On the L2 Train

By Michael Stephens | A lot of folks are winding up 2005 with a look back in various articles or blog posts. Some are looking toward 2006. One post that John Blyberg pointed me to is Dion Hinchcliffe's "Where Are We with Web 2.0?"

Hinchcliffe writes:
    A lot of smart, passionate folks have weighed in and the consensus, at least in my mind, clearly points to Web 2.0's promise and value. I myself come in on the side that as a complex and subtle set of ideas, Web 2.0 continues to be extensively misunderstood yet a vital touchstone for the future of the Web. Like McKendrick says above, saying Web 2.0 doesn't exist is like saying Ajax and Wikipedia don't exist. Personally, I think clear and repeated explanation and education will be the only way to get past these discussions and back to the business of evolving the Web.
John Blyberg, Developer and Blogger I thought it might be a good idea to ask John Blyberg about 2005 and see if we could discern what 2006 will hold. We convened virtually and chatted a bit.

MS: John, you've written a lot about L2 recently and the ILS Customer's Bill of Rights. I hope you continue exploring those ideas in 2006. What do you think the next steps are for librarians wanting to transition to a more user-centered, technology-savvy environment?

JB: Michael, I doubt there is a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. Having said that, though, L2-like thinking ought to be at the heart of any library's strategic planning initiative. If you want to transplant these discussions into your organization, you can pull them out of the blogosphere and bring them up in your departmental meetings. You need to get people in your organizations thinking about user-centricity in ways that they may not be immediately comfortable with. It's hard to reconcile a weighty tradition that tells us we are the authoritative conduit between patron and information. Be tenacious, write proposals. Go online for support and inspiration.

Being tech savvy is only part of the L2 mural. As discussion of L2 continues, we're really getting a handle on how nuanced it actually is. For instance, I think it's becoming clear that technology is only a component of L2 (an important one, albeit). So lately the discussion has spun into areas that describe the non-technical aspects of L2.

Michael Stephens, Library 2.0 AdvocateMS: Yes. I think buildings and services are important components as well. I also believe so much of L2 relies on the librarians themselves, those that make the library human. When I wrote here that one of the principles I would contribute to the discussion, I wrote that “the library is human." That language simply fell in line with Chad and Miller and their principles [pdf]. The implication, however, was that librarians and library staff members are the heart of the library in my book. It's about people, not about machines, gadgets, and the latest, greatest techie thing. I love that Hennepin County puts the librarian's pictures on their guides (scroll down to number 8 in the linked post). I love seeing that face of the library.

I think the human factor will only increase as we become guides for future library users and content creators. The idea of “Third Place" as well will be very important. Ian McKinney from Allen County Public Library mentioned that in a comment at TTW: “I think it might be worth bringing the concept of the 'third place' into this discussion. Can a library be a third place? Is it 2.0-ish to be a third place? Here's a link to a definition (with example citations): http://www.wordspy.com/words/thirdplace.asp."

Last week, the assistant director of my library and I bumped into each other in the new book area, and she said, “I read Cites & Insights…" And then we discussed how, in three to four short months, the discussions of L2 came on like a freight train. She recalled times that many new ideas in libraries came on the same way: “Remember the OPAC?" What information should library administrators take away from where we are right now?

JB: I see the onset of the “2.0 era" as very different from the adoption of the OPAC. The OPAC was not a response to crisis in the way L2 is. Libraries no longer have the same penetration in our communities they used to. We simply cannot compete in the content market; it's clear that we need to change our business model.

Much of the L2 discussion is a very fluid right now, so it'd be difficult and probably somewhat reckless to plan a rigid organizational “library 2.0" transition. First of all, it's very unclear what you would be transitioning to. I think the better way to approach it is to pay attention to the discussion with a mind that is evaluating your own environment, scanning for areas that can be morphed into the L2 fold. If it works for you, build on it. Remember, L2's purpose is to make sure libraries remain relevant institutions. When urged by necessity, these things tend to progress like brush fires, jumping from one area to the next—ideas dropping in like hot embers.

MS: Great analogy. I like the idea of taking it to the planning level. I worry that many folks don't see the danger of the library losing what relevancy it has. When digital content is streaming into the users' converged devices of future, and the Web's next incarnation is “it's everywhere we need it to be," will the current model of the library have much of a place?

I worry that some librarians are still planning for their services without looking at user needs, data, or the big picture. I called a local library that had just given a ton of money to a digital-content vendor, and asked if I could use my iPod with its service. The librarian I spoke with stumbled a bit, and said they had been told by the vendor that the iPod's popularity was waning. Ouch.

I hope Librarians are keeping track of the discussions playing out about such things as Digital Rights Management and the like. It's not just the realm of techies anymore.

One thing that's struck me in your writing is your viewpoint as an IT staffer, a coder. There's been a bit of discussion about some tension between librarians and library IT departments in some areas. In my experience, I've encountered the gamut—librarians feeling they are held captive by their IT folk, or IT folk that are powerless to make changes because the librarians can't decide what they want, OR neither group is even really talking to each other. I am also aware of some excellent groups that do make it work through communication and collaboration. What would you say to someone struggling on either side of the issue?

