Keynote Remarks for the MOBIUS 2015 Conference, “Not Just Digital: Redefining our roles across channels (and beyond)”
Hello everyone. Thanks for the warm welcome and thanks to the staff at MOBIUS. This conference is so well organized and everyone at MOBIUS I’ve interacted with has been amazing. I just have to say that I am so excited to be here around some of my favorite types of people – librarians and Midwesterners.
Thanks so much for the having me here this year. I was supposed to be up here a year ago. I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to make it last year and I was honored to be invited back to give it another go this year. I want to thank you for your patience and I want to thank the amazing and understanding staff at MOBIUS who have been very helpful last year. I also want to thank my dinner companions last night. It was great to chat with some of you. We got a little stranded but again, thanks to the MOBIUS staff who tracked down a shuttle and stopped them at a stop light, we eventually made it safe and sound back to our hotel.
I also just want to give a caveat for my talk. While this was listed as a tech services talk and that is the area I worked in when I was a librarian, this talk is probably quite a bit broader than just about tech services. As my areas of interest in the profession have grown and I’ve had the ability to take a deeper dive into areas I didn’t get to directly explore when I was a day-to-day librarian. A little later in my talk I’m going to tell you about data and society but just in case you’re curious, I am a fellow at a think/do tank in NYC that focused on the social, cultural and ethics implications of living in a data-centric, networked world. I am representing libraries at the table amongst other fellows who come from or studies areas such as human rights, civic tech, law, data-driven discrimination, new data in the financial markets, new search engine business models that aren’t just about mining our data, data-driven decision making in public health. I think you can get the picture. We are all coming at the impact of current technology on very different sectors. And it’s a load of fun. It has given me a chance to step outside of libraries temporarily and see the potential impact of our work and what we do and what we could do for our communities and for society.
As I prepared for this talk, I got to thinking about what has brought me to this moment, this point in my life and this point in my career. I got to thinking about how I’ve gotten so attached to this idea that libraries (and maybe more importantly librarians) can play an increasingly important roles in our changing environment. I’ve come to realize my love for libraries is really a love for what librarians facilitate and the work librarians do.
Being a first generation college student meant that walking onto a college campus felt a little like arriving on a new planet. People spoke differently than what i had heard most of my life, expectations of me were so different, my peers were not like my friends back home, and my eyes were opened to so many foreign ways to think about things. In my sophomore year I started a job on campus working in the technical services department at my college library. I had the best job because every book that arrived at my little Midwest liberal arts college went through my hands. I added barcodes and security strips to every book. Over the summer when I was full time, I watched bits and pieces of every dvd that came in to ensure its quality, and checked in every newspaper that arrived from all over the world. And wow, that was amazing. My eyes were open to so many different topics, academic disciplines, and new ideas. I had no idea the world was full of so much information.
The summer just before I graduated I received a summer research fellowship where I got to spend the entire summer in a giant research library reading dissertations, browsing books, finding articles and walking around floors and floors and floors of information, created by millions of individuals, all in some pursuit of creating and sharing new knowledge. I was blown away and I was in love with information and knowledge creation. It wasn’t the physical library that I fell in love with, it was the thought of people taking bits and pieces of created knowledge to create new knowledge, to think up new ideas, and to expand their own minds with new information. I knew by age 21 that i wanted to be part of facilitating that process in any way that I could. Between conversations with my boss, the director of collection development and tech services, Corrine Wocelka, and lots of reading, I saw that the values of the field of librarianship allowed me to be able to be a part of the important and critical work of providing access to information, ensuring intellectual freedom, and creating a more information citizenry. So I knew I wanted to be a librarian. And, while I am no longer holding every piece of information in my hands that passes through a library where I’ve worked, I still am working towards those same values. These values have even led me to many times working on projects outside of a traditional library and even the fellowship i am in right now without making me feel like I’ve strayed from libraries. And, that’s what I want to talk to you about today – the set of values that librarianship holds that make it possible for us to continue to do that good work we do and to redefine our roles because we facilitate the process of spreading information and support the creation of new knowledge when we work in and around this field. I believe that if we examine this and other core values we have as a profession, honor them and stick to them, that we have the power to think creatively about solving problems or changes happening across formats and across our jobs, finding collaborative solutions, and ultimately changing the world.
