Ten Reasons Why ‘Professional Librarian’ is an Oxymoron

Before you comment, yes, this is an unbalanced look at professionalism.    Yes, I am trolling a little bit – but with a heart that wants to lead discussion on the topic of library professionalism.    Please do write a post about why these ten reason are bullocks.

On the other hand, I often see librarians and library school students that take professionalism as a given.   I see this as unrealistic, especially in an era of rapid change.    I believe we are taught about the struggle for the professionalization of librarianship, how this is tied to sexual discrimination, and seem to rely on Ranganathan’s 5 laws every time something puts our professionalization into jeopardy.

In reality, it is the exceptions that prove the rule.    If librarians cannot personally address the following anti-professional assumptions as individuals, they cannot call themselves professional.    What I am saying is that the MLIS or whatever equivalent a librarian has on their wall cannot count towards any status in society.   Each librarian needs to respond personally to the following 10 things to claim their status as professional.

1.  Librarians Have No Monopoly on the Activities They Claim

You need to pass the bar exam to practice law.    You cannot perform surgery unless you are a surgeon.    You cannot build a bridge without an engineering degree.    Information is free.     Your 12-year-old kid can help their grandma do a Google search.

2.  There are No Consequences For Failing to Adhere to Ethical Practices

Besides the risk of being considered unemployable, a librarian has no real professional obligation to adhere to any of the values claimed by the ALA or any other so-called professional body.    There is no agreed-upon process for dealing with ethical breaches, nor an entity to report those ethical breaches.

3.  Librarianship is Too Generalized to Claim Any Expertise

The number of books in the field written ‘for librarians’ is analogous to books written ‘for dummies.’     The issue is that librarians, rather than having a specific area of expertise, actually need surface knowledge of variety of things – management, technology, community development and so on.   While one could say being a generalist is the expertise, there are larger and more in-depth areas of study like Management, Engineering and Education that could claim the same thing.

4.  ‘Librarian’ Assumes a Place of Work, Rather than the Work Itself

Despite claims otherwise, ‘librarian’ comes from ‘library’ which is a place where there are books.    It’s not an activity, but a product or service.   Thus, librarians rightfully should be treated as if they were providing any product or service.

5.  Peer Review in Librarianship Does Not Work Because There is No Competitive Process to Go With It

The reason why library literature is often horrible is that librarians are collaborative beings by nature.    Articles get accepted because they satisfy a minimum standard, not because they represent the best and brightest research in the field.    True professionals are much more harsh with their peer review because they have an individual interest in refusing competitors the privilege of being published.

6.   Values Are Not Enough

Common values occur in a wide variety of communities, many of which are leisure activities.    There is nothing associated with the values of librarians that differs from any other advocacy group.    Librarians do not deserve to be rewarded simply because they think information wants to be free.

7.  The Primary Motivation for Professionalization is the Monopoly of Labor

The main motivation for librarians to assert their professional status is so that they can lay claim to higher-paid “ALA Accredited Degree or Equivalent” positions in library institutions.   We cannot accept any librarian’s claim of professionalism without objective evidence because there is an inherent self-interest laying in that claim.

8.   Accredited Library Schools Do Not Adequately Prepare Students for Library Work

The process for creating ‘professional’ librarians has long been criticized for its lack of relevance to real life library work.    It’s like saying we are great espresso-making experts because we understand the secrets of tea bag design.

9.   Competing Professions Are Offering Different Paradigms to Achieve the Same Goals

Computer Scientists and Engineers are discovering ways to make information accessible to the public using search algorythms, interface design, and social media platforms.    Current library practices are following their lead, not the other way around.

10.   Nobody Can Name a ‘Great’ Librarian

Go to a typical university and ask the professors to name a great Doctor (‘Albert Schweitzer’), Architect (‘I. M. Pei’), or Lawyer (‘Johnny Cochrane’).      No librarian stands out the same way that these great professionals do.    No one outside the library field is going to come close to naming Ranganathan either.

