An Assured Path to Irrelevance or An Outright Impeachment of Our Basic Principles

In a previous post I talked about a potential path of disaster for public libraries. The TL;DR version is that if public librarians and their libraries seek to be all things to all people they will ultimately be stretched too thin and become the poster children for ineffective government. This is particularly true in light of shrinking services by government agencies. Within that argument (or rather the solution provided) are the seeds of a massive disruption in public services in general. In this post I’m going to expand on those seeds. I am going to start this discussion of public services in the obvious place: collections.

The past 6 decades have seen an unprecedented change in how librarians view collections. Libraries, by and large, have been fixated on documents (or more broadly “document like objects”). The documents were physical, fixed, and owned. If a library wanted to add something to a collection they bought it, they described it, and they placed it.

Libraries then began to expand from documents to other media (to be precise there have always been libraries that collected varying media – I’m talking about the majority) like films, audio recordings, and eventually tapes, CDs and such. Still, the model was of objects owned, described, and placed.

A massive shift in how we conceptualized library collections occurred with the advent of databases. While at first CD’s were little more than digital version of paper reference resources databases quickly represented a massive change in collection content and library business models. In terms of content with the advent of journal databases libraries made available huge quantities of materials that librarians had only a cursory knowledge of. Librarians were now advanced searchers, often discovering what they library “held” right alongside our members.

Electronic databases, CDs, then online databases, also represented a massive departure in the business model of libraries. Where once the majority of resources in the collection were owned, now the vast majority of items (counting articles as items) were rented through fixed term licenses. We are only now feeling the full repercussions of this shift as these licenses have become increasingly expensive; swallowing the collection budgets and more of many institutions.

The Internet was (is) the next major expansion of the concept of collection in libraries. Now anything anyone could put on a page or attach to a URL was part of the collection. That actually wasn’t the biggest conceptual shift though (after all by this point librarians were into discovering resources without previous knowledge of them). No, the biggest shift was that the Internet was not populated with just document like objects, but with services, software, and capabilities. Our collections went from documents, to documents and media, to documents and Facebook, and Google, and Twitter, and real-time video.

While librarians have not fully adjusted to these changes, nor integrated them together (and major issues of preservation still remain a huge challenge), for the most part libraries have successfully transformed to encompass the idea of a library collection as dynamic, open, and important. With each change came stress and discord. Each step turned into a flurry of experimentation and eventual standardization. But on the whole, what once looked like a change that would end libraries is now seen as beneficial. Librarians have not only changed how they see the collection but we have brought our communities along with us. People expect to access databases, and the Internet as well as physical collections. No one really questions any more the use of Google at the reference desk. No one bats an eye when public access computing incorporates gaming alongside Lexus/Nexus.

So we all deserve a big pat on the back. It has been an astounding half-century plus of change, but we did it. We are a different profession because of it, and we are relevant. Yea! No one should underestimate the scale of this disruptive change. But I have bad news…it is time to do it again – massive disruptive change that is.

As our collections have changed, we have added services to our communities (schools, universities, towns, firm, etc.). Where once we provided faster more efficient access to physical items, we added question answering, eventually question answering both at a desk, embedded in teams, and online. We added instruction; first about the library (bibliographic instruction), but eventually around information literacy. We added readers’ advisory, story time, and more recently maker spaces, fishing pole lending, and so on. Once could say that our public services have seen massive change – but I disagree.

As our collections changed, being in a profession primarily concerned with collections, we’ve expanded and shifted our services. However, we have not fundamentally changed them. You see for all of these new services we still cling to a very simplistic service model…us and them: librarians and patron; library and community. We still see the role of the library to serve a community, and in that, to be slightly apart from it. That is problematic because it leads right back into an assured path to irrelevance or an outright impeachment of our basic principles.

Irrelevance? This was my argument in my previous post on the death of public libraries. If librarians continue to see their role as serving a community, and attempting to meet their shifting needs, librarians will be stretched too thin. Librarians will have to become expert searchers, researchers, makers, tax experts, employment advisors, social workers, tutors, and so on. This has lead to many libraries co-locating services such as in a commons model that brings access to librarians, technologists, and learning specialists. We have seen libraries hire social workers, anthropologists and so on. However, if librarianship doesn’t expand to incorporate these services at a fundamental level, we end up with stovepipes of services that sit in an organization or physical space, but gain little from the colocation. In essence, we treat tutors, and anthropologists, and such as just another expansion of the collection.

