9 April 2010

Do libraries understand the future? Or how to get there?

I can be quite harsh when stating my opinions, and I often feel I get on people's toes a lot through doing so. But it's not my fault; I blame my Norwegian upbringing where we tend to state things as they are, and then we discuss things until the cows come home, but we do it with complete respect of the other side. You might say polite bickering and being tempered yet pigheaded about things is a national favorite past-time, and then some of us went on to the pigheaded Olympics and cleaned the tables and set the whole thing on fire. And then we debated with the smoldering rubble some more.

My past is littered with opinion pieces on all things library, from the culture, its place in society, its technology and direction, and I've written both here on this blog and on various mailing-lists, as well as hold presentation live in various forums and conferences. I'm a prolific library-bitcher, you might say, as most of what I say ain't necessarily wonderful praise and kissing the boots of those who make library decisions.


Today I won't bitch, though. It still may not be safe for work, but I won't say how stupid the library world has been in missing opportunities, how they've misplayed the technology ball, how they've been blind to keeping up societal appearances, how they've lost their political clout, the lack of philosophical standing or progress, how current management streams are drying up the drive and kill the courage they once had, et cetera. No, that's all been said before, and I won't even mention it, not a single word, not me, not today, uh-uh, nosirree.

The reason I won't bitch about these things might be interesting to some; I don't really care anymore. I know that some of you out there who know me think I'm engaging in hyperbolic crud, because normally such a statement would grate against my ideals of love, peace and bibliophilia, but it is true; I don't care what happens to the library anymore, and this is a good thing; a thing not worth breaking is easier to shape and change. My passion for all things library have shifted.

My real passions

I have a bunch of passions, from music and movies, to science and education, from software development and technology, all the way to epistemology and philosophy. And the ideals of my library world certainly bump into or totally encompasses some of my passions, but the library ideal is one that needs to be explained not from a contextual or cultural point (also known as the status quo), but from that of the future and values that crosses over from the past and into it (also known as, err, "the future").

These days the most marked of my passions is the one of science and education. I will extend myself well beyond my borders for people who genuinely wish to know more, that wants to study, to find things out. I've been an inquisitive pain in the arse my whole life, an entrepreneur and inventor, someone who just can't leave something that works alone until I understand how it works (even if that means I'll break the darn thing in the process, a little bit like my library career). Sharing my passion for knowing is what I, as a human being, love the most.

In the past, my passion would have had a good corollary to books, because as we know the past is riddled with books and parchments as the epitome of knowledge and information. If you were to become someone important, you had books. If you were someone important, you've written one or at least starred in one. Libraries formed wherever power dwelled. But then stupid humans and their silly ideals of freedom and unity and all that crazy stuff invented something new; books and information to the people for free. Well, that's at least the ideals going from late 17th century of the western world, slowly creeping into the world and changing it more ways than the history books gives them credit.

That is a piece of history I simply adore and love, feeding my ideals and passion for protecting it, furthering it, pushing that same agenda.

But then we have the now, where most important discourse and information is still somewhat found in books. But only just; a new crazy idea came along not that long ago, the idea of making things digital and hook them together in networks across the globe. The reason we've still got those darn libraries is because the long tail still points into them, into books and journals. But what when they don't anymore?

Library : A definition

Books. And then "modern libraries are increasingly being redefined as places to get unrestricted access to information in many formats and from many sources. They are understood as extending beyond the physical walls of a building, by including material accessible by electronic means, and by providing the assistance of librarians in navigating and analyzing tremendous amounts of knowledge with a variety of digital tools."

Is your library like this? Does it do these things? How does it do it? I want to talk a bit about these things, because, frankly, they are together my list of the most important things in regards to all things library;
  1. The potential of what the library can do and offer
  2. The promises made
  3. The actual offer
  4. Plans for the future
I've written tons and tons on the potential I see in the library before, whined about the promises made and how they stack up (and how in the end made me resign from it all together), and about what drives the machinery and direction. I've written about this so much I've forgotten links and most of what I've said there. But I won't go hunting for it anymore. I mean, what's the point? And I wrote at the beginning that I wouldn't whine about it here, so let's talk about the future instead. The future is now!

