Blazing Trails, pt. 7: Cliff diving

November 2, 2010 at 10:04 pm 3 comments

This post is part 7 of the Blazing Trails series. Earlier parts are here: part 1part 2,part 3part 4part 5, part 6.

I’ve been working on this post for over a month now, and despite many revisions it just wasn’t coming together. Well, last week my friend Kathy Gould supplied me with the missing element. I read her fantastic post, then the post and article that inspired it (you have to register to read the article, but you can get a login at, and she’s right – while neither of her sources is talking about libraries, so much of what they are talking about is remarkably pertinent to us.

Here are a few choice quotes from the Zuboff article:

Once individuals have the assets they want, they must be able to reconfigure those assets according to their own values, interests, convenience, and pleasure….Successful mutations offer consumers the digital tools, platforms, and social relationships that support them in living their lives as they choose. The new sources of economic value can be discovered and realized in I-space only when consumption strengthens the sense of personal control, delivers opportunities for voicing ideas, and enables freely chosen social connections. [emphasis mine]

I think those last sentences are a pretty good summation of what libraries need to be doing. Our services need to support our customers in living the lives they want to live. But if we are to move past the “digital facelift” and harness the power of technology in a meaningful way, the only way to get there is to bypass slow, methodical change and take some flying leaps into the unknown.

Here’s an example: how much money does your library spend on online databases? How much time, energy and money do you spend marketing them and training people to use them? And how much use do they actually get? I have to admit, I’m torn. I know there’s a lot of quality information in the databases we provide. But it’s locked into these clunky products that each have a different user interface. It’s no surprise that few, if any, of our customers ever become expert users. Federated search is problematic at best. We’ve tried to come up with new ways to market our databases to customers. But every time I renew a database contract I think “What if…?”

What if a bunch of libraries got together, stopped putting money into databases and pooled our resources to build or adapt something better? It’s a really scary prospect – for at least a period of time you’d have a giant gaping hole in your collection. Most of us are much more comfortable letting go of undetermined long-term benefits than we are taking such a big risk in the here and now. But I think we are reaching the point when something drastic has to be done. We have been reluctant in the past to build things ourselves. We let for-profit companies duke it out in the marketplace and then we take whatever they’re willing to give us. We sit back and complain about the options and the limited choices we have, but we don’t step up to make changes.

And now ebooks have gained traction and we’re finding ourselves in the same position again – waiting for others to figure out the hard issues and then throw us some scraps. But if we are truly advocates for our customers, then we should be doing our damnedest to get a seat at the table and represent their interests and the interests of libraries before all the decisions are made. Collectively libraries are a significant market for content – that gives us some power and we shouldn’t take that lightly.

One of my big fears is that we will become obsolete because we hang on to fatally flawed products that are designed specifically for libraries, while out in the marketplace people are coming up with faster, better, more intuitive solutions. How did Google get to be such a monster in the search industry? They combined quality search results with an incredibly simple interface. What Google understood is that most users don’t want to become search experts. They want to type in a few words and find what they need. Sure, there’s an advanced search option, but it’s not prominent and it’s rarely necessary. By contrast, our databases are designed not for customers but for librarians (and they’re not really great on that score, either). Seriously, the next time you demonstrate a database for a customer, time yourself. There’s no way you can give a 30-second explanation and expect the customer to be able to use the service on their own.  And I can tell you that if our services aren’t usable it won’t matter that they’re free. Don’t believe me? Just read this.

Kathy was right – “survival will depend on our ability to forge revolutionary, not evolutionary change.” I’ve  been thinking about this a lot in the context of the MLIS and how we train librarians. I can’t shake the feeling that we’re no longer educating and equipping librarians to do the jobs they actually do. It’s no wonder that there’s tension between professionals and para-professionals – the nature of the job has changed, but the education system and hierarchical structures of our organizations have not kept up. We’re holding on to old labels even when they don’t make sense anymore.

I don’t have a fully evolved 10 point plan, but I do think we need to focus less on preparing people for entry-level librarian jobs and more on preparing people for moving up. The entry level stuff can be taught on the job – I’d love to see a librarian credential, where you work in a library under the supervision of a mentor for a year, with a bit of supplemental coursework on the underlying values of librarianship. Then revamp the master’s degree program to be more a hybrid of an MPA and an MLIS – a lot more preparation for managment and leadership, ideally with some hard-core technology training thrown in (I think there should be a language requirement for an MLIS, but it should be a programming language). I like the idea of alternate career paths, too – options for people who don’t want to manage but do want to stay engaged and continue on a path of professional growth; options for people who have years of valuable experience and have proven their worth but don’t have a degree.

These ideas sound simple enough, but they’d involve a massive change to the existing education and employment systems we deal with now. I don’t think minor tweaks will do the job – we need to kick out some bearing walls, to paraphrase Annie Dillard. “Creative destruction” is really the perfect phrase for what’s coming (thanks for that, Kathy). We can’t just patch holes anymore. It’s terrifying, but we tear down so that we can build something better and stronger. Ultimately, it’s a phrase full of hope.


Entry filed under: libraries.

True Vision Meanwhile…


  • 1. Rosario Garza  |  November 3, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    I really worry about the future of libraries — the inability of leadership to be daring enough to break out of the mold we’ve been in for so many years. It takes courage, lots of courage, to say “we’re not going to pay for that anymore because it really isn’t what our users need.”

    But sooner or later, someone will break through and start the change! Someone like you, Genesis, or someone from one of the other Eureka cohorts!

    • 2. Genesis  |  November 4, 2010 at 11:46 am

      Rosario, leadership is exactly what I’m going to be talking about in the final post of this series. Hopefully this one won’t take me so long to write!

  • 3. Blazing Trails, pt. 8: Pioneers! O Pioneers! « Wrong Again  |  January 14, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    […] This is the final post in the Blazing Trails series. Previous posts can be found here: part 1, part 2,part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7. […]

"To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong." - Pearce



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