What Future Will Watson and DPLA Make for Libraries?

It was January of 2014 since I last wrote a post about IBM’s “Watson” cognitive computer. That’s actually longer than I expected before hearing news about this revolutionary computer. In that post I wrote:

Just as historic as Bell creating communication over wire, Marconi making it wireless, and Perotto creating the desktop computer, IBM has broken through technology to the holy grail of computing by inventing Watson – the cognitive computer.

Would you rather “Ask a Librarian” with human limitations and biases with limited resources at your local library, or speak to a computer with almost infinite knowledge who will recommend resources and even tell you how confident it is that it will satisfy your question? Would you rather go to the Only Vanilla Ice Cream Store, or to Baskin & Robbins 31 Kinds?

Combine the threat to libraries from “e-book and digital media retailers” that Brantley addressed with the threat from Watson toward the reference role of libraries and it is obvious that libraries MUST reinvent themselves NOW! As I wrote last February; “This is by no means the first or even a new call to action, but … time is running out for libraries to find their place in the community they serve. I for one seriously wonder what it will take for library leaders to recognize the future challenges and adopt a vision to overcome them and save the library. Traditional librarianship is a relic of the past century. Creative and innovative thinking with visionary leadership and bold action is the only approach that will save libraries” in the 21st Century.

The “What Is Watson” website:
IBM Watson is a technology platform that uses natural language processing and machine learning to reveal insights from large amounts of unstructured data

How Watson answers questions
First Watson learns a new subject
• All related materials are loaded into Watson, such as Word documents, PDFs and web pages
• Questions and answers pairs are added to train Watson on the subject
• Watson is automatically updated as new information is published

How Watson learns
Then Watson answers a question
• Watson searches millions of documents to find thousands of possible answers
• Collects evidence and uses a scoring algorithm to rate the quality of this evidence
• Ranks all possible answers based on the score of its supporting evidence

I recently reviewed the DPLA (Digital Public Library of America) to see how that is progressing, since there is an obvious match-up between the two – super smart computer that needs an extensive database to learn! They have hundreds more contributors than last time I checked, and are now at about 2.5 Million volumes, so obviously they are growing exponentially. DPLA is still frequently in the news.

So, what does a merging of Watson and DPLA mean for librarians? Twenty years ago librarians thought that the proliferation of the Internet would put an end to their usefulness. Well, it did and it didn’t. In the beginning of this new century libraries experienced a decline in users, those people who actually came into the library to check out books. However, as the first decade passed, users became new types of customers. They could get digital and audio materials from their local library, and libraries started to adjust to offering more customer-centered services and became less library-centric. Libraries began reaching out to users, rather than being the stoic institution that users had to come to for unique services. Libraries’ services, at least in terms of collections, were no longer unique.

I still agree with the saying that “Closing libraries in an economic crisis is like closing hospitals in an epidemic.” And, of course, “Now that we have Google, why do we need libraries?” is answered by asking “Now that we have WedMD, why do we need doctors?” Having said that, let’s consider how a marriage between Watson and DPLA affects librarians.

As the volume of published materials also increases exponentially, it becomes like the air – IT’S EVERYWHERE – and thanks to DPLA and Watson it’s as easily accessible as air. Way back in September of 2010 I wrote about the new high school curriculum standards that 12th grade students are expected to meet before graduation – 21st Century Skills in Action in School Libraries

7e. Benchmarks to Achieve by Grade 12

Standard 1: Inquire, think critically, and gain knowledge.

Strand 1.1: Skills

Indicator 1.1.1:  Follow an inquiry-based process in seeking knowledge in curricular subjects, and make the real-world connection for using this process in own life.

·Independently and systematically use an inquiry-based process to deepen content knowledge, connect academic learning with the real world, pursue personal interests, and investigate opportunities for personal growth.

Indicator 1.1.2:  Use prior and background knowledge as context for new learning.

·Explore general information sources to increase familiarity with the topic or question.

·Review the initial information need to develop, clarify, revise, or refine the question.

·Compare new background information with prior knowledge to determine direction and focus of new learning.