So there.    I hope these ten items put a little devil on the left shoulder of every librarian who claims professional status without a good dose of self-doubt to go with it.    In reality, I think these 10 items put a special responsibility on so-called ‘professional’ librarians to step up and provide exemplary service to their communities.    Professional status means nothing to the information world – you have to earn your entitlement.

Neither Libraries Nor Information is Free

Oh The Future of the Library is still in question.   This time it’s Seth Godin weighing in.   I actually agree with most of what he has to say.   I think alot of what he thinks is shaped by an aged or narrow sample of libraries.   I find it kind of like saying ‘It’s over for Restaurants’ after getting poor service from an old-style greasy spoon that’s been around for 50 years.   It’s the future of ‘restaurant’.   Not ‘restaurants’.

Librarians have weighed in as well.   One of them is Sarah Glassmeyer.    I have to say I am disappointed in her response.    When it is fairly obvious that Seth is talking about Public Libraries, her response is to refute by reminding that we also have academic, legal and special libraries.   That’s pretty weak.   The latter libraries serve a specific purpose and are available for a specific audience.   I would not expect Seth to have a beef with Academic libraries, unless he had a beef with academics in general (which might be the case, but it’s kind of a different story).    Public Libraries have to stand on their own two feet, thank you.     We need to comfortably explain what we do in very specific terms.   We have to envision a future of service that meshes with reality.

For instance, Seth speak in particular about offering DVDs for rental and how this is a fairly uninspiring use for public libraries.    It’s a bit of a sham argument, actually because it offers flawed anecdotal evidence.   DVDs may circulate more often than other items, true, but they also have shorter borrowing times (they used to have 1/7 the allowed borrowing time at MPOW;  we just changed that to 1/3.) and tend to have larger fines when they are late.    In short, by nature every DVD we circulate will have the opportunity to be borrowed 7 times before a book gets returned.   Not to mention that DVDs tend to be on hold, so they are un-renewable, and so-on.

DVDs also act as a catalyst for other library uses.   It’s plain good old fashion solid business practice, like offering a coupon for Prime Rib Roast knowing that people will also pay full price for the horseradish, potatoes and string beans to go with it.   And, well, some of those DVDs are the popular renditions of Pride and Prejudice, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy and encourage reading (re-reading, even) just as well.

But enough about DVDs – we need to talk about the future of libraries.

Part of the problem is that a public library is not specifically about individuals, but a learning community.   Take, for example, the idea that we could just buy everyone a Kindle and be done with libraries.   At this time, the Kindle offers a selection of about 336,000 books.   As an individual, that is a huge collection of books to choose from, and almost certainly bound to improve my learning.   On a community level, 336,000 books is dismal.   We do not want or need a community that reads the same 336,000 books, and probably the same 336,000 books that will be yammered on about in the usual channels.    Maybe Amazon will fulfill this important community knowledge diversification need in the future, but I would suggest that they have no incentive to do so.   On some scale, for a good 25 years at least IMHO, communities will need to share their resources in an organized way for the interest of the community.   Some libraries will fulfill this need very well.   Others will not.   The former will succeed and flourish; the latter will die a slow and painful death (until another model emerges from the ashes).

(Notice that I haven’t brought up the many other issues with things Kindle-ish, like Jessamyn West has previously.)

In other words, this one idea about libraries (which covers about 50% of library work, I would say), while admittedly declining, still has a fairly good shelf-life on it.   I would also remind that no librarian in the 21st century is advocating for a faster horse here.   Public libraries are dropping those reference books like they were no tomorrow.   They’re also getting rid of those old books that no one is borrowing too.   Public Libraries are no archives.    We don’t keep artifacts on any large scale (although it’s a bit of a political thing to admit that we do actually throw books away when they’ve had their time.)