The other problem is the collocation of services without a radically different service model leads to a diffuse definition of what a library is. We can lose the support of our communities as they struggle to figure out our unique value. Worse still, by adopting new services and offerings based solely on the demands of a community, we can easily fall into a “customer perspective” where we scramble to meet the desires of a community regardless of how they align with core values such as openness, privacy, intellectual freedom, and such. Libraries go from safe, principled spaces of learning to simple gateways to subsidized services…easily disrupted, and easily replaced or discarded.

Librarians want to answer questions or solve problems put to them. In the days of virtual reference we coined the phrase “the greedy librarian problem.” It was observed in service after service, institution after institution, that librarians would receive a reference question, and do their best to answer that query – even if they could pass the question off to someone else (another librarian or an expert) who was better qualified to answer it, or could answer it faster. This came from both a STRONG service ethic, and professional preparation that taught the idea of a generalist librarian.

We are again facing the greedy librarian problem, but now it is in the form of a librarian as social worker, a librarian as maker, a librarian as business expert. If it is offered under the egis of the library, than a librarian must master the content first, then offer the program. This is bad. Bad not in that librarians can become experts in things other than librarianship, but bad in that they may feel that librarianship is expertise in all other areas.

The disruptive change we need now is in removing boundaries between library and community. I have often said, “the community is the collection.” That is more than a rhetorical slogan meant to focus people on “user services.” I mean it literally. If all libraries do is talk to their communities to add new services, or adopt social media to broadcast library events, or become more responsive at a desk, they have not engaged in the necessary and fundamental change needed.

What we need is a merger of collection and community. This is the disruptive, fundamental, and radical shift. In the community you serve, people consume, sure. However, they ALL create, even if they are only creating knowledge within themselves. The power of a new necessary model for public service is to see people in your community as creators who are willing to share their expertise, their understandings, and their resources (like tax dollars, or tuition dollars, or budget lines AND their books). People within your community are willing to teach, and develop programs, and tutor, and the like.

The key massive shift in public services need to make this change? For those familiar with my work, you may find my solution a bit out of character: collection development. Yup. The same skill that has gone through such dramatic changes from documents to media to databases to the Internet, to services. Except, it is development of the community and its conversations.

An example may be in order. A man comes into the library and through conversing with the librarian offers to teach sessions on self-publishing. Now, the first thing that must change is how the librarian responds to the idea of a self-publishing program. Gone is the idea that the librarian will go learn everything there is to know about self-publishing and then start offering programs around the topic. The community member says they already have that knowledge, so they should teach it. Ah, but you say, how do I know they are any good. Do they know about self-publishing? Have they done it? Can they teach? Will they present in a way that upholds the principles of librarianship (intellectual honesty, transparency, and so on)? This is the role of the librarian. This is collection development.

Maybe they can’t teach – great, either the librarian can get them some experience in it (like linking them up with another community member who can act as a mentor) or suggest they put together a libguide, or a curated collection of resources to share. Maybe they only have experience with one platform, can the librarian hook them up with someone with other experiences, or set up complementary programming. Collection development.

In this approach the wall of service between library and community disappears. The librarian is directly working with the community to expose expertise and offer service through the community not to the community. Librarians don’t have to know all the community knows, but they must be able to weave it together and link it. The library becomes a platform not for resource sharing, but for community building and connections.

This then is the next hurdle and challenge: making the community our collection. We have many of the pieces in place. We have an expanded view of collection and the distributed tools that come with it. We have a new definition of librarianship not linked to any particular institution, but focused on knowledge and community. We have some examples of this happening from general approaches like patron driven acquisitions to specific institutions like Chattanooga, Ferguson, and Fayetteville Free. We have the love of our communities. We have spaces to gather. We have an army of professionals and aligned staff in nearly every community in North America.

