February 17, 2018

A Genius Idea | Office Hours

Michael StephensThe Librarian Shaming tumblr highlights anonymous “confessions” from our field. Some are humorous, some shocking. Some will make you think and maybe reconsider assumptions. This shameful confession perked me up when I discovered it: “I want to replace all librarians with tech people with great customer service skills and teaching ability. I want the library to have its own Genius Bar.”

While a bit narrow in focus, this statement resonates on an instinctive level with me as an LIS educator. On a certain hand, it makes perfect sense: many library folk, myself included, have stressed that the teaching function of our evolving service-oriented duties will only grow over time.

We need to be broader. But before we do that, let’s consider this suggestion.

Perhaps the person who shared this dramatic wish has only experienced one library environment, rife with stagnant folks who refuse to learn or try new things. Maybe the confessor is burnt out on working at the service desk, providing less than great service. Possibly that staffer has simply checked out.

Maybe the clientele of this particular library have changed of late. They look to the library not for “reference-y”-style help but assistance with mobile devices or other technological needs. Had the shaming poster witnessed one too many requests for help going unanswered?

Adding a stroke of genius

Let’s unpack this sweeping suggestion for improving libraries further. What of teaching ability? I advise my students to make sure they take courses in user instruction and technology, no matter where they want to work. Delivering instruction should be a part of every professional’s skill set: in a training room, across the desk, in the stacks, on the fly. Maybe it’s time to add creating a short training session or learning module to the interview process for all librarians, not just those in colleges or schools.

Borrowed from Apple, the Genius Bar concept applied to libraries is not new, but it’s a welcome addition to many library settings. David Weinberger, in “The Library as Platform” (ow.ly/­tBDAe), notes that the Genius Bar might be one of many channels for users to interact with librarians. Libraries such as DOK Delft and others have tried various permutations of walk-in tech ­assistance.

John Pappas, branch director at the Primos Branch of the Upper Darby Free Library, PA, told me, “I have drop-in digital device clinics once a week for four hours at my branch.” Kenley Neufeld, library director at Santa Barbara City College, CA, countered my call for Genius Bar examples with, “Yes, it’s called the reference desk. No appointment necessary.” Touché, Kenley. The libraries that have rebranded their reference desks—I’m reminded of the “Ask Here” signage at Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, IN—have already discovered that people are attracted to such nonlibrary phrasing.

Who could it be now?

So in the vision shared at Librarian Shaming, librarians are out the door and tech-savvy, user-focused, service-driven folks would replace them. Who could that be? More librarians? Better librarians? The statement, while shocking and a bit frustrating, may be rooted in truth. Isn’t this the evolution we are seeing in libraries?

If you’ve done any future visioning or strategic planning of late, haven’t the conversations turned to more active, technologically enhanced spaces and services? More classes, more space for working with creation tools, more time spent showing people how things work? Is this what people are asking for? Consider this option in our evolution: we might continue to hire degreed librarians who will be managing projects and guiding services but also some very specialized folks—maybe they’ll have a library degree, maybe they won’t—who work with users and new technology in these collaborative spaces.

How to teach tech leaders

LIS curricula must keep up as well. At San José State University (SJSU), CA, School of Library and Information Science (SLIS), we’re offering a new class entitled “Production of Knowledge and Content in Libraries,” taught by Monica Harris, deputy director, Schaumburg Township District Library, IL. Her syllabus, focused on participation and creativity, runs from digital creation spaces to the Maker movement to a module called the Importance of Informal Learning. Another unit highlights Robotics and Electronics: Arduino, Sensors, and LEGO.

This semester in my class the Hyperlinked Library, discussion has turned to the changing roles of librarians in the evolving library. One student responded to an early lecture, asking, “Do we even need librarians?” Exploring similar ideas to the post above, the student continued, “To me, a professional who advocates for people to learn, access, and create knowledge on their terms sounds like a pretty respectable calling.” I think so, too.

The post that inspired this column isn’t a diatribe, steeped in negativity. It’s a call to arms to keep thinking strategically about our spaces, services, and learning.

Michael Stephens (mstephens7@mac.com) is Assistant Professor at the School of Library and Information Science, San José State University, CA

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens (mstephens7@mac.com) is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA

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  1. Big sigh. “librarians are out the door and tech-savvy, user-focused, service-driven folks would replace them”. Um, does that mean that librarians are zero for three? Shame on you!! How about a little more focus on the content instead of merely the container? There has to be something for people to download, for crying out loud.

  2. I’d like to say something about this. Perhaps the confessor is in a situation similar to one I experienced. For a number of years I worked in a library under different directors who encouraged staff to learn, and those directors promoted continuing education wholeheartedly. They were receptive to staff who wanted to try new things. And, they were educators themselves (meaning they could teach a computer literacy workshop, etc.) Moreover, they made sure that all staff members were properly trained. It was a wonderful environment. No kidding. When the last “good” director retired and a new director came on board, the workshops and classes (and everything positive that goes along with those things) ended. Customer service has suffered. Staff members have a low morale.
    Needless to say, I no longer work at that library.

  3. Managing digital content for Apple Retail is what made me realize that I should work towards my Masters degree in Library and Information Science. I already felt like a librarian when I worked on the localization of employee training manuals into multiple languages, for Apple Stores around the world.

    I think we need to be more flexible about letting people call themselves librarians, especially if they have cool jobs in high-tech. http://www.pinterest.com/silviakspiva/apple-stores/

  4. Barry J. Gray says:

    My wife and I went to an Apple store last summer to purchase a new Mac. We were shuttled from one employee to another, ending with a man who was clearly overworked, and who basically walked away from us, leaving us with our new computer unpacked and still plugged into the store’s outlets. Only when I loudly stated “This is bull****!” did a supervisor come to help us. The whole experience was very stressful, and afterward I felt that the features and peripherals we wanted were ignored in the rush to make a sale. So if that’s the model we want for the library environment, then I can’t wait to retire.