As online writing moves to other places, why on earth do I still have a blog?
I experience work as constant learning, about what librarians and librarianship are becoming, and also about management and leadership and how people interact with both. I am forever a work in progress. This blog is a place where I capture my observations and learning in a longer form. It’s primarily an archive for myself, but I’m happy to share it with others.
To A Brand New Librarian, On The Occasion of Starting Their First Librarian Job
Hello, there! Welcome to Librarianship! Congratulations on finishing your degree, and on landing your very first librarian gig. That’s no small feat, and you should be very proud of yourself.
We’re happy to meet you, and we’re looking forward to learning and growing with you. Year one on the job is a wild ride, and you’re going to feel new for a long time. We know this job can be tricky sometimes, and we know you can’t do it perfectly out of the gate. Heck, we’ve been at it for years and we’re still trying to figure out how to do it perfectly. Forget perfect! Let’s just aim high, do our best, keep pushing ourselves, and have fun with it. Librarianship has a lot of scope for creativity, and the more experimental you get, the more ideas you pour in, the more fun you’re going to have and the more creative you’re going to be. Dive in! Take a risk!
This job is going to teach you a lot, challenge you a lot, and change you; you’re going to have the same effect on your colleagues. We’re happy to be here to teach you, guide you, support you, learn from you, and be transformed by you and what you discover along the way. We’re looking forward to it!
Our work is important, and we are passionate about it, but it doesn’t deserve your tears. You’re new to this wild wooly world of ours, and so far you don’t yet know what’s normal or acceptable to suffer through as a librarian.
We all make mistakes, and we will talk about them. It will be hard sometimes; hard on the ego, hard on the self-confidence, hard on the feet sometimes, too. We will face failure with all the humility we can muster and learn from it. It hurts us to fail because we strive so hard to be good at what we do, but we’re human beings and we will get things wrong. That hurts sometimes. That is normal and acceptable. The pain of reaching for something and missing it is what makes us grow.
If anyone says something to you that hits you in your soul and leaves you feeling sad, hurt, heavy, demoralized, disrespected, humiliated, and lost, that is not normal or acceptable. That is not learning, it’s not growth, and it’s not okay. You are not expected to suffer through abusive, bullying behaviour in librarianship. It won’t be your job to buck up and deal with it; if someone makes you feel low and small like that, talk to someone you trust. Your supervisor, hopefully; if not, someone else in the leadership hierarchy, or a colleague who can hear you and help you. If that feels weird or dangerous but you’re really struggling with something that’s happened, talk to someone outside of your library system for a fresh perspective.
Talking to other professionals about serious challenges you don’t know how to deal with is not gossiping or telling tales. It’s is good professional practice to get advice on how to solve a problem that’s dragging you down, and it’s important. You’re new to this profession; you can’t always gauge what’s normal or what’s way out of line without touching base with someone else.
Sometimes it hurts because being new hurts, or receiving constructive feedback hurts, or getting something wrong hurts. Sometimes it’s genuinely hard to tell the difference, especially when you’re new and learning. If you hurt, you need some help, and you should get it. That’s what we’re here for. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad librarian. It might mean you’re learning; it might be that someone else is behaving in a counterproductive way. One day it will be easy to spot the difference, but until it is, reach out for help.
I’m not telling you this because I think there are bullies around every corner and you should beware. I’m pretty sure you won’t experience anything like that here in our library, but I’m not prepared to risk your experience on my sense of certainty. It doesn’t matter what I think about our organizational culture; I’m in a different place in it. No matter what I think your experience will be, you still need to hear this from me. I’m telling you because every new librarian should hear this from someone in a position of leadership in their organization. They should know that you have permission to talk about these things. Talking about them is the only way through them.
Bullying make us less creative, less open to risk, less productive, less collaborative, and less happy. An organization that ignores bullying behaviour isn’t able to perform at its best. We want you to be happy, creative, and kicking butt. That’s how we meet our goals! When you feel respected by your colleagues and confident in your skin, we all benefit.
We are lucky that you chose to join us. We’re very much looking forward to working with you and growing with you. You are going to be amazing, and I can’t wait to watch you bloom!
I’ve been in my role at Rochester for just over two years now, and the nature of my portfolio has altered pretty significantly in that time. Initially the team comprised of the department heads for the Humanities and Social Science Librarians (and head of Outreach), the Science and Engineering Libraries, the Art/Music Library, and our public services unit. Now add to that the Directors of the Digital Scholarship Lab, Assessment, Research Initiatives, a terrific data analyst, and I have a connection to the Director of the iZone. It’s a pretty big group with a lot going on, but working with this particular mix of people gives me an opportunity to dive head first into developing and maintaining organizational harmony. Organizational gardening, as it were.
In the first few months of looking at where the obstacles and pain points were within this group, what emerged first was a need to understand lanes. A lane is a scope, where responsibility lies, where the organization is expecting your leadership and innovation. It also helps to define where you’re a consultant, collaborator or partner, a participant, or observer. Understanding your lane, and the lanes of your peers, means you have a good sense of where you can drive your creativity and innovation with wild abandon. It’s the space in which you can always expect to hear “yes”, the space where others will defer to your judgment, because it’s your responsibility and you know it best.
A shared understanding of lanes is critical to good collaboration. Everyone has to have a lane, even when they’re next to each other or merge a little here and there. If someone doesn’t have a lane, how do they understand their role in the organization? How do they derive a sense of the value they’re bringing? How do they know when they should jump in with both feet, or when they should proceed with some caution? How do they know when they’ve done what’s expected of them? How do they deploy their creativity in ways that they, and we, can all celebrate? And how do your collaborators know how to call on you if no one fully understands what lane you’re in?
And critically: if I as the AD for the portfolio don’t know how to articulate the lane someone’s in and how that lane intersects with others in the organization, am I not failing as a leader? Should I have a department or an individual in my portfolio if I don’t understand their lane?
So the first thing we did was look at job descriptions and talk about expectations, roles, and our relationships to each other. How do different units interact? How do we lead a cross-departmental project, how do lanes merge, and what do we do when that happens? How do we communicate across projects and departments? And we keep having those conversations as new projects and complications emerge, departments shift and grow, or as the departmental connections develop and change. What’s been super interesting is seeing how lanes that seemed very far from each other suddenly join up; Art and Data, for instance: data visualization as art is a theme we’re going to be following this year that I am so excited about. Metadata and faculty support, another spectacular one. Entrepreneurship and library service design. Getting good at making unexpected connections is critical for building flexible, responsive services and support to the university population. We need to know how to face ambiguity with confidence, and this is one of the ways we’re learning how to do that.
I wonder if my lanes conversation would be easier if everyone in the portfolio had an exactly equivalent role. We are a mix of department heads, service coordinators, functional experts, and new initiative leaders. Oftentimes, a project leader is directing the work of teams with several different direct supervisors. If everyone were a department head with direct reports, would it be simpler? Is this a situation demanding a re-org to make the lines of work clearer and simpler?
As much as you want to tend your organization to French topiary perfection, you’re pretty much always in the middle of a meadow full of wildflowers and former pet bunny rabbits instead. At a certain point messiness is probably a sign that something isn’t working, but I’m not sure all messiness is that sign. You can tidy the organization up to the point that each unit is completely autonomous and is completely clear about exactly what it needs to do, never needing to negotiate with another group or leader, but is that ideal? It’s cleaner for us, certainly, less confusing, but aren’t we missing some creative friction? If something is less confusing for us, is it more confusing for our patrons?
True collaboration is messy, and defies lanes and boundaries in the end, as it should. But I think you need both. You need a solid understanding of your lane to give you confidence and clarity in your work, to define your voice and your role, and I think you need the possibility of messiness to allow for growth, change, ambiguity, and something new.
One of the challenges I find myself facing is the push and pull between a traditional library hierarchy and the role of the functional expert. Most of my career to date has been in the latter category, which may account for the warmth I feel towards those roles, but I now find myself in the former category, and I can see how decisions at the AUL/AD level can either make the walls close in around a functional expert, or can help them to soar.
It is the role of upper level leadership to ensure that a librarian in a functional expert role (aka “coordinator”) is legible to the rest of the organization.
A functional expert can be utterly amazing in all that they do, with endless potential and skill, but if their peers and the rest of the library don’t see their work slotted into the overall work of the library, if they see them as other or external in some way, there will be an a hard limit on how much they can accomplish.
