Wednesday, November 21, 2007

How Libraries Learn

I.

While the Library 2.0 collective frequently reminds us that it's concerned about more than just technology, the bulk of its evangelizing has been focused on just that. One often hears this sentiment echoing through the literature the movement has spawned, this conviction, tentative though it may be, that there's more to it than just technology.

I don't discount this sentiment. Library 2.0 really is about more than the technology. I often wish, however, that more attention was paid to some of these other, non-technological factors. Reading the literature, it becomes clear that while other areas within libraries, especially public libraries, are ripe for 2.0 treatment, extended meditations are rarely encountered.

That being said, this is not such a meditation. It's me rambling. About place mostly.

If Library 2.0, at its root, is about transformation, then we need to be careful to not let the allure of technology, powerful as it is, stop us from fully exploring and taking advantage of some of the other tools at our disposal. This is especially vital when one recognizes just how much the thrust of Library 2.0's technological vision disrupts or recasts the roles of these other tools. In order to work effectively, the technology components needs to work seamlessly with a number of other, sometimes resistant, factors.

Earlier this summer, John Blyberg wrestled, far more eloquently, with some of these issues, admitting that the prerequisite to Library 2.0 was the internet. He wrote:

So now I’m asserting that there would be no Library 2.0 without the internet. More specifically, that the internet was a prerequisite for what we now agree to call Library 2.0. Like an awkward adolescent, however, L2 will inevitably experiment with independence from its high-tech bloodline.

I like that. Technology is the primary agent for change--it's the engine under Library 2.0's hood. It's leading the way, generating the most excitement and causing the most tangible change in libraries. The LBI Shanachie Tour from earlier this autumn provides a telling snapshot of how technology is both reinvigorating and redefining a handful of libraries here in the U.S. (I'm especially fond of the hushed campground introduction on episode five. And I want a t-shirt!) But what other potentials is it churning in its wake that demand our attention?

II.

The rapid, whiplash technological changes over the last decade have rocked more than just the library world. Media conglomerates, for example, are desperately treading water as they attempt to regain their footing and lost revenues. Whether it's the film/music industry fretting over its precipitous losses while wagging angry fingers (and lawsuits) at file sharers, or newspapers like the New York Times (and soon, the Wall Street Journal?) abandoning access fees in favor of making their online content freely available, there's a very real and sometimes clumsy, even ruinous series of changes underway, prompted, prodded and pushed (sometimes kicking and screaming) by this technological paradigm shift.

And these technological shifts are causing organizations, for-profit and non-profit alike, to reevaluate more mundane elements like their missions, policies, organizational structures, management styles, marketing strategies, programming and how they use their physical space. What, they're asking themselves, needs to be changed, tweaked or discarded? What needs to be expanded, reigned-in or sent packing?

It's the physical space/place element that I've been thinking about lately. How can the interest in "library as a place" play a more active role in the Library 2.0 movement? Are we already seeing it? Libraries like Seattle Public Library. Not long after it opened a New Yorker article breathlessly described as "the most important new library to be built in a generation", one conveying "a sense of the possibility, even the urgency, of public space in the center of a city." Heady stuff, and a powerful demonstration of the potential for libraries to be something other than sturdy institutional buildings storing slowly yellowing books.

Or maybe we're seeing it in libraries like Maricopa when they challenge rigid notions of classification, and so pulling themselves up from the trenches of Dewey in favor of more user-friendly findability. Or perhaps new attention to the potential of library as place is happening in those libraries actively evaluating and redesigning their interiors to make way for more collaborative uses. Places where teenagers (or, my goodness, adults!) can let out an occasional excited holler without fear of an accompanying shush. Places where patrons can not just consume information but create it.

So what's stopping other libraries? In his wonderful book, How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand writes that institutional buildings, like many of the old libraries still being used, "were designed specifically to prevent change for the institution inside and to convey timeless reliability to everyone outside. When forced to change anyway, as they always are, they do so with expensive reluctance and all possible delay. Institutional buildings are mortified by change." Which is to say that their form doesn't cope well with the evolution of its function. Or, as Brand goes on to suggest, "First we shape our buildings, then they shape us, then we shape them again--ad infinitum."

So then, how do libraries, especially some of the more bombastic, seemingly impenetrable specimens out there, gracefully respond to changes in user needs being driven by technological advances? Especially when patrons expect and crave both the serendipitous joy of discovery that comes with idiosyncrasy (wandering/browsing=findability) and the oasis-like calm that comes with continuity? What are the costs involved? What trials must be overcome? While some changes to such places can be relatively simple (better signage, a new furniture layout, interactive displays) others (new wiring and plumbing--allowing for more natural light) can be costly and protracted procedures.

Stewart Brand writes (and he could be describing the urban sprawl of Chicago's Harold Washington Library):

Institutions aspire to be eternal, and they let that ambition lead them to the wrong physical strategy. Instead of opting for long-term flexibility, they go for monumentality, seeking to embody their power in physical grandeur. Post offices, colleges, and state capitols bellie and hinder their high-flux information function with stone walls, useless columns, and wasteful domes. The building tries to stand for the function instead of serving it.

Right on.

What are some of the more simple, cost-effective ways a seemingly static library can change/evolve to better serve its users?

And not just better serve them, but excite and transform their very expectations of the library experience.

2 comments:

kittent said...

An idea I have never thought about. Thanks.

John said...

Chris,

Very nice post. Web 2.0 has had a tremendously disruptive effect on our economy, our culture, our social interactions, and our relationship to information and knowledge. Historically, this period of time will be ascribed a great deal of significance because the very way we live is changing in response, not to the technology, but how devastating it is to the establishment. Libraries are part of that establishment and if we don't do all we can to understand what's going on around us and perticipate in it, we will find ourselves just as devastated as magazine publishers, recording studios, and motion picture companies.

J.