Jenny Levine - Future of Librarians Interview

Jenny Levine is the Internet Development Specialist & Strategy Guide at the American Library Association, and blogs at The Shifted Librarian, but for readers who may not know you, could you tell us a little bit more about your background and what you do?

Sure, when I graduated from library school in 1992, I didn't know much about computers. I had a school email account, but I rarely used it. I used WordPerfect to create some bibliographies, but I really hadn't done much since playing with my parents' Apple IIe in the early 80s. In fact, I had to have someone else do my resume in WordPerfect because I didn't know how to format it properly.

So no one has been more surprised at the route my career has taken than me. At my first public library job out of school (reference librarian), I ended up becoming the "techie" by default because no one else wanted to un-jam the printers and floppy disks. One day a patron asked for a recipe for Irish Soda Bread, and I couldn't find it in our collection. So I decided to try the CompuServe account I had just found out we had (that no one ever used) to fill the patron's need. Sure enough, there was a recipe I was able to print out for her. She was happy, and I was hooked. I started playing with telnet, gopher, archie, email (for real), lynx, and eventually Mosaic.

I got my CNA Novell in 1996 and became the Technology Coordinator at a library where we became the first public library to offer [dial-up] internet access for the public in Chicago's south suburbs. That job lasted less than a year, though, when the opportunity arose to move to the regional system level where I could help hundreds of libraries with this new-fangled internet stuff. I spent nine years helping my libraries learn the web, HTML, blogging, instant messaging, and other emerging technologies. Now I get to do this for ALA and help our professional organization do these things, a role that has been very rewarding so far. And we're just getting started!

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

This is embarrassing to admit, but I don't use my library all that much. Part of it is the fines. I love browsing the books there, but inevitably I end up taking a few books home, I don't get them back on top, and I end up paying a lot in fines. So now I only go to the library when I need something specific. I do, however, use their online services more often. Occasionally I look up and request a book via the catalog, but mostly it's searching their databases and instant messaging questions to them. I don't think I'm very different from most people who don't read a lot due to time constraints and/or who don't have children.

Because I'm a librarian, I know when I should start a search in a library database versus on the open web. Clearly that's an advantage that most people don't have, so in that respect I'm more unique. Unless it's a search, though, I'm pretty much out on the web, rather than on my library's website.

They don't have any RSS feeds, which makes it more difficult since I can't add them to my main information flow (my aggregator).

You've worked with a lot of technology, from telnet and compuserve to today's blogs and wikis. You've no doubt seen a lot of tools fall into oblivion, while things like email have stuck. In the Web 2.0 environment, what's the single most exciting software technology your working with, and do you feel it will still be around in 5, 10 years?

I'll answer this questions in two ways, first in the terms of "technology", and secondly as "trends". In terms of a technology, I guess I would call it "the box," although if I had to narrow it down it would be easy to label it "blogging." By that I mean the ability to focus on the content and contribute to the collective by knowing nothing more than how to type in a box. That can actually mean blogging, comments, wikis, instant messaging (Meebo Rooms), Twitter, and a growing number of applications. I think it's as powerful a revolution as the printing press.

In terms of a trend, though, I would have to say it's mashups and APIs. In other words, the ability to take completely disaggregated content and mash it up together in different ways (often with unintended consequences) in different places (or all in one place). We're seeing a huge shift in this direction thanks to RSS and mapping services, but I think we've just scratched the surface. I think this piece will completely change how people create, view, handle, exchange, use, interpret, and flow information. I think it will be just as revolutionary as the first days of the web, which is why I'm such a huge believer in Web 2.0(+).

What's the coolest gadget today? And will it be around in 5, 10 years?

The coolest gadget is the smartphone that can handle all of your basic contact flow (addresses, dates, tasks, etc.) but also be a portable entertainment device (audio plus video, both creation and consumption) plus connect you to the network and offer GPS-based services. It will definitely be around in 5-10 years, although obviously in a more robust and even more powerful version. It will be your connection to the world, completely customized for you, and all of your information will flow through it.

Hopefully it will be easier to read, maybe even fold-up so you can read newspapers and books on it, too.

Your blog is called the Shifted Librarian, reflected the shifted nature of information in place and time. Yet you also talk about your love for books. What is all this Web 2.0 technology and digitization doing to physical library space and the physical book?

Technology's impact on the physical library and the physical book are two very different things. On the one hand, physical books will be around forever, and there's no need for that to change for fiction genres. We'll see a shift in reference and nonfiction books as they move to the digital world and become disaggregated. We'll be able to assemble our own books from different pieces, all online, in much the same way we can assemble our own music albums from different pieces right now (iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster, etc.). There will be less demand for books as the online world and gaming, along with the next iteration of television (online), continue to take up more and more of peoples' attention.

This will not be the case for physical libraries, though. More than ever, we will need a physical place to come together, to build local community, and to retreat from the constant onslaught of the commercial world. The library provides such a safe place, especially for younger folks and seniors. We're seeing a huge increase in the use of libraries for computer (mostly internet) usage, as well as multimedia materials (DVDs), and as locations for gaming. People use libraries for these types of services because they either don't have access to them anywhere else (part of the digital divide issue) or the service is much more enjoyable and satisfying when it's a communal experience people can share together (such as gaming, knitting groups, etc.). The physical public library is the heart of any community and will remain so for decades.

