Monthly Archives: April 2012

Libraries Are Obsolete – An Oxford Style Debate – Critique

Finally available online at, the 1hr:40min video was both stimulating and disappointing. For those of you who don’t have 1:40 or patience to wade through the stilted academician rhetoric to come to any conclusions, I thought I’d offer my summary and critique of the event.

To recap:

The MOTION: Libraries are Obsolete was the topic of the Oxford style debate. It was chaired by Professor Jonathan Zittrain, Professor at the Harvard Law School, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Professor Zittrain will become Harvard Law School’s Vice-Dean of Library and Information Resources in July 2012.

Speaking in favor of the proposition: Dr. James Tracy (Headmaster, Cushing Academy), and R. David Lankes (Professor and Dean’s Scholar for the New Librarianship, University of Syracuse iSchool and Director of the Information Institute of Syracuse).

Speaking in opposition: Susan Hildreth (Director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services), and Professor John G. Palfrey (Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources, and the Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law at Harvard Law School).

Student Speakers from the Harvard Speech & Parliamentary Debate Society:
• Sanhita Dey
• Rishav Mukherji

Beginning with Dr. Tracy, his position in favor of libraries being obsolete revolved around his definition of “library” as a space, and referred to libraries as a “vestigial” (stunted or useless) locus that only serves an “antiquarian” (museum essentially) function. He felt the ubiquity (pervasiveness) of technology makes libraries obsolete, and doubts whether the serendipity potential that technology allows with digital information can be matched in a physical library. Dr. Tracy did concede that librarians are not at risk, as long as they transition to the role of “guide” who practice in “digital aggregates” as opposed to “librarians” operating in a “library”. He believes that collection space must be replaced with usage space in order to meet the future needs of society.

Director Susan Hildreth followed in opposition to the Motion, but spent considerable time citing statistics on 97% of Americans who are served by libraries, and 57% of Americans that have a library card. Admitting that the number of reference questions are plummeting, she asserts that the complexity of the reference question is increasing – no statistics to support that claim. She repeated the standard rhetoric regarding the public access Internet use, the assistance for job seekers, and essentially regurgitated much of the traditional “libraries are invaluable” justifications. Director Hildreth did assert that libraries must change to survive, and become more proactive in managing their space. She asserts that libraries are centers for life-long learning, and the 3Rs have been replaced by the 4Cs – creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.

Professor Lankes followed next with his largely comedic routine in support of the Motion that libraries are obsolete. He asserts that libraries are no longer about sharing, but about lending which diminishes their value to the community. In his argument that libraries do not promote a free and democratic society he created an example of government documents never being made “public” or available to the public in support of his assertion. (?) He also created an analogy that when the Tennessee Valley Authority brought electricity to the rural southeast they brought it directly to homes, whereas the library simply opens its doors and says come get it. (?) He made a true statement when he asserted that librarians are not educators in terms of education in the 21st Century. Professor Lankes believes that the library has been operating on the belief that its role is to fix society for so long that it doesn’t understand any other way to operate. He stated: “If we keep going to our communities in a deficiency model, a remediation sense, if we keep pounding on the community and saying what’s wrong with them, what their problems are, how we can fix them, fix their problems, communities will kick us the hell out.” (As nearly as I was able to transcribe his exact words) That statement is in stark contrast to Lankes’ assertions in his book The Atlas of New Librarianship – which I reviewed in my Post Final Review: The Atlas of New Librarianship – on Page74.

Power is not bad or evil. Alinsky would say the evil is when you don’t have power. Without power you don’t make decisions, things are decided for you. Librarians need to be powerful. They need to be able to shape agendas, lead the community, and empower members to do the same. We seek out power not as an end but as a means to make the world a better place. To serve, to truly serve, you need to be powerful so you can steward the community.

After Lankes’s remarks, Debate President Professor Zittrain stated that Professor Lankes’ argument was “ironically and nominally in opposition to the Motion.”

