This week I’m considering the changing environment in which LIPs (that’s Library and Information Professionals, in case you were wondering) find themselves. LIPs is an appropriate acronym to use because lips are used to communicate, to share information, to offer a helping hand, to provide comfort and support. All of these things are skills that a good librarian should have. But are these competencies still relevant for the changing information environment in which we find ourselves?
That depends firstly on what you consider an information environment. The 21st century is a time of unprecedented change for humankind. Over the previous 2000 years, progress has taken place at a slow pace, taking months, years and decades to move from village to village, town to town and country to country. However, with the rise of instant communication technology – Bell’s telephone, Marconi’s wireless, the first solid state calculator, the computer and the internet – change has begun to happen at a speed which most people do not fully recognise. The graphic below by Angus Maddison, a former Emeritus professor at the University of Groeningen and cited in The Economist shows and example of this change based on economic output. Look at the figures for the 21st century and that’s at only a decade in!
This speed of development was remarked upon in the AL Live video “Library 2017: Tech at warp speed” featuring Jason Griffey, Marshall Breeding, Nina McHugh and Rebecca Kate Miller. They discussed for example the fact that items such as iPads and tablet computing didn’t exist 10 years ago. Yet now they are a commonplace first world technology. In fact, they are being rolled out to schools and colleges as a new teaching tool and yes, also in libraries.
Rebecca Kate Miller referenced Kranzberg’s law -” Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.” pointing out that technology is always going to have an impact. It’s a fascinating point. For example, the Pembroke library in Ballsbridge was recently renovated – the physical renovations such as the wheelchair ramp and electronic sliding doors facilitate easier library access for a range of users and there is now a very substantial DVD collection (I recommend borrowing Downton Abbey). In addition, the installation of self-service machines allows patrons to check-out their own books, DVDs and CDs. No more queues! On the other hand I noticed that, although the library staff are still present, they seemed to be primarily engaged in teaching users how to use the self-service machines. It makes me wonder if the next time the library is renovated, I’ll be getting my advice re a good book choice from a computer console rather than an actual staff member.
Policy and philosophy
When governments look to save money, cutting library services seems an obvious place to start. In the UK, library numbers have been reduced from 4612 to 4265 since 2010 (figures courtesy of The Guardian newspaper). After all, why pay an individual to run a physical library when people can access all the information they need online?
Terry Deary, the author of Horrible Histories, was cited recently as saying that” This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that” (source The Guardian). Unfortunately however, Terry Deary, has touched on a key point. The boom years seem to have led to the conclusion that everyone now has the money to pay for things, be they books, CDs or computers. The expectation that people should pay for books creates a two-tier society – those who can afford to pay, and those who cannot. That seems to me to be a recipe for social disaster. Terry Deary’s opinions are of course based on the delusion that libraries are just about the books.
The library isn’t just about literature. It is also about providing access to the technology that people don’t have at home – the audiobooks, the computers, the digital literacy courses to teach people how to use the computers in the first place. It’s about providing people with access to information about government programmes, adult literacy programmes, re-training courses and job vacancies. It seems incredibly short-sighted, in recessionary times, to remove what is for some people their only means of accessing information and services they may need to get them back into the workforce. After all, if you don’t have a job, you won’t be able to spend 5 euro for a coffee in Starbucks just so you can enjoy their free wi-fi. That is of course assuming that you have a laptop or mobile device which can access the internet. Which comes back to the idea that everyone has personal access to technology. They don’t. Pembroke library has a lovely poster inside the door on the notice board advertising the numerous services it offers. The books, Mr Deary, are only a minor fragment of it.
What then does this mean for LIPs working in this constantly changing information environment? Well, to start with we need to be politically involved. That means that you actively engage with your TD or Senator. You need to make sure that they understand that libraries are not just the place a person goes to pick up the latest James Patterson novel, nor is it an anachronism from a bygone era where ideals of social equality reigned.
We need to be good communicators who are “always on”, by which I mean that whenever we talk to anyone, be they friend, colleague, old schoolmate, local businessman or the Taoiseach, we need to be clear in our message that libraries are an instrumental force in improving our society. They are the place where parents can take children to group activities where both parents and children can mix with others and find social supports. They are the place where older people can go to have a chat, talk to someone about their day and find the companionship that may be lacking if they are living alone. They are the place that runs the literacy programmes so necessary when schools are too over-crowded to allow for one-to-one support.
We need to be marketeers. We need to be able to engage with our users via social media, as well as via the poster boards in the physical library. We need to embrace open-source software and get comfortable with using it, so that we can in turn share our knowledge with our customers. This may of course cause some consternation with IT departments, who have long held the keys to that particular kingdom. Vendors too may feel threatened where librarians begin to source alternative information sources via free open-source catalogues and e-journals. On the other hand having this knowledge, and being comfortable with these technologies, will allow librarians to become more effective negotiators.
We need to be service focused and start treating library users like valued customers. The reality is that the information environment in which we exist mean that people have a wider variety of information tools available to them than ever before – Amazon and The Book Depository are only the tip of the iceberg. And before you go online there are wonderful local bookstores like Hodges Figgis, Raven Books and Dubray books whose staff are well-trained both in customer service and in sales. These are our competitors in the book world, offering recommendations, user and staff reviews for best-selling books, and an ordering service that doesn’t involve waiting till the customer ahead of you has finished reading the book.
We need to be involved with our communities, building expertise in local history, acquiring collections that may be of local interest, providing exhibition space for local artists, or writers. We also need to provide the space where people can come and engage together. Building strong links with our local communities reinforces the importance of the library. So we need to be facilitators and organisers.
Changing the physical space
Lastly (for today anyway) we need to build library spaces that are appropriate for the communities we are in. Worpole’s* report on 21st century libraries showcases some wonderful library developments and notes that the development of newer and more modern libraries must be appropriate to where they are situated. They include suggestions such as putting steps outside so that library users can sit outside in the sun and read and chat, the inclusion of green spaces and open chat areas. However my favourite new design does not appear in Worpole’s report but comes from the redesigned Cedar Rapids Public Library which includes an information centre, a technology hub, a 200 seat auditorium, a technology classroom and an early learning centre which will run a variety of community programmes. It is also certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Program as being 30% more energy efficient than the old building and has a collection system on the top of the building to retain up to 90% of the rainwater which falls on the building. Librarians are not only leading the way in community service, now we’re doing it for the environment too!
*Worpole, K. (2004). 21st Century Libraries: Changing Forms, Changing Futures, a report commissioned by Building Futures, a joint initiative between Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and Royal Institute of British Architects.