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Monthly Archives: March 2008

Well, it’s been a long journey but I am back to the blog. I had sort of thought that my first entry when I got back would be a little some thing about the road trip to the PLA conference in Minneapolis, but I think I’m over it at this point. 9 states. The House on the Rock. The birthplace of water skiing. Fried cheese curds. I may elaborate with some pictures at some point, but suffice to say that the ride to and from Minnesota was incredible.

Let me quickly mention that there have been some great comments while I was away, and I promise to respond to all of them, particularly the good critical ones…

The PLA conference was great, but there was some kind of underlying “we can’t do our jobs that well, so lets outsource it” feeling that really irked me. It wasn’t something that was really there in just one presentation, rather it was an overall feeling, something of a sense of doom, a feeling that indeed librarians are really just voyeurs while real-life innovation goes on in other industries. I hope I can lose this feeling that librarians are innovation voyeurs, fixated on interesting books and new business strategies outlined in interesting books. I hope I can get past this feeling that public service is inherently reactive, thanks to librarians’ willingness to just read books and hire the authors to fix problems. I was told once that in interviewing librarians if they say they want the job because they like to read then you shouldn’t hire them: all they will do is read on the job and not get any work done. Maybe the proliferation of consultants is the result of too many librarians just reading books and not doing any work. Let me recap and try to explain the problem. I really don’t believe in bitching and moaning without presenting potential solutions, so maybe I’ll be able to offer a little something constructive at the end. Even better some comments will provide solutions.

I wrote briefly in the PLA blog about the Envirosell presentation. Envirosell is Paco Underhill’s consulting firm, and Paco Underhill is the author of “Why we Buy”. The workshop was titled “Why we Borrow”, and it was the story of how Envirosell adapted their methodology to understand and then improve upon the way libraries “do business”, i.e., distribute library materials effectively to their legal service communities. I didn’t have anything great to say about the presentation in the PLA blog, and now that I’m on my own little chunk of interweb I’ll be even less nice. Less nice to the librarians that hire these clowns, that is. What: you read a book about how someone else distributed products for a profit in a “branded environment” and you couldn’t learn a thing or two from the book, you had to hire THEM to use THEIR brains and put together a plan for a library. Great. Envirosell had plenty of legitimate methodology and slick presentation for the show; they understood how to make sexy graphics and present results in a coherent manner for the digestion of executives and laypeople alike. Why librarians, people with MASTERS DEGREES, people with EXPERTISE in our mission and vision, (which is NOT simply the distribution of product) should need a consultant to understand library users is beyond me.

Next, lets talk about James Keller, the admittedly badass marketing guru from Queens Public Library. Here’s a little cut from my PLA blog post/review of his talk:

Librarians, we have to remember that these marketing bigwigs work for us- not the other way around. When Keller started talking about how to create a marketing plan it sounded frighteningly like the overall strategic plan an executive director might want to come up with for their library system. Marketing and communications departments exist to help public service folks do their jobs. Don’t be fooled by glossy flyers or hot air balloons with logos on them. We run the show, not them.

Here we go again: only this guy isn’t a consultant, he’s a top-level full time employee. I don’t want to sound like some kind of control freak. I don’t want to give the impression that I believe all aspects of librarianship are secret ninja skills learned deep in the bowels of a branch library or in a classroom tower at some library school. What I do want to make clear is that in James Keller we have yet another example of a person highly skilled in some other industry honing in on and perhaps even trying to take over one of the most important skills a librarian has: understanding user needs. What happens when user needs are measured by a marketing team for the sake of positive public image rather than by librarians for the sake of positive service impact? We stop getting the right things done. Or, we get highly hailed “successes” like the Idea Stores of the UK, 90s-looking transitional architectures that mimic the feed-the-machine style retail environments that Envirosell would have us build. Keller closed with a statement about how he’d love to partner the Queens Public Library with McDonald’s. Keller said there’s more Queens Library branches than there are McD’s in the borough. He’d like to offer bookmarks that give a free Big Mac when you check out a book. Gross James. Change the Queens tagline from “Enrich your Life” to “Enrich your Life and Destroy your Body”.

