Chantal Hébert and Social Media

Last night (April 15th, 2015 for those future people not paying attention to the blog date) I attended the Tansley lecture hosted by my school the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy with the guest presenter, Chantal Hébert‘s discussion the role of social media in changing politics.

I have to say that I’ve often considered Chantal to be the best no-shit political commentator in Canada today and to have her present at what is for me one of the most important policy-related meetings annually was very gratifying. She was definitely her very brightest with just enough aloofness to make sure you knew she was giving you the honest goods. A good amount of her talk relied on her experience as a political journalist and she openly admitted that she would not have everything tied up in a nice box for the audience. She couldn’t possibly.

She began by describing political campaign reporting in the past as high-jacked by political actors. Media relied on the telephone to find out information and ask important questions. To keep media in the dark, you just had to keep them away from a telephone. According to Hébert, you’d think that 24 hour access to information online would mean a more informed society that is more connected to the issues.

But not so. Instead, she argued, politicians have come to understand that in a world of constant information, the only time a journalist will call is when they have some controversy to get a reaction to. That means that the person who takes the call is no longer the person who actually knows what’s going on, but instead someone who is used to communicating in a crisis.

Hébert sees this as a serious problem (as do I). Social media to her mind means that the chattering classes and government are increasingly disconnected from the voters, who, more often than not, are too busy working their 3 jobs to get excited about the latest Gawker report on some offensive thing a comedian said on Facebook.

I will be presenting on something similar in Arizona in May for the Digital Government conference. Although a lot of it will be a bit too technical for a blog post, one thing I will note comes from the protests on Elsipogtog First Nations against some hydraulic fracturing tests occurring near their lands. The eventual government response went in their favor – a moratorium was called on all fracturing in the province. While the anti-fracturing protests were all over social media, there was almost no mention of support for the government’s decision. Not even an “it’s about time.”

This theme of public interest in drama, but disinterest in solutions is something that bears scrutiny in our society. Hébert cites the example of young Quebec anti-austerity protestors who could not name the Premier who called for those measures. Too much of the social movements we see are caught up in ideas about social problems and less involved in the institutions they expect to do something about those problems. I don’t know if this is too new, but it’s a lost opportunity that all this political action has little to no connection to the people with the legitimate authority to act on the citizens behalf.

My dissertation will be looking at this problem with the hopes that the research I provide can suggest some recommendations around what could be done to connect those engaged in social movements to the legitimate political power. Given big issues like climate change, economic disparity, depleting resources, lack of productivity, a growing yet marginalized First Nations population etc., it is essential that we get as many bodies interested in developing policy solutions as we can.

How social media makes things worse.

A little ways back, I decided that I would try my best to fight misinformation on the Internet. I just found too many people who I respected just off-handedly sharing one piece of information or the other with a tag line “so true” when in fact, it had very little truth about it.

Often, it puts me in a very difficult position. Let me provide an example. Consider this article by Matthew Yglesias from vox.com. In it, he decries “white on white” violence as a retort to Joe Klein’s assertion in Time that “Blacks represent 13% of the population but commit 50% of the murders; 90% of black victims are murdered by other blacks.” Looking at the same statistics Yglesias found that 80% of white victims are murdered by other whites, and felt that this was an ideal time to point out how biased we are when we look at crime statistics.

Racial bias is an empirical fact, as is racism. But unfortunately, Yglesias’s claim that “white on white crime” is a problem is not a fact.

When you look at a statistic and want to decide whether it’s a problem or not, you need to compare that statistic to what you would reasonably expect given the context. For example, if you wanted to see if a coin was biased towards “heads,” you might flip the coin 10,000 times and see what happens. You would expect a 50-50 outcome over time. If the coin showed 80% heads, that’s strong evidence that the coin is unfair.

The mistake Yglesias makes is in assuming an expected value of 50%, which is not the case for race in the United States. If a group of future murderers (any race) were tracked, we would expect the proportion of white victims would be close to the proportion of white people in the population. For the United States, that expected value would be about 72%. I won’t go into whether an 80% result is statistically significant or not. In general, a good amount of social behavior is homophilous, meaning that like tends to want to hang around with like. While it is not a problem if people marry inter-racially, it turns out that, in general, people marry someone of their own race. Given that many murders happen at home, we would expect some level of homophily in the result. This could be because of racism, preferences or both, (likely both), but in the end this white-on-white crime scenario is not so far from the expected value that it represents a serious social problem.

On the other hand, given that the population of black people in the US is 13% and black on black crime is 90%, this is very strong evidence that black people are disproportionately killing other black people. If we were to assume that the white-on-white crime scenario was caused by generic homophily, then this suggests an extreme case that might have other causes beyond simple homophily.