The final prominent speaker in opposition to the Motion was Professor Palfrey. He asserted that the real issue is that libraries and librarians lack imagination in order to change the future of libraries, because the definition of “library” needs to be rewritten with imagination. He feels that the mission of libraries has not changed – therefore not obsolete – but the delivery of that mission is the real quandary. His four main points were; libraries have and must change, the mission has not changed, the difficulty of the mission has changed, and whether librarians can change. Professor Palfrey believes that a library in these digital times is a hybrid organization in transition toward whatever circumstances will make it in the future. His final words of wisdom were to “get in front of the mob and call it a parade.”

The two students who provided comments were much briefer than the primary speakers, but did offer a couple of nuggets worth reporting. Rishav Mukherji, speaking in the affirmative (I think), pointed out that a library is not a library without a collection – regardless of what form it takes. Sanhita Dey, speaking in the opposition, noted that the microwave did not make the role of the oven or the range top in the average kitchen obsolete, and that librarians need to protect free access during this transitional period.

At the end of the debate, the audience voted yea or nay on the motion, with the results (in favor of the continuing relevance of libraries) announced over gin & tonics at a reception that followed the debate.

Overall – IMHO – this Oxford-style debate was more detrimental than productive to the profession. It took a very serious issue, and made light of its seriousness. Libraries closing and loss of jobs is not humorous. Loss of free access to information by tax payers is hardly a subject for levity. It is unfortunate that one of the most prestigious libraries in the world was the first to address this significant issue in such a light-hearted manner. As I noted above, it was both stimulating and disappointing – stimulating because it took considerable concentration to understand whether there were any relevant points being made, and dissappointing because there was no new information.

When the profession is struggling to find its role in the new millennium, this conversation about whether libraries are obsolete should be conducted at every level, in every SLIS, and in every library. An adequate answer to the nagging question “Why do we need libraries?” MUST be provided to the profession, if libraries are to survive. It’s too serious an issue to be taken lightly by individuals who should know better – or to be decided over gin & tonics – where no real answers to serious issues are presented.


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More Evidence FOR a Bachelor’s Degree in LIS

Last December I wrote the Post Library Science Ranks #4 in Highest Unemployment.

According to the Wall Street Journal post From College Major to Career, “Choosing the right college major can make a big difference in students’ career prospects, in terms of employment and pay. Here’s a look at how various college majors fare in the job market, based on 2010 Census data.” WSJ gleaned the study data from a report by Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Click here for the full report.

Some readers took exception to the data because it represented only bachelor’s level degree information relating to librarianship employment. As we all know, those entry level jobs are few and far between. But it all seems irrelevant in light of the latest information published by CNBC – 1 in 2 new graduates are jobless or underemployed.

Young adults with bachelor’s degrees are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs — waiter or waitress, bartender, retail clerk or receptionist, for example — and that’s confounding their hopes a degree would pay off despite higher tuition and mounting student loans.

An analysis of government data conducted for The Associated Press lays bare the highly uneven prospects for holders of bachelor’s degrees.

Or does it? While it seems like the current unemployment/underemployment climate makes my advocacy for a bachelor’s degree in librarianship and information science even less appealing, actually it makes it even more appealing. Seriously? Absolutely! Read on.

While there’s strong demand in science, education and health fields, arts and humanities flounder. Median wages for those with bachelor’s degrees are down from 2000, hit by technological changes that are eliminating midlevel jobs such as bank tellers. Most future job openings are projected to be in lower-skilled positions such as home health aides, who can provide personalized attention as the U.S. population ages.

Taking underemployment into consideration, the job prospects for bachelor’s degree holders fell last year to the lowest level in more than a decade.

There is “strong demand in science, education and health fields” – not arts and humanities. Librarianship is a science field. We have need of entry level bachelor’s degree educated individuals who are multi-talented, technology literate, information literate, (dare I say) transliterate, young imaginative, innovative, in-touch librarians who can help change the profession to meet 21st Century challenges.

Be honest, when faced with a choice of science, education or health fields, which would you choose – SCIENCE!!

SLIS are missing the boat by not recruiting these young people into the librarianship profession. Now is the time – well actually, 10 years ago was really the time – to heavily recruit for a bachelor’s degree as an entry level position into the profession. Other disciplines and professions will be doing it. If we don’t get moving, we’ll be left behind – again.

