Posted by: Steven Harris | January 11, 2010

A library is a gerund

DOK Delft Concept Center

DOK Delft Concept Center - from the Shifted Librarian

Just after Christmas, in a fit of year-end resolving, I started tweeting potential new mantras for the year. The first I sent out was: a library isn’t a thing, it’s a service. It took about 3 seconds for Joshua Neff to suggest that the library was an experience. That got me thinking that my initial idea had been largely from the librarian perspective and not the user perspective. Ranti Junus pointed out that it could be both. Of course! A library is a place (physical or virtual) where librarian services and user needs interact to form a worthwhile experience. For both!

I’ve been talking for ages about how librarians shouldn’t be thinking of libraries simply as collections of stuff. The benefit of libraries is not [only] in the accumulation of information. Just as important is what the librarian does with the information to make it more useful and how they help customers do even more stuff with it.

None of this is new really. Librarians have long talked about the importance of public service. The Libqual survey tools were developed to measure the quality of libraries based on something other than collection size. Library 2.0 has always been about enhancing the user experience. There are even librarians whose title is “user experience librarian.” My holiday ruminations had actually been driven by trying to digest an article by Lorcan Dempsey and a presentation by David Lankes. Dempsey writes about how Web 2.0 is made up of two processes, concentration and diffusion, concentration describing the attraction large gatherings (collections or people) have on us, and diffusion encompasses those tools that empower each user to do their own thing. That, it some sense, typifies my ideas about the tension between library collections and library services. Lankes, on the other hand, had the audacity to suggest at the Charleston Conference, a gathering of publishers and library acquisitions folks, that the future of libraries was not in amassing “recorded knowledge,” but rather in aiding users to create knowledge. He said, “we’re the right profession, uniquely positioned to lead in the knowledge age.”

I once rejected the word “knowledge” as significant in librarianship. Knowledge, to my old way of thinking, was something that happened in the brain of each individual user. We can’t control that, I thought. That’s a personal thing. As an analog in this line of thinking, “information” was much more significant for libraries and librarians. Given that kind of model, accumulating the greatest possible amount of information is the most important thing a librarian could do. That model also suggests that the libraries with the largest collections are the “best” libraries. Obviously, the stagnant or dwindling budgets of libraries, coupled with the explosion of information sources available, makes one worry about the long-term viability of that model. No library can hope to afford to acquire and maintain anything but a small sampling of the world’s information. Libraries that adhere to this model will always be inadequate. Librarians and library users in this scenario will continually suffer disappointment. In order to anticipate every need or interest, a library would need to already have every possible, and some impossible, pieces of information. Not practical.

The fact that librarians have already thought about this issue so extensively probably explains why we took such offense when 2.0 guru Seth Godin made to suggest what libraries should “do to become relevant in the digital age.” Godin suggests that librarians should “train people to take intellectual initiative,” as if we hadn’t been working on that mission for years. Thanks for stating the obvious, Seth. (Smacks forehead, said one librarian.) The “given ’em a fish or train ’em to fish” kind of debate has been part of our professional discourse for ages. What the Godin incident suggests is that a large part of our user population (including those who are already well versed in the 2.0 meme) still think of libraries as things not as services. They still measure a library’s success by whether the bit of data they want is already sitting on the shelf (physical or otherwise) and not on the role the library played in discovering that bit of data. To them, size still matters. This is an especially distressing situation as we try to plan for the future of libraries. How can we get our user populations to accept and participate in the “library of the future,” if they have strongly ingrained ideas based on the library of the past? This is, I think, the biggest marketing and PR problem libraries have ever faced.

The benefit we need to sell to our communities is the library as service or experience. The library as place were information experiences take place, where knowledge is made, is a much more viable, valuable, and sustainable mission for us to pursue. Part of the experience will be the acquisition of the right pieces of information at the point of need. The idea that the information will already be sitting physically in the library will come to seem more and more absurd. But for many years, there will be those who disagree. We need to convince them otherwise.



  1. Thanks for the link to Designing Better Libraries. Since you know about the blog you know that I’ve been writing fairly regularly about the library as an experience – which is more than just being a service – and more than just delivering good customer service. As you’ll read in other DBL posts, experiences are the result of an intentional design process. They are not random. So to just say the library is an experience leads to the question – what is the experience and how do we ensure it’s a unique, differentiated, memorable experience – not a bad experience? That’s the challenge the profession needs to work on – designing the library experience. Thanks for including KUAL and ACRLog in your blogroll.

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by theanalogdivide: another great #godingate post (via @srharris19):

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