Michael Stephens - Future of Librarians Interview

Michael Stephens is Assistant Professor at Dominican University's Graduate School of Library and Information Science, is author of Web 2.0 & Libraries, an OCLC article about Librarian 2.0 skills and he blogs at Tame the Web. 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?

This is a great question and to be honest I usually only use the digital libraries I have access to. For my research and dissertation, I use the University of North Texas Libraries electronic resources. I also use various RSS feeds that search for items related to my topic and report back to me. I divide my time between Oak Park, IL, Mishawaka, IN and Traverse City, MI and have a library card for Indiana and Michigan, but I haven't gotten my Oak park card yet - even though I live in the same block as a branch of that great library. It's so easy to get busy and forget about the library just down the street, and I this is why I talk to librarians about their libraries' presence and position in people's lives.

My media consumption is quirky for a librarian. I buy books at Amazon often and use Netflix for DVDs. I buy most of my music from the iTunes music store. I carry a library of 5,000 songs, numerous TV shows and ripped movies from my personal collection around on my Mac. I do not have a TV in Oak Park, just an Internet connection, a MacBook pr,o and some trusty headphones. I get a handful of TV shows a week via ITunes.

In general, I use the web to find information. Yes, I use Google. It works for me for many things. I use many of the leased databases as well for my blogger research but also find great nuggets and links via the Biblioblogosphere. I also use Wikipedia entries to get the flavor and external links for many pop culture style topics. I mine the IMDB often in the rare moments I get to watch a film to find out more. Travel sends me to Trip Advisor, Google Maps and any number of travel review/social sites.

My number one wish is for more RSS feeds from all of the sites I use or might use. One thing I watch for is the new releases feed update every Sunday morning from Netflix. If the library could provide, and even send me the things I want from my queue, I'd be hooked.

Is this typical of today's library user or non-user?

In some ways yes: Google for information for sure. The OCLC User Perceptions report illustrates this so well. I urge librarians who have not read it to get a copy and see what folks think about libraries and searching for information. 84 percent begin with a search engine! 1percent begin with their library website. I think we'll see more of a shift to online media consumption and delivery in the next few years. This will be interesting to watch. The more information I can customize and pull directly into my device of choice the better!

You've written a lot about how technology can help librarians interact better with library users. What would you say is the single most important technology to Library 2.0?

Librarians have a set of tools available to them than can create networked, open, human conversations and exchange. With these tools, we can take our services online and out into the social web where our users are meeting and talking. The single most important technology of L2 in my mind is the Weblog. On so many levels it takes the library out to the users - if used correctly. For example, blogging library events, plans and materials, if done honestly, breeds an open, transparent environment. It makes the library human. I wrote this in my Library technology Report on Web 2.0: "It's important to remember the key benefit: a group of people writing about the news and events of the library lends a human voice to the organization. With comments enabled, conversation creates a sense of community. We're working at this ... together?" That really resonates with me. The Cluetrain Manifesto urges companies to be human and engage with their customers on that level. The same goes for libraries. The idea of "Radical Transparency" is important as well.

The tools to create a library blog, such as WordPress from www.wordpress.org, are free. Blogs allow content to get to the web faster than submitting it to a single web developer or to the over-burdened IT department. Blogging can create a flow of information to users, and allow them to comment on posts if desired. Librarians can promote their resources to users as well as promote the library. All with a simple, virtually free tool. I've written about the transparent library.

Are there any Web 2.0 technologies out there that are completely useless to Library 2.0?

I would never say "completely useless" about any 2.0 tech. we can learn from the mechanisms and affordances of each. I'm fascinated by social portals such as MusicTonic which pulls in content from various social sites around a certain band or musical artist. What could librarians take from this? Customized, user-designed portals for sure: think of what a library might do with a geneaology portal or teen portal that would pull in subjects/searches and create a dynamic environment for discovery.

Twitter has been the rage with many folks recently and I see the implications there as well. Not only is it fun, but again the affordances of a streaming, syndicated info channel can certainly be applied to what we do.

I'm glad we have that sense of experimentation and exploration amongst many library folk. I don't have time to immerse myself in all the new tools but the folks using newer tools and writing about them really help to frame what might come in the future. I urge my students to never dismiss a trend or technology without considering what it might mean for libraries and librarians in the future.

With initiatives in the community such as Helene Bowers' Learning 2.0 program, it seems a lot of librarians have been playing catch-up with technology, only now familiarizing themselves with Web 2.0 technologies - and even attitudes - while the general public is already hip to Myspace, Flickr, blogging, etc. I'm wondering if what you've described as "technolust" is even a problem: have you seen any cases of "technolust" where librarians go overboard in purchasing technology just to appear cutting edge?

