Jessamyn West - Future of Librarians Interview

Jessamyn West blogs at Jessamyn.com, Librarian.net, Metafilter, and is co-editor of Revolting Librarians Redux. She does public speaking on library technology topics as well as adult education and outreach for technology to her community's local libraries. But let's pretend for a moment that you weren't involved in libraries. How do you personally use the library?

I eat books. I go to the library all the time. Check out tons of books, CDs and DVDs. I look up things in the online databases frequently to solve the problems I have, or the problems other people have. I sit in the library. I check email at the library. I use library wireless. I chat with reference librarians about stuff. I've always been a pretty heavy library user.

When looking for information I start with Google and work from there. If Google doesn't help, I start someplace else. Wikipedia, databases, I email librarian friends - it really depends. At Ask MetaFilter, I look up information for people there a lot, in various places. So I'm all over the place at the library, but I do a chunk of my searching online. Sometimes using library stuff, sometimes not.

How does being a librarian tie into how you train adults in technology?

A lot of what I teach people is internet skills including email and eBay. Since I'm a librarian, I take my knowledge of bibliographic instruction pretty seriously when I teach people how to find information. Also, libraries in my area are one of the few places that people without a lot of technology can go to get online or learn about technology. So working with the libraries really has a great impact, especially working with librarians.

How technological do these libraries get?

It's all over the place. Mostly thanks to Gates Foundation grants, a lot of libraries have computers. Yet they don't have systems people. Often it's someone from town who is good with computers, or a librarian who knows some stuff, but they don't often have the time or the training to have a systematic approach to their technology. So I help them get broadband and/or wireless, get their catalog online, research and purchase new computers, and maintain their current computers. In some cases I do user instruction by making materials for the libraries to give out. I try to direct patrons who need extra help into the adult ed programs, and help librarians learn - and know - more about technology so they can pass it all on to their patrons.

It runs the gamut: the libraries I work with are small, they serve from between 500-3,000 people, and have between one and five computers. They all have broadband now, but most didn't when I started this two years ago. That's not all me, certainly - times and broadband availability have changed - but sometimes it's literally helping them strong arm the cable company into coming and doing the install, even though the provider's system says that the library isn't in their service area.

So with more and more broadband access, is technology really becoming part of the library/librarian culture?

Yes and no. A lot of the librarians use technology professionally in their day to day life, such as email to keep in touch with the Department of Libraries and the Vermont Library Association and their family and friends. But not a lot think to offer technological solutions to their patrons. So if they have a newsletter, it's printed. If they do reference, it's in person or on the phone, but not usually via email (this changes often based on how big the library is, but in my area this is true).

For a lot of people, librarians included, technology hasn't really penetrated their lives that much. They don't think of it as an integral, embedded part of the lives of others. It can be hard to imagine how someone like me basically doesn't think about "checking my email" - it's simply on all the time, and I'm often near my computer - even if I'm in bed reading, I usually have my laptop on somewhere in the room and it beeps if I get a message. So, no. I don't think it's at all easy or part of the culture in small libraries. Although in larger libraries in other places, it's very much part of the culture.

Is this lack of technological integration in small libraries a problem?

Yeah, it's a huge problem. I think in small communities, technology can really solve some problems. Shopping online saves you money, for example. Not just by being able to hunt for deals and not just buy what's on the shelf at Staples, but also in gas just getting to a store.

Also, the younger generations are more plugged in, but not understanding them and their tools and lifestyles is a small problem.

The bigger issue is that the more we see e-government being something that the US Government pushes, the more basic technology literacy is going to be necessary - not helpful, but necessary - in order to do things like pay taxes and interact with your elected representatives. We saw this in stark relief after Hurricane Katrina, where people had to fill out FEMA forms online (or wait through hours of busy signals). If you didn't know how to use a computer, it was a terrible time to have to learn.