The usual model for functional expertise, as well as ambiguous, new or rapidly-shifting portfolios (technology librarians of all stripes, assessment librarians, data librarians, digital humanities librarians, entrepreneurship, schol comm too, I presume) is often framed in what I think of as a retainer model: we hire the expertise, and anyone in the organization can call on them when needed. The result more often than not is a supremely qualified and able librarian sitting in their office twiddling their thumbs, or constructing a magnificent portfolio of work driven by their own hands that the rest of the library may admire, but don’t see as related to themselves.
Making a functional expert legible often falls to the functional experts themselves. After being on both sides of this equation, I’ve come to the realization that this is impossible. The functional expert may be as eloquent as they come, but it’s all talk if the organization isn’t shifting to adjust and accept their work. Carving out the paths that allow new expertise to fully join the organization has to be the work of library leadership.
How do you make this happen? We have to accept that it’s not just one conversation, and it’s not just an announcement. We have to address these issues step by step and project by project.
I think the first structural piece is understanding that coordinators/functional experts are peers of department heads, but different from them in important ways. In my experience, it is critical to form a permanent team that includes both. It’s true that department heads have radically different work and issues to face. But to function well, department heads and functional experts need to understand each other as partners and collaborators as well as peers.
We can’t just code a functional expert as an independent department head of a department of one. That’s very isolating and archaic, and I think this is where we tend to get this wrong. If the expectation is that a technology librarian, or data librarian, or schol comm librarian is going to bring expertise that will touch the entire campus, for instance, then they need to team up with the department head(s) for liaison/outreach to bring that expertise into the hands on, on-the-ground work. They can’t recreate a liaison network on their own (well, they can, but that’s just creating internal competition and losing valuable opportunities for the liaison librarians, as well as lessening their own potential impact). If we don’t use the structures we already have, we might as well hand the functional expertise off to another unit altogether, because the effect is about the same.
I know the immediate response to the suggestion that functional experts become leaders in partnership with liaison department heads: liaison librarians are already overwhelmed, too busy, too many projects as it is, etc. We can’t have more bosses, it’s too much, it’s too confusing! Rather than give up in the face of this outcry, we need to reorient how we’re viewing the work of the functional expert, and understand that there are many ways to be a leader.
It’s not separate work, it’s not on top of everything else work; it’s got to be integrated into the work of a department. A department head is focused on the vision, on implementation of work and goals, and on monitoring performance; a functional expert has their eyes on one impactful realm of knowledge. Together, they create the work going forward. As a team, they are dynamite.
But a functional expert will struggle to launch if they aren’t understood by the department heads as a partner rather than a competitor or just as another, disconnected peer. So the AUL/AD needs to be clear about the relationships and dependencies between them so that they can see each other as they are and work together to support the work of the library.
Often, it’s the liaison librarians on whom this kind of campus impact work fundamentally depends. A functional expert might have a key understanding of what faculty need to know/do/think about in order to move forward and meet needs in an area, but it’s the department head who is best placed to shape that idea into real and doable work that supports the mission of the department, and it’s the liaison librarians who make those connections and get it done. That’s how a functional expert can end up leading entire departments and having massive impact fast; with the support of the department heads, who understand how to construct a project that supports the existing mission and work of the department. The department heads continue to monitor performance and shape work even if a functional expert designed the project. They are stronger for working together.
But the task of making a functional expert legible doesn’t end there; it’s also the role of the AUL/AD to ensure that their own peers understand how a new or changing portfolio affects their departments as well, when it does. The amazing thing about a coordinator role is that it’s unhooked from a specific department and can creep into work all over the place; that’s only a good experience if everyone involves sees it coming, understands its purpose, and respects it when it comes. It’s important not to expect a functional expert to be able to carve that path themselves. No matter how good they are, this is beyond their scope.
At the AUL/AD level, we can see where the crossover is about to happen, and that’s when we need to provide the context required for a potential collaborator to be prepared to welcome it. Project by project, ambiguity by ambiguity, these conversations need to happen not just once, but many times, as they appear, to translate the goals of the functional expert at the earliest stage so that they have the support and collaboration that will make them successful.
I have seen many discussions in the profession about coordinator roles and how hopeless they are; I have been struggling to understand this perspective. In light of that, I have become very aware of day to day work I find myself doing to ensure that the functional experts in my portfolio are able to do their work well and successfully, fully and joyfully integrated into the daily life of the libraries. The skills they are building by designing and implementing projects in their areas of expertise, collaborating closely with department heads and adjusting their ideas to the goals and strengths of the department, pitching ideas and gaining support, leading staff without directly supervising them; these are some of the most valuable and necessary skills for future leadership, and I think it would be a tragedy to have fewer of these opportunities available in the profession because AULs/ADs don’t know how to manage them well.
This is what I’ve learned: either you think library leadership roles must always come with direct supervisory responsibilities in order to be successful, or you think these two pieces can be disentangled. I fall into the latter category. I have recently encountered a number of people in the former category, and I am dismayed.
The general feeling seems to be that any “coordinator”-type role without a bunch of direct reports is a sign of bad management and the role is doomed to failure.
I suppose, if you imagine that a leader can only influence, direct, or lead the people they supervise, then sure, a role where a lot of leadership is expected but no dedicated staff might seem like it’s set up for failure. But that’s a very traditional view of library structure and library work, and I think we’ve moved past that. That doesn’t describe every workplace. I believe what must be missing from this picture is an understanding of how a project-based environment works.
In an organization that functions in projects, work is organized not around a supervisor and their team, but by cross-departmental, short-term projects with specific, time-limited goals. The leader of a project team doesn’t need to approve vacation time in order to function as a fully-fledged leader.
It’s true that, without the power of hierarchical authority, convincing your peers and others outside your department that your idea is good can be hard. It’s hard for a reason. Our peers have good ideas of their own, and experiences to drawn on, history with the subject matter, and judgement; if your ideas doesn’t have the legs to convince intelligent library staff to get on board, do you want the weight of authoritarian power to be there for you to silence objections? That feels good, but is it a good idea? Isn’t it healthier to hear the skepticism, take the feedback, and make the idea better? Isn’t that a better way to learn to be a leader? To learn to take feedback, to be collaborative, to develop good, functional ideas?
Leaders who rely on the power of their roles rather than the strength of their vision and their ideas concern me. If you don’t have the skills to manage work without that power, are you really a leader?
What does it mean for the profession if we link up hierarchical, supervisory power with leadership in this way? What kinds of opportunities do new professionals get to even discover if leadership is of interest to them? How do we give staff a safe, lower-risk opportunity in which to learn how to lead, where failure is absolutely an option to learn from?
There are only so many supervisory roles to go around, and not everyone gets one. But everyone in a library can be a leader. I feel strongly about this; why can’t we open up this black box and give other people a chance to put their fingerprint on the organization? This is what it comes down to for me. If we can’t decouple leadership and supervision, we shut down a lot of learning and opportunity. Giving staff project-based leadership is great training and frankly great, fun, effective and sustainable work. The risk is low and the reward is huge.
To me, the real skill-building in leadership is being a leader among your peers, a leader without the power of the performance review to fall back on. Can you construct a viable idea? Can you get buy in? Can you take on feedback make your idea better? Can you get a project off the ground, through planning, through implementation, and into something sustainable? This isn’t easy work, but it doesn’t require anyone to be a supervisor. And it is work you can learn over time. It’s forgiving work that lets you try, fail, and try again.
Project-based work lets you break down silos of your organization. It lets you bring together skills and talent that don’t sit right next to each other. It lets staff have a chance to spread their wings and try something new. It gives hungry staff real, valuable opportunities to show their stuff. How do you know if you want to take a supervisory role if you’ve never had a real chance to lead?
A project-based environment asks a lot of an organization. It requires libraries to give staff the opportunity to be on a diverse project team, to get to know staff they don’t work with every day, to see a idea take form and participate in its formation, to see things go wrong in a safe place that anticipates things going wrong. It gives staff a chance to chair a meeting without their supervisor in the room, to have a deadline and a responsibility of their own, to have their own team. Any member of staff can be the one who updates library leadership on the status of a project. Project-based work is a forgiving structure in which staff at any level can have the opportunity to learn how to lead.
As someone who writes job ads and chairs search committees, I think it’s important that we learn to recognize leadership outside of direct supervision and respect it for what it is. It’s not only the department heads who lead.
This is particularly important to me because I leapt into senior leadership without ever having been a department head. There are other paths, and if we don’t provide these opportunities, and understand what this kind of leadership means on a CV, we’re going to overlook people with really great skills who can be an asset to our organizations.