Sometimes we hear so much about digital stuff you might think we are in the business of digital but we’re not. We are in a much bigger and more important business than serving up digital stuff. Don’t get me wrong that stuff is very important, too(as some of you may know, I run a conference that’s all about digital stuff in libraries called ER&L).
We are in the business of facilitating information and idea exchange for real people, of access, of intellectual freedom, of books, of ejournals, of discovery layers, of physical spaces and digital repositories. We are in the business of capturing history, of being a safe haven (that is, both a digital safe haven and a physical safe haven). We are way, way more than being in the business of digital. We are in the business of holding true to a core set of values that our community and our society have agreed are critical for a vibrant, growing, creative, thriving democracy.
We live in a very digital world but we don’t work in just digital worlds when we work in libraries.
This makes us different.
This makes us unique.
This sets us apart from our supposed competitors.
This gives us the gift of insights that only we see.
And this is good and we need to own it.
So, let’s talk a little about what we’re in the business of. I want to use a little bit of our time to talk about what we’ve done well, what do well now, and get us thinking about what those skills could support in the future. After we dive a little into our values and skills, I want to talk a little bit about how i’ve carved out my niche in the field and present a few ideas I’ve heard where libraries might be the solutions to new and emerging problems. Hopefully these will help us in the future as we think about how we can redefine our roles.
I want to start with the most clear and obvious value area where we work. Just about everything I’ve done in a library throughout my career has been about Access to Information. This could be about how we organize information to ensure access is possible. It’s about developing collections or curating content so that your community can find what it needs. It’s about ensuring a collection full of diverse views and perspectives. It is about considering the body of users current and future and supporting the ranging accessibility challenges among users. It’s about acquiring and being good stewards of the funds we have to provide the best access. It’s about considering how we will preserve materials and archive for future access and future users. These are all things done in/around our libraries.
We’ve evolved our work in these areas over time by developing new services and activities. We’ve seen some of this work change and grow and extend further. Whether that be collaborative collection development (since we now have the ability to collaborate, organize, communicate and quickly rush materials where they are needed), making metadata more open and accessible for our own discovery tools and so outside discovery tools can get to our content. It has meant participating in big, centralizing activities like DPLA which is allowing for more access and more people to play with the data we have about our cultural heritage. We are being collectors and publishers of local output by our user communities, we are growing our capacities in digitizing and preserving materials in a variety of formats. Many of us have digital repositories or publishing software that we now manage. Some of us are lending devices so users can experience different tools and experimenting with different acquisition models to make sure we are using funds appropriately.
We are playing a huge role in the ever-growing and still-emerging area of research data services, including data centers, data curations, data management planning as well as playing a role in the world of digital humanities.
Intellectual Freedom & Curiosity
How about one of my favorite things we value which fits perfectly in line with why I became a librarian – fostering intellectual curiosity and ensuring intellectual freedom. Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. Curiosity comes from a place where the person feels comfortable and safe enough to explore something. To me, that means ensuring a level of empowerment that comes from an ease in use of resources – whether that be an Internet 101 course for someone recently released after being incarcerated for 15 years or supporting research projects while embedded in a course at a university.
Librarians have supported researchers through their intellectual endeavors and instructed their students to be ready for the semester’s assignments. We of course are still empowering through support and instruction and partnerships. More than ever we are embedded online and in classrooms. And we’ve found new ways to connect where people are to facilitate the ability for an individual to be curious and to enjoy the freedom of intellectual curiosity. I especially love how libraries have allowed space for more experiential learning, with makerspaces and hack spaces and places for people to come and learn together more than ever. Our physical libraries are more vibrant than ever with intellectual empowerment and curiosity everywhere. In these new areas, we are succeeding. Another aspect of intellectual freedom is of course around confidentiality and privacy. ALA and our field has taken very seriously the role of ensuring private access to information. Now, there are several people and organizations working to try to figure out what that looks like today.
