Sustainability and Libraries: Is Anyone Challenging Our Assumptions about Digitization?

Among the best things about conferences (besides karaoke, right Greg?) are hearing ideas from people you had not previously met.   One of the memorable conversations I had was with Sarah Cohen about whether libraries were really on board with the what, whys and hows regarding sustainability.  I think we came to the conclusion that libraries & librarians abiding by what others say about sustainability is no longer enough.   We need to be leading, particularly in those areas where we have expertise.

This has been on my mind since about the time I presented at the Information Without Borders conference put on by the School of Information Management students at Dalhousie University (yes, students were crazy enough to put on a whole dang conference while they were struggling through their umpteen gazillion pages of assignments on their plate).  I spoke alongside Stephen Abrams and Mark Leggott (I have the text of my speech “The Triple Bottom Line and Digital Technology” in a Google document) about digitization and we had a discussion about whether libraries can be managed entirely as an open-source shop.  Factors such as the long-term possibility of wide-range collaboration among libraries, monetary sustainability, the feasibility of licenses, the role that librarians play in making opac apis a mess to create and/or use and so on were all discussed.

The Triple Bottom Line and Libraries

One of the things I introduced to the discussion was something I learned while taking an MBA course in strategic management:  the triple-bottom line.   The Triple Bottom Line (TBL) is a way of measuring performance that takes the environment and social responsibility into account to go along with economic success.   When I asked the audience whether the TBL was discussed during the conference about sustainability, it hadn’t been.   And that was part of my complaint — while businesses are almost obsessed about arguments (to or fro) about the TBL, libraries are nearly silent.  Maybe we just assume that we are socially and environmentally friendly because we are librarians?   That’s a really big mistake in my view.

Also in that MBA class, I remembering discussing a case about Nike and the issue of sweatshops.   There were a number of important things mentioned, but some of the biggies included:

  • on the way to normal operations, and with almost entirely good intentions, any organization can find itself doing outrageous harm.
  • top managers in big corporations obsess about social corporate responsibility.
  • justice matters to people.  That includes customers, staff and other organizations.
  • even private business depends on tax-payer dollars (libraries almost certainly do as well).   We need to respect the community that creates an environment for safe, sustainable business to happen.

In my view, libraries try their best to show their success in circulation numbers, reference stats and customer comments.   Do we think about measures in other ways as well?   How do we go about measuring, say, environmental responsibility?   Well, my personal view on this is that if we really cared about the environment we would have had the measures a long time ago.   The lack of benchmarking infrastructure is a sure sign of us falling down on this apparatus.

What Librarians Need Besides a Kick in the Pants

Looking at what I see in the library world, to be leaders where sustainability is concerned we need:

  • Research : the most challenging part of the sustainability equation is complexity.   Where we once may have thought we could categorize certain products or activities as “bad” or “good” for the environment, we no longer can make these assumptions.   Sure, making a book available digitally does increase access to that book, but what about the energy expended in managing servers?   How about the fact that everyone needs a computer in their home and a good amount of space to go with it?   What does a digitized world mean to our life decisions like where we choose to live, the products and services we buy, and the amount of “stuff” we do to live in this kind of world?   Librarians should be asking some big questions here and finding empirical data to find answers.   What does a digitized world mean for real human beings?   How does gaming in libraries effect communities outside the library?  
  •  Benchmarks :  I covered this earlier, but a framework needs to be developed so that libraries can account for outcomes besides mere counts of books read.    What about fuel & energy consumption?  Does your library board get to see the usage trends for gas and electricity?   What about paper consumption?   What about surveys of customer travel over time?   Are our libraries located in the right space to encourage sustainable transport behaviors?
  • Innovation:   Web 2.0 is not the only area where we can be innovative, although sometimes that seems to be the only way libraries can show themselves as “up-to-date.”   How about outdoors activities at your library?   Where’s the section on sustainability and community in the library success wiki? (Note how technology takes up a huge section of the front page).
  • Partnerships :  Libraries absolutely need to understand that their days of pwning the information world are over.   We never could store and maintain the whole of the world’s knowledge and we definitely cannot do it now in a Web 2.0 world.   Our ability to do our job will depend on the work of other organizations — hospitals, universities, large corporations, small business, not-for-profits, web 2.0 services, entrepreneurial individuals — you name it.   Library 2.0, if it exists at all, includes a trust in the non-library world to do library-ish things for themselves and others — with or without our help.  If a service, individual or whatnot is getting people to information in ways that we cannot (think of, say, LibraryThing), then we should be standing beside those folks and clapping hard.   Then we should be inspired to innovate on our own.

