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While voting for ALA Council this weekend, I came up with five positive characteristics in a nominee:

  1. Longer than five years’ membership in ALA. Fresh voices on Council are good (see below), but please take a few season cycles to learn from the inside how ALA works before asking to join “the governing body of ALA”.
  2. Service on either an ALA Committee or a division board of directors. Serving one level below ALA Council provides an opportunity to better understand what Council does and can do.
  3. They now work in a library. The voices of people with current and ongoing first-hand experience with the work of libraries should be the predominant voices on ALA Council.
  4. Never served on ALA Council. Fresh ideas come from fresh voices. I would support a term limit of three 3-year terms for ALA Council.
  5. Admirable record of work. From the current roster, I voted for Ciszek, Clasper, Comito, Findley, Gooch, Pace, Pressley, and Zabriskie for at-large Council seats in part because I had heard of their projects or papers.
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My German friends at Ohio State laughed to hear that I had ancestors named Biedermann. To be a “Biedermann,” in German slang, is to be someone narrow and strict, someone who merely follows orders.

That joshing came to mind while reading Rick Anderson’s recent article, in which he divides fellow librarians into two groups: those who lean towards being dutiful “soldiers” and those who lean towards being willful “revolutionaries.” While weighing the relative merits of the two groups, Anderson lays a heavy thumb on the “soldiers” side of the scale. My thumb lays on the other side.

(Where Anderson applies his thumb hardest is with the bullet points in the “Soldiers and revolutionaries” section, which are practically parody. So be it, though…as we’ll soon see, what Anderson can do, I can do, too…)

Rather than use Anderson’s “soldiers” and “revolutionaries,” let’s honor the recent Fourth of July by describing the two sides as, respectively, “Tories” and “Patriots.”

Those with a predominantly Tory mindset:

  • accept the status quo
  • go along to get along
  • reliably defer to authority
  • do the work that someone else puts in front of them

Those with a predominantly Patriot mindset:

  • ask searching questions
  • challenge received assumptions
  • work independently when needed
  • build far-flung collegial relationships
  • try new things to meet new needs

To paraphrase Anderson, hardly any individual librarian can be characterized as either a pure Tory or a pure Patriot. But which mindset would you want characterizing your library in these days of transformational change?

As Anderson notes, “tightening budgets increasingly force us to choose between worthy programs and projects.” Publishers have steadily cut into library purchasing power for decades by raising their subscription rates far faster than the rate of inflation.

The traditional Tory passivity of all too many librarians–the Biedermann mentality that meekly accepts the status quo–serves students and faculty unusually poorly as we struggle with an unaffordable system of scholarly communication created by publishers for publishers.

How, then, can libraries break out of that dead-end system? They can do it by drawing on Patriot courage, leadership, and innovation.

Anderson ends his article with a heavy-handed reminder that libraries are “ethically obligated to support the mission” of their funders. Anderson implies that only “revolutionaries” will find themselves in that sort of ethical difficulty, and, as a result, risk ending up as unemployed “freelancers.”

Charming.

Back in the real world…

When a librarian timidly does what he’s always done because he lacks the courage or imagination to change, is that fulfilling an ethical obligation to the library’s funders?

When a librarian just wants to write the same (if ever-larger) checks to the same publishers in the same process because that’s his comfort zone, is that fulfilling an ethical obligation to the library’s funders?

Are those Tory-style lapses in meeting ethical obligations so improbable that they were not even worth mentioning?

And if they’re not so improbable, why didn’t Anderson bother to mention them?

That imbalance is the fatal weakness of his article.

Maybe he would have benefited from having some Biedermann ancestors.

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(Previous posts: #1, #2, #3)

After 20 years of steady but containable erosion of the library’s customary position as an institution that controlled everything within itself, the final (and ultimately fatal) blow came in the mid-1990’s: The World Wide Web.

As the Web grew from a promising novelty into an ubiquitous part of American life, the traditional structure of the American library made less and less sense:

  • Libraries no longer selected all of the content that patrons came to the library to use, and the content they did select was steadily becoming a smaller part of what patrons were coming there to use.
  • The content that patrons used within the library could change or disappear without librarians knowing or being able to bring it back.
  • The main finding aid for this information was no longer provided by librarians, but by search engines. Attempts to stretch the library catalog to include Internet content had only minor successes.
  • Patrons could use library-provided content without ever setting foot in the library.
  • The case for intellectual freedom became more complicated as libraries had to move from defending the rights of patrons to access materials selected by trained librarians to defending the right of patrons to access any legal material on the Internet.

