Speaking Out

At the end of September, four members of the Ontario Government Libraries Council (OGLC) presented a workshop at Showcase Ontario, the Ontario government’s enormous technology and information conference. The session was about how to use non-traditional media such as blogs and Twitter for current awareness, and included two practical case studies from the Office of the Fire Marshal and the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Registrations for the session topped 400. Since then, various members of the panel have been asked to make presentations to other audiences, to contribute content to articles reporting on social media use in government, and one has become a video clip!

This experience illustrates a significant opportunity for librarians to take their experience as trainers and to become public speakers. Librarians are regularly called upon to provide training in how to use tools, but this presentation was different. Its key message was not a step-by-step instruction on how to use the tools being discussed (although some processes were demonstrated). Rather, the speakers emphasized the need for government organizations to be aware of RSS, Twitter, Facebook and like tools as sources of information and citizen engagement. This is a more strategic message than we may typically give, and a great example of librarians positioning themselves to become business advisors rather than “just” service providers. 

On the other side of the coin, more library cutbacks are happening in federal government libraries. CISTI, the science library at the National Research Council, was subjected to a 70% cutback earlier this year. The International Development Information Centre (CIDA’s Library) announced that it is closing in March 2010, and the Health Canada libraries will be undergoing a significant staff cut, outsourcing its document delivery and technical services to CISTI. Traditional library services are in trouble – again. 

As David Whelan pointed out in his guest column in September (thank you David), if librarians don’t figure out how they can meet the actual needs of their organizations (rather than the ones we have traditionally and recently less relevantly filled), we’re going to join those librarians who have been declared redundant. It looks like the IDIC is going to be redeploying its librarians into its Knowledge Management program. Was this at the suggestion of the librarians? If so, they should be commended for finding an opportunity and seizing it.

In the fall of 2008, Seth Godin presented a talk at Tools of Change, a conference on the future of publishing. He proposed that books are really souvenirs of ideas that people encounter in their daily living. If you need information quickly, he suggests, it’s less and less likely that you’ll go to a conventional print publication to get it. We’ve come to rely on the web to provide us with the quick answer. Once enough of those quick answers come together, someone may decide to publish an actual book, but it’s retrospective. A souvenir of the thinking or issues of that point in time – life has already moved past it. Librarians: Are we collecting souvenirs, or helping our organizations identify and learn from the data and information that they need to answer business needs right now? Are we speaking out on how our organizations can manage internally generated information, minimize risk by managing e-mail? Are we finding new ways to market our well-established skills?

We are well-placed to reinvent ourselves. All we need is courage.


  1. A timely post, Wendy. I have also been watching as the U.S. have been making in-roads on their own law library services. The latest is the Kentucky State Law Library cutting their staffing by about 75% to one or two people. See State Law Librarian Jennifer Frazier’s blog post Kentucky State Law Library hit by budget woes.

  2. I just heard that the Alberta Government library is reducing the number of sites from 7 to 4 and bunches of staff have been given packages or otherwise been relieved of their duties. As a net borrower from these institutions, I am VERY aware of their value as collections and bases of knowledge – some of which is now in the heads of those ‘retired’ and no longer available to the users of the collection.

    Libraries remain the first place looked to for change when needs shift. The opportunity that should be grabbed by librarians is to have the immediate answer to changing needs. The first reaction could be “Let’s get the librarians to help us with this challenge”. Show value by sharing ideas. Be aware of strategic positions. Great message.

  3. You quote Seth Godin as saying “that books are really souvenirs of ideas that people encounter in their daily living.”

    This is an extraordinary statement. All the ideas that any one has or has ever had are ones he or she has thought of during one day or days (when alive). Books can in one sense be nothing else. As such the statement is fatuous.

    Many books represent or present ideas that are the result of months and years of thought; thought that is often far removed from “daily living”, whatever that connotes. Ideas are not just “souvenirs”. To suggest that books should be routinely ignored because they are not current is simply foolish; some ideas (expressed in books)are timeless in the sense that they are always useful or relevant.

    It is sad and dispiriting that views of someone like Godin are now accepted as valid. We really have to get a grip and remember that, wonderful as the Internet is (and I use it every day), it’s only as useful as the thought that has gone into the information it provides.

  4. I would have to agree with Angela Swann’s comment. Jaron Lanier provides a brilliant counter (see We Are Not Gadgets) to the point of view put forth by Seth Godin and others.

  5. My bad. Lanier’s book is You Are Not A Gadget

  6. Wendy Reynolds

    Seth Godin certainly represents the bleeding edge in thought about information, technology and where we might be going. But it is useful to keep an eye on the bleeding edge. For those of us more comfortable a few steps back from the precipice, it is undeniable that libraries are facing challenges. The way people find information, explore new ideas and learn is changing. It is pointless for libraries to persist acting only as a warehouse – we need to shake up our thinking about who we are, what we do, and how we deliver services if “librarian” is going to continue as a role in organizations.

  7. Why is the edge “bleeding”? I must be getting really old when metaphors simply confuse and mystify me. If Godin really is the “leading edge” and can say something as silly as he said, perhaps you should be looking for another leader, one who understands what books are and are for.

    When people tell me that the Internet is revolutionary, I keep wondering if it is not at least partly a case of the emperor’s new clothes. Yes, the Internet is wonderful in giving me access to all kinds of information (and in allowing me to participate in this conversation, though a conversation is still only a conversation), but the way we use the information we can find and the way we need to produce works that represent useful thoughts has not changed and probably won’t. Remember, it’s garbage in, garbage out. Garbage is garbage, regardless of the medium or its currency.

  8. The Internet has increased the efficacy of the big lie approach to successful argument, and collaterally increased the efficacy of the yell more loudly approach. (Or the 50 million Frenchman can’t be wrong approach. But, then, as those who know that reference, it referred to the belief that Jerry Lewis is funny.)