Sacred Cows and Heretical Librarians

Last weekend I had the wonderful opportunity to be the keynote speaker for the Midwest MLA Chapter meeting.  It was a great meeting and I learned so much from so many people.  I LOVE Chapter meetings.  Ask me and I will tell you, the Chapter meeting is a great place to share and learn from other in a much more scaled back and doable scale than the large MLA meeting.  That is not to take anything away from MLA, I just think that a Chapter meeting is more intimate.

Some people at the meeting asked if I was going to post my slides from my presentation.  Yes, they are on SlideShare and I have re-posted them here.

Emerging Technologies & Evolving Library from Michelle Kraft
These slides don’t have a lot of text.  So I feel there needs to be a bit of outline of what I talked about to give them some context.  So here is a brief summary of what I talked about….
Technology is disruptive.  That doesn’t mean it is bad or good, it just changes everything we do.  It could change things for the good or the bad.  An example of a very disruptive technology is the light bulb.  It completely changed the way we as society do things.  Thinking of more recent technologies, the phone is another disruptive technology.  The telephone changed how we communicated to each other.  The cell phone disrupted things again.  Not only were are we able to communicate with each other over long distances, but we can do it wherever and whenever.  The smartphone just ramped things up even more by making our phones the necessary multi-purpose tool of our lives.  We use it to communicate (text, voice, email, Twitter, Instagram, etc). We use it as our own personal computers to find information online and store/create documents. It is our entertainment center for music, movies, books, online radio and podcasts.  The cell phone (among other technologies) have changed we as a society find and share information.  It is has changed the way people find and share information in libraries.  Think of what future technologies will be like and their impact on libraries.  Think of the latest technology, Google Glass, and library possiblities.
People access library websites through their phone… OR they are bypassing the library website all together and using an app (journal app, library database app, library catalog app, etc.) to find information.  They are accessing all of this information wherever and whenever….in the cafeteria, bathroom, in bed, etc.  This change in society’s behavior requires us to change the way we do things.  We must adapt to the changes in society or we face extinction.  Other professions that are dealing with changes in society as a result of technology: US postal service, newspapers, photo journalists, etc.
My presentation was not a doom and gloom thing.  On the contrary…. I said we needed to look at these disruptive technologies as opportunities.  They provide us the opportunity to shape our own destiny.  They allow us to take our services and resources and put them together in different ways to adapt to the changes.  Think of your resources and services as Legos, each one can be put together in different positions.  If something changes or doesn’t work, change the Lego’s position or swap it out.
Swapping out Lego pieces sounds easy but it may not be as easy as you think.  Libraries need to look at the changes in society and start asking themselves some hard questions.  Are the services/resources we provide for ourselves or for our users.  We do a lot of fooling ourselves that some of our traditional services/resources are for our users when really they are for ourselves.  For example, why are we checking in print journals?  Why do we even have print journals?
We need to look at our sacred cows in our library.  We need to evaluate whether we should keep them or kill them.  We can’t just keep them because we have always kept them.  Cows (in real life and virtual) need to be fed and maintained.  If feeding and maintaining them serves a valid purpose to our users, then we should keep them.  If they don’t, then we need to kill them, or they will eat food and take up space of other resources.  I gave several examples of sacred cows.  The one that everybody seemed to latch on to was my cataloging example.  I asked the question, “Do you need a catalog or would an A-Z list suffice?”  Predictably a few catalogers freaked.  What I tried to convey…
  • If you are at a large academic medical institution or even NLM you need a catalog….BUT do you need to catalog the way you are doing right now? Could you be more agile?  Could you do something slightly different?  We are too entrenched in the way we catalog things.
  • If you are small hospital library with only a few shelves of books, you may not need a catalog.  I know it is crazy to think that, but you may not. Perhaps an A-Z list or *gasp* an Excel sheet posted online will do.  Maybe you could tag your holdings in Library Thing.
  • If you are a small hospital library with more than a few shelves of books, but nowhere near what an academic library has perhaps you need a catalog. But do you need to add anything to the catalog other than what our users care about?  Most users only care about title, author, year, edition, URL, and table of contents.  They don’t care if it is 24 inches tall, illustrated and has 246 pages.  Do you need to catalog using MeSH?
Evaluating these sacred cows may cause us to think some pretty heretical librarian thoughts.  The idea of not cataloging is pretty heretical. don’t get stuck on my catalog example.  One hospital librarian at the conference mentioned they did something pretty heretical, they stopped doing research and providing articles to people who were going back to school. She told them they needed to get their research help and articles from the library of the school they were attending.  She said it was a pretty heretical thought to her staff at the time.
Wikipedia’s definition of heresy: “Heresy is any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs.”  Long established customs may not be what we need now as our society changes with technology.  In order to evolve we need to look at our services and question our long established services and see if they are really needed or helping us go forward.  If not, why are we doing them?
In sum we need to look at the sacred cows and start thinking heretical librarian thoughts.  We need to always keep trying and never give up.  Let’s not be afraid of failure, failure just tells us what doesn’t work.  We need to know what doesn’t work, to know what does.
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