Laura Solomon - Future of Librarians Interview

A former children's librarian, Laura Solomon currently is at the Cleveland Public Library as the Web Applications Supervisor, helping equip libraries with tech tools they need to serve virtual customers. She blogs at Library Geek Woes and has a background in web development and design. But 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?

Although I grew up as a heavy library user and still really enjoy browsing in libraries, I will be the first to admit that my time in them would be much more limited nowadays if I didn't have a toddler. Like many new parents, I use libraries for obtaining new bedtime stories and finding parenting books (sometimes, even big-people bedtime stories without pictures!). My first response to any information need or want is to go online. Google is my first stop, just like it is for many others. I don't have the time to use a traditional library to its fullest. I know I'm not alone. I believe in libraries; I think libraries are important, but realistically they are not as convenient as I would wish.

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

I like browsing, but rarely have time for it. Much has been written about this, but I think libraries have a lot to learn from the Netflix model. Netflix would not have been so successful if the founders hadn't figured out that people are just too darn busy to go to the video store. Google is successful because it brings information (and we can certainly argue the authority of that information) directly to the user. Any aspect of a library that forces the user to come to them, rather than the other way around, is problematic. Not every library allows their patrons to renew or order books online. That would be a start. For their next trick, I would just adore it if my books came to my front door after I ordered them online. (Yes, I know that's a whole other ball game, but I can wish.) Generally speaking, libraries have to truly put the customer first. Make things as convenient as possible? I'm there.

What do you feel are the most useful features of libraries today?

They have so much! They are a one-stop-shop for so many things. They can do more than what a retail bookstore does, can provide more reliable information than Google, create quality children's programming, teach job skills to immigrants, bring my grandmother up to speed on using Microsoft Word, the list goes on and on and on, and absolutely NO other entity can do all of this. The problem is marketing this message and also in learning to make connections in the ways recent generations communicate. Libraries need to find better ways to tell people they do all this stuff. And to show that what they do is still relevant.

So how can librarians better market what libraries have to offer?

I think it's time for libraries to realize that they need some truly professional-level PR services (i.e large marketing agency) to market themselves collectively. Libraries keep selling themselves individually. That has some merit of course, except that I believe the public is slowly losing the context for that kind of advertising. First, we need to show the public why they need libraries. Then worry about promoting individual programs at individual libraries. Something I hear often is that libraries need a Got Milk? type of campaign. First, sell the idea of milk. Then start advertising individual dairies.

What if libraries don't have a budget to advertise, what are some inexpensive ways to market?

Yet another reason to have a collective, national ad campaign. But, barring that, certainly there are many ways in which libraries can now participate in online communities for very little or no cost. Every library should be able to be found on the major social networks MySpace, YouTube, del.icio.us, etc. Everybody else is at the party, why should libraries be wallflowers when they can dance, too?

Let's talk more about that. How does Library 2.0 fit into the solution for marketing libraries?

Library 2.0 implies convenience for and accommodation of the patron. If libraries had a good marketing campaign, they would capitalize on this. Nowadays, convenience is king (and, thusly, Google rules). What do progressive libraries do that makes life easier for their customers? We have to sell not only library services, but show how Library 2.0 has made those services more convenient for busy people. And who isn't busy?

You've blogged about how you feel libraries are coming to the new game too late, and they just aren't connecting with young users. Does the Library 2.0 movement present a glimmer of hope?

To me at least, I believe it does. It shows that libraries can change their business model, or at least start thinking about the need to change it. I do think there is a widespread awakening to the fact that public libraries, as a concept, are in some very troubled waters. The whole Library 2.0 movement is an indicator of that.

Your blog also has a pretty controversial tagline: Documenting the death throes of the American public library. You've also written that, "perhaps, with the advent of the Library 2.0 movement and the help of key leaders of change, libraries can be reborn, this time as something even better. Let the Phoenix Project begin!" It's been over a year since you wrote that. My question now would be, do you see the Library 2.0 evolution as a smooth progression, or a more chaotic revolution in which lots of jobs are lost?

I don't see Library 2.0 as a smooth progression, but I don't know that I would categorize it as "chaotic revolution," either. Frankly, I think we'd be lucky to get as far as that.

I can't tell you how often someone tells me that they can't effect any significant changes in their particular library because "so-and-so" doesn't "get it," and this same someone usually has a list entitled something along the lines of: "Can't Wait Until These People Retire So We Can Get Some Real Work Done Already." Libraries are fighting not only external cultural forces, but there seems to be some kind of internal battle between the "Get Its" and the "Don't Get Its/Don't Cares." I'm not sure how to resolve that; I think it would be better to have the current crop understand the need then to simply wait until they retire. I don't think we can wait that long, and some of those people on the "Can't Wait" list may really have something to contribute.

I think a revolution is needed; if we're lucky enough to get one, I think it will be slow and steady. I don't predict that jobs will be lost. Rather, I believe the nature of the jobs in libraries will continue to change radically from what they have been.

Why are librarians still important?

As long as people think libraries are important, I think librarians will be, too.

How is Library 2.0 changing librarians' roles?

It's no longer appropriate to think that librarians can just sit behind a reference desk and give good service. Library 2.0 means "a version better than the previous one." The role of the 2.0 librarian is no longer just that of information professional, but also that of someone who is going to make the customer's experience a good one. It doesn't matter whether that "experience" is real or virtual, they combine good information skills with those of a caring ambassador. Additionally, the 2.0 librarian recognizes that things change, are changing and will continue to change. One particularly apt quote: "It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory." -W. Edwards Deming

Thank you Laura for sharing your thoughts with us, to keep current with Laura Solomon's perceptions on the direction of libraries, check in with her blog, Library Geek Woes.

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