Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Dark Side of Library 2.0, Part 3: Old Solutions to New Problems

Hello fellow librarian types! Again I’m flattered (though not surprised) by the thoughtfulness of the comments on my posts in this series. One of the most insightful responses was by Laura Cohen—her thoughts have helped me immensely in putting together this last part of my series.

Also, before I kick off part three, I want to clarify a few points. I am not Anti-Library 2.0, nor do I think it’s a bad thing. I like to think I’ve helped bring some 2.0 initiatives into existence at my workplace, and we have plans for more. My point had been that it can be easy to ignore the substance of Library 2.0 for the style, and to forget that Library 2.0 is really a more mindful (and more technological, when appropriate) way of doing the things we’ve been doing since Alexandria. As Ryan Deschamps mentioned in his excellent post on zero-tech Library 2.0 projects, this all really comes down to the perennial struggle to narrow the inevitable divide between information seekers and information. And on that note…

The Dark Side of Library 2.0, Part 3: Old Solutions to New Problems

I’m in my (very) late 20s. I am the youngest full-time employee at my library. I am 20 years younger than the next youngest librarian. Most of the full-time staff is in their 50s or older. We have one librarian in her 70s, and our veteran cataloger is almost 80! Both the paraprofessional position that I was initially hired into and the librarian slot I moved into after finishing my MLIS opened up due to retirements—about the only way we’ve had openings here for a while. It’s a little more obvious a generation gap at my library, but are these demographics sounding familiar to you?

When I came on board here, I had ideas, but was timid in sharing them. Here I was, a half-trained kid surrounded by people who had been doing this job all their lives. Our director came into his position the same year I started Kindergarten, for pete’s sake! Besides, I was worried about coming off as the stereotypical “cocky youngster”, throwing out dozens of half-baked ideas and annoying everyone. Plus, based on things I’d been reading and had seen in classes and my internship, there was a pretty bad cultural gap between the boomer librarians and the “nextgens”, a group that I obviously belonged to. And for all the grumping I saw in the blogosphere about those hidebound old boomers who refused to retire and who didn’t “grok” Library 2.0, it seemed like there was plenty of fault on both sides for the cultural gap.

First off, there was (and still is) some resentment on the part of younger librarians that the impending shortage of librarians is, well, still impending. While most people seem to understand the reasons behind this slow transition and are taking advantage of it to glean more knowledge from their seniors, it’s a lot less easy to be sanguine when you’re a job-seeker who can’t find an opening. Also for good or bad, we nextgens are used to instant access to information, a flat leadership structure, job mobility, constant change, and making an impact in our workplaces. All of this can make our senior colleagues a bit, well, wary. And this isn’t just generational, it’s human nature. How might you be tempted to react to some brand new student worker telling you that you were doing things all wrong? In any case, we have a situation as old as time, where the young distrust the old for allegedly being too bound by tradition, and the old distrust the young for allegedly ignoring their hard won wisdom. The end result is a divide running down the middle of our profession (and many others), and a shortage of people willing to do the work to bridge it.

Back to my new employer--there I was, in a position some of us might find familiar. I had lots of ideas, but I was also fully aware of just how ignorant I was about the basics of librarianship. Most of all, I didn’t want to alienate my new coworkers. So…what did I do? Fortunately, I didn’t assume that my new coworkers fit into the stereotype suggested by their birthdates. They also gave their new “young change agent” the benefit of the doubt. My first step was to learn as much as I could about how things were, before I started throwing out ideas about how things could be. I kept my ears and eyes open, my mouth shut (as much as possible), and LISTENED for the first month or so I was on the job. I learned about institutional history, office politics, the go-to people (and don’t go-to people) on campus, as well as the day-to-day tasks of library work that can’t be covered in any MLS program. In a nutshell, I showed everyone the respect they were entitled to, and was genuinely grateful for the information they were generously showering me with. When the time came when I had a few ideas of my own, my colleagues were ready to listen, and as enthusiastic about helping me with my ideas as I had been in assisting them with their projects. What could have become an unmanageable gulf is now an easily bridged stream. I won’t kid you and say there are never disagreements or misunderstandings, but there are remarkably few, and I am honored and humbled at how quickly this tight-knit band of librarians welcomed me into their fold.

Of course, what worked in a small academic library in flyover-land with less than 10 full-time staff might not work in your situation. However, I’ve learned a lot of things from my more experienced coworkers about customer service, reference interviewing, library instruction, and all the nuts and bolts of my job. So what if I handle the online students and am working with my new colleague (a boomer by birthday, but no less 2.0 aware than I am) to launch IM reference and a library blog? We’re doing the same things—and that’s the biggest thing I want to share about library 2.0 in this series of posts.

The core of librarianship, whether 1.0, 2.0, or whatever you want to call it, is connecting an information seeker with the information they seek. You use the best tools for that job, depending on the user’s needs or desires. Some will comment on your blog, build firefox extensions to search your OPAC and reserve books via the website, others will walk in to check out books and read the paper in the coffee bar. Most will fall somewhere in the middle. Our duty is to bridge divides. But how do we do that when we live with such wide chasms of technology, class, and age in our own community? To effectively unite our patrons with what they want, we must unite ourselves. I haven’t posted these articles because I’m a pessimist or a luddite, but because we can and must bridge these own divides in our own house before we can present a united front in the battles that we fight daily against price gouging vendors, frustrating software, an ignorant public, and politicians that challenge our patrons’ most basic rights to read and think independently. We have a lot of severe challenges on our plates, and we have GOT to stop the squabbling, listen to our less trendy fellows and start working together.

Our unique market position is that we are NOT google. We are not some corporation who makes its living on ad clicks and cares about popularity over quality (not dissing google here, just making a point). We provide our patrons with unbiased, apolitical, noncommercial access to information and opportunities to build communities to share that information FOR LITTLE OR NO CHARGE. In a world of commercials and spin, do you realize just how rare a commodity that is? THAT is the mission and message of Library 2.0. We are a haven from the world of spin. We are a refuge from the nonstop commercialization of our information sources. We are a community center in a culture that is being plied into solitude by millions of portable blinking screens. A Library is inherently a non-trendy, nonconformist and revolutionary place. That is our identity, and that is our strength. And if we stay true to those roots, while branching out into new ways to do our jobs, Library 2.0 can and will make libraries better places to be for a long time to come.