One person in eight

If one person in eight was known to be user of a particular service, would your library offer that service?

Let’s make some assumptions here, just to get the ball rolling. 1) The service is related to libraries’ core missions fairly closely, 2) That the figure of one person in eight applies nationwide, so there is a reason to believe it applies in your community, and 3) one person in eight is a rising tide, usage is measurably growing, and growing fast.

If the census showed that a particular demographic group had come to make up 12% or 13% of the population your library served, would you not immediately provide collections and services that targeted that group, if you  had not already done so?

Now, what if I said that one user in three expected service to be provided to them in a particular way, would you provide service in that way? If you were a business, you would. But libraries are not businesses. Should we still provide services in the ways that people want them, instead of the ways that we are used to providing them? Those are the questions.

When these questions generally come up, the services and the delivery usually get mentioned first. This time, I talked about the numbers first, because the numbers are more important. The numbers represent people, and people are our users. Our users are our supporters, or, we want them to be. In order to keep their “mind-share” we need to provide service to them the ways they want and expect it, not just the ways we’re used to and are comfortable with.

According to a recent (July 11, 2011) Pew International Report, 35% of all Americans have a smartphone. All Americans: not just teenagers and not just high-tech early adopters. According to studies done by Nielsen earlier this year, adoption rates for smartphones are high among all races and ethnic groups. 









As the Pew Report found, people use their smartphones to surf the web, not just make phone calls. Two-thirds used their phones to search the internet every day. That means they expect to search for the library on their phone, not just on a computer, or maybe not at all on their computer. Are we optimized for that?

And about that one person in eight number, that’s from an “Infographic” created by Masters in Education on “Traditional Books vs. Digital Readers.” Statistics show that 12% of men and 11% of women owned a digital reader of some kind. Those statistics did not include smartphones, which are also capable of and are used as digital readers. One person in eight is searching for digital books for their ereaders, and that number is growing.

We want them to come to think of their library first. But in order for them to do that, we need to be thinking of them first, and we need to do it now.


Not just the giants

What parts of the human record will be preserved from the last 50, and the next 50 years? What books did we read? How did we live? What will history say about us?

One of the reasons that we know so much about the Victorian era is that they wrote so damn much. They were all inveterate letter writers. Literature, not just improving literature, but also poetry, novels, essays, proliferated to an incredible degree. And newspapers, oh the newspapers and magazines that survive. Newsprint may be a horrible preservation medium, but it is just good enough.

The same thing is true of the U.S. Civil War. Nothing has the immediacy of Mathew Brady’s photographs, particularly those of young soldiers.

We know a lot about the ancient Romans, too. And for the same reason. They wrote so much that a fair amount of it survived the Dark Ages. (Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe is NOT a new idea!) And why do we call them “the Dark Ages” you ask? Because knowledge was destroyed instead of created.

The Internet Archive, in addition to its mission to scan books into its Open Library Project, has also begun collecting physical books as a preservation project.  Brewster Kahle goes into some detail about his reasons in an interview with the Associated Press in an article on August 1.

I confess I really like his idea. Why? Because technology can fail, or can itself become obsolete. Technology is a wonderful access method, but what happens if the technology required to read the storage media becomes unavailable? Human eyeballs still work. Most of us remember a lot of different types of computer disk storage that are no longer viable.

I love ebooks and buy fewer and fewer printed books. But as the publishing industry switches gears from print to electronic, what happens to the human record?  For example, we know a lot about the Victorians from their literature. Sherlock Holmes is as emblematic of the period as Charles Dickens. We may even know more about Holmes!

But what about us? Who will we be remembered by if everything becomes electronic? People don’t write letters, and haven’t for decades. Even business correspondence is all electronic.

In Star Trek IV, The Voyage Home, there is a scrap of dialog between Kirk and Spock on the bus, where Kirk refers to Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins as the “giants” of late 20th century literature.

If four or six centuries from now, contemporary literature is only remembered by the few writers that have become so overwhelming that some copies must survive in print, who would they be? And are they the ones that we would want to be remembered by?

Strength in Unity

I’ve been following the debate about the potential “forking” of the Digital Public Library of America project. This is a project that is going to continue to generate a lot of intelligent commentary.

The name says it all. The excellent intention is to create a Digital Public Library for the U.S.  Based on following the listserv, there has been a lot of energy, which can sometimes seem to be more heat than light, invested in the determination of the definition of each individual word in that name–Digital, Public, Library, and I swear, sometimes even America.

But what would a Digital Public Library of America be? The phrase “Public Library” has a certain image in most people’s minds. For better or for ill, public libraries in America have become associated with best-sellers and helping kids with their homework, as well as storytimes for pre-schoolers.  That is not currently part of the vision of the DPLA.  So far, the Steering Committee has seemed primarily interested in more scholarly aspects of a potential DPLA, something more akin to an expanded American Memory project combined with Project Gutenberg and other out-of-print classic books.

This has led to discussions of a possible “fork” in the project, to dropping “Public” from the name, and to a therefore separate Public Library based DPLA-type project driven by Public Library needs.  The point-counterpoint argument on this topic was recently published by Library Journal.

There are cogent arguments both for and against a “fork” in the road.  But the arguments for the “fork” all seem to be based on human behavior. Academic librarians and public librarians are used to thinking and behaving in certain ways, and so we tend to go on doing so. But it doesn’t have to be that way. When I worked in Alaska, there was virtually no division between the academic librarians and public librarians in the Alaska Library Association. There simply weren’t enough of us to not work closely together. Also, we all crossed over from one type of library to another too often to not know how the other half lived and worked. When a big state conference attendance means 300 people, everyone knows everyone.

Nate Hill makes the point in his posting on the PLA blog that the Digital Public Library of America needs to be a big tent.  It is the libraries that will determine how its resources get used in each community.  Academic libraries will use its resources for scholarly purposes. Public libraries and their users will use its resources for a variety of purposes;some will, in fact, be scholarly, but others will be self-help, recreational, or whatever flights of fancy the user chooses. But first the resource needs to be there. And to paraphrase that famous movie line, “If we build it, they will come.”

This is going to be the Digital Public Library of America. As a public librarian, I know there are a lot of things that are important to public library users that will need to be included to make this truly a public library. But usage patterns are changing, and we need to move forward. A “fork” is not the answer. There is strength in unity. All types of libraries are currently being questioned about future relevancy in the face of the digital onslaught. The Digital Public Library of America is our collective answer–our future. We need to face that future together, not argue over who has the best seats at the table. Let’s set a table we all can sit at together.