Repeat after me: Right now, it is not all available online for free. And if information created from the past is needed, it will never be all available online for free. I wish it were, but it isn't.
I used to have sanguine views about the relationship between librarianship and Knowledge Management. I haven’t had any formal education in KM, but I attended an early conference on the subject - the one which the Special Libraries Association organized in St. Louis in 2000. I used to think that librarianship and KM would co-exist and even support each other - until I worked at a law firm with a strong KM department. In fact the library is a part of KM and its rebranded name reflects this. My experience there has made me reevaluate my opinion about the ideal relationship between the library and KM.
I worry that one day, I am going to be faced with a situation where a library where I work is going to be given that horrifying ultimatum: change or die! We all like to talk about how we’re good at handling change in the abstract, but what if the change amounts to some specific things which seem very negative. For example, what if the change means lose your physical collection and half of your staff, that so there is no more physical library, but an online and telephone based research service?
I plan to work in this profession for another 30 or 40 years. I expect that during this time, it’s going to change a lot, so that the librarian of the future may be unrecognizable from the librarian of today. If that’s true, we must be braced to accept the unthinkable.
I’ve worked with librarians who when confronted with "change or die", still refuse to change - because they have integrity and because they’re planning on retiring in a few years. I don’t want to be like that, I can’t - or I may as well start planning my second career already. I’ve worked in a library that’s been shut down, and once it’s closed, it’s gone and there is no undo button to bring it back easily. But a compromised library that survives may return to its original mission when the environment is more favourable. Or if the library changes and survives, it could be that it represents the new library values in the future.
I have no idea how things will be for librarians in 30 or more years, but I think that if librarians don't get used to the idea of radical and uncomfortable change, then the question will be moot.
In that Monday Muse post, I was attempting to be a little more detached - because I was posing questions, rather than just stating my point of view.
Stating my point of view is what I do shamelessly here. For the record, personally I am inspired by the Darien Statements. As some one who doesn’t get to go to a lot of conferences and the like, reading it (as well as being aware of how it was made), was like the distilled essence of a good conference.
At the end of the day, they are just words, and yes, there are often chasms between the words stating our aspirations and how things really are. But still, we need these things, or all we’re left with is the day to day grind or short-term maneuverings. And besides, words are what I work with everyday, I must think they have value.
To use a hiking analogy, it’s a matter of reaching the right balance between paying attention to each step forward (not losing the track, not tripping over rocks or sinking into the mud) and paying attention to the beauty around - whether it be inspiring views of mountains or the wildflowers which are just off the edge of the track. Sometimes the track is very difficult and treacherous, and demands extra attention. But when we stop paying attention to the vista, the reason for the bushwalk disappears - and we may as well be on a treadmill in a gym.
I don’t want my career to be an extended stay at the gym when it could be a challenging bushwalk which takes me somewhere I want to go.
I am aware that I am a walking contradiction. One the one hand, I have a passion for using and consuming online information. On the other hand, I am in love with the natural world. Is there any way of reconciling these things? I started writing this a few days ago, on the day of the autumnal equinox.
Following an incident I tweeted about on the previous weekend, one of my former co-workers and current FaceBook friends joked that I should be a Park Ranger.
I’m sure that I’m not the only person who has daydreamed about working as a ranger. One attraction would be the location: spending extended periods of time in very beautiful places, really getting to know them, experiencing how they change with the seasons. Even more rewarding would be helping to open people’s eyes (especially younger people) to a different way of looking at the natural world. I am aware that the job would have its downsides: rangers also have to do that which could be considered menial and tedious. But then so do librarians some times, and I can live with that, even if I don’t love it.
[Anecdote which prompted me to start thinking about the similarities of librarians and rangers]
... This ranger was able give me information about this place which helped me appreciate where I was and what I was seeing. She gave meaning and context to this place. She reminded me of a good librarian.
I think that the best moments for a librarian are not all that different from a ranger. It’s when we get to see one of our users eyes open to some of the truths of our information-based world. It could be having them see that the library provides access to some amazing stuff and it’s not too difficult to use. It could be a realization that librarians are usually damn good at what they do.
I could look at other parallels between librarians and rangers. Looking specifically at access and navigating our respective spaces, the ranger uses roads and signs and maps and guided walks/activities and good camping/hiking/birding advice. The librarian uses the internet/intranet and the library catalogue and signs and library training and good research advice.
When things go bad, the ranger helps rescue those are lost, applies first aid and enforces the rules which are necessary to preserve natural environment of the protected space. Librarians can untangle the research mess which can trip up people in the library, we can apply emergency treatment to citation lists and are obliged to work within the constraints of copyright law.
The big difference between rangers and librarians is that rangers are custodians of a part of the natural world, and librarians deal with an artificial world, the library.