Many people out here just choose not to use technology and that's a valid choice. But there are cases, like driving a car, you may all of a sudden need to use it. And then you're out of luck because there are really not people to help you learn - for adults, not kids still in school - libraries do that. So it's important that libraries stay at least somewhat current so that their communities can too.

So you're saying libraries are a resource for the community to keep up on tech skills.

In many cases, the only resource.

Can you talk more about the adult education you do?

My job breaks down into three parts.

First, I have a drop-in time at the high school computer lab after school, two days a week; just computers with broadband and me to answer questions. You might be surprised how many people have computers, but just don't know how to do a particular thing. The big deal with the digital divide is that in a lot of cases their friends don't even know the answer. So I put them in touch with someone who might know (or at least know when they may need a professional to step in, like a repair guy or a teacher).

Secondly, I teach classes such as basic excel, basic word, etc. Both of these are places that libraries can send patrons to, who need extra help. We advertise extensively to libraries.

Third, I do direct outreach to libraries. I do visits, teach classes in the library, defrag hard drives, install computers, etc. This is just another facet of my job at the high school. In small communities, nothing is really totally separate from anything.

Why are libraries so integral to educating the community about computers?

Because there is no other public space. Where I live, there aren't solutions like "go to an Internet cafe" or "pay someone to come to your house." People are broke anyhow. Also, librarians just want to help people find things and solve their information needs. A lot of times that takes place online. Not always, but there is a lot of stuff online and basic tech literacy skills are required for that. So if people don't know how to read and come to the library, the library can refer them too a literacy program. But if they come in not knowing how to use a computer, they often can't send them anywhere. That is a larger social problem, but the work we do between the adult ed programs and the libraries try to address that.

What's your take on tech literacy?

People have been working on statistics for tech literacy, but it's hard to assess what it actually means. I read a lot of the Pew reports on this sort of thing: who is online, what they do online, etc. The big thing that jumps out at me is that it used to be that the length of time you had "been online" for was the largest indicator of what you were doing online and your level of technology know-how and literacy. So if you had been online for ten years and I had been online for five, you would know more than me. That has changed. Now, broadband access is the bigger predictor, the longer you have a high speed connection, the more you'll know and the more you can use and what there isn't, is a national level program for addressing tech illiteracy.

What are libraries doing about this?

Suffering. Some of them say "it's not our job." Some of them try to make it their job by teaching classes. The American Library Association has a lot of good ideas but can't make libraries do anything. The Gates Foundation had a huge program to put computers in libraries and they gave libraries money for technology, a very easy path to buy windows stuff, and support. Out here, that's how it stayed. Libraries didn't upgrade, they didn't suddenly get technologically competent. In fact, in a lot of ways they were outside of their comfort zones, getting computers before they might have "naturally."

So the good news was that libraries have computers. The bad news was that they're not ready for them, so they administer them spottily. It's been a little messy out my way, and I do have a particular axe to grind on this topic. So this is my own perspective not necessarily the viewpoint of others.

But where Carnegie built buildings, MS gave out technology - but it's a different thing, a really different thing. There have been a lot of different attempts; bigger libraries have better approaches to this, generally because they have more money for systems people, technology, space, etc.

Will smaller libraries eventually follow the example of bigger libraries?

No, I don't think so. They have different priorities. Unless their funding structures radically change, they will stay smaller scale. They have limits - in size and hours and populations - that don't make big library solutions work for them in many cases. We do see smaller libraries get absorbed into bigger systems, so in MA they have consortiums where if you are a little library you can still have a shared catalog and some shared systems people.

Sometimes that means the small library loses some of its identity, which is better than closing. A problem out here is that each library is funded by the town, which means they sort of have a reason to stay local - and they don't have money to do bigger stuff. In a location with a lack of public space, being the only public space counts for a lot. I guess my reply to your question would be "should they?"

You mentioned earlier that a lot of librarians, despite using email and other technology, don't think to offer technological solutions to their patrons.

Right, they don't use technology except when they need to, it's not "fun" for them. This is, again, only in my area. But I'm always surprised how much librarians in my area love to meet face to face when email is easier, and when driving is hard or the distances are long. It's just a comfort level thing I suppose.

