The once and future library

I was fascinated by the various news stories about a Roman era library unearthed in Cologne, Germany recently.  It housed around 20,000 scrolls and was state run – although researchers aren’t sure whether access was restricted to more influential Roman citizens. The archeologist in Germany quoted in Alison Flood’s Guardian story, Dr. Dirk Schmitz, thinks it was public: “The building would have been used as a public library, Schmitz said. ‘It is in the middle of Cologne, in the marketplace, or forum: the public space in the city centre. It is built of very strong materials, and such buildings, because they are so huge, were public,’ he said.” It’s really remarkable to think that in only the second century, well before books as we think of them existed, there were libraries.

I have a soft spot for ancient libraries, because scholars believe they were, like today’s public libraries, much more than just repositories for important works. The Library of Hadrian in Athens (where my Twitter profile photo was taken) is about the same age as the newly discovered Cologne library, and is thought to have been an archive as well as a place for lectures and discussions. As Lonely Planet explains, “It essentially functioned as Athens’ civic centre in Roman times . . . .” Sounds a lot like public libraries today!

Last week after I heard about the Roman library in Cologne, a coworker called to let me know that while looking at colleges with her daughter, she heard about Temple University’s planned “robotic library,” which will open next spring. It turns out they are installing BookBot, a system is use at several other universities, including NC State. The idea is to use dense, space saving compact shelving with a robotic retrieval system, so more of the library’s public floorspace can be available for other uses, like meeting and collaborative spaces or performances. You can see how BookBot works in this video. I was glad to see that despite the robotic retrieval system, human library staff have an important role in using BookBot. I also wondered, as someone who seems to put in a LOT of IT tickets at my job, how often they have software or hardware issues!

Speaking of technology and the need for human librarians, today I came across a wonderful article at Atlas Obscura that speaks to the once and future power of good old fashioned librarianship. It’s about the NYPL librarians who help find books people only partially remember. This was one of my favorite activities at the public library: a patron calls or emails or comes in and says “I read this book x years ago, and it was about y and I know there was a z in it.” And you’re off.

As Jessica Leigh Hester explains in her story about NYPL’s “‘Title Quest’ hackathon,” despite the internet, librarians’ knowledge work is in demand: “they’re still experts at finding the answers to tricky questions.” And that is what stays the same, no matter how much technology evolves, or society changes. I’m guessing that in the second century, people in the Roman empire relied on librarians to find answers, and at libraries large (like NYPL, or the Temple and NC State libraries) or small (like my community college library, and the thousands of libraries in communities around the world), librarians are sleuthing their way to answers for people every day.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

More on ECHO Refugee library and “supply chain” library management

I read this week about Simon Cloudesley, who “strode 114 miles from the Bodleian in Oxford, England, to the British Library in central London to raise thousands of pounds” for ECHO, the library for refugees in Greece that I wrote about in my last post.  I thought that was really wonderful and wanted to pass the story along to all of you.

The other thing I want to share is an article in American Libraries about how Georgia Tech’s dean of libraries has reorganized the technical services department using “supply chain” theory. Dean Murray-Rust explains, “Staff members will be able to switch from managing interlibrary loans to creating basic archival records, from processing reserves to ordering online, as demand necessitates. Employees are learning how to manage more than 10 library systems, rather than one or two.” Quick aside for you non tech services types: that’s the department in a library that manages the acquisition, cataloging, and processing (labeling, covering, barcoding, security taping, etc.) of print and digital materials, including purchases, patron-driven acquisitions (which are sort of temporary loans that trigger a purchase if patrons use the item 3 times), and subscriptions, including newspapers, magazines, and databases.

Obviously Georgia Tech is much larger than my university and has more libraries, but I was intrigued by this. We have a pretty small staff, and we often face having to come up with backup plan for tasks that only one or two people know how to do when someone is out on vacation. We’ve improved on this with a lot of cross training, but people mostly still work on just one aspect of technical services on a day to day basis. I’m thinking this supply chain style would mean total cross training. Anyone could do anything. It sort of sounds like what people do on a given day would depend on the greatest need that day.