How is the role of librarians changing?

Obviously we're no longer gatekeepers of information, but our role is shifting to that of the guide, the trusted expert. Which we've always been, but you had to come to us to physically get the information, which is what has changed most dramatically. Expertise is another issue, as we move into an era of networked collective intelligence, but there is simply no substitute for the knowledge and guidance a librarian can provide. Those services will become ever more important as information overload grows and hits even more of our population.

In addition, there are numerous other options available to us if we want to take them, most of which revolve around training. For example, to help folks deal with information overload, we could teach them to use RSS aggregators and even help start them off with localized or customized OPML files of feeds. Some libraries have already begun offering a next generation of computer classes that help explain and navigate the new tools and information landscape. The Princeton Public Library has a "tech garage" where class participants can play with new devices in a hands-on way with guidance from expert librarians.

We can be a lot more proactive about information literacy, as well, elevating our efforts to fill the gap that is widening in regards to media literacies. We can help parents better understand things like gaming, help teach our youth how to be safe online, teach everyone how to manage their online identities, and in general help elevate the level of political discourse and democracy in our country. Pretty noble and lofty goals, but we could do it, and I actually believe libraries are the only institutions that can do this.

What are libraries' greatest attributes?

Libraries are the only trusted, impartial institution left in our society that is free and open to anyone and everyone. Add in a people factor that consists of experts who put up with low salaries out of a desire to just help people, and you have a pretty unique environment that doesn't exist anywhere else these days. No other agency in our lives levels the playing field and offers the same opportunities to everyone that libraries do.

What are the biggest challenges to libraries today?

Far and away it's funding. We can't continue to provide the level of service we have in the past for the number of services we provide *and* take on these new roles without more financial support. Heck, even just stabilizing budgets that are static yet losing to inflation and cost-of-living increases would be a good start. If we continue to tax cap our libraries and don't recognize that they need increases in income the same way we as individuals do, then we marginalize one of our greatest resources, and we shouldn't be surprised when they're not open when we need them, when they can't help us they way they should be able to, or when we can't get the expert help we've come to expect. As other pieces of our lives offload services (such as local government moving services to an online-only option), libraries become even more important. We have to better support them financially to let them fulfill those roles.

How can librarians best market what they do, promoting the importance of libraries today?

That's a really interesting question, one that I've been struggling with myself. I'm not sure I have a good answer, because we do a lot but no one seems to notice. That said, we need better marketing in new places to new audiences. The single best thing a library could do would be to hire a marketing/PR person, but that means one less reference, youth services, circulation, online content, programmer, etc. position. Or maybe fewer resources available to patrons.

We also need to decide what message it is we want to market. Libraries tend to just tell everyone everything we do and hope something sticks. We need to hammer home some of the essentials and tout the new things we do that no one knows about. We need to fix our websites, catalogs, and databases to be easier to use and incorporate our content into other sites so that we stop forcing people to remember to come to us when they need us, because clearly that isn't happening online, even though we have the most authoritative databases. A big part of it is just not hiding what we have anymore and making it easier to find and use.

Many libraries don't have a budget for this sort of thing. What are some inexpensive or free ways for librarians to market libraries?

This is really where Library 2.0 comes into play, because we finally have some inexpensive tools and avenues available to us that we haven't had before. In the past, we've often talked about "going where the users are," but we've only been able to do it in the physical world. Now blogs, RSS, instant messaging, open APIs, etc., all help us implement this strategy online. For example, now our digital image collections can integrate with the outside world via sites like Flickr. RSS lets us display the latest additions to our catalogs on classroom website. Instant messaging literally makes us buddies with our users so that we are waiting in the background, now a visible help click in their activity flow.

And we can get pretty creative with some of this stuff. I've always wondered about supplementing newspaper articles with links to library resources, something we could more easily do now. And in terms of actual marketing, I know that at one point, the Bloomington (IL) Public Library had an ad on the local newspaper's website. It was fed by an RSS feed generated at the Library, so they could dynamically rotate ads for programs, library news, etc. I think blogs offer excellent ways to collaborate with local partners (for any type of library), which will raise the visibility of library resources and efforts. Experimenting with texting information to patrons (especially overdue notices or program reminders) lets us push that content to them in a way that is more convenient for them (as opposed to having to visit and log into our OPACs). Visual tools such as mapping sites and tag cloud creators let us visually present information that is easier for patrons to digest and interact with in places other than on our websites.

That's the kind of thinking I believe we need to stretch, and it's great to see so many discussions about this online. In fact, one of the best uses of 2.0 tools for the profession is the community sites that allow us to have those conversations, bounce ideas off each other, inspire each other, and learn from each other, which in turns leads us to improved services for our users.

Thank you Jenny for taking the time to share your thoughts. You can keep up with Jenny at her blog, The Shifted Librarian.

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