I haven’t brought up the plethora of other things that libraries can, have and continue to do.   For one (shameless self promotion) MPOW is hosting Podcamp Halifax, which (i think) strives to do precisely what Seth suggests is the right thing:  Train People to Take Intellectual Initiative.    Except it’s not really training.   It’s better.  It’s providing space, moments-in-time and opportunities for people to gather and train themselves.   Actually, training is not even the right word.    When a space is designed right, the learning is self-organized.   Learning is a natural human behavior, provided that barriers don’t get in the way.   Oh hell – Angela Mombourquette explains it all much better than I do.   In short, we need more unconferences in communities and public libraries are one avenue to help make sure these happen.

And you know what?   I’ve been talking about this for years.    My very first post (July 2006) is an interesting look at how to help people take intellectual initiative.    Not too long after that, I was talking about Open Space and The Law of Two Feet.   The way I see the future of public libraries then and now is still the same and Seth pretty much hits the nail on the [side of the] head.   It’s not about training.   The public, as a rule, doesn’t want training per se.   They would go to school for that stuff.   What they want are places to learn.    Places that have, among other things, DVDs to borrow.   (It’s always nice to bring a little bit of library home with you. )  Places with a little bit of friendly nudging to keep you motivated about learning.   Sometimes with a bit of facilitation.   Sometimes with a bit of structure.   Other times but just leaving them the heck alone to read in a nice quiet spot.   No one is filling this niche right now on any grand scale.    It’s a market failure.    That’s why we need public funds to fill it.   For now and into the future.

Finally, this article needs a shout out because Erin Downey speaks my mind about information and learning as well.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Tips for Libraries

After seredipitously encountering an Search Engine Optimization (SEO) victory (my wife searched for events happening on a major street in my city and our events page turned up #1), I’m feeling pretty good about the library website.   That does not mean that we cannot improve however, so I thought I’d blog about it a bit.

Now, I am not going to cover the basics of SEO, because there are plenty of resources out there that can help with these things.   If you have money, maybe you’ll want to spend some on an SEO consultant who understands the basics.

But even if you hire an SEO consultant, you still need to understand the basics of website architecture from your company’s perspective if you want them — and you — to be successful.  You do not want the people you hire to bring traffic to your website by guessing how your customers do searches.   You need to be ready to identify your user needs online and how best to put the library at the forefront when people have those needs.

So, here are a few tips that I’ve learned about how users search for their libraries:

Sometimes users will search for the system; sometimes they’ll search for the branch

If you look at your website stats, I’ll bet any money that your top searches will be for “library” “[city name] library” “library [city name]” and so on.   The next bunch (I bet) will be “name library.”

But let’s go even further, if someone is searching for a branch, they may be looking for a specific service or event at this branch.    If this is the case, you want to be sure they don’t have to look for you.

Solution(s):

  • For one, you want to have a page for each of your branches with the branch name in the <title> tag.   Make sure basic location, hours and etc. are on this page.  That will make sure people find your site when they search for a specific branch.
  • If you have a database of programs & events, make sure you have a way to feed upcoming programs to specific branch pages.    If not, make sure you have a link to events from each branch page.
  • Make sure you have locations mentioned (in text or as image names) when you promote specific programs on your front page.

Don’t Let Enthusiastic Branding Get in the Way of Common Sense

As companies, like banks and software companies move from names (Hewlett-Packard) to acronyms (HP), so will many libraries.   This is all great and fine, but you want to be sure that your brand does not get in the way of your SEO strategy.    Take the Acronym for Halifax Public Libraries, for instance:  HPL.   “HPL” can refer to any of the following:

  • Hamilton Public Library
  • Halifax Public Libraries
  • Human Performance Lab (at York University)
  • Human Performance Lab (at Calgary University)
  • Human Placental Lactogen
  • Huntsville Public Library
  • High Performance Linpack
  • Hewlett-Packard Labs

If you are ‘the’ HPL (in my case, Hamilton Public Library) then all is fine and dandy.   However, if you are HPL number 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 — then there is some trouble.      Also, are you sure that it is an acronym that people will type into Google or another search engine when they are searching for you?

