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Dangers and Opportunities

crisis.jpgDangers and Opportunities: Challenges for Libraries in the Digital Age
A paper written to complement a keynote address for the Queensland Public Library Conference, Cairns, June 5, 2006 and published (in part) in Minnesotat Media, 2007

The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger - but recognize the opportunity. - John F. Kennedy, Speech in Indianapolis, April 12, 1959

Are libraries in a crisis? In the United States and Canada, they seem to be. Each week brings news of libraries closing, new K-12 schools and universities being built without library facilities, cuts in public library funding, graduate library program closings, and professional library staff being replaced by clerical or technical personnel.

In “Do Libraries Matter?” Chad and Miller write: ‘The library’s information provider crown is slipping. Justifiably or not, today libraries are increasingly viewed as outdated, with modern, Internet-based services, such as Amazon and Google, looking to inherit the throne.”

If you and your library are not in a crisis situation, hurrah! You are doing something right and I would like you to share your secrets for success with me after this talk.


I mean it.

But even for those of us who are not experiencing the trauma of impending doom, we may experiencing motion sickness - that vague uneasiness that change brings on when one doesn’t know quite what to expect tomorrow. Or to expect the next minute, for that matter.

Many of you have probably read via email a list that starts like this: You know you’re living in 2006 when…

  1. You accidentally enter your password on the microwave.
  2. You haven’t played solitaire with real cards in years.
  3. You have a list of 15 phone numbers to reach your family of 3.
  4. You e-mail the person who works at the desk next to you.
  5. Your reason for not staying in touch with friends and family is that they don’t have e-mail addresses…

And so on.

I revised this list a little for our profession. You know you are a librarian in 2006 when…

  1. You have to remind your story hour children to turn off their cell phones before the story starts.
  2. You know what an IP number is but not an ISBN number.
  3. Your patrons think both The Little Mermaid and Hunchback of Notre Dame were written by Walt Disney – and that both stories have happy endings.
  4. You know more librarians in the US than you do in Queensland because of library listservs.
  5. The best way to remind a patron about an overdue book is by e-mail.
  6. When answering a reference question, you start with Ask Jeeves.
  7. You’ve used the last of your check-out cards for scratch paper.
  8. People under 25 look at you funny when you call it the “the card catalog.”
  9. You see 12-year-old girls who show more skin in the library than you would have ever dreamed of showing on the beach.
  10. You have more polo shirts with computer logos than with book logos.
  11. A little kid shows you how to get around the library Internet filter.
  12. Your support staff spends more time troubleshooting the network than reshelving books.
  13. You never see anyone copy out of the print encyclopedia anymore.
  14. You didn’t get your last grad class assignment turned in on time because the network was down.
  15. You’ve Googled the new staff members in your library.
  16. You don’t remember the last time you’ve had to alphabetize something.
  17. You have all your passwords and PIN numbers on your PDA - and you can’t remember the password for your PDA!

Top Three Dangers for Libraries in the Digital Age

As the list above suggests, many of our library “crises,” whether institutional or personal, can be tied directly to the gi-normous (that’s an Australian word I learned last time I was here) information technology changes that have occurred in the past 20 years – changes that continue and are accelerating. I would suggest three factors that are creating a dangerous “perfect storm” of societal changes that will impact libraries. Only by actively addressing the challenges each of these dangers pose, will libraries survive and thrive. Here are the winds of crisis that are buffeting us:

  1. The growing digitization and portability of information.
  2. Emerging fundamental changes in the nature and sources of information.
  3. The critical need for new skills for workers in a global economy

Let’s take a look at each dangerous trend in turn, and then look at some strategies that may help libraries and librarians use these winds to propel us in new directions rather than capsize us.

Danger 1: The growing digitization and portability of information.

I never quite know when to read the following piece when I give a talk. I’ve read it at the end of a session, and people have left depressed. When read in the middle, it doesn’t seem to get quite the attention it deserves. So today, I’ll share it with you at the beginning of our talk.

Imagine this advertisement showing up in your superintendent’s, college president’s or city manager’s mail:


The penciled note at the bottom from your boss simply reads: “Why should I not buy this product?”

Wither books? Wither libraries?

For most of us, the words “library” and “book” are conjoined like Siamese twins. But like it or not, “book” reading is on the decline.

  1. The percentage of adult Americans reading literature has dropped dramatically over the past 20 years. Less than half of the adult American population now reads literature.
  2. The decline in literary reading parallels a decline in total book reading.
  3. The rate of decline in literary reading is accelerating.
  4. Women read more literature than men do, but literary reading by both groups is declining at significant rates.
  5. Literary reading is declining among whites, African Americans, and Hispanics.
  6. Literary reading is declining among all education levels.
  7. Literary reading is declining among all age groups.
  8. The steepest decline in literary reading is in the youngest age groups. Over the past 20 years, young adults (18-34) have declined from being those most likely to read literature to those least likely (with the exception of those age 65 and above).
  9. The decline in literary reading foreshadows an erosion in cultural and civic participation.
  10. The decline in reading correlates with increased participation in a variety of electronic media, including the Internet, video games, and portable digital devices.  (NEA Reading at Risk, 2004)

Why, one might ask? Could technology be playing a role in this less bookish climate?