Now is the time. We can change the world not by informing a community, or serving it, but by unleashing it. We will advance our communities, our nations, and society not by waiting to serve, not by pushing from behind, nor invisibly advocating issues of social justice. We will move forward society by standing side by side with the teacher and the student, the cop and the community, the philosopher and the blacksmith. Librarians, and the institutions they build with their communities, libraries, will, with radical zeal, interweave human capability for greatness. Let’s get to it.

Salzburg Curriculum Snippets and References

After the seminar in Salzburg, I included references to the curriculum and ideas on transformative social action in some of my presentations. I’ve compiled the snippets and links here:

Full Presentation: “Librarians as Change Agents” Video Webchat, U.S. Embassy in Rome, Rome, Italy.

Full Presentation: “Expect More: Service is Proactive” CARLI Virtual Meeting, Webcast.

Full Presentation: “Publisher of the Community: New Librarianship Unencumbered by Our Stacks” PLS President’s Program at the NYLA 2011 Annual Conference. Saratoga Springs, NY.

Salzburg Curriculum

This is a video walkthrough with some of my interpretations of the Salzburg curriculum for Librarians and Museum Professionals. More discussion and interpretation to come.

Salzburg Curriculum for Library and Museum Studies

On October 19th, 2011 a group of innovators from over 20 countries gathered in Salzburg, Austria to discuss “Libraries and Museums in an Era of Participatory Culture.” Through plenary panels and intensive break out group, the seminar fellows developed a series of challenges and recommendations.

One of those groups was charged with developing recommendations and challenges around skills needed by librarians and museum professionals in today’s connected and participatory world. This group ended up developing a joint library/museum curriculum.

While there will be a full report out of the session, I have already been talking about the curriculum and thought it would be useful to share it and discuss it here (with the permission of the participants). Over the next few days I will comment and expand on the curriculum from my perspective, but this post is intended to simply “get it out there” with little personal commentary so others can refer to it and add their own perspectives.

It is my hope that this post, the session report, and following commentaries will form the basis of a much more complete piece (article, book, or something else).

The following curriculum is meant to be comprehensive, and apply equally to librarians and museum professionals. It is also intended to inform formal methods of education (masters programs) as well as continuing education.


The mission of librarians and museum professionals is to foster conversations that improve society through knowledge exchange & social action
Lifelong learning in & out of formal educational settings
These topics are equally applicable to librarians and museum professionals
These topics must be contextualized
The following values permeate these topics:

  • Openness & transparency
  • Self reflection
  • Collaboration
  • Service
  • Empathy & Respect
  • Continuous Learning/Striving for Excellence (which requires lifelong learning)
  • Creativity and imagination


  • Transformative Social Engagement
  • activism
  • social responsibility
  • critical social analysis
  • public programming – fitting to larger agenda
  • advocacy (organizing communities to action-political, policy)
  • sustainability of societal mission
  • conflict management
  • understanding community needs
  • Technology
    • crowdsourcing / outreach
    • ability to engage and evolve with technology
    • ability to impart tech to community across generation
    • creating and maintaining on effective virtual presence
  • Management for Participation (Professional Competencies)
    • institutional sustainability (funding, relevancy)
    • advocacy for institution
    • economics
    • ethics & values
    • sharing: benefits & barriers
    • collaborate within interdisciplinary teams
    • collaborate
    • assessment /analytics / impact
  • Asset management
    • preserve / safeguard
    • collect
    • organize
  • Cultural Skills
    • communication
    • intercultural: the ability to analyze and function in micro and macro cultures including age and gender
    • languages / terminology
    • support for multiple type of literacies
  • Knowledge / Learning / Innovation
    • constructed
    • improvisation or innovation
    • interpretation
    • dissemination
    • information seeking

    A rose by any other name…

    I have included a discussion about what we call the folks who use libraries (members) in several presentations and it’s all over my book. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what we call ourselves. Over the past month across two continents and four different venues this question has come up.

    Before I get too far down this road, I realize that I am treading a well-worn path with plenty of wreckage along the way. I am not playing coy here for a push for a new name. I am honestly struggling with this personally, and I’m looking for help.