“You can make more money on average if you go to college, but it’s not true for everybody,” says Harvard economist Richard Freeman, noting the growing risk of a debt bubble with total U.S. student loan debt surpassing $1 trillion. “If you’re not sure what you’re going to be doing, it probably bodes well to take some job, if you can get one, and get a sense first of what you want from college.”

Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University who analyzed the numbers, said many people with a bachelor’s degree face a double whammy of rising tuition and poor job outcomes. “Simply put, we’re failing kids coming out of college,” he said, emphasizing that when it comes to jobs, a college major can make all the difference. “We’re going to need a lot better job growth and connections to the labor market, otherwise college debt will grow.” [Emphasis added.]

How can any SLIS faculty or administrator read this and not see the opportunity here? We have a MAJOR pool of undergraduate candidates who have been working in the profession and currently are in local libraries EVERYWHERE. They know what they want to do, but the profession is stifling them! Most don’t have a bachelor’s degree, and the prospect of getting a master’s to become a “librarian” is beyond their grasp right now.

If there were abundant bachelor’s degree programs in LIS, these young library workers would have a stepping stone for career progression. This is not rocket science. All it takes is a few “establishment” librarians to think outside the box for just a minute to see the potential. Why isn’t somebody willing to step into the 21st Century?

This Post is not addressed to those SLIS with existing bachelor’s degree programs. Kentucky, Maine, and others are making an effort to address the shortfall, but are getting no support from the “establishment”.


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Curation – A New 21st Century Librarianship Skill?

Curation is the act of individuals with a passion for a content area to find, contextualize, and organize information. Curators provide a consistent update regarding what’s interesting, happening, and cool in their focus. Curators tend to have a unique and consistent point of view–providing a reliable context for the content that they discover and organize.

So writes Expert Blogger Steven Rosenbaum in his Fast Company post last Monday – Content Curators Are The New Superheros Of The Web. He goes on to write that;

Yesterday, 250 million photos were uploaded to Facebook, 864,000 hours of video were uploaded to YouTube, and 294 BILLION emails were sent. And that’s not counting all the check-ins, friend requests, Yelp reviews and Amazon posts, and pins on Pintrest.

The volume of information being created is growing faster than your software is able to sort it out. As a result, you’re often unable to determine the difference between a fake LinkedIn friend request, and a picture from your best friend in college of his new baby. Even with good metadata, it’s still all “data”- whether raw unfiltered, or tagged and sourced, it’s all treated like another input to your digital inbox.

Rosenbaum’s description of curation struck me as a 21st Century version of the librarian’s historic role as the “gate keeper” of information. In 21st Century Librarianship vs. The 1876 Special Report, I wrote;

Librarians for too long have taken the “gate keeper” / “guide, philosopher, and friend” role too literally. And, although there seems to be no source for the attribution to Melvil Dewey that; “The librarian must be the librarian militant before he can be the librarian triumphant.”, my personal opinion is that, if Dewey said that, he was operating from the same premise expressed in the 1876 Report, and that “library militant” referred to dictating what people should read, along with an abundant amount of SHUSHing! Neither of which are compatible with 21st Century librarianship.

Our former role as information gatekeeper was traditionally the exclusive skill of librarianship, but it is eroding away under the flood of Millennial library patrons armed with advancing technology (with which they are already more competent than most librarians) who are becoming their own gate keeper. Librarianship has always been about facilitating access to information.

While I recognize that information is becoming too vast for the average individual to digest adequately, and that librarians still tend to be the “go to” person for many people seeking information, there is significant danger in the librarian attempting to hold tight to the old “gate keeper” role when they should be acting as facilitators. The old Chinese proverb (at least the Chinese get credit for this axiom) that “If you give a man a fish he will eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish he will eat for a lifetime.” is monumentally applicable to librarians today. Teaching library customers information literacy is as much a new role of 21st Century librarianship as developing business acumen.

So, my words of caution to 21st Century librarians is that we should tread lightly around this new 21st Century Librarianship skill of curation, lest it be our undoing.