At my library, a position with leadership but no staff means a position that will lead all staff at one point or another. It means a project-based role that works with the hierarchy to set expectations for the entire organization. It means collaborating with supervisors and partnering with them in managing staff. It means leading across the organization. It means breaking barriers and doing conference-worthy work, and finding talent where we didn’t know it existed. It means experimentation and taking chances.
I think we need this. I think it’s important. Non-supervisory leadership is also leadership, and it has value.
Please join us at 3pm EST on Thursday, August 6th for our livestream broadcast, One Bright Idea, where the participants of the Digital Academy media creation workshop will share with friends and colleagues what they’ve learned during the workshop, and what they’ll experiment with as part of their work in future.
There’s lots of fancy and expensive software you can use to edit video. Oftentimes, the many steps and $$$ required excludes a lot of people. But there are video editing tools that are available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. Like youtube!
Log into the google account listed on the sheet inside your envelope.
Create a new video merging at least three of the videos you see listed in the youtube channel.
Edit the videos you’ve chosen. You can trim the videos by dragging the left or the right side of them. You’ll need some buffer room on either side of them if you want to use transitions! It makes them overlap slightly.
Add transitions, text, and/or other effects.
If you want to, add a soundtrack.
Put your name in the title of your video so you’ll be able to see which one’s yours!
When you’re happy with your video, press the create video button.
This week and next, I’m delivering a three day tech program for library staff called The Digital Academy. I’ve been using this blog to post a lot of the support materials for it, but I haven’t posted the entire thing. Here’s the pre-work and schedule for day one, which focused on text. This is the generic version. Feel free to take and modify it!
With your partner, make two reaction gifs based on the emotions listed on your cards. The orange card is the positive emotion card.
The blue card is the negative emotion card. Be as creative as you like!
Go to the online gif maker tool. (There are many of these around the internet, but this one is super simple!)
Pick “Create animated gif.”
Select “Create gif from webcam.” What this does is give you an interface where you click the “add frame” button for each image in your gif. You click it a bunch of times to make the animated movie.
While it’s easiest to do this with a webcam, you can also take a bunch of screenshots, like doing old school animation, and create a video that way. That means you can create one of these for web instructions, too, like how to use a database or how to search the catalog. If you’ve got time, give it a shot!
You can do this as you like: you can both emote at the same time, or one person can control the computer while the other acts, and take turns, or you can find another way to communicate these emotions and portray them using the gif maker. Whatever you like! As long as you create two gifs that match the emotions you’ve got and post them!
Check out the settings, see what they do. If you want to start over with the gifmaker, just reload the page. Save your completed gifs to your computer, then post them on your blog. Tweet your finished creations with the tag #digitalacademy! Retweet your partner’s gif, too!
The brilliant thing about text on the internet is how easy it is to publish it, comment on it, and share it. Medium is a posting platform designed to make it easy to publish long-form articles as simply as possible. They’ve taken the idea marginalia and made it a reality. The point of Medium is to focus on the text, without all the bells and whistles. You’ve probably read a Medium article before without knowing it; Medium is about the content, not the platform.
All done with Hemingway and Wordle? Try Voyant! Voyant is a digital humanities tool for analyzing text. It’s more complicated than Wordle, and doesn’t pull out definite articles and other common words by default. You need to tell Voyant exactly what you want it to do.
Scholars use this tool to analyze large blocks of text, like the complete works of Agatha Christie, or the complete works of Shakespeare.
Wordle is a word cloud generator. It will take any text and show you which words you use most often. It removes the most common words that don’t mean as much (like “the”) so that what you get is meaningful. Word clouds are often a good indicator of what a block of text is about. Is that true in your case? What does Wordle think we are collectively most interested in?
Let’s explore how machines can analyze text! Hemingway is a web application that reads your text and makes editing suggestions. Hemingway looks for adverbs, the passive voice, and overcomplicated words, highlights them for you, suggests ways to modify them, and tells you what your readability score is. A readability score tells you what level of education your reader must have to be able to understand what you’ve written. Hemingway will also tell you how long it would take to read your text out loud.
Note: you don’t need to take all of Hemingway’s advice. It’s a machine, not a human: it will probably make some mistakes when it looks at your text. The algorithm behind Hemingway looks for certain kinds of patterns it was programmed to find; it could have been programmed to look for different kinds of patterns in text. And in the end, it’s your post, so, just like with a human editor, you can always ignore its advice.
Let’s talk about text. It isn’t usually what we think of when we talk about digital media, though it’s often at the heart of it. We’ve been writing in higher ed since higher ed began, so it feels like the oldest media we’ve got. But what’s been happening behind the scenes all along are these subtle changes to the technology that have meant big changes to what we can do with text, from sharing it, responding to it, publishing it, to analysing it, like any other form of data.
There have been things we’ve dreamt about being able to do with text until now that seemed impossible; the margin that fits all the words you want to scribble in them without being cramped. The book with the font size you can change at will. Dickens wrote chapters that were delivered as a serial; that went away, and then came back again. So I wanted to start our digital media creation workshop with text, because it’s familiar, a staple of higher ed, and we know how to create it. But also because the possibilities for text have changed so much, and keep changing. And because it’s so malleable, and there’s so much more we can do with it.
The big, and most obvious, change in the creation of text on the internet is how easy it is to put it there. The ease of sharing text, sharing ideas, means we can share more, and earlier, we might have done before. We can share at the beginning of an idea. We can share when we reach the point of frustration. We can share every joyous discovery along the way to a solid hypothesis. We don’t have to just publish the result of our thinking anymore. We can publish the whole process, and we can let the process change our thinking.
I often wonder what academia would be like if, when it was first conceived, it was possible to share text and collaborate this way. Why shouldn’t academic work happen more openly, and be more influenced by others earlier in the process? We already know that collaboration and exposure to other people’s ideas makes our own ideas stronger and better. Why shouldn’t we take advantage of that?
So one of the things we’re exploring is how easy it is to publish written text. You’ve already done it with your blog post, and even with twitter. We’ll share your text a few more times using more platforms during our workshop on Thursday, too. All of them provide different ways to format, present, and publish text, and to get feedback from others.
Some of these platforms are easier than others to use, which I’m sure you’ll notice. That’s important: an easy, understandable, well-designed interface means we can all do more with the tool behind it, it’s that simple. That’s one of the current trends in technology user design: making the “technology” part fade away so we can focus on the content part, the part we bring to it. An interface that doesn’t make you feel stupid is a really good interface. That’s one of the driving forces behind Medium, one of the platforms we’re going to explore. Medium is easy to sign up for, easy to publish on, and easy to comment on. Instead of comments at the bottom, like questions after a talk, you add comments to a Medium article in the margins, attached to the bit you want to respond to. You can have whole conversations in the margins, because the margins are as big as they need to be.
Medium was designed with a focus on getting feedback, so in draft mode, a Medium article can be sent to any number of informal “editors” (or as I like to call them, “beta readers”) for feedback prior to publication. And on publication, Medium is designed so that everyone who contributed ideas to an article gets cited. It’s a new way to think about attribution and citation! Medium was created by the same team who created Blogger and Twitter. Their focus with Medium is on feedback, easy publishing, and a slick reading experience: all of these things can be useful to us in a higher ed context. You’ve probably read a Medium article before without realizing it, and that’s the whole idea. The ideas are more important than the platform.
We’re going to look at a few other tools too, including something called Scalar. Scalar is a platform for building a collaborative, multi-media book. I hope we can dig into this one and explore it together, because so far I’ve only scratched the surface of it, and collaborative publishing tools are best explored as a group! Scalar is an important tool in the digital humanities community, and the pedagogy track at the digital humanities institute used it quite intensively. I’m looking forward to digging into it with you and seeing what we think of it!
Speaking of digital humanities: another one of the things we can do with digital text is explore it as data. We’re going to do a bit of that, too. We’re used to reading text and gleaning themes from it; what happens when the machine does that work with us? What are the hidden themes in text? What ideas underlie what we say without our even knowing it? There are many opinions out there about what it means to bring machines into text, and all of them are interesting. You know that old adage about putting your writing aside for awhile so you can be objective the next time you look at it? The machine is always objective. We’re going to explore a few tools that will show you how a machine reads your text. Let’s see if it tells you anything you didn’t already know. You might be surprised!