This post will be more or less on the future of the library world, or, more prosaically, how the library world enters into it. They've got three choices; enter into it physically by going there, enter into it by planning for it, and enter into it by shaping it.

Boldly going there

This is the easy one, and the default one. You just go there, or, because all of time is encapsulated in the one dimension of non-spatial reality, you just sit there and let the future huddle around you. No, this isn't as zen as it sounds, it's really what most people do, go about their business, where "going about your business" usually means doing things without thinking too much, letting everybody else shape your future.

Now, as a preamble I don't actually have that ability, so it's hard for me to sympathize much with it. I can see how it works, but for me I find it hard to let that become some excuse for not improving and doing better. I'm one of those where even buying lunch is a stream of philosophical implications (how far removed from my ancestors is it ok for me to eat them?), and walk on the beach becomes an internal monologue about how it got there and the eco-system of it (narrated in a faux Sir Attenborough voice), or where my daily work is a constant bombardement of ideas and thoughts of how to do things better, how to improve that which is not quite right (I don't believe in the silly 'if it works, don't fix it' mentality which has spread across this planet like a virus), pondering language and linguistics and neuroscience even when making variable names or looping through a hashmap. Whatever I do at any given time is not a compartment, a category of activities, a single unit of a constrained domain; it's all connected, from the micro to the macro. I'm just an insignificant extension of the cosmos, trying to make things better. I'm evolution.

So, standing still doesn't work for me, but I hear lots of other things on this planet does it, and does it well. But I think that's a bit deceitful; nothing stands still, not even rocks. Nothing stays the same, give it enough time. In a few thousand years, my favorite rock around where I live will become just a grain of sand on the beach. So by this analogy, I don't think even the library world stands still. Heck, we know it doesn't. We all know that little by little, even the most conservative bastion of all things that are meant to stand still in the universe, slowly creeps and crawls their way towards some distant and different place.

So this is all about the scale of time and our place in it. Let's talk about the human scale of time, the time it takes for a generation to react to the former generation. Rocks on this scale are terribly, terribly, utterly mind-bogglingly slow. A rock from generation to generation is so slow they are practically eternal, and indeed, for much of human history this has been the default position. It wasn't until mid 19th century that we figured out that rocks were so slow that we needed to invent a brand new scale to make any sense of it, the geological time, spanning 4 billion years. Compared to a mere generation of humans, that's practically forever.

But the library world on our human generational scale is comparatively damn slow still. The building they built last generation is still there, doing pretty much the same things. The librarians in there are doing practically the same things as the last generation. The only two ways it from time to time have gathered speed is by 1) planning ahead, and 2) having a paradigm thrust upon it from the outside.

Boldly planning for it

The library world have never really had a great need for planning for the future, at least not the more organized types of libraries we've had the last 200 years or so. The world of knowledge and the written word didn't really moved much since movable type, so even if some things changed here and there they had plenty of time to get their heads around it. What is 10-15 years of thinking and tinkering with a problem that has a 100 year span?

Nothing. It's perfectly alright to spend time getting it right when the problem is, on our normal human scale, slow. But what happens when the problem isn't just fast, but changes the human culture in which our scale is rooted?

Enter the digital age. It all started with computers becoming common, not only in places that had the resources to buy expensive and complex computers, but more so when they become cheap enough to go into any home. The age of ZX80/81 / Spectrum 16/48k / Commodore 64 / Amiga / Macintosh II / BBC Micro (all cheaper home computers) changed the world as we know it, probably far more than we give it credit. I was a Spectrum 48K owner myself, living in a country dominated by Commodore 64's. So what does a 10 year old kid who wants to play games on his computer do when there are no games around to buy? He has to make them himself, and sealed his destiny and became a geek, but perhaps a bit more importantly to this conversation, I became a librarian through the process of reading, borrowing, sharing and researching the written materials (remember, no internet in those days) otherwise my programs wouldn't work and my insatiable lust for making the darn thing work would die. Luckily for me, the addiction was like cocaine, but instead of ruining my life I became a computer literate.

