Why Go Slow?

Thanks to folks like Jessamyn, the Slow Library idea belonging to Mark Leggott has had some buzz as of late. So has this blog. I had the highest traffic I ever had by far Yesterday. Not that I’m in this for the web traffic, but when noticed, I take notice.

In the earlier post, Jenny Levine made some very good comments. If I can summarize, I think she was defending the enthusiasm for Web 2.0 by the biblioblogosphere. For instance, she says:

Also, I personally don’t believe that showing Ann Arbor’s or Hennepin County’s fine work scolds libraries to “keep up.” Does showing Hennepin’s former cataloging work to update LCSH make other libraries feel like they need to keep up? Does highlighting Seattle Public Library’s building make everyone else feel like they have to keep up?

My answer to these questions is “by intention” no, but “by the nature of librarians” yes.   If I hear someone is doing something that I feel libraries should be doing just by course of fair, then, yes, I do feel pressured to keep up.   It’s human nature to set your own value up to a referent.   And I think most librarians want to excel in the same ways that Hennepin or Ann Arbor do.   That’s natural pressure.   And because of this natural pressure, I have seen many applications of the blog put to poor use simply because “that’s what people are doing these days.”  I’ve even seen RSS being applied to historical events archives — a totally wrong way to approach RSS, in my view.

That said, the “Slow Library Movement”[SLM] (all of two, so far, with some skeptical here and there) came from someone who I know understands and appreciates Web/Library 2.0 quite well.    So, while SLM speaks to the “2.0”s there must be something else that makes this appealing to me, otherwise, I’d just reject it in favor of L2.   It must speak to local problems that I, as a professional librarian, think needs addressing.   I sat down and thought about these problems today, and I have 3 important ones.   Here they are:

  • Information is becoming like fast food.

As the slow food responded to the fast food habit, I think slow library responds to the “fast information” habit.   There’s something about Web 2.0 that makes me think about Seneca’s 2nd letter to Lucilius where he argues that it is better to read one book many times than it is to read a little bit of a wide range of books.

Whether you believe this or not, there are some realities in my Web 2.0 world that have me concerned.   I have a gazillion bookmarks sliding from Firefox to Delicious and a social bookmarking network that far exceeds my capacity to read the pages.   Already
I used to really enjoy understanding how a piece of writing was put together.   Now I care less.  I just get the post, skim some paragraphs for interest and then move on.  I’m not 100 pages through a book when I  feel like I need to blog it [resisted mostly so far].   Why can’t I just sit down and read for reading’s sake?

This all just reminds me of that flavorless hamburger I stuffed into my face from a drive-thru as I was trekking from floor hockey to home.   Slow food thinks people should try for flavor more often.   Slow Library may respond to providing a little “information flavor” from time to time as well.   In practical terms, we can think of effective evalutation, checking sources, and enjoying a book enough to choose to read it more than once.   I don’t mean this as an anti-2.0 thing, but as a way of adapting to a 2.0 world, which is inevitability in my view.

  • Web 2.0 is not as ubiquitous as I usually imagine it.

The world I see in front of me, and the people I know face-to-face do not talk about Web 2.0 in any way.   They may own an ipod, but they really see it as a step up on the walkman.    Even the so-called millennials I know don’t fret about Web 2.0.   They just live their lives using the things they think make their lives easier.   And those priorities will change as age [and spouses and children] catches up to them.   People are using MyYahoo and Personalized Google pages without thinking about RSS (which, in the end, is just a way of organizing XML tags to make for easy syndication).

This is not to say Web 2.0 is not important to these people.    They *are* using Web 2.0, whether they know it or not.   They just don’t really care much about how the technology gives them what they want.   Meanwhile I hear that blogging is plateauing.  This makes perfect sense to me:  alot of people I know understand what a blog is — they just don’t care to have one.  If this is the case, then “bloggy” services (however defined) may simply be a way to target bloggers (however defined).   This is not a bad thing, just not part of an ubiquitous library strategy.
Then there is the profit motive implicit in some Web 2.0 services.   For instance, I am hearing criticism about the way reporters discussing Second Life count its millions of users.   Hype is hype and life is life.   Although the former is intriguing I like the latter in the long run.  The SLM may sidestep some of the hype if only by neglecting the 2.0 moniker.  Better yet, SLM doesn’t call for ubiquity, but local-formed strategies.

