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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Godin, Gutenberg and Going Forward

Innovation and imagination aren’t rooted in what is or what was, but takes flight in the what if…

What if in looking at the future of libraries, are we too emerged in our own realities and truths that we are really just looking at a dressed up version of the past?

What if Gutenberg hadn’t invented the printer?

Can you tell I’ve been listening to Seth Godin again? I had the privilege of speaking at the Westchester Library Association Conference and Seth happened to be the keynote. What a treat to see him again. The thing about Seth is that he really loves libraries but he’s seeing some writing on the wall that is telling him libraries are going to go the way of the music industry and he wants us to do something about it. I was very impressed that rather than give a talk about his latest book (Poke the Box) he took the time to think out an argument to help this audience of librarians see new path for libraries. It isn’t often we get a free consultation from a marketing guru.

So here’s his argument ...
  • If you take a look at the use case of libraries our two most important functions are to provide a place to store books so they can be lent to those who can’t afford to buy them and to help people find information.

  • As the price of eReaders such as the Kindle go down (they’ll probably will be free in a couple of years) and the cost of eBooks decreases (they will probably go down to 99 cents), the need for an institution to provide free books is going to decrease so much that it will make it difficult for libraries to make the case for funding from the government.

  • While the need for academic research might continue to be valuable for industries, the information needs of the average person to resolve their problems can be achieved through online resources such as wikipedia. He pointed out that in his opinion the average student looking for information to complete a school assignment would so just fine. Online information resources are also timelier.

  • He talked briefly about the Gutenberg Parenthesis. (We are leaving the structured, serial, permanent, authored, controlled era of text and returning to what came before the press: a time when communication and content cross, when process dominates product, when knowledge is distributed by people passing it around, when we remix it along the way, when we are more oral and aural.- Jeff Jarvis)

  • If Gutenberg hadn’t invented the printing machine and communication evolved without text having to be confined within the restrictions of pages, margins and bindings, libraries might never have been invented.

  • Even with the invention of the printing press, that stage is over and the entire economic engine that was developed to support the printed book is dead. Not books, not ideas, not writing, but the restrictions that print imposed on the world are dead. (I couldn’t help but think in terms of Prezzi verses PowerPoint.)

  • Since information is not patient, time is of the essence. Libraries need to lay the groundwork for a use case that will make us valuable to the public. Keep in mind that all those 17 year old who use the Internet for research and buys books and don’t use the library today, will not see the need to pay their tax dollars for the library in 10 years.

  • Seth thinks the future of libraries lies in our sweet spot - our ability to connect people and provide a place for that to happen face-to-face. If it were up to him, we’d cut our collections in half and hire the smartest techies out there and re-brand ourselves as the place where smart people come to get super smart. He encourages us to be the connectors between community members- linking people of like needs so that they can collaborate for new solutions. He mentioned the “co-working spaces” that are cropping up where people meet just to work round other people to avoid loneliness. And suggests that libraries encourage businesses to come and work at libraries all day.

I know many of you may feel we are already doing these things. We’ve been calling libraries community centers and offering tech support and classes, but I think Seth is calling for a new mindset. He isn’t asking us to improve what we are doing, he is suggesting that we need to change the core thinking of what we do, re-imagine the core purpose of why libraries exist. Revamp our perceptions from “people should” to “people are” by accepting that the changes in technology are changing the needs of people. It isn’t that we need to add a tech center, it’s that we need to change our mindset. Don’t be disappointed that people aren’t reading; embrace communication as a fluid process that encompasses all mediums- print, visual, auditory. People are free to use whatever medium they chooses to use to communicate the ideas. Don’t be worried that people aren’t using the “best” resources; understand that information needs are relevant to the solutions people are seeking. Don’t defend the need to remain the way we are because we must provide internet access or books to the poor, look beyond to see a world where connections are the commodities that people will need to succeed.
I was interested in the whole Gutenberg Parenthesis theory because it fits into what I am experiencing in my communication. There is such a freedom to be able to choose to communicate via Twitter, blogs, web pages, video, talks, printed books, eBooks, podcasts, etc. There are so many projects that were never possible with the restrictions of print. For me, this is an incredible era and listening to Seth has given me some ideas of how libraries can start positioning themselves to be of value in that future. He hopes the people in the library field don’t respond like those of the music industry who couldn’t envision a world where people could create and share music without them. I agree with Seth that we need to challenge ourselves to envision that world or the world will move on without us.
I get a little discouraged when I see the battles that are raging over preserving the old use case of libraries. I’m seeing brilliant people fighting to preserve virtual reference (or to be more precise virtual search), great thinkers worried that we won’t be able to stock enough eBooks and innovative leaders refusing to consider there is a need for more professions than just librarians in libraries such as marketers, teachers, techies, job consultants, business mangers, etc. To me, that thinking is just looking at the past and calling it the future. So listening to Seth and breaking out of that old thinking was refreshing.
Seth left us with this question, and I’ll leave it with you,

