The Breakdown: in our latest SXSW Q&A, we talk with Andrea Davis (@detailmatters), a librarian at the Naval Postgraduate School. In her upcoming SXSW talk, “Libraries, the Ultimate Playground“, Davis will discuss the ever-evolving role of libraries as a fixture of a democratic, and increasingly digital, society. In this Q&A, Andrea is joined by her SXSW co-facilitator, library technology consultant Carson Block (@carsonblock).
Scatter/Gather: How have libraries evolved to serve more digitally-engaged communities? What new things will we see libraries offer (and what challenges will they face)?
Andrea & Carson: In the digital age, the strength of libraries is often hyper-local. A good library reflects the needs of its users in direct and unique ways — and in that manner each one is a little “special.” We take the same view of the online communities we serve — with the geographic distribution (and diversity) that you speak of. Through initiatives such as the Digital Public Library of America, libraries are creating frameworks and platforms that help communities harvest and share precious information — including cultural heritage and more — throughout the world.
Let’s look at some examples:
- The stunning Seattle Public Library infoviz installation “Making Visible the Invisible: What the Community is Reading” by George Legrady which memorizes visitors at the Central Library, tying together the Dewey Decimal catalog system in its architecture.
- Lost in the Stacks, a radio program featuring the library’s music on the local NPR station tied into the award winning personalized music advisory of albums from Jacksonville Public Library’s extensive collection.
- All of the gameshift ideas seeping out of the (New York Public Library) NYPL Labs, such as the Menu and Map Warper projects.
The challenge, of course, is funding and clarity of mission. Public dollars work differently than business dollars, and libraries often fall into the common public service trap of trying to be all things to all people, which is impossible.
Additionally, libraries play a singular role as a public access point, bridging the digital divide for populations without computer access or mobile data plans. According to The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, “The availability of free computers and internet access now rivals book lending and reference expertise as a vital service of libraries.” Be it the free wifi network, the computer workstations, or lately the circulation of e-readers, community members need digital access. Until broadband is considered a basic need and can be government subsidized, libraries will remain the critical — if undervalued — gateway for people who can’t get online otherwise.
S/G: How has the profile of a librarian changed in recent years? What skills do librarians need that they wouldn’t have fifteen or twenty years ago?
Andrea & Carson: We farmed this question out to the librarian social network in the ALA ThinkTank with these responses:
- “Amazing people skills, a knack for hospitality, flexibility…”
- “High end customer service, visual merchandising, design sensibility.”
- “Communication (including listening), social work, technology, teaching/instruction.”
- “Focus on customer experience. Curiosity and Empathy. Solution-oriented. Design-thinking (i.e identify a problem, hypothesize a solution, launch quickly, assess feedback, and iterate.) High comfort level with ambiguity, a willingness to take risks and try things. A bias for facilitating instead of directing, coaching instead of supervising, partnering instead of gatekeeping.”
Unlike a business, libraries don’t choose their target customers. You have to include everybody, and meet them where they are. This may mean preserving that archive of VHS tapes because there is a group of seniors who love them, offering e-readers/books because everyone is asking for them, and then being prepared to teach someone who has never held one how to use it for the first time.
25 years ago, a college guidance counselor might have told a “bookish” student to consider a career in library science. A love of books is still a good starting point, but today, that doesn’t do justice to the skills librarian needs to use every day. The job position of “librarian” requires a masters degree education: Master of Information & Library Science (MLIS). Within the library world, there are many hands at work with a wide range of job titles: everything from Information Analysts to UX designers to Metadata Specialists. Emporia State University even created a library school recruiting comic.
S/G: Are there any industries that libraries look to as inspiration for ways to expand into digital?
Andrea & Carson: User experience is huge. Libraries are at their hearts customer service organizations and are constantly looking for ways to improve. From roving public service models that bring patrons and librarians together side-by-side, to “embedded” librarians who join key community teams as the link to the best information, the profession is constantly (r)evolving.
In a technical sense, libraries are influenced by the digital publishing industry and experimenting with filling the role of “publisher” — buying (not leasing) digital e-content and loaning it to patrons. Very leading edge.
Sometimes it’s the simple things: coffee shops (the ones that breed community), excellent bookstores, coworking spaces, public spaces, design-thinking companies and more have all influenced libraries in recent years.
There is also a rise of DIY “makerspaces” in libraries — where you can play with a 3D printer, fix your bike, learn to code, or get a knitting lesson. There are excellent examples at the Fayetteville Public Library in NY, the partnership between the commercial Sector 67 makerspace and the Madison WI Public Library, and Detroit Library Teen HYPE makerspace. This will only grow, with projects like MAKE magazine’s MakerCamp program in libraries. Look for more info about our upcoming MAYker events later this year.
S/G: What is an example of a library that’s pushing boundaries, today? And who is making these kinds of projects possible?
Andrea & Carson: Douglas County Libraries, Marmot Libraries and Califa are pushing the boundaries of ePublishing. Fayetteville Public Library in NY was the first to introduce 3D printing as a library service. There are also exciting low-fi programs — the East Palo Alto Public Library has guitar and seed lending programs, and in San Francisco, you can check out an energy usage meter from the library.
There are also the for-the-love-of-libraries projects that bubble up anywhere people gather. From the Occupy tents of 2011 to the Super Storm Sandy response this year, there is a growing trend of Little Free Libraries — keep your eyes open at SXSW for some surprise libraries…
It seems to be a need of our society to gather information together and share it. For example, whenever Andrea flies, she brings along a suitcase of library ephemera (microfiche, due date cards, stamps) and useful travel maps setting up @MileHighRefDesk in my cramped cabin seat. It’s a way to show you can build a library anywhere and serve a local community’s needs. Ultimately it’s not just dollars that make these projects possible. In the cases above, it’s clear vision, passion and excellent leadership.
S/G: What are you looking forward to seeing at SXSW this year?
Andrea & Carson: Getting back to bandcamp and taking in the wide, overwhelming mess of it all —Andrea loves it! The serendipity of a good bathroom line conversation, a new “ah-ha!” epiphany from a colleague or an obsession that she’s never heard of!
Just the same way we go to a physical library, there’s a reason we all gather in Austin and don’t convene just online. People are what brings it together — passion and power combined. Also, I can’t get drinks with the internetz.
[Editor's note: for a look at more library events at SXSW, check out this Sched.]
Explore the rest of the SXSW 2013 Q&A Series.