Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What I would tell the librarians

At my previous post on what Shel should tell the librarians, Shel wrote: "What would YOU say to them, Ivan? You know more about it than I do. Post it here and I will tell the audience where I got it from."

Heh, OK. Just for laughs, I'll write as if I'm giving that speech (Shel didn't say I couldn't ramble...)

BTW these ideas, on Public Libraries in particular, are very much influenced by my working in the National Library Board for the past 11 years (see also: NLB strategic plans for 2000 and 2010). The views expressed here are strictly my personal interpretation; they don't represent my employer.


I'll make four general statements:
  1. Libraries don't survive because they are "libraries". They ultimately survive because of what Librarians do.
  2. Libraries have to act and think like a Business. Businesses survive so long their products and services stay in demand. They survive when they adapt to competition.
  3. If libraries are businesses, then librarians should be Social Entrepreneurs. Our common business will be as Social Levelers.
  4. This "Social Leveling" will come from public libraries being used to support formal and informal learning. I envision Public Libraries to become "Centres for Life Long Learning for the General Public".
Here are further ramblings (they don't necessarily address all four points, but hey I'm not really giving the speech):

The library as a Business
Libraries face competition, just like any business (btw, Meredith Farkas already summed up the "Why" very nicely in the preview chapter of her book 'Social Software in Libraries').

Businesses have to make a profit (i.e. any gain in excess of expenses) to justify their existence. I don't see a dilemma of Public Libraries being a Public Good and it being a Business. "Profits" is not limited to just monetary.

I think successful libraries world-wide are already managed like that. They are funded by the government (or local authorities) to deliver a social good, and they are managed like a professional business unit.

It's pointless for librarians to insist that public libraries are important and must be kept alive, when its clear that customers are not using them.

Businesses don't appeal to the community on why they should be kept alive. They act to keep themselves in business.

A business, when faced with that situation of falling sales and profits, will have to act boldly. It could be layoffs and cost-trimmings -- though in my opinion, a great business would already have kept costs low, and will rely on innovation for long term capacity-building rather than short-term cost-savings.

A business that's wired to survive will have to look at fundamentals like employee compensation and rewards, organisation culture, policies and management, customer relations, and product/ service quality, to name a few.

Same applies to libraries.

Public Libraries and social media
Social media (like blogs, podcasts, Youtube) are for socialising. Libraries should start "socializing" using that media.
  1. Start by reading blogs, watching videos, listening to podcasts that OUR CUSTOMERS are publishing
  2. Comment on their work (identify ourselves as librarians and engage our customers as individuals)
  3. Finally consider if the library should start using social media, to become producers or Producer-Consumers.

The "consumer" part is important as well. Libraries also have to constantly read and comment, rather than just pushing out information on our blogs to say, "Read this". I believe we have to look around and say, "Hey, I like what this reader has blogged about".

What should libraries do, if books become digital?
The public library is a public good. Doesn't matter what form the books are. We just have to offer digital books as a public good.

It's definitely less straight-forward than offering print, because of copyright and rights management issues relating to digital media. But not insurmountable.

When push comes to shove, I'm sure libraries and publishers have to work together to continue offering a public service (via the public libraries). We have to.

How can libraries use social media to attract and engage young people?
It's not about USING social media per se.

I believe the "How" is to first acknowledge young people as individuals. This is true whether we use social media or not.

There are experts out there who can tell you more about teen psychology etc. My point is that to attract and engage young people, it's fundamental to understand what they want and need at that stage of their lives.

Sometimes what they want and need runs contrary to what libraries are traditionally providing. For example, young people want to socialise and chat. They want to date. They already do that in our libraries without borrowing a book.

So why should libraries provide physical spaces just for young people to use the furniture and not read?

That's where social media comes in.

Librarians should use social media and act as Connectors for young people. We help connect young people to other young people. Or to other adults for that matter.

But will libraries become social services?
At this point, I always get asked, "Will we end up as social services? Then how are we Librarians?"

My answer: If we see our jobs as connecting People to Information, then why not look at information that's residing in other people?

I mean, young people are already able to access information (i.e. the Internet and DIY database searches). They are already connecting themselves to information using the Internet. Increasingly, I don't buy the argument that Internet sources lack credibility or aren't as authoritative as print.

What librarians can offer is perhaps efficiency in searching (I dare not say "effectiveness" as that's subjective). But there's only so much to argue for efficiency. And young people generally have more discretionary time.

My gut feel is that by positioning librarians as Networkers and Connectors, we will make the profession more relevant, and we will ultimately help connect peopel to information.

I've no studies or statistics to prove to you, other than sharing this personal example: after I started blogging and identifying myself as a librarian, I have students asking me various questions (not necessarily about books or library services). Anyway the point is that I've made myself more accessible. And where appropriate, I'd suggest who the students can speak to (whether it's a colleague or contacts I know).

And I learned of this recent example: the owner of a cafe in Singapore created a Facebook group and organised a meetup. Now, what if it was a librarian who did that? (Incidentally, the cafe is located in the library@esplanade, so his meetup probably brought some users to the library -- an example of a synergistic partnership there).

Social media is a reality
Libraries -- and more important, librarians -- have to adapt to that reality. By "adapt", it doesn't mean jumping on the band-wagon and starting blogs or doing podcasts.

As with all things in life, first we try to understand with an open mind.

We have to try and understand what makes people take up social media. Then we see how it can be relevant to what the profession wants to achieve.

Once we are in it, we should make ourselves part of the community.

It's pointless to start jumping into Facebook or blogs if we only know how to use the tool, but not appear as genuine and sincere community members.

It's easy to learn how to start a blog. Or sign up for a Facebook account. But it's less easy to teach how one can connect as a blogger, or with other Facebook users -- in the context of providing library services.

Do the Simplest Thing Possible (STP)
We should try to be a part of that community by doing the "Simplest Thing Possible" (STP), within our means.

This STP could be to leave comments on blogs, rather than start a blog.

Or libraries could engage practitioners and experts to teach the wider community on the use of social media (e.g. how to blog, or how not to get fired when blogging).

It's less about "understanding the technology" but more of "understanding what makes the community tick".

The End


If you've not fallen asleep with my ramblings by now, I've dug up a few of my older posts on the roles of libraries and librarians:


  1. Excellent post, Ivan. You've nicely summed up the ongoing changes in the profession and the mindset change that needs to take place for libraries to move forward. However, while I do see why libraries should act like businesses, the biggest hurdle will come from librarians who assume that librarianship as a public service carries with it a sense of altruism, thus giving them a reason to reject "business practices".

  2. Anonymous10:32 am

    Interesting thoughts. Hmmm...ponder....

    From James


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