At Data & Society I’m working on a few projects related to that.
- IMLS: BPL, in partnership with OTI, are creating a Digital Privacy & Data Literacy project: a professional training program that delivery to library professionals in the metropolitan New York area. The training will provide a technical and historical overview of how information travels and is shared online, what risks are frequently encountered online, what the impacts of such risks may be on users, and why this topic is important. The training will have specific hands-on activities focusing on tools and techniques to detect and prevent privacy intrusions, insecure transmission of information, and data profiling issues.
- And, through a Mellon-funded project, led by NISO, we are attempting to develop a Consensus Framework to Support Patron Privacy in Digital Library and Information Systems. This means taking a step back and thinking, what does patron privacy mean today in libraries and with publishers and vendor systems that work with libraries. So, work is being done to redefine our roles in these areas.
While this may not seem so obvious for every type of library here, I think a core value for libraries is as a place that fosters democracy. A democracy requires an informed citizenry. To me, that is core to what we strive to facilitate. Libraries are an essential good and are fundamental institutions in democratic societies. Publicly supported library provides free, equal, and equitable access to information for all people of the community the library serves. Our devotion to education and lifelong learning for ourselves and our users demonstrates that. Adam Davis, Center for Civic Reflection said: Libraries, which are often seen as products of democracy, can also be seen as engines of democracy, as places where people go to engage with one another and to begin making a difference. Whether we are improving access to information, empowering individuals or facilitating the way for true intellectual freedom, I believe we are all in the business of creating the kind of world we want to be a part of.
So, if you think about library professionals and people who organize, people who provide access, people who give context, who curate, and who make information accessible and then serve it up in useful ways. How could that be useful in new contexts? Where else can we be? How else can we help our communities make and grow and learn as individuals? What will the future of education look like and how can we continue the role of empowerment and curiosity? What does lifelong learning look like now? Where do libraries fit into that?
Here are a few places where we are or could be defining new roles:
Data – big data small data, research data, open data. There’s so much going on here on the government data side, the research data side and, the newer area of corporate data sharing for good (meaning companies sharing telecommunications or social media data to humanitarian groups). We currently have a fellow looking into this area right now. At Data & Society and in various places, I’ve heard about this growing concern about getting access to all this data, making this data findable, and having a trusted source to host it. There’s conversations about data provenance, cleaning up data, and the inaccessibility of some datasets. It appears as though a new wheel has to be invented. People see these problems as ones that have never been tackled before. This is where I chime in and say, you know, libraries do these things and have been doing these things for a long time…”
We see a growth in civic engagement, mostly around civic tech. This involves more transparency around government data and information, more accessibility to datasets so citizens can play with the data. How can libraries play a bigger role there? I hear people complain about the bad metadata wrapped around open government data which makes it still very hard to use and manipulate. It’s hard for new knowledge to be created with open government data without people who know about organization of information, description, and access. I know some libraries are involved in this area, others have been for a long time. The scale and the growth means we will have a bigger role here.
As big data, open data and government transparency becomes the norm, who will consider the ethical implications of the use and reuse and the safety of those whose data is being used?
Another area for libraries is in the Open Movement. Libraries have done a good job supporting the open access movement. As that continues to catch on and grow, how can our ideas expand and our tolerance for trying new business models and new ways to support the movement? How can libraries continue to support the open educational resources movement?
As our rights online are diminishing, and we are being watched constantly by government, law enforcement, and commercial entities. as we are seen more and more as just numbers and likely purchases of products or services online, what is the role of libraries in securing what little online privacy may be left and how can librarians empower citizens to know what’s happening to them online? Maybe there’s new roles for libraries in the ever-growing sharing economy, in the critical evaluation of new tools and services online, and/or in increasing STEM literacy. These are just some places where we are or could be defining new roles that fit our skills and values where we can reinvent libraries and envision a different future.
