Chad Boeninger - Future of Librarians Interview

Chad F. Boeninger is the Reference & Instruction Technology Coordinator at Ohio and the Business and Economics Bibliographer at Ohio University's Alden Library. He created the The Biz Wiki and blogs at Library Voice. But for readers who may not know you, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?

Sure, my work at the library includes general reference duties and subject-specific reference in the area of business and economics. I have the opportunity to teach a lot of instruction classes to business students, which allows me to develop a good working relationship with our business researchers. I also manage our library's website with another colleague, and I administer all of the library's wikis, blogs, and other php/mysql driven resources. My boss has referred to me as an incubator of technology ideas. My role is to investigate and implement new technologies in order to enhance the library's services and resources.

Now let's pretend for a minute that you were not involved in libraries. How do you personally use the library? How do you search for and access information in general?

This is a rather difficult question for me, as I have a hard time imagining not being involved in libraries. In college (1993-1998) I used the library to use computers to type papers and to check out books. I was just exposed to email during this time as well, so the library was the place I went to check email. Today, I imagine most of my searching would be done via the web, as I would probably think the way most people do, that Google has all the answers. The thought of that is quite scary. As far as books go, I love going to Barnes & Noble or Borders to look for books. Their collections are usually so easy to browse, and all the books have nice, shiny covers. If I was not a librarian, I would most likely go to these bookstores to get books, provided I had the money. This too is kind of sad, as my parents and grandmother, all teachers, would take me to the library on a regular basis to get books. While those experiences were always great, I don't think they would make me a library user today, and there is probably something wrong with that.

What do you find are the most useless features of libraries today, and what can libraries do to eliminate them?

I would say that the most useless features that libraries have is the policies that many institutions have. Now we have policies for a reason, but in many cases, the policies need to change. They are what is holding us back by creating barriers with our users. Most of these policies make it so that users do not want to use the physical space of the library.

Traditional and long-time users of the library have no problem with these policies, as this is the way things have always been. Be quiet, no cell phones, no food or drink, no checking email on library computers. Those are all things that libraries have been saying for years. Unfortunately, business as usual is not going to bring more users into the library. These policies have to change in order for the library to cultivate a new group of patrons.

I think one of the biggest challenges for libraries is to be relevant in the future. My parents still use the library, and I know families who take their kids to the library, but you don't see people my age in libraries very often. It's my perception that the Gen X and Millenial crowd likes a place where they can sit down, be comfortable, browse some books and magazines, surf for free on the wireless web, talk in a reasonable tone, use their cell phones, and have a cup of coffee. Most libraries don't offer this, so we are currently driving ourselves out of business by not adapting to the need of our consumers. Not adapting to change is a very bad business model.

And what are the most useful aspects of libraries?

With the web and the information glut we have now, the best thing that libraries can do is to educate users about finding information. Librarians have always been good at selecting quality information sources, regardless of format, and that needs to continue. Libraries can serve as filters for information, so that users can go to library websites or the library to find something that really meets their needs.

What is your role in implementing Library 2.0 at your library?

As I mentioned above, I am sort of the incubator of new ideas. I got us started with blogs in 2004, and then later with wikis in 2005. I also got our IM reference program up and running. My role is to investigate some of these ideas and see how our library might best use a particular technology to enhance services and sources. While I use my tech skills to get things up and running, I also see myself very much in the role of a cheerleader.

I first experiment with things on my own, and then after I've gotten enough experience, I attempt to rally my colleagues around an idea. Fortunately, I have a great bunch of colleagues, and they have been very willing to try new things.

How is Library 2.0 changing the culture of your workplace? How is it affecting interaction between librarians as well as interaction between librarians and users?

Honestly, we really have not had much feedback from our users. I know that my business students appreciate my blog, wiki, meebo widget, and my IM availability. While they may see these tools as a way to contact me or find information more easily, I see the tools as a way to make my job easier. These tools allow me to extend my virtual presence, so I often do not need to be available in person in order for students to find what they need.

I'm not sure if Library 2.0 has necessarily changed the culture in our workplace. I would say that by implementing various technologies, my colleagues demonstrate that there is more to serving patrons than just providing traditional reference services, and there are other ways to communicate than just phone or email. We've got folks communicating via wikis, blogs, and IM, and we've got staff members who are on Facebook and doing podcasts. Our staff is definitely on board with Library 2.0, and they are using it in very cool ways.

There are many technologies that characterize Web 2.0. What would you say is the single most important technology?

Tough one. Right now I would say YouTube. YouTube gives users the opportunity for everyone to have their films online, to share with others. For better or worse, our culture will never be the same, as you never know when someone might have a camera. Despite this fear of voyeurism, YouTube gives viewers the opportunity to rate and provide comments on user-generated content. This is a very cool model.

Can you tell me a little more about the Biz Wiki you set up?

The Biz Wiki is my attempt to take the content of my old, traditional research guides, and put the content in an easy-to-manage and easy-to-use package. Wiki software lends itself very nicely to doing this. I've written quite a bit on the topic. You can find information about the project at Higher Ed blog.

The primary audience of the Biz Wiki is business researchers at Ohio University. While anyone can use the freely available resources mentioned in the wiki and other sections of the library website, we don't specifically cater to businesses. Many business libraries offer services (for a fee) to businesses, but we really don't have the demand for that here. However, many of our student projects do benefit the local community. Our business cluster students are given actual clients to work with in the community, so the research they put into their projects does benefit the community members/client in some way. So you could say that we are indirectly serving the local business population by helping the students research and learn.

What is the future of libraries?

Tough question, and I could go on forever here. To make it short, the future of libraries is in the hands of librarians, administrators, and policy makers. If we continue doing business as usual with out of date policies, clunky OPACS, and other barriers to our users, then we may need to find other ways to earn a living. However, If we are willing to try new things and constantly solicit input from our current users (and our current non-users) , and apply that input to new policies, programs, buildings, services, and collections, then the future of libraries will be brighter than ever.

Thank you so much Chad for taking the time to talk with us, you can keep up with Chad at Library Voice, check out the Biz Wiki or read more about it here and here.

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