Continuing Legitimacy of Libraries

Diverging from the archival theme, I noticed a post on one of my regular technology-related feeds that really struck me, and is related to the information profession…but definitely not specifically to archives, so bear with me.

Web Worker Daily posted a “What is Your Third Place?” open thread, primarily discussing where telecommuters/web workers go in order to counterract the feelings of isolation that working from home can sometimes cause, and I was a little sad (but not incredibly surprised) that no one in the comments section mentioned the library as their “third place.” 

 I’m having a bit of trouble with the concept of “third place,” (a term coined by Ray Oldenberg in his books “Celebrating the Third Place” and “The Great, Good Place“) as it seems to be tied closely to the terms “public” or “civic space,” (a place that is paid for by all, for all people), but the term “third space” doesn’t differentiate (at least from what I can tell) between commercial and non-commercial space…it’s just the place where you go that is not-work and not-home (as well as meeting Oldenburg’s “eight criteria,” which you can find in “The Great, Good Place”).

Increasingly, corporations (Starbucks, Panera, Borders) have co-opted many of the aspects associated with “third place,” (heck, Howard Schultz, the head of Starbucks, even markets Starbucks as a “third place”). Don’t get me wrong, I love coffee shops, bookstores, and restaurants, I think they are vital parts of a creative, connected community. However, due to their commercial nature, I can’t agree with Ray Oldenburg when he calls them “neutral public spaces.” Staring at that sentence, I realize how ridiculous it is that I’m disagreeing with the person who coined the term in the first place, but I don’t see how a place that exists primarily to get the people who enter it to spend their money could be seen as neutral.

So, what happens when, as is mentioned in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. article I’ve linked to below, libraries add on a Starbucks? Does this diminish their status as a third place? Does the digital environment of MMOGs constitute another legitimate third place? (P.S., David Lee King and the good folks at It’s All Good (four OCLC bloggers) have some interesting things to say on this topic)

I’m not entirely sure what the answers to those or many of the other questions that are swirling around in my mind when it comes to this idea. But, much like everything else on this blog, I’m sure I’ll re-visit it at some point with at least a slightly clearer idea of what I do actually think. 🙂

More articles on this subject. I’m being rebellious and not using APA format.

There’s a lot of interesting talk in the comments on the Library Juice post about the NYT article. Lots about aesthetic expressions and how they do (or don’t) express a significant affiliation to a group or movement (political or otherwise), or whether subcultures/countercultures have been so co-opted by the consumer culture as to have lost much of their meaning…much of which is, frankly, over my head, but I’m fascinated nonetheless. Also, as you could probably guess, there seems to be a bit of a generation clash evident in some of the comments as well.

I’ve put one of the books mentioned, “Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture” by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter on my Amazon Wish List so that I don’t forget about it.

Anyway, my post about the NYT article was largely (as you could likely tell) just me whinging about how I don’t like that the information profession (and, really, when it gets down to it, those of my generation within the profession) has been lumped in with the hipper-than-thou. Where I whinge, however, the commenters at Library Juice are really getting into the nitty gritty of it.

 Lots of food for thought. Check it out.

This week’s KC Currents, (a show on 89.3 FM, KCUR ) will feature:

Definitely tuning in to this one.

Librarians 1.0, originally uploaded by agsaandjsmom.

I know I’ve written about how librarianship as a profession needs to (among other things) embrace and play with its kitschy, sort of retro public image to both make our profession more visible and show in the process that, hey, we do have a sense of humor about it. The Lee County Librarians, in the above picture, are doing just that, to hilarious effect.

To continue with this train of thought, I was surprised how ambivalent I felt when I saw the “A Hipper Crowd of Shushers” article in the New York Times today, especially when it did everything that I had stated I wanted:

  • Showed that librarianship, as a profession, is changing. Jessamyn West is even quoted as saying that it’s become a techie profession, and mentions that she checks Twitter, does IM reference, and, obviously (to the biblioblogosphere, anyway) blogs frequently.

  • Profiled young librarians who reference but don’t fit the aforementioned stereotype. They’re literate, social, (sometimes tattooed and pierced) politically active “hipster” types. 
  • These librarians are no teetotalers. Several of the people who were interviewed mentioned being informally recruited by librarians they met…in bars. The lead photo and many of the interviews were apparently done in a bar. A pretty far cry from the stereotypical vision of the “dry” (literally), anti-social spinster librarian.
  • There are “guybrarians.”  That nickname alone is enough for that particular point. 🙂

After marinating on this a little more, I hit on what really bugs me. This article was written  a lot more about the “hipness” of the superficial trappings of the profession than the profession itself. As one blogger put it, “The MLIS is the new barista.”