“Will they miss you if you’re gone in ten years? 

Buffy Hamilton really lights up the room with her thoughts.
Great conversations are going on at Librarian By Day
Stephen Abrams chimes in too.


Peter Bromberg said...

Thanks for sharing this Nancy. It was very helpful to have more detail on what Mr. Godin actually said and the analysis he offered regarding the current and future realities that libraries are facing.

I don't think we need to rethink our core purpose -- unless one thinks our core purpose is to buy and circulate books.

I think our core purpose is to connect people with a world of ideas and information in ways that helps them make meaning and enhance their lives and improve the quality of our communities and civic discourse.

If THAT is our core purpose, then the challenge is to find new forms of expressing that purpose as we continually evolve our current practices and develop new ways to bring value to the lives of our customers.

Nancy Dowd said...

Hi Pete thanks for writing. You are not alone. My guess is that a lot of people would agree with you. I think Seth sees the role more in terms of connecting people to people rather than connecting role to information. I was just in a planning session today that warned librarians not to make thei mission statement anything to do with connectig eople to information because that is something people can do without libraries. It's sure to be a good discussion.

Ashley England said...

Love it. I agree that our core business isn’t books, or shouldn’t be books. I also see a lot of librarians echoing this statement. But I think Seth (and you too Nancy) is right – we really do need a shift. We might say we’re more than just books, but how many of our services reflect really tradition library values, rather than the values of our clients? How often do we confine students based on the way the system works, rather than reworking a system that is no longer suitable for our clients? I think he’s right that the change has to be at a deep level. I’m not really sure how to articulate it, but I just get this sense that we all have these amazing ideas when we’re online, and then go back to the real world were systems don’t reflect these ideas at all. There are lots of amazing and really exciting projects and changes being made by Librarians all over the world, but surely there needs to be some sort of system reboot for every aspect of Library services? Exciting times! :)

Ryan Livergood said...

Great post Nancy! We have to break free of the physical library and focus on what we do best: organize knowledge and deliver it to people whenever they want it, wherever they want it, and on their device of choice.

Nancy Dowd said...

Thanks for writing Ashely and Ryan. It sounds as though you are both futuristic thinkers.

I've listened to Seth talk about the role of libraries twice and each time he strikes hard at the sacred cows and presents arguments designed to help his listeners step out of their present reality to envision a world that is completely different than the one we live in today.

There is no evolution to the future; it’s all about leaps.

Pete, your thoughtful concept of a core concept to connect people to ideas to improve the quality of their lives is a beautiful idea but my concern is that it's based on an old mindset when information needed sherpas. Tomorrow’s world won’t need that kind of guide. I think the challenge for us all is to envision what that future world will be and then look at the resources and abilities libraries provide and make a match.

Seth keeps bringing in the music industry because there was an entire economic structure that no one could envision could tumble. Add publishing to that formula and we are looking at world where everything libraries are doing right now will no longer need that middleman. The direct link will be from creator to reader.

Seth isn’t attacking libraries, he is saying the world is changing so prepare now for a world unlike anything you can imagine. And here’s one possibility.

The solution for our future role is to take the challenge rather than trying to defend against the inevitable.


katybird said...

