INTERVIEW: OCLC'S IT'S ALL GOOD BLOGGERS: Part 2
Continuing an interview by Marylaine Block with George Needham, Alane Wilson, and Alice Sneary, OCLC staff members who blog about OCLC, libraries, and change in It'S All Good, http://scanblog.blogspot.com/
Marylaine: Could you tell me about your life before OCLC and how you came to join it?
George: Immediately before coming to OCLC, I was the state librarian of Michigan. While I was there (1996-1999), a group of us organized a program called AccessMichigan, which took advantage of a number of factors, including the change from LSCA to LSTA on the federal level, the new e-rate, and the coming of the Gates public access computers for public libraries, to put together statewide access to scores of databases. These databases were provided by OCLC and what was then Gale.
After some heated negotiations with OCLC over the databases in 1998 ended successfully, they turned around and recruited me for the position of Vice President for Member Services, which Liz Bishoff was leaving. I'd previously lived in central Ohio when I was director of the Fairfield County District Library in suburban Lancaster (1984-1989) and director of Member Services for the Ohio Library Association (1990-1992), so the Columbus area felt like home. I've been here for six years now.
I was also the director of ALA's Public Library Association for three years (1993-1996), which is how I ended up being recruited for the state librarian job.
Alice: Life before OCLC, I was working as a legal researcher in Honolulu, Hawaii. It was my first job out of graduate school and I had just moved back to the States from England. The funny part about it now - I basically worked as a cataloger for a year. We had the massive amount of discovery evidence on the largest case in the State of Hawaii's history. So it was all digitized and then I was on the team to sort through all the tiffs, document what every document contained and code it into evidence. It was a yearlong lesson of big databases and controlled vocabulary…which was a great setup for working at a worldwide library cooperative.
We moved to Columbus from Hawaii in the middle of the dot-com explosion and I was keen to be a part of it. So I joined OCLC's Web team and it's been a great learning experience all the way along. I've picked up print production, marketing and some graphic design along the way.
My M.A. is in Literary Criticism and Theory, which did help me understand the explanations of "why FRBR" a bit faster than some of my colleagues at the time. Death of the author, semiotics and all that.
Alane: I started working in libraries in 1975 (around the time Alice was born!) when I entered the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) and needed a part-time job to supplement my student loan. I discovered a world of interesting work and after a couple of detours attended the University of British Columbia, School of Library and Archival Information Studies (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada). I began my professional career at the University of Calgary in Alberta in public services. After 11 years there, I went to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. While I was there, the fellow who was the OCLC sales rep for the Pacific NorthWest left and I decided to apply for his job. And now I've been at OCLC for 8 years.
Marylaine: Thinking about libraries with modest budgets and limited staff, what would you suggest in terms of bang for the buck, e.g., relatively inexpensive service changes that would be easy to implement but would have larger impact?
George: If I could wave a magic wand over libraries and make just one change, I would eliminate overdue fines. Is there any library practice that symbolizes the stereotype of librarians more than the overdue fine? If you are worried about loss, do what NetFlix does: the customer can keep the item as long as she wants, but she doesn't get any more until that item (or items, depending on the library's policy) is returned. My guess is that a donation box at the circ desk would end up returning more revenue than the 10 cents here and $2 there we get from fines anyway.
If I had any juice left in my magic wand after that, I'd get rid of every handmade sign in every library! It's so easy to use word processing software to make professional looking signs that there is no justification for having ugly signs any more. In fact, I'd expand that to say that we need to take a fresh look at how we present ourselves to the world. I daresay that every librarian probably has a friend who will tell him or her the truth, and who isn't a librarian. Get that person to walk through the public areas of the library with you and point out what is or isn't working from a civilian's point of view. There are lots of changes we can make that don't cost a cent, or are very inexpensive, but can make us look more appealing, especially to younger audiences.
Alice: I would prepackage collections that are ready for the targeted audiences that you'd like to attract - and then (possibly) deliver it to those audiences, even if they haven't thought to ask you for them yet.
For example, prepackage a "how to grow your small business" collection of resources. Supply copies/links to all the small businesses in your local area. The net effect is that it positions you, the librarian, as a valuable partner in their information space. You can do it with the resources you already have…and it starts to insert your library into people's everyday information-gathering activities.
You could do it by class (like English 204: Dante) for academic libraries - and by job function for corporate libraries. For example, I would be surprised and delighted if our Information Center presented me with a gift of 6 snappy must-reads on say, Search Engine Optimization. I would assume most knowledge workers in today's economy would share my delight.
Alane: The metaphor of the library as a third place is one I think libraries should capitalize on and use in marketing themselves -- and by that I don't mean expensive ads on buses and in magazines. I mean using every opportunity to speak publicly about the library and what benefits it brings to a community -- a real community, not an abstract one.
