Thursday, August 28, 2008

California Reference Think Tank

I stink at predicting the future. My political candidates and causes usually lose and most people are not interested in the professional issues I’m most passionate about (i.e., homework help and library history).

Why, then, would I attend a two-day Think Tank on the future of statewide reference service in California? As a former reference librarian—and a pretty damn good one, at that—I still have an acute interest in reference and where it’s going now that most people, including librarians, use Google as a one-stop information provider. I'm also concerned about reference services for youth and wanted to make sure kids weren't left out of the statewide equation. Though the Think Tank never really addressed any particular population groups, we did attempt to forecast what’s ahead for public libraries as two futurists from the media project FringeHog guided us through a day-long scenario-building exercise based on current information-seeking and consumer trends.

Some of the “trends” were definitely old hat. “Friend-Fomation,” for instance, where folks rely on friends to find, sort, vet, and curate information, is hardly new. People have always checked with friends and family first to see what they might know about a topic or to get advice—so no surprise there.

Social networking and Web 2.0 are not new to us, either. Many libraries have their own wikis, blogs, and/or MySpace or Facebook pages, where they advertise services and new programs through electronic word-of-mouth. These days, if you want to be an opinion leader, you have to have your own blog or social network page to communicate effectively.

I do like the “trend” of eliminating boundaries through technology, which is something I think we’ve always done in libraries. Universal borrowing, interlibrary loan and shared catalogs have all become easier thanks to the Internet and borderless access. Librarians invented these concepts and have embraced them for many decades, even though some government officials may be overly protective of their jurisdictional lines. For any boundaryless library service to exist, city and county administrators must first be convinced of the benefits to their own constituents. This was true when library consortia were formed in the 1960s and will no doubt continue to be true as libraries begin to share more and more resources in the virtual world.

I raised my eyebrows at the notion of “Everyware”—a future world where information is embedded in everyday objects and places. Not only will “things” be able to think and interact with each other and us, they’ll also store, transmit and create data. Smacking a little too much of “Big Brother,” this trend creeps me out and makes me very leery of the potentially corruptible power of future technology.

Call me an old-time anti-corporate liberal, but I’m also skeptical of trends that are strongly based on commercial models. “It’s All About Me,” which describes a shift in consumer demand from conspicuous mass consumption to mass personalized consumption, is a perfect example. Customers can now buy Kleenex boxes decorated with a picture of their pets or design running shoes emblazoned with their names. Heck, I've even bought customized M & Ms celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary! But is this trend the result of customer demand or are manufacturers just cleverly repackaging their products? Successful corporations may be nimble enough to follow each market’s whim, but libraries tend to be more restricted by their bureaucratic nature and limited funding sources.

Still, librarians are an extremely creative lot and so some truly remarkable ideas did emerge from the conference. Among my favorites was the “embedded librarian,” where groups, businesses, etc., will be able to connect with a public library staff member who will become their own “special” librarian during the course of a project, etc. Academic librarians have partnered with their patrons for a long time, but this is an entirely new concept for public librarians, whose standing in their community could benefit from offering an extra layer of specialized service. My Think Tank teammates and I see a future where library service is more personalized and relevant to the patron.

We also liked the idea of “pushing” information to potential clients through radio-frequency technology. Say, for example, you’re shopping for rose bushes at your local nursery. Through radio frequency, the library could automatically send a message to your hand-held device, promoting its collection of gardening books (yes, I believe libraries will continue to offer books well into the future!). Although this seems a bit too “Minority Report” for my taste, I do like the idea of reaching out to patrons at their direct point of need.

A common theme among the various Think Tank teams was that people trust the library. They trust our expertise at being able to navigate through even the most tangled web of information. Plus, they trust that we have no political ax to grind except to advocate for their information-seeking rights. My own feeling is that the more Google creates a disintermediated world, the more our patrons are going to need us to make sense of that world. No matter how sophisticated they may be at operating computer systems, most people still need help navigating through "process." One of my teammates mentioned that she’s had to show library users how to make airline reservations on Expedia. Is this a task for trained librarians? I don’t know. But I do think this type of service is one that many of our patrons might find very useful.

Think Tank results will be shared at the upcoming California Library Association conference in November. Be watching for opportunities to contribute to this ongoing discussion.

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