Search this site
Other stuff

All banner artwork by Brady Johnson, college student and (semi-) starving artist.

My latest books:


        Available now

       Available Now

Available now 

My book Machines are the easy part; people are the hard part is now available as a free download at Lulu.

 The Blue Skunk Page on Facebook


EdTech Update




« Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs... | Main | Point/Counterpoint in L&L »

Dangerously irrelevant libraries

My friend Scott McLeod at the Dangerously Irrelevant blog posts a list of hard questions about books, libraries and librarians in "10 questions about books, librarians, and schools." He's been using these questions as the foundation of some (very good) keynotes given at library conferences, including one here in Minnesota.

Now I don't normally cut and past large blocks of other folks' blog posts, but I'm going to do so now. His full post ought to be read, however.

Two things: First it's incredibly important we have people like Scott from outside our profession giving us attention and asking us to think. (Gary Harzell has done a great favor to us this way in the past - and continues to do so.) We tend to be a professional echo chamber in our journals, blogs and conferences. That critical eye from the non-librarian can be one of our best learning tools, albeit sometimes an uncomfortable one to use.

Second, how we respond to folks like Scott says a lot about us. Can we explain our values and mission and realities without sounding defensive, self-serving or reactionary? Read the responses to Scott's post, put on your classroom teacher, principal, or parent hat and evaluate!

Random questions

  1. What constitutes a “book” these days? When books become electronic and thus become searchable, hyperlinkable, more accessible to readers with disabilities, and able to embed audio, video, and interactive maps and graphics, at what point do they stop becoming “books” and start becoming something else?
  2. The Amazon Kindle e-reader currently allows you to annotate an electronic book passage with highlights and your own personal notes. Those annotations are even available to you on the Web, not just on the Kindle device itself. As Seth Godin notes, there hopefully will be a day when you will be able to share those notes with others. You’ll also be able to push a button on your e-reader and see everyone else’s notes and highlights on the same passage. What kind of new learning capabilities will that enable for us?
  3. If students and teachers now can be active content creators and producers, not just passive information recipients, doesn’t that redefine our entire notion of what it means to be information literate and media fluent? Are our librarians and classroom teachers doing enough to help students master these new literacies (for example, by focusing on student content creation, not just information consumption and/or interpretation)?
  4. The Cushing Academy boarding school in Massachusetts may be the first school in the country to have its library go completely electronic. In addition to using library computers, students now check out Kindles loaded with books. How tough would it be for other schools to move to this model (and what would they gain or lose as a result)?
  5. When books, magazines, newspapers, reference materials, music, movies, and other traditional library content all go electronic and online - deliverable on demand - what does that mean for the future of the physical spaces known as “libraries?” Mike Eisenberg said to me that we already should be taking yellow caution tape and blocking off the entire non-fiction and reference sections of our libraries. As content becomes digital and no longer needs to be stored on a shelf, with what do we replace that now-unused floor space: couches, tables, and cozy chairs? computer stations? meeting space? And if we head in these directions, what will distinguish libraries from other institutions such as coffee shops, community centers, and Internet cafes?
  6. Our information landscape is more complex than ever before. We still need people who know how to effectively navigate these intricate electronic environments and who can teach others to do so. But does that mean we still need “librarians” who work in “libraries?” Or will their jobs morph into something else?
  7. How much of a librarian’s current job could be done by someone in a different location (for example, someone in India who answers questions via telephone or synchronous chat) or by computer software and/or an electronic kiosk? I don’t know the answer to this question - and I suspect that it will vary by librarian - but I do know that many individuals in other industries have been quite dismayed to find that large portions of their supposedly-indispensable jobs can be outsourced or replaced by software (which, of course, means that fewer people are needed locally to do whatever work requires the face-to-face presence of a live human being).
  8. Can a librarian recommend books better than online user communities and/or database-driven book recommendation engines? For example, can a librarian’s ability to recommend reading of interest surpass that of a database like Amazon’s that aggregates purchasing behavior or a dedicated user community that is passionate about (and maybe rates/reviews) science fiction books, and then do so for romance, political history, manga, self-help, and every other possible niche of literature too?
  9. If school librarians aren’t actively and explicitly modeling powerful uses of digital technologies and social media themselves and also supporting students to do the same, should they get to keep their jobs? And if they are doing so individually (which is what we want), what’s their responsibility to police the profession (and lean on those librarians who aren’t)?
  10. There is no conceivable future in which the primacy of printed text is not superceded by electronic text and media. If that future is not too far away (and may already be here), are administrators doing enough to transition their schools, libraries, and librarians / media specialists into a new paradigm?

