9 Aug 2013

Libraries must embrace the liquid revolution

Guest post by David Egan, academic library user and mature student

Imagine you are a fourteen year old boy who wants to learn how to use a cool piece of audio software - Garageband for example - and ask yourself which would you prefer to do: read a manual that was written by a team of software engineers who are not inclined to use a comprehensible word if there is an incomprehensible technical alternative, or listen to a teenager who is fluent in both the programme, and your particular strain of the English language, talk you step by step through the basics while you watch his computer screen illustrate exactly what yours should be doing.

If you chose the former you probably are a software engineer who prefers acronyms to euonyms. If, on the other hand, you chose the latter, you are, I suspect, normal. This option is not only more painless but it is also arguably far more effective. Using this approach, as with the manual, you get the semantic meaning of the words, however, you also get the audio stimulus of hearing the words being spoken and you get a visual display that reinforces memory and assists understanding. This argument has been well made by many lecturers to their students promoting the virtues of attending lectures above simply reading text books.

Since returning to college as a mature student, I have needed little persuasion on this point. I enjoy lectures far more than I do reading textbooks. I have also rediscovered the pleasures of being back within the walls of an academic library. The silence, the smell of books, the sheer weight of intellect that lines the aisles lends these halls a literary gravitas that cannot be matched in the architecture of lesser places. In spite of this, in the context of the technological world in which we live, if the Web is analogous to the teenager in the Garageband instruction video, it pains me to say it, but academic libraries are analogous to the comparatively daunting and difficult Garageband user manual.

Whether we like it or not, this is the age of the Web. Instant, excellent and unlimited entertainment, communication, titillation and education, and it is especially in this last sector that libraries are suffering by comparison. Wonderful places though they are, compared to typing the word "Descartes" into Youtube, libraries are intimidating and difficult. Kids today, while researching video game cheats or school projects, have learned how to go about getting answers on the web and, given a college project in a few years’ time, I suspect that many of them will at least begin their search with this approach. As YouTube and Google get better and better at bringing up easy to perceive and easy to understand answers, it could be predicted that fewer and fewer kids will bother to progress beyond their computer screens.

I love reading, but as a student with a full time job and a full time family I don't get as much time as I'd like to settle down with a book. In spite of my attraction to them, libraries are often not an option. I do however possess an iPhone, and these days, although I cannot read while traveling heat sealed into a Luas, while walking from stop to destination, while unpacking a dishwasher or while mowing a lawn, thanks to all-you-can-eat data, I can listen.

On Youtube, I can listen to debates, discussions and interviews involving some of the greatest thinkers in their fields. On Topdocumentaryfilms.com I can listen to over 2,600 documentary films or collections, on topics from “nine-eleven” to Nietzsche, and on iTunes-U I can listen to some of the finest lecturers alive or dead delivering whole semesters of recitations, crafted over many years, for the most privileged of students from the worlds best universities. Mooc-list.com lists 140 colleges and institutions currently offering “massive, open, online courses” or MOOCs (see Laura Connaughton’s post of July 17) and most of these courses include free audio or video content. Thanks to this technological revolution I have been lucky enough to sit (stand, walk, mow, etc.) through hundreds of hours of these lectures from the hallowed halls of Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge, MIT, Yale and Stanford.

This, if you will, is liquid literature (though “vociture” might be a more etymologically correct term), and its volume is growing by the day at a rate with which its older relation, solid literature - that which involves the written word - could never compete. As documented elsewhere on this blog (including Alexander Kouker’s post from January last on the first digital-only public library, BiblioTech, in Texas) libraries have done well in their efforts to adapt to the emergence of the soft version of solid literature - e-books, pdfs, electronic articles and blogs - however, it seems that they have been far more resistant to embracing the liquid revolution and as a result, they may lose out to the charm and convenience of the most popular and brilliant librarian ever: Google.

So, if this were true, what could be done to arrest the demise of our beloved libraries? Writing in a recent issue of a college newsletter Alexander Kouker moots the idea of librarians roving the aisles equipped with iPads aiming to assist unsure patrons. This is a good idea for a couple of reasons. First of all, if I may judge fellow students and fellow males by my poor standards, while blindly fingering entirely the wrong shelves with feigned command, a student is about as likely to ask a librarian for help as a lost male driver is to ask a passerby for directions. Secondly, this allows the librarian to expose the true, virtually (if you'll forgive the pun) unlimited potential of the library to direct the user to their goal.

