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THE PIPELINE: What’s in the Pipeline? Part 2. What I Watch

By Stephen Abram - Posted May 1, 2017
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Librarians are more relevant than ever. We have no good reason to be on the defensive and every reason to be on the offensive. The conversation in our field is fraught with too much navel gazing and not enough looking out there at the evidence that some things are going well. We share too many stories about the bad stuff and too rarely share the successes. We are an adaptive profession.

Change is our tradition!

So, as we continue to be challenged by an ever-increasing range of major technological and economic change, we must continue to also improve how we represent ourselves. Let’s emphasize the humans that make the magic happen: librarians! Let’s focus on value, impact, and positioning (VIP).

That said, I am very challenged to keep up with the threats to our profession. Just in the U.S. federal news, as I write this column, there are threats to Institute of Museum and Library Science (IMLS), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), National Education Association (NEA), and more. There are even threats to the very presence of the Department of Education and other sources of information such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and more. Who can cope?

I believe that the best way to sustain our relevance and to thrive is to focus on what we do best. Our issue isn’t survival, but having the best and most effective impact on the health of our schools and their learners and the decisions they make. We improve the quality of questions. We improve the quality of decisions. We add speed to the process, and align all resources with our learners’ needs.

To accomplish a sea change in the representation of our profession, we must do the following:

• Emphasize the librarian and not the physical library and its resources.

• Build real, long-lasting, and personal relationships with our teachers, principals, and learners.

• Be positioned as a real professional and offer professional services—and that includes advice.

• Tell our stories. It’s the stories that happen between librarians and learners that matter—not just the ones you have on the shelves or in the library facility.

So, for 2017, resolve to tell those stories. Better yet: Collect those stories in your users’ voices. And encourage the heart … (Thanks, Michel Stephens.)

If we care about the future of our brand of school librarianship, we will not worry about change but heartily embrace that this is the normal world for now and forever. Continuous change just provides evidence that you’re not fossilizing.

My Filters

Determining what is a fad and what is a critical trend is difficult, but over the years, I’ve learned to ask myself these eight questions:

1. Will this improve the experience of the learner? Does it just make my life better or easier or does it have wider application to the needs of teachers and learners? For example, I love it when I can watch clients use stuff and then I can focus on understanding their experience as a human and not just my experience (and assumptions) of using something new and fun.

2. If this seems like a bright shiny fad, is there something material there that is longer-term? For example, I never loved QR codes, but the ability to place content locally and in context appealed to me. Now I think NFC (near field communication) and Beacons seamlessly integrated with smartphones are the cat’s meow.

3. Does this trendy tech just support information delivery, or can context be provided too? Can you add point of view and bias to context and content? For example, the social media shiny things triumphed over email because they supported collaborative and social opinion sharing, not just plain information sharing and delivery.

4. Does this tech align with real humans—the normal ones? Or will it only work for a narrow range of geeks, nerds, librarians, etc.? It may be fine if they’re who it’s aimed at, but otherwise, it won’t make it out to the real world with all its complexities of personalities and behavior.

5. Does this tech tool or service support evolutionary change versus a revolution? Is everything going to have to be dropped from the past, or can we adapt more slowly? It may be fine to have a revolution, but not every day and not all the time for everything.

6. Does this innovation meet the criteria of the Four Horseman: scalability, replicability, sustainability, and trainability? If it’s just me having trouble, then who cares? If it’s 5,000 people across the board, then this becomes a major headache very quickly.

7. Do I have people in my tester’s group who are early adopters or innovators? Having someone who hates technology or change test new things doesn’t give me the advice I need at this stage. Understanding the adoption curve and having folks who can deal with ambiguity and not-ready-for-primetime innovations area great gifts. It’s always fun to look back on the articles—some in our field—of people who labelled telephones, the internet, web search engines, social networks, etc., fads.

8. Am I supporting more than reading? Reading is fundamental! It’s also just the foundation. Am I supporting all learning styles and lifting the imagination, creativity, self-esteem, cultural and social engagement, and more? That’s why I love the experiments in makerspaces and learning hubs that strive to go beyond reading—while at the same time making reading relevant to everyone.

Shift Happens: Trends to Track in 2017

Some of these trends continue from the past, and some are just entering our field of vision now. Anyway, in no particular order, this is a highly personal list of the kinds of stuff I find interesting to track:

• I am seeing a split in econtent between nonfiction and fiction. To date, a lot of the public conversation on ebooks has been popular reading or fiction-centric. Our specialized field rarely depends on this content genre, and therefore the different changes that are happening in scholarly and nonfiction content are worthy of separate monitoring.

