Q&A with Meredith Farkas
by Michael Yunkin
Despite her short tenure as a professional librarian, Meredith Farkas has already carved a niche in the librarian community. Her blog, " Information Wants to be Free," is commonly found on must-read lists of librarian bloggers, and her " ALA Chicago 2005" wiki was the talk of the 2005 conference--I carried around a PDF of it on my laptop for three days, and referred to it constantly. More recently, Meredith is the creator of the " Library Success: A Best Practices Wiki," a collaborative website devoted to all aspects of librarianship, and is the new Distance Learning Librarian at Norwich University in Vermont.
Meredith was kind enough to take a few minutes out of her very hectic schedule to answer some questions for Footnotes.
Q Why did you choose librarianship?
Prior to going to library school, I was a child and family therapist. I loved working with my clients, low-income families in crisis, but funding limitations often prevented us from being effective. It was stressful to want to help people and be severely limited in the sort of help I could offer. I was looking for the sort of career where I could feel effective and help people. I've always loved libraries and I've always been the sort of person who sees research as fun detective work. Librarianship seemed like a very natural fit, coming from another helping profession. I like that the help I can offer people as a librarian is so concrete and I can often see the direct effects of my work.
Q What's your bachelor's in?
I got my bachelor's in History from Wesleyan University. I also have an MSW from Florida State University.
Q Where did you go to library school?
I attended Florida State University's distance learning program.
Q Did you have a particular focus?
In grad school, I always felt torn between my interest in technology and my interest in public service. I'd say my classes were evenly split between the two. I knew I wanted to do reference and instruction work, but I also knew that I wanted to be involved in implementing new technologies. Luckily I found a job where I can do both!
Q Where are you working now and what are your responsibilities?
I am the Distance Learning Librarian at Norwich University. In this position, I help distance learners access library resources, work with the different departments involved in distance learning, provide reference assistance and information literacy instruction (both online and in-person), develop online instructional materials, and am in charge of the library's website redesign. It's a great job, because I'm allowed, even encouraged, to experiment with new technologies in my daily work.
Q What do you do with your free time? What do you read/watch?
Well, at the moment, I have no free time because I'm writing a book on technology in libraries. But when I do have time, I love to explore Vermont with my husband, take photographs, play Scrabble, and read. I love to read biographies, memoirs, and some of the great 20th century American authors like Kent Haruf, Andre Dubus, Richard Yates, Sherwood Anderson, Truman Capote, William Faulkner and Carson McCullers. I'm completely obsessed with the television show "Lost" right now -- I love how it always keeps me guessing.
Q How has NMRT helped you? Do you serve on any NMRT committees?
The summer before I graduated from Library School, I went to my first ALA Annual Conference, which was a hugely overwhelming experience. I took advantage of the NMRT activities, especially the ones relating to networking and finding a job. I also utilized the resume review service, which helped me to create a much better resume than I came in with. NMRT is a terrific way to get involved in the ALA, because everyone is so welcoming and it's not at all overwhelming as some of the other sections can be for a new librarian.
Q What other ALA committees are you involved with? What's your level of involvement?
At the moment, I'm really trying to get more involved in my local organization, the Vermont Library Association, so I'm not doing as much with ALA. In a state the size of Vermont, I really feel like the state library association could get a lot of things done and make a difference for Vermont libraries.
Q How did you get interested in technology?
There were two major influences that I credit for giving me my passion for technology: my husband and blogging. My husband has been a genius with computers since the 1980s and he taught me so much about network administration, open source software and Web applications. His passion for technology is really infectious. My involvement in the blogosphere (both reading blogs and writing my own) got me interested in social software and helped me to see how some of these technologies can be applied in libraries. But it's my husband who has always encouraged me to try new things, including blogging.
Q What's your technological background?
Three years ago, I hadn't even created a basic Web page, if that gives you any idea how far I've come. Before beginning library school, I decided that I needed to know more about web design, so I got some books and started learning. What I discovered, to my great surprise, was that I love creating Web sites and I really enjoy trying new techie things. I took some Web, Networking, and Database Administration courses in graduate school, but most of what I learned was from just trying things and reading books. Blogging helps, because it forces me to keep up with what's going on in libraries regarding technology.