  • …the average online consumer spends 14 hours a week online, which is the same amount of time they watch TV. “Even the most intensive users of newspapers and magazines spend less time reading these publications than they do online or watching TV… 37% of all online users report that they spend less time reading books because of their online activities” Jupiter Research, January 2006
  •  …time spent on the Internet appears to come at the expense of time spent on social activities, hobbies, reading and TV viewing. IT & Society, Fall 2002.
  • …the average American child lives in a household with 2.9 televisions, 1.8 VCRs, 3.1 radios, 2.1 CD players, 1.4 video game players, and 1 computer. NEA, 2004
  • Four out of ten American adults turn to video games as their primary source of entertainment. Associated Press 09:30 AM May, 08, 2006 http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,70839-0.html?tw=rss.index
  • For about $5, SparkNotes lets students download its distilled versions of literature, math and science onto their iPods so that they can read or listen to lessons on the run.

Are people getting dumber? You decide.

  • 50% of Americans can’t find New York State on a map. (Time, May 15, 2005, p.17)
  • 35% of Americans believe votes cast on American Idol (TV talent show) are as or more important than voting in a US presidential election. (Time, May 15, 2005, p.17)
  • A man who cannot pronounce the word nuclear was twice elected to the highest political office of the land.

Information is being made available increasingly online and portable.

So, people seen to be reading less. Reading fewer books anyway. And we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. The technology of “book” is changing as well.

Books have already seen a number of transitions in their long history: from clay to wax to papyrus to vellum to cloth to paper, stored as tablets or scrolls or folios or books, bound in horn or leather or cloth or paper. With each metamorphosis, the role of the librarian has changed – from scribe to guard to copyist to archivist to selector to teacher.

I, for one, am looking forward to the next iteration of “the book” when well-designed silicon replaces cellulose as the means for publishing. Our current paper books rapidly disintegrate and go out of print. They are expensive to produce, bulky to store, and back breaking to move. Access to them is limited because of their very physical nature. While I am sentimental about the associative memories particular books evoke, it is really the excitement of the story, the perspective of the author, or the lyricism of the language to which I am reacting when I say, “I love books.”  

The impact of the wide-scale use of e-books will be a major who-moved-my-cheese event for our profession and it will happen within the working lives of many of us. What might a genuinely useful e-book look like and what ramifications might such a device have on the profession of librarian?

The e-book of 2015
The digital book in its mature form will have many advantages over that of the now defunct Sony Bookman; cumbersome, expensive laptop; or handheld device with its tiny screen. It will be a new kind of book with which one can cuddle up in bed, take to the beach, or carry on a bicycle. From reports of developing technologies, one may safely conclude a true e-book:

  • Will be highly portable, durable, and customizable. Mine will be a slim padded six by nine inch notebook bound in calfskin weighing ounces, not pounds. It will run on a watch battery that needs replacing once every three years, supplemented by a solar panel. It will have high-speed wireless connections to the Internet and peripheral devices, such as projectors, printers and earphones. All its memory is static and the screen is made of strong, semi-flexible plastic. A bump or drop may scuff, but not break the device. Special models for students needing adaptive technologies will be available.
  • Will offer a screen with higher resolution than the printed page. Open my e-book and the left hand side will show a softly glowing, backlit, glare free screen that can switch from landscape to portrait layout. My wife can sleep while I read in bed. My page’s background would be a rich ivory color with the resolution of paper and be flicker-free. The text’s font can be changed to suit one’s personal taste and the size adjusted for aging eyes. A tap will bring up a dictionary definition and pronunciation for any word, and in many cases, an illustration. Automatic translation of texts in languages other than English is instantaneous. The other side of the notebook will hold input and output devices of my choice - keyboard, track pad, stylus, speaker, microphone, and camera.
  • Will be fully multimedia. The page displays full color graphics, digital video and offers text to speech in a natural voice. (I’ll download James Earl Jones and Kathleen Turner to be my narrators.) Audio books with full dramatization and magazine and newspaper articles can be downloaded and listened to, as well as motion pictures, radio programs, and television programs.
  • Will allow annotation, searching, and bookmarking of e-texts. One can doodle in the margins with a stylus on the touch sensitive screen or via the keyboard on electronic sticky notes. The user can search the full text and notes and set referenced bookmarks.
  • Will have both internal and online storage space. Dozens of books plus all standard reference sources will be instantly accessible from the terabyte storage chip within the device. Lesser-used items will be accessible from online personal libraries, through worldwide public or private lending sources, or through online bookstores. E-texts and downloadable audio books will be less expensive than their physical cousins, reflecting cost saving realized by not having to print, transport, store, or remainder any item. One of my books happens to be a great Dorothy Dunnett novel, unavailable in paper for 10 years. E-books mean never having to say out of print.
  • Will change the nature of “fiction.” Many writers may experiment with text that is customizable by the end user for both artistic and commercial purposes. The reader may substitute the name of his or her current inamorata or inamorato for the protagonist (or murder victim). The latest Stephen King can be set to mild, scary or terrifying, or Harold Robbins to suggestive, lurid, or … well, let’s not go there. Video games and fiction may merge and the skills and choices of the reader/player may determine the outcome of the plot.
  • Books may become “social,” allowing a reader to share a comment with other readers or the author while reading the book. For ongoing discussions of the changing nature of the social nature of books, I suggest reading the if:book blog <http://www.futureofthebook.org/blog/>.
  • Maybe integrated into a more fully functional “e-backpack.” This device will be a means of storing notes, papers, and teacher-generated study materials and customized e-textbooks; an e-portfolio documenting the exploration of a series of related topics, each assignment building on the last; an e-organizer with appointment calendar, to-do-list, and address book; an e-wallet that serves as a library card, lunch ticket, petty cash, and sports pass protected with biometric security; and an e-communicator capable of transmitting both voice and data, including digital video. The e-backpack will include interactive learning programs prescribed as part of every learner’s IEP and include basic productivity software such as a word processor, spreadsheet, web editor, database, video editor, and graphics tools.
  • Will be affordable. The price of e-book hardware is a non-issue. The devices themselves will be no more expensive than school supplies in the past. Software distributors and e-text publishers practically give them away with subscription services. The funds schools once spent on textbooks and printing costs heavily subsidize the costs of this equipment for children whose families cannot afford it.
  • Will contain a monitoring chip. With the passage of the Patriot Act of 2009, all electronic communication devices used in schools will have a Mind Police chip that automatically sends logs to the school’s office of testing and assessment, the vice-principal’s office, and the Department of Homeland Security for data-mining. Of course, all students have discovered how to disable the chips.