On the user services side, they’re going with “portfolio management,” and transitioning their entire organizational structure, “The biggest challenge to our transformation was organizational. We soon saw that we had to change the culture of the library from passive to active, and we had to retire models that focused narrowly on the library rather than those that supported the larger institution. We had to commit to organizing in a way that envisions a future that is digital.”

She goes on to say, “Our goal is to make the transactional parts of the library’s work as efficient as possible in order to free up resources to sustain new services such as intelligent agents, visualization, and data science.” And “Most of our work is managed in a portfolio framework of 10 programs and more than 60 projects. More than half of our librarians are subject specialists who report to senior librarians who act as coaches, mentors, and performance evaluators.”

No more generalist reference librarians, and it sounds like librarians are not as involved in the traditional “transactions” that take place at service desks in many libraries. Instead, they are outside the library working with faculty and students and specializing in data management, intellectual property, and the digital preservation of research. It all sounds very interesting, and relevant to Georgia Tech.

That part of the restructuring doesn’t sound nearly as applicable to my university which is more of a teaching/learning institution than a research hub. But there may be ideas from this transformation that we could adapt to our use. It’s all very intriguing and worth thinking about as it becomes common even in academia for people to question why libraries are necessary. Just this week I ran circulation numbers to show faculty at one of our largest departments that their students are in fact using books.

If you work in a library, what are you doing to transform?

 

 

Three ways libraries are serving the world

I read three stories this week that caught my eye — at the same time that I was asked to answer some questions about why I work in my library for a display going up later this month to help students at my university get to know library staff. In doing this I noticed that the university’s mission, “Transforming hearts and minds to serve the world,” is actually similar to core values of librarianship, a profession also dedicated to transforming and serving the world.

In Kokomo, Indiana, the public library is serving the world by displaying a rescued piece of street art by Banksy. The unusual exhibit is bringing people together to talk about street art and its place in culture. Fostering this kind of public conversation is definitely a transforming act.  Getting people to talk — especially about something controversial like Banksy’s art — is valuable public service.

In Germany, several libraries are welcoming “provenance research,” which is the ongoing work of locating art and other cultural and personal property looted by the Nazis, determining who it belonged to and returning it to victims and their family members.  The Lost Art Foundation is conducting the work, which is publicly funded. Imagine the U.S. government funding a massive effort to return items seized from other cultures. Yeah, I can’t imagine that either. Anyway, the German efforts are another example of libraries at the forefront of cultural and social transformation — serving as a conduit of reconciliation for their communities and the family members of those whose property was stolen.

Finally, two young women have managed to start a bookmobile style library in Greece to serve refugee communities. They kitted out the mobile library and stocked it entirely with donations, and run it for free. I was shocked to read that there are communities where their efforts are not welcome — I assume because some people must resent the presence of refugees, but who shuts down a library? Not only do these lovely human beings continue their work, but they also dream of this idea taking off throughout the world wherever displaced people are living. Two quotes in this story caught my eye: “Naude and Zijthoff were determined to provide a quiet space, amid the upheaval and uncertainty, where people could use their time rather than just fill it. ” And, “But those who come to the library love it: children say it feels like home . . . .”

Julian Sheather, the Guardian reporter who wrote those words, is spot on — the article really sums up the essence of what a library is for me. In fact, in my response to “Why I work in the library” for the display I mentioned, I used those exact words: Libraries feel like home to me. And libraries of all kinds, public, academic, private, mobile, current and past, intact or lost to conflict or other disasters, represent the transformation of lives — the lives of people who come together in libraries to learn, find quiet, pursue their hopes, strengthen their communities. Whenever I feel bogged down by everyday librarianship (hey, it happens, it’s not all glamorous, you know), I recall this sense I have that what we do is powerful, transformative, and in many ways radical service.