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.

The ALA Code is Not Enough: Thoughts and Case Studies on Librarian Ethics

Sarah Houghton-Jan, the illustrious Librarian in Black brought up the issue of ethics in libraries reminding us to post the ALA Code of Ethics on our office walls. She also points to a post by BlogJunction highlighting two other studies

Ethics are extremely important, but I am here to say that a statement of a code is not enough. Statements of Codes were a fad in the 90s when accountability in governments became a serious issue. People wanted quantitative measures and performance standards, where they may have been seeing patronage appointments and bureaucratic privilege. Many such codes exist in wide areas. For example, the Values and Ethics Code for the Canadian Federal Government came out in 2003, as an explanation for various government policies around accountability and public responsibility.

In my view, these codes are much too general to be useful, and really are more a promotion piece for the general public than they are any assurance of actual ethical behavior in the industry. I find practical things to be more useful. That’s why I am going to chat about four different “things ethical.”

1. Do Not Put Library Values Before Core Human Values

The most important values in library service have nothing to do with libraries. If you want to be ethical, you ought to be the sorts of things that make a good doctor, lawyer, accountant or whatever. In this order, these are the values you should aspire to:

  • Integrity — Your word is your bond. You do what you say you are going to do and it matters to you lots when projects do not come through they way they should.
  • Honesty — You do not lie, even when it hurts.
  • Accountability — You take responsibility for what happens under your watch, and refrain from the blame game when the results do not come through (yes, even if some jerk didn’t do what they said they would do). Then, you take the appropriate actions to fix those problems if you can.
  • Compassion — You never behave as an automaton. Rules and policies often do cause harm to some at the benefit to others — you see your job as making the harm as little as possible when this happens (eg. when the library fines happen to cause serious financial grief, you do everything within the bounds of library policy to lessen the impact this has on your patrons).

Librarians and Library Associations are so often focussed on their status as professions that they miss the core points related to any public service. Be good first; be a good librarian second.

2. Ethics is Hard: The Case of the Justified Whistle-blower

Sometimes, the most obvious right thing to do is, in retrospect the absolute worst thing to do. The most serious example I can think of is the issue of whistle blowing in the public service. [NB: this case is entirely fictional and any reference to real persons is coincidental].

Say you discover that a high-ranking manager is purposely giving out jobs to family members and no one appears to be doing anything about it. This sounds like a case where someone ought to provide a quick tip off to that favorite investigative reporter, so they can get to the bottom of this heinous practice. It’s the ethical thing to do after all, isn’t it?

Well, actually, no it isn’t. While sometimes necessary, and cases like Watergate and the Sponsorship Scandal make it appear heroic, whistle-blowing often puts the interests of the whistle-blower waaaaay ahead of the public interest, which is a core no-no in ethical terms.

The main reason is this: for institutions to provide good, a trust among elected officials who make policies and the hired bureaucrats who have to implement them needs to be strong. A media feeding-frenzy on nepotism in libraries would have a serious impact on that trust, causing distortions in policy that cost the public much more than the simple act of nepotism ever would. In short, your selfish act (see below for why it is selfish) ends up costing patrons access to information, which if you really think about costs lots in terms of health, education and general well-being.

Whistle-blowing can be the only way out of a situation, but it should never be the first option. You should only whistle-blow under the following conditions:

  • You have the facts very straight, with objective, concrete evidence to prove it.
  • The top official (the CEO or director) knows about the problem and has done nothing.
  • The problem is of a very serious, life-threatening nature and the impacts are imminent (ie. there isn’t any time to resolve the problem).
  • A more broad understanding of the problem would not result in a logical understanding of why the problem is the way it is.

In short, whistle-blowing should only be done when there is no other way out. Finally, if you do have to whistle-blow, you ought to do it under these conditions:

  • the information ought to go to the person or group who could most effectively deal with the problem (almost never the media). In this case, the manila envelop might go to the a library board member, the city HR administrator or the police, depending on the circumstances (again, assuming that the CEO/Director knows the problem exists and has done nothing).
  • think about your motives for blowing the whistle. Do you really want to stop the nepotism, or do you just want to see that high-horse manager with egg on his/her face?
  • whistle-blowing is almost never a career-making move, even when it’s justified. Even Deep Throat, the Watergate informant, remained in hiding until well into his old age.

This is all to say that the first action that comes to mind may not be the most ethical action after all.   Forget Blink, you have to think before acting.

Ethics Hurts

(Again, this case study is entirely fictional. If I seem to be describing anyone, it’s a coincidence. Besides, the people I work with are all perfect anyway.)

The media is full of former employees and/or customers who accuse institutions of heinous acts and yet ethics tends to suggest that institutions are not allowed to defend themselves. You may be accused of all kinds of things that are untrue, so much that it would be very tempting to demonstrate in clear terms why that employee or customer came to dislike you so much.

Appearance and reality are definitely two different things, and librarians being the committed-to-truth sorts of people they are may want to breach confidentiality to reduce the amount of gump out there. But the important thing to remember is the “put your own interests behind the public interest” piece.

Ethics are Contradictory

If you haven’t already figured it out, I have already said “honesty” and “integrity” are the most important values on one side of my mouth, and on the other side said “don’t rat on your boss” or “don’t tell the truth about that disgruntled patron.”

That’s the reason why I think ethical codes are so problematic. Honesty and Integrity ought to be the default settings for your behavior, but sometimes you have to change those settings to suit the circumstances.  Perhaps the 5th and most important value is this:

  • Alertness — the mind is constantly open and aware of both the small details and the big picture.

