After reading and passing around Wendy Lukehart’s excellent article “What’s Our Story” published on ULC2020, I asked her if it would be OK to copy and paste it in my own blog, along with my vaguely relevant response. I think Lukehart is really on to something here with this “mission envy” she is feeling. Does the public library mission get confused and suffer from dilution because of emerging technologies and media formats? If so, how can we clarify it? Enjoy this:
What’s Our Story?
Following the thought-provoking ULC “Fast Forward” conference in Anaheim, I happened to be waiting for an elevator with Martín Gómez. When I commented on how intellectually stimulating the day had been, he thanked me and replied: “I keep coming back to the question we posed at the very beginning [of the Foresight 2020 project]: “_____ is to Public Libraries as Education is to Public Schools.” Indeed.
This analogy exercise that we all recognize from our standardized test days has so many possible answers that it would probably shut down the Princeton Review if they had to grade it. What word would you insert? “Learning?” “Information?” These concepts are accurate, certainly, but not big enough. We exist for recreation and story as well. “Fun?” Yes, but libraries are also places where we go for tax assistance. “Transformation?” That’s intriguing. Given the popularity of television shows where people improve or trade their spaces, bodies, children, and spouses, the idea would resonate with many, but it might not speak to all. “Connection?” That term has loomed large in our promotions for the last decade. People can connect to ideas or other people in libraries, virtually or physically (and I’m not referring to the teens behind the stairwell, but leave it to teens to create an interpretation we hadn’t intended). Even that doesn’t seem to say it all. Conference speaker Omar Wasow suggested that “curiosity is the coin of the realm.” We’re getting warmer. What if our mission were to arouse curiosity? What do you think? Is it really impossible to narrow the library’s mission to a single word, or are we too conflicted or hesitant to articulate it?
As I experience the free-floating anxiety permeating our professional literature about the future of libraries, bookstores, and publishing, I find myself drawn to organizational models that exude a strong sense of purpose and confidence, one might even say faith in their mission. What sets these institutions apart, other than a great deal of money? I’ve been following the back story of Washington D.C.’s latest museum—the Newseum—which opened this spring (on Pennsylvania Avenue, no less) to much acclaim. How did this organization move from a modest site in Rosslyn, Virginia into a $450 million piece of real estate with 14 interactive galleries and 15 theaters and studios on “America’s Main Street?” One thing is clear: it has a skilled leader with a passion for and clarity about his organization’s mission: to teach people about the First Amendment. The words are even etched into a 74’ marble slab on the façade—controversial as that decision has been. CEO Charles Overby dared to dream big, and yes he was able to procure the large-scale financing, but he also faced formidable obstacles. The Washington Post, 4/12/08 describes his savvy at building consensus and developing community advocates for his cause.
Overby functions collaboratively within the institution as well. Meeting daily for “story meetings” with his senior managers, the leader sees his role as “chief encouraging officer,” providing support in every sense of the word, ready to try something different when things go wrong. Visiting the Newseum is both an entertaining and informative experience. Even my jaded twelve-year-old wanted an annual pass, so she could return frequently. Exhibits include a page from the Gutenberg Bible; the charred, melted antenna from the World Trade Center; a 4-D film on the history of journalism; video clips from vintage SNL and Laugh-In programs; a “newsroom” where you can be filmed as a broadcaster and then link to the segment from home. You can step outside on the balcony and soak up the sun and the view of your political and cultural setting—the Capitol dome, the Smithsonian, the avenue that leads to 1600 Pennsylvania–or dine on Wolfgang Puck’s fabled cuisine. I was filled with mission envy—and fascination, as I explored this amalgam of archival documents and cutting edge multimedia experiences in a hospitable, inspiring environment.
Another visionary leader with a mission of great interest to libraries is publishing entrepreneur Lisa Holton, founder and CEO of the brand new Fourth Story Media. (Publishers Weekly, 6/18/08) Known for significant projects, i.e., Cheetah Girls, Baby Einstein, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows–to name a few, Holton is creating “an innovative studio that brings a fresh perspective to the development of children’s properties.” While her enterprise has the obvious distinction of being a for-profit company, I urge you to look at her complex Venn diagram with its narrative core and overlapping hexagons labeled: social networking, interactivity, communicating, and games. Many of the concepts branching out from the shapes are functions with which libraries are involved, and this may well be a useful model for us to react to and see how our own diagram would compare and contrast. See Fourth Story Media.
Balance and Unity
The idea that particularly excites me about Holton’s vision is her ability to hold multiple formats in the balance. Her “studio” will thread story across books, web sites, games, DVDs, downloads, social networks, and surely whatever new media come along. Libraries have the capability of doing this type of thing as well—and more, plus we can offer the physical space. What can we learn from the balance and connection between formats as conceived by Fourth Story, while adding our value as a “Third Place,” so that our customers can engage with our materials and each other virtually—and then inside our doors? Whom do we need to hire, what do we need to do differently to present our content and services in such a dynamic, appealing, and unified manner? In addition to the obvious—drawing on the talents of graphic designers, information architects, and computer programmers within the context of a 2.0 world–and encouraging collaboration across departments/generations/ethnicities (Holton managed Harry Potter by making “everyone part of everything”), I would suggest that we need to start by overcoming one obstacle: our current attitude toward the book.
The B Word
The OCLC survey tells us that when people across the country think of libraries, they think of books. OCLC Report: Perceptions of Libraries. Titles recommended by Oprah, Nancy Pearl, and Al Rokker are in great demand, and NPR just hired six new book reviewers for their website. Aaron Swartz, the young man who helped write the RSS feed format at age 14, is now designing a free online book catalog called “Open Library,” because “wandering through the stacks of my local library, I noticed I kept coming across all sorts of fantastic books I’d never heard of.” (American Libraries, April 2008). The New York Public Library was a recent test site for the Espresso Book Machine, a print-on- demand service. Why? Presumably, because a lot of people like printed books. This is confirmed by the latest Random House / Zogby Report: 82% of the respondents prefer the printed version to the electronic one. A recent study by Scholastic found that 62% of kids of all ages “prefer to read books printed on paper rather than on a computer or handheld device.” A majority of kids “like to read books for fun” and they know it is important. What is their biggest hurdle? Finding books they like. Scholastic Reading Report
This information is something we can all use, build on, respond to—and some of us already do. Yet, at “Fast Forward,” I was struck by the irony that it was the speakers (and especially the younger ones—a technology analyst and a game designer/critic) who were waxing enthusiastic about books and their availability–for free–at their local public libraries. My sense at this and other recent meetings with fellow library administrators is that we are embarrassed or ashamed of the public’s association of libraries with books and that only by downplaying them and uplifting technology will we….what? Be perceived as cutting edge, cool, valuable? When was the last time we celebrated the fact that we are the only game in town that offers free books—in lots of different formats, including print?
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am really proud that my library, D.C. Public, was the first in the nation to offer downloadable books in an MP3 format. What could be more cool than offering books to listen to on iPods and cell phones? A book-on-CD kept my family of four riveted as we listened to Sherman Alexie, Jr. narrating The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Recorded Books, 2007) on our long journey to a family reunion over the weekend. That particular format allowed us to share an amazing experience in a way that would not have been possible with the printed version. I am equally thrilled, however, when I watch children’s eyes widen and bodies move closer to the source when seeing Robert Sabuda’s cyclone twirl and spin in his pop-up version of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Simon and Schuster, 2000) at a library program. For so many of the children in our community, the library is the only place where they will experience the wonder and delight—and therefore the motivation to read—elicited by fabulous books, ones that are professionally designed and printed in living color on gorgeous paper. It is this type of experience that is endangered, if we forget to check our mission, chart our direction thoughtfully, and provide the infrastructure necessary for the balance.
Creating the Library Story
As we scan other business models for inspiration, what if we figured out how to not be a bookstore (although there are lessons about merchandising and customer service to be learned from the retail world), but how to be a really amazing library, with all the richness of our retrospective and current print and multimedia collections, our dazzling digital possibilities, and the threads that connect them—to each other and to the public, helping people of all ages find treasures and fellow treasure hunters. This is one of the points discussed at our conference table: what are the “white spaces of need” that only libraries can fill? Some of the answers are identified in the aforementioned studies; others will be found only in our communities. Once we identify the spaces, we will be able to better offer, in J. C. Herz’s words “a community connected to itself.” Maybe we will even be able to finish the analogy.
Youth Collections Coordinator
D.C. Public Library
This post was submitted by Wendy Lukehart.