February 16, 2018

The Human Network | The Digital Shift

ljx150902webPalfrey5Excerpted from BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google by John Palfrey. Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015. This excerpt from the “Networks” chapter focuses on the crucial role of the librarian in keeping libraries strong in the digital age and what support they need to do this critical work. Palfrey will deliver the opening keynote at LJ’s The Digital Shift free virtual event on October 14.

Photo ©2015 Shawn G. Henry

Photo ©2015 Shawn G. Henry

The librarians who are thriving most consistently in the digital era are those who have found a way to operate as a node in a network of libraries and librarians. They are agents of change, actively creating the future instead of constantly reacting to it—or worse, resisting it. Jessamyn West, [a] librarian in rural Vermont [and a 2002 LJ Mover & Shaker], is one such creative, networked librarian. West is connected to her peers both in libraries and in other information-related environments, including the world of technology. She is partway through a project to visit all 183 public libraries in Vermont, which she is also mapping online using a service called BatchGeo. By meeting with librarians and library users across Vermont, West is learning firsthand about the needs of her colleagues and their patrons. West also sees beyond the immediate context in which she is operating: she seeks to operate at scale and to bring the best ideas in the library world to her patrons and her many readers on social media.

Don’t go it alone

The view of oneself as operating in a network, not in an independent silo, is essential to success for librarians. Sarah Houghton, the San Rafael Public Library, CA, director, is a champion at networked communications and leadership. Here’s how she describes herself on her popular blog Librarian in Black: “I am a big technology nerd and I believe in the power of libraries to change lives. Combined, they make a fearsome cocktail. I have been called an iconoclast, a contrarian, a future-pusher, and a general pain in the ass. I take great pride in each.” LJ named Houghton one of its “2009 Movers & Shakers” as a trend-spotter.

Houghton’s library has recast itself for the digital era. Neither overly committed to the past nor oblivious to the physical, the San Rafael Public Library is aiming its programs squarely at the digital-plus present in which its patrons are living. The library blends electronic resources, attractive events for kids, and traditional library services tailored to the interests of the public of San Rafael.

Houghton also takes her case on the road, which enables her to bring the best ideas she encounters back to San Rafael and also to share with other libraries what San Rafael is doing. As a prolific public speaker and writer, Houghton makes the case for networked librarianship through her blog, on Twitter, and at conferences for the digitally infused library.

The aptly named Melissa Techman, a teacher and librarian in Albemarle County, VA, is another dynamic woman who is blazing the trail for librarianship. Techman fears that there is far too little collaboration at the local level in libraries. She has set out to connect with others in both the library field and the information management field and has gotten involved in all kinds of projects. Techman watches webinars, joins Google hangouts, and works continuously to develop an online network. Recently, she became involved with the National Writing Project and NEXMAP, which aims to add circuitry to the traditional notebook in a project called “Hacking the Notebook.” If successful, Techman’s innovative work could spread beyond the world of libraries to other settings in which students learn—where they learn to write, for instance. Techman ran a Pinterest board for School Library Journal called “Cheap and Cheerful Librarian Tips,” which linked her interest in DIY arts and crafts projects with her library work.

Librarian, technician, politician

Techman also sees herself as a political actor. More librarians need to see themselves in this light and to be prepared, as Techman is, for the inevitable hard conversations about library budgets and services. She has built an email list of her local library supporters who are willing to write to politicians to press them to avoid cuts to library funding when the inevitable budget ax begins to swing. Librarians like Techman know that their activities need to be tightly aligned with the needs of their communities and that they need to be loud about making the case for this alignment. The very same information networks that support libraries in sharing knowledge can help support librarians as political actors.

West, Houghton, and Techman are the kinds of librarians who are expertly bringing together the technology, library, and political worlds. Big libraries are also seeing the value of this combination of skills. Both the British Library and the Royal Library of Denmark now have “Wikipedians-in-Residence,” people who have become adept at contributing code and text to what has developed into the largest online encyclopedia. They understand how networks work online, how people find information, and how new knowledge is created in online communities. Library staffs themselves must develop these kinds of skills in order to meet the needs of current library customers. Networked, collaborative library work makes the most of the great public information systems that are under development today, but these systems will not be much use if we do not have skilled people who know how to make them work for particular audiences.

