Bullet Point: “Facilitation Not Access”

There is, believe it or not, a whole genre of balloon jokes. Here’s an example:

A man in a hot air balloon realized he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a man below. He descended a bit more and shouted, “Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him half an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”

The man below replied, “You are in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You are between 40 and 42 degrees north latitude and between 58 and 60 degrees west longitude.”

“You must be an engineer,” said the balloonist.

“I am,” replied the man, “but how did you know?”

“Well,” answered the balloonist, “everything you told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I am still lost.”

The man below responded, “You must be a manager.”

“I am,” replied the balloonist, “how did you know?”
“Well,” said the man, “you don’t know where you are or where you are going. You made a promise which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. The fact is you are exactly in the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault.”

Variations on this pick on democrats and republicans, Microsoft users and so on. The point is, that simply having access to something, doesn’t mean it is useful. Think about the way we teach kids to read. We don’t walk 5 year olds into the stacks and let them figure it out. There is a process, a curriculum, and a role for a guide. The same is true in our libraries.

A great deal of the professional canon of librarianship is centered on access. From our tools (catalogs, indices, metadata schema), to our services (collections, reference, inter-library loan), to our values (intellectual freedom) we emphasize getting people to the information they need. A lot of that canon also talks about what to do once we get them there. Common practice in reference for the past century has been to get the patron to an item, but no further save you bias their information gathering as an example. Yet, is this any different than leading the child into the stacks and hoping for the best?

This point came home to me when talking with business leaders in Philadelphia about plans for an expanded central library. They said they had little use for the public library in their current positions, but that the library was essential when starting out. They credited the library for being one of the prime information resources they had for business success. It would be easy to stop the story here and claim success for libraries, but the next part of the conversation is even more telling.

When asked how the library could help the next generation of entrepreneur, they developed a strikingly similar answer…make it like Kinkos (or FedEx Business Center these days). Small businesses may well need access to materials, but they normally have no idea what to do with materials at the beginning of their business process. Start ups need to develop a business plan, but few know how to do this (not only what they look like, but the process to develop one). They need a place to work, and basic computing and presentation instruction. They need access to a network of lawyers, accountants, and bankers. They need field trips to successful start-ups, and mentors. In essence, they need a curriculum and process to take them from wanting to start up a business to understanding how to start one up.

If libraries are in the thing business, than they can provide access to materials for the entrepreneur. If they are in the conversation business, they need to facilitate knowledge, which may include access materials, but more often than not involves helping decode the materials for the library member/user/patron and helping them put this into action. You can see this at the British Museum’s Business Collection where they are having every reference librarian get certified as a business planner. It also explains why the library is at times over run by school tutors…access to lots of examples plus the person power to make sense of it for the student.

The point of the participatory library is to get involved. We need to help musicians become better musicians, writers become better writers. Simply pointing to the work of a member’s peers is only one small way of doing that. Connecting them to ongoing conversations and communities of like members is a much stronger way. These communities need infrastructure to thrive. That might mean a place to meet (online as well as in person), or a collection of stuff, or simply recognition.

Returning to the balloon joke, the lost person doesn’t need an answer, they need a solution.

Bullet Point: “Books, web pages, DVD’s are artifacts, and of secondary importance to the conversation itself”

Some folks may take issue with this statement. Am I advocating getting rid of books? Am I saying that there is no use for materials in libraries? Has the collection ceased to matter? No. Collections and artifacts are very important, just secondary to the real goal: knowledge. Since knowledge is created through conversation, the primary “thing” libraries should be facilitating (collecting adding value to, providing access to) are conversations.

The end result of a conversation (or even the result of parts of a conversation that is ongoing) may well be an artifact. So a scientist may be studying a phenomenon. He is engaged in knowledge creation whereby he has internal conversation, talks with colleagues, and reads the literature (the medium of a long and ongoing conversation within the profession). Along the way, as he comes to conclusions (agreements) he may well publish an article (or book, or blog post). That publication is an artifact of the conversation. Yet, the conversation still continues.

Why does it matter…is this a small point? Well let us take that publication. The author understands that artifact in a given context like its relation to the field, plus a whole host of other factors like: will this will help define a domain; this will mark out a territory I am studying; this will help me get tenure; this will grow my reputation. Someone else reading that article may place it into another context (perhaps a radically different context like “this is an example of good scientific writing”, or “this work on astronomy explains dinosaur extinction”). The point is the artifact hasn’t changed, and it hasn’t brought its context with it. So the same artifact is being applied to very different understandings of the world (knowledge).

