The other day, while walking out at the end of a break-out
session of the Chicago Public Libraryâ€™s Scholars in Residence Conference at the Harold Washington Library Center, I mentioned to my colleague, Laura Pelehach
(acquisitions editor from ALA Editions), that I wanted to meet him (finally,
after seeing him speak on a few occasions) face to face at the reception at the
end of day. A conference attendee, walking out just behind us, chimed in, â€œWhen
you do, ask him if he will be the king of the world."
Turns out I didnâ€™t have to (ask him to be king, that is);
before the reception, at the wrap-panel session of the CPL SIR (Chicago Public
Library Scholars in Residence) conference on Wednesday, the same attendee
suggested the royal bid to him from her auditorium seat
in the audience.
If youâ€™ve ever seen Stephen Abram speak and you like
libraries (maybe even if you donâ€™t) youâ€™re likely to be fan. He has a
profession-deprecating shtickâ€”that helps librarians loosen up, laugh at
themselvesâ€”and it seems to actually break through; Abram helps diminish the
techno-phobia and/or the â€˜Iâ€™m-tired-of-technologyâ€™ attitude that could
influence whether or not the library institution remains viable in our
increasingly information-oriented society. (If a member of your target audience
shouts out that you should be king, I think, itâ€™s possible, you could be making
Abramâ€”a librarian, VP of Innovation at SirsiDynix, Canandian Special Librarian of the Year, prolific author and presenter, and all-around library-technology funnymanâ€”can be silly,
and he pokes fun. But he also asks the hard questions and takes an unapologetic
stance when it comes to libraries and the professionâ€™s general approach to the
technology sea inundating everyday 21st-century life. He says this technology is changing
the way libraries need to serve their patrons, old and young alike.
â€œNow weâ€™ve got the Millennials, who are scary as hell. You
see them at your reference desk all the time," says Abram. â€œThey are
fascinating. They have some real challenges, though, in that they are being
brought up in an education system that, across North America, mostly
around the world, has been upended into a thinking-skills educational
curriculum. Because teaching kids facts is sort of uselessâ€”any fact, you know,
has an 80% deterioration rate over 8 years."
Your Kind of Town
Along with two other tireless library promoters and
technology gurus, Jenny Levine and Michael Stephens, Abram appeared in ALA
headquarter-town Chicago this week as part of the CPL annual Scholars in Residence program, which, according to the CPL site, provides the systemâ€™s
librarians with the opportunity to reflect on the work, the changing world of
librarianship, and to exchange ideas and information.
The scholars spent the early part of the week learning about
the inner workings of the Chicago Public Library, and on Wednesday, treated
library staff and other lucky library-related professionals to a day-long
conference dedicated to â€œLibraries Fit for the Future."
Abram started off the day with his presentation titled,
â€œCompeting with Google: Library Strategies" (available at the CPL SIR site).
But before we could see him, we could hear himâ€”he began talking to the
two-thirds-full auditorium from behind the curtain.
â€œNow you know how your readers feel on your Web site." He emerges from behind the curtain and goes on: â€œThey canâ€™t see you, you canâ€™t
help them, they canâ€™t see your eyes. Thatâ€™s one thing you have to rememberâ€”that
the Web site is not the librarian, or the user who is using it."
Following an uncomfortable, strained audience chuckle,
Abram dives in.
First, thereâ€™s his animation of a patron pounding his head
against a computer keyboard until his head is squirting animated blood. â€œThatâ€™s what our users
feel like when theyâ€™re using our computers," he quips. (More audible, congenial laughter
after this remark.)
Then comes the cartoon of two suits walking side by side,
one obviously carrying some papers, and the other saying, â€œMMM... Documents!"
â€œThis is us," he explains. â€œWe need to get over some stuff.
â€˜Mmm, documents. Mmm, books.â€™ We feel we need to protect the bookâ€”because the book is threatenedâ€”which, of course, it isnâ€™t. And we tell this to ourselves constantly, and we let it drive all of our behaviors. And then we position ourselves as people of the 18th of the century, instead of the fully diversified range of people that indeed we are now."
Another slide in Abramâ€™s presentation shows a snippet of
Paul Gandelâ€™s â€œE-Content" article, â€œLibraries: Standing at the Wrong Platform,
Waiting for the Wrong Train?" Recently published in Educause Review,
Abram says the short article (as did Karen Schneider a few weeks back) is a
must-read for librarians of all type.
In his article, Gandel points to another scary prospect: â€œIt
is not hard to imagine a scenario in which colleges and universities will shift
their resources to pay for a national information service customized to the
needs of the individual institution rather than support their own local library
A national information service? Hmmm... With its relentless
product-introduction cycles (every two weeks, says Abram, since the companyâ€™s
IPO), Google comes to mind.
But Is It a Threat?
According to Abram, the "big" question, the one that matters, is: How do we help libraries compete with Google? How do we position librarians and library workers for
â€œWell," says Abram, â€œwe need to enter a 12-step
program. The first thing is that we need to acknowledge thereâ€™s a problem. And
there is a problem. Who is the biggest threat to libraries right now?"
The attendees murmur, speaketh it out loud: â€œGoogle?"
Nodding, Abram then asks, â€œAnd who is Googleâ€™s customer?"
More murmuring, and then almost inaudiblyâ€”a reply that
illustrates the technological confusion thatâ€™s part of our hyper-connected
worldâ€”â€œWe are... ?"
Lightly chastising us, Abram queries, â€œDo you pay them
anything? Do you design your library Web site to meet the needs of advertisers?
