Welcome on MEDiakitab blog. This program aims at sharing information and ressources dedicated to reading and writing practices, from story telling to digital form, in the Euro-Mediterranean space.

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Gilles Eboli’s view on future libraries

The challenge of hybrid librairies

Gilles Éboli. Marseille – Alcazar Regional Library.

After having managed the Moselle departmental loan library, Gilles Éboli, an archivist and paleographer, was Assistant Director of Dijon Municipal Library, project manager at the Carré d’Art in Nîmes and Director of the Cité du Livre in Aix-en-Provence. Today he is Director of the Alcazar Regional Library in Marseille.

He is author of several papers in the BBF and in Bibliothèque(s). He is also former chairman of the French Librarians’ Association and recently published “Books and Readers in 17th century Provence: About David’s, printers and booksellers in Aix (Perrousseaux Workshop, 2008).

June 2006: Centenary Conference of the French Librarians’ Association entitled “The library tomorrow”  (1). November 2009: Conference at the National School of Information Science & Libraries (ENSSIB) in Villeurbanne, entitled “Libraries for 2019 (2). Between these two dates, the profession had many occasions to reflect upon its future. The subject, as regularly presented by the French Librarians’ Association in its annual conferences since 2006, remains topical. In 2010 ENSSIB proposed institutionalising and decentralising its events. We can see the stakes of this issue at a time when the future, and not only for libraries, is uncertain – or at least is becoming blurred. In his brief introduction to “Libraries for 2019″, Pascal Ory set out three possible scenarios: dissolve the concept of libraries in the liberal and liberitarian information system, create “Indian reserves” which peacefully coexist with a world which has taken another route, or recreate the concept according to a “global-local” law of compensation, highlighting proximity, materialisation and public service.

From this point of view, it would be interesting to re-examine the three aspects of work planned in 2006 by integrating new elements highlighted since then at many different study days, conferences and congresses, which have constructively strewn the path of libraries from Paris 2006 to Villeurbanne 2009. What is the situation of the hybrid library and taking into account the digital revolution in libraries? What is the situation of this occupational movement which was supposed to take the collection to the public, replacing users at the heart of a system which until then only contained privileged documents? Finally, should libraries always assert themselves as living areas in cities rather than just as stocks of documents for consultation or loan?

Solid & liquid

Let’s begin with digital: no-one contests the fact that the digital revolution is transforming, and even undermining and overturning models built over time, requalifying objects whose nature was seen as perpetual. Here, the material/immaterial balance of hybrid libraries has for documents become a solid/liquid balance and for services local/global. The physical book is thus endowed, after two thousand years of good and faithful service, with a new virtue, we daren’t say its finitude, an inexact characteristic with connotations, but its closed and restricted enclosed nature: the situation has been assessed, a reference has been created, stable, in both its container and its content, another type of nobility, completing and/or completed by the digital object, a fluid, instable, evolutive, liquid object. Required for collections, this requalification also applies to services, and the paradox here, if there is one, is seeing global and virtual positively requalify local and material. We will return to this point later on.

For the moment, let’s return to the digital point in question with, precisely (?), a new notion to now include in our landscape, that of the “digital bath” (3), to use an aquatic metaphor. Here it is best to imagine inside the house of a “geek” (4) or at least the bedroom of a “digital native” (5): desktop, laptop, i-phone, wii and even digital terrestrial television receiver are within sight and close to hand, by an unmade bed for some, by an impeccably tidy desk for others. At the end of this paper we will go back over the symbolic transposition of this universe onto the library area. Let’s remember here the applications available, now essential for post-revolutionary users who will want to be able to bathe at the library too.

Let’s now move on, since it cannot be avoided, to the digital library, to look at another emerging notion: digital identity. Saying that libraries today, with regard to the traces which they register on the net, develop coherent and concerted strategies based on a global project, within which material and immaterial are envisaged and dealt with in a reasoned and complementary way, is not yet possible.

