Strength in curiosity

It is telling when you still pursue information about a field of interest even when you are not currently working in that field. Of course this is what a true career path is all about. It also applies to hobbies, and passions.

Over these past few months (when I haven’t been designing our new house) I have been spending my time reading, watching, and listening to information about libraries. It is an interesting time for libraries worldwide, with the vast amount of resources now available online. Add to this the prevalence of personal devices, wide connectivity, and the sophisticated ability of the user to find and access that resource, then it is no surprise that library professionals are scurrying to remain relevant and required.

The biennial VALA Conference was held in Melbourne in February and I was disappointed that I was not able to attend this year. However, I readied myself to read and review the presentations when they became available online. And now they are; but it is so satisfying to find the whole multi-media experience available online. The audio, video, slides, and twitter-feed all on the one screen. So thank you to the VALA team for providing this amazing resource. I have been able to bathe like a duck in rainwater enjoying the torrent of inspirational presentations.

The keynote speakers were: Johan Bollen; Christine Boroman; Joe Murphy; Mia Ridge; Gene Tan; and Matt Finch.

Johan Bollen spoke about big data and how to use twitter posts for data visualisation and to analyse for predicting social trends. He pointed out that not only can one see what is happening as it is happening, but it is possible to see how people are feeling about what is happening. And this information is valuable.

Christine Borgman also spoke about big data and open access to data repositories, explaining in detail what that means in reality, especially for academics and research.

Joe Murphy talked about the future of libraries; his main point being that libraries will have a robust future if we all encourage curiosity.

Mia Ridge talks about libraries as maker-spaces for cultural heritage; making the point that libraries have always provided this service opportunity. For example: people writing their family history using the library and resources is using the space for making something that has value for cultural heritage. 

Gene Tan talked about the Singapore Memory Project, and organising multiple perspectives of moments in life with a random approach. Of significance is the project that gave every Singaporian a personal account for their memories, from which the library would organise, and store for prosperity. “Giving your past a present”. Gene has a unique and endearing style that really gets to the heart of people. Don’t skip the Q&A session at the end.

Matt Finch took off his clothes and redressed in another outfit on stage, to make the point that libraries are not just for hipsters but for everyone – even those dressed in regulation fluoro stripes.

I was validated by the comments made by Joe Murphy; that the librarian who encourages curiosity in her self and others is strong and will persist and thrive into the unsure future of libraries. I am that person who always wants to discover new things, and I am as yet unsatisfied with the answers to my questions about life, the universe and everything in it.

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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

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.