The problem, of course, is that a radical right-wing racist interpretation of these statistics could be that Black people are inherently dangerous because they are black. It is possible, even by pointing out the faulty statistical interpretation by the vox article that I could be tacitly supporting these racists.

It is not as if others like Tim Wise haven’t already covered these interpretations in great detail all ready. On the other hand, it would be naive to think that anyone reading the Internet is going to go through the data, or even bother to read the entirety of Wise’s take-down of the extreme right-wing view.

On the other hand, the 90% black on black violent crime is about as solid evidence as you can get that institutions in the United States are heavily stacked against black people. It’s not just that, but also that rather than face the reality of this dire inequality, we’d rather share stupid, half-factual memes than work to resolve the problem. It is a difficult and controversial question to decide whether the benefits of sharing the statistics because it could result in judiciously increased support for African Americans would be outweighed by the use of such a statistic by racists to support their racist ideas. We also would have to consider the impact of sharing the statistic on the level of trust African Americans would have for their political institutions.

But, when we share something with a “so true” what is it that we actually mean by this? Well, I think it has something to do with what is symbolically true, rather than empirically true. For example, if you ask someone “do you believe in equality?” They’ll probably say “yes, absolutely!” But then you can ask them: “great – then how should be divide this pie that i baked?”

Deborah Stone covers this topic in detail in her amazing book Policy Paradox – The Art of Political Decision Making. Under highly politicized circumstances, dividing a pie is no easy task. You could say “all equal” but that fails to take into account that someone paid for all the ingredients and did all the work to make the pie. If they made the pie, maybe they should be able to decide how it gets divided. What if someone is gluten intolerant and can’t eat the pie? Do they get none, or should they be given the right to sell the pie to others in order to buy some cake, but the others have nothing but pie to offer. So maybe our pie maker should forget about making the pie and just give the ingredient supplies to the others. But there’s no guarantee that the others have the skills and abilities to make pie and cake on their own…

There is, of course, no correct answer here, and at the end of the day, someone is going to be upset. The best we can do, is provide reliable and trustworthy information to the group to show that we’ve done our best to try and be as fair as possible given all other alternatives currently available to us. But there is power inherent in what “problems” we decide to focus on and how they are framed (eg. maybe this is a pie productivity issue rather than an equality issue).

But to not frame the problems would create even worse outcomes. Left to our own devices, we are more likely to find ourselves in the clutches of tyrants, not less.

But there is one outcome worse than doing nothing: that is spreading incomplete or untrustworthy information. If we continue down the road of “gotcha” talking points, the end result will be polarisation and conflict. The only thing worse than an unequal distribution of pie is a mass war over the pie – that will only result in people getting hurt and the pie likely being destroyed.

In short, it behooves us to think closely about the information we share and how we present it. Some will say “but then you just have tone policing.” Well, no. If you only have a symbolic argument and you state it in ways that denigrate others, I think it’s quite justified to ask the person to calm it down. If the tone of an argument is a barrier to understanding, in particular because it gets in the ways of understanding the intricacies of the issue, then yes tones should be policed. Although perhaps time and place are considerations. There is a reason I have left this topic until well after the Ferguson protests, for instance.

Material vs Post-Material Visions of Community

Being online has a weird effect on people.

When I read my timelines,  I hear much about one community or another being spoken of in very broad terms, without so much as a whimper about what these communities mean. If I play a game, am I a gamer? If I once was a librarian, will I always be a part of the library community? If I have an autistic son does that make me part of the autism community or do I also have to be aneurotypical to belong? If I liked Anthrax at some time in my life, am I a metal head?

Sometimes we seek ‘communities’ out and other times ‘communities’ are pushed on us. But what do they mean? Well, I think you need to distinguish between what are material communities and what are post-material or symbolic communities. Although that is the sort of separation that will be harder to define in some cases than in others.

But perhaps we can start with the idea of community as being versus community as doing. Community as being is mostly a symbolic thing. I am French in the sense that my parents were (mostly) French. I am not French in the sense that I speak the language fluently. Being French is mostly a symbolic notion of the French community. It means I can pretend to have a lot in common with some of my favourite French people like Pierre Bourdieu, Jean Baudrillard and Bruno Latour. The irony of all this is that while I have an affinity for these philosophers, I lack the actual ability to communicate with them! This distinction is what I mean by material versus post-material visions of community. In symbolic (post-material) terms I have access to the French community because of my last name. In material terms, I offer them nothing nor they me – there’s no real relationship that defines us as being in the same group.