Tim O’Reilly has kept true to a set of values within an industry that doesn’t always look to the same values, he has helped change the publishing industry, and can still have a thriving, constantly-changing company that is helping an industry grow and change. I watched a recent interview with Tim O’Reilly and the topic of “disrupting” came up. Tim seems very dismissive of this idea of disruption. He prefers words like creating and reinventing. I like those words as well. Sometimes I think a word like disrupting sounds like something tech people in Silicon Valley do. Reinventing and creating seems more accessible to me and more like something any of us can do. I believe true innovation and true change comes from distilling down to our core values and creating the future we (with those values) want to see. Then, create it. And that’s where I think we come in. With these values, we should be creating the vision for the workplace we want to work in, the libraries we want to be for our communities, and the society we want to live in. I love Tim’s way of thinking because as I made clear in my story, I’m not in the library business. I am in the facilitation business – the facilitation of information and support in the hopes that new knowledge will be created and new ideas enter the world. That’s what drives me forward and that’s part of my core values that allow me to comfortably look beyond a day-job, look at my user community and at the society around me and make me think, what world can I help create that will allow for that?
It’s questions like that that led me to create ER&L 11 years ago and it’s why I chose to temporarily leave a library to be a fellow at Data & Society. And, it’s why I will come back to libraries.
For those who don’t know, I created ER&L two years out of library school because I saw a problem and wanted to find a solution. libraries were struggling to figure out how to manage all this e stuff, they needed tools that worked, they needed administration’s support, they needed to update staff’s skills, and they needed the power of other libraries to talk with vendors and publishers about what would work for libraries (in terms of biz models and tools). It seemed clear to me that we needed to work together to solve some of these problems. Thus, ER&L was born and just celebrated its 10th anniversary a few months ago. We’ve come a long way and it’s been so fulfilling to see how the profession has quickly adapted and found new problems to solving over the years. Like Tim’s quote, i just wanted to see a profession that could nimbly respond to new, developing areas.
I don’t know about you, but I feel like there are more people doing stuff like that now. How many of you read or watched anything about the knight foundation news challenge for libraries? There are some really fantastic projects by individuals and groups. It’s really exciting to me to see this growth in entrepreneurial spirit!
So, how do we continue to create our futures? I think we do that by looking for solutions to current problems, where the solutions involve the skills we have at hand and the values we care about. Practically-speaking, what does this mean? You’re Midwesterners so you want to know the practical stuff. I can say that because I’m a Midwesterner – born and raised in IL and college and library school educated in WI. I never realized how much Midwesterners were no nonsense and pragmatic and nice until I lived in other parts of the country. My partner, who is from TX, points out regularly when I am being my no-nonsense, no-drama, pragmatic Midwesterner. I like that we’re known for that.
Let’s start locally and work outwards. First, we must create workplaces to allow for experimentation, failure and iteration. We must spend less time on internal politics and more time focusing on our very important goals. Many of you came from academic libraries. Many people have been attributed to some saying along the lines of – the politics in academia is so vicious because the stakes are so low. But, it’s different for libraries. The stakes for our success are too high for a lot of that. We need to support good quality professional development. Updating skills must be a priority.
Regionally, collaboration is key. Very few of the ideas for future work for libraries can be done by one librarian or one library. When we are considering defining future roles for ourselves, we must consider at scale and that means extensive cooperation and collaboration. For our communities, we must be more aware of the needs – could mean being more embedded, more out front, more aware of community needs. This could mean being user-centered with all our services and products. For the future of our society needs, we need to be where the conversations that matter to us are happening.
Libraries are in a unique position and librarians have a unique role to play – in terms of the work they do and the ethos underlying how and why they do it. The environment we create at work and within our networks, the role of libraries in our communities, and, really, the future of our society needs to be created by people with that ethos. That’s us.
Being an entrepreneur, being an active part of solving problems, reinventing our roles, and thinking creatively about the future means we are not waiting for someone else to deliver what we want. We’re creating our own future. The future we want to live in and work in.
Thanks for listening.