I agree that we need to challenge ourselves, think outside the traditional library model, and embrace online resources. But I find Godin's argument incredibly simplistic.

E-readers will become cheaper but there will always be a section of society that can't afford to buy one. Beyond that there will always be a section of society that isn't tech-savvy enough to use one, no matter how much training you provide. If we cease to trade in physical books, we risk disenfranchising some of the most vulnerable people.

And it worries me that Godin cites Wikipedia as a reliable online resource!

Great to read your blog though, it's certainly a debate we need to be having.

I've written a fuller response to Seth Godin's article The future of the library over on my blog:

Nancy Dowd said...

Hi Katy, Thanks for writing and for your blog post:

I know its really difficult to hear oversimplified ideas from someone outside the field especially when the details don't match the present reality. But that's Seth. His genius is his intuition.

The thing that struck me when Seth was talking was that he framed the argument by telling us that he tried to forewarn the music folks but they didn't listen.

Like this industry, the music folks all had great arguments defending their world view, with exact facts and numbers to support that view. But in the end, did that change the outcome?

~Kathy Dempsey said...

Lots of great discussion going on here!

Changes are certainly necessary, but are bound to be difficult because we are so entrenched in what we do, and because the public's view (both users & non) is so deep & long-lived.

One thing I'm sure of: We should NOT go forward in re-envisioning libraries for the future **without incorporating the public's thoughts**!!! We can't afford to make the mistake of guessing what they will value without asking.

This is a major tenet of the Cycle of True Marketing ( If you want to design products & services that people will desire & use & appreciate, then start with the research that reveals just what they are, then build those services that you know people will use.

We absolutely need to be getting input from our communities if we want to stay relevant.

Anonymous said...

Why are you using the music industry as an example? Without a library, I still have to purchase music. I still have to purchase access, so I can place music on my device that I had to purchase.

Doug Baldwin said...

Great post Nancy.. and Kathy I could not agree with you more. Ultimately for libraries need to reflect the needs and demands of their users. Without that, we simply exist in a vacuum protecting platitudes that may simply be outdated or no longer relevant.

The hard part is not just thinking about what our core values and missions should be, but being able to institute those changes when many times the knee-jerk reaction is to defend, instead of adapt.

We need to continue to have this conversation, re-evaluate our place in our communities, and ultimately be willing to adapt and act upon the changes that are taking place in order to meet our (redefined?) mission.

Should we be connecting people to information? People to people? Fostering meaningful experiences? Should we be doing all of these? But more importantly, what will our users "need" us to be for them?

Peter Bromberg said...

Nancy, I'm curious, if you don't see our core value as connecting people with ideas and information, what do you see our core value as? Also, I don't see connecting people to people as opposed to connecting people to information and ideas, I see it as a *form* of connecting people to information and ideas.

Obviously we have to change to survive and thrive, I'm only suggesting that we look to our core values and let them guide us as we creatively find new ways of bringing value to people's lives.

As for whether we need to change through evolution or leaps: When I say that we evolve, I mean we don't simply destroy valuable infrastructure and then, starting from scratch, attempt to rebuild something new that is better aligned with the needs of our customers. We critically evaluate what is needed, and we make those changes- some big, some small- every day, every week, guided by our core values every step of the way.

In any case I'm not so sure that people don't still need information sherpas. The ever-expanding field of information that we exist in (the proverbial information overload) and the boom of ask-an-expert site usage described in the latest OCLC "Perceptions" report might suggest that people need help navigating the flood of information more than ever.

hmcnally said...

There is one "t" in Gutenberg. Don't undercut the importance of your message by making silly mistakes like this. I tell it to my undergrad students and I'm saying it to you, too.

Nancy Dowd said...

@hmcnally You are so right :-)

Nancy Dowd said...

Pete, great question. I come from the marketing perspective so when I look at our core purpose I see what most of our customers see and for the most part they see libraries as the middleman between publishers and themselves. We work with producers of content so we can give them free books, music and databases, etc. I think while many customers may see us as gathering places, if we emptied our shelves of books and asked for funding, my guess is the dollars would stop.