  • Organizations (and Libraries Especially) are Paying the Price for Not Having an In-Depth understanding of Technology

That the OPAC Sucks is a mantra in most library circles is one of the most shameful things I can imagine.   Having sold our souls to vendors to provide a core service that is broken in very very bad ways is something that keeps me up at night.   It’s pretty simple.   People should be able to type in something in the library website search and get access to the information they want, whereever it’s at — Google Style.   That someone would have to login to a “catalogue” and a “website” and a series of databases separately is just foolishness.   And even more foolish is that librarians are at odds to fix this sort of problem.  I don’t blame the vendors.   It is us librarians who did not get the skills we needed to solve this problem years ago.

But there’s more:   there are alot of expensive solutions that have a [usually free] open source response.    In some cases, the open source response is far, far superior.   In others, you are better off staying away.   Small businesses can benefit from people who know the answers to some of these questions.   So can not-for-profits.   So can your average individual.  A Slow Library would be looking this way to bring needed information to the people who need it.   Web/L2.0 don’t seem to have an eye to the open source community in the same way that Mark seems to be talking about.
There are so many other things I could add to this puzzle.   There are definite connects between L2 and SLM, with a few appendeds to SLM and a name that is not so connected to the tech industry.   But, if this discussion bring people into the world of effective and tech-friendly library service who otherwise would not have been, then I think it is worth it.

9 thoughts on “Why Go Slow?

  1. I picked up on the slow food connection last time around, and I think it’s a good one. I’d love to see Mark flesh this out more, but in the meantime this is a thoughtful post that I appreciate (and will, of course, cheerfully plunder–with credit–for the book I’m working on that may or may not ever actually happen).

    As to your first and second points…

    The first is one I’ve tried to make over some recent years, and also tried to follow: You need to decompress, contemplate, focus, relax–at least from time to time. Temporarily stop multitasking–and let the single “task” be one that’s a pleasure, not a chore. Whenever I bring this up, I anticipate “yeah, you’re one of those West Coast ex-hippies” as a response, and that’s OK with me. (Never was a hippie, but I was around…) I’ve run the occasional short perspective and column on the issue, but it’s been a couple of years, during which “Speed up! Do more! Play harder!” seems to be coming at us more and more. Maybe it’s time for another “tune out for a while” treatise. (Here the “slow food” connection is apparent. I have to think about the direct lessons for libraries, and maybe you and Mark will develop that before I do. I’ve read, heard about and encountered some particularly well-thought-out, fully-developed library initiatives, and I think there’s a case for doing one new thing particularly well and thoughtfully rather than ten new things just to keep up, but that’s contentious and an ill-formed thought.)

    The second…well, that’s already the probable topic of the next “disContent” column I write and plays into the Big Project as well. From what I remember of recent work on adoption curves, “early adopters”–where libraries might like to be and in some but not all cases should be–are something like 15%, but after the 2.5-3% who are prone to jumping on anything new (“innovators” is a kindly term). So let’s say that leading-edge libraries should be experimenting at the 5%-10% adoption level. You can do the numbers: How many “Web 2.0” initiatives have 15 to 30 million active users? (Are there 30 million *active* weblogs in the U.S.? I doubt it.) Again, those guidelines don’t always work.

    Too long for a comment, so I’ll stop here, other than to say “Good stuff, and keep it up.” As for “effective and tech-friendly library service,” I’d say “effective, patron-friendly, and tech-friendly when that matters”–but that’s just me.

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  2. I’ve also noticed that the evangelists of Library 2.0 don’t really talk enough about open source. It’s amazing to me how little libraries know about all of the open source options available to them and how adopting some open source software doesn’t necessarily mean giving up Windows altogether. I also wonder why more public libraries (or all libraries for that matter) aren’t pursuing thin client solutions, considering their cost-effectiveness and the lack of major maintenance/security hassles once they’re set up. Maybe it’s because the people talking the most about Library 2.0 have been librarians at places that did not have the sort of funding/staffing limitations most of us deal with. I don’t know, but if I’m going to jump on a bandwagon, it’s going to involve pushing open source solutions that any library can implement.

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  3. Walt — thanks for the comment and the advice. I definitely would like to hear Mark speak more on this topic and suspect his relative quietness on the topic so far has to do with a) demands from his new job at the University of PEI b) a desire to practice what he preaches — ie. to hear what ideas come out of his spark, think lots and then respond in the “slow” manner.