In the end, despite all the fun we see going on in the Web 2.0, we need to see ourselves as part of a machine that needs not to kill the environment or marginalize social groups to do what we think is important.   I also think that the burden of proof sits with us — we need to prove we are not doing harm, rather than having someone prove that we are — if we are going to make claims about how important we are to the community, democracy, freedom, happiness or whatever other big philosophic abstract we want to apply to ourselves.

Treading on the Commons: Book Recommendations and the Wisdom of the Crowd

I love the idea of recommendation services like LibraryThing, Bibliophil and Books iRead. The main reason I like these services is because of their potential to identify items for me that I may never encounter on my own. You have to accept that I am a) a busy parent with little time to read, b) a busy parent with even less time to find a book to read, c) a librarian who spends too much time on his computer and d) someone who likes pleasant surprises and who has tolerance for entropy.

As I add books to these recommendation services, I am becoming increasingly aware of a problem, similar to the ever-present “Tragedy of the Commons.” The problem is this: with all the classics in my collection I have a hard time getting useful recommendations.

I like classics. As someone who enjoys classics, I put some of my favorites into the database. Things like William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I have it in my personal collection, largely because it is the sort of thing that my kids might enjoy reading when they are older. If I’m going to do ‘trash’ reading, or popular reading — I’m not going to buy, but instead I’ll use the library. I enjoyed A Spot of Bother, for instance, but I have no desire to read it twice. That’s why borrow-and-return works for me.

In the world of book recommending algorithms, this is a problem. It came to a head today when I searched for a recommendation using Books iRead and of the 10 recommendations I trudged through, 8 were in the “obvious classic genre.” 3 were Shakespeare. 1984 showed up, as did To Kill a Mockingbird, Oliver Twist, more than one Harry Potter, The Grapes of Wrath, Alice in Wonderland, The Lord of the Rings and so on. I could have asked any English-speaking (and maybe a few non-English speaking too) 17-year-old on earth to come up with these books as recommendations.

But that’s not the real problem. If I want to keep 1984 from showing up as a recommendation again, I need to add it to my collection as a “Read It, Reading It or Want to Read It.” But if I add it to my collection, it’s all the more likely that some other person is going to have to suffer the same ordeal. So I’m stuck in a conundrum: do I add it and save myself some misery, or do I ignore it and continue to grumble everytime I see it on my list.

(Remember this: there’s always a third option. I removed the application from my [rarely used now] Facebook account and went elsewhere).

Now, I am picking on Books iRead, but the other applications have similar problems. At the heart of the matter is the nature of social information in the first place. Our world is full of influences — both traditional and commercial — that hit on our collective ability to coordinate our interests. When I want to know how I am similar to the crowd, simple algorithms work fine. If I want to know how I’m different, there’s a problem.

The Solution:

The solution is empathy, understanding, broad-thinking, letting people help computers think rather than the other way around. That is why I am going to put in some love for LibraryThing over its competitors.

Library Thing is not about its algorithms and that’s the difference. You can tell by its attempts at making the website human. Yes, their “people with your books also have. . .” search gives me the usual suspects like Henry James, and D.H. Lawrence — but then I can just switch to a tags or “special sauce” recommendation. There’s also a neat “easy linking” tool and api, that will try to guess titles from keywords in a URL. For instance, here is the result for “http://www.librarything.com/title/hanky panky/“. Currently I am using this service as part of a Library Thing/Twitter mashup. (It’s vaporware right now, except to people who have followed me on Twitter). There are more surprises coming that direction as well.

But the real secret of Library Thing’s success has little to do with the range of services it offers, but instead in Tim Spalding’s understanding of what libraries are and how they work. For one, he tapped the quagmire that is Z39.50 and took his service one step beyond what just a re-hash of what Amazon has to offer. He added a “talk” section to his website, because he understands that books are one way we connect with other human beings. And he hires librarians too.

So, there’s no wonder Tim Spalding is in Library Journal’s Movers and Shakers. But forget that, give him the freakin’ Reader’s Nobel Peace Prize. Or better yet, howzabout an “I Love You” subscription to the Library Thing service. He deserves to be sitting on a pot of gold, and you’ll be sitting on the (ahem) pot with lots of good reading. Maybe we could also get him a better set of data than that Z39.50 stuff we’ve been handing him too, eh?

