Thoughts on Helene Blowers's “Inspiration, Innovation & Lessons Learned from Soap Bubbles”

I'm trying to do more writing, even if I don't always do it in a timely fashion. To wit – on April 8, I attended a talk that Helene Blowers, best known for her 23 Things initiative at the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County, gave at the New York Public Library to librarians in the metro area. And here's what I thought.

"Inspiration, Innovation & Lessons Learned from Soap Bubbles"

Helene Blowers at NYPL, 4/8/11

Notes on stuff I liked or was otherwise intrigued by (taken during the talk):

  • Shifting the culture is just as important as knowing the technology. Blowers said this in relation to training library staff. I think this is very true, and of course way more difficult for everyone involved than just "knowing the technology."
  • She praised the "Find the Future" campaign at NYPL.
  • She stressed the importance of the idea of play and how it encompasses research and learning. This makes a lot of sense – I can think of lots of occasions in which my understanding of something advanced (and was retained) because I was just poking around in a relaxed manner. And why was the "23 Things" concept so successful and widely-copied, Blowers asked rhetorically? In her assessment, it's because it took the play approach.
  • In 2008, only 7% of Internet traffic was about "search and find" vs. 90% in 1998; now, the bulk is about "connect" (e.g. YouTube, Facebook, MySpace). This is an intriguing idea I'd like to spend more time unpacking, as the academics say – the first observation I have is that "search and find" was never a goal (doing stuff with whatever information you were looking for was), while "connect" could conceivably be a goal. So you're not comparing apples to apples with these statistics.
  • Blowers was confident that the newer and far more versatile tablet devices will supersede e-readers (which have only the one function) as e-book devices in the very near future.
  • At her library system, their display of e-readers started out as being as ecumenical as possible (with seven devices laid out), but after just a few weeks they realized they could pull everything except the Nook, the Sony Reader, and the iPad.
  • Global cell phone access was pegged at 60% back in 2008 (source: UN Report, 3/2/09 [see slide 27]). So we need to rethink simple ideas of the digital (and mobile) divide.
  • She pointed out the Gadget Census between NYC and San Francisco (hey, I live in the former city and used to live in the latter). Kind of interesting.
  • I guess I'm more of a dinosaur than I thought, because I'd never heard of "augmented reality" (its first use was the "yellow line" in televised football – well, I'm a televised sport ignoramus anyway), e.g. Layar, which has a library app (through LibraryThing).
  • Blowers predicts that circulation will become more "personal" – for example, e-lending by patrons themselves is possible via the Nook and the Kindle.
  • She showed us the Extinction Timeline. Yep, libraries are on there, slated for a 2019 demise.
  • She had a touching and insightful section on "life streams" – how do librarians help people access the "soft stuff," not just the authoritative resources? She shared the story of her dad to whom, when he was diagnosed with cancer, she gave lots of reliable articles and database access, etc. (being a good librarian daughter), when in fact he was turned off by all that and ultimately connected with survivor bloggers. It turned out those were the resources he actually needed.
  • She mentioned a Library Journal article, "The E-Memory Revolution" (LJ 9/09).
  • She pointed to the "We Think" video, which describes how social currency is built through what you share, not what you own.
  • The crux of the final part of her presentation was that libraries are moving from spaces of knowledge consumption –> knowledge/creativity production. In other words, as two slides illustrated, it's not just popping a bubble that someone else is blowing but giving people tools to blow the bubbles themselves.
  • And, finally, I wrote down this nice phrase: "shared discovery."