The existence within the Book Council (6) of a committee working in favour of a digital plan proves this  with regard to digitised collections: who digitised what and why, we don’t really know yet. It is not only the digital library which is being called into question here, but the entire system from a presence on the internet to digitised collections accessible on portal websites being added to “off portals” just like there is an “outside the library” with Flickr, Netvibes, Facebook 7, etc. What coherence, what aim and which project? The question is asked as to whether we want to avoid simple parallel and peripheral addition.

Facebook and its adjacent territories lead us, to complete this initial approach on substitutes for the hybrid library, to the web 2.0 and the community web.

Two points: firstly, the impression of a professional overinvestment in the web 2.0 may perhaps compensate for the delay in this field in the late 1990′s and early 2000′s by libraries. The number of specific study days dedicated to this issue is impressive, although perhaps not always legitimate: it does however show a strong will to evolve. Overinvestment also endeavours, perhaps still, to give itself the means to apprehend this other new notion compared to 2006, that of social networks and digital community. In the hybrid library is the web 2.0 a temporary gadget or a deeper trend? I would be tempted to say the second provided, there too, it is an integral part of digital identity and even more generally of the library’s identity.

All players

In fact, if we consider the web 2.0 from the point of view of the ability of the cybernaut (and therefore the user) to be a player on the web (and therefore the library), we can logically go from the hybrid library to the question of audiences. And more generally, by extension, from the perspective of a library model based on the production/distribution couple (ie. collection/loan) to a model based on servuction (or production of services). By further extension, we can see an occupation related to the change from a vertical, prescriptive and collective paradigm, at the heart of an collection based occupation, to a horizontal, participative and personalised paradigm, at the heart of a public based occupation. This results in a change from stock management to flow management, or even from solid management to liquid management, and its metamorphosis from an offer based policy to a demand based policy.

Let’s break it down. Firstly, to avoid being over simplistic: flow management does not cancel out stock management, demand is not the enemy of offer, just as the public is not the enemy of the collection, and finally necessary individuation does not rule out a shared project. It is all about balancing and evolving, not breaking away and revolution. It is no longer about knowing whether “libraries will still exist tomorrow, but what type of libraries we will need tomorrow” (8).

The public, barred from entering at certain times due to unsuitable opening times, elitist and invasive collections, buildings in unpractical locations, even inexistent, now has access through the liquid virtual window. Better still, the customers (who are always right) of triumphant liberalism also want to think of themselves as players! We should avoid caricaturising and take a look at what we can see. Firstly, by saying without mincing our words, that in the field of user relations and under the heading “public oriented”, it is today possible with the human and technological means we have available to go well beyond the suggestions box: comments on notices, classing the most popular works, blogs, e-reader communities, audioblogs, speed-booking, wikis, etc. The list of library-user co-constructions is endless, replacing old rags with new clothes and why not? It’s obvious that work is still required to more effectively take into account not only the expectations of individual users, but also individuals themselves. This work is even more essential since on the internet there is an abundance of documents which, paradoxically, enjoins the librarian to now create targeted and analysed rarity, suited to specific individuals.

This adaptation requires many different skills. One of the most important is the necessary “profiling” of the public to provide individualised answers to requests. Librarians also have to manage as closely as possible the demands of their public. As abundance becomes the norm, the time users can dedicate to their requests requires prepared efficiency. Savings in attention available, like the transmutation of abundance into rarity, which are apparently new in the occupation, here too replace the former well-known skills of librarians as bibliographers – but with a face lift (9).

A final clue concerning the eruption of the public into the library/economic game: its own traces. Whilst collections were constructed based on the choices of staff, the internet is constructed based on the connections of users, their number and frequency. Users have gone from being voters to voted, in perhaps an underground and blind, but very real way. The translation of this new adage in our libraries is obviously the source of perplexity.

I’ve got exactly the same one at home

But why, at the end of the day, should we strive to recenter the activity of libraries on the public? Some people evoke the spectre of supermarkets, the consumer dictatorship and relinquishing their mission? It is here that the well known “I have exactly the same one (library) at home” syndrome comes into play: why travel (sometimes a long way and often at inappropriate times) when the internet provides an ever more complete library? Why continue to build and pay for libraries when Google has solved the problem (and not only for media in search of sensational news, but also for elected representatives in daily contact with budgets, administrators searching for answers to the questions of these elected representatives, etc). Why? Due, amongst other things obviously, to the “third place” (first place: home; second place: work; third place: library, cinema, museum, etc.) and “physical presence”. Despite the new culmination of digital presence each day, humans persist in wanting to meet real people in real places to do something different or the same thing but differently from at home or at work, in order to …  live together.