When you become computer literate, the world looks very different to you. Problems everywhere become programming tasks, creating a small sliver of interfacing between the digital and the real world in the process. This sliver has since grown rather large, encompassing most of society, not a trivial feat in so few years. Even in the library world it has crept in and helped out. But we need to look at what it helped out with;

Cataloging. Searching said catalog. Bookkeeping. Writing reports. Did I forget anything?

I'm not really trying to be snarky here, and of course I know computers do more than that at the library, however, when we're trying to look at the present of what they actually do, I don't think I'm all that far fetched. There's the odd interesting project, some application running on a (secondary) server somewhere, maybe a new GUI into the catalog, or maybe some exhibition website, or maybe some self-serving library-card database thingy. But seriously, it's not like the computer systems in the average (or hip and cool) library are doing anything amazing (but please point me to them if they exist! Nothing would be cooler!). It's all pretty ... well, average. Standard stuff. Even if you blog and do Wiki's as part of your communication, you're not above average. You are average.

To get out of being average when you need to be great (more on this later) you need to plan to become great. You need to come up with some activities and goals in order to move faster than not moving at all. But how does the library stack up to this?

Of course they are planning. Every day is another plan. But we need to discern between planning for tomorrow and planning for the future. Tomorrow is just around the corner, and that, truly, is just planning to stay up to date, keeping up appearances, to plan for being relevant to what's going on right now. Putting up a Wiki or starting to blog or even putting together a prototype of a search engine that presents records in an FRBR manner, or creating a process and system that streamlines ILL with digital copies and distributes them in a copyright-enabled fashion, or even a backend system that convert MARC records into RDF and spread them across a clustered system of servers in Linked Data fashion complete with cool URI's and ontologies to work with the data, that ain't planning for the future! Maybe you're about to start a project that acts as a portal for information, a collection-point, or a federated search point, or a dynamic system for understanding user requests and dispatch semantic contextual networks to semantic engines that convert them into knowledge nuggets and present them to researchers, you're still not planning for the future. These things are the least you should do, but these things are not the future, it's only today and tomorrow.

Planning now to do something funky within the next year or so is not planning for the future. So then, what is the future? And by "future" I mean to actually have one.

Boldly shaping it

You need to shape it. You need to look into your crystal balls, and determine what the future should hold. No, don't look into the ball to look for what the future holds, that path leads to stupidity, and, well, it doesn't work. No, you must insert yourself into the fabric of modern development far more than you normally have, you must reach out and not only point to the future, but invent it!

I was extremely happy to see Jessamyn join BoingBoing as a guest writer. That's a perfect example what needs to happen, a high-class librarian writing for a high-class blog, about all things weird and wonderful, reaching out with a subtle librarian view of of the world. (My favorite post!) However, even after you've immersed yourself in what's going on in society or even try to shape bits of it by your very existence, there's some bigger issues we haven't even dared go to yet. Well, let's ;

The need for conserving the libraries isn't the need for conserving the houses, or the books, or even the library cultural spot in its society (which are all good reasons, mind you). It's not to keep certain people in jobs, nor is it to keep the services alive. No, it's to preserve the librarian ideal. The librarian profession is not worth keeping if its ideals aren't in tune with reality, and I can point to the thousands of professions through the ages who have died when those parts of society it was attached to, died off. There's a certain notion of librarian philosophy that I'd like to talk about ;

"When the gulf between theory and practice in librarianship is discussed generally two themes emerge, which are that theorizing about librarianship is mostly non-existent and, when such theorizing exists at all, it is largely irrelevant to library practice."

