Bored in the Library, Luxury of the Mind

Stop Trying to Fill Every Hour of Your Day: Ever wonder why you get most of your ideas in the shower? It’s because the shower is among the last sacred spaces where we aren’t distracted by colleagues or technology. Our ideas need time to ferment and connect with other ideas, and being bored allows our minds to accomplish this naturally. -Sean Blanda, Five “Good Habits” You Need to Unlearn

This is not about quiet, but the idea of quiet. Libraries have always been leaders in third space, as Montgomery and Miller argue that in times of fiscal constraint, the academic library fills that niche, and further, the library is a place of individual productivity during finals. Most importantly, the library:

(O)ffers a comfortable welcoming environment for informal gathering where people come and go at their leisure and “nobody plays host” (Oldenburg 1999). The relaxed atmosphere of the third place provides users with the chance to be around others where they are not restricted by time, nor are they compelled to be there. -Montgomery and Miller, The “Third Place”: The Libary as Collaborativeand Community Space in a Time of Fiscal Contraint

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The place we are trying to get away from is a noisy one. Stuart Sim puts forth the idea that the noise we are trying to get away from is integral to the business culture of the United States, where it functions as a way to get our increasingly divided attention (Manifesto for Silence). Pushing this one step further, John Stewart connects the noise of the consumer society to an even deeper place: our identities:

It seems the attitudes toward noise are being shaped and changed by consumer society…..It also means that many people do not know life without noise; if it were not there, a void would open up in their lives. They would notice the silence. They have become oblivious to the noise. Why Noise Matters, p.9-10

The “fear of silence” is so unsettling because without the noise, our attentions have no easy external focus, no desire drive spurned on, no object or idea with which to attach. The stuff brings the noise and brings our identity additives with it. This is the place where libraries get their power, both in terms of physical space, but also the space that an instruction librarian  can bring into the classroom. Shutting down the noise and unsettling that drive allows students to really connect ideas with other ideas. Blanda may think that is because they are bored, but perhaps that is exactly the point. He equates not having to deal with the hassles of life to boredom and specifically, a lack of noise. Being able to avoid the invasion of noise (corporate or otherwise) has always been the purview of the well-to-do, and is a key factor in defining a luxury product:

Luxury vehicles make a statement — but too often, you can’t hear it over the roar of their engines. So the makers of top-line craft are dummying up the decibels, with a technological silence that’s 24-karat golden. Indeed, keeping quiet has become a science of its own. -Alexander George, The Silence of Luxury

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Libraries provide that sacred third space of silence, both from sound and from other mental distraction, much the same as what Blanda finds in the shower, and what your average 1%-er finds in the comfort of the newest Learjet. What libraries excel at is keeping down the cost. Best of all, unlike the cluttered and loud identities that can be forged through the consumption of consumer goods, the library provides a quiet place, sometimes literally, but often figuratively.

Library Branding and the Innovation Culture

Printed-Gun

Tying your library to something like a 3D printer moves you in the wrong direction. It moves you towards manufacturing physical products. It leads you to the tangible – that’s not your job. It is the concept of the intangible that connects all the objects librarians have traditionally dealt with- books, records, photographs, magnetic tape and compact discs. It is this tradition of dealing with the intangible that makes librarianship such an exciting profession right now. -Hugh Rundle, Misson Creep: A 3D Printer Will Not Save Your Library

I really liked Hugh Rundle’s post on the “intangibles” which make up our professional bread and butter, where the tangible and intangible meet, but the heart of the thing is that libraries primarily provide access to the information, the creation of physical objects, however, is of very little import to Rundle. The proposition seems sensible, but David Lankes took issue with it:

Some librarian brought in the first game, and the first scroll, and the first illuminated manuscript. They did this to enhance access, yes, but also to expand the capabilities of the communities they served. They did so not because it was text and therefore OK, but because they were tools that could help. Help, not document the world, but to change it. -David Lankes, Beyond the Bullet Points: Missing the Point and 3D Printing

David Lankes

The question I put to Lankes (and he graciously answered) was that at what point are those intangible things not tools? Ideas are some of the most powerful tools we have for Librarians change the world, as do many people, with texts and other tools. And yes, they loan and provide access to tools, but more importantly, they provide access to tools that not only help people participate in their communities, but also to escape or change their community and their circumstances, by evasion or critique. Language is one of the most powerful means we have of shaping and re-shaping our world, and libraries excel at helping people navigate language and its tools.

