Hard to believe, but August will mark three years since I joined the BC Libraries Cooperative and began my journey into (mostly Public) LibraryLand. It’s been an interesting trip so far, a decently steep learning curve both about libraries and also about becoming an IT Systems Manager. As a way to ease back into writing, I thought I’d reflect on some of the things I’ve learned along the way. (And please excuse my generalizations as I go; there are of course always important exceptions and these are meant to be personal reflections, not eternal truths.)

Libraries (and librarians) do much more than you think

Image from http://creativesavingsblog.com/

Like most people, before entering Libraryland I mainly associated libraries with their collections, especially books. And of course those are important – books (and other media, both digital and physical) aren’t going away and providing access to them to their communities is core to libraries’ identities and work. But the more time you spend with librarians, the more you realize providing access to their collection is only one part of what they do.

First off is all the stuff that is formally part of their offering and yet often overlooked – most libraries I have come across offer a large amount of programming and instruction. From summer reading clubs to digital literacy for seniors, from community-led workshops to guest speakers, libraries offer huge opportunities for learning and cultural engagement. Add to this the growing types of collections they manage, from tools to seeds, from people to musical instruments and it’s obvious that libraries are more than just “access to books.”

But they are MUCH more. Increasingly, libraries are on the front lines of helping some of the most disadvantaged communities around. Talk to library workers (especially urban ones but I don’t think just them) and the stories they can tell you of the ways, both formal and informal, that they help the homeless, the mentally ill, the addicted…it’s staggering. And then there is the role of libraries in welcoming new immigrants, helping them negotiate the maze of services and systems in a new country, in a language often not their first, while also striving to provide access to resources from their originating cultures and languages.

And then there’s the digital – not just access to digital resources, but how, as guardians of literacy librarians are thrust onto the front lines of helping increase “digital literacy.” And Making. And Participatory Culture. And…

Yep, libraries/librarians do a lot more than you think. I have certainly missed out much. It’s important for me to list it, because in the posts to come, I will inevitably call on libraries to DO EVEN MORE! Which, given the current demands, seems unreasonable at best. I’ll get to why in another post about my own “theory of change” but for now I just want to acknowledge that if I ever seem harsh in urging libraries to do more, it’s not because I don’t know they already do a lot.

Not all Libraries are the same

Public Libraries. Academic Libraries. K-12 School Libraries. Corporate Libraries. Prison Libraries. We call them all “libraries” and for sure they share many common elements, but some of the differences are important not to lose. For me, coming from working with post-secs, the big eye opener was the PUBLIC in “Public Libraries.” Public Libraries take this seriously – the focus on inclusiveness, access for ALL – that anyone who walks through their doors (and indeed those who don’t too) are potentially their patrons – never waivers. This changes things. They do not have the luxury of either a homogeneous population nor a limited one. This stretches resources but at the same time instills a local civic-mindedness that is really refreshing.

And like in other sectors I’ve worked, the gulf between urban libraries (read “BIG”) and rural ones (mainly “small”) is large. While the province does provide some funding which is especially critical to smaller libraries, by and large library funding is municipal, and its the nature of smaller places to have smaller budgets. Just like in other sectors, this matters. Larger entities, acting with the best intentions for their own constituents, can often “make markets” and advance service paradigms which are untenable for smaller libraries. This isn’t at all exclusive to libraries (“what kind of LMS do they run? Well, if it’s good enough for them…”) but seems worse in my experience.

Librarians are a passionate bunch (even if it’s hard to tell sometimes)

Image source Ann Price Photography

When you think of librarians, what’s the first thing you think about? Sadly it’s probably a bespectacled cardigan-wearing woman shushing you. Not necessarily a picture of passion (except maybe for quiet.) But in my encounters with librarians, I have come to see them as (quietly yet ferociously) passionate folks. Passionate about books, reading and learning, obviously. But maybe less obviously but no less important, passionate about inclusion, diversity, access, social justice & truth. My three years working with and among them has made me constantly aware of my privilege, and that’s not a bad thing – too often it’s something I’ve taken for granted (as one does, that’s the nature of privilege.) Don’t get me wrong, librarians aren’t perfect and sometimes the attention to process and inclusiveness can feel paralyzing (neck & neck here with academia) but ultimately I’d rather that than not at all. Like my time in ed tech, one of the things I value so highly about working in this space is that the question of Values is always alive and the conversations are usually rich and deep.