I'm sometimes inclined to say that the reason the library world is in trouble is in the above quoted paragraph. Ok, so it's easy to see the gap between the mostly non-existent library philosophy, but we must remember and let it sink in that philosophy is defined as the action of doing philosophy, not as an archive or to think of it as history, or even use old thinking as if it applies to the now, or, heavens forbid, the future.

Library philosophy needs to happen, at least a hell of a lot more, and it needs to be a bigger part of what libraries do, it should include all librarians, it should be part of the fabric of librarianship. You need to ponder epistemological implications of digital identity, to think through the notion of copyright for the greater good, or your academic standing in an academic world that's moving to semantic networks, the loss of the bibliocentric view and the impact on collection management, or the systemic notion of semantic knowledge networks. Or you need to find out what fragmented semantic contexts offer knowledge management, or how the iPad will influence citing and sharing of notes, how to address those notes themselves as they are often more valuable than the original text (and lots of bloggers know this quite well already). Or, perhaps even more importantly, you need to establish an ethical guidebook to global knowledge management, models for information distribution and wealth, or ontological analysis of human and non-human identity. You need to re-think what those ideals are in order to preserve them. Only then can you shape any future worth having.

All those meetings and planning of cool projects you do? It's all fluff and nonsense unless there's some serious philosophies to back them up, new ideas, visions of what the future might be, and certainly visions that's based on the library ideals worth keeping. In the absence of philosophy there will be the status quo. And that's worse than standing still, even if you look ever so handsome and your moldy paper smells oh so good.

Here's a relevant quote from my distant past ; 'I'm still in love with the library ideals and concepts. I still love books. And maps. And old pictures. And just surfing the catalog. Or snooping in the newspaper reels. Or finding a microfilm, wondering what's on it, what it means, and who did it. Even subject headings and its contextual meaning. I love catalogers. And I love librarians. I just don't love what we're collectively doing with the concept of "library."' And I should add; I don't love the lack of philosophy, or the lack of shaping the future.

Let's think a bit more seriously about this. Let us philosophy!

But the question in todays post was if the library world understand the future? My assertion is, no, they don't. They understand it's coming, they understand it will involve technology, and that books will be less and less important, they understand that they need to have cool projects (and by 'cool' I'm happy to settle for just 'relevant') and to keep that up, and that they need to accommodate the onslaught of the digital impact. They understand all these things, because they are close to them. These things are on their scale, they understand these things because they deal with it every day.

But deep thinking? Good luck.


  1. Hey Alex, interesting thoughts.

    Do you think the philosophy of librarianship has changed, or that there needs to be a rallying manifesto like approach? Where is the lean library manifesto? To me at least the notion of a group dedicated to applying intelligence to curate, synthesise and disseminate knowledge and how to acquire knowledge for societies benefit is the same as it always was.

    I think the problem of getting to the future is more of a practical one. Innovation and schumpeterian creative destruction to rebuild the modern library is something that is for most quasi governmental organisations, nearly impossible. I kind of think we need startups for the library world. But for a historically underfunded facet of society, how do we make this happen or attractive? Where does this live, academia, from a few leaders in the library world, private enterprise ie google and search engines?

  2. Your post and danielh's were thought-provoking. While I want to defend the current library infrastructure, I will save that to comment on library philosophy. I believe there is a current library philosophy that is agreed to by almost all librarians. The problem is that this philosophy is based on 19th century models, or at the latest, pre-1960.

    Those "giant" librarians: Panizzi, Cutter, Jewett, Dewey, Ranganathan, up to Lubetzky in the 1960s or early 1970s, and there haven't really been any people of their stature since then. Certainly not since the WWW. Librarians have no equivalent of a Steve Jobs or a Tim Berners-Lee, or a Richard Stallman.

    As a result, librarians have icons from the time of the pre-web. There is a part of me that thinks that there must be a general catastrophe before librarians finally realize that they are facing deep and fundamental changes.