When I was at Burning Man, for example, there was a Wi-Fi network there. I worked at the information desk for a while and one of the women I worked with, when asked "is there Internet here?" would say no. Because to her the Internet and email were "work" and burning man was not about work, and so she didn't want people to feel that they needed to be at work, check-in etc. It was strange.

Makes me think of how Helene Blowers' 23 Things is getting a bunch of librarians to view these new Web 2.0 technologies as "fun," giving prizes for learning how to blog, use wikis, photo sharing sites, etc.

In a non-rural environment, that totally works, I love her project. But if you work 14 hours a week you have your hands full with basic stuff. I'm not saying we don't have librarians who are super tech savvy and excited, just that I understand why many of them don't get more on the bandwagon. I think Helene's project is a great model for other libraries to use. I often say to librarians during my tech talks: "I don't need to you love these technologies, but when someone comes up to you asking about them, I'd like it to not be the first time you've ever heard of them."

But what about the fact that many youth are already pretty tech savvy. What does it serve them that a librarian who is partially -- or even completely -- tech savvy, when they themselves already know all about it? Why is a librarian important?

Well, tech savvy doesn't mean anything about depth of knowledge. It takes all kinds. So you have kids born in the digital generation who still don't really know how, for example, to use Google. That means they probably can't use the (admittedly a little difficult to use) library catalog and that will be a problem for them in school.

Understanding the idea of "online" requires some attention and patience. You personally don't have to spend the time to do it, but it's good if someone does.

To tell you the truth, I find the "why is a librarian important?" question sort of annoying because the answer is always "it depends." A lot of the people who ask the question don't need or use libraries and so they see it through their own lens. These are people that can afford books and are afraid of, or dislike, the public. They don't have to care about libraries for poor people and immigrants and people who love books or just want to be social or be inside someplace warm. It's not a question of "oh well I wish they were nicer" - libraries are critical.

There is a huge digital divide. It would be nice to think that just because a 13-year old can use MySpace that they have some level of online savvy. And they do have some, but they're still 13. They need to know how to be safe online, how to search for things, how to know when to give up and when to not give up and how to find what they want - not just what's easy to get at in Google. That's harder and complicated and it's good to have a neutral person to help you. Not your teacher, not your mom, not your boss.

Would you say this concept of neutrality is getting back to the idea of the librarian as someone devoted to serving the public?

Yeah. And the other aspect is privacy. 49 US states have laws on the books about patron privacy and, USA Patriot Act notwithstanding, what you do in the library stays in the library. You get that with your doctor, your lawyer and your librarian and almost no place else. And you get that less as more, and more companies want to effectively market to you, and want your personal information for that. So I see it as a service oriented profession where academic librarians are doing something very different from public librarians, but they're still meeting needs and offering a very particular sort of environment, which matters, especially if you're in a democracy. How can you vote if you can't even get decent information?

Technology is intensifying the tracking of users. Such rich data is a great gift to online marketers, but has caused definite concerns about privacy. As libraries become increasingly technological, how would you like to see peoples' privacy kept intact?

Well I'd like it to be the same as it has been. In fact, it's problematic because the more libraries outsource services - and even products, like eBooks and what not- the more that data is potentially outside our ability to keep private. So the big USA Patriot Act challenge in Connecticut actually involved people from a library services company, not an actual library.

Lack of tech savviness among librarians impacts these librarians who don't know how to clear their Internet caches, or cookies, or sign-in lists on IM software - all that stuff theoretically is a privacy issue. In fact, software can help our users be MORE private if we'd let it. But a lot of the software isn't under our control, which is a problem.

Where do you see librarians three years from now?

I'd like to see librarians be more networked, both with each other and with their patrons. I'd like to see services that can be delivered digitally going that way - and with librarians being able to positively promote those services; we're seeing in the 2.0 world the incredible effects of networks. Libraries still seem, in some ways, like a destination and not a thruway. But they can be both and I'd like to see that.