And you know what? I also think the same kind of understanding is what makes MetaFilter successful as well. Jessamyn West is revered as a near goddess there, and I can see why. There’s a good mix of the social and the authoritative — which is what librarians have been all about for, like, 100s of years.

In the end, I think librarians rock. The main problems we have occur when we get in our own way — as in insisting on complicated standards where more simple and flexible standards will do. Viva Libraria!

Does a Fish Know It’s Wet? : Access to Scholarly Journals in Public Libraries

Heather Morrison discusses what she calls an “access gap” for scholarly journals in public libraries.   She claims:

The local public library will have interlibrary loan service; however, with limited staffing looking after everything from storytime for preschoolers to special services for teens, adults, seniors, and more, not to mention buying books and running the library, the public library cannot begin to think about providing the same level of service as a university document delivery service, with a much smaller gap to fill.

The issue will be a familiar one for anyone who works in a public library.   While most libraries will attempt to provide access to some journals, the reality is that other needs take precedent over scholarly work.   Certainly, fostering a love of reading in children cannot begin with scholarly journals; literacy work is not supported by scholarly database;   “pop” non-fiction will get a library more “thank god for the library” comments than anything coming out of Ebsco.

In short, one can easily dismiss Morrison’s analysis with the simple statement:  “there’s little demand for it.”

There a conundrum in public libraries that always creeps up as well.   How far do we go to educate learners?   Do we fill our collections with Charles Dickens and Homer as a way to expand minds, or do we let the paper backs flow with the hopes that something comes out of your mass-produced formulaic and barely literate romance, western or mystery novel?    Do we let Google satisfy your average reference query, or do we drag people kicking and screaming to the databases where they may get the real goods on what’s going on in the world (sort of).

Morrison also uses the example of typical alumnus who, as a student, has access to just about everything under the sun, research-wise, but who has their access reduced to less than 5% of they had before.   Considering many of these alumni will be professionals — working as public servants, lawyers, doctors, or whatnot — this is a great concern.   One that, clearly, public libraries ought to address if they were not so busy keeping up with all their other services.

The group Morrison does not mention, however, is the group that most concerns me — those who do not know scholarly journals exist in the first place, or who, for one reason or another do not care.  Again, the conundrum appears again.   Is this a case where a fish does not know it’s wet, or the natural order of things.   Most of the people I know leaving college were more than happy to stop taking courses and being told what reality is — not because profs were so particularly paternal/maternal but because there is life beyond intellectual pursuits and they wanted a piece of that life.   On the other hand, it is hard to say what choices people would make if they had a choice among the blogosphere, wikipedia, mainstream news and scholarly literature and full awareness of latter’s role in understanding the truth.

A good example is the pseudo-myth of the online predator.  As Bruce Schneier has uncovered, most parents’ fears of online predators lurking after their children are unfounded.   The mainstream news, and even Google for a good while, would suggest differently — it is the scholarly literature that is best able to handle such a question without blurring the issue behind sensationalism and fear.  If parents were more easily able to access and evaluate such literature, there could be a lot of headaches saved all over the world on this issue.   Climate change is another obvious issue that comes to mind as well.  Ditto most health scares.   Anyone who thinks gaming is a waste of time should look at the time wasted worrying about things that don’t matter.

I   don’t have any answers here, although I will say that Morrison’s support of open access scholarship seems a reasonable response to me.   Bring the scientific research out into the public eye via Google is better than throwing big chunks of public library budgets at the big name academic publishers.    Perhaps the more real research there is, the more Digg and Wikipedia will use it as a check on what they present to their audiences.   The better Wikipedia articles are, in fact, those with the most citations.

On the other hand, scholars are as much a victim of the wet fish syndrome as those who do not read it.   Writing in the scholarly world is focussed on those things non-researchers could care less about: methodologies, procedures, scholarly pedigrees and the like.   Is there any wonder why a book like Guns, Germs and Steel will always have more popular interest than anything on Geo-ref?   Maybe popular non-fiction is the better road to knowledge?

It’s very very hard to speculate on a world where access to scholarly information was truly free to all.    Humankind’s reaction to a little bit of truth should not be underestimated, for its volatility.    Personally, I think the dream is worth a shot.