    * * *

    And now my more critical thoughts (as first vented to my colleague immediately afterward):

    Blowers is an excellent speaker and obviously really smart. However, there's still something so reactive in her thinking about the future. It's crucial to point out the need for libraries to recalibrate their missions for the coming decades (or years!), as she does very articulately, but to my mind Blowers's sort of philosophy is too much about getting library workers to incorporate the new (corporate, DRM-laden) technology that's coming out – rather than using this tipping point to really get to the bottom of the purpose of the public library in society and what among the new tech fits with such a purpose. One great concept she touched on is the speciousness of library collections as authoritative, especially in the 21st century. Did we public librarians ever do a great job of open-mindedly collecting the best works that embodied the true breadth and depth of human experience for our communities? (Just think how on the topic of politics, say, our gamut has been something like Ann Coulter to Michael Moore, as if they represent the poles of ideology.) And now that texts can be encountered so far outside library walls, I do agree that we need to seriously revisit the idea that librarians are any sort of authorities on "good" reading.

    So Blowers is asking the right pointed questions here, but then I think that rather than limiting the discourse to the presence of e-readers and ebooks at the library, we need to consider what our values as librarians (information professionals, if you will) are in this area – given that we've got some open space in our 21st century mission that needs to be filled. Doesn't it need to be part of our role in society to speak out against DRM and conceptualize open ways to create, share and store digital content? (See e.g. this Tame the Web post.) Isn't this more "relevant" than just buying Nooks for patrons to try out?

    Slides 74 and 75 crystallized what I was starting to find so problematic about the talk. Clunky, full library shelves (devoid of human life) transforming into a vibrant gaggle of people holding sleek little personal devices. (This was also part of the section on creativity and libraries as spaces for production, not just consumption.) Okay then. But what does Blowers picture on the screens of those happy people's phones that they will be using as part of their creation process? Might it not well be long-form texts, newspaper and magazine articles, images from stable digital repositories — items that libraries collect and/or point to, as well as other vestiges from struggling industries such as journalism? It's not all tweets and texts and other short personal ephemera. I'm sure that she doesn't think so, either, but I saw this part of her talk as lacking analysis and context. Also, there was the usual avoidance of the fact that electronics and their rapid obsolescence have a huge environmental impact. Conflict minerals, labor issues surrounding production of such equipment...I really do think that people speaking about devices and paperless options are not doing due diligence if they don’t at least mention this.

    I also have to admit to finding Blowers's enthusiasm for this "personal circulation" (via "LendMe" functions on e-readers) concept rather strange, but then again I'm not an ebook user (yet?), so...

    Weirder was her seemingly-uncritical embrace of the idea of opening up your catalog to patrons' self-published electronic texts. This would be super cool in some ways, of course, but what's going to happen the first time someone wants to upload their racist diatribe or libelous piece? And are these titles going to be classified in any way, or will patrons be left to wonder if a narrative is novel or memoir, or if that seemingly sober book about WWII that reads as nonfiction is in fact full of misinformation? (Yes, I'm aware that we already rely on occasionally dubious criteria for authority and classification of materials in our collections, such as supposedly unimpeachable reviews in the "professional" journals, and media hype.)

    So I was in a somewhat distressed state of mind by the time the talk concluded. Then there was a Q&A. The first comment from the audience was from one of the few other non-NYPL employees, a librarian at one of the CUNYs who said something acidly about how Blowers's library has "rich people problems," which is a reaction I might have been sympathetic to if phrased in a more productive manner. As it was, I found his attitude even more problematic than hers, especially when he went on to criticize his working-class students for "spending $300 on sneakers" and not directing their money towards more productive and learning-enhancing purchases. Sigh...I would recommend Jessamyn West as someone who works on issues of digital access (see e.g. "Without a Net: Confronting the Digital Divide") and is a much more well-rounded thinker on this subject.

    Later someone asked Blowers about her feelings about self-check and removing circulation desks, which is happening at my library and whose mention is never going to put me in a better mood. Her response was enthusiastic, though she did start with a line about she shares the philosophy of her employer, which is to take out the desks, etc.

    So that was my morning with Helene Blowers. To end on a positive note, I did love the "libraries are about knowledge production" stuff, especially as that really ties in with my new position at my work. And the talk was genuinely thought-provoking – I had an internal dialog going on during the whole thing. It's not often that that happens when I'm viewing or listening to someone. So thank you, Helene.