Some students may have wearable e-books with a wristwatch type CPU, retinal laser displays, and virtual keyboards. That kid in the back row may be twitchy because she’s paging through The Hobbit, solving a chemistry problem, or drawing her friend a valentine.

From Kelly’s “Scan This Book,” NYTimes, May 14, 2006:

“From the days of Sumerian clay tablets till now, humans have “published” at least 32 million books, 750 million articles and essays, 25 million songs, 500 million images, 500,000 movies, 3 million videos, TV shows and short films, and 100 billion Web pates…When fully digitized the whole lot could be compressed…onto 50 petabyte hard disks. Today you need a building the size of a small-town library to house 50 petabytes. With tomorrow’s technology, it will all fit onto your iPod. When that happens, the library of all libraries will ride in your purse or wallet – if it doesn’t plug directly into your brain with thin white cords. Some people alive today are surely hoping that they die before such things happen, and other, mostly the young, want to know what’s taking so long. (Could we get it up and running by next week? They have a history project due.)

So where will we be when one’s library fits in a backpack or pocket?

Convenience is key to information access

Michael Jensen, Director of Publishing Technologies at the National Academies Press, listed a number of ways in which one type of information is becoming more valued than another by today’s searchers. This is the list he shared:

  • Free trumps cost.
  • Open trumps firewalled.
  • Easy trumps intricate.
  • Fast sufficiency trumps clumsy quality.
  • Integrated/linked trumps siloed.
  • Findable trumps precise.
  • Recommended trumps available.
  • Updateable trumps static.

How does this reflect your own information use pattern? Why should someone come to the library, either physical or virtual, if s/he can get information from… well, where ever.

Danger 2: Fundamental changes in the nature and sources of information.

What constitutes authority? The Web 2.0

I would suggest you read Tim O’Reilly’s seminal article “What is the Web 2.0?”

In it he offers the following graph:


In a very simplistic sense, O’Reilly is arguing that information is increasingly less about a static body of knowledge and more about conversations. As O’Reilly has argued more recently, an application can be considered Web 2.0 if its value increases with the more people using it, adding to it.

Along with webblogs (blogs), the  poster child for Web 2.0 and how it treats information is Wikipedia, <http://en.wikipedia.org> that growing, user-created online encyclopedia. Since it has emerged on the scene in 2001, Wikipedia has already gone through Schopenhauer’s “stages of truth”: Ridicule, Violent opposition and Self-Evidence.

The thought of a reference source that anyone can and does edit seems on its face ridiculous to those of us who have been taught to respect “authoritative” resources. And indeed there have been highly publicized cases of deliberate, even malicious, content placed in Wikipedia entries. But when Nature magazine reported a study late in 2005 that showed Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia were comparatively accurate in the science entries, the theory of “self-correcting” information seemed to be validated.

And on May 8, 2006, respected New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, quotes from the Wikipedia to define conspiracy theory.

Ridicule, opposition, self-evidence. Where are you? How many of you turn to the Wikipedia for a quick understanding of a topic? How many of your patrons do? How do you counsel them when asked about accuracy?

As of March 2006, Wikipedia contained 873,000 articles in its English-language version; Encyclopedia Britannica 65,000 articles 2005 print edition and 120,000 in the online edition. Wikipedia may be your only reference source on recent technologies and events.

And remember, “Free trumps cost.”

The voice of the common man, vox populi, is being heard, and heeded as a source of authentic, reliable information. My own view of the reliability of information has changed. In selecting hotels for this trip, I used TripAdvisor.com, with its multiple, recent and personal reviews of lodging rather than Fodors or Frommers. Why? It’s more accurate, timely and allows me to read a variety of opinions.

And this has become my habit with almost any consumer-type purchase. What do “real” users have to say?

Have the Internet and Google made the search for accurate information more or less easy? As I started writing this talk, I decided I needed to find the author of the quote with which I started my remarks and this article. The first thing I discovered was that there is some debate as to whether the Chinese word for crisis really is made of symbols for danger and opportunity?

So I Googled it [Chinese + crisis + danger + opportunity] and here are the first ten hits and what I learned:

  1. No, it isn’t. - Victor H. Mair, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature, University of Pennsylvania
  2. Maybe. Kind of. Depends. – “The Straight Dope,” newspaper column
  3. Yes, it does. - Mary R. Bast, PhD, Personal/Business “Coach”
  4. No - Language Log blog, Mark Lieberman, Director of Linguistic Language Consortium
  5. No – Hellblazer blog (quoting Mair), no author name or credentials given
  6. Yes – Cycle of Change website.  Rick Maurer, Maurer and Associates “change” consultants
  7. Yes - The Official Record: FAIR AND BALANCED blog. David Danzig – no credentials given.
  8. Yes – self-improvement site
  9. Yes- calligraphy site
  10. Yes - Yen Duen, personal website. No credentials given. (May 2006)

So what do we do? Average? Give more weight to some answers than others. Throw a dart?