You’ve done your homework, so you’re ready to go. A few bits to know going into Thursday: I’m not going to talk that much. We’re not getting together to listen to me drone on (though I do love an audience). We’re there to do stuff, and we’re going to do it together. So don’t feel like you have to not talk to your neighbour or try hard to avoid “being disruptive”. Please: be disruptive! Everything we do on Thursday we’re meant to do together, and we’re meant to talk about it as we go. Grab a friend. Grab a few! Ask your questions. Make your observations. Exclaim! Ask for help! Ask what other people are doing if you see something interesting! Announce what you’ve discovered! You won’t be interrupting. Talking as we go is 100% the point. We each have at least as much to learn from each other as we do from these tools. So don’t hold back! If you’re uncomfortable sitting, stand up. If you want to move to a different seat, do it. This room has no front-of-the-class. Learning is a bit chaotic at the best of times, and this will certainly be the best of times.
One of the things I’m asking you to do during this workshop is to think about everything you’re doing as you do it. As you learn about it and understand it, think: what could I do with this? What could my colleagues do with this? What could the library do with this? What could students, faculty, staff do with this? What could I do with it if it were slightly different? Or very different? While you’re at the workshop, you’ll have these cards and a pen.
Every time you have an idea, jot it down. It doesn’t have to be thought through. It doesn’t have to be practical. It doesn’t even have to be what you’d consider a good idea, just jot it down. The funny thing about good ideas: sometimes it’s a so-called bad idea that lets good ideas show through. You let yourself think the impossible idea, the idea that’s too hard to accomplish, or too idealistic, or too much work to enact, and then your brilliant, completely achievable idea comes to you. When you think about things you can’t do, sometimes your mind will sneakily find a way that you can. So don’t restrict yourself. Writing them down means that even if your impossible idea doesn’t spark the really great idea in you, it might in someone else.
The other reason why you’ll want to collect all of your ideas, even the wildest ones, is this: at the end of it all, next Thursday, we’re going to do a live broadcast, and we’re going to share our best ideas with the world. (Well, the library world. Okay, maybe just our colleagues here at the River Campus, but still.) Write down all your bright ideas so that you’ll have lots to choose from in the end! You just can’t have enough ideas!
Thank you for your willingness to engage in this intensive program. I hope you’re excited about it. I know I am. I can’t wait to learn from you. See you soon!
New librarians, or librarians still in school, often ask me how they can get a job like mine. I think this is probably a question all librarians get, but mine comes with an extra question: “should I learn to code?”
My answer to this has always been something along the lines of: “Well, no.” I know many people would say the opposite.
I don’t think code is important to my job because I do not write code. I shouldn’t write code, actually…I have colleagues who are responsible for any code that might come near me. Code is not my territory. So no: you don’t need to code to be a librarian who works in tech. Content management systems handle the HTML. You won’t be the one messing around with CSS, probably. If you work in larger library, in any case. Librarians are usually not the best qualified people to tweak stylesheets or write software. Those things are halmarks of a whole other profession, actually. If you learned a tiny bit of code, the truth is, you’d be a terrible coder anyway.
But still: there’s something there. Lots of folks in my shoes would say the opposite: yes! Dear god, yes, please learn to code! I genuinely have no idea who’s right and who’s wrong here.
My feeling on this is that librarians who picked up code learned a lot by doing so, and think that others will learn the same things if they too pick up code. And that might be true. But in the end, the code isn’t the thing. The code is a catalyst for the thing that’s really valuable for a librarian. Somehow the process of learning even a tiny bit of code might be the easiest way to understand the basics of how the internet works, and that understanding helps you to ask better questions, form better plans, make more realistic requests, and integrate your services and your collection more thoughtfully into the wider digital world. But the code isn’t what does it: the code is just the catalyst. Right?
My fear, I suppose, is that in this drive to learn code, someone will actually just focus on the code and will miss the catalytic moment. Because we’re not being very clear about what we actually need you to learn. We haven’t specified. I’m not even sure I know how to articulate it all even now. We need you to understand what’s possible, and what’s impossible. How data travels and is taken up into new places. You need to know that it’s not magic, it’s just content drawn out and drawn upon. You need to really understand what “database-driven” means, and be able to apply that knowledge. You will probably get that from learning some code. But I think it might be more efficient to be clear about the kinds of lessons we need you to learn from it.
And I suspect it’s possible to learn those things without code specifically. I think learning by doing, by figuring things out, is probably going to work for most people, but what are you figuring out? It’s a set of problem-solving skills, it’s not a skill at coding, necessarily. And some people get that understanding it other ways altogether. I know several outstanding library leaders who never learned code at all, but can make rational, thoughtful decisions around tech. I think they just listen to the people they hire, to be honest. They trust the people who understand it better than they do.
But I suspect code will get the majority of folks where they need to be. I suspect that’s true. But it might be the hard way. I’m not sure. Either way, it’s true they need to get there, one way or another.
Maybe I’ve been giving bad advice all along. Or good advice. I have no idea.
If you gave someone a short story and told them to read it in an empty library, you’d probably get a better result than taking someone to an empty carnival and telling them to read a short story there. Not because the empty library is quieter than the empty carnival, or because libraries are just naturally better places for reading. It would be because the person walking into a carnival isn’t prepared and primed for reading while the person walking into the library is. We already know this is true; this is why they tell you not to bring your computer to bed with you to finish up some work, because if you do work in bed on a regular basis, when you go to bed your head will be primed for work rather than sleep.
So I have doubts that these experiments with ereaders and books are telling anyone which form is better for the reading experience per se. It’s only telling us that people are currently primed to think of computers/tablets/screens as things to watch movies on, or play games on, or browse the internet on. Most people are not primed to consider a screen a reading surface.
But some people are. Some people read on screens all the time, for academic work or for fun. For books thatdon’t and won’t exist in paper, there are audiences who have already made the switch. They must have other cues that prime them for reading from the same screen they use for other tasks. Of course, readers of online books are always sitting in the bookstore as they read. If they don’t like the turn a story takes, I suspect they will back-button out quicker than a paper-book reader will give up on a book they’ve borrowed or purchased. With online novels, there is always a universe of other stories waiting if the current one doesn’t suit.
I would be interested to see studies like this done with more context. How do those who read fiction on a screen all the time fare against people who don’t? As ereaders get into the hands of more and more people and reading ebooks becomes just as common as reading any other kind of book, do the results change? If a person starts reading an ebook and has poorer comprehension results, do those results improve after a month of reading ebooks? A year?
I remember in the late nineties there was some discussion about how to talk about interaction with the internet. Browse won, but I remember someone on the news talking about “looking at the internet,” or “watching the internet.” As someone who was already far beyond “watching” or merely “looking” at digital material, I cringed. You can watch things online, that presenter wasn’t wrong. You do look at stuff on the internet. That guy saw a screen that looked a lot like a tv, and transferred the language and the modes of thinking to it. He was a passive viewer of internet content, and that’s how he framed his experience.
Ipads are not about being looked at, they’re about being interacted with. An ipad in particular is the first device to fit into that strange niche between smartphone and computer, a device driven entirely without a proxy roller ball or mouse or stylus or keyboard. You touch the content and it reacts. It’s an engagement device, not a device to be looked at or watched (though you can look at and watch things on ipads, too). It doesn’t really surprise me that giving a bunch of people ipads or ereaders doesn’t yet prime people to sink into deep contemplative thought. People are still primed to look at how their physical touch is interacting with digital activity.
Likewise, I wonder if anyone’s done any experiments on audiobooks. Read a page, hear a page: is one better than the other? I suspect it’s what you’re used to.
For many years I’ve been painfully aware of the anti-ebook league who are extremely keen to point out how inferior ebooks are. I know there was a similar group who objected to the written word in the first place (“if you don’t need to memorize it, everyone will become a gibbering idiot!”), and then to the printing press (“Bad! Cheap! Sloppy!”). While I still have a too-steady stream of paper books coming into my house, I’m glad books are going digital. To me, the story, the information, the content is the most important thing. Digital text isn’t limited by its font size. It can be read aloud by a screenreader. It can be translated by a braille display. I can twist it, add more notes to it than it contains in the first place. Like Dickens did it, it can be delivered serially. Digital text might mean more text, and to me that’s a plus.
Being the odd sort of academic librarian that I am, with no real connection to books, I end up spending perhaps more time than most thinking about what academic librarianship is at its core. I don’t have a lot to take for granted as markers of my librarianship (reference, collection development, instruction, for instance, none of those), but you can find the roots of the profession in what I’m doing nonetheless…as long as you’re prepared to let go of the obvious, and consider what the obvious actually means.