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Libraries Are Obsolete

Is the Motion of an Oxford-style debate at Harvard tomorrow. Harvard Libraries Strategic Conversations reports that…

On Wednesday, April 18, Harvard Library Strategic Conversations will sponsor an Oxford-style debate on the role of libraries. … Oxford Union debates are similar in format to the British House of Commons, and are known for combining a degree of wit and whimsy with serious argumentation.

In keeping with the Oxford Union format, the debate will revolve around a controversial and timely proposition:

MOTION: Libraries are Obsolete

Chairman: Professor Jonathan Zittrain, Professor at the Harvard Law School, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Professor Zittrain will become Harvard Law School’s Vice-Dean of Library and Information Resources in July 2012.

Speaking in favor of the proposition: Dr. James Tracy (Headmaster, Cushing Academy), and R. David Lankes (Professor and Dean’s Scholar for the New Librarianship, University of Syracuse iSchool and Director of the Information Institute of Syracuse).

Speaking in opposition: Susan Hildreth (Director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services), and Professor John G. Palfrey (Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources, and the Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law at Harvard Law School).

At the end of the debate, the audience will vote yea or nay on the motion, with the results announced over gin & tonics at a reception following the debate.

I emailed a co-organizer, Donna Viscuglia, to ask if the debate would be broadcast live in any form. Her reply was; “We are planning to record the entire event and will probably post a shorter, edited video on our website:

The outcome should be very interesting to say the least. But, my feeling is there is nothing in this topic that warrants wit or whimsy.

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Big-City Public Libraries vs. Statistics

I’m always skeptical of “data”, because I’ve seen enough data reporting to know it’s all about how one configures the parameters of the data collection that determine the outcome. It’s a commonly used quote from Samuel Clemens that “There’s liars, there’s damn liars, and then there’s statisticians”. (BTW: If you have 18 minutes to watch a fascinating TED Talk about reporting data, David McCandless has a great one.)

When ALA released its 2012 State of America’s Libraries Report last Monday, I was at first skeptical, then curious. ALA’s summary in american libraries pretty much confirmed that no one is certain just what the state of America’s libraries are 12 years into the 21st Century.

Some 5 percent more states reported decreased state funding for public libraries in 2011-2012 than in 2010–2011. Some 23 states reported cuts in state funding for public libraries, marking the third year in a row that more than 40 percent of participating states have reported decreased public library funding. (However, only nine states anticipate decreased funding for 2012-2013.)

For the second year, 42 percent of states report that local funding for public libraries probably declined for a majority of libraries in the state. However, only 12 states reported that they were aware of public library closures in their states in the past year, down from 17 the previous year. Only New Jersey and Michigan reported closures of more than five libraries. [Emphasis added.]

I would think everyone would celebrate that fact that only 5% more states reported decreased state funding last year, and only nine states think they might see further cuts in 2012. Apparently, 42% of states are unaware whether local funding is actually decreasing in their state. AND, it also sounds like good news that only two states reported closures of more than five libraries in their state. Are we celebrating yet?

What really struck me as important data from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative report that ALA used to cite some of the data in its report, and presumably draw some of its conclusions about the state we’re in, is that distilling data often leaves out the most important information. That and the fact that Pew reports it much better at their Our Work webpage – interactive charts – good stuff.

There appears to be an anomaly related to the data that Pew researchers compiled through their comparison of Philadelphia Free Library, the primary focus of their research, and 14 other big-city libraries. Specifically, the data doesn’t track in a “cause and effect” manner. If we look first at their Change in Library Visits and accompanying Visits Per Capita charts they present side by side – the library with the second greatest decline in visitations is Columbus with -14% and then look at their per capita visits, they are third highest with 8.3. AND – the library with the second highest increase in total visits was Baltimore with 25%, but they are the lowest per capita visits at 2.8.

Wouldn’t one expect that major increases or decreases in total library visits would have a direct relationship (as opposed to inverse) to major increases and decreases in visits per capita? Say a city with a population of 100,000 experiences a decrease in total visits by 25% – hypothetically they go from 40,000 visits to 30,000 visits – shouldn’t there be a corresponding decrease in visits per capita – hypothetically from 4 to 3. So what would explain a 25% increase in total visits and a very low per capita visit rate?