Oh yes! Even today I've heard from librarians who are horrified to find their administration have signed contracts or purchased technologies without a lot of foresight and planning. In 2004, I wrote about Technolust for Library Journal and was very serious about the need for planning. The shift to Web 2.0 has eased this a bit: free or low cost tools can make projects less costly BUT the need for planning is even more important. I urge librarians coming off a Learning 2.0 course not to adopt every single tool they've studied but to plan and implement those that make the most sense and deliver the most bang for the "buck" - which in this case might be the money for staff time not the $20,000 for a virtual reference application or such.

Tech is a tool. Your library will not be cool if you outfit every librarian with a Palm pilot if they don't know how to use them, don't care, or don't get what it means for service. Too many times we throw money at a problem for a technology solution and then get bound up in the fine details and overthinking. That planning should have been done first! We are in a position to ease up and explore relatively low cost technologies and adopt those 2.0 attitudes. I advocate for it. I advocate for the hyperlinked library in the tradition of David Weinberger's excellent chapter in the Cluetrain manifesto. To me, that's letting go of that micro-management control some librarians use and letting librarians dream, innovate, and plan without red tape, endless meetings and barriers disguised as "baby steps."

More importantly, if the general public is hip to Web 2.0, and librarians are just catching up, then why are librarians relevant - even after they've caught up?

Librarians are relevant in a 2.0 world if they become guides, counselors, and educators. If they follow the shift to a more open, transparent world. If they recognize that the library can now travel with them wherever they go; the library can be at a Panera Bread, Starbucks, the train Station, etc, if the librarian is there to guide the way.

How do you see Library 2.0 changing physical library space?

This is one of my favorite parts of the discussion. I believe libraries need to encourage the heart and in the physical realm this is very important. What do your spaces say to users? What signage do you use? What rules do you impose? All of these things tell the story of your library and how the library views its customers. I agree with the folks that say create zones in the library for different user groups and make it ok to have fun at the library - gaming, DDR, etc - as well as make it comfortable and useful for others. We can learn from the "retail expectations" of our users and potential users. I was amazed to see a high end grocery store chain in Minneapolis offer a meeting room for groups. A book Club could be meeting at the store - not at the library in the near future! One goal for the L2 library might be to restablish the idea of the commons - that shared space that can be many things to many people and everyone feels ownership. I'm sorry, but a sign stating the rules of the building on the front door is not encouraging. Find ways to make policies and guidlelines friendly and welcoming.

Do you suggest selling groceries at the library?

Well, no but the idea that a grocery store chain is offering meeting room space - something libraries have done for years - says a lot to me about how once unique services found at the library are being adopted by businesses. For example, what if the same store had not only community meeting space, but a cafe with wifi, a Red Box DVD rental machine and classes about cooking and food. That's so similar to what the library down the street might be offering, it scares me. I am intrigued by the third place and I know I'm not alone.

What do you think are library users' "retail expectations," and how can you compete with grocery stores (and, more likely, bookstores) starting Book Groups away from libraries. What is the differentiating factor, and what gives libraries an edge?

"Retail expectations" include experience, choice, service and branding. Experience is that feeling you get when you go to your favorite store. I get all excited about a trip to the Apple Store here in Chicago or when I am on the road. I enjoy seeing the products, using them, chatting with Apple employees, etc. Starbucks is another retail establishment that provides a bit of experience, although I was fascinated to read the "leaked memo" about the smell of coffee in the stores and how the company wants to get back to that "experience."

Choice is that "Long Tail" of stuff that I might be interested in. I know I can get it at Amazon. I love talking with my classes about using Amazon for library services. For example, does this happen in your library: a patron makes a request, a form is filled out to be sent to the collection development department, and the librarian says "Check back in eight weeks." Instead, order it from Amazon with an Amazon prime account and get it in the building in 2 days. I've heard many librarians talking about these kind of services - even to the point of having the books mailed to the patron's home. Libraries could even buy used books - they're cheaper - to extend the budget.

Service is two-fold. Service in-person and service via our electronic entrances. I take customer service very seriously. I know I'll get good service at certain places: Apple, certain hotels, dining etc. What's the perception of library service? I think it's all over the board: some libraries have incredible staff who do whatever they can to assist the user. Other libraries have staff that just don't want to be bothered by one more request. one more transaction. If that's you, it's time to get out of public service! Electronically, our systems and catalogs need to be better (I know, it's a given in libraryland that the OPAC sucks). But it is a very serious thing. Just recently, I needed a book for my research. The library I was in at the time had such a convoluted system to even search for books, I gave up and ordered it from amazon. it was easier. What does that say? I kept thinking "The user is not broken."

Branding identifies a service or business and connotates an experience. I'm an Apple fan boy - that glowing white Apple on the wall outside the Apple store means something. Logos, consistent messages, colors all play into brand identity. I love well-branded libraries. Their logo and "look" is present not only physically but online as well. the library card, monthly fliers and mailings all look like they came from the library. If a library struggles with branding, it might mean their messages are mixed, inconsistent and maybe even confusing. One of the best things we could teach in LIS education is branding and marketing strategies. Read "A Whole New Mind" for more!