Early on I learned that academic librarians are, more often than not, the layer between the patron and the complicated, ever-changing tools and resources they have to wrestle with in order to get their work done. We stood as the interface for scholarship for a long time, the door through which any academic or student would need to pass through in order to find and use scholarly literature. We made it easier to sift though. We gave advice about sources and materials. We connected patrons with a need with the resource that would fill (or overflow!) it. When computing arrived on the scene, we were often the layer between the patron and the technology, too. Libraries (academic and public) have long been a sure place where patrons can get access to new technologies and get help using it.
I think that’s a really powerful way to view librarianship, and one that I find personally very inspiring. Librarianship if often the liquid that fills up the spaces between two things that need to fit together but often don’t quite do so as intended.
As a librarian who works exclusively with online tools as opposed to publishers or physical media, I’ve taken that idea to heart. Not only do I see myself as a kind of gateway between the wild world of collaborative and communication technologies and the faculty who need them, but I also see it as my role to give patrons the tools they need to approach that world and put its innovations to good use in their teaching and their research.
The natural answer to this problem is to provide training, but that’s not where I think this work starts. Jumping to training and writing instructions is skipping two fundamental steps along the way. If it’s my job to be the layer between online technologies and patrons who need them, to communicate between one and the other in the languages they both understand, I need to prepare both sides for each other, and I need to invent a language to help them understand each other. I need to create the circumstances that will foster effective innovation and meaningful change.
Is that training? Knowledge? To some degree, sure. But as I say, I think we’re making too many assumptions when we jump straight to training and skill-building, as if that’s the gap to fill.
The first real hurdle to overcome isn’t a lack of knowledge. It’s fear.
Tools designed to be used by the general population are, in general, not all that complicated. Anything can be difficult before you understand how it works, but none of it is really that hard, and i think everyone knows that. The difficulty of using tools isn’t the thing that prevents innovation and change. Fear is.
Fear of what? Of getting it wrong; of looking stupid; of making a mistake that breaks everything; of not knowing all the answers; of being embarrassed in front of colleagues, TAs, students; of not know how to help students use the tool you’ve asked them to use; of creating too much work for yourself; of failing to think through all the consequences of using a tool, and having to scrap months and months or work because you dug yourself into an impossible hole; of having to do it all over again; or it vanishing, crashing, falling off a table and bursting into flames. All kinds of things. This is low-level fear, a niggling kind of fear that, if spoken aloud, is often easily dismissed. But it doesn’t get spoken aloud, and instead it festers and prevents patrons from taking risks. We don’t talk about fear in the context of library services, and we don’t tend to think of ourselves as alleviating fear. Sometimes we do the work of fear reduction quite by accident, without realizing that that was the great value we offered. But other times we don’t address the fear at all, and often we make that fear worse.
There are any number of ways to reduce fear. What I’ve found in my own work is that if I demonstrate my competence with the tools in question (often just by seeming knowledgeable, or passing on information, or being helpful), by showing interest in and respect for their skills and knowledge, by not being judgmental, and then make sure patrons know that I am here to help them no matter what, that’s a good start. I tell them what they need to know when they need to know it instead of waiting for them to hit a bump in the road. I put up the signposts and draw them maps so they always feel sure when they put their feet down on the ground. And should the worst happen in spite of all our best efforts, I will personally dig them out of whatever kind of hole they manage to fall into. Knowing all this, and seeing that it’s all true,patrons will take risks. They will innovate, they will experiment. If they know the ground beneath their feet is solid, they will start to run.
I didn’t know I was in the fear reduction business until I started to really look hard at what was happening in my daily work. Where innovation is occurring on my watch, it isn’t always because the instructor now has better tech skills or more technical knowledge. But they certainly have more confidence in using the tools available. They are more willing stretch.
Reducing fear is critical; but the other piece of being the layer between the patron and the big complicated thing (whatever it is) is coming up with a language so that the patron can make sense of it. It’s a matter of making the affordances of a system or tool or technology plain. Again, the standard answer to this is often training and skill-building, but I’d hesitate. You can’t jump right to training, that’s not enough. I think the answer starts in metaphor.
If you don’t know what a tool thinks it is, you won’t know how to use it. Email is as successful as it is, I would argue, in large part because of it’s watertight metaphor. It’s just system messages sent to a particular registered user, but once you call it mail, everyone who’s ever seen a mailbox full of letters and newspapers knows what it does. You send it and receive it; you open it, you read it, you store it or throw it out. You can get packages that contain things. Your mailbox is only so big and can only fit so much stuff in it. Calling it mail provides an insight into the affordances of email, and helps everyone understand what it is and use it. I think this is why many people who are afraid of online technologies usually have no fear of their email. They tend to use their email for everything. You’ve met those folks who send themselves email as a kind of task list, right? They “read” each message when the task done. The people I know who do this don’t tend to be hugely tech savvy, but they understand how this one tool works, they get its metaphor, and they’re ready to twist it into any shape to suit their needs. That’s good innovation! But it only happens if the metaphor is solid.
Many of the tools and systems our patrons need to use don’t come along with such helpful metaphors. So part of the work of being the layer between them is to come up with the language for them so that patrons understand them and innovate their practice using them.
It’s like a giant whiteboard. It’s like a file folder. It’s like a rolodex. It’s a blank piece of paper you can pass around the room. What’s going to make sense to these people, in this place, with the backgrounds that they have? Librarianship has the capacity to be an incredibly creative profession if you take it as read that metaphor construction is a key part of the job. Our role is to help our patrons see the affordances of new tools, to help them find a way to be creative using them, and very often that requires a good, solid, relatable metaphor. If you know that a wiki is a blank note book anyone can write in, it’s much easier to imagine what you might use it for.
We used to be the layer that connected patrons with resources that would be impossible for them to find otherwise. Now we can be the layer that provides the metaphorical scaffolding that unlocks functionality for our patrons and allows them to be creative. While we used to hold the literal keys to resources, we can now unlock resources that are already available by housing them in a metaphorical framework that will make sense to our community. And by reassuring them that we’ve got their back.
As I’m easing back into daily work, I’m becoming increasingly conscious about looking at everything from both sides. It’s very easy to see work, services, decisions, all of that, from my own perspective as a librarian, a service provider, a troubleshooter and tech consultant. What would be easiest for me, what resonates with me, what falls in line with other decisions I’ve made? What processes can I put in place to make my life easier? I know I’m usually starting from there when I’m at work. A me-centred approach. I think most of us do that. It’s pretty natural.
But lately I’ve been thinking about my own process of doing a 360 whenever I’m making decisions. What does it feel like to be my own patron? I think about this a lot, and it’s occurred to me recently that that might not be as common as I thought it was.
The first time I was aware that this way of thinking might be a bit unusual was back in library school. I wrote a paper for a cataloguing class about the history of a classification decision, and what the changes in that classification would have meant for the patron browsing the shelves. This seemed like a natural leap to me, but the comment on my paper when I got it back especially lauded me for thinking about shelves and the patron experience. I couldn’t quite fathom what other way there was to think about it, frankly. I mean, that’s what classification is for in the end, isn’t it? Arranging information for a patron? So a patron can interact with it in a logical way? It’s hard for me to imagine losing sight of that.
But I keep being confronted with experiences where that 360 clearly didn’t happen. I filled out a form the other day, and got a receipt via email that started, “If you typed in your email, you’ll receive a message…” Well, yes. I did type in my email, obviously. And am reading a message. Since the system has just emailed me this one. I wondered if anyone thought about what it would be like to receive that email. It’s not a natural way of thinking, perhaps. Maybe it’s what happens once you get into a groove in your job, when you do things because that’s how they’re done. It must obscure the obvious question about what it would be like to experience from the other side as someone who has no idea what’s commonly done, let alone why, and hasn’t spent a second considering it.
In my spare time, I write fiction. It’s a hobby, I enjoy it. Usually I think this particular hobby has no real bearing on my life as a librarian (in spite of the fact that most people think librarians think about/read fiction all day). But as I’ve been thinking about this 360 process as part of my own decision-making, I’ve realized that it’s one area where fiction and my work life collide.
When I’m writing fiction, I work hard to think about the story as it appears to every character, not just the protagonist. I want every character to be a protagonist in their own unwritten story, with their own goals and perspectives present under the surface. I want every character to feel like a real person who sees the world through their own twisted lens, and thus naturally misunderstand things or make bad decisions from time to time. I want the reader to get the sense, as they run up against these various characters, that there are worlds inside them that we aren’t entering into. As if this story could be written from any one of their perspectives and be just as interesting, yet radically different. Every villain is a hero when they’re the one telling the story, right?