In short, patrons were more and more going through the library rather than going to the library. The days of the self-contained and self-controlled library are over. What can replace it? And who can make that replacement succeed?

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(Previous posts: #1, #2)

The second crack in the century-long stability of American libraries began to arrive in the 1980s: Online databases.

These databases vastly expanded patron access to periodicals without requiring an equally vast building program. The percentage of library collection budgets spent on these databases has steadily increased during the last 30 years.

They also continued the breakup of the old, stable model of how libraries worked:

  • Databases did not remain as physical items housed within and controlled by the library (remember CD-ROM towers?). To access most databases, patrons no longer even have to go to the library.
  • Databases were not stable. Vendors often added and dropped titles, complicating efforts to maintain the accuracy of the catalog.
  • Libraries did not control database finding aids. Each database had its own interface and thesaurus (and interfaces sometimes changed). Librarians had trouble maintaining mastery of all of them (if they had achieved that mastery to begin with).

Automated card catalogs and online databases were two notable cracks in the old library bottom line: That the library controlled everything within the library. The third and final crack, though, would be the one that finally brought the structure down.

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In my last post, I described the characteristics of libraries during the century before 1975. During that century, libraries faced no fundamental changes and were fully in control of how they presented themselves to patrons. That stability and control have now been shattered. Why?

The first crack came with the automation of library card catalogs in the 1970s and 1980s. Though a positive change on the whole, automation had three negative effects on libraries:

  • Most libraries no longer maintained their own finding aid, the catalog. They continued to provide the content, but the actual software was bought from vendors.
  • Most libraries no longer maintained the interface to their finding aid, the OPAC; that, too, was bought from vendors, most of which did not allow libraries sufficient ability to customize their OPACs.
  • The new OPACs did not work well with the old subject headings, which had been designed to be browsed in a card catalog. Even after 30 years of development, OPACs do not enable patrons to easily browse traditional subject headings, thus crippling one of librarianship’s three canonical means of bibliographic access (those being: by author, by title, by subject).

Automation of the card catalog had great benefits for libraries, but it was also the first crack in their century-old enjoyment of stability and control. There would soon be others.

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The old library

Until recently the online catalog continued to contain records only for items physically held by the library system. As libraries have entered into cooperative relationships, this principle of telling “what the library has” has eroded. In union catalogs that contain records from libraries of more than one institution, the concept was expanded to “what at least one of the cooperating libraries has.” More recently, the addition of Internet records has meant that a number of catalogs now contain records for “what the library can give access to,” including “what the library has.”

— Arlene G. Taylor, The Organization of Information (Westport, Conn. : Libraries Unlimited, 2004), pg. 8-9.

 
The library of (let’s say) 1875 to 1975 looked like this:

  • The library would buy discrete and unchanging physical items to become part of a coherent collection.
  • The library would catalog those items to identify their physical and intellectual characteristics and determine what library patrons would want from them.
  • The library maintained a finding aid for those items (the card catalog) and the interface to that finding aid (the layout of a catalog card).
  • The library would select every item in the library and controlled access to those items.

The bottom line for the libraries of 1875 to 1975:

  • THE LIBRARY CONTROLLED EVERYTHING WITHIN THE LIBRARY.

That would change.

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[W]e have all kinds of tools that are organized to aid in the process of finding information that we need: telephone books, directories, dictionaries, encyclopedias, bibliographies, indexes, catalogs, museum registers, archival finding aids, and databases, among others.

— Arlene G. Taylor, The Organization of Information (Westport, Conn. : Libraries Unlimited, 2004), pg. 2.

 
Before reading this passage, I had never thought about how little of the organization in your average library is done in-house. Most of the information resources we provide have been structured by other people. The overall classification of the books comes from
OCLC or the Library of Congress. The records for the titles we buy are usually provided by OCLC or a vendor, and then edited to match local standards. The article and citation databases we subscribe to are designed by their vendors. Libraries do have some leeway to arrange their fiction and non-book collections, and can sometimes get creative with their websites, but the core of the organizing is brought in from somewhere else.

Libraries: The original mashups.

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