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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Library as Community - The Importance of Libraries and Librarians in our Everyday Life

April 14-20, 2013 is National Library Week during which the American Library Association and libraries across the nation will celebrate the love of books and knowledge. Consequently, the author has dedicated this edition of “Renaissance Man – Open Access and Social Justice Advocacy Blog to National Library Week.

Last year at this time the author headed to Washington DC to serve as a Legislative Advocate for the Association of College and Research Libraries and to participate in the annual National Library Legislative Day activities. The mission involves an ongoing battle to defend the public’s right to open access from proposed repressive intellectual property legislation backed by the publishing industry. Presently the Federal Research Public Access Act is under discussion in the U.S. Congress and the stakes for individual freedom are high.

In today’s discussion, we will explore the concept of the library as the pillar of civilization and community; the relevance of libraries and librarians to our modern culture and society and how we can use teachable moments to engage today’s youth in the love of reading and knowledge and more importantly, the formation a social consciousness and engagement of the citizen in society.

In a recent blog article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, How do we want students to feel about the library?, Brian Matthews, Associate Dean for Learning and Outreach at Virginia Tech, looks to the corporate world of marketing for inspiration on how to effectively reach out to college and university students in promoting their academic library resources. “Consumer magnets like Target, Amazon, Panera’s and others know how to make their customers come back for more”, Matthews stated in his observations of the arrival of their newborn child.
In talking about student’s first experiences with academic Libraries, Matthews acknowledged,

“My mission right now is to transform our library into a preferred destination for academic work. A place that students feel enables or empowers them to succeed better than other locations on campus.”

However, maintaining that traditionally respected ideal of the ‘library as authority’ and as the ‘keepers of knowledge’ has posed a tremendous challenge in an increasingly wired world and indeed has proven to be a detriment to the profession. Matthews goes on to explain that we need to help students to form good habits at the prime time, when they first arrive at the University, not as an afterthought, but even before they arrive on campus. Matthews insisted with passion,

“Let’s link the library to feelings of accomplishment rather than to collections. Let’s play the empathetic card, rather than the info lit one. Let’s build upon mystery and serendipity to counter intimidation and anxiety. Let’s employ engagement practices rather than a purely task-oriented appeal.”

So we are left with the uncomfortable question, as Matthews puts it - “How does the library become a positive habit? A positive idea?” Lord knows librarians have tried in vain to compete with Wikipedia. Matthews recommends “The relationship [with students] has to begin months before they move in.”

More to the point, Matthews asks the profession, “The question isn’t what do we want them to know about the library, but rather, how do we want them to feel about the library?”

Clip from Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation."
View the entire documentary on Hulu
There are no easy answers to this question of how do we engage students, however, there are many challenges facing our world today. This author would like to suggest that by engaging today’s students in the real-world issues and dilemmas that real people face everyday, the learning college experience would be enhanced exponentially. The so-called ‘Greatest Generation’ – people who grew up during the post-Depression and World War II era faced tremendous challenges and odds to survive, yet, despite adversity, they rose to the challenge of the day, united as one people in a common cause for the greater good. Successive generations reaped the rewards of the struggles their parents and grandparents fought so hard to win, but they have lost the connection to that past, thus, they have been longing to find a sense of deeper meaning in life in the midst of tremendous economic growth, tendencies towards “keeping up with the Jones’”, which has breed an attitude of self-indulgence and a growing arrogance devoid of intellectual pursuit. As academic leaders, we need to foster that natural hunger for inquiry, learning, knowledge and devotion to a common cause in our youth by bringing a wider sense of community to the individual.

Model programs and best practices have proven to make an impact. The Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and other key stakeholders recently completed a major study of doctoral students at 29 U.S. and Canadian universities, which reported that only 57 percent of PhD candidates complete their programs within a decade. The study focused on producing data on attrition from doctoral study and completion of PhD programs and identifying promising practices.  Recommendations included revamping the program environment with informal social activities, interdisciplinary interactions (academic and social) and establishing networks of support and outreach.  Additionally curricular processes were identified as key to success such as writing assistance programs, dissertation retreat/boot camps and collaborative doctoral student writing rooms. CGS has recently published the 4th in a series of monographs outlining Policies and Practices to Promote Student Success.

There are also many promising practices focused on the engagement of undergraduate (and graduate) students as well as providing interaction with the larger off-campus community. Some examples within this author’s region (West Virginia University) include programs and events such as the Center for Civic Engagement – for student volunteer involvement in the region; Festival of Ideas – bringing nationally renowned inspirational and provocative speakers to campus; the West Virginia Uncovered digital journalism project to preserve history and bring reporting engagement resources to the Appalachian frontier; the Science and Technology in Society Symposium  engaging citizens’ interest in scientific inquiry; the Peace Corps international master’s program – providing ecological management expertise worldwide; Extended Learning – covering the gamut of educational needs throughout the life spans, the Center for Democracy and Citizenship Education – revitalizing the historic American Civic Education through research and outreach as in Project Citizen; and the National Youth Sports Program – offering physical developmental educational opportunities in a summer camp setting to disadvantaged youth. There are a myriad of other volunteer and community-oriented activities providing excellent engagement and leadership opportunities for today’s youth.