Indicator 1.1.3:  Develop and refine a range of questions to frame the search for new understanding.

·Recognize that the purpose of the inquiry determines the type of questions and the type of thinking required (e.g., an historical purpose may require one to take a position and defend it).

·Explore problems or questions for which there are multiple answers or no “best” answer.

·Review the initial information need to clarify, revise, or refine the questions.

Indicator 1.1.4:  Find, evaluate, and select appropriate sources to answer questions.

·Identify the value of and differences among potential resources in a variety of formats.

·Use various search systems to retrieve information in a variety of formats.

·Seek and use a variety of specialized resources available from libraries, the Internet, and the community.

·Describe criteria used to make resource decisions and choices.

Indicator 1.1.5:  Evaluate information found in selected sources on the basis of accuracy, validity, appropriateness for needs, importance, and social and cultural context.

·Evaluate historical information for validity of interpretation, and scientific information for accuracy and reliability of data.

·Recognize the social, cultural, or other context within which the information was created and explain the impact of context on interpreting the information.

·Use consciously selected criteria to determine whether the information contradicts or verifies information from other sources.

Indicator 1.1.6: Read, view, and listen for information presented in any format (e.g., textual, visual, media, digital) in order to make inferences and gather meaning.

·Restate concepts in own words and select appropriate data accurately.

·Integrate new information presented in various formats with previous information or knowledge.

·Analyze initial synthesis of findings and construct new hypotheses or generalizations if warranted.

·Challenge ideas represented and make notes of questions to pursue in additional sources.

Indicator 1.1.7:  Make sense of information gathered from diverse sources by identifying misconceptions, main and supporting ideas, conflicting information, and point of view or bias.

·Create a system to organize the information.

·Analyze the structure and logic of supporting arguments or methods.

·Analyze information for prejudice, deception, or manipulation.

·Investigate different viewpoints encountered and determine whether and how to incorporate or reject these viewpoints.

·Compensate for the effect of point of view and bias by seeking alternative perspectives.

Indicator 1.1.8:  Demonstrate mastery of technology tools for accessing information and pursuing inquiry.

·Select the most appropriate technologies to access and retrieve the needed information.

·Use various technologies to organize and manage the information selected.

·Create own electronic learning spaces by collecting and organizing links to information resources, working collaboratively, and sharing new ideas and understandings with others.

Indicator 1.1.9:  Collaborate with others to broaden and deepen understanding.

·Model social skills and character traits that advance a team’s ability to identify issues and problems and work together on solutions and products.

·Design and implement projects that include participation from diverse groups.

Seriously, can any public librarian read this list of expectations of what the high school graduate will soon know about information literacy and NOT question their own role in the library profession? School librarians have always supported the curriculum, faculty and students, but the public librarian role is NOT so clear cut.

Presuming that a high school graduate has actually become competent in all the Standards described above, how many librarians (MLS or not) can say they are MORE proficient than that? Maybe these standards should be the new standards for librarians. Public librarians have the opportunity and the challenge to become more than they ever thought they could be, or …………….. The alternative is not enticing!

That was five years ago. How much progress do you imagine schools have made in the graduating classes in the past five years? Add this level of information literacy to the explosion of availability that Watson and DPLA can create and anyone in this profession MUST question what the future holds for librarians – especially reference librarians in the public library.

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Now THIS is a true 21st Century Library!

The Nieuwe Bibliotheek (New Library) in Almere, Netherlands has built a Library that embodies the ideals of the 21st Century library! 

“They redesigned their libraries based on the changing needs and desires of library users.”

What they found led them to follow a model more relatable to their patrons:

“Guided by patron surveys, administrators tossed out traditional methods of library organization, turning to retail design and merchandising for inspiration. They now group books by areas of interest, combining fiction and nonfiction; they display books face-out to catch the eye of browsers; and they train staff members in marketing and customer service techniques.”

Based on feedback from their community they included a wide variety of services, spaces and programming.