Now both the author and the reader need the artifact. It is NOT unimportant. It is, however, only part of the knowledge of the author and reader. Why care? Because the author and the reader may describe the artifact very differently, place it into a larger collection (classify it) very differently, etc. If libraries focus on the artifact, and provide their own contexts (for after all, what is Dewey or LCSH if not simply a shared context) without regard to the contexts of the individual member/patron/user, they will create a disconnect between how a user finds something, and what it means. This in turn creates pressure on the part of the user to utilize their own way of organizing things, which our systems only provide in a small and crude way (tagging, lists).

By the way, since much of what makes up a user’s context is socially derived (through the media, education, peer groups, etc), the contexts within a given user population may be very close. That’s why Dewey and LCSH have worked as well as they have for the library community. That’s also explains why aggregating things like tags and links to pages (like Google Page Rank) work so well. It is not that everyone thinks the same, or that the artifacts are similar, it is that groups of users have a great deal of overlap in their understandings. Participatory systems should build on the overlap for discovery, but allow for the individual context in the individual.

Bullet Point: “Stop Having ‘Next Generation Catalogs’ Conversations – Commit to this being the Last Generation of Catalogs”

There is a lot of effort and some great innovation going on around library catalogs. The problem is, these great ideas are often crammed in right next to system constraints introduced into catalogs over a hundred years ago.

Catalogs are, at their heart, inventory systems, not really discovery systems. That means they work quite well when you know what you are looking for, and really fall down when your are exploring ideas and concepts. They fail completely in trying to encode “knowledge” that is the context that spans works and people.

Lists, tags, even whiz-bang visualizers have their use, but when we tie them back to an item centric bibliographic warehouse, they loose their effectiveness. Lists are interesting, but without “connective tissue” to say why these items are all on the list together, they don’t represent knowledge, simply groupings. It is more important to know the logic behind a list than just the list itself. An example:


What is this a lost of? Turns out fictional computer names from the movies (The Forbin Project, Alien, Barbarella). Without this last little line (and for good measure a citation http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080206065106AA7uAQ3 ) the list is meaningless. Worse still if I run across this list in a year will I have any idea what the list was of?

By claiming victory in catalogs as inventory systems, freezing their development and moving on to whole new systems (that can point back to the catalogs) we can invent great new and much more useful systems.

This is not a tirade against ILS vendors, or the open source folks, it is instead a belief that if the ILS vendors and open source folks shifted their focus on innovation instead of incremental evolution great things can happen.

Beyond the Bullet Points

It is hard in an hour long presentation to explore all the implications and aspects of participatory librarianship. Often times big ideas must fit into a single bullet point on a slide. I’m planning to post some deeper explorations of the pithy points. If there are some you like to make, or some that made you scratch your head, let me know.

For those on the FaceBook Participatory Librarianship group (http://www.new.facebook.com/group.php?gid=28388299358) I’ll be cross posting these in the Beyond the Bullet Points discussion board.

Bullet Point: “Innovation is the Job of ALL Librarians”

All too often we seek someone else to be innovators and change agents. Vision is the director’s job, or we wait for the keynoters and library prophets to point the direction. In truth innovation is a job for every librarian in every role. Everyone likes to see innovation as some act of grace in the shower where brilliant thoughts pop out of the ether and totally change the world. If this is ever the case, it is very, very rare.

Innovation happens in the every day. In fact every day changes can lead to world changing ones. My favorite example is the creation of the shot clock in basketball.

In 1953 Danny Biasone, owner of the Syracuse Nationals saw a problem with the game. His audiences were getting board, because once one team pulled ahead in a game they simply sat on the ball, not risking shots that could lead to turnovers. It lead to slow, low scoring games. Biasone introduced the concept of a 24 second clock that started after a team passed the center line. WIthin 24 seconds that team had to shoot the ball to either score, or reset the clock. The innovation had the desired effect – games move more quickly.

What Biasone could not have anticipated was that a faster basketball game gained in popularity, and was a perfect fit to the emerging television sports industry. TV stations picked up on basketball, that lead to an even greater audience. While the Syracuse Nationals are no more, their innovation really lead to the NBA, that Forbes magazine pegs as a $3 billion business (http://www.forbes.com/2004/12/08/04nbaland.html).

So instead of thinking of innovators as Steve Jobs, and Albert Einstein, think Danny Biasone. By making every day improvements in what we do, based on what we are doing it for (for the NBA, entertainment, for us knowledge creation) even small innovations can have massive impacts.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead