Aardy R. DeVarque (aardy) wrote,
Aardy R. DeVarque

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Libraries in the future

Yesterday, at the annual Illinois Unicorn Users Group meeting (I hear you chuckling out there--"Unicorn" is the name of Sirsi's library catalog software), I finally got the chance to hear Stephen Abram speak; everyone I know who'd heard one of his speeches has come away telling everyone else that we should hear this guy talk sometime.

From my perspective, he's a decent public speaker, though the lack of a turned-on PA system didn't help much.

The first hour of the speech was centered around "what's happening / going to happen", using a whole lot of statistics from sources such as Libraries: How do they Stack Up and the "Google takes over the world" movie EPIC 2014 as the cornerstones. It certainly kept my attention and was interesting (particularly the statistics: 1.1 billion people--including repeat visits--walk through the front doors of U.S. libraries each year, compared to 204 million people--again, including repeats--who attend all U.S. college and professional sporting events each year), but I was annoyed at the high level of FUD being handed out without making any attempt to be even-handed about it.

The second hour--"what should we, the libraries, be doing"--bored me. (Though again, the lack of a PA system didn't help, so I had to strain to hear most of what he was saying.) The man's job description is basically "be a visionary", but that apparently means absolutely avoiding staying grounded enough to consider pragmatic issues when ideating, or committing to anything actually concrete or implementable when it comes to the "Ok, that's what's wrong. How do we fix it?" part of the program. That's apparently a job left to future designers & programmers. Most of his "what should we do" points also seemed to avoid one crucial detail: While Google has billions and billions to spend on R&D, advertising, etc., U.S. public libraries tend to be so strapped for cash they're lucky they have people behind the desk and books on the shelves. Arguing that if libraries were to spend $40K a year to purchase every book/video/etc. patrons suggest then they'd pass every tax referendum they need (just because that's Grand Rapids P.L.'s experience) isn't exactly helpful. Also, his analysis of the present and predictions of the future assume that the economy continues to do well enough to ensure that tweens, teens and twenty-somethings have far too much spending cash for their own good; given the probable coming fossil fuel crunch, that's far from a safe assumption. Additionally, noting that today's average 8th graders test 25-30 points higher on the 1969 IQ test than average 8th graders from 1969 did and using that to argue that modern tweens are therefore demonstrably smarter than any previous generations and therefore must be catered to differently doesn't take into account that modern school curricula have advanced quite a bit from what they were in the 60's, and that kids are also now trained how to excel on tests--that may result in higher testing scores, but it doesn't necessarily mean that people back then couldn't have tested just as high if they'd had the same preparation. I was also annoyed by his classification of "Millennials" (That is, those otherwise called "Generation Y"; people born 1978-1995) as the first generation to be able to handle the modern all-wired world, multitask writing an essay with listening to music, watching tv, and IMing friends rather than go into sensory overload, etc. Been there, done that, and separating out the Generation X folks and treating those before and after as monolithic groups ignores the fact that "early" baby boomers have about as much in common with "late" baby boomers as GenX folks have with GenY, and, while it's hard to say when comparing adults to kids, it looks like the same will be true comparing "early" GenY folk to "late" GenY folk.

Maybe I'm just one of those "cynical" Generation X folks he noted as being utterly un-worth considering in product development due to demographics (as there aren't enough of "us" to make a blip on marketing's radar, given the original baby boomers and the baby boom echo of the "Millenials"), or because I'm a grunt in the trenches rather than an administrator easily astounded by buzzwords, but I wasn't as wowed as I'd hoped to be. Interesting to hear, yes. Mind-blowing visions of the future? Not so much. Concrete suggestions we can actually implement given our current budget structure? Not much of anything that I heard. But even given all that, if any of y'all happen to get a chance to hear him speak, I'd still recommend it (and I recommend browsing his blog--linked above--particularly if you like watching tech trends and their potential impact on your life), but simply because he's a decent speaker and because what he says and the way he says it seems to trigger bursts of creativity in his audience rather than because he has any deep secrets to reveal or can't-miss advice to provide. (In fact, most of the interesting library-related factoids from his speech are presented in almost identical fashion in the report on libraries linked above.)

Also, if you want to get the gist of his speeches, most of his PowerPoints and many of his articles are online. The exact one I saw doesn't seem to be up yet; it seems to have been a combo of what's up there as "Technoschism: Google and our Common Future" and "Millenials! They're here. Deal with it!", chiefly the former for the first hour, and the latter for the second hour.
Tags: libraries, visionaries, work

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