(As a side note, I sent a challenge to LM_Net, a listserv of 17,000, primarily subscribed to by teacher-librarians, asking if they could answer the question about using only the print resources in their libraries. I received ten responses – only 4 that used actual print resources, each indicated the statement was accurate. You may determine the moral of that story yourself.)

So if it’s tough for adults to get the straight story, what’s it like for kids? For those adults struggling with literacy? What if the question being researched was dasa bit more important like “How is AIDS transmitted?” A good deal less humorous.

Will snippets lead to damnation?

[It] destroys memory [and] weakens the mind, relieving it of…work that makes it strong. [It] is an inhuman thing.

The sentiment above is from Phaedrus – in which Plato is quoting Socrates in 500 B.C. Greece. The “it” in the quote is writing. The newest information technology of the day – writing – was driving out the traditional information technology – memorization.  

Professor Naomi Baron in a Los Angles Times opinion piece “Killing the written word by snippets” (Nov 28, 2005) bemoans:

Will effortless random access [to snippets of books made available through Google Book Search] erode our collective respect for writing as a logical, linear process? Such respect matters because it undergirds modern education, which is premised on thought, evidence and analysis rather than memorization and dogma. Reading successive pages and chapters teaches us how to follow a sustained line of reasoning.

Do you hear Plato’s words echoed in Baron’s concern?

Alexander Pope wrote:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

A somewhat interesting (but not unusual) chain of events happened to me one evening last fall as I was checking my RSS feed aggregator just before going to bed to see if any new must-read blog entries had been posted lately.

  1. I read Will Richardson’s Weblogg–ed blog entry that…
  2. Referenced David Weinberger’s Jo-Ho blog (that I added to my feeds) that…
  3. Referenced Karen Schneider’s Free Range Librarian blog (that I added to my feeds) that…
  4. Linked to an article she wrote for Library Journal on blogging ethics that referenced…
  5. “A Bloggers’ Code of Ethics” on CYBERJOURNALIST.NET  and
  6. Michael Stephen’s Tame the Web blog (that I added to my feeds) and his “The Library Blogger’s Personal Protocols.”

My five-minute quick blog check turned into 45 minutes reading and my wife asking “What are you doing on the computer? Having cybersex or what?” And this was 45 minutes I would have spent continuing to read Ray Kurzweil’s probably important book The Singularity is Near.

Now I’ve admitted that blog reading, like e-mail, exacerbates my ADD, but maybe things are simply getting out of hand. It’s starting to feel that I can exercise about the same degree of control over this sort of spontaneous reading that I have over my caramel corn consumption – I can’t stop once I’ve started.

What I really am wondering is how is my reading time is best spent – snacking on blogs or feasting on books when I have time to do but one or the other in an evening. I’m developing an ever greater degree of sympathy for the Net Genners who “satisfice” to meet their informational needs.

I’m pretty sure that reading Kurzweil’s book is good for me. Nice to know just how much computing power a 2.2 pound rock contains should scientists ever figure out how to harness the processing power of atomic particles. I guess. Such a thick book certainly makes me look smart when I carry it about. And there is a genuine sense of accomplishment when I finish such a tome, much like a 4th grader feels after finishing a Harry Potter.

On the other hand, by blogging around, I stumbled on a relevant, important topic (blogging ethics) that I had not thought about before, and after reading three short articles, I now probably know more about the topic than 95% of the rest of the blogging world – which I am quite sure qualifies me as an expert. Oh, and the knowledge gained will immediately guide my practice.

Is “a little learning” more important in a fast-paced world than “drinking deep?” Would Pope now have to write “A little learning is a ness’ry thing?” And just why would one want to be sober anyway, Mr. Pope?

Truthiness and information

One interesting and frightening result of having such a wealth of “information” available is that one can find nearly any point of view supported somewhere on the Internet, and that has allowed widely differing political and personal philosophies to find “evidence” for their causes.

Yes, Virginia, you can find a recipe for spotted owl (an endangered species) on the Internet.

This ability to support any notion has lead to a good deal of cynicism about the value of data, information, and authority. Such cynicism is satirized by Stephen Colbert, on his eponymous television show The Colbert Report, with his invention of the word “truthiness.” “Truthiness refers to the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”

“I will speak to you in plain, simple English. And that brings us to tonight’s word: ‘truthiness.’ Now I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordanistas’ over at Webster’s are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word.’ Well, anyone who knows me knows I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books….

“I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart. And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today. ‘Cause face it, folks; we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats and Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart… “ Stephen Colbert <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truthiness>

Truthiness was voted 2005 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society.


Jo Rogers, former Executive of the Council of Urban Libraries, once commented that all libraries need two large signs in them. One over the stacks that reads, “Carefully chosen by trained professionals” and one over the Internet terminals that reads, ‘Whatever.” Do our patrons really care anymore?

Danger 3: The need for new skills for workers in a global economy

In early 2005, reporter Thomas L. Friedman frightened a great number of Americans with his book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (Farrar, 2005) by detailing the impact of globalization on the white-collar workforce in the U.S., Western Europe and Japan. Many U.S. jobs thought to require “knowledge economy” skills, and therefore secure, are now being exported to nations (India and China, especially) with good telecommunications infrastructures, an overabundance of skilled workers, and, compared to the U.S., a very low wage scale. (This is a problem that is being overstated in the short run, but understated in the long run.)

Most Americans, especially those in traditional blue-collar jobs such as manufacturing, have for decades watched non-skilled work being shifted to either automated systems (robotics) or to cheaper foreign labor markets. Friedman’s report that jobs in the fields of customer/technical support, computer programming, medical technician diagnostics, tax preparation, and legal research have migrated abroad has caused educators to seriously examine what constitutes “knowledge worker skills” that might prepare our graduates to function in jobs that can’t be outsourced—and in some way justify the high remuneration that middle class workers have come to enjoy in the United States.

The article “Education and the Changing Job Market” (Levy and Murnane,  Educational Leadership, October 2004) contains this remarkable graph titled “Trends in Tasks Done by the US Workforce 1969-1998 (1969 = 0)”


In the article, the authors raise questions about whether current standards-based public education prepares students for mastery of the occupations set to grow in the United States. Using U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data they argue that the greatest job growth will be in well-paying occupations requiring “expert thinking” and “complex human communication.” Schools, the authors claim, need to teach in such a way that these skills become second-nature to high school graduates, and graduates can apply these skills in college or postsecondary training programs, which lead to success in up-and-coming occupational fields.

But what exactly do we mean when we say “expert thinking” and “complex human communications?” What separates these job skills from “routine cognitive” work? And are there skill sets which students must master before being able to considered complex communicators or expert thinkers?

I would posit that there is a Maslovian-type Hierarchy of Knowledge Worker Skills, skills that need be mastered prior to the acquisition and application of “higher order” skills. I will categorize these as: Basic Skills, Discipline/Profession Specific Skills, Technology Skills, Information Problem-Solving/HOT Skills, and Conceptual Skills. (For a full description of each level, see Johnson,  “The Knowledge Worker Redux” – link in bibliography.


Level Five: Conceptual Skills
Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age (Riverhead Books, 2005) acknowledges Asia (the outsourcing trend described by Friedman), as well as two other trends impacting on an individual’s value in the labor market which he labels “Abundance” (rising affluence which leads to markets of not just functional, but pleasing goods and services) and “Automation” (improvements in mechanized and AI labor). He suggests that readers ask themselves three questions about their jobs:

  1. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?
  2. Can a computer do it faster?
  3. Am I offering something that satisfies the nonmaterial, transcendent desires of an abundant age? (Are you not just manufacturing toilet brushes, but toilet brushes that satisfy the user’s aesthetic sensibilities as well?)

As a result of these trends, he believes we are shifting from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. Successful players in this new economy will be required to develop and use the right-brain abilities of high concept (seeing the larger picture, synthesizing information) and high touch (being empathetic, creating meaning). Happy news, perhaps, for those of us who never were all that good at the left-brain stuff in the first place.

More specifically, he suggests we work toward developing in ourselves (and I hope by implication, our students), six right brain “senses,” to complement our left-brain, analytic skills. He suggests we need realize the value of:

  1. Not just function, but also DESIGN. “It’s no longer sufficient to create a product, a service, an experience, or a lifestyle that’s merely functional. Today it’s economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is also beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging.”
  2. Not just argument, but also STORY. “When our lives are brimming with information and data, it’s not enough to marshal an effective argument… The essence of persuasion, communication, and self-understanding has become the ability also to fashion a compelling story.”
  3. Not just focus, but also SYMPHONY. “What’s in greatest demand today isn’t analysis but synthesis – seeing the big picture and, crossing boundaries, being able to combine disparate pieces into an arresting new whole.”
  4. Not just logic, but also EMPATHY. “What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others.
  5. Not just seriousness, but also PLAY (“Ample evidence points to the enormous health and professional benefits of laughter, lightheartedness, games and humor.”
  6. Not just accumulation, but also MEANING. “[Material plenty] has freed hundreds of millions of people from day-to-day struggles and liberated us to pursue more significant desires: purpose, transcendence, and spiritual fulfillment.”

I will also be bold enough to add a seventh “sense” of my own to Mr. Pink’s list:

7.    Not just knowledge, but also LEARNING. Unless a person develops both the ability and the desire to continue to learn new skills, to be open to new ideas, and to be ready to change practices in the face of new technologies, economic forces, and societal demands, he or she will not be able to successfully compete in a global economy.

In the age of educational accountability, we seem to be gearing all our instructional efforts to helping students master left-brain skills, since that is what tests usually measure. But to what extent do we and should we also be developing design sense, storytelling abilities, the ability to synthesis information, empathy, the use of humor, and the ability to detect the importance of the information learned?

Are our libraries serving as true educational institutions today? Are we giving our patrons training, guidance and practice in “knowledge worker skills?” Do we really know what tomorrow’s worker will need to know and be able to do to compete in a global economy?

OK librarians, had enough “danger” for one day? Feel like you should be wearing a t-shirt that says, “Where are we going and why are we in this hand basket?”

Let’s devote the rest of the time we have to the second half of the Chinese ideogram: opportunities

Top Seven Opportunities for Libraries in the Digital Age

Let me say first off, I don’t believe there will be a single model for successful, relevant libraries of the future. There will be a multiplicity of innovative models, each serving its community in what may be quite special ways.

Tolstoy observed, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” My observation is that “Doomed libraries are all alike (unwilling to change); every successful library is successful in its own way.”

Let’s look at a variety of “opportunities” libraries and librarians are taking advantage of to remain relevant in the digital age - rising to the dangers of changes in technology, in information, and in worker skills.

I. An opportunity to improve our physical facilities
It’s a given that tomorrow’s – no, make that, today’s libraries need to be more than `a repository for books. The primary question we need to ask ourselves again and again is:

What makes my library worth getting out of the easy chair for? Here’s a hint. It probably won’t be to look information up in a book. For the next generation, it may not even to find a book to read.

Yet in it’s 2005 Report, OCLC Membership, writes

In a world where the sources of information and the tools of discovery continue to proliferate and increase in relevance to online information sources, the brand differentiation of the library is still books. The library has not been successful in leveraging its brand to incorporate growing investments in electronic resources and library Web-based services.

Respondents do indeed have strong attachments to the idea of the “Library” but clearly expressed dissatisfaction with the service experience of the libraries they use… The over all message is clear: improve the physical experience of using libraries.

The physical experience of “libraries” must change, and in three primary ways:

1. Better comfort, ambiance and hours.
Part of the mission of the South Texas Independent School District libraries is to “Endeavor to provide a haven for peaceful study, reading and relaxation.” You could do worse than have a mission statement like that for your library.

Patrons want chairs in their libraries to be as comfortable as those at home. Learn from bookstores. Yes, you need a coffee shop. Period.

Can your library become a cultural center, not just an information center, with the inclusion of art and historical displays? You library must reflect the uniqueness of the community it serves.

2. Provision of activity areas
Production areas, not just consumption areas. Do you have a place in your library to:
    Create a podcast
    Write a blog
    Paint a picture or sculpt
    Record a song
    Edit a video
    Practice a speech or monologue
    Give a speech or monologue
    Hold a book club
    Study with friends
    Give a puppet show

3. Creating social, learning spaces,
While I do hope there will always be a space for quiet, contemplative study in most libraries, our physical facilities must provide areas for social interaction and learning. Whether through clusters of chairs, tables or conference rooms, people need to talk, spread-out, and interact. Hey, and maybe even get a little rowdy.

Thomas Frey advises that we take every opportunity to “Evaluate the library experience.” Asked your patrons lately how their library experience was? I’ll bet nearly every other business and organization you patrons use has. Do you have a “Customer Comment” card? A suggestion box? Take surveys and polls?

II. An opportunity to truly educate
How do we create true “life-long learners?” Using Pink’s model, how might libraries cultivate the skills needed by the “conceptual age” worker?

•    Offer art classes and activities
•    Teach visual literacy
•    Provide fiction materials (and readers advisory service) on a wide range of interests and reading abilities.
•    Teach speaking skills.
•    Give students opportunities to both hear and tell stories.
•    Help patrons with the application of skills and concepts to genuine problems.
•    Provide information and literature about people from other cultures and socio-economic groups.
•    Coordinate service learning and volunteer opportunities or requirements.
•    Give patrons the opportunity to take part as an actor in theater productions.
•    Provide and teach with games.
•    Offer participatory music classes.
•    Teach through riddles and jokes, and encourage students to tell them.
•    Offer classes in comparative religion, myth and legend.
•    Teach ethical behaviors
•    Help patrons explore personal values.
•    Teach processes, not facts.
•    Allow patrons to research areas of personal interest (and tolerate a diversity of interests).
•    Make available clubs and organizations for students to join in which students learn non-academic skills.
•    Provide access to a wide range of information sources.

The U.S. educational system sadly sees many of the opportunities listed above which develop “conceptual age” skills as “extras” – frills that are often the first to be cut in times of tight budgets. Libraries are in a unique position to provide opportunities for both children and adults in developing these skills.

Albert Einstein said, “If you want your children to be brilliant, read them fairly tales. If you want them to be geniuses, read them more fairy tales.” We librarians are just the people to provide and share those tales.
III. An opportunity to remain information “experts.”
One of the founders of Google, Sergy Brin, said, “I’d like to get to a state where people think that if you’ve Googled something, you’ve researched it, and otherwise haven’t, and that’s it.” Sergy, we aren’t there yet.

The role of the librarian must change from one of a desert guide (helping learners locate scarce resources) to one of jungle guide (helping learners evaluate and select resources of value). This change has been so rapid that many educators have not had time to learn the skills necessary for their new roles.

According to John Battelle, author of The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture.

  • Nearly 50 percent of all Google searches use two or three words, and 20 percent use just one. Just 5 percent of all searches use more than six words.
  • 80% of people using Google never proceed past the first page of results and have never used the advanced search feature.
  • Most people do not in fact know or care how the page rankings work and don’t  know the difference between search results and sponsored links.

Graham Wegner, a self-described “Aussie primary school educator involved in technology leadership at his school” shows on his blog how he helps not just kids, but his adult colleagues learn to be better Google users. See screen shot below from: <http://gwegner.edublogs.org/2006/05/04/google-information/>.



Now that’s a vital role librarians can play.

IV. An opportunity to be team players
Few libraries stand alone – most are departments within other organizations, whether schools, colleges or city governments.

This is the advice I give teacher-librarians: You will have a job forever if:

  • You know what keeps your boss awake at night.
  • You find ways to help him sleep better.

Or as the First Law of Corporate Survival puts it, “Keep you boss’s boss off your boss’s back.”

We must learn how to build ownership of our libraries so their success is important to everyone, not just to the librarian. We must make our patrons’ goals our library goals. We need to share our larger organization’s mission. (If economic development is the city’s goal, it should be ours as well.)

Are there important jobs in your organization or community going undone that your library can take on? As a librarian, I always sought out the jobs nobody else wanted: webmaster, parent newsletter editor, even bowling coach. Here is my theory. If my boss fires me, he will need to find someone else to do these nasty jobs. If somebody fires me, I want that person to suffer because of it.

As librarians, we too often work very hard scaling what seem like a very high peak, often only to reach the top, look over our shoulders and find others in our organization on a completely different mountain.

V. An opportunity to become a push institution
I read two newspapers. The one that is delivered to my door, I read everyday. The one I need to leave my house to get, I read a couple times a week. We pay more regular attention to things that come to us.

Librarians, we can no longer afford to wait for people to come to us. They will stay in their easy chairs reading their e-books. We need to “push” ourselves into our public’s consciousness. This means, whether we like it or not, we must become aggressive marketers!

The American Library Association has developed a good marketing program: @ your library. But don’t let kids develop your @your library slogans, especially 13-year-olds:

Top Ten @ your library slogans not recommended by AASL
10. fool the security system @ your library
9. find books that don’t suck @ your library
8. pull the fire alarm @ your library
7. surf for porn @ your library
6. take a nap @ your library
5. download a term paper @ your library
4. wedgies @ your library
3. scan your butt @ your library
2. hack and chat @ your library

and the number one @ your library slogan not recommended by ALA:

1. get lucky in the stacks @ your library

Marketing guru Seth Godin suggests all businesses ask themselves, “What are your Purple Cows?” -  those things you can build into your marketing that are worth noticing, that make you stand out from the herd of brown and black cows.

What makes your library stand out from all the other places that provide information services? And market, market, market that Purple Cow. Godin writes:

“So it seems we face two choices: Either be invisible, uncriticized, anonymous, and safe or take a chance at true greatness, uniqueness and the Purple Cow. The point is simple, but it bears repeating. Boring always leads to failure, Boring is always the riskiest strategy…”

Business author Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, writes that companies aspiring to greatness have “big hairy audacious goals.” Google’s is, “Access to all the world’s information.”

What is your library’s big hairy audacious goal?

VI. An opportunity to diversify, offer non-traditional services to our patrons
I am thoroughly tired of the phrase, “think outside the box.” But folks, here is what our newest public library in Minneapolis suggests it can help you do:
1.    Research your family genealogy or house history.
2.    Play music in one of two soundproof rooms, each with a piano.
3.    Find out if anybody else has a patent for your fab idea. The library is the state’s only patent and trademark depository.
4.    Study for U.S. citizenship in the New Americans Center.
5.    Explore one of the nation’s largest cookbook collections.
6.    Check out a CD or video of a film no longer carried by the video stores.
7.    Watch a film in Pohlad Hall, a 243-seat auditorium.
8.    Log on free to one of more than 300 computers.
9.    Attend a storytime with your child; some are bilingual.
10.    Learn about Minnesota companies through an extensive clipping collection from Minneapolis newspapers since the 1950s.

“Libraries aren’t in the book business, they are in the learning and knowledge-building business.” Kit Hadley the Director MPL says.

The need for risk taking is greater than ever, and will be key to our survival.

One question I always have for public librarians is: What are you doing to serve your most politically influential citizens. The ones that actually vote?

VII. An opportunity to help close the digital and generational divides
When most of us think of the digital divide, we think of a lack of access to computers by those in lower socio-economic groups. A fundamental role of libraries has always been to serve those who cannot afford computers themselves.

But a recent Canadian study adds a twist:

Canada’s digital divide (the gap in computer and Internet use between lower- and upper-income individuals) is well-documented.

However, a new study has found that this digital divide is compounded by the fact that people who do not have access to computers also have significantly lower literacy skills than computer users.
Furthermore, only 3 out of every 10 people (29%) in Canada who had not used computers stated they were interested in starting to use one in the following year.

This has significant consequences, because people with the lowest skills, who potentially stand to benefit most from the opportunities created by new technologies, are not using them. This is particularly the case with the Internet, where potential benefits include access to health and government services, employment information, shopping and other services.

We must be a part of adult basic education efforts in our communities. Literacy must precede computer literacy. The new Minneapolis library directly serves “new Americans.” The Flushing Public Library in Queens, New York, provides access to more Chinese book titles than any other place except the Beijing library.

The other divide that exists, of course, is a generational divide between, as Marc Prensky likes to remind us, the digital natives (kids) and digital immigrants (the rest of us).

I would highly recommend Educating the Net Generation by James and Diane Olinger, published online and free from EDUCAUSE. It’s a terrific summary of over 30 reports and studies of 12-19 year olds and contains some surprising information that should be useful to librarians of all stripes.

Please listen to your younger patrons. The planning group for the new Minneapolis Central Library did and as a result have a teen-designed library area with its own set of resources and policies. Its number one rule: No adults allowed without a teen chaperone! Its number two rule: Double the amount of time on the Internet terminals as adult patrons get.

Within a very few years, today’s children and adolescents will be tomorrow’s teachers, school administrators, college presidents, city council members and legislators. Do you really want politicians in office who have had bad experiences with libraries as children?

BONUS OPPORTUNITY: An opportunity to grow our own professional abilities.
Roy Tennant, User Services Architect for the California Digital Library, once commented that all too often we take the most expensive resource in any library – its staff - and invest in them the least.  Of all the changes happening in libraries, the greatest and most important may well be those happening with in us as we re-examine our skill sets, our philosophies, and our personal missions.  