Library Director at The University of Pittsburgh, Rush Miller, recently discussed the future of libraries, books and reading in his Association of Research Libraries paper, The End of Reading (as We knew it) OR The Devil Danced for Days and Days and Days. In his presentation, Miller told the audience “what it is” – the current state of the library world, in very straightforward terms…

“Too many librarians today are focused on a defense of the print book as a format for knowledge, fearful that as these books go, so go libraries”…

…”I have been preaching for some time that libraries are NOT about books, but about people and connections”…

… “[The reality is that] publishers can no longer afford to publish only in print.”

The University of Pittsburgh Press (under the University Library System) has already embraced this market shift by investing in electronic publishing, which is becoming a model for future trends. They have developed a robust institutional repository on the Eprints platform. They produce over 20 electronic faculty-produced peer-reviewed publications under their scholar publishing division. They have a required submission policy for electronic theses and dissertations and repository portals and virtual communities to embrace faculty publication submission and scholarly communications networking. Most recently they have invested in rapid print-on-demand “Espresso Book Machine” and services to easily provide print copies at low cost from a selection of over one million titles in the digital collections. They have benefited by making a much larger volume of titles available to a greater number of the academic community in both electronic and print format but without the huge overhead and wasteful investment in the acquisition of physical media. Pitt also promotes the notion of “library as community” by regularly hosting lectures, exhibitions and cultural functions in the library facilities; for example, their popular weekly “Emerging Legends” music concert series – free and open to the public. Such forward-looking models have proven the most successful in validating the library experience for their academic patrons as well as effectively reaching out to the wider community.

In a recent corporate civic engagement campaign, Starbucks launched its “Community Service” program to engage their customer base to create change in our communities and around the world, with a goal of reaching over one million service hours by 2015. To date over 100,000 service hours have been logged around the world. If marketing social consciousness is profitable to corporations, then we all benefit for the sake of humanity. Perhaps if libraries and librarians could embrace and harness this same level of effective outreach instead of clinging to their old ways - continuing to dust off the old books on the shelves, the world might be a far better place and the mere existence and purpose of libraries would not be under fire.

ALA Read poster featuring
"The Hunger Games"
The ‘Net-Generations’, at least in the Western world, don’t comprehend the harsh realities of life – they’ve always had computers and were born into a digital world – it all might as well be a reality show on MTV or “The Truman Show” for all they are concerned. From the time of birth we have immersed our children in an overly indulgent educational sea of mush where important lessons like self-respect, dignity, empathy and respect and tolerance for others is sacrificed to the selfish intentions of the “ethics of capitalism”. We are oblivious to the fact that the privileged and careless life we live is at the expense of the quality of life of others we’ll never know who live half way around the world. On the other hand, if sufficiently stimulated, educated and motivated, as history has demonstrated, most students would rise to the occasion to get involved.

Former 1st Lady and librarian Laura Bush reads "Duck for President"
to Children at a White House event to promote reading.
Libraries can and do foster that feeling of excitement and engagement with the world. But it must to start from the earliest years, perhaps even within the womb. This author recalls many happy days spent at “Story Hour” each week at the local public library during pre-school years; looking forward to the Weekly Reader arriving in the mailbox each week; going to the public library, browsing the shelves for interesting titles and checking out books, so excited to read them you couldn’t wait to get home before cracking open the latest Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery. All children should know the love of books, of the wonderful universes that exist in text; the way reading expands one’s mind and engages the brain in new and different ways to create one’s personal universe. There is a certain growth in intellectual capacity that is sparked in reading that is lost in more passive and intellectually regressive activities. We are losing our war on ignorance and poverty to our collective obsession with distractions -  mindless TV programming, endless Wii, Xbox, Warcraft and other online gaming sessions – even more endless hours spent online in front of the computer searching the Web or on mobile devices sending hundreds of text messages daily. Today’s youth are alien from the author’s childhood experience.
"Curious George" loves reading

But the real questions we should ask are - How many libraries still offer children’s programs with Story Hours or other community programs? How many people participate in these programs? How many public libraries even remain today after budget cuts and mismanaged priorities on education? How many libraries engage their audiences in the latest social media and digital communication experiences? From Kindergarten through higher education and beyond, Libraries must make every effort possible to help guide students back to reality, to explore the depths of knowledge, to learn to become critical thinkers and to pave the way for a more informed and progressive future. Modern democracies depend on unfettered access to information to create informed citizens who will further reinforce the values of an enlightened society.

Encyclopaedia Brittanica - Note the
bowed shelf due to the sheer
weight of the volumes.
The book as a medium may likely never go away completely; however, even today it is increasingly becoming an arcane relic of the past. Take for example the fact that 2012 is the last year that Encyclopaedia Britannica was produced and distributed in print. By now of course Britannica provides excellent online free and fee-based service resources, but the impressive array of 32 bound antique volumes and annual yearbooks in my father’s library is now going to be a thing of the past - forever. Gulp…

However, today with the advances and advantages of networked technology, the very tools and resources to which our children have grown attached, we can again utilize these and other tools to engage youth to become involved, to see their importance and relevance in the world, and to return our civilization from the approaching brink of disaster and extinction. Even this author finds himself incentivized by charms of technology into reading a greater volume of works on a wider variety of topics - all instantaneously and randomly available via online electronic mobile devices than ever would have been possible in the print era.

