Beyond the Book Brand

As books evolve, so must libraries.  As information needs change, so must we.  Thus begins another chapter in As the Library Turns.

Books are intrinsically linked with libraries, in the minds of our patrons.  As much as I hate the whole concept of branding, I have to admit it perfectly describes our situation.  Books are our brand.

We must expand the brand.  You probably know that.   For a recent reason, check out the article published a few days ago in Forbes that was written by a man who thinks the Amazon unlimited subscription is a good replacement for libraries.

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Some librarians are pushing to substitute the concept of “Information” in to replace books.  This is the kind of thinking that gives us “Librarians: The Ultimate Search Engine” and “Librarians: Better than Bing, but not Quite as Good as Google,” etc., etc.

Information sucks as a brand.

Maybe one reason why librarians like “Information” as a brand so much is because librarians really like information.  It fills us with secret glee.  But folks, friends, comrades, this is not normal. Loving information is a trait that is much more common amongst librarians than it is in the general population.

In Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World, Gary Vaynerchuck writes,

Information is cheap and plentiful; information wrapped in a story, however, is special.  Brands need to storytell around their content to make it enticing, not just put it out for passive consumption like a boring platter of cubed cheese. (p.86)

Books don’t just tell a story, they have a story.  They are a story.  Books inspire deep emotional connections.  They are tangible things, things we can touch, smell and taste (maybe not that that last one with the library books though ok?).  Books inspire deep love and nostalgia; in the eBook versus print discussion, the print side inevitably ends the discussion by sighing and saying, “there’s just no substitute for a real book.”

But even eBooks are more compelling than “Information”.  “Information” is vague.  It is not something you can viscerally enjoy.  Possible connotations include the informational talk your doctor gives you when your cholesterol is too high, Excel spreadsheets filled with meaningless data, and those annoying passive-aggressive emails your co-worker sends that end “Just FYI.”

I don’t know what the new library brand is.  I don’t think we will know until something has stuck, decades in the future.

Another new brand option is the place for the community to meet, the library as “third place.”  I don’t think that’s quite right either.

I think the new library brand will look something more like literacy.  And not just “I can read” literacy, but life literacy – digital skills, financial skills, engaged-with-the-world skills.

Literacy is engaging.  It is action oriented.  It is attainable by everyone.  It is improving skills and changing in a changing world.  That’s the library I’m interested in.

It’s the library where people’s stories become our story.

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The Deep Mission of Public Libraries

Why do we have public libraries?

Many of today’s librarians like to talk about themselves as “information brokers” or “knowledge facilitators.”  We talk about our skill in finding and organizing information.  And sure, we’ve got those skills.

But what we really do is support literacy.  This is our deeper mission.

In the minds of our patrons, the most prevalent definition of a public library is “that place that has all the books.”

But why bother having all those books?  Those books allow our community to be more literate.  They provide a way for us to share and promote reading, at all levels, for all kinds of people.  The library provides a way for people who would not otherwise have access to books, to have access to books, and to connect people who have books, with different kinds of books. The library provides a wide range of books for a wide diversity of people.  It allows the community to practice and perfect our skill in understanding and appreciating the printed word.

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Books are becoming less central to our perception of literacy.  It’s not that physical books are dying, but they are no longer the only occupiers of their ecological niche.  Digital media, whether it be eBooks, or web pages, or apps, or texting, or whatever else you want to add to the list, is encroaching.  It is ubiquitous and consuming.

Libraries are not dying, but as books become less central, libraries too need to evolve, or we will be edged out.

What should public library evolution look like?

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Talking about libraries as places for information, rather than books, is one way to think about it.  This model puts the librarian at the center of the library.  She is collecting, curating, and disseminating information.  She is a better-than-Google search ninja.

Another way to think about our future libraries is to expand our understanding of literacy.  Literacy has been a fluid concept, looking back through time.  We have defined literacy variously, as being able to recite, as being able to write one’s name, as reading, as reading and understanding.  As opportunities to read became more common, due in part to improved printing and communication technology, our definition of literacy became more sophisticated.

Our definition of literacy needs now to expand again in response to our culture of rapid technological innovation.

Public libraries need to embrace digital and technological skills as part of our deep mission to support literacy.

This model, where libraries support an expanded idea of literacy, puts the patron at the center of the library.  The library is about supporting and improving the patron’s life.  It is about allowing the patron to move from consumer to maker, breaker, creator and repairer.  I prefer this model, to the information broker model.  It’s messier.  It’s sexier.  It’s more interesting.  And it’s more necessary.