I applaud your library leaders for planning this conference and providing this professional growth opportunity.

And I applaud you for attending.

I suppose it is obligatory for any speaker at a library conference to pledge his undying love for libraries. I will certainly keep with the tradition.

Our National Public Radio service broadcasts a feature called This I Believe. <http://www.npr.org/thisibelieve/> in which listeners can submit short essays about the things are most important to them in life. In creating the program in 1951, journalist Edward R. Murrow said the program sought “to point to the common meeting grounds of beliefs, which is the essence of brotherhood and the floor of our civilization.”

Here’s my entry…

This I Believe
I believe in the inherent goodness of libraries – that their value is above opinion polls, research studies and empirical data.

I came to my love of libraries growing up on a small Iowa farm. The endless soybean fields that needed to be hand-weeded and the remorselessly filling hog barns that needed to be emptied were about as far removed from the oceans and mountains and adventure I yearned for as any place could possibly be. But a small Carnegie public library on the hill overlooking Main Street provided me with a route to adventure. It was the first place I headed whenever we came to town and the librarian knew me well. I still count among my finest moments when she informed me that I read every book in the mythology section. Somehow walking the beans was more bearable when it was a “Sisyphean” labor or when the hog barn was the Augean stable.

In my high school library I found new adventures as I traveled with Heinlein’s spacemen, Tolkien’s Hobbits, and Crane’s Civil War soldiers. In university libraries I found adventurous ideas in the writings of Hayakawa, Postman and McLuhan. By then I’d left the farm behind, but now I was released from the prison of blind ideologies as well. Libraries made that escape possible.

But libraries have another role as well - one I learned as a school librarian. One that a Nigerian boy named Chinedu taught me. Big for his age, talkative, and relentlessly cheerful, he drove his fifth grade teacher and classmates crazy. As a result, Chinedu was often sent to the library for a little timeout where, to be honest, he was still a pest. His silliness could be a real bother to everyone in the library, but he also liked to work. I kept on hand a Chinedu –do list of jobs he could perform. Things would go smoothly for weeks and then Chinedu would do something outrageous like dumping a cart of books just to get attention. I’d go home wondering why the library should suffer his presence.
But late one afternoon, Chinedu reminded me that libraries are not just escapes, but refuges as well. Out of the blue, he approached my desk, grinned, and in his melodious accent declared, “Ahh, Meester Johnson. Dees library. Eet is my hoom away from hoom.” And I was taught that libraries are often the only place in a school or community that is comfortable and welcoming for many people.

Like shade trees, chocolate, and summer afternoons, libraries really need no hard-reasoned defense. I can, of course, dig up research that “proves” libraries improve a community’s workforce and students’ reading skills. But then, with enough persistence, I can find research that supports any point of view.

I’m afraid I don’t use libraries as much as I once did. My impatient nature makes bookstores and the Internet increasingly appealing. But my belief in not just the value, but the goodness, of libraries is stronger than ever.

We need to keep libraries strong. They are too important to too many people not to. How that is to be done is a wonderful question. And since I started this talk with a quote, I will end it with one too:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.” Rainer Maria Rilke

Thank you.

Albanese, A.  “The Social Life of Books,” Library Journal, May 2006

Berinstein, P. “Wikipedia and Britannica” Searcher, March 2006

Chad, C. and Miller, P. “Do Libraries Matter? The Rise of Library 2.0. Talis, Nov. 2005.

Frey, T. “The Future of Libraries: Beginning the Great Transformation.”nd.

Godin, S. “In Praise of the Purple Cow,” Fast Company, Feb 2003.

Jensen, M “Evolution, Intelligent Design, Climate Change,and the Scholarly Ecosystem.” March 2006.

Johnson, D. “Turning the Page” (E-books and impact on libraries)  School Library Journal, November 2004.

Johnson, D. “The Knowledge Worker Redux,” November 2005 http://www.doug-johnson.com/dougwri/KWRedux.pdf

Johnson, D. “You know you are a librarian in 2005 when…” Blue Skunk Blog, September 7, 2005.

Kelly, K. “Scan This Book,” New York Times Magazine, May 14. 2006.

Meier, P. “A dinosaur in the dot.com age? Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 9, 2006.

National Endowment for the Arts “Reading At Risk:A Survey of Literary Reading in America” June 2004.

Nie and Hillygus, “Where does Internet time come from? A Reconnaissance.” IT&SOCIETY, FALL 2002

Olinger, D. and Olinger, J.  “Educating the Net Generation.” EDUCAUSE, 2005.

“Online consumers spend as much time online as in front of the TV” JupiterReports, January 2006.

O’Reilly, T. “What is the Web 2.0?” September 2005

“Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources: A Report to the OCLC Membership,” 2005

“The link between information and communication technology use and literacy skills.” The Daily, Dec 5, 2004

USC Anneberg School Center for the Digital Future. “Ten Years, Ten Trends: The Digital Future Report Surveying the Digital Future, Year Four” September 2004.

Posted on Tuesday, July 10, 2007 at 11:22AM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | Comments2 Comments

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Reader Comments (2)

Loved every moment of this. Resonated with what I believe about Libraries and the reposiveness to change that is required. But what I loved most was your 'What I believe' passage and your experience with Chinedu. Tears were rolling down my cheeks. That is why we need libraries. It is so important that those who need a place can find one. I know that the library I work in fulfills the same function. Many find refuge and welcome there, and that is so vitally important.

January 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJenny Luca

Thanks, Jenny. You are far too kind.

All the very best,


January 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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