In the process, these networked leaders can work together to make the case for libraries in the political arena when it comes time to argue about where scarce budget resources should go.

Invest in training and building

Highly networked librarians are those who have developed new skills and who remain open to new ideas, but these skills and openness have not been consistently taught or encouraged in the library world. With the rapid emergence of the digital environment and the quick shift in user expectations, librarians have been forced to learn new skills every year in order to serve their patrons effectively—even as they struggle to accomplish all the things they have done in the past. In many library systems, there are too few hours in the day to do the research necessary to find the means of training and retraining, much less to accomplish it.

Given that public libraries are under major budget pressure, the notion of adding more staff or more hours to allow existing staff to take time off to retrain may seem preposterous. And yet, if larger numbers of librarians do not soon invest the time and money necessary for this training and retraining, libraries as institutions risk falling behind. Libraries and their staffs risk becoming obsolete as the learning, research, and entertainment patterns of their patrons change with time. Most library systems have failed to support their staff in retraining quickly enough to keep up with these shifts.

Before long, every library system will need to have on staff at least some librarians who are well versed in the development and deployment of the most promising digital technologies. Ideally, most library systems will have librarians who are involved in the creation of the new digital environment through which many of their patrons are meeting their information needs.

Too few libraries have committed to helping to build the open, networked library platforms of the future. There are vibrant, growing communities of librarians doing so, especially as part of the open source development and open content worlds, but the total number of participants in these edge communities of librarians, compared to the total number of people working in libraries, is disproportionately tiny.

New skills needed

Many of the skills and experiences that have served librarians well for the past century are still relevant—they’re just not the only relevant skills. The preexisting skills and experiences that are still important include the ability to help patrons find the information they need, to anticipate other resources they might like or benefit from, and to take the long view when it comes to preservation, among many other skills. But no one would dispute the fact that new skills are helpful, if not necessary, for librarians to thrive in a digitally mediated universe. At a minimum, new tools make finding, creating, and storing information simpler and more effective, and librarians ought to be masters of them—if not creators of these tools themselves.

The good part of this story of rapid change is that librarians can take advantage of exciting new possibilities for serving patrons. The new skills that will prove most important for librarians have to do with designing, creating, and reusing new technologies, sorting credible from less credible information in a complex online environment, and partnering with people from all walks of life to co-produce information and new knowledge in digital forms.

Despite the external threats bearing down on the profession, librarianship can thrive in a digital and networked era. First, however, it needs to evolve, at every stage of professional life and in all types of libraries, archives, and cultural heritage institutions, to meet the needs of library users today.

Forward-looking institutions need to make aggressive, strategic investments in the professional development of existing library staff. And the profession at large needs to welcome the involvement of those of us outside the field who care about the fate of libraries.

Sharing at scale

To prepare for this transformation, librarians need to reorient themselves and their institutions for scale. By this I mean that librarians need to focus not on individual, physical libraries but on the larger networks—physical and digital—of which their libraries are a part. This reframing for scale is exactly why West’s approach to her work in Vermont—operating at network scale rather than at the level of a single library—is so effective. In the past, librarians were concerned with the immediate and the physical, and their job was to select from among the possible materials a subset to bring to their particular location. Librarians then offered these books, sound recordings, images, and videos to their patrons; occasionally they would also ship objects—at great expense and with a time lag—to library users in other towns.

Despite the fast-changing world of technology, librarians today can help their communities so much more effectively than in the past, by more ambitious forms of sharing. Now library users have vastly different needs and expectations, and the materials themselves are often available not as physical objects but digitally. The librarian’s job has shifted from one of investing in physical, location-specific materials to a mix of activities that depend on a larger network. Librarians today must co-produce the network, make useful what can be found through it, and help people as they live in a networked world. Most forward-looking librarians have already reoriented their institutions this way. But because information companies are still far more effective at providing information services to people digitally than libraries are, much of our access to information may soon be mediated not by unbiased librarians but by profit-driven businesses.