What struck me as the main issue is an underlying ethos of a “innovation” culture. I think it is central to Lankes’ mission, but as I’ve argued before, it also runs against the conservative grain of librarianship and community. While admirable, in the post-2008 world, I harbor a deep skepticism towards “innovation.” To that end:

“I think it’s great that some libraries are able to lend out items other than books, because it shows that they are responding to the needs of their particular community. But again, I do not see it as a desperate move to stay relevant…. We’ve got relevancy coming out of our ears.” -Jen Doll, Ask a Librarian About the Odd Things Happening at Libraries

There is a tension between “things” and “non-things” and how it affects our relevancy to our communities, but it really sidesteps a larger issue.  The “thingness” part is also tied up with “maker culture,” which to a large extent has been adopted by the culture at large, and has frankly commodified. The 3D printer, is arguably a different beast,  but the same culture promotes their use: without extensive software and hardware, there is no way to make anything with them, thus continuing to reify a digitally driven “innovation” culture, which may or may not have anything to do with one’s community. Lankes acknowledges the point about 3D printers not being the best fit, but his overall program of innovation comes from the 21st century mindset of constant innovation.

There are a lot of parallels to an ongoing discussion in the Digital Humanities community, where the creation of digital tools is see as an artisanal and constructivist practice:

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No matter the type, our tools had one thing in common: overwhelmingly, their own users had made ’em, and understood the continual and collective re-making of them, in response to various resistances encountered and discovered, as a natural part of the process of their use. In fact, this constructivist and responsive maker’s circle was so easily and unavoidably experienced as the new, collaborative hermeneutic of humanities computing, as the work itself that—within or beyond our small community—we too rarely bothered to say so.

“In the Middle Ages,” he tells us, in Art and Labor, “everything that man made was beautiful, just as everything that nature makes is always beautiful; and I must again impress upon you the fact that this was because they were made mainly for use, instead of mainly to be bought and sold… The beauty of the handicrafts of the Middle Ages came from this, that the workman had control over his material, tools, and time.” -Bethany Nowviskie, Resistance in the Materials

Nowviskie tries to separate the hand-coded tools of the digital humanist from their mundane  context of personal-computer drudgery and place them in the rarified air of the middle ages, ringing of individual craftsmanship that has little to do with the gross commodification of the 21st century. But the middle ages also were a place of tight guild control of production, a rigorous exclusivity of creation. In reality, there is a part of the digitally-fueled discursive regimes of code/space which still takes hold. In some ways, it feels like the digitally-driven innovation culture nudging its way into the branding of craftsmanship, much like the innovation culture is finding its way into community discourse. Neither of these are bad in-and-of themselves, but they are, effectively, branding operations to make one thing seem more like another.

Like Nowviskie, Lankes, and Rundle, we all participate in the discursive regimes of code/space, in some form or fashion.  But Rundle puts the brakes on the innovation culture which calls for continually promoting making and participating in community, because it can no longer uncritically be accepted as “good” for a community. Here’s a solid list of reasons not to innovate post by Gijs Van Wulfen, who is LinkedIn’s innovation expert:

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21 Situations when you should not innovate:

