Internet Librarian

Joe JanesBy Joseph Janes
American Libraries Columnist

Associate dean, Information School, University of Washington, Seattle

September 2008

The Right Question

Knowing what to ask is the first step in facing the future

People often ask if I still enjoy writing this column (six years and 66 columns after I started, the answer remains an enthusiastic yes!). And do I struggle finding ideas? Regular readers know my inspirations have been ecumenical (The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, game shows, friends bonking me over the head with great ideas).

Often, it’s as simple as finding a great question. I was invited to take part in a fascinating session held by the Urban Libraries Council at the ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim. The day was devoted to exploration of the future of learning, particularly social learning, which the council has identified as a useful approach to thinking about what large urban libraries should do in the next 10 years or so.

The estimable researcher John Seely Brown opened the day, mercifully not giving the “I’m famous and smarter than you are” talk, exploring lots of invigorating and occasionally unsettling ideas about self-motivated learning, technology, and the role of thinking and knowledge (see his piece in the January/February 2008 issue of Educause). He was followed—and nicely challenged—by internet analyst Omar Wasow and computer-game expert J. C. Herz, both smart and fun to listen to.

The day was framed and structured by consultant Joel Garreau, who, as a reporter for the Washington Post, knows the value of a good question. In prior work he has done with teachers, helping them to consider their next steps, the focal question they came up with was “What is the future of schools?” Nothing shocking there.

However, Garreau sees that as likely the wrong question. A more effective, useful, provocative, and productive question would probably have been, as he suggested, “What is the future of education?” So, dear colleagues, what’s our question? About the future of libraries? Or of information? Or reading? Or books? All the above? Something else again?

There were a heap of “future of” and “rethinking libraries” sessions going on in Anaheim. Many bright people and institutions are trying to work this through, and we all know there’s a lot riding on getting it right and thus in getting the right focal question—perhaps that’s even the most important challenge of all.

There’s a well-worn analogy about the dawn of automobiles, when buggy-whip manufacturers ultimately had to decide whether they were in the buggy-whip business or the transportation business. The moral is obvious, but there must have been folks who really wanted to make buggy whips and went down with the ship (mixing my transportational metaphors) as a consequence.

Reductive reasoning

Allow me to propose a focal question for our profession. Your humble columnist was on the panel to wrap up to a surprisingly peppy late-afternoon crowd. In my remarks, I posited that the essential elements of a “library” were stuff, support, place, values, and interaction. Take away any of these, and what remains leaves something I wouldn’t recognize as a library.

While each is essential, and can be unique to us, I might hazard to offer one as a focal point for our discussions. If we could know the future of how people will want to interact with our resources and with us for that matter, a great deal might follow from that knowledge, including what sort of spaces and places and support will be best, and what kinds of values we might add to our already critical and cherished stock.

I left this day with more questions than answers, but also with a renewed sense of optimism, driven by the vigor and passion in the room, which would have been a useful tonic for buggy-whip fans . . . but that’s another story.