These roving iPad librarians (I will resist the temptation to refer to them as iBrarians!) could approach unsure users, direct them towards the correct shelves, and advise them of what is available locally and in other libraries. Roving librarians could be in communication with each other by way of Viber or a similar app, and one who is less qualified in a particular field could instantly summon a colleague with the appropriate knowledge of Web resources required by the user.

If, going one step further, libraries were equipped with a number of simple computers - with nothing more than a basic capacity to browse the Web quickly - and a continuous supply of cheap, airline type disposable headphones, the roving librarian could guide the user to one such station, and Viber that machine with the relevant links that they have called up on their iPad enabling the user to read, watch or listen to the remote literature available in their area of interest.

As Alexander pointed out there are obstacles that need to be overcome before such a scheme could operate smoothly,  cost and noise being the two most obvious. With regard to the former, if libraries were directing large volumes of traffic to income generating sites like YouTube, perhaps they could use that traffic as collateral in negotiating some small fee. There may also be advertising opportunities that they themselves could exploit. The issue of noise is a physical one that could conceivably be dealt with by way of quiet areas closed off from semi-quiet areas as is currently the practice in many libraries including Iowa University Library (see their noise policy here).

For better or worse, we are raising a generation of kids who are used to convenience learning. Some may argue that the realm of academic libraries, or libraries in general, is limited to that of solid literature and that audio and video are for some reason out of bounds. However, if one looks at the purpose of a library, it is hard to see why one should make such a distinction when what differs is, after all, simply the method of recording. Can it seriously be argued that an idea is worth more if it is recorded with written words instead of spoken ones? If this is true, should we disregard the teachings of Socrates? If it is not true, why should libraries limit themselves to the epistemology of the written word? In fact, one could argue that, given the relative absence of a structured catalogue of liquid literature, libraries have an even greater role to play in this area in that they are well positioned to impose such a structure, at least upon the more important works of the medium.

Posted upon the blog of John Blyberg of the Darien Library in Connecticut is a document entitled “The Darien Statements” which arose out of a summit there concerning the future of libraries. It is a grand, concise and optimistic list of statements that the authors believe to be true about the library including the notion that “the library has a moral obligation to adhere to its purpose despite social, economic, environmental, or political influences.” It goes on to state that “our methods need to rapidly change to address the profound impact of information technology on the nature of human connection and the transmission and consumption of knowledge. If the library is to fulfill its purpose in the future, librarians must commit to a culture of continuous operational change, accept risk and uncertainty as key properties of the profession, and uphold service to the user as our most valuable directive”.

It is a bold aim, but one that is surely worthy of continued pursuit.


  1. Some excellent points there David, and I do agree completely that one of our key functions is to support learning through whatever medium possible. In fact, as recently as last month I saw how Connolly Hospital have iPod shuffles available for borrowing that are preloaded with podcasts about a variety of clinical specialties. A very nice idea.

    However, I am not sure about Roving Reference services myself. From what I have read they can be very 'hit and miss' and can eat up a lot of staff time/resources for little gain. I think using it as an outreach tool rather than a reference tool as such, e.g. targeting key events outside the library (e.g. student union events, other academic events, talks etc.) with a roving presence could yield more engagement. But I am sure it is still one to keep an eye on!

    1. Thanks for your response Michelle. The iPod shuffle idea sounds fantastic. Wouldn’t it be good if, after being directed to an appropriate audio source for their purposes, a library user could have it downloaded onto an iPod shuffle and then take it away as they would a book from the library?

      I suppose, as paperbound information shrinks away into the corners of an ever expanding digital universe, the importance of a librarian who remains simply the administrator of a collection of printed media will shrink with it. You have made this point well in your post of 7th August and to my mind the logical conclusion of your point that librarians must “sell the library to our users based on what we can do for them…” is that librarians must become (and must become recognised as) specialists in Information Retrieval. In an age where information is abundant and accessible, the job of deciphering what is relevant is becoming increasingly important and, if roving librarians were recognised as experts in IR, perhaps the idea might be more successful than it is at present.

      I think the outreach idea is a good one too and this could be a good way to show the public that, as experts in IR, librarians have a very valuable service to offer.