It's Good [for Libraries for Him] to Be the King: CPL Scholars, Part 1

By Teresa Koltzenburg | Abram, Stephen The other day, while walking out at the end of a break-out session of the Chicago Public Library’s Scholars in Residence Conference at the Harold Washington Library Center, I mentioned to my colleague, Laura Pelehach (acquisitions editor from ALA Editions), that I wanted to meet him (finally, after seeing him speak on a few occasions) face to face at the reception at the end of day. A conference attendee, walking out just behind us, chimed in, “When you do, ask him if he will be the king of the world."

Turns out I didn’t have to (ask him to be king, that is); before the reception, at the wrap-panel session of the CPL SIR (Chicago Public Library Scholars in Residence) conference on Wednesday, the same attendee suggested the royal bid to him from her auditorium seat in the audience.

If you’ve ever seen Stephen Abram speak and you like libraries (maybe even if you don’t) you’re likely to be fan. He has a profession-deprecating shtick—that helps librarians loosen up, laugh at themselves—and it seems to actually break through; Abram helps diminish the techno-phobia and/or the ‘I’m-tired-of-technology’ attitude that could influence whether or not the library institution remains viable in our increasingly information-oriented society. (If a member of your target audience shouts out that you should be king, I think, it’s possible, you could be making an impact.)

Abram—a librarian, VP of Innovation at SirsiDynix, Canandian Special Librarian of the Year, prolific author and presenter, and all-around library-technology funnyman—can be silly, and he pokes fun. But he also asks the hard questions and takes an unapologetic stance when it comes to libraries and the profession’s general approach to the technology sea inundating everyday 21st-century life. He says this technology is changing the way libraries need to serve their patrons, old and young alike.

“Now we’ve got the Millennials, who are scary as hell. You see them at your reference desk all the time," says Abram. “They are fascinating. They have some real challenges, though, in that they are being brought up in an education system that, across North America, mostly around the world, has been upended into a thinking-skills educational curriculum. Because teaching kids facts is sort of useless—any fact, you know, has an 80% deterioration rate over 8 years."

CPL Panel part 1

Your Kind of Town
Along with two other tireless library promoters and technology gurus, Jenny Levine and Michael Stephens, Abram appeared in ALA headquarter-town Chicago this week as part of the CPL annual Scholars in Residence program, which, according to the CPL site, provides the system’s librarians with the opportunity to reflect on the work, the changing world of librarianship, and to exchange ideas and information.

The scholars spent the early part of the week learning about the inner workings of the Chicago Public Library, and on Wednesday, treated library staff and other lucky library-related professionals to a day-long conference dedicated to “Libraries Fit for the Future."

Abram started off the day with his presentation titled, “Competing with Google: Library Strategies" (available at the CPL SIR site). But before we could see him, we could hear him—he began talking to the two-thirds-full auditorium from behind the curtain.

“Now you know how your readers feel on your Web site." He emerges from behind the curtain and goes on: “They can’t see you, you can’t help them, they can’t see your eyes. That’s one thing you have to remember—that the Web site is not the librarian, or the user who is using it."

Following an uncomfortable, strained audience chuckle, Abram dives in.

First, there’s his animation of a patron pounding his head against a computer keyboard until his head is squirting animated blood. “That’s what our users feel like when they’re using our computers," he quips. (More audible, congenial laughter after this remark.)

Then comes the cartoon of two suits walking side by side, one obviously carrying some papers, and the other saying, “MMM... Documents!"

“This is us," he explains. “We need to get over some stuff. ‘Mmm, documents. Mmm, books.’ We feel we need to protect the book—because the book is threatened—which, of course, it isn’t. And we tell this to ourselves constantly, and we let it drive all of our behaviors. And then we position ourselves as people of the 18th of the century, instead of the fully diversified range of people that indeed we are now."

Another slide in Abram’s presentation shows a snippet of Paul Gandel’s “E-Content" article, “Libraries: Standing at the Wrong Platform, Waiting for the Wrong Train?" Recently published in Educause Review, Abram says the short article (as did Karen Schneider a few weeks back) is a must-read for librarians of all type.

In his article, Gandel points to another scary prospect: “It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which colleges and universities will shift their resources to pay for a national information service customized to the needs of the individual institution rather than support their own local library reference service."

A national information service? Hmmm... With its relentless product-introduction cycles (every two weeks, says Abram, since the company’s IPO), Google comes to mind.

But Is It a Threat?
According to Abram, the "big" question, the one that matters, is: How do we help libraries compete with Google? How do we position librarians and library workers for this century?

“Well," says Abram, “we need to enter a 12-step program. The first thing is that we need to acknowledge there’s a problem. And there is a problem. Who is the biggest threat to libraries right now?"

The attendees murmur, speaketh it out loud: “Google?"

Nodding, Abram then asks, “And who is Google’s customer?"

More murmuring, and then almost inaudibly—a reply that illustrates the technological confusion that’s part of our hyper-connected world—“We are... ?"

Lightly chastising us, Abram queries, “Do you pay them anything? Do you design your library Web site to meet the needs of advertisers? Do you design your algorithm on the first three pages of hits—to meets the needs of those advertisers on those first three pages of hits? Do you let your users believe that [their information searches come back with] non-biased, non-manipulated result[s]?

