physical or electronic and we have to subscribe to platforms for everything? How is that going to impact small town libraries and their people?

This all hinges on the internet for access and delivery and there is this widely held notion that this access is a given. But it is not so. Even in the not-so-remote parts of Victoria where I live and work, there are “black spots” where whole towns have no coverage other than dial-up.

Not only does this prevent any delivery and connection via web-based models, such as the online library catalogue, but it means that many people residing in these towns are well behind in knowledge, acceptance, and skills in using this form of information. More and more organisations are only offering online services now. Think about how you submit your tax return, book flights and shows, apply for jobs, etc.

And when a know-it-all interloper from the city breezes into town espousing the wonders and virtues of the internet, they are seen as some kind of snake oil salesman.

 Places like this still exist and are being used as such. Disability access, OH&S, even reliable electricity are not seen as important factors, let alone on any kind of priority list. Attempts at network access via 3G fail repeatedly. So trying to convert the stubborn country folk is a trial of proportions not appreciated by library suppliers from the cities where fast reliable connectivity is expected. Even trying to coax people into using the internet to order and reserve physical books is like trying to teach an aqua-phobic  to swim.

Library services provided to small remote towns with limited internet connectivity are a lifeline to a larger world. While these people value, want and need their regular book delivery, many are yet to catch on to the possibilities that are there waiting for them.

Will the NBN come to the rescue of these people? Or are they destined to growing disadvantage caused by the digital divide?

This is an interesting talk given by Philip Kent in September 2011 at Melbourne University about Research Libraries in the 21st Century.

The weight of words

As a lifelong lover of books I can list many good reasons to support printed books as opposed to electronic books: the beauty of the printed book as an object is a view shared by many; the musty smell; the weight in your hand; the perfect size; the tangible delight of anticipation and discovery as you flick through the pages seeing sentences, thoughts and images at first glance; the sound of the pages turning. A whole library of these wondrous creations can keep your attention for days.

But I am being nostalgic. This may well be a vision from our past. Coffee-table books are more suited to these attention-deficit times. A quick flick through a glossy work of biblio-art is all our brief leisure time can afford.

Reading books is a lot more complicated now with the evolution and availability of ebooks and ereaders. Many of the things we love about the freedom of reading a book has finally been translated successfully to the ebook device: portability; visual ease of reading on a screen; choice of font size; finger-flick to next page; the sound of pages turning. Where once you might have carried one or two books in your bag for reading on trains, or in waiting rooms, or on the beach, your ebook device can carry that whole library of musty old books in the palm of your hand. Can it really? Theoretically – yes, but what books and how?

It depends! It depends which device you have, which distributor you choose, what format your device likes. Apple make it easy for even the most technologically- challenged amongst us – but at a price. You will be a slave to the proprietary nature of Apple products. Ipods, ipads, and iphones can do it all simply and quickly through the itunes software that connects your device with their software via the internet. But their software must be loaded onto your own pc initially for this all to work seamlessly. Apple has world domination in this field in the palm of their hands – apple-sized.

There are other devices suitable for ebooks but they also all have some kind of proprietary nature and problems associated with formats. If you try for a freely available format like PDF you will need further software that will reformat the PDF to be readable, scrollable, page-turnable, to suit your device. Software such as Adobe Digital Editions or Epub. Eyes glazing over now?

So the advantages of ebooks such as: portability, accessibility, immediacy, weight in hands (propability?), screen light, font size, library in your pocket; these advantages seem just out of reach for many. It’s easier to buy the book – if you can find the one you want in print.

Or go to the public library and borrow the book – for FREE! Now there’s an idea!! But chances are the latest new release by your favourite author is out on loan and you will have to reserve it and wait to be notified of its arrival for you. By then you might have bought it, or borrowed it from a friend. It might just be worth the cost of a quick download to your ereader afterall. Immediate gratification is sometimes not met well by public libraries. Whereas if you have your ebook/ereader format and subscription dilemmas sorted then you will be able to download that book you desperately want NOW.

While ebooks are cheaper per unit by comparison to the printed copy, you must factor in the other costs associated with your ebook convenience: the ereader, the internet access, the device plan, the credit card fees, etc.

The notion of the experience being “special” is also worth due consideration. The anticipation of waiting for that particular book is not to be dismissed. If I have immediate access to all and every book I want to read then not only am I swamped with too many things for my mind to manage, but that one special book loses some of its appeal if it is available to me straight away. This is a very fuzzy concept and needs further investigation, but book-lovers will know what I mean I’m sure. It’s like eating chocolate: if you eat it every day then you might get a bit sick of it, and it becomes common place and not the luxury special occasion item that it should be. Immediate impulsive download robs you of any anticipation. You are poorer for it. An article I read recently, “Can the book survive?” in the Good Weekend section of The Age on 15th January 2011, touches on this notion.

Further on in the same article is the idea that the “voice” of the author changes depending on the medium on which the text is being read. The layout of the text on the ereader screen can detract from the potency and importance of that text; while other books are more suited to being read on an ereader. I noticed this too when I read a free copy of Alice in Wonderland complete with old illustrations that I had downloaded onto my ipad. The artistic beauty of the serif-font laid out on the page was missing, and yet the small “original” illustrations were lovely captured on the small screen. This is where the book as beautiful object is most obvious, and in this case, lacking as an ebook.

This idea needs further research and I have the perfect title for a thesis – “The weight of words and how text and meaning are affected by format, display and availability”. Go for it.

So the advantages of ebooks and ereaders are disadvantages also. What they offer us in terms of portability and access robs us of the quality of the experience of reading in some obscure way. The delight of browsing, serendipity of discovery, and being exposed to a broad range of subjects that you might never have considered, amidst the shelves of books, narrows the experience to obtaining just the one book you seek. You might get what you want right now, but not what you don’t know that you might want.

Public libraries are the losers in this battle of the ebook/ereader formats. Publishers have tied up the ebook market into a knot. Ask at a public library if they have ebooks and you will get a bold “Yes” in response, followed by an uncertain “but…” What device? What format? Which book? Sorry but you can’t get fiction FREE in ebook format at a public library for download to your personal device. Well you probably can somewhere, but the latest titles? You will probably be able to easily read an ebook on the library pc or on your home pc if you are a library member. But ebooks mean portability, so what is the point of reading an ebook on your pc? Electronic notebook? Well maybe.

Most librarians will tell you about the many ebook collections available online, such as Project Gutenberg, Safari books, ebooks at the National Library of Australia, the ebooks supplied by Adelaide University, and many more. But this is not answering the problems associated with being able to borrow the latest novel for free from your library, or perhaps buying the ebook outright then being able to pass it on to a friend.

It is too soon for a conclusion of thoughts. These are uncertain times for book lovers. It is still evolving. Optimistically I think that public libraries and freedom of access will prevail. Fearfully I envision half empty shelves with old pre-loved books decomposing and awaiting the arrival of H. George Wells in his Time Machine. (Remember that scene from the classic movie where he is relieved to find the public library only to have the books fall to dust in his hands?)

Ultimately literacy, creative endeavour, the need to express ourselves, the desire to share our ideas, and discover new ones, and the pure and simple love of books as objects will ensure that public libraries continue to be valued as places for community narrative, history, wealth of knowledge, ideas, learning, gathering, sharing and for the free inclusive access for all.