PLA has been my favorite library conference since I attended my first in 2010. I relished the show’s focus—the granularity and prescriptiveness of its sessions; the moxie and optimism of its presenters. I bonded with a group of Connecticut librarians I now call friends, and I met a future Multnomah County mover who would become my surrogate mother, all while soaking up the weirdy beardy energizing Zen of Portland, OR, our host city.
This year’s conference in Philadelphia made a vastly different impression. Maybe it was my own fatigue from weighing the ebook question, but I detected a friction among public librarians that wasn’t present out West two years ago. My schedule mixed sessions about readers’ advisory (RA) with digital migraines, and as I moved from one to the next, two camps took shape: those pros and parapros who believe popular books remain public libraries’ leading brand and that the face-to-face, librarian-patron interaction is at the core of library services, and the technologists who argue that survival depends on being able to code—literally—library infrastructure and publish content independent of established houses.
Certainly, I’m not the first person to diagnose this schism, but I think it deserves more documentation at a moment when a semblance of consensus is important. I was fascinated—and a bit terrified—to map the tensions of their point of view.
Begin, to quote LJ’s RA columnist, Neal Wyatt:
My RA immersion began on Thursday with a lively “converstation” called Rx for RA Revisited: A Prescription That Works, led by Karen Vermut, coordinator of adult services at the Queens Library, and Lucy M. Lockley, collection development manager of the St. Charles City-County Library District. At the heart of their message was that libraries don’t need dedicated RA staff to do RA successfully, as the service taps a zeal for reading that many trench workers already possess. Regularly scheduled book discussion groups using resource guides for what Lockley calls “benchmark titles” go a long way toward breaking through aversions to certain genres so participating librarians can field a range of questions.
“When our customers ask for Nora Roberts or James Patterson, I want my librarians to be comfortable recommending non–A list authors in a given genre,” Vermut said.
The value of doing RA was taken for granted by this group of passionate book fiends representing a cross-section of ages and library sizes. Vermut for her part views it as an extension of collection development, and, thus, a means of ensuring librarians are buying what their public wants. Someone in the room commented that RA sparks circulation, a concept I’ve never considered, though I get it—if you connect patrons with books they want, they will likely check them out, and more along the same lines.
A loaded issue from my perspective is “appeal characteristics,” the qualities of a book, like pacing and setting, that create the specific reading experience, be it magic or hell. Vermut cited them as the cornerstones of her book discussion groups but dedicated no time to explaining how exactly to teach librarians to talk about books they don’t necessarily like, or even more difficult, how to assist patrons in articulating their tastes, especially if the interaction must happen online, because it very well could at physical libraries where hours have been reduced or if patrons increasingly prefer semi-anonymity (they can’t be as much on Amazon or Google). Another complication: appeal appears best suited to established genres, not the many mash-ups our popular fiction editor gets in the mail.
Unfortunately, the same dearth of detail dogged the Friday session Readers’ Advisory Toolkit V: RA Training Makes It Happen. RA legend Joyce Saricks—whose seminal The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction Vermut uses as her bible—woke up us sleepy-eyed conference-goers by passing around Hershey’s Kisses and asking what we were reading. I was delighted to talk J.G. Ballard for a few minutes (“a little too spiky for my head these days”), but the core of her presentation—talk, collaborate, list, repeat—struck me as dated, especially in light of web-based fan fiction and self-publishing, two areas I don’t think she takes into account, though they are worth tracking after phenomena like Fifty Shades of Grey.
Saricks also glossed over appeal characteristics and how to decode book reviews for them, never mind what to do when reviews don’t mimic the language of readers or how to devise a mechanism for transferring the whole exercise online. RA, she held, requires “our best reference skills,” but she did not appear well versed even in Goodreads, identified by a few audience members in the Thursday panel as a new basic instrument (illuminating pointers coming soon, I am told, from the Cecil City PL). Neal Wyatt did the best job of updating RA for the 21st century, urging the audience to “saturate the bib record.”