Trying to find a direct correlation, we can look at circulation – that’s always a good bell weather for changes – right?

Unfortunately, we see more anomalies between total circulation and circulation per capita. Columbus had the greatest decline in circulation over the reporting period –12%. Yet, they had the second highest circ per capita at 17.2. Seattle had the highest total circulation increase at 50%, so having the highest circ per capita seems appropriate. AND, Baltimore had the second lowest total circulation decrease at -9%, along with their lowest rank circ per capita of 2 seems totally compatible. So what’s up with Columbus’ large decrease in total circulation and high circulation per capita?

Maybe there is an answer in the revenue – the level of funding – or not. Los Angeles had an almost 0% change in their total circulation despite a 34% decrease in funding. Philadelphia had a 12% increase in total circ despite a 19% decrease in funding. Seattle’s 50% increase in circulation doesn’t really track with a nearly static funding level, but we know they experienced a significant bump from their new library facility.

OK, I know the answer to making sense of disparate data – public access computers. Everyone says that libraries are experiencing the greatest boom ever due to people needing Internet access because of the economy.

Seattle has the highest number (among those libraries studied) of public access computers at 17.1 per 10K citizens. That would certainly account for much of their increased total visits and visits per capita – along with the new building.

Columbus came in second with 13.1 computers per 10K citizens, but that doesn’t track with their 14% decrease in total visits. But, would that account for their high visits per capita? Yet, their funding has taken a distressing hit at -12%. So…………?

Phoenix had one of the lowest increases in total visits – about 2% – and next to the lowest visits per capita at 3. Their circulation increased by 13% and per capita circ was a respectable 9.6. Yet, Phoenix has only 3.5 computers per 10K citizens. WHAT? A city the size and diversity of Phoenix has only 3.5 computers for every 10,000 citizens? They’ve experienced only slight decrease in funding at 4%, so why would Phoenix have so few public access computers?

One never knows what conclusions data will lead to, or whether they will reveal anything at all. My conclusion is that none of these data comparisons has a clear “cause and effect” relationship. That leads me to the conclusion that like politics – all library use is local.

I’ve been saying for some time that libraries must determine the needs of their customers and their community and meet those needs in whatever manner is best for them, hopefully while applying 21st Century librarianship techniques. One could argue that these data support that theory, and my suggested new…

21st Century Library Paradigm:
The 21st Century Library will be defined by those librarians running the library to meet the needs of their local community, more than by the profession, or schools of library and information science, or by any association of librarians’ principles.


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Being ‘The Library’ Again – Revisited

In the original Being “The Library” Again post I wrote; “The problem becomes one of vision. The characteristics I stated above; vision, entrepreneurial spirit, and leadership are all essential to making the local library “The Library” again ….” I think when someone offers an opinion about how it should be, they should also offer suggestions about how to make it possible. Here are mine.

Start with yourself and a few key others.
Everything starts with yourself. If you have no vision, it is impossible to share it with anyone else, let alone influence your entire library, or a community. You have to create your vision. You have to believe it. You have to be passionate about it.

Share your vision with your key subordinates, partners, friends, and those who you believe will understand your vision. Since no one person can do anything by themselves, you have to create a core of individuals who can share the vision and help you proliferate it to others.

Work at activities that embody the vision until you have some small successes. Nothing motivates people like success. As the number of successes multiply, so will the sharing of the vision and the desire to keep making it bigger and more successful. Once you have a few key others sharing your vision, then you can move outward to encompass more people who are interested in sharing the vision.

Develop a shared vision.
Did you notice that in the paragraphs above I transitioned from “your” vision to “the” vision? That’s because the best vision is a shared vision. I stated that no one person can do it all, and that goes for a library’s vision. In reality it’s not “your” library – it’s everyone’s library – but you’re the person who, at this point in time, is responsible to make it “The Library” again.

Begin with personal visioning – BELIEVE IT – DO IT – SAY IT – until it becomes an organizational vision. Use that Vision Statement in your Strategic Plan to create a shared vision that can generate an organizational vision. Include the spirit of the vision in the library’s Mission Statement. Create strategic Objectives that manifest the vision and make it real.