But these symbolic ideas about identity do make a difference. Bourdieu’s Distinction offers a pretty convincing catalogue about what determines people’s tastes (usually class identity). If you are French, you get pay-offs for looking the part, even if you don’t do French. That’s why I typically brag about wanting to be an old man with a flask of Calvados, espouse the value of free speech (likely to a greater extent than others) and have tourtiere for Christmas Eve. It’s also why Nova Scotia has a tartan, when the actual social make-up of the province is almost anything but Scottish.

On the other hand, there is something in the post-material idea of community that lets us off the hook. In a discussion about the anti-vaccine movement I heard someone talk about an affinity for “the autistic community” as if that had salience beyond the words used. The autistic community I know includes a range of people including social workers, parents, sisters, brothers, babysitters, health professionals, psychiatrists and, of course, people with ASD. For my son, autism is something that is thrust upon him, he’ll have none of it. He belongs to an “autistic community” for two main reasons: 1) He is not accepted in the mainstream at school and 2) he benefits from treatments that are offered to him by health and social services. Otherwise his “community” consists of a few loyal friends, frequently of people older than he and his family. There are people around him that do “autism” and he variously loves and hates them for it. But the key point here is that in the “doing” community, he has people who both support him and hold him accountable when he doesn’t meet the expectations of the group. To me, that’s the “real” (material) autism community. It stands in contrast to the more idealist “autistic” community consisting of Sheldon Cooper, the silicon valley and any number of ubercool geeks. It’s possible that I am being unfair to my anti-vaccine person (by the way, vaccines do not cause autism and yes, you should vaccinate your kids. Also, if you don’t vaccinate your kids, I do think its okay for the government to force you to to protect others), but I did not see any evidence of “doing” autism in her/his tweets.

On the other hand, my son has material needs as well. And frankly, there are very rare and and special people who are willing to provide these to him. Things like friendship and support and understanding. People do not learn these things by receiving information, hearing recitals of theory or watching memes. Instead, they discover how to give these things through conversation, not only the in the occasional generosity of silence (“please listen”), but also the generosity of authentic feelings about the world.

I thought about this after reading this article by a male feminist writing about people in the MRA. Behind every marxist, capitalist, feminist, mra, gamergater, libertarian, hippy, yuppy hipster is a real story of how they got to where they are. It is a real gift when you can get that story, no matter how privileged or oppressed the person is. To me, critical theory (or rather their practitioners) forget this at times. And that power is more fluid than personal or group identities. The only thing worse than having power and privilege is not bothering to use it to make the world a better place.

Socrates says that getting to that point of clarity and learning requires nothing short of intellectual midwifery.  Whoever you are, it’s inside you and getting it out is going to be painful, arduous and messy. We need more people with the kind of empathy and understanding that bring new things to this world.

Doing Democracy: Ten Thoughts about Using Social Media for Policy Change in Canada

So you have a social cause that you want to promote online. Some media attention would be nice, but even better would be if you had a Twitter hashtag trend across the world, or if you had your heartwarming promotional video trend on Upworthy. If only a large part of the voting population could hear what you have to say, the government would only have to listen, wouldn’t they?

There exists an unfortunate assumption among those who engage in online social activism that public attention is always a good thing and that nothing will ever change unless the whole world knows about it. The media in particular feeds this idea partly because it actually does benefit from attention (because advertising revenue) but that’s not entirely fair. Journalists are professionals after all, and there is a long standing value throughout history that the media is there to support the ‘little guy.’ And, even in the age where traditional media is in a period of slow decline, the media’s main tool is drawing attention to social problems.

But attention is a pretty blunt instrument. Once unleashed on the world, it is quite difficult to control. For example, there is a story I told a ways back in my TedX talk about Social networks and public policy. As part of a consultation for the new Halifax Central Library we got people together in the Foggy Goggle to knit a yarn bomb. A co-conspirator decided to place the invitations to the consultations by adding clothespins and string to the piece. What happened next was amazing – people added candy, lovenotes, stories, cartoons etc to those clothespins – it was beautiful.

We posted it on YouTube and amazingly it found itself on the YouTube front page. However, unlike the response from Haligonians, the response from YouTubers was mostly hate. We were criticized for the aesthetics of the piece, for being hippies, for not giving the yarn wrap as a blanket for homeless people and so on. This is an example of what Maarten Hajer calls “multiplicities” in his great book Authoritative Governance. A message that makes a ton of sense to one audience will totally bomb with another. This usually has to do with the base assumptions of different networks. In short, attention — even positive attention — is unlikely to move policy makers unless it is somehow connected to power. So, if you want to create policy change, you need to think about how your particular social movement will be connected to power. So, I came up with ten thoughts on how you might do this. This is not backed by research, it is only some conjecture based on my reading and observation.