Thinking about being my own patron feels a bit similar to me. I want to stop seeing the world as I see it, and see it from the perspective of a student, or an instructor, or an exhausted sessional. What am I doing because it’s easier for me, or more natural to me, or because it’s always been that way, that would look mystifyingly inexplicable to those people? What would they look at and say, why are you making me do this? Why is this happening to me? When they get that email like I did, does it make sense? Does it tell them anything they care about? Does it seem as though I haven’t thought about what it will feel like for them?
I think this might be the actual definition of a bureaucracy: when we’ve spent all our time thinking about what we need from a patron in order to process a request successfully, we’ve created a service that will feel like an ordeal the patron has to survive rather than a service. You want a book/computer/access? Go over to that terminal, log in with this information, go over here, get this code, write it on a piece of paper, come back to me, and then I help you. We do this a lot. It’s good for our process, I suppose. it feels efficient, but not so fantastic for the patron, who becomes a momentary cog in a process they don’t understand. We insist that they become a minor character in the library’s story when we do that. It must feel like we’re asking them to support the machine we created. The patron knows for sure that whatever’s going on, it’s not them in the heart of it. I suppose sometimes that’s completely appropriate. But it’s the last kind of experience I want to create.
I consider librarianship a service profession. I know that’s a bit controversial in some places, because some consider service to be servile. I don’t feel that way. I think, at it’s very heart, librarianship is about the provision of information, tools, space, and support to patrons, and in that, it seems to be naturally rooted in the most altruistic of services. That’s my favourite part about librarianship, actually. I like helping people meet their goals. I like being part of their successes. I like making sure their successes are easier to achieve, and I absolutely love it when people can accomplish things they thought wouldn’t be possible through a little help and guidance from me. In order to provide a truly great service, I feel like it’s a requirement that I’m constantly questioning who the protagonist is in each interaction I engage in. I want the patron to be the protagonist. I want them to walk away feeling like what just happened was all about them.
What this results in, for me, is what we call paying the pickle man. Sometimes I will bend over backwards to do things that might seem trivial, but if I do those things, I know the patron experience will be effortless. For instance: if I know for a fact that every instructor on campus will need to, say, make their course available to students between Monday and Wednesday of the week after Labour Day, I could just wait for them to forget, and then have to call me to ask how to do it. Or I could just reach out and tell them how to do it before they realize they have to ask. I know their storyline, at least a little bit. I know where it needs a nudge. I’m don’t mind being a minor character if it means they don’t make a mistake or forget something.
This is something I wish I’d been taught in library school. I wish we’d had even just one lecture on it. What do you think you look like to your patrons? What do you want them to think when they’re interacting with you? I think everyone’s answer to this might be very different. Sometimes I think every controversy, every argument, every difference of opinion in librarianship comes down to conflicting answers to this question: what do you want the patron to feel when they’re dealing with you? To me, the answer to this question in any given situation is what dictates my decisions. And because what I want the patron to feel is heard, and understood, and important, 9 times out of 10 the solution that makes my life easier just won’t be good enough.
Most of my thoughts and observations about what learned during my six month research leave (October-March) is contained here already, but below is the report I submitted, which is a general summary with links to various blog posts for more details, and minus all the pictures and hopefully minus at least most of the typos.
Dark Horse Espresso Bar on Spadina, in the heart of Toronto’s high tech hub, is, for me, the ultimate example of space as a networking tool. Sit here here for any amount of time, and you will hear conversations that sound like they’re probably interviews, descriptions of apps in progress, friends of friends recognizing each other across the table and showing off portfolios, and all kinds of casual discussions about trends, sales strategies, developments, and news. The person next to me is on skype. I’m sitting here as I write this, in fact, and I almost feel like I’ve dropped in on some hip new office. This is a space where work gets done. People don’t come here just to hang out; they come here to make the world a better place.
Possibly in part because the high tech sector is so flexible and full of tiny start ups that may not have offices of their own, or freelancers who want to feel part of the larger world from time to time. Or because so many businesses can benefit from connecting with each other, so a place like this acts as a living room for a busy, sprawling blended family. For all of these reasons, I think it’s an interesting space to look at with the eyes of a librarian. Because we don’t tend to build spaces like this.
Dark Horse was my first experience of a communal table. (And the first time I sat down here, I discovered myself sitting across from someone I’d spoken to on twitter but never met in real life, in keeping with the theme.)
Right up at the front of the place, up by the front doors, are two large communal tables. They are so big that you can’t take over one of them yourself. So no one does. The culture of the place doesn’t allow that. You sit down next to people you don’t know, because that’s how it works.
I’ve spent a lot of time looking at communal tables and puzzling over them. I suppose that’s another post in itself, really; communal tables are very appealing, but very, very tricky. There is a direct and critical relationship between the social culture of a space and the physical dimensions of the furniture that can make a communal table succeed or fail, and the mathematics of predicting that are well beyond me. Where a culture allows a thinner table to be used communally, making it okay for strangers to sit close to each other in public, then a thin table can be shared by strangers and succeed. But strangers tend to be shy to varying degrees, and if that culture of space sharing and reduced personal space isn’t already there and understood, a communal table has to be much wider. I suspect you can graph the anxiety and shyness of your target population, the degree to which they understand the social culture of the space into which they’re stepping, the amount of space around each chair, and the width of a communal table and get a formula out of this. I’m pretty sure there’s a science to this.
This communal table at Dark Horse is very wide. It’s a square, in fact. You’d think, if you’re a space planner trying to get as many bums in seats as possible, that it’s a bit of a waste of space. No one’s using the middle of this table. But that space is what enforces the social culture of Dark Horse. You can’t carry on a conversation with the people on the other side of it. It’s too wide. This is, for me, the ultimate shared table. This is furniture that doesn’t negotiate. It’s not your table. It’s where we all sit, and we all do what we need to do. Sometimes that’s a conversation with the person next to us. Sometimes it’s a group of people sitting with computers open. Sometimes someone’s going to take out a phone and start a conversation. All these things are okay around the communal table, because while the purposes for being here are all different, the people around this table are opting in to sharing space this way. And feeling connected to strangers.
If you’re interested in communal tables, Dark Horse will be my first recommendation for a visit. It’s not the only one, but it’s the most relentlessly sharable one.
The image in my head of Dark Horse is so dominated by these communal tables that I actually failed to notice in my first two visits here that there is more space than this. A few steps up on the other side of the espresso bar, there’s an area for different kinds of interaction. Some small tables that can seat two, but are currently taken over but individuals within open laptops, a space for four or five, and a few spaces for groups of three, with lower tables. These are spaces that insist that you not sit there with a laptop. These are conversational areas. And they are in use as conversation areas: I think I walked through a business meeting when I went in to snap these pics. Sorry about the quality. I’m trying not to interrupt anyone.
I’m always interested in spaces that are not quiet but get used as space for individual work. You could work at home. you could hole up in a library (that’s certainly cheaper). People are going to chat and laugh around you. On the way here today there were only three people on my car on the train, and one of them was on his phone making business calls for the entire trip. It drove me (trying to write over here) and the car’s only other passenger (trying to read my novel, thanks) absolutely nuts. But when you step into a place like this, you don’t expect silence. So it doesn’t bother you. Isn’t that strange? It’s less about sensitivity to noise and more about expectation. There’s something that appeals to people about working in a noisy, active, busy place like this. You’re in the heart of a hip neighbourhood, someone you want to connect with might drop in at any time, you’re around a lot of creative and passionate people. You make a statement when you work in an place like this. It’s a statement about availability, about what you think is important, and about who you think you are. Those conversations going on around you might change your life.
I’ve started to understand that most things we do are about self-identity, and the spaces we chose to frequent are very much a part of that process. Libraries are part of that equation as well, though we rarely frame them that way. It would be interesting to look at library spaces with an eye to what we’re helping patrons say about themselves to themselves and others. I think, in the end, it’s thinking that way that makes a space a social force.
Very often, when we consider where in our libraries patrons will need to use digital materials, we add a station like this one. This is a terminal at the University of London Senate House Library. It’s placed helpfully in the stacks, near study areas. Like most such terminals, the point is probably to give students access to the catalogue while they’re browsing for physical materials and not very much more. It’s not a spot where you can sit down and spread out. There were other, better places to work on a paper or study. It’s exactly the kind of set up you see in most libraries of any description.