• That said I am also seeing an ongoing merger of different media formats—especially in the nonfiction space, where text, video, podcasts, etc., are starting to be increasingly integrated into the discovery results. I believe that there is no reason for our library digital discovery initiatives to separate primary search by format. Too many digital libraries are organized around format as if issues are still being shelved! Format should basically be a choice following discovery.

• I love to follow the ongoing death (or least life-support) for the landline home phone. Most folks have switched their primary allegiance to their pocketed personal phone, which isn’t really primarily a phone at all, but a personal device meeting a plethora of needs. I speculate that the pendulum will start to swing the other way, just like the integrated Hi-Fi (TV, radio, record player) of my youth went into components before moving to my tablet/phablet/phone.

• I follow the trends in multiple literacies (credulity, critical thinking) as reading literacy evolves into a more digital world. I worry that algorithms controlled by a very few companies (like Big GOOG) run the risk of taking away our freedom of choice. I am thrilled at the recent emphasis on fake news. Issues that are important to us are hitting the mainstream discussions.

• I love to follow trends in the publishing sector since we’re so dependent on this sector for quality content—self-publishing, decline of print newspapers, evolution of the textbooks to learning systems, etc. As more content creators have access to distribution networks, our role in sifting and winnowing becomes increasingly important. Specifically, I am following the trend to explode the book format—the so called corpus. We have already exploded the periodical format where few of us subscribe mainly to print journals but really have entered a post-journal world and subscribe to collections of millions of articles. Is there any sense in most nonfiction or scholarly works being trapped in their bindings? Shouldn’t we free the chapters and paragraphs and allow them to be retrieved as separate records and integrated with others—like articles? It’s starting to happen.

• I follow trends in licensing and new rules around single-use print and hybrid use, the ability to reuse and mash up content and the hierarchy of rights and the associated good—such as OA (open access)—and bad technology options—such as DRM .

• I was part of the generation that moved from print indices to online retrieval. I continue to be part of the next post-retrieval phase as we focus on the experience and assemble tools and technologies in the services of discovery, curation, findability, access, and creativity in the pursuit of knowledge and insight. So, the next steps in Linked Data, OpenURL, federated search discovery systems, and more are intensely interesting.

• I’ll read anything that speaks to end-user attributes—member/audience/user personas, demographics, generational change, etc. If we don’t understand the user, who will? Programmers? Management? Also, new developments in our understanding of the brain, behavior, genomics, human development, thinking, etc., are all grist for the mill of library science and education.

• Anything that can be streamed is being streamed. The movement from physical to virtual streaming formats is challenging search and discovery as well as what our devices can do. Watching this space is essential.

• We’ve seen in our lifetimes a strong move away from direct communication—one-on-one telephone calls, letters, and memos to a world dominated by social media conversation networks. Not only do we need to use this as a critical source but we need to be present in that world to communicate the value of the librarian.

• There are a few key raw technology trends that are emerging as game changers in our world and beyond. You know most, so I’ll just list them here as things to watch as they evolve the platform foundations of technology upon which we sit:

• The cloud – A disruptive game changer if there ever was one, especially for the ILS and LMS space

• Responsive design and its evolution beyond the mobile pain point

• Linked Data and its potential to transform discovery engines – Follow what’s happening at DPLA and OCLC.

• E-learning, MOOCs, and accredited online certificates, diplomas and degrees

• Beacons – Beyond QR codes and NFC and the potential of putting the library proactively into every pocket. Things like LibraryBox are just a start.

• Big Data and Little Data – Stats, metrics, insights, analysis, the numbers—these tools are becoming more awesome every day, but computers can only do analytics—humans do analysis.

• Anything that has to do with the Maker Movement—maker, hacker, writer, hobbyist—and its clear and emerging potential to transform and disrupt STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math). There are few of us who don’t depend on these domains for our work lives.

• Innovation in libraries, where we advance progress through greater cooperation and collaboration in consortia, collaboratives, alliances, and partnerships, is something I track. The old models are failing and need renewal. We will find this Renaissance through working more strongly together (maybe even through our associations) or by independently leading the way through personal innovation—like embedded librarianship, consulting, or other alternatives using our valuable competencies.

An Industrial Revolution for Libraries

I love following the folks who are involved in the Startup Library ( mentality. I appreciate the ability to grasp and engage in an emerging new culture for librarianship that focuses on change, innovation, experimentation, and finding the future. While some worry about a continuing malaise in our field where the stories are all bad and we’re all doomed, I choose, and resolve in 2017, to focus on the indications of positive, transformational change.

That said—#resist!


Stephen would love to hear from you at

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