The Idea Store. I really wanted to be blown away by some kind of beautiful library innovation here, and sadly I really wasn’t. No kidding, I wanted it SO BADLY, and it just didn’t happen. The panel for this particular event was really solid: Jerome Myers of Tacoma Public Library set it up (Jerome is a former colleague from Brooklyn Public Library), and sitting on the panel was Ginnie Cooper of DC Public Library as well as Martin Gomez of Urban Library Council. Maybe they were just being polite, but none of the panelists spoke of what was going through my head. The Idea Store is in my opinion the soulless, transitional learning space associated with the turn of the century, a husk that simulates service innovation in the way that a candy-store vending machine offers you a bit of *bling* in a little plastic egg for 25 cents. The Idea Store represents the manipulative possibilities associated with user-centered design, it teases and entices the patron by appealing to their inner shop-a-holic. The Idea Store is the library equivalent of putting corn syrup in every piece of library content we deliver in order to make it taste better and sell better. James Keller would love to attract people to Queens Public Library by feeding them free Big Macs, and if he fed them free Big Macs I can guarantee that circ stats would skyrocket in Queens. The Idea Store is basically offering a Big Mac. Eat it up, suckas. Sure, the usage doubled at the Idea Store when you opened up, but there’s something fundamentally wrong with equating government sponsored, democratic style, individually initiated education with capitalist consumption, isn’t there? Isn’t there?

So is this some kind of call for good ol’ fashioned library buildings? Absolutely not. Flexible architectures and flexible architectural programs are the future of libraries, no doubt about it. Agility, both in physical presence and in core services are the future of libraries. Embracing technologies judiciously as our users demand them, that is the future of libraries. Good design as a communication tool (gotta hand it to the Idea Store here: exceptional graphic design coming out of that place), attention to retail trends, marketing strategies: all of this important. BUT pandering to people’s weaknesses: not the future. Listening to our users and giving them what they want is the future, but simply looking at what they already like and buy is not the way to evaluate what they want out of a library. Libraries are about encouraging self-initiated continuing education, we want to build in our patrons the desire to learn, the desire to help themselves. This is not accomplished through trickery.


So, next week is the PLA convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota and I’m pleased to be one of the people posting to the PLA blog as the conference goes down.  You might see a little bit of a lag in the writing here on my personal blog.   Don’t be sad.

Admittedly, I haven’t even registered for the conference yet and I have no clue what kind of great events I’ll be reporting on, but rest assured I’ll sniff out all of the good stuff.

I’ll tell you what the best part of this whole experience is going to be though: myself and two of my librarian colleagues renting a car and driving all the way there.  We’ll leave in our rental car at the crack of dawn this Saturday morning and make our way to Minneapolis via Ann Arbor, Chicago and Madison.  This may be the motivator I need to figure out how to post pics directly to the blog from my phone.

When a message is really, really important it pays to communicate well.


The definition of literacy has changed.  This afternoon while I was working in the Education and Job Information Center at Brooklyn Public Library’s Central building I was struck by a concrete example of the redefinition of literacy.  Consider the different skills a job-seeker would need for a successful employment hunt in 2008.

In 1975, a person interested in creating a resume for an administrative assistant position would have looked through books of sample resumes and then sat at a typewriter to build their resume in a directional, linear fashion, from beginning to end.  In 1995, that same person might have had the luxury of using a halfway decent word processor on a computer.  That word processor would give them the ability to track forward and backward as they create the document, enabling text editing in a two-directional linear fashion.  Now, with internet connectivity, resume writing tutorial software or layout programs like Quark, Adobe InDesign, writing a resume becomes a simulated spatial experience.  The writer can edit in any order and manipulate the “page” on the computer screen in much the way they would manipulate a piece of paper.