I understand why we do this. We’re coming from a good place. We want our patrons to feel comfortable. We want them to never be limited by the lack of a keyboard. Even if the catalogue can be browsed quite easily on a touch screen, what if you need to do something that requires sustained typing? I understand the impulse to account for every possible need within a rational budget. It’s logical, and thoughtful, and it’s technically open to changing needs and contexts. You can see how we think digital material is going to be used: alone. Not with a group of students, not with help from a librarian or a TA. Interacting with digital media, in this context, is very much an independent exercise.
This is the interactive mall directory at Square One, Mississauga. (And that handsome devil is my nephew, Max.) No keyboards, no mouse. Just a clearly designated directory. You can’t plonk down here and check your email, it’s true. You can’t write an essay on it. But you can work out where you’re going, and find out what this particular mall has in store for you. You can also walk up to it with your friend (or, as Max did, with your crazy aunt who takes photos and videos of odd things).
This is Max doing some fake navigation for me so I could film it. The downside of these things is that, at this point, you need to pay someone to create the digital materials for you to display like this. After years of static, keyboard-and-mouse based input, the easiest systems don’t respond as well to touch-based devices and interfaces. But that’s changing, and will continue to change with the rise of tablets and other larger-format touch-based interfaces. There is increasingly few technical reasons why libraries can’t provide catalogue and information access points that look less like the workstation above and more like what Square One is doing.
I ran into some interesting interactive screens in the Disney Store in Toronto. The focus is primarily on a projected film on the wall, but there’s associated information showing on two screens that flank it. Since this area is for children, the screens are smaller, slower, and primarily graphics-based. I think this is really interesting, mostly because Disney surely knows that the children in this store are bound to be incredibly distracted. There’s input coming at them everywhere. The store is full of toys. There’s a cartoon playing against the wall. But they integrated screens at the right level for their audience, and integrated it so that it’s not distracting from the purpose of being there, but adding to it. These children don’t need to turn away from what they’re doing to see the digital material. It’s part of the experience. And it’s a part of the experience that doesn’t dictate how many people can gather around it at once.
This is a screen that controls the printers at Staples just off Dundas Square in Toronto. Again, no keyboard, no mouse. Like some of the stellar digital terminals at M&S in London, this machine takes a card for payment. It’s low profile, small footprint screen that doesn’t require a desk at all. This Staples doesn’t really have room for a desk. Sometimes necessity breeds some good ideas. I mean, it’s not pretty, but it’s computing in a tight space, without setting up a whole independent workstation. It’s set up for people who are there to do a single thing and want to get it done quickly; that’s a goal a lot of library patrons can identify with.
This is a terminal at the Google co-working space in London. Because it’s a fairly noisy spot, there are a variety of noise-cancelling and relaxation-type areas. This pod digitally delivers information while the user is in this audio-limited environment. Digital material, as you can see, is the least complicated part of it.
Looking around and seeing the variety of ways that digital material can delivered at point of need that doesn’t involve a chair, a keyboard, a mouse and a monitor is an important reminder to me. We shouldn’t assume that digital material can only be consumed in one physical way.
Bear with me for a moment here. This is mostly a thought experiment.
As I travel around looking at different kinds of spaces, I’ve started to question our relentless quest for total silence in libraries. Libraries have come to mean silence in our culture; why is that? Because silence is associated with reading? (Of course, only with modern reading: we know that medieval European readers considered reading a verbal activity, always done aloud, and if you’ve ever found yourself mouthing the words you’re reading on a page, you know we’re fighting our bodies to make reading silent. No need to be elitist about it: text is only a series of symbols representing speech. There’s no shame in it triggering our verbal centres. That’s perfectly natural.) When libraries are closed-stack, and the spaces inside it exist only as a reading room for material you can’t copy and can’t take out with you, I can understand the focus on silence. To a degree, anyway. Silence is meant to go along with concentration. And libraries are meant to be places where you go to concentrate, right?
Everywhere I go, I find students and the self-employed deliberately seeking out spaces that are not silent. Some of them are downright raucous. A lot of them have jazz playing in the background, coffee grinders, conversations, laughter. Some of them are quieter than others, but none of them are silent. I’ve seen several co-working spaces, and a few high-tech businesses here and there. No private offices, only shared tables, conference rooms, kitchens and “libraries”. Nooks for groups, couches, lots of earphones in the ears of those trying to buckle down and work alone. No spaces with a fixation on providing absolute silence, though.
I’ve been considering whether my comparisons with cafés and co-working spaces are entirely fair. I realize I’m looking at a particular sample of the population, the people who want to work this way. These are people who have a quiet space at home and find it difficult to work like that. These are people who want to be tangentially connected to other people while doing independent work, even if they’re strangers. I think there’s probably even a little bit of self-motivation going on; when I finish this paper, I can go home and relax. Being somewhere other than at home helps you stick to a deadline and helps manage your time. That’s really healthy, I think. Co-workers in particular often need that separation between home and work to help give the work day a sense of closure, something students and academics both frequently fail to do well. The people I see working this way have quiet space elsewhere if they really need it.
But then I thought: don’t our student populations have this as well? Not all of them, maybe. But what percentage of the student populations don’t have a room of their own with a door that closes? I imagine it’s pretty small. So far my experience of residences on campus always includes some form of study room (and often study groups, as well.) For campuses where students can easily go back and forth from home where they can have silence and solitude, it seems to me that there’s more in common between libraries and other public and commercial spaces like cafés than we may have thought.
My own campus has it’s own rhythms and issues. Students can’t easily come and go from home, and many of them commute in quite a distance. They are effectively stuck on campus, and they may need that silence because they legitimately can’t get it anywhere else between the hours of 8am and 9pm. Again, I’m not entirely sure why the library is the place required to provide perfect silence, but I suppose that’s the tradition as we have it. We’re kind of stuck with it.
A lot of the students on my campus commute from their parents’ homes, so they share space with other family members. This is generally presented as a reason why no work can get done at home, but I’m not entirely convinced that that’s entirely true. Most homes with adult children in them are pretty quiet. Parents are usually supportive of students working hard on their school work. (Not always, I know. There are always stories and circumstances.) I would suspect that, most of the time, residence is far louder than anyone’s household, and even residences have silent spaces in them.
Why are we promising to provide absolute silence, something so difficult to maintain it is practically impossible, if the vast majority of our patrons already have access to it when they need it?
Too harsh? Bear with me a moment longer.
Here’s a statistic I don’t know: what percentage of our student populations would sit in a comfy chair in a Starbucks and write an essay if they knew no one was going to harass them to buy anything or glare at them to give up their table. As far as I can see, we expect that about 70-80% of our students want to work in complete silence. If that’s true, 70-80% of students should abhor working in a public place like a Starbucks. I find that exceedingly unlikely, but I don’t know what those stats actually look like.
Maybe the music is too loud: okay. how about a little indie café in the distillery district, or buried in the annex behind a bookstore? Somewhere with ambient music, soft conversations, coffee. Not too busy, not too quiet. Alive. I don’t know the statistic; I don’t know how many students would be happy to work there. Walking around London, seeing the 3/4ths empty and quiet Senate House library, and the jammed and happily buzzing public libraries, the full cafés of Islington, Hampstead and Shoreditch, the students lining the tables at the Barbican and Southbank Centre, I struggle to imagine that it’s a small percentage. But I don’t know. This is critical information to me at this point. I’m going to have to find a way to get it.
I haven’t said it yet, but I’m sure you can feel it coming. What if most students don’t actually require absolute silence to do really good work?
I can already hear the objections. I’ve seen them; students in my library complain about the noise all the time. I can’t keep saying “bear with me” whenever I say something outrageous, can I? But what if this is in part based on expectations that we’ve set, both through our policies, our space design, and through our powerful public image? What if they demand silence between they just imagine they can expect it, and should expect it, because we’ve promised it, not because they actually require it? We are allowing students to have unrealistic expectations of our entire buildings, top to bottom. Libraries are meant to be silent, so every sound they hear is annoying.
What if we designed spaces based on the presumption that most students don’t need absolute silence, but want a comfortable level of ambient sound that isn’t too annoying, much like a half-empty café? What if we designed lots of different kinds of spaces, the kinds of spaces cafés and other public spaces increasingly have, with coffee/tea available, but no pressure to get out of your seat and give your table to someone else? What if we created that for 70-80% of our spaces?
There’s still the question of silence.