  1. When you are sure your market is not changing in the coming five years.
  2. When your clients are even more conservative than you are.
  3. When your old formulas are still giving great risk-free results for the coming years.
  4. When brand and line extensions bring you a lot of extra turnover and profits.
  5. When the urgency to innovate is completely absent.
  6. When you don’t receive enough money and manpower to do it.
  7. When your company is in a short-term crisis.
  8. When your organization is working at full capacity to meet the current huge demand.
  9. When everybody says: “Innovate!”, but no one wants to be responsible.
  10. When you´re clueless about what you´re looking for.
  11. When there is no real business need and it’s only nice to have.
  12. When you can’t form a capable harmonious team that really goes for it.
  13. When there is no support at the top.
  14. When the people in your organization are not (yet) prepared to break their habits.
  15. When people in your company are lazy; content to copy from others.
  16. When the organization doesn’t have any kind of vision about its future course.
  17. When long term planning means looking three months ahead.
  18. When everyone fears failure.
  19. When everyone will attack and ridicule the newness of an idea.
  20. When important stakeholders will block it at any time.
  21. When your latest innovations are so successful and still need further exploitation.

-Gijs Van Wulfen, When Should you NOT innovate?

I think Rundle sees libraries in a number of these points, and calling it out in the midst of an “innovation” culture will certainly raise some eyebrows.

Luxury and Book Places

Harajda says that the future of publishing could lie in producing more artistic works that that aren’t readily available to download on a Kindle. “The library becomes a fashionable thing,” said Harajda. “[We’re] convinced that people [will] read books like they’re collectible art pieces.” -Gillian Mahoney, Pavleye(s) on Prague

There’s a retrenchment of thing-ness and place-ness out there if you’re aware of it. Locally grown food and hand-made goods are part of the Brooklynification of the rest of the world. Weirdly, there’s an echo between a pop-up store selling a single book as an art object (and the library as a unique aesthetic-experience place), and the quote below:

So maybe publishers should treat indies like showrooms, and send their books to indies on consignment. That means that only if and when a book sells is money paid to the publisher. The books in the store shouldn’t be the focus of the revenue. Instead, the revenue might come from membership fees, book rentals, and referral fees for drop shipped new copies or ebook sales. –Book Places in the Digital Age

Both the pop-up and the proposed bookstore model cut both ways: The emphasis on thing-ness and place-ness have the possibility of limiting the potential audience reached through any “public awareness raising.” To that end, I’d like to cite someone with choice words for the methods used in internet to reach people:

The more targeted that advertising is, the less effective that it is. Internet technology can be more efficient at targeting, but the closer it gets to perfectly tracking users, the less profitable it has to become.

The profits are in advertising that informs, entertains, or creates a spectacle—because that’s what sends a signal. Targeting is a dead end. Maybe “Do Not Track” will save online advertising from itself. -Don Marti, Perfectly Target Advertising Would Be Perfectly Useless

In the sliding of Facebook’s IPO and the annoyance of being scrutinized as a person and a consumer, the goal of informing, entertaining or creating a spectacle is more important to any “place-focused” entity than being able to precisely tailor or advertising to a perceived taste. So why mention luxury in the first place? Luxury is based on scarcity, and limiting the spectacle, information or entertainment to a particular place (online or physical), producing different levels of scarcity. To that end, the local/handmade/scarcity model that is trending relies on similar methods. If they are to succeed, then the effort put into the relationship by the patron has to be met or exceeded by the other party (bookseller or library in our case). If we want to follow this model, following the trends online won’t work because it only produces noise. As Don Marti suggests, we need to prove to people that through being place-focused we can get them something of greater value: a signal. The trick is, don’t take it too far.

Quote That: Positivity Edition

Libraries as band aids may be obsolete, but that is not why we need libraries. We need libraries so we can fix our education system, so we can fix our economy, so we can fix our democracies yes. But we need libraries even more to discover new knowledge not found in any textbook. We need libraries to create whole new opportunities for innovation. We need libraries to give our communities a voice and power in the working of government. Libraries will never be obsolete so long as our communities dream, and strive, and work to ensure a world of insurmountable opportunities. – David Lankes, Beyond the Bullet Points: Libraries are Obsolete

I don’t always agree with Lankes, but when I do, I do it wholeheartedly. I’d like to point out, this post has as much to do with faith as it does anything else. Let’s all fight the good fight.

The Library of Alexandria and The Feral

The promise of digital libraries speaks to one key part of the Alexandrian ideal: to provide access to a “universal collection.” Another facet of the ideal is the creation of special places in which collaborative learning and research, and creative work generally, take place.