What about the way a person would actually look for employment listings?  In 1975, an individual looking for an administrative assistant position via their local public library would have picked up the classified section of the local newspaper, browsed, found some phone numbers and addresses and made contact with another human.  In 1995, that same person would have more opportunities if they looked for their job via a local paper on the internet, emailed their resume to a person and eventually made contact.  Now, in 2008 separate services offer job-seeking guides, and the public library does its best to conglomerate all of these resources by creating pathfinders and guides that link to the many individual services.

“Computer literacy” is no longer computer literacy, it is just plain LITERACY. 
This presents a challenge.  With computer literacy comes a whole new rhetoric, essentially a series of vocabularies, literacies and grammatical structures that nobody can be expected to just guess or intuit any more than they can be expected to just guess and intuit Moby Dick. It comes naturally to anyone reading this that the icon in your browser that is shaped like a little house is a metonym for “home”, but what is home, what does that mean?  It is part of the 21st century public library’s mission and responsibility to see to it that everyone in this country has access to the tools they need to answer these questions. The library mission is not just to provide access electronic texts on the computer, it is to provide an understanding and context for the access itself.  Not understanding the grammar of computing in 2008 is like not being able to read in 1975.

Our patrons know this!  This is why they come to us in droves to use our free, publicly available internet access.  Libraries will always be in the book business, but the masses have spoken. People come to the public library to use the computers: electronic content is the book of the future.  A teenager in 2008 indulging in an afternoon of goofballetry and knuckleheadedness on myspace is the same thing as a kid in 1975 reading a Marvel comic book. Each one is unconsciously honing his or her literacy skills; only literacy means something a little different.  So how can we, the librarians, maximize the number of people who benefit from all of the information and content that exists on the internet, all of the vetted content that we offer through our databases, and at the same time assist people in gaining the skills needed to understand the intricacies of access?

Offering mile-long tables of PCs is not the answer.  We need to go mobile, so that everyone can take their little piece of the library, customize it, and bring it with them.  I don’t believe that it is sustainable to simply make ourselves easily available through peoples’ portable devices (though I absolutely support efforts to create library Facebook apps, iPhone-ready catalog interfaces, and anything else that works on the device-a-la-mode this week).  Libraries need to create a wireless, loanable, library-content device.  Librarians have caught on to the fact that we need to design our own software tools.  I think we need to take the next step and design and build our own hardware, something specifically made for our mission and vision.  A lot of people read my last piece about the Library Outpost as a smaller service node within our larger network of physical spaces; a different means by which we can effectively deliver physical content without storing everything on-site.  Now I’m suggesting that a loanable mobile device is the content delivery model of the future.  Lets build a prototype.

This is a long posting, but its the most important thing you are going to read on my blog. So read it, OK?

Earlier this week, The New York Daily News ran a story describing how budget cuts are preventing Brooklyn Public Library from opening an innovative new service point in DUMBO, Brooklyn. I developed this new service model with BPL over the past two years; it began as a project while I was student at Pratt Institute and became my job to pursue and develop it at the library. While the project remained an active pursuit for Brooklyn Public Library, it made sense not to discuss the details of the service model, the potential locations, and the incredible impact it could have by bringing library service to communities that have been largely neglected. Now, in light of the alarming lack of funding support from the city, and in recognition of the fact that building a 21st century public library is neither a closed nor a proprietary act, I feel compelled to share the details with the greater library community in hopes that this work can be used anywhere, by anybody. With any luck, a stand-up community figure in Brooklyn will recognize the importance of this venture, and perhaps they can find it in themselves to donate the necessary funds to support these efforts and build social capital in their neighborhood. New York Public Library received a 100 million dollar donation last week. WHAT ABOUT BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY???  We are NOT the same system!!!  10 million dollars, or even 3 million dollars given to Brooklyn Public Library could open up and staff quite a few library Outposts. Each of these Outposts would have a tremendous positive impact on their immediate community; each of these Outposts would serve to strengthen Brooklyn as a whole.