  1. Anger is a resource, but not a solution: It is true that there are things in the world that make us angry, and it is excellent advice to say that if you are angry, then that is a time to think about doing something about it. Usually, this means express your anger to your social networks. Often, anger can be contagious, and start the conversation. But then what? Anger is kind of like sugar. Sugar is great, but almost no one wants to eat it on its own. You have to bake it into something inspiring. How about actually looking at the existing policy that is making you mad and re-writing it the way you think it should be?
  2. Coalitions, coalitions, coalitions: So it turns out that you are on the wrong side of the current pendulum swing. You can trend your topic all you want, the government is probably just going to ignore you. However, maybe you can connect with groups that have some similar beliefs. These groups can come from odd places. For instance, radical feminists and social conservatives, who are frequently on different sides on the abortion debate, tend to have common beliefs when it comes to such things as victim’s rights and access to pornography. Thinking broadly about where your allies might be (even temporarily) can help your ideas find their way into even an ideologically opposite government.
  3. Governments Don’t Always Respond to Problems: The truth is that there are no end to the number of problems that governments could respond to. Pointing out that a problem exists is not enough to make government move. One view of how this all works comes from John Kingdon and others. The idea is that problems, solutions and power all happen in different places — it’s not until these things connect that you begin to see change. Kingdon argues that these connections occur during “policy windows” (ie. attention-getting events). So, that’s what you ought to be trying to do during a protest, or tragic event – try to connect the problem with possible solutions and groups who may have the resources to encourage the public to change.
  4. If it Catches On, Someone is Going to Represent Your Cause: Despite all the rhetoric that online media “democratizes” information because it gives citizens their own platforms to publish, the reality is that a very small number of people, perhaps only one, is going to become the representative for your cause. This doesn’t necessarily happen because someone is a tyrant or power-hungry, but because we all only have so many people we can pay attention to in the long run. And when given a choice, why wouldn’t we just go with the most popular opinion. One example is the role Michael Geist plays in representing the more “open” side of Canadian copyright law. And why shouldn’t he be? He’s a very knowledgeable lawyer and professor. This natural thing to happen in social networks can be a problem however, because it makes your cause look like a one person bandwagon. It is a good thing to think about how you can get multiple people’s voices in your network.
  5. The ‘Boomerang Effect’ is a Thing:  From Keck and Sukkink’s Activists Without Borders, the boomerang effect refers to the way social movements can use international groups to enact social change. We see this somewhat with the Northern Gateway and Keystone Pipeline situations. The Athabaska peoples do not have a great amount of power to go up against the oil industry and a generally energy-positive government. However, using environmental networks in the US, they have managed to get considerable support for their cause with Canadian rock star Neil Young putting his celebrity behind it, and Leonardo DiCaprio using his ALS Ice Bucket Challenge moment to highlight the importance of treaty rights.
  6. Homophily is a Thing: Homophily is a persistent trait of social networks. It means the tendency for people of like ethnicity, gender, race, class etc. to tend to want to be together. It can also refer, but to a lesser extent, to policy beliefs. This means that just because your cause got a lot of pickup from social media does not mean it has saliency across the board. You should not let your collective excitement and “me too-isms” make you overconfident. There are others in other places thinking completely different things about the issue. You might want to try and connect to them and see if there is any common ground.
  7. Arguments are a Thing: I get how memes and slogans help to get a broad message across. The number of things I see followed by a comment like “this is just so true!” is just a little bit frustrating, because often, with even just a little bit of research, it is easy to find exceptions to the rule. As you will see in point #8, memes have their place – but be ready with a solid argument to defend your position. It is at the solid argument stage where you will start to see government agencies and departments responding to your ideas.
  8. Think both “weak” and “strong”: There are ways we connect with each other to build trust and there are ways we connect to make acquaintance and perhaps have a little fun. My recent research suggests that you should try to do both. Activities that build strong ties on social media include acknowledging volunteers and donors, posting accountability information, and taking pictures of activities that your group is involved in. These things help people become emotionally attached to your cause. Activities that build weak ties include sharing a meme, connecting to celebrities and marketing Twitter hashtags. These things connect you to people outside your local network and open up doors to other ideas and allies.
  9. Pass the Baton: Even though a small group of people are going to end up being the “heroes” of your cause (see #4), you can still build support by making sure that you have sub-causes that can let other voices come up to the top of the list. It is important to give as many different voices the highlight as you can. This may not happen with any single event, but over time you can show that you have solidarity by letting new faces come forward.
  10. Empathy is a Muscle: The world is full of misery and this requires us to look at our worlds constantly with an eye to how we can improve things. However, we are also human. The truth is, people get fatigued as they come to serve social causes. This fatigue eventually ends up with a surprising lack of empathy for causes that are not our own. Do not fall into this trap. The best way to avoid empathy fatigue is to be selfish once in a while. Take a break from the Internet and go find yourself on a camping trip, take a vacation or spend time with family. The problems will still be there when you get back. Take care of yourself.