    The book that I’m dying to review before its finished is The Ethical Imagination by Margaret Somerville. One of the reasons I want to review it is that it’s one of those cases where I agree with the principle yet am appalled at the conclusions the author makes from those principles. Anyway, at one point she mentions how a teacher asked her class of 4th graders how many have actually climbed a tree and only a few raised their hands. It made me think about all those times I watched YouTube videos of the Coke and Mentos phenomenon, but have never tried it myself. Maybe kids are seeing too many _other_ people do crazy things and don’t feel the need to do it themselves?

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  4. Meredith — I am totally with you on open source solutions. Some of the big issues with open source I have encountered are the following:

    1) the need for a strong community of support, and, in the end a fair understanding of what’s under the hood before implementing. Having a personal blog blow up is one thing. Having your ILS go down and no understanding of how to fix it is another. This limitation of open source is both a pro and a con in a way. It’s a con, because it means more resources. It’s a pro because it forces the people who use it to develop technical capacity.

    2) Many open source solutions (i find) are a bit lacking in the user interface side. I believe this occurs because open source developers want to keep the core product as tight as possible to limit the total work for a functioning system, while letting others work on modules and the like. The result is that many open source systems (especially new ones) require the downloading of a whole lot of modules to give it the functionality that most people expect from the proprietary solutions. A good example is Xemacs. It took me a while to figure out how to use it to develop XSLT stuff.

    Then the problem with too many modules is that, when you want to update the core product, many of the modules break. A good example (for me) was when I went to FF calendar only to have it break when I upgraded to 1.5. That meant my daytimer got broke. That was not a good thing at the time and I missed a meeting because of it.

    It might be nice to come up with a list of open source products that could be rated for libraries based on support, development, relevance to the profession, and comparison to the major proprietary products. There’s a start “Slow Library” action for you: The “Slow Library” open source recipe book. 🙂

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  5. Can any of you provide some concrete examples of open source tools ignored by the L2 community? Off the top of my head, I can think of various L2-ish places that advocate for use of WordPress, Moodle, Feed2JS, GAIM, Koha, WPopac, and MediaWiki (by Meredith herself). In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of a viable open source tool that *hasn’t* been brought up by one L2 bandwagon person or another, but it’s more likely that I’m just not aware of them so specific examples would help me.

    Ryan, I was glad you brought up the point about support for open source software, too. I try to implement OSS where I can, but it has to be feasible in terms of support. I often quote Karen Schneider on this topic, that OSS is free as in kittens, not free as in beer. You absolutely have to take that into account as an evaluation criteria, especially if you don’t have an existing server farm the way large libraries and organizations do.

    I think the list is a great idea, but it would be difficult to rate OSS options. It’s difficult to qualitatively assess things like “relevance” across all types and sizes of libraries. For example, I’ve worked at public libraries that would never have been able to afford software like WebCT or a non-consortial catalog on their own, and they certainly never had the IT resources that an academic library would have, let alone a special one.

    That said, more power to you if you can crack that egg. I’d do whatever I can to help.

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  6. I didn’t claim that L2 is ignoring open source, I only claimed that they were not talking about it in quite the same way that Mark was. L2 seems focussed on applications of open source, in Mark’s talked he focussed in on open source as a way of doing business.

    But the broader point I was trying to make was “Organizations (and Libraries Especially) are Paying the Price for Not Having an In-Depth understanding of Technology.” It may be just a language thing but perhaps a good lot of folks are finding it easy to “let the techies worry about L2.”

    I also think that libraries should have experts in open source applications [including the installation and configuration of some major ones] and provide broader services to the community.

    In my city there’s a need from your “I run a small business/not-for-profit from home [and all around town] with a single laptop and it would be quite nice to have a “third place” to go so I could collaborate with other people in my situation.” There are some grassroots movements/co-ops along this line (see the Queen Street Commons for an example). This sounds like something ripe for the library to be involved in (at some level or another).

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  7. Thanks, Ryan. You’re right that I missed the nuance that you meant talking about open source “in the same way.” I’ll narrow my request for clarification to the following excerpt from Meredith’s comment:

    “I’ve also noticed that the evangelists of Library 2.0 don’t really talk enough about open source.”

    I’m looking for a definition of “enough” in light of my previous comment noting several examples of open source software that are usually mentioned by L2 evangelists. Thanks!

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  8. Now there’s a trap: how can you talk enough about open source? 🙂

    That said, I want to reiterate that I (personally — I’m not sure what Mark thinks) do not see “slow library” as a replacement for L2 (although I admit to calling it a “movement” to attract attention). Even if it just introduces some of grass roots/sustainability memes (open space, world cafe, open source approaches) into the L2 discussion then I’m satisfied. Or maybe “slow library” is but one path to the effective use of L2 concepts?

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