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (22)

I posted two long-winded (relative to blog posts) responses to Scott's questions. Unfortunately, there isn't enough room or time to address all of what is in this conversation. It is too big as it deals with everything from the future of libraries, to school reform, to teacher evaluation.

Some will probably respond with defensive tone, and I would consider that predictable. The questions are not written (in my opinion) to promote conversation that moves towards understanding, but rather are written from an individual's frame of reference complete with personal bias. The questions are worded from a, "Here is what I think, now tell me I am wrong" kind of position. (This is how I see the questions).

I can pull from the questions some of what Scott is probably really wanting to get into, but the way in which the questions are worded will probably cause more of a roadblock to a good conversation.

Some alternative questions might help the issue along.

As an example...

As students become overwhelmed by information available to them (and volume does not necessarily promote savvy consumerism), how does the role of teachers / school librarians need to change to help students become more media literate and informationally literate?

It is a great conversation to have, but I'm afraid the questions originally posted won't get it started properly (or... maybe Scott is genius to anger people and get them to "let it all out"...?)

November 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoel VerDuin

Great stuff. I see how my job has changed in 7 years...district library media specialist to media specialist in charge of technology, to technology trainer. We're trying to move in the direction of empowering teachers to learn and do more themselves with technology. Perhaps my old job was too much of a crutch for my former school? Maybe it's too easy to have someone in the building you can go running to at any time of the school day? My generation will probably be able to retire around 80, so it'll be interesting to look back and see what my career path looks like.

I think all teachers need to look critically at themselves as well. Using a lab so an English class can type a paper is a waste of resources and instructional time. Teaching keyboarding to high/jr/middle schoolers is just nuts. Some get stuck on teaching this program or that. We need to be teaching them how to manipulate anything we put in front of them, because what they'll be doing next year, in 5 years or 10 years is anybody's guess.

November 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNathan

No way I can respond to all of these just now, but here are my initial reactions to a few:

3. I don't see students being active content creators to be new in any way--writing assigned essays is, after all, content creation. I think the main changes are that a greater number of formats/styles to create in exist, and students do have a greater chance of having their creations reach a larger audience. I think our educational response should be to offer a variety of formats for assignments (as a blog post, as a video, etc.), possibly allowing more choice in the format, and to focus more instruction on thinking about audience, specifically thinking about privacy, safety and other issues that go along with having a larger audience.

7. For this, I offer a current example from my own job (late night librarian at a state university): right now, I have about 7 public health graduate students sitting in the reference area working on papers due tomorrow. I have been looking up articles on databases with them, walking them to our bound journals area, looking up books and walking them to the shelves, walking them through constructing an APA citation, and trying to maintain positive morale by plying them with peppermints. I don't think I could do this effectively via chat or phone--certainly not with a group--and I'm not sure that each student (or at least some of the students) wouldn't have given up at some point if it weren't for the in person help.

9. I admit that this question just pushes my buttons and makes me mad. I'm not sure yet how to respond, but my first thought is that mediocre people all over the country still have jobs in all sorts of fields--who's policing them. I don't think that not being on the very cutting edge of technology even MAKES school librarians mediocre. Many of the university students I work with know how to use social media to the hilt (for personal use, at least), but can't write a bibliography entry. Why shouldn't the school librarian who doesn't quite get Facebook, but knows that every one of his/her students leaves understanding what a bibliography is, how to write one in some approved style, and how to get help learning other styles keep their job, and indeed be acknowledged for this contribution to the students' education?

Good food for thought.

November 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLibby

This is a good post and good questions.I also agree with some of these questions.Its really interesting for me to read this post.Thank you very much for sharing this post with us.

November 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterginko   

I am currently at my first AASL conference and my first thought is that the profession is going to change dramatically when all these librarians retire (which should be any day now). Where are the young whipper snappers? Where are the men? If I see one more 60-something looking over the top of her reading glasses I am going to scream! At Danah Boyd's keynote about social networking yesterday I had the feeling that most of the audience thought it was a nice talk but didn't really get her point. Wake up ladies, if you don't get with the program you won't get to be a part of shaping the future of this profession.