So what is this Library Outpost model I speak of all about, anyways? Here it is in bullets:

• Strategic location. The Outpost is a small space in a commercial area, a business improvement district, or a transportation hub. Rather than bring the patrons to the library, the Outpost brings the library to the patrons.

• Extended service hours. The Outpost will be open from 8AM until 10PM, giving the community access to library materials, exhibitions, and programs during the times most convenient to them.

• Collection available via online holds system. Rather than providing a localized browsing collection, the Outpost will connect users to all library materials via the catalog.

• Reference service. Outpost staff will provide exceptional reference services using online databases and internet searching strategies. All reference sources will be electronic.

• Wireless access and digital library content. The Outpost will be a comfortable WiFi zone to work in from a table or play in from a lounge chair. Through patrons’ portable devices they can access digital content via the library website.

• Programming and Exhibition space. The Outpost will feature exhibitions that pair the library’s collection and services with art related to community interests. The space will also be flexible enough to accommodate performances, lectures, concerts, discussions, even meals during evening hours.

Now the longer explanation:

Library Outposts are storefront library service points, no more than 1500 sq. ft. in size, centrally located in busy commercial districts or near transportation hubs. The storefront presence makes the Outpost agile and adaptable to the particular features of each community, providing fundamental library service and serving as a gateway to the full range of programs, classes, and events offered throughout the larger service ecology. The space is easily transformable; one moment a silent reading room, another moment a performance art space, another moment a forum for a community group meeting. Storefront library facilities have been attempted in the past with limited success, but the Outpost model takes advantage of emerging technologies to reconsider the distribution of library content and materials (you know, like books, DVDs, etc.) and invent itself as something entirely different. Presently a few libraries offer similar services: Houston Public Library has a few small, tech-heavy locations, Contra Costa Public Library offers material vending machines in the BART stations, and with the generous help of the Gates Foundation, New Orleans Public Library has opened some storefront facilities that have been received enthusiastically by the community. The Outpost model combines these practices and takes them to the next level.

With the rise of the Internet as the primary public information transfer medium, library patrons have a new set of expectations. Just as clothing shoppers size up their potential new outfits in an online environment, just as antiques enthusiasts scour eBay for the bargains they once found at flea markets, library patrons now browse online catalogs for the materials they once hunted for on miles of shelves. For many library patrons the browsing experience has already become a virtual phenomenon rather than a physical reality. While this shift emerged slowly at first, library catalogs are quickly becoming more and more user friendly. Online reserve statistics collected across the county support the popularity of this virtual browsing trend. Between open source products like LibraryThing for Libraries,, and the Google Books API, virtual browsing is becoming simpler, access to catalog records is getting easier, and physical collections are being exposed and utilized in more ways than ever. Libraries need to embrace and welcome this change as an opportunity to provide new, unique service delivery, and we need to adjust our physical spaces accordingly.

So I’ll explain the biggest mental leap associated with the Outpost concept first, the piece that really makes it unique: the Outpost has NO LOCAL COLLECTION. Every single piece of print material (with the exception of magazines and newspapers, and those can be eliminated digitally in a different manner) is an item that was requested online for pickup at the Outpost location. This in turn frees up 1500 sq. ft. of library space for programs, exhibitions, classes, movies, concerts, community meetings, serving coffee, and virtually any community-building, social capital-creating activity. The library of the 21st Century has to maintain a physical presence, but that presence cannot always be in the form of a well-organized, publicly accessible book warehouse.

