Who Moved My Library?

Commentary on the changing world of libraries, from the viewpoint of a corporate library.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

NPR Talk of the Nation - "If a Library is Bookless, What's In It?"

Instead of studying, this time for an Organizational Behavior midterm, I am once again trying to find content for blog posts.

ResourceShelf mentioned a NPR Talk of the Nation episode that covers "If a Library is Bookless, What's In It?" Guests on this episode were: Tom Frey, Executive Director of The DaVinci Institute, Jo Haight-Sarling, Director of Access and Technology Services at the Denver Public Library System, and Charles Brown, Director of the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, N.C..

Commentary

This proved to be an interesting program. I was drawn to it because the special library I currently work in is in the process of downsizing our physical collection. We are trying to create a more robust virtual library; however we are also experiencing budget woes. We will be working for a long time trying to replace the physical items we lost with virtual items. In the interim we will be the best library we can be and provide the best service we can provide!

The program gave great insights into how some public libraries are incorporating new technologies into their services. I’m intrigued by the digital media check out system the Denver Public Library has implemented. The problem I have is which of my special library materials would be best suited for such a system. Charles Brown’s (do you think he has a dog named Snoopy?) comments on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s new ImaginOn facility were especially exciting. Their combined children’s library and children’s theater facility sounds so fun! Parents and children who are able to use the facility are so lucky!

Tom Frey’s comments were especially interesting. I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain around his vision of the future search engines being able to search on smells and textures. I think he is correct that libraries are in the process of redefining themselves. As this transition takes place, growing pains will be experienced by both patrons and libraries.

The most disturbing part of the program was callers’ comments. One caller called and asked Frey about how to limit a search to only retrieve materials from the library. I was shocked by this question and Frey directed him to check out his library’s website to find options to search just the library. However, the caller clarified that he would like to retrieve results from the library’s actual collection in search results. I felt a little better after this clarification. At this point Frey commented that new technologies are making this more and more possible. He brought up a new book scanner. This new scanner allows the user to insert an entire book. The scanner then digitizes the entire book. Amazing! I was surprised there was no talk of Google Book Search. Another comment that disturbed me was a caller who suggested that libraries of the future are already upon us with the advent of the internet. He suggested a role for librarians of the future would be technicians managing the technology. However, I was pleased with Frey’s response. He reminded the caller that libraries and librarians are more than sources of information. He also reminded the caller that even though we are in an era where an entire generation of people believes that if it’s not online it doesn’t exist. That simply is not true. There are many examples of information that has not been digitized and is not online. Thank you Tom Frey for saying this so well!

While this program didn’t help me come up with more ideas for my present situation it was still valuable for understanding what others are doing and the general public’s comments about those activities. Below is a summary of the program, if you’re interested.

Program Summary

Jo Haight-Sarling discussed initiatives at the Denver Public Library to bring more technology into their libraries, evolving with the times. Denver Public Library has been using technology to provide reference services 24 hours a day 7 days a week for years. More recently, they've been experimenting with podcasting story times and providing downloadable books, audiobooks and movies for patrons. The downloaded media would be available for the patron to use for the typical check out period and when that period is over digital rights management software would "make it disappear." As Haight-Sarling mentions, "these items don't require shelf space and they're never late!" When asked by the host, if eventually some people would come to the conclusion that the library doesn't need a building Haight-Sarling responds that the lack of need for a library building might be true of some patrons who utilize the "virtual library" as another branch, however they also use technology to bring people into the library and make them aware of services that they might not have otherwise known about, such as cultural programming, cooking demonstrations, author talks, etc. For example, they will podcast an event and listeners of the podcast will realize that such programs are taking place and make a point to participate in the next program. Additionally, there is still a demand for traditional library services, even from those patrons who utilize the virtual library services.

Tom Frey commended the Denver Public library for experimenting with different technologies. Frey predicts that in the coming years we will see a dramatic change in services libraries provide. He predicts that libraries will continually have to prove their relevance as the ways we access information continues to change. Frey's take on search technology: currently its text based but Frey predicts that in the future people will be able to search on smells, tastes, etc. For example: 'I want something that smells like this loaf of bread,' or 'I want to find something that tastes like the margarita I just enjoyed,' or 'I want to find something that has this level of reflectivity,' or 'I want to find what areas in the world have this barometric pressure.' With this level of complexity being added to our search technologies he even predicts that in the future there will be people who get college degrees in search!

On the phone a caller asks if it's possible to restrict a search to retrieve only information from libraries! Frey suggests that the caller can do this with a couple of clicks on his library's site. The caller clarifies that he wants his results to also include information from a library's physical collection. At this point Frey brings up a new book scanner that you can put a book into and the scanner will digitize the entire book, thus making it searchable!

Another caller asks about the availability of high quality digital images and brings the point that those without fast connections rural patrons will experience inconveniences. Frey responds that larger bandwidth options are being made available to the public for free, but that the library's role is not to be an ISP, providing bandwidth to patrons. An email comment suggests that libraries evolve into community centers to bring in patrons. Frey comments that libraries will be transitioning from information centers to cultural centers with information as a part of the larger equation.

Charles Brown discusses his library's collaboration with a local theater. The major youth library in downtown Charlotte is a library facility with a programmatic partnership with the Children's Theater of Charlotte. The facility, named ImaginOn, houses 30,000 square feet of library materials for youths and has two stages that serve as the home of the Children's Theater of Charlotte. Instead of story time they have Story Jars where children can create their own story, with music and costumes. When the story has been created the child can swipe their library card and "deposit" it into the jar or distribute it to relatives or friends. The facility was made possible because of tremendous community support.

Back to Frey, he is asked if the certainty of the definition of the library will change as the library itself evolves? His response: in the middle ages information was so precious libraries would chain books to lecterns. Today, information doesn't have to come in book form (e.g. audiobooks). Libraries have always been about transmitting information to their patrons. What people need to realize is that today, information doesn't equal books. A caller points out the value that librarians add. Frey agrees that librarians are great resources for helping people become comfortable with the new technologies.

A caller comments that libraries of the future are already upon us with the advent of the internet. He says that it's been suggested that a database be created through a science of combination (combining architectural science, material science, medical science, etc). Searches can then be made to that database. He further comments that librarians of the "old" libraries acted as filters making decisions to acquire books in one area and not another. Librarians of the "new" libraries should be technicians. Frey comments that he would agree with that if the sole purpose of librarians were a source of information. However, librarians are much more than that. Children librarians conduct story times, libraries are a place to gather. Therefore libraries are much more than a conduit to information. Caller then questions whether librarians are truly grasping in their hearts the concept of new technologies and are they learning how to teach the public about how to use this new library. Frey reminds the caller that not all information is on computers. He states that we are at an era of an entire generation of people who believe that if it's not online it doesn’t exist. However, there are many examples of information that has not been digitized and therefore does not exist online. He also reminds the caller that 2/3 of the world are connected online, leaving 1/3 unconnected. This leaves libraries as a vital link. Libraries are trying to redefine themselves. As libraries transition there will be anxieties about what things should be included and not, what should be funded and not funded.

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