-Sam Demas, From the Ashes of Alexandria: What’s Happening in the College Library?

If libraries are to remain dynamic, the spaces that define them and the services they offer must continually stimulate users to create new ways of searching and synthesizing materials. There is no question that almost all the library functions being planned for today will need to be reconfigured in the not-too-distant future.

-Geoffery T. Freeman, Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space

And from among the chorus of rational behaviors arose the word sanctuary. Not sanctuary as in a place that was always and for every use absolutely quiet (although the need for quiet space, group and solitary, came up repeatedly). But the idea of a place steeped in the symbolic behaviors associated with libraries, from quiet contemplation to cultural enrichment, resonated through our entire meeting.

-K.G. Schneider, Celebrating Sanctuary

Demas calls for the creation of a place where collaborative learning and research take place, alongside creative work. Freeman wants the design of the place to stimulate new ways of working in libraries. Schnieder proposes a sanctuary. In a word, these ideas have risen from the very ashes of Alexandria:

The Great Library of Alexandria has assumed legendary qualities in the centuries since its creation and demise. The concept of a universal library, an institution containing all the intellectual works of the world, is one that has enchanted scholars for centuries. But where did such a concept originate? While there are indications of earlier attempts,[6] the first lasting attempt, and the one that has become fixed in the cultural consciousness of western civilization is that of Alexander the Great.[7] Old Persian and Armenian traditions indicate that Alexander the Great, upon seeing the great library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh,[8] was inspired to combine all the works of the various nations he conquered, translate them into Greek, and collect them all under one roof.[9] While this inspiration was certainly prompted at least in part by a desire to consolidate information, and thereby power, under Greek authority, it is also an indication of Alexander’s desire for his empire to be a multicultural empire[10] — albeit one unified under the influence of Hellenism.

-Heather Phillips, The Great Library of Alexandria?

The caveat is generous. Alexander was consolidating power and information, and wanted to unify his empire (his power). Demas wants a “universal collection.” Freeman wants to provide external stimuli. Schnieder’s sanctuary contains the rational behaviors which embody themselves in symbolic actions. While it is not counterpoised directly against these ideas, I want to give voice to another force that librarians need to understand and accept: the Feral.

Having photographed in inner city environments for over 15 years it dawned on me recently that — despite all the destitution and abandonment — there was liveliness there that’s missing in the more regimented suburban environments we encounter every day. In fact it is was a landscape filled with political and vernacular artistic expression.

-Jeff Brouws, “It Doesn’t Exist”: The Impact of Sprawl and Suburban Build-out on Inner City America

But look again, and some other, emerging, trends come into focus. Rising oil prices and greater work flexibility increase the value of the local; the rise of digital rights management fuels campaigns around openness; the number of books published every year continues to rise; issues of access and equity – and affordability – come into sharper focus as one austere year rolls into another; the relationship between the tangible and the digital object becomes increasingly complex; new attitudes to ownership (using, not having) make the library appear as a pioneer.

-Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, “if libraries did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them”

In the face of organization, the universal, the rational, the church-like sanctuary, the feral can seize more opportunities than it is given. It is localized, it is vernacular, it only responds to stimuli if it needs to, and its voice makes a mess of expectations hoisted upon it. There is no “pioneering spirit” in the library of Alexandria; it is one of consolidation of power, not redistribution through a community. The pioneering spirit provides a home for the feral. It is where creativity lies, in not participating fully in environments created through enlightened planning, but taking what it needs when it needs it. We don’t need to pick one or the other, but understanding and planning for the pioneering and the feral will help us meet many of our patrons on their own terms. On the frontiers, and not in the seat of power.

Not Worried About Circulation

 
The shocking truth about print books: 49% of our stacks has never circulated since 1996. #academiclibraries #printbooks
 
This tweet came through the other day, and frankly it didn’t bother me the way it used to. It leans on a little bit by Raganathan’s first law, which is “Books are for use.” If they’re not being used, then why keep them? I like to make the arguement that we can’t always anticipate how things will be used by others. Consider Mendelssohn’s “rediscovery” of Bach. Books are not just for current use, but they easily translate into future use.