The ethical person may even be aspiring toward divinity in this regard. That might be very theocratic of me, but from where do we get “goodness” if our imaginations cannot perceive an “ultimate goodness.”

And if that’s the case, then I ought to add one more value: humility.   Ethics might be the very humbling process of trying to be as good as a god.  Like I said, ethics is difficult.

Swimming the Web

I am a great fan of Judy Blume.   So much so that I have started reading her books (somewhat prematurely) to my four-year-old son.   The most recent entry is Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great.  It was timely, since my four-year-old is now learning to swim.

If you don’t know the book, then suffice it to say that a major part of storyline involves a young girl who is dragged kicking, screaming and punching to swimming lessons.   More importantly, it highlights how water can instill extreme and irrational fear in a person; and extreme pride when this fear is overcome.

I get asked about Internet Safety alot too.   One of the things I cover, fairly flippantly is that in order to protect their children from the risks on the Internet, parents have to learn about technology.   Now, I realize that swimming may be the most important analogy.    If you want to protect your children from drowning, you ought to 1) know how to swim yourself  2) teach your children to swim well and/or 3) force them to take swimming lessons.  Why wouldn’t we see the same being done for Internet Safety?

Of course, there are fairly specific differences here.   Beaches have life guards to protect young people from drowning, and drowning is a much, much more likely cause of harm or death in young people than anything having to do with Internet safety.   Libraries cannot expect governments to put the kinds of resources into Internet safety as they do for swimming lessons.

On the other hand, school libraries, public libraries and I daresay, even academic libraries have a role here.   The trick is that we may or may not be seen as the source for training in online safety.   And a series of moral lessons on the hazards of online surfing is not likely to attract a lot of attention.

Perhaps we ought to say, “if you have kids, and surfing the web isn’t your thing, you ought to at least know how to swim the web.”   After that, we should offer technology training focussed on the ability of parents to understand what the web does, how people connect on the web, and what, if anything, they can do to prevent anything from cyber-bullying, to media-stereotyping, to having the RIAA go after them.

Here are some potential modules for the training:

  • What’s free and what’s not on the web (copyright and creative commons)
  • Surfing with your clothes on (privacy and attention-getting on the web)
  • Going from digital to real life (how to meet safely meet an online friend in the real world)
  • Walking the Troll Bridge (discussing controversial issues online)
  • Internet Ninjistu (maintaining anonymity on the web)

But, most importantly, libraries need strategies to encourage parents to swim on the web.   They need to take a little water in their lungs to keep their kids safe.   Yes, on the web you may encounter ads that will promise to enhance various body parts.  You may even find porn or violence (although it’s a bit harder to find that stuff if you are not looking for it).   The point is, as adults, parents ought to be able to cope with these issues — particularly if their kids are using it.

The Life-Path of a Librarian

Steve, Iris, Rikhei & others are going through some kind of meme on why they are librarians. I think self-reflection is great. In fact, when I started this blog, that’s what I intended to do — take opportunities to look at the library world in ways that might reflect “others” in the world. This blog is my way of pretending I am not myself for a bit so I can look at what I do in a new light.

But to say I am pretending not to be myself is a little untrue as well, because I am a contrary person. I do not like to do things the way everyone else does them. That’s why I’m taking this meme and running with it in my own way. So instead of offering why I became a librarian, I am going to imagine a life-path that could very well produce a librarian. Kind of like a 30 second biography.

Librarians :

  • as babies. . . had parents who were less-than-skilled at “peek-a-boo.” That’s why they had to turn to books to get that “it’s gone — no it’s back!” sensation. Every turn of a book, of course, is a game of peek-a-boo!
  • as early schoolers . . . had someone in their life with the guts to give them a book that might offend their parents. Beowulf at six was my big entry into that world. All that blood and gore really showed me that there was a world my parents (and any other authority figures) could not take away from me.
  • at about 10 years of age . . . found a corner of the library where they could laugh and giggle to their friends about all the books with a 613.907 Dewey number (PDF warning). (They would share that “super secret” corner and the Dewey number with their peers of course).
  • as a pre-teen. . . never received “secret admirer” letters because all potential anonymous love interests knew they could figure them out [no, it’s not because librarians are too geeky to be admired].
  • as a teen. . . pretended to read Dostoevski, Trollope, Derrida etc. simply to expose their friends to the fact that these folks exist.
  • before they graduated high school . . . changed from sciences, to arts, to business, back to sciences, and was confused by the idea that anything resembling a specialization in these fields existed.
  • in college. . . confounded profs in discussions by injecting sources of information that the prof never heard of before.
  • before graduating . . . realized that specializing in a particular field was a) going to drive them insane and b) not going to get them a good paying job.
  • in library school . . . reminded themselves “this is temporary hell before getting to a rewarding job.”
  • before graduating . . . forgot most of what they learned in library school (not realizing that this was probably a good thing), but found someone who convinced them that they belong in the profession .
  • in their first job . . . practiced remaining calm, courteous and friendly in front of a mirror while pretending to be abused Hamburger Hill style.
  • by six months . . . after having one of the following happen to them, felt emphatically that they were meant for this job:
    • teen patrons saying hello out of a library context
    • helped someone through a serious health information inquiry
    • got a procrastinating student through a project due next weekend
    • found a weird object to classify and got it fixed nice and easy-like
    • saw a navigation issue with the website and found a logical way to fix it
  • by 2 years . . . learned something they ought to have learned in library school.
  • by 5 years . . . laughed at a library student who was worried about their library school grades.
  • on their first management job . . . started to see the reasons for all those crazy policies that got made in the previous 5 years.
  • yesterday . . . thought about why they became a librarian and pretty much decided “yeah, what Steve, Iris and Rikhei said.”