Do you see small, rural libraries really picking up on technological innovation and not only using it to communicate amongst themselves, but really serve the user?

No. Honestly, not until they see a value for themselves and/or the users, and right now the populations here aren't online enough to make a difference.

I can see libraries figuring out "wow we can save money with open source," for example, and trying that. Or "we can connect to our patrons via technology" and trying that. I made a dopey little movie about putting Ubuntu in one of the libraries I work with, and right away it was seen by 200x the number of people that even live in that town, which is crazy in some ways. But once libraries figure out they can use that to do the things they're already doing - not that they need a blog because "everyone has one" - I think they'll find ways to use the technology effectively.

Libraries have real choices to use things that are cheaper, easier, and more socially responsible, and out here in rural USA those things matter. Being able to use online tools to replace buying bad tools form vendors is a more viable option now than it used to be. So I think we'll see more of that, but some of it is mind share and making it relevant to the people who work in libraries - these jobs out here don't turn over much so progress is slow. And most people don't mind or, frankly, they don't live out here.

A slower pace of life...but it's everyone's pace of life. Rural librarians are slower to pick up technology, and so are their users. So overall it's fine.

"Fine" is relative. There is still the hurricane problem.

I think there needs to be baseline technology know-how and understanding, and I work at that as do many other librarians I know. But when I give my talk on the library 2.0 stuff I stress how you need to do it at your pace, and you need to do it in line with your community, and I always get people coming up to me afterwards  saying "thanks for saying that! I felt like I was already so far behind." I feel bad that people feel that way. There's a "keeping up with the cool kids" vibe that is hard to ignore, but that in many ways librarians need to ignore to honor where they've come from, as well as where they are going, in order to choose appropriate technologies but not be force fed.

As libraries move into the future, I also want to see everyone still reading books too because I like books and will probably always be a book reader.

Paper, or eBooks?

Paper. eBooks, currently, are just an industry driven scam in my opinion. Until we have open standards they're not going to evolve to be useful. Right now they have so much DRM built into them, there is an elaborate set of hurdles just to get them in most cases. I think there are a lot of people who want eBooks BUT publishers still want to make money on them in the same way they do in the publishing industry. That's going to shift, and right now it's not shifting gracefully.

What's the best example of a digitization project promoting open standards?

The Internet. HTML and image formats that are usable by anyone and any software. Can you imagine not being able to write HTML because it was proprietary and you had to pay a license fee to buy software that would write it?

That's what the doc format is like for Word, it's just that Word is sort of ubiquitous. Anyone can build software that uses the transfer protocols that make up the Internet, and share it. It's super. As far as other standards, there are a lot that seem ubiquitous like pdf and mp3, but it's dicey: what if Adobe changes their mind?

So it's not so much open standards as opening up your API and letting people share and remix data the way they want as well. So not everyone needs to adopt PNG as a standard image format, but it's more about building tools that allow people to mess with and repurpose images, generally the same with library content. A lot of the digital content we provide dead ends at our lousy tools, bad databases that you can't link to, hard to use online catalogs, data that can't be shared without fees, etc. Or nebulous copyright laws that no one understands, and so people err on one side or the other, but they just wait for the lawsuits. We can't even show a movie at our library and advertise it using the movie's title in the paper. It's insane. Frankly embarrassing.

Is there a silver bullet to free up content, such as the efforts of Internet Archive?

In my opinion, yes. You have to be willing to push the envelope on some of this ridiculousness. Support people who support open standards and openly point the finger at people who inhibit sharing purely out of greed. I'm not against people making money, but for the music industry, for example, to assume that their revenue stream isn't going to drastically change once people stop buying CDs is ludicrous. I love the Internet Archive and they are doing a lot of envelope pushing, which is good. I only wish their search function were better.

Thank you so much Jessamyn for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. You can keep up with Jessamyn by reading her blog Jessamyn.com or Librarian.net.

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