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Let's Not Get Physical

Submitted by Kate Sheehan on January 27, 2011 - 9:10am

In the watered-down simplification of high school life that appears in teen movies (made by adults), libraries are the home of nerds. Jocks exist in the physical realm, while nerds dwell in the landscape of the mind. Anyone who has been to high school (or perhaps seen The Breakfast Club) knows that teenagers don’t live in a world so facile and rigid, but libraries, during and after we’re done with high school, are seen as temples to the intellect.

Libraries are, our surveys keep telling us, perceived as book-based places. We may want people to see us as being about information and community, but when I’m looking for a library I’ve never been to before and I can’t find it based on the architecture (surprisingly easy in New England), I look in the windows – the stacks are a dead giveaway (and can be seen easily from the road). I’m not sure what information looks like from the side of the road.

Our long history with information in the form of books has tied us to the physical more than we may realize. The northeast has been walloped with a series of snowstorms in the past month, and I’ve been thankful for a job I can do from home, but more than that, I’ve been thankful to work for an organization that has created a culture of working from home. Because our service desk operates by phone, email, and IM, my coworkers and I can (and do) work from almost anywhere.

The actual ability to do work from anywhere is not that new. Nor is it particularly unusual for libraries. Most librarians write reports, work on collection development, read professional literature, and check email from home. But the culture in libraries often doesn’t count work done offsite as “real” work. Certainly part of this is rooted in the culture of service. Service is at the heart of what we do, so public-facing time is held above all other activities.

Until recently, the information that libraries traffic in has been physical objects. Books, magazines, movies, music, pamphlet files, journals – all things. The shift to information and content without an actual container has not been smooth for anyone. Consumers are willing to pay for actual newspapers, but balk at paying for online access to the same content (of course, paying for access instead of ownership is a huge part of this issue, and a subject for another post). Personally, I buy music digitally when I assign lower value to it. Music I’m buying only because its high tempo makes it good for the gym comes from iTunes. But albums from artists I’ve followed for years? Those I like to hold in my hand. However, while this preference used to feel normal and reasonable, it’s starting to feel more and more like an out-of-step, possibly pathological, quirk.

The culture of information consumption is changing from a physically-rooted activity to one dictated purely by the information itself. Libraries are at risk of being a casualty of this shift. Ebooks are certainly at the core of this issue for libraries, but also the expectation of ubiquity is not built into library culture (yet). Problems that used to be standard in our computing lives – data lost in crashes, left on other computers, bookmarked in other browsers – are now perceived almost as personal failures. Solutions (Instapaper, Dropbox, SugarSync) are offered, maybe with a hint of pity. Yet when I tried to renew my library card without the actual card (I only had the keychain tag), I ended up having to buy a new card. Of course I understood where the library was coming from, but a teeny part of me kept thinking “Twitter can verify people’s identity online, why can’t we?”

Coming into the library shouldn’t be a punishment. When I was in high school, I worked at a large office supply store that shared a parking lot with a large chain bookstore. My parents picked me up from work one day and said that they had consistently noticed that people were happy going into the bookstore, but looked aggravated going into the store I worked in. I told them that I thought the bookstore was someplace people generally went for fun, while my store was for chores. People had to come in, they didn’t want to. We want people to want to come to the library. Just like we want people to come to library conferences when they’re happy and able to do so. However, when they can’t or don’t want to, they shouldn’t be penalized for it. Getting someone to walk through the door isn’t always a win.

At our MidWinter wrap up webinar, Tom Peters and Jason Griffey both mentioned the increasing movement towards libraries as providers of services instead of content. How many of those services will be physically based or driven by the idea of information as object? The growing movement within ALA to find a way for librarians to attend a conference without going bodily to the conference is hopefully the harbinger of a shift in library culture away from the physical world to wherever the minds of our patrons happen to be.


Comments (3)

Well, I would need a

Well, I would need a different phone before I could authenticate with it ;).