I seem anti-silence at the moment, but I’m not, really. I’m only asking questions. I’m only suggesting that the desire for absolute silence might not be felt by the majority, as long as if there is other, really functional, comfortable, not overwhelmingly-noisy spaces on offer that clearly doesn’t promise something it can’t deliver. There will certainly be people who want absolute silence.
What if silence becomes a specialized service? Perhaps the way to break the association of a library with perfect silence in all places is to create a space that is specifically designed and pitched as entirely silent? Enclosed, with a clear demarcation between the normal zone and the dead quiet zone. If you’re in here, you’re here to be totally, completely, utterly quiet. No phones. Maybe no wifi. Maybe no 3G at all (if that’s even legal.) No ipods, no music, because sometimes you can hear them and that’s annoying. Nothing: just silence. Quiet keyboards only? How extreme can you reasonably get?
I don’t know the statistics, so I don’t know for a fact what size a space like that would need to be to accommodate the people who would want it, but from what I see so far, I imagine it probably doesn’t need to be monstrous. Maybe it’s nestled in among the stacks, using the books to muffle even the sounds of keyboards and pencils scratching. But it’s strict, exclusive, and maybe you even need to apply to be allowed in. It would have a zero tolerance policy. It would, I imagine, build it’s own culture and empower students to tell each other to shut up should they need to. The eye conversations would be epic.
We are currently encumbered by the idea that the silence rule currently applies to anything called a library. Most libraries tell you to shhh with their staff and their signage. We tell you what your behaviour has to be from one area to the next. But what if, instead of telling people how to behave, we offer the spaces where the behaviour restrictions are a service?
In some ways it’s just a matter of rebranding, isn’t it. but I know for a fact that just rebranding the quiet areas in my library as a service rather than a set of rules wouldn’t create this kind of atmosphere. There’s a bit more to it, I think. Some of it is building in the right context, making the space look markedly different, having students pass over a threshold between one commitment and another. They need to actively choose to be there. You can’t stumble in accidentally. You go there with a purpose, armed with the knowledge of what it’s going to be like. You go in there to get work done, and then you get out.
Meanwhile, you give students other really good options for non-silence. We already know there are a lot of students who cannot work in complete silence and are pretty forthright about that. They want music playing. They want to be around people. Surely this is why we remain as busy as we are, even as the use of the collection and reference services declines. On my campus, the computer labs are empty but the library is packed. Most people, it seems, want to be around other people, even if they’re doing their own work. If we build great spaces for working near others, different levels of noise, different kinds of seating, all that other good stuff, and then have the vault for the times when you want absolute silence, offered as a service from us to them…
I think that might be interesting. I think it might work.
This is the staffed help point in the bra-fitting department of Bravissimo, Covent Garden. No keyboard, just a floating ipad fixed to the wall with an arm. They didn’t add it to replace a full computer terminal, though: it’s there to replace pen and paper. It’s interesting to see the digital world sliding into what have been purely analogue spaces. Without having to commit space to a keyboard and monitor, and not being required to install an ethernet port into the wall, businesses with an internet need but limited space can now add terminals like this one to help staff provide support to their patrons.
No pun intended.
This, versus the digital presence within the stacks at Senate House Library, University of London:
Feels a little…shoehorned in, doesn’t it. It’s the same terminal in front of the service desk a few floors down. A computer’s a computer’s a computer, right?
This is a staff station at Selfridge’s. Fairly classic: I think the thin drawer under the monitor is probably a keyboard tray. I think it’s interesting when you can see management has acknowledged that staff need access to a computer, but they don’t want patrons to be confronted with the back of a monitor. This isn’t meant to be shared or used to show a patron anything; it’s a reference point for staff.
This is a customer-facing terminal at John Lewis. It’s tucked away in a spot where staff help customers with returns or special orders, and I presume it’s an attempt to highlight their online services to these people. Like a library tends to do, they put a keyboard in front of a touchscreen. Nothing particularly innovative here, unlike:
“All the stuff you need to know!” a touchscreen-only information point on Oxford Street, London. It’s designed totem-style, outdoor street furniture to provide access to a screen and to the internet for random passersby. But this is Britain, a culture that has been mobile for a very long time. Most people passing this help point have phones. Which goes some way toward explaining this:
A phone booth that doubles as a wifi hotspot on the Hampstead high street. I find this one fascinating; it’s a morphing metaphor. This is in a city that still has a popular store called Carphone Warehouse, so it’s hardly a surprise that they’re using the telephone booth metaphor for a hotspot. It’s for connecting a mobile phone, so it really is a telephone booth. It’s very similar to the other access points, except that it’s relying on the pedestrian to have a device of their own. They’re providing half the experience, not all of it. There’s a sensitivity to context in this idea that I find especially inspiring.
How best to bring digital materials into the wide-open physical world is clearly still an open question.
This is Timberyard, a very successfully-designed café that’s a big hit with students and other independent workers in Shoreditch. What strikes me about the places that have hit the right note with students is that incredibly wide variety of different kinds of seating, different kinds of spaces, and a thoughtful variety of configurations that acknowledges that not only do different people have different preferences, but one person generally has a variety of different needs from a space depending on their current task, mood, or circumstances.
The front of the house at Timberyard contains a modular shared couch, old suitcases that act as coffee tables, and plenty of outlets. Enough outlets for everyone.
A sight I’ve become accustomed to: bar seating by the window. This kind of space is almost universally understood as individual, private space within a public space. I’ve started to notice that in libraries that don’t build spaces like this, patrons will drag a chair over to a window, face it against the window, and create it. I think this kind of seating might be the most accessible and least threatening to people entering a social space like this alone. Facing outward is a kind of message that indicates that a patron is not only not looking for a conversation, but is here on their own for a reason. Again: notice the easy access to power.
A second band of bar seating, facing the wall. It’s more space that’s comfortable and available for individuals coming in alone and intimidated by the big, shared couch. But there’s another interesting thing about this bar seating:
The café provides not only wifi, but ipads for the purpose or browsing the internet while drinking your coffee or having your lunch. I’ve never seen anything like this outside of a library. When I wander through our library and see how students are using our computers, a good percentage of the time I see keyboards shoved up under the monitor and a laptop or book sitting in its place. A fixed ipad like this probably isn’t a bad replacement for a catalogue terminal, when you think of it. It makes that table far more multifunctional. It’s very generous of them to provide them, really. I found three of them around the café, admittedly none of them in use.
We’ve got individual space, very much shared, common space with the couch, and also more traditional shared space for groups: three tables for four. These are small enough that they aren’t shared by strangers; these are for people who know each other, are working together, or have decided to come here together to share the space as a group.
From above, a hint of what lies below:
Downstairs, more kinds of space, all of which seems to be designed with students in mind:
Quirky, mismatched, soft seating, in a variety of different configurations! Here they’ve got armchairs you can use as an individual, or with a group. Full-sized tables that, as you can see at the back, encourages group work. This furniture can move, but it doesn’t appear to, especially. If you don’t like one configuration, this café has many more to choose from. That’s another form of flexibility, one that doesn’t require reconfigurable tables or casters.
These group spaces, filled with the noise of people talking, also includes spaces that patrons use for individual work. As we know, there are many people who don’t like to work in complete silence or solitude. Being alone in a group is more productive for them, and you can see the evidence of that in places like this.
As in most places I’ve seen, there’s also a communal table. Interestingly, in spite of all the other available spaces at Timberyard, these folks prefer to work independently together here, with ready access to power. Communal tables are tricky, and interesting: there are signals that tell patrons they can share the table, but I don’t think they’re as simple as the size of the table or the number of chairs. That factors in, certainly, but I think the affordances of the rest of the space contributes as well. If everything else is sharable in a space, a communal table will be more shareable, even if it’s thin or smaller. I wish there were a ready and easy science to this, but I’m not sure there is. I’m really fascinated by the communal table; it’s potential is so tantalizing. For me it is the definition of flexible. It can support group work, become an instant conference room, and be a place for individual work as well, all without shifting the layout at all. It can support high tech work and digital collaboration as well as work with paper and post-it notes. It’s simple, familiar, and comforting. But I think it’s also the layout most sensitive to the context of the room and the hardest to get right. I’ve seen communal tables on my travels that I suspect don’t work that well. This isn’t one of them.
Cafés in the UK are especially interesting because they don’t have much of a culture of throwing people out if they stick around too long. In that sense, they are closer to libraries than almost anything else. We also create spaces and encourage students to stick around. Because of that, I feel like we have an incredible opportunity to create really terrific spaces without worrying about turnover. I knew I wanted to look at cafés as part of this project, but I really didn’t expect the parallels to be so strong.