on participatory librarianship

homework supervisor

homework supervisor

This is Tasha … she is 23 years old! One of my homework supervisors.

I wanted to help people solve problems. I didn’t care about books (well, I did and I do, but this was far from my motivation to go to library school). I already knew I was good with problems, and sharing that ability with others seemed like a no-brainer. This is something I knew long before I knew about participatory librarianship, or Lankes’ New Librarianship, or anything, really. I spent so many years working behind the scenes, and my elevator speech was always something pretty nebulous. “See that thing? I do something which does something which supports something that makes that work.” Not so inspiring …

Participatory librarianship appeals to my activist history—activism and activists enable the community to make better-informed decisions and ultimately change lives. The problems solved this way can be broader, and more important, than anything I ever expected to be involved with.

Of course, all that is focused on my involvement, and not so much community involvement. I haven’t figured out the community involvement piece, especially with respect to where I may end up in Libraryland.

Design seems to an obvious part of this—the design of spaces that encourage participation is really obvious in the images we’ve seen of the DOK center and of other participation-based library spaces (both online and face-to-face). I wouldn’t be surprised if all the examples of participatory rooms/buildings that we see come from Europe and Japan—the lack of real estate for pretty much any purpose in these places forces people to become very creatively efficient with their design and usage of space.

Mathews’ paper designed to inspire library entrepreneurialism made me cringe when I read the title. You may have guessed from earlier reflections that I have a low opinion of things labeled this way: what is identified as entrepreneurial is often not novel at all and is often pretty much useless. Early on, however, this article seemed different: so many of the “what-ifs” identified in the article are already under way and, in my estimation, represent a liberation as much as a liability. There’s a certain ceding of control of resources and that may free the library to focus on the participatory aspects of their service. The key is to get out from managing the things while influencing how these resources are used to enable the community.

So much talk about library entrepreneurialism stays at the 35000-foot level; the most satisfying parts of his paper came near the end. “Real artists ship.” Ultimately, the question becomes one of innovation (and, ultimately, the ability to deliver) in an environment where innovation may not be a real priority.

Too many techno-negatives!

The challenges related to technology which were identified in Michael’s white paper “The Hyperlinked Library” felt very familiar. Having worked with technology for a very long time I’ve sometimes felt these myself and have helped others overcome these challenges. Techno-hesitation is particularly vexatious. It’s not just libraries which face this problem; for many of us this can be as simple as knowing when to make a purchase. Do I buy that new iPad now, or do I wait? There’s risk in everything we do, but with new technology the risk often seems insurmountable. The cost associated with this risk often drives techno-hesitation—for an individual this can be a few hundred dollars, and for a library this can cost much more. Risk management techniques can be used to manage the hesitation (along with the other techno-challenges) while opening the doors to more and better conversations with members. The culture of perfect combined with the cost of not being perfect leads to stagnation.

Jason Pontin’s experience at All Things Digital (as described by Wade Roush in a 2005 Technology Review article) interesting—especially considering the sponsorship of the meeting (the major technology columnists for the Wall Street Journal). It reminded me of my first week in library school. At Syracuse distance learning students spend about ten days on campus at the start of the program—on the first day of class I was surprised to find so many of us with laptops in hand in the classroom. This wasn’t a new idea for me: in the business world we all brought our laptops to meetings … but nearly nobody in attendance needed to do that. Even my undergraduate experience as a distance learning student didn’t prepare me for this; other than incidental contact in class-based discussions hosted on a First Class system, students didn’t really have much contact among themselves. Fast forward a few years (I completed my B.S. in 2006) and I’m in a classroom that’s totally engaged: we’re engaged with the instructor in the room and we’re engaged with each other by following (and contributing with) a class hashtag on Twitter.

This could actually be a real problem for the Hyperlinked Library model—it’s so easy to create connections and conversations without the library that it becomes more difficult to make the library a compelling part of the conversation. This shows clearly in the section of the 2009 ITHAKA report we read—researchers are clearly communicating with each other, but they feel they’ve built those conversations without the library and don’t necessarily see the value in the library now.

Initial impression from foundation readings

My main problem with the Library 2.0 likeness is that it seems to be inspired by the dot-com experience. For many people the dot-com time was awesome, but for me it represented lots of poorly-managed change, unsustainable services and a general “set up to fail” flavor.

The first chapter of Library 2.0 outlines the difficult environment in which libraries currently operate (not just in 2007 when this was written, but right to the present day)—with fewer resources with which to work it seems to be an overly-optimistic goal to implement the kinds of changes which Library 2.0 discusses.

The “constant and purposeful change” idea makes me feel a bit better about it all, but I feel certain the “change” part will get emphasized over the “constant and purposeful” part. Can you tell my glass is sometimes just half-full with a little crack near the top?

Ultimately my point is that purposeful change can be difficult … and useful purposeful change even more difficult. This might explain why the progress that could be had this way is evident but hardly widespread.

Perhaps the most surprising bit of advice from Library 2.0 was that administrators should be communicating more directly with front line staff and that they should consider input from these staff essential in their planning and assessment efforts. It doesn’t seem sensible to ignore the input of people who are working directly with members of the library. It’s wasted opportunity. Of course, in all the years I’ve used libraries I’ve never been personally surveyed about anything with respect to library services, and I wonder what this means. Have I been overlooked or just unlucky?

The library as a facilitator of conversations which create knowledge isn’t new for me: I was lucky enough to be exposed to this on day #1 of my library school experience by Dave Lankes. My reaction then was similar: this all sounds awesome but implementation seems so unlikely in the current environment.