Do you design your algorithm on the first three pages of hitsâ€”to meets the
needs of those advertisers on those first three pages of hits? Do you let your
users believe that [their information searches come back with] non-biased,
No, no, no, and no. Clearly, librarians are not Googleâ€™s
customers in Abramâ€™s view (and neither, really, are unbiased-information seeking users). But the reality
is, says Abram, that Google is only six-years old, that the company will
keep introducing change (â€œeverything is in beta"), and the localized
information that it can provide (via Google Local), indeed, is positioned to give (and is positioned
to continue giving) libraries a run for their money.
Asks Abram: â€œWhat do we do when this tsunami of information
experience is coming at us, and how do we build the public library of the
future in this environment? How do we cooperate, complement, and compete with this kind of world?"
So below are Abramâ€™s suggestions for â€œdealing with" Google.
Top Ten Strategies for Making It in a Google World by
1. Know Your Market
â€œWe donâ€™t know our
market well enough," he states. â€œWhen 80% of your use comes in through your Web
site, what does it mean? Does it mean that the same people at the
reference desk are wandering through your library? And what do you know about
them? What assumptions do you make?"
2. Know Your Customers Better than Google
Abram points to a tool that's helping libraries know their
customers: the Normative Data Project for Libraries, a project with the goal â€œto compile
transaction-level data from libraries throughout North America; to link library
data with geographic, demographic, and other key types of data; and, thereby,
to empower library decision-makers to compare and contrast their institutions
with real-world industry norms on circulation, collections, finances, and other
The SirsiDynix Personas Project, a public library pilot
project, will help librarians know their customers, too, he adds. Abram defines
personas as â€œhypothetical representations of a natural grouping of users that
drive decision-making for (development) projects."
3. Be Where Your Customers Are
Abram: â€œHow much of your usage is in person? Are you letting that
drive all of your behavior? Are you using instant messaging (IM)? Actually, 90% of people
between 15 and 25 have two instant messenger addressesâ€”only 5% of people over 30 use IM. Itâ€™s the biggest technological vibe weâ€™ve got going in society now.
Do you listen to Aaron, know about him giving his IM address to kids that came
into his library, and by doing that he doubled the [Thomas Ford Memorial Libraryâ€™s]
reference statistics in the space of a few months? Half of all that libraryâ€™s
reference questions are now coming from IM. And they are all from the people we
wantâ€”the kids, who you need to engage, the ones who will vote on the bond
issues when they get into their 20s."
4. Search for the Target
â€œA lot of us are implementing federated search, as if we can
implement something that looks like Google but is on top of good stuff," he reports. "Our
problem isnâ€™t helping people to search, our problem is helping people to
findâ€”to know where to search in the first place. If youâ€™re doing a health
project for school, then the databases you would use as a high school kid or a
grade-six kid are different than the databases you would use as an adult or a
college student. We need to start targeting that federated search, to
differentiate ourselves, so that we have health databases for kids, historical
databases, etc. We also can do the OPAC trick," (which, explains Abram, is
including the OPAC in every single federated search; the â€œtrick" generally
delivers 600 to 800 percent use of your OPAC, and it increases the circulation
of your books, he notes).
5. Support Your Culture
Says Abram, â€œStreaming media, voice searchâ€”these are things
representative of our culture. A movie does not have to be from the 1920s, in
black-and-white reels, to be a cultural object. Our culture is about the
objects of entertainmentâ€”plays and musicâ€”happening now. Thatâ€™s a huge role that
libraries play, keeping our cultural context going, and itâ€™s important. We
denigrate it so much, saying, â€˜Oh, thatâ€™s just entertainment; they are
listening to music.â€™ If it's classical music from the 18th
century, only then itâ€™s culture? Bull! Itâ€™s culture now. Whether itâ€™s rap or not,
itâ€™s representative of the development of our culture doing stuff."
6. Position Libraries Where We Excel
Google answers the simple questions (who? what? where? when?) really well, Abram notes. This means librarians need to position themselves and the library to
help with finding the answers to: how? and why?
7. Be Wireless
A no-brainer. (A handy primer: Marshall Breeding's issue of Library Technology Reports, "Wireless Networks in Libraries.")
8. Get Visual
Implement visual representations of results, Abram asserts.
â€œIn terms of planning activities, you have to understand who youâ€™re working
with and how they are viewing. They use pages differently. We use all these
page metaphors to build our Web sites, and the A-Frame that we use for
newspapers, doesnâ€™t work on Web sites; itâ€™s an F-Frame." (See Datamationâ€™s
March 8, 2005, article by Brian Livingston: â€œHow Eyetools Finds Flaws in Your Pages.")
Abram says build community context first. â€œItâ€™s not about
the library! It is about five very specific user communities: learning,
research, culture/entertainment; neighborhood, and workplace."
10. Take a Risk, for Peteâ€™s Sake!
As any visionary, benevolent monarch would tell you, â€œYou have to risk big to
get big," and though â€œbig" may not be the ultimate goal, libraries, says Abram,
need to stop being afraid to succeedâ€”to take risksâ€”in order to ensure that
the institution is positioned for the trek into the future.
As Gandel iterates
in his "E-Content" in Educause Review essay, â€œLibrarians could someday find themselves in the same
situation as daily train commuters. Just because the train schedule remains the
same for 30 years, doesnâ€™t mean that hapless commuters might not one day find
themselves standing on the wrong platform, waiting for the wrong train, unaware
that there was a schedule shift in their world order."
All Hail the King!
Parts 2 and 3, covering Jenny Levineâ€™s and Michael Stephensâ€™s
messages at the CPL SIR program, will be posted next week. Meanwhile, check out
Tame the Web blog for Michaelâ€™s list of "Abram-isms."