“The library is also a Seats2meet (S2M) location where patrons are empowered to help one another in exchange for free, permanent, coworking space, and they utilize the S2M Serendipity Machine to connect library users in real-time. They also have a bustling cafe, an extensive events and music program, a gaming facility, a reading garden and more. The result? The New Library surpassed all expectation about usage with over 100,000 visitors in the first two months. It is now considered one of the most innovative libraries in the world.”

And the key:


“From the beginning, you involved the community to find out what they wanted from the library. What was the importance of taking this approach?”


“We wanted to create a customer’s library. Convenience for the librarian wasn’t leading, but convenience for the customer.”


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A New Era in Libraries 

OK… I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been a little busy lately. (Thus the shortage of recent postings – my apologies dear readers). I quit a job, took a new job, moved 1300 miles and have been, in general, pretty preoccupied with my own career. That said, I still feel like I’ve been a bit tuned in to the world around me and yet this evening while I was surfing, I uncovered something shocking. Is it just me… Am I the only one who did not realize…that our Librarian of Congress is retiring after 28 years, and the process is ongoing to appoint a new Librarian of Congress?

How is this not the number one topic on every library blog, Library Journal, ALA and library website? For the first time in 28 years we have the opportunity to have a new Librarian of Congress! This is a thrilling and exciting opportunity.

Now, I’m going to take just a moment of pause because as I read the little bit of coverage that there has been about Dr. Billington’s retirement… I have been incredibly disheartened to read the snarky, unkind, and (quite frankly) mean-spirited comments that have been made about his tenure. None of us have walked in Dr. Billington’s shoes and while we can all backseat drive and Monday morning quarterback about what we think he should have done, let’s look at what he has accomplished: pushing back on the Patriot Act, advocated for Net neutrality, championed the Library of Congress’s National Digital Library program, created online a major bilingual website with Russian libraries, and launched smaller such joint projects with the national libraries of Brazil, Spain, France, the Netherlands and Egypt, established the National Book Festival with Laura Bush in 2000, acquired the only copy of the 1507 Waldseemüller world map (“America’s birth certificate”) in 2003 for permanent display in the Jefferson Building, created the Library’s first Young Readers Center in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building in 2009, launched BARD, a state-of-the-art digital talking books mobile app for Braille and Audio Reading Downloads in partnership with the Library’s National Library Service for the blind and physically handicapped in 2013, and the list goes on. While he may not have been the digital elevator that so many individuals would like to see today, let’s not malign the gentleman who served as the 13th Librarian of Congress since 1987 (long before the Internet), was appointed by President Ronald Reagan and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate, or refuse to acknowledge the work that he has done during his time as our Librarian of Congress. (A more complete listing of his impressive accomplishments can be read at http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2015/15-105.html) Thank you Dr. Billington for the work that you’ve done and may you enjoy your retirement.

Now onto the future… Some of the articles that I’ve been reading have detailed lists of names of potential appointees. These range from historians, presidents of Ivy League universities, and prominent public library directors. But what I don’t see is any of that tied to the discussion of what it is that we want our Library of Congress to do and oversee during the next decade. Rather than simply appointing someone who has previously done good work, shouldn’t we first begin the discussion with what we want to see the Library of Congress accomplish in the next decade, and then find a leader who can accomplish that mission?

So what would we want the Library of Congress to accomplish in the next decade? The Library of Congress was established in 1800 by an act of Congress for the purpose of being “a reference library for Congress only, containing such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress – and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein”. That mission remains as steady today as does our very Constitution, because it is law. I’m not advocating to reinvent the Library of Congress but rather to view that mission through the lens of the 21st-century. What does that mean?

Of course there will be millions of opinions about what that means… But what it means to me

From LOC’s own website “The Library’s mission is to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.” In my readings I am seeing it referred to as research, cultural institution, archive, repository, etc. But in truth it appears that throughout the lifespan of the Library of Congress it’s core mission has always been to maintain such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress. Thomas Jefferson is attributed as saying “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection, since there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” Let’s contemplate what Thomas Jefferson was meaning – that in the provision of their duties as representatives of the American public there would be no topic that members of Congress might not have occasion for which they might require some references. One might justly see that this is an interpretation of the American public’s own right to access any and all information on any subject. So in truth, while not a public library in the manner that the public is walking through the doors each day and utilizing the collection to circulate, the Library of Congress is a representation of all that is sacred about the American public library.