Now, before any librarians freak out and scream, “NO! People still want to browse through stacks of books!” I want to make it abundantly clear that the goal is NOT to replace all traditional libraries with library Outposts. An Outpost is just one node in a network of different physical service points. Just as the car-culture era bookmobiles didn’t replace library branches, neither will Outposts. The important thing is getting these little service nodes into the community in the right places, and giving people as much as we possibly can out of them. Location is everything in the urban environment. When I began developing this idea I was using Brooklyn as a case study, I’ll continue to do so here, and I am confident my readers will see how this can be implemented in any urban public library system.

It is also important to understand that urban communities are in a constant state of flux. Demographics in Brooklyn change rapidly and it is difficult to provide needed services with a limited budget and aging facilities in fixed locations. This presents a challenge for the library. Many of BPL’s branches were built in the first two decades of the 20th century; since then entire communities have moved, disappeared, shifted, and grown. Library facilities have not been able to follow the people as community centers and business districts migrated to new areas. Many large, beautiful public libraries are located in desolate and remote corners of their neighborhoods. Regrettably, the working adults who live and labor in the rapidly developing communities have moved out of reach of the Brooklyn Public Library. They have become potential patrons rather than active patrons. This is unacceptable; the public library’s mission as a democratic institution supporting universal self-initiated education demands a highly visible central location.

At the same time that our neighborhoods have changed physically, Brooklynites’ expectations of service hours have rapidly altered in recent years (I believe this is a safe assertion nation-wide, particularly in urban areas, as well). When banker’s hours still meant something, citizens were accustomed to waiting in line to receive necessary services. Today, we expect stamps, cash, train tickets, Metrocards, even groceries to be available whenever we want them and with minimal human interaction.

I’m going to show you a few maps of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods to use as examples of urban shift, but I’ll use DUMBO as the primary example. These communities are unique but they have each experienced dramatic demographic and physical changes in the last ten years. All lack accessible library services in their revitalized areas. It is crucial that the public library tracks these changes and serves these people, and it is crucial that the library is provided with adequate funding so that we can do so properly.


DUMBO, for those not familiar with Brooklyn, is the area Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. It is a fascinating neighborhood known for its arts community, particularly architecture and design, but everything else as well. Just 10 years ago DUMBO was a drastically different place, filled with empty warehouses, industry, and many, many rats. The rats are probably still there, but there isn’t much empty space in DUMBO now after the enormous urban renewal effort that has occurred. DUMBO is literally a different place, and you know what their community lacks? A library. There is no library in DUMBO, and to hike to another library requires navigating through highway and bridge ramps and a solid 25 minutes of your time. An Outpost in DUMBO would give the community immediate access to the library’s entire collection, AND it would serve as a program and exhibition space for a specific audience.

Another interesting example is the area that the real estate folks are calling “Greenwood Heights”. Greenwood Heights is the fastest growing Mexican community in Brooklyn. The streets are always packed, and a major express subway hub makes for quite a bit of foot (and auto) traffic. New schools are being built. The nearest libraries, as you can see on the map are farrrrr awwwway. This is another perfect opportunity to provide a new service to a new community. Perhaps the Outpost is reconsidered as a computer center in this location? I quote this figure in every other blog entry I write, but AGAIN, the Pew Internet study concluded that 2/3 of all people coming to the library come to use a computer. A Greenwood heights technology center, combined with Outpost-style material delivery could actually give users what they need. It’s a perfect exercise in user-centered design: listen to what the users want and then provide it for them.


Finally, what about Kings Plaza mall? Other libraries, for example King County in Washington State, offer services in shopping malls. What if we offered an Outpost or computer center here? Again, we go to where the people are.


I hope this all makes sense, if you got this point in reading you may have recognized that some of the text was cut-and-paste from the many, many iterations of this concept I’ve gone through. I really believe that this model, or similar versions of it represent one aspect of the future of public library service. I’m not even going to pretend this represents some kind of all-encompassing holistic solution to the many challenges faced by urban public libraries, but it is a start. The operating cost of one of these facilities is a fraction of the cost of operating a full-sized branch library: that alone is a solid argument for efficiency. Potential benefactors: donate to the Brooklyn Public Library, demand innovative services. The librarians have the solutions but we simply cannot afford to put these ideas into action. Brooklyn deserves the best.