One edge for sure is the fact that we can offer access and stuff for FREE. We offer great spaces. Comfortable spaces without charge for time or use of the space. The Red Box DVD costs money, but what if the library could make it just as easy to get a movie or two at the grocery store? What if you could return your materials to the store or other spots around the community? The same goes for academic libraries. What if the librarian was actually put into the users' lives - where they move, where they spend time. The New England chapter of the American Society of Information Science and technology had a program awhile back. The title resonates with me: The Dawn of the Embedded Library: Integrating Library Services into People's Trusted Networks. I want an embedded library and librarian! This so plays into what Jenny Levine has been advocating for years: shifting services and thinking to meeting user needs in new places with new tools. The library has so much great stuff.

Now can you share any real-life examples of how your library (or other libraries that you've visited) are using the physical library space to appeal to the "heart" of the user? What's working?

I've visted libraries with lovely artwork and gallery space. I've visited libraries where young people can use technology to express themselves - to create something that they can share. I've visited beautiful buildings that inspire as well as regular buildings that house incredible collections and a willing, helpful staff. Cherry Hill Public Library in New Jersey offers the entire collection of CDs via iTunes so you can try before you buy. Ohio University libraries offer a podcast tour of the library recorded by a student. Princeton Public Library offered soccer on their meeting room big TV last year and packed the house! I think all of these things appeal to the heart of the users. It's whatever encourages me to think, learn or dream.

What's not working?

Libraries that put up barriers.

We tell stories by presenting ourselves and the library to our users. Signage, the space and the attitude of the staff carries a lot of meaning. Again, this is a serious thing to me. I saw a sign for a library that charges for Internet access - something like 15 minutes for .50 cents. I know there are economic concerns in some areas but why charge for access to an information resource, when there's free wifi down the street at Panera Bread or some coffeehouse.

Sometimes I think signage reflects the philosophy of the librarians. David Weinberger wrote in Chapter 5 of the Cluetrain Manifesto that some companies see customers as adversaries. I think it happens in libraries as well. The Hyperlinked Organization, Weinberger's title for that chapter, is much different. Hyperlinked libraries can be the same: open, transparent and welcoming to collaboration.

You frequently nod to the business world when talking about improvements in library culture. Any tips on how librarians can better market their libraries and spread the word about the importance of their jobs?

Use social tools for online presence, do an audit of the story your physical space tells: signage, a fortress like reference desk, and staff attitude. Do a Learning 2.0 course for the entire staff, not only do they get technology skills but it also promotes the idea of play, innovation and adapting to change.

We need to be where folks are and identify ourselves as a libararians. Take the lead on innovative projects to partner with local business. look for ways to get library materials to people where they need them or where they congregate.

What if there's no library/librarian marketing budget? What are some free or inexpensive ways for librarians to do this kind of marketing?

That's the beauty of web 2.0 tools. A blog is free (other than time). IM reference too. There are technologies we can use at little or no cost to further the mission of the library.

Other ideas: involving the community of users in planning new services markets those services from the get go. Having a presence in online and physical groups. Creating "librarian trading cards" for users to pick up and collect!

What are the greatest advantages of libraries today?

Free access to the world really - and so much more. I am amazed by some of the wonderful things I see play out in libraries all over the world. The best libraries come from all over, are of varying size and funding, and have some incredible, forward-thinking folks driving them. The best libraries offer access to the online information universe, a place to relax and discover, connection to the community, a place to share or tell a story and a place to meet like-minded folks as well as those who share different opinions. Friendly, honest debate may happen here. They also offer a place to share a person's experience and world view and a place to store and share a memory.

Our greatest advantage? The opportunity and promise that libraries can shift and reinvent as each generation changes - that today we can be a place for access to Web 2.0 and have gaming programs - and tomorrow it may be something just as engaging and fun. A flexible institiution is the one that will survive. One that tells its story honestly and provides value.

What are their greatest challenges?

Institutional inertia comes to mind. A lack of focus on trends and the future. An attitude of "we've always done it that way." Those things don't fly today. I think the greatest challenge does come from within. I worry that those libraries that move so slow in adapting to shifts in society and culture will never be as great as they can be. Some may even close. Telling our story is important. Proving the worth of the building, the online presence, and the people who make it all happen is important - and that's why in my book a 2.0 philosophy makes sense for this moment. Watch what's happening in business. Look at the power of the blogosphere. The libraries that embrace these ideas and attitudes will overcome the challenges of budget, and limitations of space and mindset.

Thank you Michael for taking the time to talk with us today. You can keep up with Michael Stephens at his blog, Tame the Web.

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