Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Libraries Wanted: Dead or Alive? Notes from ALA

In an ALA session Sunday called “Libraries: Wanted Dead or Alive?”, the director of the world’s most modern library – Eppo van Nispen tot Sevenaer of the DOK Library Concept Center in Delft, Netherlands - gave librarians the inspiration and motivation to make changes in order to ensure the survival of the library through the 21st-century and beyond.

Eppo pointed out in a variety of ways, including “man on the street” videos he’d recorded since arriving in the DC area, that libraries are increasingly irrelevant to many people’s lives and that it is our job to preserve the role of the library in communities.

First Eppo asked a number of people (from different age groups and ethnic backgrounds) whom he encountered- whether or not they wanted to become a librarian. No one said “yes”. Instead, we watched them as they said things like:

“I love books, but I don’t like the library.”

“How do I put this… I don’t mean to be harsh, but being a librarian today is like being a caveman.”

He noted that librarians have traditionally been more interested in collections of books than in connections to people. He pointed out the absurdity of a no food or drink around the books in the library rule when the same libraries send the books home with people for 2-3 weeks at a time. Who’s to say there’s no food and drink around them when they’re loaned out – do librarians show up at the patrons’ homes to audit their use? But for all that librarians have focused their efforts on the collection of books and protecting those collections, books don’t protest when libraries close. Only library users can advocate for the library. It’s the strength of the connection between the library and its user community that prevents a loss of funding.

Eppo also pointed out some of the uncomfortable realities of our field and the implications of those realities. For example, librarians generally haven’t been involved in pop culture or creating technological innovation. Without having seen what 90% of our users have seen, he points out in his references to Avatar (which, for the record, I have not seen either… the stereotype fit), how can we participate in conversations with them? How can we understand the forces shaping them (e.g., expectations of graphical stimulation)? He also said that future learners will be visual and tactile, but much less text-based. Still, most librarians learn by reading. They don’t understand/don’t respect the visual and tactile world as well as the population they are serving does.

What does that mean to us on the ground in library land? Well, our websites and catalogs don’t even meet users’ core expectations – they don't establish visual credibility.

Another theme Eppo touched on was that of the rules that libraries traditionally have set for patrons & the seriousness with which librarians approach life. These two aspects of traditional library culture have created spaces where people feel unwelcome, constrained, and unhappy. But people don’t want to have that type of experience. They want to laugh, play, feel creative and empowered. So what are we, as librarians, doing to meet those needs?

Then he reminded us that we COULD make the changes that need to be made; that libraries are counting on us; that we will be challenged, that some of our efforts will fail or will fail at first. All we need, he told us, is more courage to do what must be done – to make deep changes in the culture of library that will allow us to connect with our library’s users. That connection is the only way libraries will continue to exist in the post-Google world.

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