Helene Blowers - Future of Librarians Interview

Helene Blowers is the mind behind Library Bytes, co-author of Weaving a Library Web: A guide to Developing Children's Websites, and is probably most well known for project Learning 2.0. But for readers who don't know you, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Sure. Currently, I'm the Technology Director for the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County. I started with PLCMC nearly a dozen years ago as the first Library Resources trainer assisting staff to develop new technical and computer skills for the digital age. In the mid-nineties, I assumed the role of Web Services Director and lead the development of several award winning library service sites including StoryPlace.org, BookHive.org, ReadersClub.org and Brarydog.net.

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?

I love questions like these, because this where my passion for libraries arises from - being a user. As a mother of two daughters, ages 7 and 5, we are frequent users of our local branch. My girls love the computer games, picking out book bundles, and playing at the craft table. There's always a drop in craft that they can do and they just love the "experience" of being at the library, as do I.

What was your inspiration for starting Learning 2.0?

Frustration! ...and an article by Stephen Abram. The frustration part came after I did a series of workshops for staff on RSS and blogs and realized that after three months, I had only reached about 60 staff. Although the workshops were well received, it was obvious that I needed a better approach than instructor-led training if I was going to reach a large portion of our 540 member staff in a short timeframe.

As I was pondering this and trying hard to come up with a better solution, I stumbled across an article in Information Outlook written by Stephen Abram titled 43 Things you or I might want to do this year. This article lead me to the personal goal setting site 43Things.com and from there the idea of Learning 2.0: 23 Things was born.

There are a lot of Web 2.0 gadgets out there. Why these particlular 23 things, and not others? (You've got Flickr, but no MySpace)

The choice of which 23 Things to cover in the lessons was partly determined by the access to the technology within our library setting and part by just the sheer desire to keep the program manageable. I had originally planned to try and have staff do 43 Things, but as I began developing all the discovery exercises and podcasts, I realized that I also needed to keep it manageable for myself. Keeping the program to 23 things made it very manageable and obtainable for staff.

What would you say is the single most important technology to Library 2.0?

Honestly, they are all important. But from my perspective the most important of these technologies for librarians to have a firm grasp on is RSS (Really Simple Syndication). If you have a good handle on how to use RSS and news aggregators to keep on top of all the information (and new technologies) that is out there, I believe the rest of the knowledge can easily fall into place.

In many ways, 23 Things seems like a sort of catch-up-fast effort. So librarians who accomplish these 23 steps will be on par with most tech-savvy teenagers. What, then, distinguishes librarians? What makes them relevant and important, after they catch up with Web 2.0 technologies?

Librarians are great at not only aggregating information but also at helping information seekers connect the dots. Their knowledge and skills can help users facilitate not only information overload but also help them validate (through many other sources) information that comes from social sources.

Have you noticed any resistance to 23 things?

No. To the contrary, I've found that library staff have readily welcomed this approach to learning. To me personally the three most important lessons in Learning 2.0 have absolutely nothing to do with technology. These are the "things" that reinforce lifelong learning and the focus of cultural changes. Exercise #2, The 7.5 Habits of highly Effective Learners, sets up the premise for the whole program and reminds participants that they control their learning, not the institution. Exercise #15, encourages participants to explore cultural changes in libraries as a result of Web 2.0 and the last exercise, #23, asks them to reflect on their journey. If you read any of the individual blog entries for these three things, you can easily see that there are many library staff out there ready and willing to help lead real change.

Your Learning 2.0 effort uses a lot of positive reinforcement (prizes and giveaways) to help people get on track. None of these Learning 2.0 changes have been required, but instead are highly suggested and incentivized with prizes. Is it working, and impacting libraries, or do you foresee a minimum proficiency in Web 2.0 technologies being required, eventually, in order to keep one's job?

As a senior manager within my library, I'm high on rewarding excellence and encouraging staff to stretch themselves in new areas instead of holding them accountable. I think accountability has its place, but I'm not quite convinced it goes hand in hand with learning. But when some of these new skills become 'core competencies' then we might see some changes. For the time being, I believe it's important to encourage staff to step outside their comfort zone. These Web 2.0 technologies are new to almost everyone and at the rate they keep emerging, it's important to just encourage staff to "play" and "explore".

As to whether or not it's working, I'd have to say an affirmative "yes". Already over a hundred libraries across the world have launched their own programs and I continue to receive inquiries. This indicates to me that Learning 2.0 is onto to something big and is a program that can transcend into almost any discipline.

What are the greatest advantages of libraries today?

Libraries have great legacies as community gathering places, and as more and more information moves online, people are finding greater value in personal connections. Today's flourishing libraries are dramatically different from the libraries of even two decades ago. They are lively places of collaboration, conversation, education, leisure activities and even casual dining. As information repositories, libraries have easily been surpassed by the Internet, but as community learning hubs, libraries rock!

What are their greatest challenges?

I believe the greatest challenges for libraries may also come from their legacy which unfortunately is burdened with lots of old fashion stereotypes. Yes, there are still some libraries that haven't made it into the 21st century. And that's why Learning 2.0 and other similar programs are so important.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us, you can keep up with Helene at LibraryBytes.com, and remember check out her 23 Steps to 2.0 proficiency for librarians!

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