    So here is where it all started. I was talking with our board of advisors for the iSchool and reviewing the LIS program. We have a great board made up of business folks, technologists, librarians, and educators. I was making the case that librarianship was a skill set that extended well beyond libraries and asked how the school could open up opportunities in the business sector.

    The answer? Don’t call them librarians. They bought that librarians would be great in institutions facing big data problems, helping out analysts and research scientists in communicating and conversations, the whole bit. The problem was that when you threw in the name “librarians” all they could think about was the building, and really the public library they visited as a kid (to be fair this was not a universal comment, as I said there were plenty of librarians in the room).

    We even started talking about the possibility of the profession splitting into folks who work in the building called a library and folks with the skills that worked outside of it. I want to reiterate that this was a very positive conversation, and not riddled with the stereotypes, except to say many thought the name itself got in the way because of the widely held stereotypes.

    I threw out that it was time to retake the name and associate it with the real progressive work librarians were doing today. Then one member of the board asked “so which is more important, the name ‘librarian’ or what librarians could accomplish in these other settings.” That got me thinking.

    I went directly from this meeting to a summit in Salzburg. There I met amazing librarians and museum professionals from 24 different countries. We were talking about libraries and museums in the era of participatory culture. I was part of the discussion around the skills needed for librarians and museum folks (more on that later). After my presentation, during a panel discussion, someone asked, you guessed it, should we still call these folks librarians?

    What started to develop at this meeting was a line of reasoning that goes like this: If as librarians we need to shape ourselves around our communities, and if part of what we need to shape is the language and terms we use, then shouldn’t we be flexible about the titles we use? If the community wants to call us librarians, then fine. If they want to call us “awesome epic cool people” then so be it. AASL wrestled with this in going back to the title school librarian from school media specialist. At the time I thought (and tweeted) “how boring.” A school librarian pointed out that the name just caused confusion, and a name doesn’t gain respect or attention, performance does. In essence call me what you want, it is my action that will show me as a librarian.

    Fast forward to this past week when I presented at the New York Library Association. After I did my thing about what our mission was, up it popped again – does it make sense to call ourselves librarians. Here I talked a little about my developing “let the community decide” logic. But I added “no matter what the community calls us, we are still librarians.” In essence, I was thinking the term librarian may be more important in identifying ourselves to ourselves than to the community. So, I was thinking, let the world call us what they want, but know still you are a librarian with a common mission, values, and skills. This has worked with folks like accountants, that used to be people who worked in counting houses. Now they have the title of office manager, CFO, and so on, but they are still accountants with a common preparation and professional culture.

    So here I am…librarian or not? Do I work to rename our degree to make librarians more marketable outside of libraries (keeping ALA accreditation)? Do I still push to retake the term librarian? Does it even matter? Help!

    Dave Screencast How To

    Here is a screencast on how I do “talking head” screencasts on my Mac. I am just amazed how increasingly easy it is for a person and a computer to make pretty polished productions these days.

    by the way,someone asked me if I came up with the term (hence my comment in the opening of the presentation), and the answer is definitely no. See Wikipedia.

    Draft Report from LC Working Group on the Future of Bibliographic Control

    Today someone asked me about how the new LC report ( meshed with participatory library concepts. Much of this is very compatible: user create materials, wider cooperation, distribution of tasks, etc.

    However, a central tenant of participatory is the focus on conversation and how artifacts only make sense in the context of someone’ use. Perhaps it is the nature of the beast, but this approach to bibliographic control is in making descriptions of artifacts more standard and more efficient. So it is participatory in process, but not result. What would help is a recognition (perhaps as part of the cohesive philosophy of bibliographic control discussed) that any artifact, and thus it’s description, gains meaning and utility in the context of communities and conversations. Further that these conversations and context often exist BETWEEN records and items.

    My question for the committee would be how could bibliographic control incorporate contexts between items or be applied to conversations and non-document like objects? What are your thoughts?

    Has Dave Abandoned Virtual Reference?

    I was asked several times at ALA this past week if I had abandoned virtual reference? Was virtual reference passe? Is it dying? Do I think “been there, done that?” In a word — no. I remain an advocate for virtual reference and there are still a few virtual reference related publication in the pipeline. I take some pride in seeing virtual reference deployed widely and seeing the whole field of reference coming out of the 50% rule doldrums and into some really innovative research and development. However, I am certainly not devoting as much of my research time to the topic.