JB: Maybe Apple's stock was down that day! Your librarian's iPod response really underscores the blind trust we've placed in our vendors. I've written a lot about the absolute necessity to become independent from our vendors when it comes to providing new and innovative services. In a very real way, libraries have sold their souls to the company store when it comes to their integrated library systems. I've been very vocal about demanding change from vendors, and I think they're listening—not just to me, but to a growing din of dissatisfaction.

So, if you can't rely on your vendor, do you place your trust in your IT department? The answer is: it depends. Many libraries simply do not have IT departments. Many rely on one person to manage everything. Those libraries face a formidable challenge.

When it comes to larger IT departments, however, I'm going to make an oversimplified generalization. I've noticed that IT tends to exist somewhere between two poles. On one end, there's the department that simply establishes and maintains an IT infrastructure; the department's staffers do not get involved at all with policy or strategic planning. If you need a new server, they install it, if you need more RAM, they bring it. These departments tend to be run as small businesses, operating within the parameters of their budgets, making purely technical recommendations. They manage the help-desk and rarely deviate from their SOP.

On the other end are IT departments filled with creative, artistic people with a genuine interest in improving their institutions. This type of department tends to play a larger role in an organization. Staff members in this type of IT department make recommendations that have ramifications extending beyond a technical scope. They do research, and they typically have a programmer on staff who “makes it happen." They are usually very opinionated and have strong feelings about how things should be. They are much like librarians in that way.

If you are interested in starting a dialogue with your IT department, it would be a good idea to identify which one of these poles your organization's department leans toward, because that'll determine how to approach IT staff.

If your IT department is more like the first, then you ought to go to staff members with very clear ideas of what you want. It might not be a bad idea to budget some money for an outside consultant to help you put together a proposal or plan using the right language. You'll have to think of the staff members in your IT department as the fabricators of your design. This can be a challenge, because, as a non-techie, you're really unaware of what's feasible and what's not.

If the department resembles the second type I described, then you stand a better chance of success by bringing an outline of sketched ideas to the table—a rigid plan may cause friction.

This is all a gross oversimplification, so just use common sense. I may be biased, but I believe that the second type of IT department promises better returns for a library.

MS: I think one of the most important things an administrator or planning librarian could do in the next few months is make sure to include how librarians, IT staff members, and even the public can get together to iron out what future services and goals the library should have. Maybe we need a good-ol' mash up of IT and librarians working closely on all projects instead of that “us-versus-them" thing we sometimes hear about.

JB: Friction between IT staff and non-IT staff is an earned stereotype that is not unique to libraries. Corporations (like IBM) earn their bread and butter by providing consulting services that bridge that divide. Non-techies often frustrate IT staff by making poor, uninformed technical decisions—the classic “I-don't-care-just-make-it-work" scenario. IT staff members sometimes view others as though they were “Muggles," while they can come off as arrogant know-it-alls who are speaking a completely different language.

The truth is, there is no magic to IT, and the only barriers standing between any two departments are miscommunication and ego. Ultimately, department heads need to set pride aside and talk to each other with open ears and open minds. That's just common sense. The savvy manager will know which departments need representation on which projects. In the end, it always comes down to having the right combination of personnel to do the job.

MS: John, what's the most important thing a librarian can take away from where we are right now as the L2 meme continues?

JB: While you and I have been writing this, L2 has garnered a fair amount of criticism. Most of it is directed at the label itself. Some of it suggests that L2 doesn't exist—that it's nothing new. Others fear that L2 will proceed at the expense of “traditional" users.

I'd suggest that librarians not shut themselves off to the discussions taking place. “Library 2.0" may be a buzz word, but it's not a weightless one. There is actual work and intelligent discussion that accompanies it. L2 is certainly not about exclusion—quite the opposite. You will do yourself and your organization a great disservice is you embed yourself in a semantic quagmire.

When it comes to providing twenty-first-century content, libraries are coming to the race a day late and a dollar short. That's why L2 has come on like a freight train. We're in trouble. For example, today's youth (tomorrow's adult taxpayer) knows that it's easier and faster to download a high-quality DVD-rip than it is to go the video store, much less spend several months on a hold list. Even if we had the infrastructure to compete with that, libraries are hamstrung by a tenuous fair-use relationship and a very jumpy MPAA.

Arguments over codecs and transmission protocols aside, the reality is that “on-demand" is the next standard in content distribution. Libraries are going to be left out cold. That is fact. I believe that libraries are on the threshold of a major crisis. It's a crisis that we can definitely adapt to—if we start now.

The solutions are not all technical, either. I see library programming and community outreach as a big part of the solution. Maxine Bleiweis, Director of the Westport Public Library, gave a good talk about outreach on a SirsiDynix Institute seminar last year—before the L2 flap. Does that mean that an increased commitment to outreach is not L2? Does it matter? It certainly doesn't mean we can't discuss it in an L2 context.

Michael, you yourself asked (paraphrase), if “library 2.0" promotes constructive discussion and communication, does it matter what it's called? I see promise in the discussion. I also see a lot of smart and rational people contributing to it.

Jenny Levine wrote in a comment not too long ago, “Critical mass counts for a lot in libraryland." I think we're working on building critical mass. Library 2.0 has run the gauntlet and survived—I think it's ok for everyone to take a closer look.

Join John and me, along with Stephen Abram and Michael Casey, for SirsiDynix's free, online conversation about “Library 2.0/Web 2.0/Librarian 2.0" next month.

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