I agree with George that libraries need to look more welcoming. I am in favour of getting rid of the Carnegie model of being faced with a desk immediately upon entering most libraries. And I think librarians need to read more about what makes other "experience places" successful: art galleries, conservatories, coffee shops, book stores. We are an odd group. We are perhaps more analytical than many professions and yet when it comes to discussions about lifting the best from retail experiences, we get emotional.
And last one? Get young staff involved in decision making processes, regardless of job title. They don't see problems where we do and they know what works where we don't -- get them to design new services.
Marylaine: In your travels, what have been the most interesting innovations you've seen libraries introduce?
George: Anything librarians do that makes it easier for customers to use the library gives me a thrill. Any simplification of library home pages to make them, frankly, more Google-like, is welcome. The addition of coffee shops and the general relaxation of our rules is a good thing. People need a place to come and relax where nothing is expected of them, and libraries are perfect for this.
There are some librarians that are using their web sites to help their whole communities connect. Johnson County Library, Kansas, (http://www.jocolibrary.org/) is a wonderful example of this, and I recommend it to anyone who is thinking about overhauling what they do. They've thought carefully about how users might approach the site, and built it around the user's needs. There's a refreshing lack of library jargon, and lots of links to the other community agencies that real people really use. The Worthington (Ohio) Public Library site (http://www.worthingtonlibraries.org/) is refreshingly clean and easy to use.
One of the biggest changes is one that seems to me to be driven by the change in education, and that's the move toward creating group study space. It's amazing to see how much space is being devoted to study rooms, not only in academic libraries but in newer public libraries.
Alice: I love the idea of Seattle Public's mixing chamber, but I'm also an architecture junkie.
What I'd really like to see libraries introduce, especially when I travel, is information kiosks. If I'm at the airport and I forgot my favorite magazine, let me download one to my laptop from the library's information kiosk. Of course, all the copyright/DRM stuff has to get worked out before that can become a reality.
Alane: This one is a bit hard to answer because I am actually rarely in libraries. Building-based innovations I am in favour of: again, picking up tips from retail like reducing shelf height, turning books to face outwards, areas designed with the user in mind -- kids spaces are the best examples here but some libraries are introducing teen spaces too. For the virtual side: *anything* that simplifies. The amount of time spent on the creation and maintenance of elaborate, text-intensive, hard to navigate library web portals is an absolute waste, done more for institutional ego than ease of use. I like the libraries who have hidden most of the elaborate stuff behind a simple search box and let the software do the heavy lifting rather than the visitor.
Marylaine: What would you like to see ALA do to help libraries adopt change?
George: I think we need to think about how we define privacy in this environment. ALA could sponsor discussion on what library customer privacy means in a networked environment. I just saw a "lighthearted, unscientific study" that was done by VeriSign, in which random people on the street were asked to give the interviewer their computer passwords in exchange for a $3 Starbucks gift certificate. 85% of the respondents gave away their passwords or hints towards it.
We need to use the data we have been collecting about information use more effectively. This would allow us to deliver better service and greater efficiency in library services. We could begin by aggregating data on usage through ILS systems without maintaining individually identifiable records. Amazon has made its name with services like "Customers who bout book A also bought books B, C, and D…" With our history of reader's advisory, we should be way out in front on this.
Alane: I have to confess that I do not belong to ALA anymore so I think it would be unfair of me to suggest what ALA could do. One thing all library organizations could all do and that's stop the focus on how many "things" a library has. It's increasingly irrelevant.
Alice: Help us see past the end of our nose. Help us reach out as a profession to the additional information-space players, such as museums, cultural heritage centers, scientific exploratoriums…and help us partner effectively with them. Maybe it means the library delivers RSS feeds to your mobile phone about the recent exhibit you attended. Who knows? But librarians can help support lifelong learning in a technologically-savvy way -- that is something I am sure of.
I'd like to see the public face of ALA -- specifically, the READ posters, show people using technology and paper books. Show Nelly listening to an eAudiobook on his portable digital device, etc.
My thanks to George, Alane, and Alice, whose thoughts always spark my own ideas.
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The aforementioned Media Center has a "Thinking Paper" available called We Media: How Audiences are Shaping the Future of Media and Information that I would say is a "must read". From the introduction: "There are three ways to look at how society is informed.The first is that people are gullible and will read, listen to, or watch just about anything. The second is that most people require an informed intermediary to tell them what is good, important or meaningful. The third is that people are pretty smart; given the means, they can sort things out for themselves, find their own version of the truth. The means have arrived. The truth is out there."
Librarians, journalists, DJs, film makers...we're all "informed intermediaries" and our professional worlds are all being impacted by the arrival of the third way of society informing itself. None of us own "the means" anymore.
Alane Wilson, It's All Good, March 4, 2005, http://scanblog.blogspot.com/2005/03/
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