    This is for lots of reasons, not least of which is there is now an active community doing brilliant research in the area so I can focus on new implications and practices in librarianship. When I started writing about digital reference, it was a pretty lonely field. Now with folks like Marie Radford, Jeff Pomerantz, Lynn Connaway, and Lynn Westbrook (among many others) it is an active field. I feel like I can learn from them while I seek new implications of how expertise and human interactions fit into information systems. Couple this with real deployment and development from folks like Caleb Tucker-Raymond, Dynex/Sirsi, and there exists a real marketplace of ideas.

    The reality is also that my current work in participatory librarianship is just the current place my overarching research has taken me. Starting with AskERIC on how you build a digital library that begot the Gateway to Educational Materials to deepen the investigation into how you organize digital library resources (and metadata and the like). It also begot (love that word) the Virtual Reference Desk into how people provide expertise online. All of this work lead up to the power of conversations… that is the primacy of context in sharing information and the necessity of discourse. This of course lead to my current work in participatory librarianship. In many ways, this is taking what I learned in virtual reference (including on digital reference knowledge bases) and projects it out to the library as a whole.

    For those who remember the last VRD conference in San Francisco we rolled out Story Starters and OpenQA that used blogging as a social means of providing reference service. This work itself came from Reference Extract, a search engine based on reference citations. These projects came out of my work in credibility, that was an examination of how users can believe the information they get from reference or in general. Even my more theoretical focus in the participatory world comes from an attempt to better conceptually integrate reference and other functions of the library.

    So have I abandoned reference? No. I want to take what we all learned in virtual reference and play it throughout the rest of the library world. Remember, at heart I’m a systems guy, meaning I always want to see how all of these pieces (reference, metadata, archives, etc.) fit together, and what can we get out of novel combinations.

    So keep up the good work in virtual reference. Call me when you need me, I still consider myself one of you. I also invite you to be active in the new participatory library world.

    Great Minds

    Isn’t it amazing how you can run across kindred spirits separated by time. I just ran across an article by Joan Bechtel called “Conversation, a New Paradigm for Librarianship?” written in 1986 (full citation below). It is a great read. I see a lot of crossover ideas here with our paper on Participatory Librarianship. She didn’t necessarily have the theory piece, or the tools, but she laid a very strong foundation. I wish I could find it online to point to but here’s a link to its ERIC entry.

    Some great quotes:

    “”Libraries, if they are true to their original and intrinsic being, seek primarily to collect people and ideas rather than books and to facilitate conversation among people rather than merely to organize, store and deliver information. TO be sure, libraries have traditionally collected the documents of human imagination and action. In doing so they have preserved the ideas and events of history and have become centers for ongoing conversations in which people speak their opinions, criticize others’, and enlarge or restrict the scope of discussion.”

    “Conversation, essential to the quality of life of Homo sapiens, provides the occasion and m ode for intimate, significant, and ongoing engagement of human beings with each other in society.”

    “Focusing on the enlargement of conversation in the educational environment demands that librarians ask questions about the needs of faculty and students…THe answer to such questions concerning collection development and services will necessarily come out of continuing conversations with faculty and students, both individually and in the governance structure of the college. Surely the whole range of possibilities – reference service, database searching, term paper consultations, bibliographic instruction, and, one hopes, new possibilities for services not yet envisioned – will be explored in order to bring about the widest participation in the intellectual inquiry.”

    Did I mention this was written in 1986!!!!

    Here is the citation:

    Bechtel, Joan M. 1986. Conversation, A New Paradigm for Librarianship? College & Research Libraries 47: 219-224.

    Test Plugoo

    I’ve tried Meebo, but wasn’t impressed. Great to IM through a web interface, but you have to be logged onto Meebo. I saw folks talking about Plugoo on Dig_Ref and thought I’d take a look. Seems very cool. It connects a web based IM to my IM client (adium) on my desktop through AIM (or ICQ or Yahoo! or..). If I’m online give it a try and say hi.