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Our patrons need help with every level of technology literacy.  From those who come in who don’t know how to use a mouse, to those who’re interested in building a computer from scratch, the library could provide a wide range of resources for a wide diversity of people.  We can help our community to practice and perfect our skill in understanding, using, and appreciating technology and digital content.

We’re kind-of getting there.  We’ve got computers and the free internet for our patrons.  We’re doing some classes and programs to help people develop their skills.  And then of course we’ve got the maker movement.

It is in this context, of expanded literacy, that the maker fad starts to become something more important.  Maker Spaces are totally hot right now.  Everybody wants a 3D printer.

We’re in a bubble of bandwagonism.  But after this settles down, I think we’ll be in a better place.  It will be more accepted to support digital literacy, from helping patrons understand where the url bar is to helping patrons understand how to build an app, wire a circuit, or repair their PC.  We won’t be so rabid about it, but we’ll have the foundations in place to really get down to work.

Photo: Miller Avenue Abandoned Library by Flickr User aaron.michaels, Creative Commons License

Photo: Evolution Des Wissens By Johanna Pun for Wikimedia Deutschland (Wikimedia Deutschland) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Floppy knows that feel, Cassette. From Obsolete Technology by paperbeatsscissors. Creative Commons License.

The Digital Divide, Part 3 of 3: The Digital Literacy Corps

Herein are some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately in regards to libraries and computers and digital literacy.  Some of this series will probably be “late pass” territory, but I’m trying to sort out what’s on my mind, and what I’ve been reading and experiencing.

This is part three of three. You should read part one  and part two first.  You know, if you want to.

So there was a big kerfuffle recently amongst library people, over this article in the New York Times:  Wasting Time Is New Divide in Digital Era.  The gist of the article is this: Kids whose parents didn’t go to college spend 90 minutes more per day exposed to media than other kids (with the implication that these children come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds). We have done a good job providing digital devices, or access to devices, however because the parents of children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are not digitally literate, they don’t know how to monitor their children’s screen time.

I agree that many parents of children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds probably need digital literacy training.  I think I have seen some of them in the library, as I described in the first piece in this series.

I have two quibbles with the article. I am a little uncomfortable with the characterization of “exposure to media” as time-wasting.  This smacks a bit of moralizing to me, the kind that has been common when more educated, upper class people make pronouncements about what less educated, poorer people should be doing with their time.* I can also see, as my sister pointed out, that poorer parents may be less likely to have someone who solely acts as the child’s caregiver.  The parent or parents most likely work full-time.  In these cases, the kid may spend less time being monitored.  So it may not be a case of not knowing how, it might be a case of the parent making the choice that food on the table is more important than keeping the kid off Facebook.

The part in the article that got librarians REALLY mad was this bit:

The new divide is such a cause of concern for the Federal Communications Commission that it is considering a proposal to spend $200 million to create a digital literacy corps. This group of hundreds, even thousands, of trainers would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers.

Librarians, especially school librarians, thought “Aren’t We Already the Digital Literacy Corps?”  School librarians have been very hard hit by our economy.  Many have received pink slips, are now asked to cover two or more schools, have had their assistants taken away, etc.  School librarians consider it their mission to teach children digital literacy, but because of a lack of funding are severely limited in the kinds of programs they can create and enact.  $200 million could really do a lot of good.  The FCC seemed to be overlooking librarians and the extensive infrastructure already in place which could be activated for this mission. We have since learned that the NY Times piece didn’t provide a clear picture of library and ALA involvement with this as yet unfunded project.

As Ms. Bullington points out in her follow-up blog, the public does not have a clear understanding of what librarians do.  And as the NY Times piece points out, and as I’ve discussed in my two previous blogs, the Digital Divide is a skills-based divide.  Adults on the have-not side need a good deal of help to gain these skills.  It is vital now for so many life activities: taxes, employment, raising children, retiring, socializing, and even using the library resources of the future.

I love libraries.  I have such fond childhood memories of wandering through stacks of paper books. I think they are great equalizers and community builders.

But my experiences, and this utter lack understanding of what librarians are all about in the digital era, are making me think that maybe we need a severe rebranding.  Maybe librarians need to go, and Digital Literacy Corps need to appear in their place.  It kind of sounds like it would come with a neat uniform, maybe a marching band outfit, or a cape and unitard.

There are so many good things we could do, if only we had those capes.


*Did you know that people used to be opposed to FICTION in libraries?  They thought that it was a waste of time and would create loose morals.  The current understanding is that it doesn’t matter so much WHAT children read; as long as they pick something which is interesting to them, they will improve their reading skills and be more literate individuals.