On the Information Experience: An ALA TechSource Conversation with John Blyberg

By Michael Stephens |

John BlybergI find myself returning to John Blyberg’s post “Library 2.0 Debased” of a few months back. Last semester was busy: classes to prep, teaching in St. Paul as part of Dominican’s partnership with the College of St. Katharine, and speaking engagements here and there. I dashed off a quick TTW post, pointing to John’s words, and stating:

I applaud John for articulating so many of the thoughts I’ve been mulling over of late: has L2 been co-opted by vendors?  Is talking about “cool technologies” used in the library a solution to all of our problems - the be all end all? Or is it more of a cultural and ecological shift in philosophy, planning and engagement? 

John said some pretty amazing, and frank things: Second Life does sometimes seem weird, empty and a little scary. Throwing a wiki (or a blog or a meebo box or whatever the flavor of the day may be) at your users and congratulating yourself on how “2.0” you are is well and good, but I’ve come to realize of late that if a change in library services, technology-based or otherwise, isn’t well grounded in our core values and mission, it just looks funny. I am all for libraries being technology leaders and for offering access to emerging technologies and delivery methods, I am also eager to see what the true library innovators will do next. What’s next for the outstanding libraries many of us follow across the US and around the world? What models will Darien Library create for staffing, workflow and (gasp) reference as they gear up for their new building? (Disclaimer: John works there, the folks at Darien Library know exactly what they are doing!)

What I really appreciated in John’s “debased” post was this:

So we need to understand that, while it’s alright to tip the balance and fail occasionally, we’re more likely to do so if we’re arbitrarily introducing technology that isn’t properly integrated into our overarching information framework. Of course, that means we have to have a working framework to begin with that compliments and adheres to our tradition of solid, proven librarianship. In other words, when we use technology, it should be transparent, intuitive, and a natural extension of the patron experience. If it can’t be transparent, then it should be so overwhelmingly beneficial to the user that it is canonized not by the techies, but the users themselves.

That’s the key: the foundations of librarianship meets emerging technologies. “Oh, Dewey would just die,” some folks might have said about what Marshall Shore and the great folks at Maricopa county library did with their BISAC experiment. Would he really? Or would Mr. Dewey acknowledge that users have changed and his system should probably change as well. Also, the users should be creating the new library landscape. Last month, in chatting with Cliff Landis, we agreed that library Facebook pages "fanned" by 30 or 40 librarians is not a good way to gauge success. The users, as John so eloquently points out, should be the ones guiding the popularity of a particular tool, service or extension of library service.

It's been a long time since I chatted with John Blyberg here at TechSource, so I thought I’d give John a good 'ol friendly virtual shout out and see if he’d want to talk about this further:

JB: Thanks for the shout-out Michael.  You said an interesting thing:  “I’ve come to realize of late that if a change in library services, technology-based or otherwise, isn’t well grounded in our core values and mission, it just looks funny.”  I posed a question to some of our peers on Twitter a few weeks back to the effect of, “how do we measure success in the library?”  Certainly, traditional metrics give us a frank indication of use, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the fulfillment of our mission. If it did, really successful libraries would be little more than fee-less hybrids of Blockbuster and Borders. 

Most of us agree that we’re charged with a deeper significance that goes beyond the distribution of popular materials and the provision of internet access. That’s because we exist within the context of the communities we serve.  The difference now, as opposed to even five years ago, is that we also operate within a global context that empowers us to quickly recall data and assemble it into our own personal nebulae. In other words, information use has become an expression of self--that’s not something libraries ever accounted for.  When I talk about this, I refer to it as the “information experience” because, for the growing number of us who participate in the hive, we build our own network of information and interaction that accompanies us through our lives.  We literally construct highly-personalized information frameworks and place a huge amount of personal reliance upon them.  Ten years ago, this wasn’t the case.

Libraries are ill-equipped to respond to this--we weren’t built for it.  Most librarians are not technologists; we’re saddled with integrated library systems that force us to into outmoded business processes; long-tailers like Netflix and Amazon underscore our inability to develop effective distribution channels; and DRM has effectively shut us out of an emerging and potentially huge media market. 