It smacked of the same attitude of people who listen to movies only long enough to parse out their favorite quotes and repeat them ad nauseum to their friends, or who listen to indie rock only long enough to figure out which bands are acceptably underground, solely for the purpose of buying that band’s t-shirt and impressing the emo hottie that they’ve been scoping all week at the bar.

Do I get a little kick out of the high-heels-and-pencil-skirt aspect of the public perception of librarians? Sure. Did I join the profession assuming that I would spend a lot of time mingling with well-shod, well-read hotties who were my age? Hell no. I assumed (and was largely proven right, in my case) that many people in MLIS programs are making a career change, and are closer to their mid 30s or 40s than mid 20s (my age). And, far from the impression that this article gives off, very few people outside of the profession that I’ve talked to have any idea what any actual librarian does on an actual daily basis (don’t even get me started on what people do and do not know about what archivists do), which is probably why I was initially so excited to see this article.

Well, this article does make it clear that not all librarians fit the stereotype of “frumpy, middle-aged ladies in bad shoes.” However, it also spends so little time on the actual mission of libraries and librarians that it makes library school look like the intelligentsia version of getting your “MRS Degree“…so that you can mingle with other socially aware, well-read people. Sure, that’s a great part of being a librarian or archivist, you often get to work with interested, interesting people. However, that is not, and should not, be your main motivating factor for entering library school or the profession.

Do you like to help people? Do you like to search for information in multiple ways and in multiple formats and customize and deliver it to your patrons? Yes? Good. If that is the case, I don’t care if you’re 25 or 75, cool or desperately unhip…you’re librarian material.

I’ve been mentally marinating on this whole “Gaming and Libraries” movement (or whatever you want to call it) for awhile now, and when I saw the “Inside Higher Ed” article “When ‘Digital Natives’ Go to the Library” posted on Techmeme this evening, I decided that, even though I don’t feel as if I’ve fully sorted everything out yet, it’s an important topic, and one that seems to be popping up everywhere. Also, as this blog is as much an iterative conversation with myself (which generally leads to this kind of rambling) as it is with whoever comes across it, I figured I’d roll with it and see where it took me.

First of all, full disclosure, every guy I’ve ever dated has been a moderate to hard-core PC gamer: Wolfenstein, Diablo, Diablo II, CounterStrike, WarCraft, World of Warcraft….you name it, if it was an RPG/MMORPG, they played it. So, when I first heard that librarians were going gung-ho for gaming (say that three times fast), I was a little puzzled. I didn’t see the connection between what my geeked out boyfriends were (and still are) doing and what I viewed as the standard “library mission,” (assist/provide environment in which patrons can seek wanted/needed information). And in a lot of ways, I’m still pretty skeptical.

The points on which the “Gaming in Libraries” proponents and I do see eye to eye on are as follows:

  • You shouldn’t have to “RTFM” to use the system. Or, in slightly less blunt terms, systems should have “lowered consequences of failure,” as James Paul Gee puts it.
  • Reward exploration. Games do. Wikipedia does. Library systems should.
  • Make it fun! See: Wikipedia.  When was the last time you went to your library’s OPAC and thought, “YAY! I get to look for literary criticism of A Moveable Feast!” Granted, Wikipedia is intended to serve as a jumping-off point, but still…get my point? FUN.
  • Patrons want to self-serve, for many reasons. I have a library degree, and I still get a little intimidated going to the reference desk. Part of that is my innate pig-headedness in not wanting to ask for help, but a lot of that is my instinctual response of not wanting to admit that I don’t know…whatever it is that I don’t know, and I know I’m not alone in that. Additionally, I’m very rarely in the physical library when I have a reference question. I’m not saying IM reference is a silver bullet, but it helps create another avenue for patrons to request assistance, and is one that gamers and just straight-up “digital natives” (like myself) are very familiar with.

I know that I’m not saying anything here that many, many other library bloggers haven’t also said many, many times about library systems. And I do agree with the “Gaming in Libraries” proponents that, for some people, until you have a visceral, physical, kinesthetic (thanks, SLIM, for that word) experience with some forms of technology (gaming being one of those), you’ll probably not ever fully understand the mentality of a lot of those moderate-to-hardcore gamer patrons. That being said, I think that it’s very possible to glean a lot of these “why people like games better than OPACs” points without actually becoming fully proficient at Halo 2.

My two cents. For an interesting look at the geek perspective on this article, take a look at some of these (surprisingly library-positive, given Slashdot’s usual tone) comments on this article.

xkcd consistently has some of the funniest, most observant, geekiest comics out there, and for that, it has my undying love. It’s primarily filled with math, physics, and web-related humor, but there’s a good deal else in there as well. To that end, the most recent comic is entitled “Librarians,” and it is a rib-tickler.

I would’ve posted it in here, but unfortunately it is too long to be able to squeeze into the allotted amount of space and still be legible. So, as all those kids on Reading Rainbow used to say, “You don’t have to take my word for it!”

Go check it out!

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