Jeff Barry - Future of Librarians Interview

Jeff Barry runs Endless Hybrids and designs books, but for readers who may not know you could you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your background?

I've been a librarian since 1992 and have worked at several universities in the U.S., including the University of Tennessee and Old Dominion University. Most recently, I was director of digital library programs and technology at the University of Miami (Florida). Two years ago I decided to take a break from librarianship and moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina where I co-founded a graphic design firm that specializes in book design. My specific interests as a librarian are the management of technology and the digitization of cultural heritage materials.

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?

As a user, I relied on the library's collection of journals and non-fiction books. For some reason, I usually purchased my own fiction books from bookstores rather than using the library for reading novels.

In searching for information my first stop has for a long time been the Internet search engines, mostly Google. Even as a librarian with access to hundreds of scholarly databases, I found myself searching Google first. Mainly, I think, because it's quick and easy and usually turned up something relevant, often enough to satisfy my specific information needs. And, fortunately, as a librarian I'm smart enough to know how to evaluate the information gained from searching the net. If I needed more in-depth resources, then I would access the library's databases.

Based on your expertise, what are the biggest differences between Argentina and the United States when it comes to libraries?

While in Argentina there is a huge literary culture of bookstores and reading, there is a very limited support for libraries. The concept of a public library where one can borrow books is very limited, almost non-existent. While there is a public library system in Buenos Aires, there are very few branches and the overall size of the collection among all branches is quite small. The National Library of Argentina is quite large yet has such restrictive policies, even on non-rare material, that most people are discouraged from even entering the National Library.

University libraries within Argentina are not very well funded. Many academic libraries in Argentina are not as good as small public libraries in the U.S. That's a very unfortunate situation for the students and faculty at these universities. Most students have to buy their course readings from photocopy stores, which is quite the cottage business for the photocopy places. It's really quite interesting to go into one of those photocopy stores near the universities and see the hundreds of readings that are waiting for the students to purchase. I'm assume that all these places are in flagrant violation of copyright laws unless there's some obscure provision in Argentine law that provides this level of usage. But, in reality, it is the only way that the students can access the reading materials that are needed.

What about the digitization of books in Argentina?

Yes, there are a few notable digitization projects underway. One is the Proyecto Patrimonio Historico at the University of Buenos Aires. Another is the Catlogo Digital del Patrimonio Cultural by the city government of Buenos Aires.

Is Web 2.0 affecting the Internet landscape in Argentina, and is that transferring over into a Library 2.0 consciousness in schools and libraries?

At least in Buenos Aires, there is a very broad understanding and use of the Internet at what one would call the Web 2.0 level. Broadband access is very common, Internet kiosks are all over the city, and there are a number of cafes with WiFi. Buenos Aires is a very high-tech society. It seems that most local businesses even have Flash-based websites and the use of digital audio and video on local websites is very common.

I tend to avoid use of the Library 2.0 phrase.

I doubt that the latest in Internet technologies have shifted into schools and libraries in Argentina on a broad scale. However, there is an interesting project on digital culture and education coming out of a research division at the University of Buenos Aires. A co-director of that project is very active in developing the use of technology at a Jewish school in Buenos Aires and they seem to be doing some extraordinary things with educational technology. However, that school is definitely not the norm.

Based on your experience in Argentina, what would you say is the future of libraries in less developed countries?

It's difficult to foster the development of a library culture in less developed countries. There are so many competing priorities and cultural issues with which people are grappling with, that libraries - as a concept and as institutions - do not receive a lot of attention.

Areas for libraries in less developed countries that are likely more successful are the archival collections, efforts to preserve materials pertaining to the cultural heritage of a specific city or nation. These are essential activities that can only be done locally. And, I do have to say, that in Buenos Aires there are a number of very good archival collections.

Perhaps the biggest information gap that I see in less developed countries is the lack of access to scholarly resources that have been commercialized, i.e., the article and citation databases that are generally available to users of libraries in the U.S.

The lack of access to these resources by the general public is a particular problem. In the U.S. I often heard librarians say that this wasn't a problem since people could and should just use their public library. And, it's true that in the U.S. many (most?) public library systems now provide some type of online access to commercial databases for their users. However, in less developed countries it is impossible for the public libraries to provide these resources.

And now that Google searches often display restricted information resources only available to subscribers of JSTOR, Project Muse, Emerald, or many other providers, then the gap between those who have access and those who do not is becoming clearer. I do think that it's great that Google is indexing these resources. But it's just very frustrating not to have access to that material and knowing that the material is unavailable to me as long as I'm living in a less developed country. Of course, most providers have a mechanism to purchase the material on a per article basis, but if you're living on a peso income then it's certainly not an impulse purchase.

I'm very interested to see what evolves with Google Book Search. Despite the howls and complaints of publishers, I think that broader access to the content of books through a service like Google would be a tremendous benefit to the spread of knowledge throughout the world. I look forward to the day when one can buy a downloadable version of any book available through Google Books.

I don't ever expect that level of service to be freely available, though it should be for the out-of-copyright material. While Google Book Search links to services from which to buy books, the delivery of material to countries like Argentina that are purchased online is very unreliable due to the inefficiencies of the postal system. Indeed, I've abandoned efforts to acquire books via Amazon for shipment directly to Buenos Aires. Now, I have books shipped to friends in the U.S. whom I know might be visiting Argentina, which is not a very practical way of getting reading material.

So despite the lack of a strong library culture in Argentina, there is increasing access to technology along with the digitization of local libraries - and libraries around the world. Do you see technology creating more of a library culture?

Good question. Technology certainly is a significant force in developing an information culture. Now, with an information culture, which is clearly becoming one of the defining characteristics of the age in which we live, that information environment as it exists within a developing country may or may not be fostered through the efforts of libraries. And, for the most part, people may not need to know that librarians are behind the scenes managing and developing the information environment. Actually, as I think about it, even for developed countries, it's not necessarily important for obtaining funding from a parent institution that the general public recognize the role of libraries in supporting an information culture. Librarians just need to do what they do: develop and offer great information resources and services.

In your opinion, what are the most useful features of libraries today?

I've always thought that libraries are defined by two things: collections (print and digital) and services. In many cases, one of those services is the physical space of the library, a place to read and interact with others in the community.

What would you say are the most useless features of libraries today? What can libraries do to eliminate them?

Well, that's an interesting question and I'm not sure I can identify a generic answer. Every library has a mission to serve a specific community. The nature of that community defines what services are essential and which are less than necessary. What works well in an academic library may be entirely inappropriate for a public library or even for another, specific academic library.

The question, most often, is not whether an aspect or feature is useless but what other services can be offered if that service is eliminated? Since libraries face severe shortages in funding and staffing, libraries must be very diligent about analyzing their services to ensure that the best set of services are being delivered to their community.

The biggest challenges facing libraries are the same as always, not the technological ones but the organizational issues: planning, staff training, and management.

Any follow-up thoughts?

A very important aspect of education at all levels to which libraries must pay attention is the evolution of writing. Writing today is not just about books, print versus online, blogs, or even e-books. And writing in the 21st century is not just about words and letters. While prose is still essential, there is a new form of communication that involves the composition of text, images, audio, and video into a meaningful document.

We are still in the very early stages of learning how to create these multimedia documents but it will be a dominant form of communication. Libraries need to be actively involved in providing resources that can be remixed in engaging ways. While libraries have digitized a lot of material, much of that material is not easily incorporated into new creative works. Of course, intellectual property issues and copyright are often barriers to these endeavors. Libraries have much more work to do in this area. But, to be fair, there are so many competing issues for libraries. However, the emergence of these multimedia documents is something that libraries must face and must also develop ways to preserve these new types of documents over time. For me, personally, that is the most exciting and dynamic potential for librarianship.

And it should be noted, having just said that, I do run a company focused on book design, books for print. So, while I obviously do not think that printed books will disappear at any point in my lifetime, I certainly feel that there are variations on the book that exist in digital media.

Thank you Jeff for taking the time to talk with us about the world's libraries. Be sure to check out Jeff's blog for more of his thoughts on libraries!

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