Libraries are still struggling to figure out their relationship to the Internet

This one may irk a few (if there is anyone actually reading, and assuming the above haven’t already irked them enough to stop reading by now) but there’s not a lot that I’ve seen in 3 years that’s disabused me of the notion I had coming in that libraries are still struggling to figure out how to relate to increasingly ubiquitous internet access and its corollaries, participatory and open cultures. Their responses to the Internet have been mostly threefold as far as I can see:

  1. put their own services online;
  2. start to offer licensed access to some online content, and finally
  3. focus on in-branch access for the most disadvantaged.

As to 1, their efforts haven’t been any worse than lots of other public sector groups: applications are often beholden to legacy business models and technologies (ILS, ahem) and websites often lag contemporary UX practices by a bunch of years. But mostly libraries have shifted their systems online ok.

Regarding 2, whether it’s ebooks or streaming video, this has not necessarily gone so great. Not because you can’t access digital content through libraries, you can and that’s growing. But libraries are very much being made to suffer the consequences of big media’s own difficulties in coping with media shift and are facing increasingly challenging costs to provide this access. You can’t fully blame them for this issue, media shift and the network are not small matters and myriad sectors are still struggling to figure out their new models. But the way forward likely needs to include other options else digital content licenses will empty the coffers.

On 3, libraries were one of the first to provide internet access outside of universities, and there are probably very few branches you can visit today that do not have both public access terminals and wifi. And while I do think this kind of approach only ends up addressing a very small proportion of their patrons’ internet access needs, it’s still a need that is not gone away and will likely continue to exist, especially given the constantly rising costs of mobile internet and the still real digital divide of urban and rural Canada. But as I’ll argue elsewhere, the real scarcity now isn’t internet access, its access to an unsurveilled and uncensored internet.

Where I am seeing them show up much less, but which I think has huge potential, is bringing some of their core values – inclusiveness, access for all, not-for-profit – to p2p/participatory culture, to the “sharing economy.” And unless they start to figure this out, I fear they will continue to be “on” the internet but not “of” it. More on this soon.

IT is like an iceberg, most of it is unseen

Image from http://www.antarcticimages.co.uk/In my 25 years working I’ve been on both sides of the fence, working in IT departments and being served by IT departments. I’ve always had some idea of what effort goes into providing reliable enterprise computing. But actually managing it at scale? I have really come to appreciate how much work that is never seen, by anyone, goes in to supporting the systems you use. Sure, when the network goes down or a server blows up, everyone appreciates the IT person coming along to fix it. But ensuring it doesn’t go down in the first place, or that if it does you can recover it? That is work that happens every day by diligent and talented people and often goes unnoticed and unremarked.

The other aspect of the IT iceberg is all the considerations that go into building an app/site, both the technology debt and the future-proofing along with the efforts to work for the broadest set of users and needs as you can. Rare is the time when you’re offered a problem with no encumbrances and unlimited budget. Especially when you’re talking about organizations (and workflows) that long preceded the net. So while I used to sneer at this and that site’s or software’s inelegance as much as the next person, I am greatly chastened now, with a lot more empathy for these unseen factors.

Anyways, this post has gone on a while now and it’s main goal, brushing away some of the writing cobwebs, is accomplished. Of course there’s a lot more I’ve had to learn in the last year, from the alphabet soup of library tech acronyms to the intricacies of networking and large scale disk storage. But mainly I’ve been reaffirmed in the believe that libraries are worth fighting for, and I feel lucky to have landed with such a plucky band of rebels fighting the good fight. – SWL