If you involve all members of the organization in the shared vision, soon you will begin to see changes in attitudes, because people want something they can believe in. People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. People want to be a part of success. Being “The Library” again in your community – in whatever form it needs to be in 21st Century society – is the biggest success librarians can have.

Disseminate the vision.
Conduct special meetings that focus on commitment to the shared vision and ways to implement it. Talk about it in regular meetings, and in written communication. Place the Vision Statement at the bottom of your emails, like the slogans and mottos that people often use. Tell the success stories to each other and to your partners and community.

At some point in this evolution, you should be able to refine the vision statement so that it can be made into posters, fliers, a logo or slogan, and make the widest dissemination possible. The best possible world is to have your entire community share the library’s vision, then it becomes their vision too.

Design structured implementation of the vision.
I’m hesitant to suggest some type of accountability for sharing the vision within or beyond the library, because when something becomes accountable it tends to lose its quality to inspire. When we are forced to measure whether we’re being successful at whatever, it becomes a task and a responsibility as well as potentially burdensome. THAT is the last thing you want to happen to your library’s vision.

But, my point is that you – the leader – need to recognize who has bought into the vision, who has not, who is feeling too reserved to share the vision, and who is opposed to the vision. All of these situations need to be resolved so that the organization can move forward as a unified group.

One way to have the needed unity is to have some ground rules for sharing the vision with each other, and with your community. If a smile and a greeting are part of the way you share your library’s vision, make that a ground rule. Every employee smiles and greets every library customer. (OK, that might be overkill, but I’m trying to illustrate a point.) Structure helps people understand the “How To” of ideas and concepts. Getting from the vision to the expression of the vision needs some structure and guidance. Understand your organization’s culture and use it to manifest the vision and make it real.

Tell the truth.
About where your library is now, what you want the library to become, and how you’re going to get there. (Gee, that sounds a lot like a Strategic Plan. ) The shared vision is just the beginning of making it happen. Understanding the necessary steps to making it happen is essential. You can all stand around and chant a vision, but that doesn’t actually make it happen over the long term.

Be honest about what it will require to move from where your library is now to where you want it to be to become “The Library” again. Develop a plan that implements the vision as well as your library’s plan to accomplish the mission. When people are inspired by a vision, they can accomplish almost anything. Because…..

A vision elucidates an underlying purpose.
A vision captures the mind and spirit.
A vision appeals to a noble and lofty purpose.
A vision is aligned with personal values.
A vision has to be shared and then sustained.

What is your vision?

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Multidisciplinary – A New 21st Century Librarianship Skill

Among all of the skills that I’ve pointed out as a new 21st Century librarianship skill, this one seems to encompass many of them, but if considered only in a “DUH Ya!” sort of way, one misses the depth of what being a multidisciplinary librarian really means. It really is far from DUH Ya! It’s more like “Whoaaaaaaa!”

Most often people talk about the concept of interdisciplinary skills and learning about other subjects outside of one’s primary discipline. Normally, interdisciplinary refers to study that draws from two fields and combines their various aspects together and studies the interrelations, interactions and synergies.

To me, the concept of multidisciplinary librarianship means that the librarian takes elements from all applicable areas of study as they relate to librarianship, and combines them into a practice that takes advantage of those interrelations, interactions and synergies from all disciplines, not just two.

For example; a highly effective library director (or any librarian in any position), in addition to understanding the “science” of their profession, needs to understand and be able to practice leadership, management, organizational dynamics, politics, and all the other new skills;
• Business Acumen
• Cloud Computing
• Crowdsourcing
• Customer Targeting
• Digital Discovery
• Discontinuous Thinking
• Gaming
• Likenomics
• Open Innovation
• Planned Abandonment
• Social Networking
• Subject Matter Expert in Community

The best graphical analogy that I can think of to show this distinguishing characteristic of a 21st Century librarian is the Hindu God Ganesa, with the legendary memory of an elephant, multiple arms and ample tools. If you feel like this, then probably you are a multidisciplinary librarian.

Especially in the 21st Century, virtually no other profession requires the kind of multidisciplinary skills that librarianship requires. How long is your list of professional skills?


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