But even if those customers saw our core purpose as connecting people to information and ideas and taxpayers were willing to fund us today, the argument I heard from Seth was the industries that have middlemen, that are connectors between producers and consumers are on a fast track to extinction. He uses the music industry as his example and he sees the publishing business going the same way. One of the authors asked him how authors could make money if books cost pennies. Seth explained that authors are going to have to create a direct connection to their followers (tribes) and sell in volume. And of course that’s becoming possible as books go digital because they can cut out the industries needed to print and distribute the books. As I listened to him I kept thinking the new mantra might be produce or consume or go home.

I’m not saying Seth came up with the solutions that will lead our industry to the future. Let’s face it, he’s an intuitionist, his genius is in the big picture. But he struck a nerve with me. I thought libraries would always be in the information business in one form or another. I also thought we’d play an important role in making sense of all the content. But I had this nagging feeling that the big piece I was missing was being blocked because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. The light bulb went off for me when Seth talked about the elimination of middlemen. I don’t know the exact technology that is coming up the pike, but I do know it will result in less middlemen. Technology’s path is to create a direct connection between producers and consumers. If libraries are middlemen, we’ll need to figure out a way to produce something tangible and unique that fills essential needs and will warrant funding (whether that funding comes from taxpayers, foundations, companies, etc.)

Is it going to be the great “people to people” connection Seth is suggesting? Maybe it’ll be more like our Dutch friends are suggesting – that we’ll be collaborating with our communities to create content. Or maybe we’ll become publishers or recreate content from our content in new formats. Maybe it’s all of that and more. But I think whatever the path we choose will need to recognize that our role as the middleman will not be needed.

As far as evolving and leaping, all I can say is thank goodness you’re the manager and I’m the marketer. ☺ But when I suggest we leap it’s because I think we are struggling so hard to get ahead of the middleman game that I’m not so sure we are looking at what we need to do to prepare for the future to get out of that game. And I’m worried because I think innovation moves a lot faster that we do.

Daniel Cooper Clark said...

I was happy to see Seth affirming the library as a place. No matter what the medium of the day is, a library is a public gathering place – for reading, viewing, listening – for talking, creating, playing.

Think of the Athenian Agora, and the Roman Forum. Raphael's painting "The School of Athens" sums it up.

Strip away the particular formats on library shelves, and what do we find? Here are three classic definitions of the library brand: Life-Long Learning, Self-Directed Learning, and The Life of the Mind. The contingent medium of the moment, or of the millennium, is not paramount. What's going on inside a library is an essential human activity.

Just as we might say a gym is for the life of the body, or a church is for the life of the spirit, so a library is for the life of the mind. Libraries are a necessity for a vibrant community life.

I used to say "a library is a clicks and bricks theme park whose theme is the life of the mind." Probably in the years to come the average public library will look less like a warehouse and more like a clubhouse.

What libraries are is buildings. They are specific physical locations. Locations where people get together in the same physical space will always attract us - because we have physical bodies, and yearn for the advantages of physical proximity with others - even if we're just sitting in a library reading from our mobile devices while others are doing the same without any verbal interchange.

What a library provides is a "real" physical place for us to gather in, along with others doing the same thing - living The Life of the Mind.

People whose homes or offices are noisy or distracting come to the library for a quiet place to read, think, write, and do other creative work. People whose home online devices are being used by other family members come to the library to use the public connection.

Members get together to collaborate and help each other. Literacy tutors help people learn how to read words, interpret images, and develop digital comprehension. Students study together in small groups. Local individuals and groups hold classes, lectures, and meetings. Audiences attend film and video showings. Children go to children's programs.

That's what the "communication age" is all about. Not really about processor chips - really about people. Not really about the internet - really about interaction.

It's an exciting time for new ideas. As you point out, Nancy, some people are saying we shouldn't continue to lend products made by others, but concentrate on publishing things made by people in our own community. We need to hear more new ideas like that. In this time of turmoil, our future is wide open. Carpe diem!