There is some precedent for this; the logical methods of observation and refinement at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution enabled the creation and improvement of the microscope and the telescope. In turn, these tools both grew and shrank our sense of the world, enhancing the idea of hierarchies. Much social and scientific organization followed that path and destroyed its predecessors. We build the tool to change things, and then the tool changes us. -Quentin Hardy, How the Internet is Destroying Everything

This is the logic that leads most folks into a postmodern tailspin, where everything eats itself. It’s a fun place to be, and the revolutionary excitment is great, but it leaves you with a hangover. Hardy leaves his editorial with this thought on David Weinberger’s illustration of the internet as dragon eating-its-tail: “Instead of giving us of a new and better way of seeing the world, the Internet is a tool that embodies how we have wanted to see the world for some time. We have built it according to our new ideas about the world, and it gained a power that is destroying pre-existing structures.” Which is all that and then some, but:

Though of course, when a Harvard researcher values something because it affords a more accurate picture of reality, the end of hierarchy and a quest for ultimate understanding seems a long way off. -Quentin Hardy, How the Internet is Destroying Everything

 It’s pithy, but it stings because it is true. The internet relies on massive underlying power structures, they are just in different hands that those who made books, although there’s some overlap, clearly. A Harvard researcher is part of a big support system, that elevates his status and gives him or her a part in an institution where he can create something not only with broad impact, but lasting impact. Same for a New York Times writer. What shouldn’t be bought is the easy bill of sale for something that actively destroys lasting value in order to create current value, because frankly, Weinberger isn’t making that trade either.

So I am not worried about the end of books as material objects—in archives and private collections, at least. I think they will always be needed and valued. The changes that most college libraries are undergoing have created an era of unparalleled opportunity for collectors and teachers, like me, and who can foresee what the outcome of this reshuffling of printed materials will be? I look forward to the apocalypse as much as any romantic, but if we are witnessing new forms of creative destruction, I think we are also seeing a counterbalancing, reflexive trend toward the creative preservation of the past using both traditional and digital means. -William Pannapacker, We’re Still in Love with Books

There’s a lot of shifts coming up, and yes, it’ll be nice to have more shelf space, but libraries also need to protect the culture of learning over time, not just its resources. So yes to creative destruction, yes to weeding more, yes to being more criticial about the books we take in, but think about your core values as opposed to the values that are sold to you, because often, you’re paying a price. Value is more than money, and it’s our job to build value over time. That includes not just current use, but future use.

 
 
 

Pinterest and The Core of Librarianship

This is an extended analogy:

 

Sites like Pinterest, Twitter, Tumblr, Instapaper, Snip.it, Clipboard, and Curisma, among others, all allow their users to decide what aspects of the web (text, media, etc.) are worth saving and sharing, instead of browsing the web from Google, or even Facebook for that matter. Because many of these networks have asymmetric follow/follower models, and because users can “tune” whom they are following, users’ feeds could increase in relevance as items are retweeted or repinned.  -Semil Shah, The Rise of Pinterest and the Shift from Search to Discovery

The implication of “search” is that there’s a huge volume of stuff, through which you sift. It’s a bad model for the educational aims of libraries.  For most of library history, libraries were not based on “searching” for materials. Libraries were and are assembled at great expense and effort, by human beings, so that there can be a place where community can form around an evolving body of knowledge.

Discovery, as Shah uses it above, emphasizes the role of human agency, both in shaping a body of knowledge itself, and in being able to select what voices one pays attention to. In order to meet the lofty goal of being communities of discovery and education, libraries, like Pinterest, need to emphasize  curation and discovery over “search.” When you’re searching, you look for a hypothetically known thing, when you’re discovering, you learn about something that you didn’t know before. It’s something algorithmic search design does poorly, because they rely on known patterns matching what’s out there. If you really want to discover something, you need to involve other people. Pinterest, like libraries, puts the people first, and the algorithm second. That being said, a body of knowledge will always reflect its creators, so see below: