May 31, 2007

My Job in 10 Years: Physical and Virtual Spaces

To recap:

My Job in 10 Years:

(PDF version of whole series, including appendices, for printing here.)

In this essay I'd like to talk a little about some areas that aren't as directly job related as reference, collections or teaching. There are other areas where my role is more as a steward, things that I have an shared interest in along with all my other colleagues, some of whom may be more directly involved. I'd like to talk about the spaces we construct for our patrons, both physically and virtually. Administrators, department heads, systems librarians, IT staff, these are the ones directly responsible for these areas but I think I have a role too in shaping how these things develop and evolve.

I'm treating them together here for a couple of reasons. First of all, from a practical point of view I just want to get this series over and done with and combining the two areas just makes sense from that perspective. As well, I've also written about physical spaces before and don't have all that much new to add, making that section relatively short. And perhaps most importantly, I do think that they're related, these physical and virtual spaces, that we should probably begin to think of them together more often, to think about how they can promote each other, depend on each other and support each other.

Physical Spaces

I've already written a fairly extensive post about physical spaces in academic libraries (added as Appendix 2 in the pdf version) and I think what I wrote before still stands up pretty well, so I don't feel the need to elaborate too much more. I will, however, reiterate and expand a little on some of the main points.

Mostly, I think we need to make sure we continue to give students the kinds of spaces they need for their academic work: formal collaborative spaces, informal group spaces, quiet study, lab spaces where they have access to the software they need to do their assignment and can do research. All these things are important now and will continue to be important in the future. I don't really care what we end up calling it, but certainly part of the mix with be things like information or learning learning commons's where we provide collaborative lab space, open concept or group rooms, with librarians and tech support available.

I think we're mostly getting over our food fetish. We need to figure out food and drink rules that make sense, that all the various constituents more or less support and that we're actually willing to enforce. The smell test, bottles with caps, cups with lids, nothing outrageously messy. If setting up a cafe or lounge in or very near the library makes sense, that's something that should be embraced. In the long run, it's much better to replace a few keyboards or carpet tiles than to create a space that's unwelcoming or trying to enforce rules that the community has contempt for and staff are unwilling to commit to and enforce.

It would be great if we also had some fun and relaxing times and spaces too; I'm pretty sure I'll be organizing gaming nights and other fun events events such as journal clubs or chess tournaments. While not part of our core mission, they'll bring kids into the environment, make it a relaxing and fun space, one that they'll enjoy using. And while there in the space, they might just ask a question or use one of our resources that they might not have heard about before.

Another important point is how we as librarians interact with the people in our physical spaces. We need spaces that are conducive to roaming reference, to ad hoc group consultations in study and lab areas, some sort of reference desk will probably still be in use and of course we will definitely need labs and workshops for instruction activities.

Of course, there will be some interesting challenges in realizing this vision.

A big challenge will be doing all that fun, interactive stuff in what are often small branch libraries while still maintaining quiet space and lab space. It's going to be a difficult balance to strike. We also don't want to create a space that draws in some (ie. rambunctious gamers) but pushes away others (those seeking a bit of contemplation). If we try and mimic the functions of a student centre too much, if we drift too much from using our physical spaces to support the core academic mission of the university, then we risk losing support of senior administrators.

Another part of that challenge is that we are often stuck with older buildings full of stuff. Even if we could decide what kind of cool new spaces we want, how we get from here to there isn't always obvious. While we might like to ship our bound journals and print books off into storage to make room for other kinds of uses, at the moment that would be a huge disservice to our patrons. Those materials are still vitally needed, we're still nowhere near able to make those kinds of choices in a sweeping way. I hope that by the end of my 10 year time frame we'll have started to make a major transformation from stuff space to task-oriented study and social/collaborative space and even some fun space. In the shorter term, we'll still have to struggle with a lot of trade-offs and make do with less than ideal circumstances.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to overcome will be monetary. Adding new space or doing major renovations to existing space isn't cheap. Making the case to administrators and potential donors that the library is still a vital organ for any university campus and deserves the kind of investment necessary to adapt to a new student/academic culture is not going to be easy. That convincing may be easier if we start by showing the kind of vision and leadership that less radical transformations can achieve.

Virtual Spaces

By virtual spaces I mean the descendants of today's library website, OPACs, course management systems and to a certain degree the way we integrate material we license or purchase from vendors as well as material on the open web. Basically all web-based applications, past, present and future.

I have no intention here of going into whether or not our current systems suck or if they're broken because I really want to focus on the future rather than the past. It's pretty obvious to me that library web sites and vendor search interfaces of all kinds have been left in the dust by the Googles & Amazons of the world and getting all dramatic about it doesn't move the discussion forward, it only gets people polarized and defensive. ILS vendors have let us down these last few years, but at the same time I'm not sure we've demanded enough from them over those years either. Not to mention that they are not particularly large companies with the resources of a Google or Amazon to propel that innovation. Can they come through for us in the next decade or are we on our own? Are open source systems going to allow us to build our own systems? The 10 year time frame may very well see larger institutions like universities (and larger public systems) abandoning the front office systems of ILS vendors and embracing something else, be it relying on network level search and discovery tools or building our own systems.

Just as the internet today would be almost unimaginable to us 10 years ago, so too the internet will evolve in unpredictable and unimaginable ways in the next 10 years, thus making any attempt to discern exactly what shape our online presences will take over the next decade will be difficult to say the least. Some things are pretty safe bets: more social, more collaborative, more open, more integrated, fewer product silos. On the other hand, maybe the whole social collaborative thing won't prove to be a big for academic libraries as we thought/hoped? What if you build a collaborative space, and students don't care enough to contribute? To a certain extent, since our presence in faculty and student virtual spaces is omnipresent in all these My Job in 10 Years essays, I just want to talk a little about the attitude we should approach developing our web presences.

First of all, we should not be afraid to make mistakes. We should be most afraid of always erring on the side of caution. Flying headlong into every shiny new technology, magpie-like, is probably a waste of precious resources, but always being the slow and steady tortoise in equally risky. We should neither automatically reject nor embrace something just based on our own personal opinion: new is not always good, old is not always bad and vice versa. It's hard to find the balance here, but there's good advice on that too. We should take the lead from the various interrelated communities dealing with people and machines: CHI, UX, human factors, ergonomics, we should read the tech blogs and books like Information Architecture and the World Wide Web, Ambient Findability, Wikinomics or Everything is Miscellaneous to name just a bunch of recent buzz books. We should figure out what the heck Web Science is. We should be restless, we should see the impossible-to-predict new paradigm shifting trends (like the rise of Google) of the next decade as opportunities not as threats, but as opportunities to engage our communities, to be mentoring our patrons into new technologies rather than scolding them about risky behaviours (hey, we're all guilty of this one sometimes). Or to let our patrons and more adventurous colleagues mentor us into new technologies.

Here's a partial list of some of the technology trends we should be keeping our eyes on over the next decade:

  • E-Science: The way science is done is changing, and so it the way it is being communicated. It's just getting started now, but I thing the next decade will see major changes: ScienceBlogs, e-science, data visualization, geolocation, the semantic web, web science, open access, open data, open source, open peer review. Not to mention electronic lab notebooks, lab wikis and a whole host of other such innovations. To the extent the way science is communicated transforms, we must follow that transformation. Embryonic systems like Nature Network are worth checking out.

  • The social web: Social networking software is the hottest thing going right now, but it's impossible to tell how what shape these embryonic systems will take and how permanent and wide ranging a lot of the innovations will be. Stunning, transformative innovation or flash in the pan that everyone will soon tire of: only time will tell. (I tend to the former, by the way) The one thing I am fairly sure of is that we won't see the web get any less connected or any less about relationships and definitely no less about collaboration. So, applications such as the descendants of today's course management systems, Facebook, Myspace and all the rest are definitely worth watching. We must seize opportunities to be appropriately in the same virtual shared spaces as our patrons.

  • User-created content: It's something that isn't going away either: blogs, wikis, mashups, photos, tags, personal data stuff like LibraryThing databases. And we can't forget that a lot of our science and engineering students essentially already create mashups of data, photos and output of programs such as MatLab or GIS applications for their assignments.

  • Virtual worlds: Second Life, RuneScape and Kingdom of Loathing (my sons' current favourite) and all the other virtual worlds are a very interesting phenomenon to watch. They certainly have a huge future as gaming environments but it will be interesting to see if they take off as business, educational and leisure environments. The potential is there for distance education and for any kind of remote mediated transaction, exactly the kind of things libraries and librarians want to engage our patrons in.

  • Mobile and ubiquitous computing: They are already huge trends and they will only get bigger. Mobile in the sense that a wider range of handheld, portable and wearable devices will have greater and greater connectivity and computing power so we must be prepared to deliver our content to those devices. Ubiquitous in the sense that information and access to information is almost like the air we breathe these days, it's everywhere, part of every device we use, part of every landscape we interact in. We need to make sure that the content we purchase and license and the services we offer are part of that ubiquitous landscape. If it's not, we risk being left out.

  • MicroGoogleSoft: They're calling it "discovery at the network level" now, the idea that people want to use free web search tools to meet all their information needs so we need to make sure our licensed and purchased content is findable via those tools. I more or less talked about this in the A&I Databases installment, but I think it merits a mention here as well. Right now our web presence is partly geared towards directing patrons to A&I databases and then to full text journals. If we're assuming that our patrons don't want to use our web presence directly to find their full text content, but that they want to use a network level tool such as Google, well that's going to mean a pretty major rethinking of what we're doing with our web pages. In a narrow set of circumstances, Google Book Search is already a better tool to find books in our libraries that our own OPACs. That trend is only going to get more pronounced.

  • OPACs: And speaking of OPACs, better minds than me have speculated about the future of that beast. I hesitate to make any predictions myself, but I would be extremely surprised if what we call the OPAC is at all recognizable in 10 years. Or at very least, the transformation into complete unrecognisability will be well under way. Findability, resource discovery, user tagging, integrating with network-level tools are all going to be important trends to keep tract of.

  • Special Collections: One trend that's not going away is libraries creating and publishing their own content, whether it be hosting a journal or institutional repository, digitizing special collections, retrospective digitization of old journal or just contributing content to large-scale digitization projects run by other organizations. And there's no reason we can't host social networks as well, such as the University of Toronto's Biome project.

  • Serendipity: And then there's by far the largest category of stuff we should keep our eyes on: the stuff I've forgotten, can't imagine or seriously underestimate the importance of. Feel free to add some of these to the comments.

Some "on the other hand" considerations that cannot be ignored (My apologies for sounding a bit cranky on some of these but think of it as a way of countering some of the generally boundless optimism in other parts of the series):

  • Creeping commercialization: We can embrace the model of Google & Amazon & Flickr and whatever, be we have to be careful not to embrace the companies themselves too closely. We mustn't forget that we are public institutions and we have a duty to spend public money in a appropriate way. Sure, we need to partner with vendors to deliver the collections and services that our patrons need, but it's not now nor should it ever be our job to facilitate commercial access to our patrons. These companies aren't our friends, they want to make money off of us and our patrons -- and that's fine, it's their jobs. I'm not saying we shouldn't have excellent relationships with our vendors and their representatives, just that we should remember what the relationship should be.

  • Privacy: Our patrons may not care about their privacy, but it is our professional duty to protect it for them whether they want us to or not. They may not be worried about telling all to Facebook or MySpace, but our responsibilities are different since our relationship is different. They are not customers we are trying to exploit but rather patrons whose interests we are serving. Patronizing? So are seat belt laws. We need to find balance between an environment so locked down that nobody can do anything interesting or engaging and one that appropriately protects a patron's right to privacy. If you don't think privacy is important, two words: Patriot Act.

  • Offensive content: Radical trust and user-generated content are great things, but what do you do the first time someone posts racist, sexist or otherwise offensive or hateful content, the first time there's an incident of bullying or harassment of students, faculty or staff. Do we really want to run a clone of RateMyProfessors or have our own Kathy Sierra incident? There's no guarantee that's ever going to happen (and we all hope it doesn't), but if it does we must be prepared to respond with policies and procedures that our communities support. Universities can be very fragile, sensitive places sometimes, quick to explode. We shouldn't be afraid to do interesting things, but we should be aware of the risks and be prepared to respond and not get caught flatfooted.

  • Build it, and ...: What if we build social spaces where patrons can network and create content and...they just don't. It's one thing for people in the 18-22 age range to use the web to have fun and procrastinate, but do enough of them really care enough about their school work to actually contribute to the library's web site? Remember the 80/20 rule. And Sturgeon's Law too, 90% of everything is crap (except this essay, of course, which is all good). How do we make our virtual spaces interesting and fun enough to attract users' attention and yet useful enough to be worth our time and energy -- and theirs too. Students want their own social spaces, and may not be as interested as we would like to think in "official" social spaces.

  • Digital divide: There's a couple of digital divides we have to keep in mind. We have to be aware that not all our students have the economic resources to play with the latest gadgetry so we have to make sure we design our offerings to be accessible to everyone. We also have to remember that not all our students want to be engaged with all the latest technologies; there's a wide range of aptitudes and inclinations within any student body. We have to resist the temptation to lump everyone in the same generation together, assuming they all have the same technology profile; we also can't forget that there's going to be a wide age range among our students, that not all of them are teens still living in their parent's basement. We have to meet our students in the diversity of places where they actually are, not where we would like them to be.

  • Preservation: If we create systems that have user-generated content and if we digitize special collections and host journals, in other words if we are stewards of unique content, we will have to ensure the long-term preservation of that content. Lots of the user-generated content may seem ephemeral, but I'm not sure if we should treat it as such. We will definitely need the opinion of professional archivists on this one.

  • Academic integrity/intellectual property: Sharing is one thing, stealing is another. Or is it? What's the difference and how can you tell? What if students post assignment answers in one of our forums, for example? We have to be prepared to deal with these types of issues if we allow users to create content in our virtual spaces.

  • Patience: This is a hard one. The challenge is not to be too impatient for things to work themselves out. Sometimes good systems just need to evolve from crappy systems, we just don't know how to get straight to the right solution at first. An example of such a transitional technology today is SFX and other link resolvers (i.e. what we call Findit@York). What we have now is not ideal -- we just aren't where we need to be yet. But compare it to what we had to do before: look in the A&I database, check the catalogue to figure out if it is online or not, try various online databases and aggregated databases. Just ugly. So, being too impatient can lead to a kind of defeatist frustration. Of course, if we're not impatient enough, that potentially leads to a complacency, stagnation and failure.

  • Vision drift. In our rush to be all things to all people, we can't forget that our core mission is always going to be connected to the academic mission of our institution.

My job in 10 years? To plan an active role in moving my institution forward in a sane, balanced way that also embraces the endless possibilities of new technological and social patterns. To advocate for better systems and spaces for our patrons, to plan, to facilitate, to organize, to help build, to advertise, to cajole, to promote, to teach. To see the interrelationships between physical and virtual spaces, how one can be used to promote the other, how they are complementary not competing. To promote our physical and virtual spaces to faculty, students and staff. To raise funds to implement grand ideas, to make tough decisions, to understand trade-offs.

Next up: The Earth Shattering Conclusion! (Maybe even as early as next week.)

1 comment:

The.Effing.Librarian said...

mashups and mosh pits
It seems like public spaces are becoming noisier and ruder and less-civilized; I wonder what will happen when these students who have been running wild in the public libraries get to the universities and are suddenly told to shut up (because silence equals good grades and money). People will argue the role of the library, as you say, "If we try and mimic the functions of a student centre too much, if we drift too much from using our physical spaces to support the core academic mission of the university, then we risk losing support of senior administrators." So how do we combine these rowdy entertainments that students want with the contemplative environments students need? (dunno--didn't say I did.) cheers.