I think mostly I want the entire world to have read Bruce Schneier, and therefore to think marginally more logically about trust, authentication, and security; what the assumptions in their models actually are, and whether they contradict with each other or with the model's purpose. But that is a pipe dream.

But yes, I think it would be nice if ways I could authenticate myself at home also worked at the library. And, if some authentication methods allow only a limited set of privileges, I would like it to be somehow logical. It seems like the library considers the number/PIN authentication to be weaker than the card form, given that they won't let me do it at the desk -- but it doesn't seem like the set of things I am allowed to *do* with that authentication is somehow lower-stakes than what I am allowed to do with a card.

Really it all just seems unexamined; "we do it this way out of habit". Like in the pre-OPAC world -- lo, these several decades ago -- it made sense that everything was card-mediated, but once there was an OPAC they had to have some other authentication and it incidentally happened to align with a different set of things you are capable of doing (since you are not physically at the library), but they never thought through whether these things might actually relate. A chimera of policies grafted together.

I can't speak for all

I can't speak for all libraries (or any library, really), but many of the libraries I have worked at have wanted library members to think of their library card like a credit card. Which is sort of what your library is doing.

I can see what rankles - you're being asked to prove your identity when you are without your card, but allowed to use any card you have with you, regardless of identity authentication. It is possible that your library has your account linked with your husband's in some way, so when you have his card, they know this is OK. (except they don't know you're you, do they?) Everything hinges on the card itself, rather than actual authentication (though lots of things work this way - I have used my husband's credit card, despite not being able to pass for a Gary).

Your comment made me realize that a feature of Evergreen (the ILS I currently work with) has quite a bit of utility. Staff can pull up a patron record and allow a member to test her password. I initially took this as a good way to let staff troubleshoot the "I know my password is X, but it's not working" problem. I'm thinking now that it could also be used to verify identity for cardless patrons. If you know your password, you can borrow books.

Anyway, I'm guessing you feel like a value judgment is being made - your user name and pin are good enough for certain types of interactions with the library, but not enough to borrow physical items. There are an awful lot of library policies out there designed to foil book thieves that end up frustrating readers (and not really doing much to deter theft). For that matter, I see a lot of library policies designed around outdated cost structures - DVDs are cheaper than books these days, though they are a more fragile and higher-theft item.

Of course, the library needs to know who has its stuff. But we send a lot of messages about which stuff we value and how much we trust our users in how we identify and penalize the people coming in our door. Would you feel like the policy were more logical if there was a way to use your OPAC log in to authenticate yourself at the desk? Better yet, what if you could authenticate with your phone?

The last couple of times I

The last couple of times I went to the library I didn't have my card (having, ironically, removed it from my wallet to make more space for business cards for ALA Midwinter...). And one of the librarians gave me a hard time about this. And I couldn't stop thinking -- so, wait. With just my card number and my PIN, I can log in to my library account. I can place the holds that I now need to pick up. I can view my patron record and my fines. I can pay fines. I could conceivably rack up fines, by placing holds that I didn't then pick up or return. Basically, those two pieces of knowledge authenticate me to perform an awful lot of potentially sensitive transactions. But they do not suffice for me to pick up a book? Um. Why is this logical?

I suppose you could say, ah, well, but knowing that information wouldn't prove that you're *you*, so some malefactor who knew my card number and PIN could steal my holds. If they knew about them. And then the library wouldn't be able to track them down. But it is explicitly OK to pick up holds as long as you have the physical card -- there is no requirement that you authenticate *as you*, so indeed I've picked up my husband's holds for him by borrowing his library card.

Even odder when you consider that, when I don't have my card, they want to see my license -- in other words they want me to authenticate *as me*, something that by their stated policy is not required if I have a card, and indeed, per the above example, not even expected.

Illogical policies really bug me. Perhaps there's some important context I'm missing here, and I welcome people telling me why this secretly makes sense.