Traditionally, librarians weren’t just custodians of the library, but we also built it – decided what things would or wouldn’t be in the collection. Now that’s changing. We don’t control our collections as much as we used to. Yes, we still decide what books or journals we need to get in print, but the print collection is only one part of what a library does. I spend most of my time working in our online collections. My library only has limited control of these – beyond the decision to subscribe to a database/package or not, and maybe some basic configuration options – we don’t control these, our vendors do. The online collection also influences the print collection. If we can access text online, be it looseleaf service, journal or law reporter, that will make it less likely that we’ll get it in print. Finally, the library has to deal with resources completely outside its control. Despite our best efforts, we know that people are going to go to Google or Wikipedia first for business research and Australian law graduates usually prefer Austlii over anything in our online collection.
My point is that library resources which librarians have little or no control over are becoming the more important ones. They are the ones which are growing. In that way, our artificial world is becoming more chaotic and organic, closer to the natural world which the ranger deals with.
It’s probably too late for me to change careers to be a park ranger, and to be honest, on most days I’m happy as a librarian in my day job. It’s nice for me to be able to visit the Blue Mountains national park on weekends and just enjoy the place, without any of the responsibilities incumbent on one of its custodians. I imagine that it would be something like that old stereotype of librarians, those people who get to spend their days in a very peaceful place, who are able to read for pleasure all day.
Really reading anything is such a rare luxury in my work. I make a distinction between reading and skimming text. I sometimes think of myself as an information junkie because I seem to spend most of my day rummaging through texts of all kinds to find the particular information which I need. There is no time to linger, or critically consider an argument. I get what I need, and then I need to move on to find my next hit.
I’ve observed a few things about this state of mind:
The interesting thing is that research is not always like this, and I’m not always like this. Sometimes I need to switch focus, from the macro to the micro. One moment I might be weeding out large numbers of irrelevant cases or articles which were retrieved by my narrow but imperfect search. In the next moment, I need to switch focus onto particular paragraph to see if it’s really saying anything useful about this abstruse legal principle.
I like working in this micro focus, but there doesn’t seem as much need for it on most days. That’s why I’m trying to see the good in the macro focus – being an information junkie.
A few months back I went on a short walk to see Terrace Falls in the Blue Mountains. I wanted to try some different tracks in the area, a wish which led me to a track which was little better than a kangaroo pad along a steep hillside. Maybe it was once a good track and has slowly been going back to nature. Then there were all the fallen trees in my way. After scrambling over the third or fourth such obstacle in the space of fifteen minutes, I started thinking about we deal with obstacles on the path - and in work and life.
These are just six responses, I'm sure there are more ways than this, but this is all that came to me at the time. In no particular order:
- Climb over the obstacle or go under it. There are some problems which can be fixed if enough people dedicate sufficient time and effort to solving the solution. This seems like climbing over the obstacle. There are other obstacles which appear imposing at first, but when analyzed calmly, it's easy enough to find a good and non-disruptive workaround, which could be liked to squeezing under the obstacle.
- Leave the track and go around the obstacle. Sometimes the only way to solve a problem is to take an unorthodox approach that is not in the procedures book. The danger is when you have to depart too far from the track. If you're not careful about returning to the track as soon as possible, you may get lost. Last year I helped somebody who had been lost in Sassafras Gully for seven hours, because he had wandered from the track in dense and confusing terrain, got lost and panicked. Sometimes the danger is not so much the possibility of getting lost, but dealing with hazardous terrain, as depicted in the photo.
- Go through the obstacle. Imagine your obstacle is a deep muddy bog. There have been times I've been able to pick a way through the bog without sinking in. This approach calls for extremely good observation of what you can get away with. Walking on mud without sinking in also demands particular delicacy, but if the obstacle is a mass of leaves and branches from a fallen tree, brute force and tenacity help. This approach can be risky, and it's advisable to have a Plan B. What happens if you do sink into the mud? Sometimes I've tried this approach with office politics, wanting to stay above it - sometimes being successful, sometimes not.
- Remove the obstacle. This can be the heroic option. Not only are you dealing with the obstacle, but you're making sure that nobody else has to. It's easy to do with little obstacles, but larger obstacles require something extra, be it strength or a chainsaw. There are sometimes unforeseen consequences to this. You might remove the obstacle from your path and it throw into somebody else's path or cause some environmental damage. Last week I was walking in Dante's Glen near Lawson and came across some track maintenance workers clearing fallen trees from the path. I was grateful for what they were doing, but I happened to be there when they rolled a huge trunk section off the track. It crushed several small trees and ferns on its way down the gully. I can't help but wonder if there had been a better way.
- Turn back and choose a different path. In the Blue Mountains there are plenty of tracks which look promising in the beginning but then deteriorate into animal pads leading nowhere. Some people turn back too soon, because the ideas of facing any obstacles is too scary. Other people are very reluctant to turn around ever. It seems like admitting defeat, that the initial decision to take this path was wrong. But after facing a huge and seemingly insurmountable obstacle or a depressing series of smaller annoying obstacles, it's worth asking the question if this path is still the right one. This could be the situation when somebody decides to leave a relationship or a job. Once you know that you are on the wrong path, it's better to cut your losses and turn around immediately. This can be quite disheartening, but hopefully the lessons learned from this wrong turn will be helpful in the future
Any of the above five approaches are fundamentally valid, they could be the best approach depending on the person or the circumstances. There's one other response I'd like to mention. This is how it goes: If you reach the obstacle, close your eyes. Close your eyes and try not to think about whatever the obstacle is. After a while - seconds, minutes, or even years later - open your eyes again, hoping that the obstacle has disappeared. If that didn't happen, just repeat and try again until the obstacle does disappear. The hope is that if you try hard enough at ignoring the obstacle, the better the chances of it going away. No, it's not a very effective method, but I'm mentioning it because it's very popular with libraries who don't like how their users have changed lately.