November 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous

“what will distinguish libraries from other institutions such as coffee shops, community centers, and Internet cafes?”
With regards to that particular question--the difference will be the librarian(s) present.

Call me a librarian, call me an information specialist, call me “whatever” – I am still going to do whatever I can with my skills and experiences to bring forth a better result for the patron, be it a better book, a better digital response, a rewarding social experience , or an efficient process.

If the patron can not tell the difference, then perhaps the fault lies with me, the librarian, who has not risen to the challenge of transforming my beloved “institution” into the type of place that meets all the needs of all my patrons.

November 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterVWB

The time will probably come when a library like I grew up with will be a thing of the past, but I agree that there will still be a need for a professional who can instruct others on reference and information. Probably more now then ever. Kids might know the bells and whistles of technology, but as stated in an earlier post can they write a college level paper? How about a decent high-school paper? Spell check isn't going to help them when all they can write is texting shortcuts like AISI, PMFJI, IIWM, ADN, and CULater. I hope someone is around to teach them how to use a dictionary - oh wait, they can go to TTFN!

Futurists are charlatans, and they know it, we know it, but it's fun to gaze into crystal balls, so we play the game.

Like fortune tellers and seers, they state the obvious in deep and mysterious ways, which is not hard, since the future is (in our heads, anyway) deep and mysterious.

Scott McLeod has a nice side job stirring folks up. So long as he doesn't get swallowed up in his own hype, he performs a necessary service, and he performs it well.

Any man who believes "we are currently preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist, using technologies that haven't been invented, in order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet" then proceeds to predict the future anyway gives me pause. (I think the quote was Karl Fisch's, and to be fair, it was originally meant for a school presentation where hyperbole is encouraged.)

The last question posed (#9: "There is no conceivable future....") either reflects brilliant tongue-in-cheekiness, or a lack of imagination.

We are human. We eat. We breath. We poop and we pee, We play to make more of us. We get old. We die. We will always need food, and food will remain tied to the sun, the the earth, to the air.

The recent shift in ownership in this country is frightening; the unemployment rate is not just an accident of economics. We cannot educate ourselves out of replacing people with machines.

The McLeod's of our culture have found themselves a nice niche. If we ever took the time to deeply look at any of the questions posed above, we might have a wonderful discussion about what it means to be human, what it means to use a tool, what it means to place value on things ultimately useless.

Those kinds of discussions are not glittery enough to hold our attention, and we would not like the conclusions if we could sit still long enough to think them through. We've become more magpie than human.

I enjoy your blog because it encourages the kind of reflection shunned by so many other blogs. Posing a list of McLeodisms jars the reader seeking BlueSkunkisms, but it's a good reminder of what many of the tech elite believe.

November 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Doyle

I've been following TWeets from the AASL conference from some very enthusiastic, vital, and inspiring librarians, and that i s my answer to Scott's post. We do have vision, we do have change leaders, and we are transforming.

More to come from me on this soon!

November 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn Foote

As a student in an online LME program, this discussion is exciting, because I too, wonder where my career path will lead in education. As a high school teacher, this discussion seems so far off from what I do on a daily basis: I do use class time to have my English 9 students write papers because I teach the process more so than the content of the paper. I need to be able to walk around our lab and show them how to fix that sentence fragment or put in the correct citation. In the end, I teach students how to read, write, think, and try again if it first they don't succeed. As Libby stated, I connect with them so they feel like human beings and that will always be important.

November 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Berkner

Hi Joel,
Thanks for the response. Good point about how we frame a question may well determine whether the resulting conversation is constructive or not. Maybe Scott's background as a lawyer has something to do with this ;-)

All the best,

Hi Nathan,
I've experienced a similar movement to empowering teachers. It's a tough row to hoe with some, however!

Interesting you mention word-processing labs. We have a couple in our district, but put the oldest and least powerful machines in them. I can't wait until netbooks make nearly all labs obsolete.

Appreciate the comments,

Hi Libby,

All great responses. Love the example of your work with health students. I hope Scott reads this.


HI Dorothy,

My sense is that correlating age and resistance to change is a popular, but not very accurate notion. I know quite a few 50-something librarians that are more creative, better tech users, and run better programs than 30-something librarians. You gotta at least say this about the people who show up at AASL to listen to dayna - they've at least HEARD the message ;-)

And I can't really explain the absence of me. It distresses me too.