No, no, no, and no. Clearly, librarians are not Google’s customers in Abram’s view (and neither, really, are unbiased-information seeking users). But the reality is, says Abram, that Google is only six-years old, that the company will keep introducing change (“everything is in beta"), and the localized information that it can provide (via Google Local), indeed, is positioned to give (and is positioned to continue giving) libraries a run for their money.

Asks Abram: “What do we do when this tsunami of information experience is coming at us, and how do we build the public library of the future in this environment? How do we cooperate, complement, and compete with this kind of world?"

So below are Abram’s suggestions for “dealing with" Google.

CPL Abram break out

Top Ten Strategies for Making It in a Google World by Stephen Abram

1. Know Your Market

“We don’t know our market well enough," he states. “When 80% of your use comes in through your Web site, what does it mean? Does it mean that the same people at the reference desk are wandering through your library? And what do you know about them? What assumptions do you make?"


2. Know Your Customers Better than Google
Abram points to a tool that's helping libraries know their customers: the Normative Data Project for Libraries, a project with the goal “to compile transaction-level data from libraries throughout North America; to link library data with geographic, demographic, and other key types of data; and, thereby, to empower library decision-makers to compare and contrast their institutions with real-world industry norms on circulation, collections, finances, and other parameters."

The SirsiDynix Personas Project, a public library pilot project, will help librarians know their customers, too, he adds. Abram defines personas as “hypothetical representations of a natural grouping of users that drive decision-making for (development) projects."

3. Be Where Your Customers Are
Abram: “How much of your usage is in person? Are you letting that drive all of your behavior? Are you using instant messaging (IM)? Actually, 90% of people between 15 and 25 have two instant messenger addresses—only 5% of people over 30 use IM. It’s the biggest technological vibe we’ve got going in society now. Do you listen to Aaron, know about him giving his IM address to kids that came into his library, and by doing that he doubled the [Thomas Ford Memorial Library’s] reference statistics in the space of a few months? Half of all that library’s reference questions are now coming from IM. And they are all from the people we want—the kids, who you need to engage, the ones who will vote on the bond issues when they get into their 20s."

4. Search for the Target
“A lot of us are implementing federated search, as if we can implement something that looks like Google but is on top of good stuff," he reports. "Our problem isn’t helping people to search, our problem is helping people to find—to know where to search in the first place. If you’re doing a health project for school, then the databases you would use as a high school kid or a grade-six kid are different than the databases you would use as an adult or a college student. We need to start targeting that federated search, to differentiate ourselves, so that we have health databases for kids, historical databases, etc. We also can do the OPAC trick," (which, explains Abram, is including the OPAC in every single federated search; the “trick" generally delivers 600 to 800 percent use of your OPAC, and it increases the circulation of your books, he notes).

5. Support Your Culture

Says Abram, “Streaming media, voice search—these are things representative of our culture. A movie does not have to be from the 1920s, in black-and-white reels, to be a cultural object. Our culture is about the objects of entertainment—plays and music—happening now. That’s a huge role that libraries play, keeping our cultural context going, and it’s important. We denigrate it so much, saying, ‘Oh, that’s just entertainment; they are listening to music.’ If it's classical music from the 18th century, only then it’s culture? Bull! It’s culture now. Whether it’s rap or not, it’s representative of the development of our culture doing stuff."

6. Position Libraries Where We Excel

Google answers the simple questions (who? what? where? when?) really well, Abram notes. This means librarians need to position themselves and the library to help with finding the answers to: how? and why?

7. Be Wireless
A no-brainer. (A handy primer: Marshall Breeding's issue of Library Technology Reports, "Wireless Networks in Libraries.")

8. Get Visual
Implement visual representations of results, Abram asserts. “In terms of planning activities, you have to understand who you’re working with and how they are viewing. They use pages differently. We use all these page metaphors to build our Web sites, and the A-Frame that we use for newspapers, doesn’t work on Web sites; it’s an F-Frame." (See Datamation’s March 8, 2005, article by Brian Livingston: “How Eyetools Finds Flaws in Your Pages.")

9. Integrate

Abram says build community context first. “It’s not about the library! It is about five very specific user communities: learning, research, culture/entertainment; neighborhood, and workplace."

10. Take a Risk, for Pete’s Sake!
As any visionary, benevolent monarch would tell you, “You have to risk big to get big," and though “big" may not be the ultimate goal, libraries, says Abram, need to stop being afraid to succeed—to take risks—in order to ensure that the institution is positioned for the trek into the future.

As Gandel iterates in his "E-Content" in Educause Review essay, “Librarians could someday find themselves in the same situation as daily train commuters. Just because the train schedule remains the same for 30 years, doesn’t mean that hapless commuters might not one day find themselves standing on the wrong platform, waiting for the wrong train, unaware that there was a schedule shift in their world order."

All Hail the King!

Parts 2 and 3, covering Jenny Levine’s and Michael Stephens’s messages at the CPL SIR program, will be posted next week. Meanwhile, check out Tame the Web blog for Michael’s list of "Abram-isms."