Solution:

  • Make sure all images and acronyms have a plain-english explanation for who you are as well.  For one, the title should include the full title of your organization.
  • As a general rule, favor plain language over jargon on your website.   “FindIt” might be great for print promotion on your catalogue, but “search” is what most people look for online.
  • For your URL, consider including the word “library” somewhere.   This is especially true if your library’s acronym could be confused with those belonging to other organizations.  Remember that the word “library” is the best brand that we have.

Consider Your Users’ Needs, and then Make Pages that Respond to Those Needs.

It shocks me how many libraries have websites that do not include the words “reading” “books” “computers” or “wireless” somewhere on their pages.    We want people to think about the library when they are searching for books, along with all those publishers, used book stores and etc.

When someone is looking for wireless connections in your town, does a search for “wireless [your town]” have your organization up and front?    Why not?

Solution:

  • Build your website according to user needs, using simple language.   You want the keywords that people will use to appear on your website.
  • Assuming that you have the following services, you should include the following terms somewhere on your site:
    • Wireless (wifi)
    • Computers (and computer lessons)
    • Events & programs
    • Books, Bookclubs, DVDs, Authors
    • Reading, Read, Readers
    • Kids, Parents, Teens, Seniors

Don’t Buy into the “Front Page is Everything” Philosophy

Whenever you start a website project, the first thing almost everyone is going to tell you is that their particular interest/service/whatever needs “a big button saying “[insert service here]” on the home page”.    While it’s true that being on the front page will draw more traffic to that page, it does not follow that you will have more visitors to your site.   It is much, much better to have a logical pathway to each service, with clear labels and a simple interface.

From an SEO standpoint, this also matters.    If someone is looking for something specific (eg. How to sign up for an Literacy program), they are going to want to hit the “sign up for Literacy” page on your website when they search, not the home page.

Solution:

  • People will click a few times to get where they want to go.    While you do not want people to get lost, you also do not want to schmush your front page with content simply to give exposure to pet projects.
  • Consider other marketing techniques to draw attention to smaller projects.  For example, you could try viral marketing instead.
  • Spend more time developing useful content that will get people clicking on your website after a search, rather than worrying about from-the-front-page navigation.
  • Make sure that you have search engine-friendly Urls turned on if you are using a content management system like WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal.

These are a few tips I have.   There are many more, of course — maybe you want to share some?    In the end, libraries spend much too much time worrying about the design of their webpage without considering other pathways that customers will take — including search and external links (which I have not covered here).

Initial Thoughts on the ASUS EEE PC for Public Use

As a big advocate of laptops in public libraries as a way to engage community, it was a no-brainer that I would experiment with some of the latest sub-notebook class of computers, such as the Everex Cloudbook or ASUS EEE PC.   The obvious advantages would include:

  • Reduced costs:   you can pretty much buy anywhere from 3-5 subnotebooks for the price of a regular laptop.
  • Open-source alternative OS:  the “lean and mean” sub-notebook hardware begs for a linux-based operating system, creating a good opportunity to introduce your customers to non-windows alternatives at the public terminals.
  • portability:   unlike regular-sized laptops, taking a lab of 5-10 subnotebooks on the road could be done with a simple backpack (and a back to go with it).   There is a great opportunity for community technology outreach with these machines.

Step one was to convince the powers that be that I need one of these things to play with.   At a mere $399 for the ASUS EEE PC (the one I’m going to speak about today), this was an easy ask.    When it came in, there was enthusiasm all around about this machine from all levels of staff.   It looks good; it can fit in a purse; it’s sexy; it surprises the heck out of people when you say it’s dirt cheap.

The Xandros install that comes with the EEE is intuitive to most I’ve shown it to.    My initial thoughts are that Xandros is fine for most public use.