When looked at in this manner is it not appropriate that in the next decade the Library of Congress should lead the way in legislation, policy, and best practice for not only our profession but also every public library in America? And with that said, should we not then look to find someone who has brilliant ideas and proven practice of daily role modeling of all that is good and worthy about the American public library? Should not this be the template for our next Librarian of Congress? He or she should be someone who embodies the ideals of the 21st century public library. He or she should be someone with a firmly founded and crystal clear concept of what the 21st-century library can and should be, who can articulate that vision both inside and outside our profession as both a leader and an advocate.

With that said… why isn’t every blog, journal and website focused on our profession discussing and debating this important moment?  As 21st Century Libraries we preach “Community Engagement”.  We must learn to practice it as well!

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Managing Innovative Personalities for Successful Library Innovation

I have spent the past seven years working to lead an organization into a new culture of innovation.  Saying it has, at times, been a struggle is tantamount to saying that Everest is a bit steep.  Whenever I find challenges, I always look inward as much as at the environment to find any potential challenges to success or meeting my goals.  As a result, I have spent much of those seven years learning to hone my management and leadership style into one that creates, or if not ‘creates’ then at least ‘allows for’ or ‘encourages’ an environment where Innovation will flourish.  I have come to understand that the primary component in this effort is the cultivating and managing of innovative people.  Unless you intend to be a one-person show (which I seriously discourage as it will ultimately be unsuccessful in an organization/team setting and just plain leave you exhausted) you must surround yourself with other personalities, minds and skill sets that will hopefully meld into a force that creates and drives Innovation.

During my years of honing, I have discovered that all too often it is not being able to find these innovative minds, or not being an organization culture that does not allow them to create, explore and innovate that is the difficulty.  The challenge comes in reigning these necessarily strong, independent and creative minds into a productive and strategic focus.  If not handled careful, a manager/leader can frustrate their innovative thinkers into giving up, becoming a destructive rather than productive force, or ultimately leaving your organization all together!  This management/leadership dance is a delicate and intricate one that I have never found to play out the same way twice. It is simply a dance you learn through experience that allows you, hopefully, to manage your creative people using a precarious balance of the specific elements/factors of their situation. This makes crafting a management formula or disseminating my hard-won experience into translatable models for fellow Library managers/leaders extremely difficult.

I recently discovered an excellent article that provides some fascinating insights into managing those Innovative spirits among us!!

Harvard Business Review “The Inescapable Paradox of Managing Creativity”

When facing the challenge of unleashing organizational innovation, many leaders fail. Some attempt to help their teams flourish by granting almost unlimited freedoms, only to discover that they have created chaos, not high performance. Others try to force their employees’ creativity through prescribed programs and activities, which usually yields humdrum results at best.

After studying proven masters at fostering organizational innovation for over ten years, we have identified the heart of the difficulty. At the core of leading innovation lies a fundamental tension, or paradox, inherent in the leader’s role: leaders need to unleash individuals’ talents, yet also harness all those diverse talents to yield a useful and cohesive result.

So well stated!!

It’s easy to think of many new ideas, but it’s much more difficult to convert those ideas into something new that actually solves a problem.

So true!!

As a leader, you must constantly ask yourself, “How will I:

  • Affirm each person’s need for individual recognition and identity yet also tend to the needs of the collective?
  • Encourage team members to support one another while simultaneously challenging and provoking each other through robust debate?
  • Foster experimentation, continuous learning and high performance?
  • Determine how much structure — rules, hierarchy, planning and the like — provide sufficient constraints without stifling improvisation?
  • Mix patience and a sense of urgency?
  • Balance bottom-up initiatives and top-down interventions?”

The “right” position at any moment will depend on specific current circumstances. The goal will always be to take whatever positions enable the collaboration, experimentation, and integration necessary for innovation.