Old and gettin' older,


Wise words. Thank you.


November 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

I really must respond to the post by anonymous:

"my first thought is that the profession is going to change dramatically when all these librarians retire (which should be any day now). Where are the young whipper snappers? Where are the men? If I see one more 60-something looking over the top of her reading glasses I am going to scream!"

Just what makes you think that older librarians cannot contribute to dramatic changes in the profession? I am a 57-year-old high school librarian, and I dare say, the major proponent of technology integration and innovation in my building. I am as much a liaison with our tech staff as I am a traditional librarian. I blog, I glog, I create movies. And I help students learn via books AND technology. I am certain that we need a total paradigm shift in education, and I am equally certain that I am one of very few teachers, young or old, in my building who have even given much thought to this idea. Change in the library media profession will not come from only the young whipper snappers. Accomplishing such a goal will require experience as well as youth.

November 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarsha Redd

Geesh, catching up after AASL and I sure hope lasik is less expensive for that "anonymous" whippersnapper who was there when she is my age, fifties and fast approaching the sixties. Apparently she missed Ross, Carol, David, Valerie, Connie, Vi, Gail, Cassandra, Terry and so many other of the inspirational and top notch presenters. Heck, I've even seen Joyce peaking over her glasses. BTW the people who put that fabulous conference together and brought Danah to speak are also in "the" age bracket. As usual, great discussion Doug. :-)

November 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSandy K

I have been wrestling with this very issue myself recently. My musings are on my blog: I polled some fellow teachers about this, and you can read some of their responses in that post, too. Very thought provoking. I have to say, though, that I have given the subject only cursory analysis. I guess my response has just been visceral and I need to dive in further. Thanks for the post!

November 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStacy Nockowitz

Hi Stacy,

Thanks for sharing the link to your blog post on this topic. Well worth reading and considering.

I found it interesting how much your teachers still love print. I too, like books, but for the stories and information they contain. I don't get that much different experience from my Kindle, I guess. And what do your students tell you?

All the best and thanks for the link,


November 11, 2009 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Just one quick thought here about school libraries and relevancy... my students are in middle school. They don't have credit cards and they can't drive yet. Unless their parents pay for materials --- digital or print -- or drive them to get materials or devices, then my students' choices are limited. As a school library, I can provide access to materials for ALL of the students in my school, not just those that have resources. Libraries are a great equalizer -- and also a watchdog to providing access to materials to all. Not sure that we won't still need watchdogs.

November 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKat

Response to #7. We already have online chat for reference questions with real librarians. We have already, as a profession, recognized the need to be available in the virtual world in real time to help people. Has Mr. McLeod informed himself on the actual current state of library services or is he working from an outdated frame of reference himself?

Response to #8. I have used both online user community-generated reviews and database-driven book recommendation engines. While I occasionally get some useful information from customer reviews on Amazon, I find the vast majority are along the lines of "I liked this book. It's the greatest ever!" "This book was a total waste of money. Don't bother." Those are opinions, not meaningful reviews and are useless in trying to decide if I will like the book. As for the database-driven recommendation engines, I have gotten a few gems from those but entering the book "The Pursuit of Love" by Nancy Mitford garnered me recommendations for the Mitford series by Jan Karon. Enough said. Recommendations from a librarian constitute thoughtful reviews of hundreds if not thousands of titles over a professional lifetime with actual training in determining what makes books appealing and identifying those same traits in a different book, even if I didn't like the book myself.

I'm all for looking ahead and trying to see where we are going/should or should not be going as a profession. I just found these questions to be a little glib.

November 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStacey Lunsford

Hi Kat,

Ah, but do they have access to the Internet? Our community surveys show well over 90% do. But, yes, libraries should be the best solution we have for helping close the digital divide.

Thanks for the comment,


Hi Stacey,

I agree that many librarians are doing what you report. The questions is - what percent?

Thanks for the comment,


November 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson


This is so true, but others just won't understand it!


November 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDataEntryFan

True or not true, Scott helps us think "big picture" and out of the box when it comes to education. One thing I know is true- we simply cannot continue in our current, 19th C educational system! It simply is not meeting the needs of our ever changing world that we are sending students into. Now, how does that effect the library - well, that is a question that I leave up to the school's administration who hopefully is having some pretty serious conversations about thriving in an educational revolution.

November 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJason Hunt

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>