That said, having asked a few staff about its potential, there are a good number of cons that need to be considered as well:

  • the keyboard, monitor and mouse pad are way too small for anyone with hands larger than a 12 year-olds.   Libraries would almost definitely require a separate mouse and keyboard for these machines.   People with vision issues would need a separate display as well.
  • Xandros is pretty limited for all but the most basic productive uses.   One of the reasons I would want to introduce linux to the public is to have interesting and/or unique software (like noteedit, Emacs, the kde line of software, sqlite etc.) available for use, not to mention Ubuntu’s for-free Assistive Technology options.
  • Installing and configuring another system (like Ubuntu) does require someone with some linux experience (although Justin Gill has done a great job with instructions for configuring wireless in Ubuntu 8 (Hardy Heron).    I’ve also had to reconfigure the wireless after a standard update using the synaptics package manager as well.    This could be quite a pain in the long run, unless you have techie front-line staff.
  • Although not confirmed, the size of the EEE PC does make it a likely victim of a theft.
  • It gets really hot.   It’s not a laptop really, because it’s intended for a table or desk, not your lap.   And using this on a couch, bed, carpet or anything that would block a square centimeter of the ventilation areas would really kill the lifetime of this laptop.
  • No really cool games are available despite the linux distribution you use.    Even if you install XP, it is not likely you will be able to get any large-scale software on it afterwards.    No Second Life.   No World of Warcraft.

So far, we’ve experimented with the EEE PC as a support for ESL classes.   The bottom line is that the computer is too small to be used for most learners in this group.   However, I do think there are some realistic uses for it:

  • It could be a lost-cost alternative for presentations in branches.
  • The keyboard is the right size for smaller children — so a program with educational games seems appropriate.
  • A number of them could be useful as a lab for state/provincial libraries to offer professional development to rural libraries.
  • A combination of a laptop, keyboard, mouse and screen projector could be really good for a one-to-one IT clinic for older adults (and it would still be cheaper than buying a laptop).
  • It could be useful as a lender program, provided that customers will understand that this is a linux-based, teeny-tiny laptop.
  • There is an opportunity here as a support piece for programs as well.   For instance, people who attend our ESL programs often bring their children.    It could be good to hand children a EEE PC while they are waiting for their mom or dad to finish their ESL sessions.
  • Add a wifi package to a EEE and you could provide bibliographic instruction to people who use homebound or books by mail services.
  • The EEE could be good to expand roving reference services, balancing the portability of a hand-held with the usability of a desk/laptop.

In the end, I do not think the subnotebook is going to solve all our problem regarding providing flexible and effective access to information and technology inside and outside the library.   The future is promising, but I need to see a little bit more before I am going to go bandwagon on this model of service.

CHLA Presentation ReCAP

Yesterday, Kelli Wooshue (our Reference Department Manager) and I did a 3 1/2 hour CE accredited tutorial on Current Awareness tools for Web 2.0 for the Canadian Health Libraries Association Conference.   The whole whack of materials is available on the course wiki including a, erm, “colourful” Meebome widget for my IM account (i did a demonstration of MeeboMe, and chose tacky colors to show how easy it is to do).

I always like to say that the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else.  I am happy to say that I’ve learned some new things during this session:

  • When it comes to Web 2.0, Medical, Law, Public, Academic whatever librarianship is all the same.   If you show someone something like RSS, they will find ways to apply it themselves — it doesn’t matter the context.
  • I’m considering offering an executive summary of all my presentations, instead of a group of slides (which could just be put on to slideshare anyway).     The main reason for this is that it is an easy way to cover theoretical/contextual information that would be less interesting in a workshop setting.    For example, I cover Metcalfe’s law in the executive summary, but I did not touch it during the presentation.
  • If your website includes a lot of links and people at your presentation have access to a computer, having a wiki is a great idea.    I learned this from the way Greg Schwartz does Uncontrolled Vocabulary.
  • It’s good to break from the structured powerpoint and just show how the service works.
  • People are not going to be as resistant to your ideas as you think.    It was great to see a good combo of healthy skepticism and open-mindedness.    I wasn’t sure how people were going to respond to Twitter, but the response was fabulous.

All in all, I feel that the presentation went very well and much fun was had by all.    I look forward to hearing about CHLA experiences here in Halifax over the next week or so.