"Well if you don't have what I'm looking for, what's the use of you?"
I've been dreading words like these for some time, and the other day, I heard them. I'm pleased to say that I was able to help the upset student who said these words, and afterwards, he was very appreciative. Some people are just more effusive, whether they're expressing gratitude or irritation. I am grateful for what happened because it made these things that I've been thinking about for the past few years seem that much more real.
People (and I guess here I'm talking about people in their late 20s and early 30s who seem to be the bulk of my business school students) have gotten out of the habit of using the library as the first place to go to find information. Many users have a strong perception that most of time, they'll be able to find what they need without using the library - whether as a place or as a collection of electronic resources. I'm not going to address the accuracy of that perception because that will get me side-tracked and is best left for a different post, but today I'm just accepting the existence of this perception as a fact.
The consequence of this perception is that most of my users use the library as a last resort, when they have tried searching for something and have failed.
This is a huge change from the pre-internet days, which I can just vaguely remember from my first years as an undergraduate, where research meant using a library in some shape or form, most often going into the library.
Searching often contains plenty of traps and deadends, which can make it quite frustrating at times. I think that this is a constant - the specific sorts of research frustrations might be different today than they were in 1990 - but the effect of the pitfalls is the same, to cause irritation.
The difference is that in 1990, the searcher was most often inside the library when encountering these difficulties, and from there, it was not such a leap to walk up to the reference desk and ask for help. Once as a student I remember feeling a little embarrassed because a diligent librarian noticed that I looked confunded (and I use this Harry Potter word deliberately, I think that all searchers are vulnerable to this) and asked if I needed any help. I said, "No, I'm fine thanks" and pretended to look at a journal for a few minutes longer and then walked out of the library. Later on I learned that I could have handled that better :) No, it wasn't a perfect system, and I certainly don't wish to return to it, but the library was optimized for this way of searching and supported it quite well.
Compare that with today. Our users are pretty much on their own at the beginning. Maybe they're lucky and they found something kinda ok early on, because if they didn't they're in trouble. The search techniques of amateurs (I use this word without being condescending - I am a proud to be an amateur blogger/writer and think that professionals ignore or look down upon the amateur at their peril, particularly in the area of search) seem particularly subject to diminishing returns. In this context, I think that professional searching can have three strengths -
1. A better understanding of how effective searches work, leading to better decisions about when a strategy should be persevered with, modified or abandoned.
2. A bigger bag of tricks - greater knowledge of the different search engines, proprietary databases, web resources, being familiar with the complexity and power (sometimes) of advanced search interfaces, chasing the target from sideways etc.
3. Respect for the quarry - sometimes the hunt may not be easy, sometimes the hunt may even fail. If it were always easy, there definitely would never be any need for professional hunters & gatherers of information.
(Before I end this digression, I just want to emphasize that wasn't an exhaustive list, but the other things wouldn't be relevant to this post)
Anyway, as I was mentioning, most potential library users search on their own, without going through the library or dealing with librarians until it's too late. It's very easy for somebody to waste an hour or two on an unproductive search on Google. Then out of desperation, that same person might try the library's electronic collection and will get even worse results - because a) it's so easy to muck up that crucial step of which particular database you try first and b) the search techniques which will work ok in Google generally don't work well in the proprietary databases provided by the library.
If such a person does approach the library reference desk after this ordeal, they deserve better than to be subjected to a reference interview which assumes that they've hardly thought about their subject at all. I'm not against the reference interview per se, but the sort of interview which worked in 1990 is not what we need in the twenty-first century. The whole interview-research transaction is stilted and obsolete (unless you're a special librarian and your job is to do research for somebody else, with no pretensions that you're teaching research skills). I think it better to sit with somebody, listen to them, see how they search, gauge their technique and then suggest an alternative which will point them towards what they're looking for as well as demonstrate a better way of searching which they can use in future searches.
I'll end this by restating the situation. In the past 20 years, the way that people look for information has been turned on its head. How have libraries responded to this? For the most part, it's all been by improving the library resources - we've worked hard to improve online catalogues (yes, they're not great, but they used to be much worse), create websites, provide access to electronic resources such as journals, directories and databases, and more recently, things like federated search. But improved resources alone are not enough to stop people from wondering what we're useful for. While paying attention to improving resources, we've neglected services. Before, a well-maintained collection was the service. It's different now because people have access to tremendous information resources, what they're lacking is someone to help them use these resources effectively to find what they're looking. What is needed a fundamental repositioning of what librarians are about, we provide services to help people find, evaluate and use information effectively. Maintaining a collection and providing resources are still relevant, but only in so far as they support the main purpose.