Still, I sensed the crowd craved more takeaways on rearing this delicate unicorn of an art and science in the time-pressed, cash-strapped now and future. Could librarians, for instance, put Wyatt’s ingenious Reading Maps online and collaborate with patrons to chart the exploding realm of e-romances? (Book Country, Penguin’s online writing community, employs RA-centric Genre Maps, for instance.) The unspoken looming question seemed to be, “How can we possibly place our bets on a service that is so dependent on the moods of human beings?”
Mary K. Chelton, a professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at Queens College, voiced this frustration in part with her wish during the Q&A to “outlaw” RA librarians from dodging questions about a genre of book they’ve never ingested: “A reference librarian would never say to a patron looking for breast cancer resources, ‘I’ve never had breast cancer.’”
When I consider both RA panels from a few days’ distance, the modus operandi of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) makes sense: provide equitable access to information for all, as soon as possible, because fewer and fewer trade publishers are licensing ebooks to libraries. RA librarians, after all, can’t recommend ebooks they can’t purchase (well, they could, but…). And yet the DPLA, in order to live up to its name, must contain those popular materials that RA staff aspires to disseminate, or the American public’s support seems uncertain.
John Palfrey, vice dean for library and information resources at Harvard Law School, offered more context about this massive project in a panel on Thursday than I heard in October 2011 during a philosophical waxing by Harvard University library director Robert Darnton. Try as they did, however, Palfrey and his co-presenters failed to frame the conundrum and explain the game plan. IMLS director Susan Hildreth dismissed too lightly the hefty trade ebook drama, commenting that “the DPLA has a longer arc.”
In the absence of what Palfrey termed “mothers or fathers” and in an attempt to define “what the It [of the DPLA] should be,” he talked about its basic components: code (“open source, free for all”), metadata, content, and tools and services. To that end, Palfrey envisioned a grassroots movement to scan local historical and, I would assume, public domain content by roves of supporters driving Winnebagos around the country. Anyone who wants to fill in metadata gaps from those digitizations would congregate in Lollapalooza-style meetings, he said.
Michael Colford, director of library services at the Boston Public Library, added a touch of much-needed concrete strategy to the presentation, pointing to a grant his institution got to use zip cars as “mobile digitization labs.” How smaller libraries with no trained tech staffs or the benefit of government assistance will conduct scanning—a fair point raised by an audience member—was not tackled, other than Hildreth’s mention of volunteer trainers.
Clearly, as Colford himself attested, more education about scanning and what to scan is needed. My questions, which I think were shared by many in attendance: What’s inside Hildreth’s “longer arc”? What do the data-seeking hounds in the Winnebagos want to sniff out, and will the general public use it? P.S. Show us the money that will fund this.
Which brings me back to content, point three of the DPLA, though maybe it should be the first. The repository of Palfrey & Co.’s dreams would re-create in the cloud the “evocativeness and warmth” of a physical library so future generations can achieve the highest quality of life possible. As much as I want that to happen, like many public librarians I spoke with off the record, I don’t understand how to achieve it without the books that rank as the most popular in terms of circulation. I am referring, of course, to genre fiction, the stuff that hard-core RA and taxpayer support are made of.
Read: I’m in no way concluding that two discernible public librarian types are diametrically opposed and destined to undermine one another and the profession. Rather, both of their conceptions of the public library deserve to thrive and should merge to offer an exquisite informational immersion. I just wonder at the logistics of it all. This should’ve been a panel at PLA 2012, though I know I’m too late.
[For more on PLA 2012, search #pla12 on Twitter. My colleagues and I live-tweeted many important sessions under our respective handles: @HuisceBeatha (me), @WillyWaldo (Wilda Williams), @Hadro (Josh Hadro), @Magsthebookie (Margaret Heilbrun), Etta Thornton-Verma (ettathornton), and @mollutido (Molly McArdle).]