On Monday I attended a fantastic METRO event, Google and Libraries.  I’m not even sure what to say about it other than to relay to my readers the fact that the event happened and to plug the great work of some of the speakers.  The variety of speakers balanced “deep” and “applicable” perfectly, if you know what I’m saying. 

Siva Vaidhyanathan, Associate Professor of Media Studies and Law, at University of Virginia was the “deep” highlight.  He blew everyones’ minds with his “Googlization of Everything” talk.  Check him out at the Insitute for the Future of the Book as well. His book/talk/shtick is:

“dedicated to exploring the process of writing a critical interpretation of the actions and intentions behind the cultural behemoth that is Google, Inc. The book will answer three key questions: What does the world look like through the lens of Google?; How is Google’s ubiquity affecting the production and dissemination of knowledge?; and how has the corporation altered the rules and practices that govern other companies, institutions, and states?”

My other favorite speaker represented the “applicable” side of things. Jill Cirasella‘s presentation was directly relevant to providing excellent front-line service at the library.  Jill is Assistant Professor and Computational Sciences Specialist, Brooklyn College Library.  She gave an excellent presentation on Google tools and how they can be used at the reference desk.  I had never seen Google Sets or Google Suggest before. 

I’ll leave it at that.  Thanks to METRO for such a cool event. Click through to the METRO site to read more.

Just as a little adendum to an earlier post about the way public library organizational structures need to mirror policy decisions, have a look at the Wikipedia entry for “Conway’s Law”.  This was new to me.  Basically it tells you that if you set up a website for your organization and don’t structure it in such a way that it mirrors the structure of your organization it will slowly attempt to correct its misalignment.  Kind of like yeah, duh, but interesting when put into action.

I’m excited to have gotten involved in this Urban Library Council project, Foresight 2020.  In name it reminds me of the Singapore Library 2010 report, but in practice its a participatory excercise rather than a decree.  I just jumped in and have already found a few strings worth mentioning.  Check out this statement that came from someone named Joe Stoner (sorry Joe I don’t know who you are yet, but I had to quote you here)

“I tend to see the future of public libraries in further division of our current services combined with a simultaneous linking of those services with other jobs once thought more distinct from librarianship.”

Really its the word “linking” in this statement that gets me excited.  I like the metaphor of a librarian acting as a hyperlink between other services and disciplines.  My daily information / reference duties do essentialy create me as a human hyperlink, a dynamic, interactive presence that responds to my patron’s needs in a way that a search engine never could.  Consider this on a macro level: an entire library acting as an interactive portal linking every other discipline, individual, and community orgaization.

I’ll try to report back occassionaly on some of the strings inside this network.  Its great to see these innovation conversations popping up everywhere. 

What does an adept librarian do on a Saturday afternoon when he gets a random Skype call to participate in an LISNews podcast?  He turns off the television, rubs the sleep from his eyes, and does his best to sound like he knows whats up.  Its all a man can do.

If you have 20 minutes, listen to Andrea Mercado, Aaron Schmidt, and me by clicking HERE. 

This is what the Dweck Auditorium at Brooklyn Public Library looked like on Saturday night around midnight. 


Not your typical library scene, huh?  Thanks to my friend for the funny face in the foreground.  People boozed and danced until 1:00 AM all to support the library.  More than 200 people came and raised $16,000! 

This is what its all about people! This is the way to raise money, build community advocacy, and show everyone that the library is not an old school, crusty, tired place.  Your public library can be WHATEVER (um, within reason) you and your community want it to be, so support it!  Its not too late to join the Brooklyn Vanguard and start thinking about the next blowout event.  Its not too late to say “Damn that was a long wait to use an old computer at the library.  I’m gonna throw them some $ and make my community a better place”.  Go HERE for more information.  Join.  Support your community library.