Thursday, August 20, 2015

What Makes a Library?

For information science professionals there isn't much doubt what a library is.  We all learn in school about how libraries are where published works go.  They're repositories of books, DVDs, magazines, journals, etc each one cataloged at the item level.  They differ from archives and museums in the type of materials within and how they are handled.  By and large the dictionary seems to agree with me.

However a library is more than simply "the place with the books".  Computer programs can contain libraries which have code necessary for them to operate.  They greatly facilitate development by reducing the need to reinvent what has already been created elsewhere.  Moreover collections of things - not just books, but CDs, DVDs, records, photographs - can be considered a library.  We also consider the physical building where all of those are located to be a library.

Its tempting to consider each of those as separate bullet points in a list which cannot be reconciled.  They're all apples and oranges, really.  We need six different definitions to refer to six different things even though its the same word being used.  The word "archives" similarly refers to either a certain type of materials managed in a specific way or the building where they are housed.

Still we can pull out a common thread from the definitions of the word "library".  They all refer to some place where information is stored.  Information is more or less a set of facts.  It lives in storage mediums of which books are the most well known, having been around for well over 1000 years.

Yet there are other ways of keeping information.  CDs, DVDs, records, hard drives, USB drives, and even physical buildings can contain information organized or not. However its a stretch to seriously call a hard drive a library.  Yes there is information there, but it may or may not be organized and is only available to those with access to the disk.

Even those mediums are changing.  People increasingly use and access information stored some where other than their computer.  The rise of cloud computing, not to mention big data, mean the tools needed to access information are becoming more sophisticated than ever.  Google is probably the biggest source of information for most people, alongside social media.

However there is a fine line between a library and a discovery tool.  A search engine is really the latter.  It contains nothing save records of your searches and other personally identifiable information.  The actual information is elsewhere in databases, web sites, and apps. A better comparison would be Ebsco Discovery Service which acts as a search engine for all of the company's database products and one's library catalog if configured to do so.

The trouble is the actual information sources are rapidly leaving the physical library which has muddied the waters.  Books still exist, and will for some time for various reasons, but many patrons increasingly want to access items available only over the internet.  Sometimes the library owns the actual materials - for example digitized photographs.  However such is not always the case.  Increasingly the library is merely a clearing house for products controlled by others, mostly private corporations. 

So there has to be something more to the concept of the library.   In a lot of people's minds, libraries are just places with books.  While nostalgia can be a powerful force, the perception is neither accurate nor helpful.  The key ingredient in what makes a library - or a museum, archive, or any similar institution - is the human factor.   Within their walls are people willing to help and guide would be patrons.  Staff may create curated exhibits, pathfinders, or further describe materials purchased elsewhere.  They may create public programs, do outreach, or provide communal spaces in which to work.  Computers, wi-fi, and maker spaces are supplements which allow patrons to take the information gleaned from the sources in the library and apply it in new and different ways.

A better analogy for a library would be a department store.  It too is a physical place full of goods purchased elsewhere.  Today almost anything sold to consumers can be bought on Amazon.  However the array of products available there is bewildering so finding what one wants can be challenging.  Brick and mortar stores have people in them who can make recommendations and point one in the right direction (at least theoretically).  Furthermore the relatively narrower choices actually makes decision making easier because there are only so many options the human brain can consider at any one time.

The idea of the library as a department store is not perfect.  Retail sales associates are typically low paid workers, where as librarians are trained professionals.  The issue of labor practices in the retail world are beyond the scope of this post.  However emphasizing the human element over the presence of books as the most important part of libraries puts us all in a far better position going forward.  It shifts the perception of the library to be something valuable rather than a holdover of the past.  A similar argument can be made for archives and museums, however they are already in a stronger position as their materials are largely unique to each institution.

Of course we all face greater challenges than simply perceptions.  Funding continues to remain a challenge. Everyone says they love libraries, but love does not pay the bills.  Giving information away for free means dependency on public agencies and donors for resources.  Ultimately the vendors end up in a stronger position.  However by changing the way people think of libraries we can at least make it easier to marshal public support and maybe even get a few more people to come through the front door.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Blurring Professional Lines

A while back a friend of mine asked how archivists could maintain core professional values while always collaborating with other professions.  It's an intriguing question, which had not occurred to me at the time.  Last year I wrote about  the differences between various branches of the information science world.   My main point was that the walls between us are largely of our own making.  There is a great deal of politics in the making of professions and sometimes that gets in the way of good ideas.

Yet we must consider the opposite point of view.  There are reasons libraries and archives do things differently.  Standards of description and access have evolved the way they did not just because people can't get along, but to meet the real world needs of practitioners.   In other words a certain amount of separation from allied professions is necessary to effectively do one's job.

But that's not really the point.  Not all collaboration is made equal and some partnerships are one sided.  Librarians, for example, vastly outnumber all other types of information professionals.  We've been around longer and our standards are more developed.  So "collaboration" between us and say archivists can easily look like the library is assimilating the archives.  It is worth pointing out that many university archives are already contained within libraries. So there is always the risk that in seeking to collaborate with our allies librarians may end up swallowing them.

