Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The shifting ground beneath libraries

With its tranquil gardens and stately corridors, the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace seemed like the perfect setting for this conference about the big transitions occurring in the library world. As new technologies combine with the perspectives of four “generations” of librarians, they are reshaping the way we view our roles as intermediaries in the distribution and consumption of knowledge. The changes rumbling beneath the marble floors of the Nixon Library illustrate some of the new trends. As we learned from two speakers, the Library’s executive director John H. Taylor and the director of the Nixon Presidential Materials Project, Dr. Timothy Naftali, the Library is set to morph from a private into a public space that will operate under the aegis of the National Archives. In the process of changing its mission, this institution will embrace both paper-based and digital materials as it attempts to tell a balanced story of the rise and fall of our 37th President.

The heart of the Generation Tech conference was the animated presentation by Michael Porter, a one-time children’s librarian who now uses his position with OCLC’s WebJunction ( to preach the virtues of what he calls “SociaLibTech.” Porter made a persuasive case for the power of emerging social software like MySpace (, YouTube (, Flickr (, and many others to help fulfill the librarian’s mission of sharing information with the communities she serves. Even though the library is generally thought of as a cornerstone of the community, said Porter, the institution is in danger of being bypassed unless it stays technologically relevant and goes where most “content consumption” is already taking place—on the Internet.

Porter offered several examples of SociaLibTech, including the web sites of Illinois’ Kankakee Public Library ( with its blogs, podcasts and RSS feeds as well as Washington’s North Central Regional Library ( with its mail order service along the lines of a Netflix. Vital decisions are being made today, he stressed, ones that will impact the patrons of the future. Porter acknowledged that “technology is not always the right answer” to every problem but that libraries are misguided if they simply let private organizations provide the kind of information services they are used to offering.

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