Our challenge in all this is to find a way to bring this to future library members. My personal challenge is to see a way to do this despite all the apparent obstacles. I’m not totally grumpy and pessimistic, but I do understand that these are challenging times in which to introduce change, and change is often managed so poorly …

Context Book Report: a choice for unusual reasons?

I’ve decided to read Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture and then report on this work in my context book report. A few reasons for this choice:

  • During the 1980s and early 1990’s I worked at MIT. Occasionally I would receive a misdirected email message for him (our email addresses were different by just one character) and so we would interact every so often. We never did meet, but I remembered enough to make a mental Post-It …
  • and, just a few weeks ago, that mental Post-It came up once again and I found his blog, which I am now following with interest …
  • and, finally, the reviews I’ve read are sufficiently varied that I feel this will be an interesting read.

I hope it’ll arrive at my SFPL branch before I return some books this weekend.

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I am Henry Mensch, a second-year part-time LIS student at the Syracuse University iSchool. My studies are nearly complete–I expect to complete my degree (as well as a Certificate in Digital Libraries) in late December.

While I’ve lived in San Francisco for more than twenty years, I was born and raised in the Bronx and so claim dual citizenship as a New Yorker and a Californian. I’ve lived and worked all over the US and, for a while, in southeast Queensland Australia as well.

I have not worked in a library before. My day job since 1986 has been in various parts of the information technology industry. At the moment I’m the systems guy (“Systems and Storage Manager”) for a research lab at the San Francisco VA Medical Center. Our lab studies brain imagery (usually MRI images) in order to better understand and treat neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease, Post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.

Before joining the lab I’ve worked in large companies, startups, and academia–you can see the whole history here.

On Friday I start an internship at the California Digital Library’s Merritt repository.

All of this (plus one more class at Syracuse) leaves my days really full. I am a night owl, so you will often see me posting at “odd” hours. They’re not odd for me, but they may be for you. :)

end of semester!

So … just a few weeks ago I was concerned about finding an internship and figuring out classes for the spring. I’m down to three classes for the spring and may drop one more before the semester starts …

The internship, however, has turned out nicely. Just a few days after I last posted here I got responses to both internships in which I expressed interest. One (which I expected) was a “thanks, but no thanks” but the other was more like “yes! let’s talk!” That second opportunity is with the California Digital Library‘s Merritt repository service. A phone meeting was had a few days later, and it looks like I’ve found an internship! The best part: they’re local, so while I will work remotely most of the time, I can go there for meetings and the like. It turns out their team is geographically diverse–one of the staffers on this project is routinely located in southern California (although he was present in the Oakland office for my phone interview).  To wrap up the start of the internship I have to work with people at the iSchool to figure out the requirements to turn this into academic credit. I’m excited about the project, and excited that I’m able to fulfill this requirement in a way that respects my day job.

I feel like I really should do two internships … absent the completion of internship opportunities, I will have had no real experience in libraries of any sort, so getting as much experience before I need to look for work is a high priority.

At about the same time the SLA b/ITe newsletter announced that I’d be the incoming editor for 2013. I’m excited about this too–the opportunity to get the word out within the IT division and the nature of the opportunity means that it can work well with the schedule I must keep this spring in order to be caught up on everything.

Some open decisions: should I try to make a trip back east for a weekend just to see and meet up with people? There are people in my classes that I’ve corresponded with regularly but haven’t actually met .. also, should I try to spend a day at ALA Midwinter in late January? I’m leaning away from this (it would really only be a day: fly up early Saturday morning and return later in the evening). The limitations of a day feel large, but it’d be better than not going at all, right?

Lastly, I need to meet up with my Baynet mentor before the end of the year. His calendar has been unexpectedly chock full of stuff and so I’m glad he makes any time for me. Sometime next week …


what’s going on lately

  • I’m taking three courses: Introduction to Digital Data (formerly Introduction to Digital Libraries), Copyright for Information Professionals, and Grantwriting. The semester is winding down with about two weeks left. I am looking forward to the end of semester, but maybe not so much since that just means a few weeks to the start of next semester.
  • Next semester is busy. Right now I’m registered for more courses than I reasonably can take: I have to drop one or two of those courses. The problems here are: quite a few one-time opportunities combined with the near-completion of my program. I have to take IST 613 (Library Planning, Marketing, Assessment) now since it is only offered in the Spring. I have an opportunity to take Hyperlinked Library through WISE (I could register directly through SJSU, but that would cost more). IST 604 (Cataloging) is offered “as needed” so who knows when it’ll appear again. Finally, IST 681 (Metadata) is offered once each year so take it now or wait …
  • Right now I’m chasing down a virtual internship to start late Spring or so. I can’t do a conventional internship—can’t afford to do that because the day job is not-so-interested in having me not there during the day. More on this in another message.
  • I agreed to be the new editor of the SLA IT division newsletter b/ITe (the current issue can be found at http://it.sla.org/bite/v29n3/). My work doesn’t begin until next year, but I think this is going to be fun.

All of this plus my day job. Thankfully, we seem to have sorted out the desktop admin position with someone smart and reliable.

thing 2: exploring others’ blogs …

This isn’t a first–I try to follow quite a few blogs with Google Reader.  The volume can be enormous, but I continue to add new blogs anyway.  You see, I can’t really tell how prolific a blogger may become when I start following their blog.

Of course, I can look at their blogging history, but things change over time and some folks pick up steam over time while others peter out.  Also (at least with Google Reader) I can pick and choose what I read–I don’t have to read every post in every blog, so I don’t.  Picking and choosing is what makes this enterprise possible at all.  It is ok to hit the “Mark all as read” button–anything important will come up again, perhaps in another venue.

I did poke at a handful of the blogs listed here but many of them seem to be not-yet-started or stale … I’ll come back and have a look later in the week.