An emphasis on scale will require that libraries adjust the duties of their librarians on staff. It will also prompt different kinds of hires as new librarians join the ranks. The essential job requirement is changing from an ability to manage physical materials—still required but to a lesser degree than in the past—to a high degree of facility with digital networks. The job of the cataloger, for instance, becomes much more about finding ways to harness the extraordinary force of linked data in open systems and even crowdsourcing among knowledgeable persons than about determining subject headings. Libraries also need to develop more skills within their network in related fields like community organizing, event planning, and business development.

A focus on scale will enable librarians to fulfill their most important task: finding ways to solve major problems that we face as a society. Librarians can help patrons sort credible from less credible information. Providing this service is central to librarians’ comparative advantage. The mode of search and discovery and the provision of recommendations should be an area of major research and development in libraries, not left to the commercial sector to exploit. The gnarly and growing problem of how to preserve digital information in a complex, networked environment is an obvious area for continuous development within libraries. These investments are happening in small pockets of the library world but not in an especially coordinated way. It is time for more libraries and librarians around the country and the world to collaborate on a strategy to address these issues.

Photo ©2015 Shawn G. Henry

Photo ©2015 Shawn G. Henry

Tapping crowd power

New forms of metadata must be developed to help people find the most relevant information; librarians are awfully good at this already but often don’t practice this skill on the open web. While some high-value materials ought to be handled by professional librarians, the vast majority might be managed by less-well-trained people. By coordinating a process that would allow interested individuals to help with metadata creation and updating, professional librarians could add vastly more to the digital commons.

Learning from the best

There are extraordinary librarians in every age. Many of today’s librarians have already made the transition and become visionary, digital-era professionals. These librarians are the ones celebrated in Marilyn Johnson’s This Book Is Overdue! and the ones who have already created open source communities such as Code4Lib, social reading communities such as ­LibraryThing and GoodReads, and clever online campaigns such as “Geek the Library.”

There are examples in every big library system and in every great library and information school. These leaders are already charting the way toward a new, vibrant era for the library profession in an age of networks. They should be supported, cheered on, and promoted as they innovate. Their colleagues, too, need to join them in this transformation.

Just as individuals are changing the way they do their work, the nature of institutions is changing in a digital age. Many successful organizations are highly networked and porous, and libraries as institutions will also reap the benefits when they take advantage of the power of networks. The most effective libraries will be the ones that attract these extraordinary new librarians and enable them to be their creative best. Like all networked organizations, these libraries will measure their success by the quality of the collaborations they establish and by how well they share materials with their patrons. In much the same way that networked organizations share employees, technology systems, and professional development opportunities, networked libraries will find ways to co-produce materials with their patrons. Together, they will be able to establish feedback loops of the sort that private sector managers customarily put in place to ensure continuous improvement.

The transition in the library profession is still in its earliest stages. There is much more to be learned and to build on in the decade to come, and to date the library profession has not been in a posture of leadership as the newest information networks have developed at scale. But librarians have a great deal to offer back to the network and to the system of democracy, and the new generation of library leaders is here.

John Palfrey is Head of School at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, and President of the Board of Directors of the Digital Public Library of America. A 2011 LJ Mover & Shaker, he previously served as Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School, Cambridge, MA. In addition to BiblioTech, he is the author of a variety of other titles on the Internet and intellectual property

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

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  1. With all due respect, the author’s library experience has been with a very narrow, highly privileged section of the population, and doesn’t include any public library experience. Too little attention paid to “the immediate and the physical” is a losing proposition, and one which isn’t very politically savvy. Fulfilling “(the) most important task: finding ways to solve major problems that we face as a society” often means to help disadvantaged members of society use the computer to apply for a job at Walmart, one person at a time. We ignore the personal and the local at our peril.

    • Seems quite right; I don’t think these arguments are inconsistent with one another. To align closely with the needs of a community often means exactly what you suggest: figuring out how to help someone use a computer to apply via Wal-Mart’s online hiring center, or becoming literate in a new language, or learning a new skill all seem both politically savvy, as you suggest, and highly worthy activities for a librarian’s focus.