And we must continue to hone our leadership and managerial skill!!

This kind of leadership is not easy, especially for leaders who hold conventional notions of top-down leadership, or who find conflict or loss of control uncomfortable. Even skilled leaders of innovation find it hard not to favor one side of the paradox scales over the other. The task of creating new and useful things requires leaders to continually recalibrate the needs of their organizations and to modify their behavior accordingly. They must develop the capacity to lead from the right place on each scale for the moment and situation.

And such a lovely conclusion…

Many leaders need to rethink what they do if they want a more innovative organization. It takes a powerful leader to unleash and harness innovation. This power resides in managing paradox rather than controlling destiny.

So may we all become Managers of Paradox!! Continue reading


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Trump Style Librarianship

This is not a post about politics! This is a post about librarianship!

Having said that, I want to make an analogy to librarianship by using Donald Trump’s bid for presidential candidate in 2016. Many commentators have criticized him as being a “joke” as a candidate, and point out what they view as many other unflattering characteristics. One said his best day would be the day he announced, but then retracted that assessment when Trump later placed second in a recent poll of registered voters.

Trump has clearly and repeatedly stated that he is not a “politician” and he knows how to “return America to greatness.” He cites his business success and experience working with politicians as evidence he is a viable candidate, but he is not a politician. He believes that is a good thing, and electing someone who is not a politician would be good for America, since politicians are the ones who have created the situation America is in today.

The comments of one commentator are the reason I decided to write this post, because I believe the mindset it demonstrates is the same mindset that exists among those who influence librarianship in this 21st Century environment. The commentator said, in essence, Trump can’t win because he’s not being “political.” I interpreted this as an assertion that only a “politician” can be elected President since politicians are, above all else, political, and that voters will only elect someone who is political.

So how does this analogy apply to librarianship? There are many in the profession and among library boards and government jurisdictions who don’t recognize that libraries can operate in nontraditional ways. The concept that libraries are the same now as they have always been is a mindset that prevents change and adaptation that provides 21st Century information and library services in this 21st Century environment.

Inability to put away the old stereotype librarianship, to think outside the box and develop new approaches to delivering library services will surely doom libraries to a status that libraries do not deserve. Libraries will suffer from lack of funding if librarians cannot develop that entrepreneurial spirit that enables libraries to deliver quality library services. Without quality library services communities are hard pressed to support their local libraries, with funding or attendance. Whether Donald Trump becomes President is irrelevant, but taking a few pages from his playbook about how to tackle the 21st Century environment and thrive is the most relevant thing librarians can do now and in the future.

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The art of saying YES!

Many years ago I was a young manager sitting in a meeting of other managers.  We were discussing various issues and one primary topic was the random and odd requests from patrons.  Those in public libraries will smile a little and perhaps chuckle…you know what I mean.  The conversation had taken a turn that was a bit…synical. “I get so tired of it.” “No you can’t hold a meeting in the silent room tomorrow night!” “Why do people keep asking for special treatment?!”  Our Director very thoughtfully said “I wish it was harder for all of you to say NO than YES.”  And she left the room.

That has never left me.  I have framed much of my management and customer service philosophy around the concept of saying Yes.  Embracing the unusual suggestion. Fostering the reality that the Library belongs to our patrons and community.  We are here to manage, improve, facilitate, guide and more.  Unfortunately, too often we translate that to a sense of ownership and control that often manifests in a proclivity to say NO to the unusual or out of the ordinary.  But we are smart folks! And we know that the unusual and new, while scary, is also where brilliant things occur!

I came across a TED Talk the other day that reminded me of this.  It is worth the 11 minutes!

Pam Sandlian Smith, Director of Anythink Libraries in Colorado presents a wonderful talk about what happens when we say YES!!


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The 21st Century Library is Now on FaceBook!

We are pleased to announce that The 21st Century Library Blog now has a ‘sister’ Facebook page!!

The 21st Century Librarian  


We will share timely news, articles and research about The 21st Century Library and Library Innovation.  And occasionally having a little fun!

Follow The 21st Century Librarian! 


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