In Scandinavia firstly (Helsinki’s famous Library No. 10 and Oslo’s municipal library project, not to forget Rotterdam or Delft), then in Great Britain (with the “learning centre” movement for university libraries and “idea stores” for public libraries), librarians supported this movement, replying to “I’ve got exactly the same one (library) at home” by “I’ve got exactly the same one (home) at the library”. This is the central idea of the “living room library”, where shelves and documents give way to sofas and coffee tables.

The third place, the living room library, a living area, whatever the name for the descendents of living-roomers, who will also want to find the digital bath in libraries, but not only that.

The “living area” trend leads indeed to other consequences. Firstly, a necessary “showcasing” of the collection which has not yet disappeared: facing, favourites, showcases, paths. This dramatisation of shelving should reflect the enrichment of catalogue notices (labels, contents, author biographies, permalinks, etc). Another emerging trend: the institution’s showcasing. Going from the collection to the public, from stock to flow, we necessarily go from static to movement, from structure to event. Here it is not about creating a music-hall (even at Marseille’s Alcazar), but encouraging bringing together the public and the collection by making the library which showcases it lively, encouraging numerous and regular meetings, linked to the collection, occasions for debates, meetings with the creation, just simply meetings, including it as part of a more global project, and including in the very heart of the system spaces until then known at best as peripheral: exhibition halls, meeting rooms, auditorium, and even, since there may be participation, practise rooms, workshops, etc.

A final aspect to take into consideration: the crossing of forms (10). The library, in this showcasing register, has indeed nothing to lose by taking inspiration, enriching itself from other forms of meetings with the public: after having used the resources of museography, why not draw inspiration from the performing arts and not only for story-telling?

True librarians

And what about the librarian in all of this? In her recent memoirs, Raphaële Gilbert, a future librarian, ponders: “Is it still possible to be a librarian? (11)”. The question is even more legitimate since just like the public, librarians too are becoming players. A new paradoxical consequence of the impact of the digital revolution on the occupation: the movement it induces in libraries in the book chain. Until then placed at the end, around the distribution function, libraries are now climbing the chain with production functions: the production of rarity is an example of this, as is showcasing. The list is long, so we no longer know if there will still be true librarians as there are real people. Here several commentators, after feedback from the public (whilst we await the return of lending which some see occurring at the heart of the library as a living area), are calling for a return to values. Building tomorrow’s library around a hybrid library based on the public, a forum and living area in the city undoubtedly, but on based on values clearly asserted to the risk of dispersion and dissolution. Equality with free and unrestricted access to knowledge, fraternity with a culture which is discussed and shared, freedom with a library which enables individuals to construct themselves: the republican trilogy can still shed light on this. •

January 2010

1. Proceedings online on the ABF website: www.abf.asso.fr

2. Proceedings will appear in the Presses ENSSIB; speeches and presentations online:

3. Cf. Paper by François Rouet in “Horizon 2019″.

4. Is said of someone who makes uncontrolled use of IT Tools.

5. Is said of generations born after the advent of new IT technologies, and namely the internet.

6. Directly attached to the Ministry of Culture & Communication, the Book Council, an interprofessional and interministerial body, debate of major transversal subjects (book at school, exporting French books, bookstore support, digital policy).

7. www.flickr.com ; www.netvibes.com ; http://fr-fr.facebook.com/

8. Raphaële Gilbert, “Innovative library services: building new relationships with users”; available in the ENSSIB’s digital library: www.enssib.fr/bibliotheque-numerique/

9. Cf. Article by François Cavalier in “Horizon 2019″.

10. Cf. Article by François Rouet, ibid.

11. In : Raphaële Gilbert, ibid., passim.

Helsinki’s Library No. 10. Photo: Pedro Layant (on Flickr)

Delft’s Dok Library. Photo: Pedro Layant (on Flickr)