I am not arguing for the very silos which now exist.  In an ever changing digital world, the boundaries between what belongs in a library and what should be in an archive is definitely blurring. A certain amount of collaboration is needed in order to operate effectively in the digital world.  So within the relatively safe confines of our offices, we absolutely should be reaching out to those across the hall and lend a hand on projects where our expertise could be of value.

My fear is that too much blurring of professional lines may render some information professionals invisible to the wider world.  If everyone who manages information looks like a librarian then we're all liable to be lumped together within the same organizational unit and forced to compete for the same money.   The same principle holds true for advocacy both within and outside our organizations. Archives probably face this problem more.  Many people don't really understand the difference between what an archivist does and what a librarian does.  If we blur the lines between us too much we risk creating confusion.  Worse, it could make archivists look redundant to cabinet level staff who do not understand the very real differences between information science professionals. The less clear those boundaries become, the harder it is to justify attending expensive conferences or asking for money for new personnel.

Ultimately what works within the processing room, may not in the board room.   Institutional politics have a very real impact on funding and staffing levels.  So while we should be working together to ensure the long term preservation of our cultural heritage, the never ending competition for dollars is more adversarial.  The library and the archives need to remain separate enough to be able to justify their continued existence but not so much so that we don't talk to each other.  It's a delicate balance. However my feeling is that those who are up and coming can walk the line.  We understand the values of collaboration well enough.   We also understand that there are bigger fish to fry.  Because while information science professionals debate what silo they belong in, Google continues its endless march towards being the only source of information people will ever want.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Technology Unites Us All

By Victorgrigas (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0
(], via Wikimedia Commons
I've written before about the differences which separate the various information science disciplines. The short version is: different philosophies, standards, and professional histories.  While everyone who works in a library, archive, museum, or related field utilizes with information they don't do so in exactly the same way.  Each of the standards and best practices used by different people serve a specific purpose.  Information is conveyed in different ways, by different occupations, for different reasons.  A librarian will catalog a book so patrons may discover it and read it.  An archivist will arrange the personal papers of the author of said book, possibly including the manuscript for the printed version, so researchers may better understand the individual's life and the context in which their work was produced.  A museum curator will preserve artifacts from that same author's life and give visitors a better idea of who they were.

However there is something more fundamental which unites everyone mentioned above: technology. By that I mean information technology. In the world of paper we really did inhabit separate worlds. But as time goes on there seems to be more and more convergence between libraries, archives, and museums.  Books and journals are increasingly becoming digital.  So too are the materials entering the archives.  And while museum objects will always be , well objects, one must now consider computers and electronic devices among their ranks with all the challenges that implies.   There is also the software we use to manage our collections, our websites, applications used in the preservation of digital materials, and more.

Everything mentioned above requires a computer in one way shape or form.   Library catalogs sit on a server probably made by either Dell, IBM, HP, or Cisco.  Again the web servers on which they sit are no different then any other. The same goes for the PCs, laptops, and mobile devices which populate our offices.  For those institutions which utilize cloud computing, the same rules apply.  Amazon Web Services is still Amazon Web Services regardless of who is using it.

The software on top of the hardware is often the same as well.  Archives and museums don't have their own separate operating systems and so collection management software will require either Linux, Windows, or maybe Mac OS X.  It might also need a Database Management System such as MySQL, Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server.   There may be other requirements such as Java.  And our websites all use HTML, CSS, plus maybe Javascript and PHP. All of these technologies are not unique to (or even created by) the information science world.

One can see why technology skills are so important.  While people associate our jobs with books, paper, and dusty old pottery at some point we all utilize information technology.  The more one knows about it, the easier one's job will be when such opportunities arise.  For example a little knowledge of Linux enables installation of Omeka on a local web server or FOG for computer cloning.  Some knowledge of programming greatly facilitates web development and reduces the need for content management systems such as WordPress.  And if one is seeking to purchase cloud-based services, some tech savvy is essential in order to make informed decisions and control costs.  Just take a look at how quickly Amazon Web Services bills can add up.

On the other hand, there is only so much we can do.  Much of the time the actual hardware is controlled by central IT departments.  There are good reasons for that as those folks know more about such things than most of us.  But some times IT policies restrict our freedom of action.  Budgets can be an even bigger obstacle.  And even for those of us who have taken the time to educate ourselves, implementing free and open source software is almost always more difficult than purchasing an off the shelf solution.   Given that a lot of people who staff libraries, archives, and museums, often come from humanities backgrounds and have little technical experience those barriers can seem insurmountable.

Yet knowledge is power.  Even if there is little room, technical knowledge can go a long way towards helping us communicate with those IT departments who hold the keys to the kingdom.  They don't always understand what cultural heritage institutions do and might very well have inaccurate views. Hence why we're sometimes overlooked when it upgrade time comes around.  It is much easier to make our voices heard if we can clearly articulate what we need and why we are important.  In other words, in-reach is far more effective if you can effectively state your needs.

Information technology often seems unintelligible.  But it doesn't have to be that way.   Few librarians need to know the finer points of configuring a Storage Area Network or how to set up High Availability in VMWare.  But knowing enough to clearly articulate why your IT department should give you a Linux web server or allow you to install ArchivesSpace will go along way.