Library 2.0 is our attempt to redress librarianship for this new ecosystem by doing real work.  We can debate the semantic merits of the term all we want, but it won’t change the inevitability of things like the Open Source ILS, the emergence of collaborative reference platforms, or the fact that people like Marshall Shore have the courage to buck the establishment in favor of finding a better way to serve users.  You don’t take that kind of risk if you’re feeling ambivalent toward libraries.  It takes a deep-seeded passion and love for the industry to put your career on the line like that.

I’m interested to know what library students are feeling about these changes.  Typically, schools run a few years behind trends like this, but you’re out there on the bleeding edge.  What kind of response are you getting from your students?  Are they concerned, excited, apprehensive about what they’ll find, post-graduation?  Are library students passionate?

MS: John, many are passionate - passionate about making a difference in their chosen career, passionate about embracing the next thing to see how it stacks up as a service enhancer or extension of the library, and of course passionate about libraries in general. The folks drawn to the field each bring a unique perspective of the how and the why they found their way to librarianship. Some are there because they love technology, others are there because they love the printed word. I think most are excited to get through the program and get their first professional position or promotion.

I’m lucky that I get a class each semester of brand new students for the Intro course. We can discuss these changes in the profession and I take every chance I get to say “Look, the social OPAC is just an extension of what we’ve been doing a long time but in a new way and in ways that our users have come to expect.”

One interesting thing is the fact that our classes at Dominican are made up of folks returning to school after a few years or more in the workforce and those coming right from their undergrad degrees. So we get all levels of experience in the same room for discussion and maybe even some debate. This is good because these people will graduate and find themselves in a similar work situation. I have one student in a class this semester who spent a few years working in corporate IT - she’s shared some wonderful insights and stories.

The most interesting thing is when someone in my intro class or even later on in the tech classes I teach realizes -- and maybe even says it aloud or blogs it -- that where the profession is going is not what he or she ever imagined. When I went through the IU program back in the early 90s, I felt the same way as the Internet was appearing in our library and things started moving so quickly.

My thought then, to return to your first point, is how do we measure the success of our teaching in LIS? Sure, I grade papers and correct grammar and note how students have improved their critical thinking, but isn’t it more important to set the stage for these folks to be curious explorers, not timid about dealing with change, and absolutely ready to integrate themselves into the “information experience” of the users they will serve? And in fact, help create that experience in some ways, enhance it and encourage it. The skill set required for creating an info experience seems much different than those two semesters of cataloging some schools mandate. For me, library services in the 21st Century will focus on designing environments for engagement and exploration, for satisfying needs, wants and those "I didn't know I needed that" discoveries while carefully planning for and using technology.

JB: That’s exactly right, I think.  The mechanics of making a library run can be understood by just about anyone who is interested enough to learn.  The art of making a library successful is a different quality altogether.  What you’re doing is teaching your students how to learn, and one of the ways you’re doing that is by giving them the knowledge needed to navigate the Internet and a fundamental understanding of the relationship between all the various technological components that drift onto and off of our palate.  And honestly, when we look at what is at our disposal, it becomes apparent that all the pieces are just raw materials waiting to be assembled into whatever form we can imagine.

Here at the Darien Library, we’re big fans of Danny Meyer, the successful restauranteur and author of Setting the Table.  One of the many great take-aways from his book is his notion of the 51% employee.  He writes that every position he hires can be split 49% by 51%.  The 49% represents the skills necessary to do the job--etiquette, procedure, etc.  The conspicuous 51% is hospitality and an intrinsic desire to serve other people and make them feel good about themselves.  The 51%ers take pride in the fact that they help provide a fulfilling experience to someone. I think it takes a 51%er to step out beyond the boundary of what is comfortable and imagine a different type of library that engages patrons collaboratively. 

It’s true that we are the voice of authoritative knowledge, but we can package that in ways that are not so paternalistic and present ourselves as partners in discovery.  None of this requires technology, but technology has become the nexus of collaboration.  It certainly enables us to retrieve, compile, and share information much more efficiently and rapidly.  I think librarians are struggling to understand how it all fits together and many are just looking for the handbook that tells them how to do it.  Nothing like that exists, of course and our success, ultimately, comes down to what our philosophy on the dissemination of knowledge is in this digital era.