Libraries provide a sense of community by offering a window to the world of ideas. We need to engage not only our youth, but also adults and families by providing community and family events featuring story telling, book signings, poetry, music concerts, art exhibitions as well as classes offering skill-building opportunities in areas such as computer and information literacy, civic engagement and social justice issues.

The Flint Public Library in Michigan (this author’s birthplace), offers a comprehensive array of inclusive model-programs covering the life spans. In collaboration with the CS Mott Foundation, the Flint Institute of Arts, the Sloane Museum of Science and the University of Michigan–Flint, the Public Library participates with the community in providing excellent and enriching cultural activities to engage every segment of society.

"Iron Man" - Marvel Comics superhero
Tony Stark flies through the library
In each of our communities, at each of our institutions of higher learning, we need to ask the burning question - Are libraries, librarians and library supporters ready and willing to stand up to the challenge? We have to be able to see what is possible and use that opportunity to seize the moment for change. To do nothing would be criminal. We are much more than just the purveyors of information and the guardians of knowledge – the vision of the 20th Century library. Granted, these are important tasks, yet we have the potential to do so much more – to be the 21st Century superheroes of the world and lead us to a better future by providing not only access to knowledge but making the process fun and sexy for our constituents. We need to guide our youth to some sense of greater purpose and being – to awaken them from their sleepy overdose of spectacle-induced intellectual coma. If we could learn to engage our youth by speaking their language on their terms, there is much potential to awaken their collective conscience.
A recent Pew Center Internet and American Life study revealed that overall, 75% of American youth text daily, with 77% of teens owning cell phones, sending a median of 60 text messages sent per day.  Further, the study reports,

“63% of all teens say they exchange text messages every day with people in their lives. This far surpasses the frequency with which they pick other forms of daily communication, including phone calling by cell phone (39% do that with others every day), face-to-face socializing outside of school (35%), social network site messaging (29%), instant messaging (22%), talking on landlines (19%) and emailing (6%).”

Only 39% said they call those who are important to them every day. Landlines are considered for people born in the 20th Century (i.e. birth year 19xx). Only 35% reported seeing their friends face-to-face daily. Only 6% used email daily.

The ‘generation text’ is immersed in a world of media content created in their own image, with the natural flow and spontaneity of a conversation, rich with its own language of acronyms, abbreviations, pictograms and emoticons adopted from the previous net-savvy generations to express their own cultural identity and sense of belonging through the use of their own unique slang.

In order to get into the heads of ‘generation text’, we need to understand the context of where today’s youth is coming from. Summed up in a related Philadelphia Inquirer news story,

“For teens and their families all across the social spectrum, says Lenhart, the mobile phone "allows you to remain in robust, constant contact with the people you care about." And one in four teens now texts assiduously on the smartphone: "It's mine, it's me, I can take it with me all the time, and I don't have to share it with family." The teen life in only a few words.”

What this means for the working library professionals of today is that we were born in a year starting with “19” – part of Generation X, which already sets us at a disadvantage in effectively reaching out to ‘Generation Text’. We need to keep up with latest trends and learn technologies to avoid obsolescence. Libraries are no longer places where books are stored but have evolved into extensions of social spaces embracing the heart of academia.

Next we’ll explore an interesting and useful application in the area of educational pedagogy developed to interact with ‘generation text’ students. One example utilizes technology through an oral stories approach to engage students with ‘Voki’, digitally enabled avatars which interact in a human-like ways with the end-user. In Nielsen and Webb’s book Teaching Generation Text, they explain,

Voki App
"[The app] enables students to call in with a code on their phones and use their own voice for the avatar.  Students of all ages enjoy creating their character and watching it speak with their voice.  Voki allows students to re-record by calling in as many times as needed to get their report just right.  Students can also comment on one another’s avatar with their own original Voki, which is a great way to give peer feedback."

We can also utilize technologies such as Voki to our advantage to interact with our ‘generation text’ and other constituencies and draw them into the library domain in interesting, relevant and engaging ways. Embracing new technologies and understanding cultural trends will be a key strategy in efficiently and effectively delivering our message. We must strive above all to avoid repeating the same mistakes of Gen-X by imposing our world view on an audience who finds us increasingly passé, irrelevant and antiquated. Now go forth and become champions for open access to information and knowledge. Engage your “customers” to get them involved for the sake of the future of humanity!

For further reading on this topic, Matthews recommends the book, The Power of Habit. See also Adam Dachis’ blog article “If You Want Good Feedback, Don’t Ask Anyone To Think.” Additionally, for more extensive reading on the engagement process, visit this author’s latest blog article The Unexamined Life is not worth Living – which has particular relevance to why our world is rapidly spinning out of control and where we go from here.