These are just some jotted down thoughts I have based partly on some readings, and partly on some research. I’d really appreciate any other ideas you have on the matter. Also, as a favor, if you like this post, I’d really appreciate it if you could share links to my articles on the Keystone XL Pipeline & the Third Sector.

Podcamp Toronto 2010 – My Recap

Going to Podcamp Toronto has been one of the best things I’ve done in quite a few years.     Yes, better than Computers in Libraries.    Better than OLA Superconference or really any library conference I’ve gone to.   And yes, as Phil Swinney mentioned, it was better than Podcamp Halifax as well.

Podcamp Toronto is better than most library conferences because:

  • A lot of what podcasters and social media artists do relates very well to librarianship.
  • As a librarian, I felt I had a unique perspective to share in the discussions about social media marketing and podcasting.
  • Unlike librarians, social media marketers want to connect to as many people as they possibly can – not just their friends and colleagues.   The #PCTO2010 crowd was very friendly and supportive.   They wanted to help newbies learn and share tips with their colleagues.
  • Podcasters and Marketers are very curious about librarians.   They know we are very crappy marketers of extremely valuable and useful services.

Podcamp Toronto was better than Podcamp Halifax for a few common sense reasons:

  • They were much better at filming / streaming etc. of the presentations – (because they are bigger).
  • They were better at securing sponsorship (at the Saturday party, an elephant could have got very drunk without paying so much as a cent).
  • There were just that many more connections, more excellent presenters, more diverse questions etc.
  • No one had to justify their social media presence.   It was a given that social media is important and valuable and Podcampers were going to reap the benefits of their diving in to this space early.
  • There were more podcaster presentations.  The one I went to by John Meadows about editing interview content was fantastic.  (I’m not really a podcaster, but he made me want to become one).

Podcamp Halifax was Better at:

  • I like that we have a keynote – it goes a little against the ‘everyone’s a rockstar’ idea, but it does offer a little break between the sessions that everyone can comment on.
  • Many of the things the organizers were worried about (markers, water, printing capabilities, computers etc) were things I didn’t even bat an eyelash about because the library already had it all.
  • We were more newbie-friendly.
  • Our battledecks session rocked the socks off everyone.   (That said, the #PCTO2010 battledecks session, was great as an opportunity for a newbie presenter to develop their skills).

There were some similarities as well:

  • It is harder at a Podcamp to get a conversation going in sessions than it is at other unconferences I’ve experienced.   I think this partly has to do with the fact that the ‘marketplace’ is set before the event.   When you put more time into establishing the marketplace and explaining such things as the law of two feet, I think it opens the door more to true unconference ‘OMG-the-audience-just-overtook-my-presentation’ effects.
  • The average caliber of presentations was about the same.    Toronto had more outliers (both bad and good), but in general, there was at least one good presentation for everyone.
  • This was a great place to meet all those podcasters that you’ve never met and wish you had.

I also have some suggestions for both Podcamps:

  • Arrange rooms for circulation.    Make sure that people can get in and out of rooms reasonably easily without disturbing others.   (I got caught in a room that I wanted to leave really fast, but couldn’t because of the way the room was set up).
  • There’s got to be a way to enable impromptu sessions.  I haven’t figured it out myself, but it would be so helpful.
  • It’d be nice if there was a way for everyone to get beyond promoting their business/brand at Podcamp.   I realize that it’s all part of the game, but it can’t be just a dream.
  • I’d like to get more people ‘from away’ to Podcamp Halifax.   We had a good mix in the first one and that made for some really great learning for the more experienced podcampers.   This year seemed a little more like a ‘newbies learn from experienced folks’ camp.
  • Schedule by Plain Old Wiki would have worked better for me as a potential presenter.
  • After PCTO2010, I’m not convinced a two-day podcamp is better.   Many many fewer people there on Sunday than there were on Saturday.   A lot of great presentations were missed by the people who partied just a bit too hard the night before.

In general, I feel really refreshed.   I think I’ve learned a heck of alot about social media, podcasting and making Podcamp Halifax better.   I met a whole bunch of great people.   I have a nice stack of business cards so I can keep in touch and I paid alot less than if I went to a traditional conference.

Librarians, get thee to a podcamp!

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.