Q What prompted the creation of the Chicago wiki?
When I attended my first ALA Conference in Orlando in 2004, I was completely overwhelmed. I hardly knew anyone and I didn't know how long it would take to get from hotel to hotel for the various programs I'd wanted to go to. It would have been great to get some advice about the conference and about Orlando. Since I was living in Chicago in 2005, I had planned on creating some sort of a guide to Chicago to put up on my Web site for conference-goers. Then I started thinking that there were probably lots of people who know more about Chicago and about the ALA Conference than I do. A wiki seemed like the perfect tool to collect our knowledge to benefit others.
Q What was the response like?
Amazing. I was shocked when I looked at my site statistics and saw how many people were coming to the wiki! Not only that, but they were adding useful information to it every day. And what was so terrific was that other people took the wiki so much further than I'd originally envisioned. From creating a list of conference bloggers, to creating a wifi guide, to the calendar of events, and the conference reports. That's what's so great about a wiki: it's not limited to the imagination of any one person. It definitely was a lot of work to put together and maintain, but it was worth the effort.
Q Will there be a San Antonio or New Orleans one?
I sure hope so! I hope that other people will start creating wikis for conferences. I used the ALA Chicago Wiki to show the ALA and librarians what we could do together with a wiki. I really hope the ALA will consider creating something similar for future conferences.
Q What other new technologies should libraries be exploring?
I think there is a lot of exciting social software out there that can help librarians to better communicate, educate and build community with their patrons online including blogs, wikis, podcasting and social bookmarking. The number of libraries using Instant Messaging is growing by leaps and bounds, which really reflects a user-centered view of technology implementation. Considering what a large population of people in the United States uses IM, it's a natural fit (and certainly a cost-effective one) for libraries. Creating screencasts -- online Flash tutorials -- is an excellent way of educating patrons online. A screencast essentially films what's on your desktop so that you can demonstrate how to use databases or other online tools. You can add audio narration and captioning in order to appeal to patrons' diverse learning styles.
Q Your blog is called "Information Wants to be Free." Do you consider yourself an activist for the open source/open access movement?
The name of the blog came from my first blog, Code Wants to be Free, which was all about open source software. Initially, I thought I would be primarily writing about intellectual freedom, Creative Commons, open source software, and open access publishing, but at the time, I was looking for a job, so my mind was on other subjects. While I am a still huge advocate of all those things, and still write about them from time to time, my blog seems to have gone in a different direction organically.
Q Are libraries doing enough to adopt new technologies?
Some are and some aren't. It's difficult to judge the profession as a whole when some libraries and some librarians are doing amazingly innovative things with technology. I do see a gulf growing between libraries who are change agents and libraries that are averse to change. And I worry about what will become of those libraries that begin to fall far behind — behind other libraries and behind their patrons.
Q What are we doing right?
The two best qualities to have are a user-centered orientation and curiosity. If you are interested in learning new things about how to better serve your patrons, you really can't go wrong.
Q What aren't we doing that we should be?
I think some librarians still see technology applications in libraries as a fad and don't really want to explore them. Some people are just averse to change or are so busy at their job that they don't have time to evaluate how well they are serving their patrons. Many libraries are still providing services the same way they did 15 years ago, and that is troubling. The patrons of 1990 are not the patrons of today, and a library that hasn't changed to meet the needs of their present population is probably going to alienate a large chunk of that population. This includes not only technology adoption but meeting the needs of a more diverse population by having a collection and programming that reflect the current makeup of the community.
Q What's the next big thing? Where are we heading?
I genuinely hope that we are heading towards a truly "integrated" library system. We put up way too many roadblocks between our users and our collections in terms of our electronic middleware. If I were a student today using the typical library's catalog and databases, I would be completely confused and would probably end up using Google as well. I'm encouraged that ILS vendors seem to be looking at Web Services as a solution for creating better interoperability and a seamless user experience.
Q What's your overall goal in librarianship? In life?
As a librarian, I really feel good when I know I'm doing something that will help people. I like being useful and effective. And I guess that idea informs every aspect of my professional work and my life. I don't really know where I will be in my career in 10 or 20 years, but I know that I want to be doing things that move the profession forward and at my own institution, I want to be constantly improving services to our patrons.