Interview: Nate Hill, Web Librarian

Interview: Nate Hill, Web Librarian

Posted by Kenny Whitebloom on March 2, 2012 in Audience, Blog, Featured.

Nate Hill is a web librarian at the San Jose Public Library (CA), manager of the Public Library Association blog, and a convener for the DPLA Audience & Participation workstream. He spoke with us last week via email about the workstream’s work in advance of DPLA West, libraries as creative spaces, and his personal vision for the DPLA. Nate is currently seeking help to organize, design, and build a free and customizable summer reading app for the DPLA platform.


DPLA: The Audience and Participation workstream held their first workshop about a month ago in Dallas, the notes of which are available on our website. What are some of the key themes and topics that you, as a group, are looking to address over the coming months in advance of DPLA West in late April? Is there anything in particular that’s been on your mind?

Nate Hill: There are two different threads running through the notes from the Audience and Participation workstream meeting (PDF).  The first is a thread discussing the future of public libraries.  The second is a thread specifically about the DPLA’s evolving structure and the philosophy informing its design and development.  It is encouraging to observe the braiding of these threads; visions for the future of public libraries are beginning to map to aspects of the DPLA.

The first question the Audience & Participation addressed was “what does the library look like in an increasingly digital future?” The notes organize our discussion as bulleted points.  Reviewing the notes now, I’m most interested in five words from the very first bullet point: libraries have staff to help.  The full point was libraries have staff to help discover and access information, but I think that is too specific and not overwhelmingly helpful.  The future of public libraries not only lies in access and discovery of media resources, but also in the creation and distribution of new media.  I’m not particularly concerned about libraries’ ability to employ staff who can help patrons discover and access information.  In fact, I think it is going to become increasingly difficult to convince taxpayers that they should be employing members of their community to help them discover and access information.  On the flip side, if we were to call for libraries that have staff to help with the creation of media and even artifacts, that is a service taxpayers will likely support far into our digital future.

Regarding part two, the thread more specifically about the DPLA, I’d like to see the discussion of local branding customization taken further.  We’ve only scratched the surface of what ‘local’ means for the DPLA because we’ve been focusing on the big picture: the platform and all of the services it might enable.  The local branding customization we’ve discussed thus far is an understandable knee-jerk reaction to existing library products that aren’t customizable enough in their interfaces.  Public libraries want to slap their logo and color scheme on top of web services so their customers associate those services with their library, not the other one on the other side of town.  Balancing local interest vs. web scale efficiencies and developing intentions and strategy around the end user perception of these two extremes is critical to the success of the DPLA.  If content is available via a free DPLA app, if it can be selected and served up based on a user’s location, then what does that mean for a local library’s brand identity?  Questions like this suggest an excellent place for the workstream to pick up conversation at its next meeting.

DPLA: You’ve recently written a few articles (here & here) in which you broadly outline some ways that public libraries can take charge of their nascent digital identity and become generative read/write spaces. While you specifically discuss a sort of self-publishing platform that’s embedded within a library’s ILS (integrated library system), you are not the only librarian/technologist who’s called on public libraries to begin thinking of themselves in a categorically different way. Might you be able to summarize/discuss some of the more interesting ideas that have been in circulation over the past couple of years?

NH: There are indeed a lot of different visions for the future of public libraries.  From my observation, they all are indicative of a growing consensus that knowledge production is as much the business of the New Library as knowledge consumption, with the exception of pioneers who are focusing their energies toward resolving the great ebook lending puzzle. I focus most of my own energy on the push for knowledge production, content creation, and access to tools for creative activities, but that doesn’t mean access to digital media is unimportant.  Here are links to a few projects that I find interesting.

Media Labs
There are a *lot* of libraries experimenting with this, but I like to point to the Digital Media Lab in Skokie, IL as an example.  These guys got started brainstorming in 2008, and with a $35,000 grant opened the space in 2009.  Read about it here. My favorite thing about Skokie’s Digital Media Lab is that it caters to all ages, rather than a specific target audience like teens or kids. Content creation is not a developmental phase, it is key to the lifelong learning mission that public libraries have supported from the very beginning.

Content Publishing and Distribution
This is currently my favorite project; it has enormous potential for future development.  LibraryYOU is an LSTA funded project by the Escondido Public Library to “collect and share local knowledge through videos and podcasts.” It consists of the following three parts:

  • a website to showcase the videos and podcasts
  • classes for the public on creating videos and podcasts to share on the web (coming in March)
  • A recording studio in the library to help the public record videos and podcasts.

The Fayetteville FabLab is the most striking and perhaps the only active FabLab in a public library right now, despite articles and discussion about this as an alternative future for public libraries.  FabLabs take knowledge production to the next level and turn the library into a DIY manufacturing facility of various capabilities depending on the equipment available.  This is an exciting direction for public libraries, but it would benefit from finding a place to draw the line, philosophically speaking.  Should a public library offer you the equipment to build a 21st century solar car?  Or should it offer you access to the digital design tools and the information resources to create the plans for that solar car?

Coworking in the library
Phil Shapiro’s post at PC World sums this idea up well:

Coworking is a modern work innovation where people in various creative professions share a common work space, synergizing their talents and making best use of fixed-cost resources. Here is a portrait of how coworking might develop in public library spaces as public libraries transform themselves in coming years. Architects, take notice.

LiquidSpace has been partnering with some San Francisco Bay Area libraries to make this happen.

Fix the ebook problem
While knowledge production isn’t absent from their plans, some innovative libraries have chosen to focus on solving the knowledge consumption problem in the digital environment. One must look to the work of James LaRue and Monique Sendez at the Douglas County Libraries in Colorado as pioneers in this effort.  As described in this month’s issue of Public Libraries, Douglas County manages their own content via:

  • A Vufind discovery front end
  • An HTML5 based eReader
  • Free Content
  • DRM-protected content on their own Adobe Content Server
  • Alternative displays: mobile, or large screen
  • A link to purchase content

One can’t ignore interesting projects like:
The Read/Write Library
The Uni
Little Free Library

[There are] So many more.  Sorry not to include them.

DPLA: While a lot of these use scenarios and ideas appeal to public librarians across the country, not all can afford the personnel or technologies to make them a reality. What are some ways for smaller or less tech-inclined public libraries to involve themselves in this new read/write movement?

NH: Public computer stations in public libraries are in a really sad state.  Libraries generally treat computers uniformly, like they are all portholes to the internet, all the same size, all equal.  Step into any library and watch the guy playing solitaire on the windows desktop for two hours while some kid waits, waits, waits to research something online for his paper.  We’ve all heard the argument: that guy playing games has just as much right to his computer time as the kid does for his paper.  Equal access.

Well, it’s stupid.  Imagine a shed with an inventory of all different kinds of tools: a shovel, a bandsaw, a router, a welder, a hammer, and everything else.  The contractor foreman knows what equipment he has in the shed, yet he sends his crew out to dig a ditch with a shovel, a bandsaw, a router, a welder, a hammer, and everything else.  Naturally the guy trying to dig a ditch with a welder is going to have a lousy day at work.

There’s a lot of fancy talk about 3D printers, media labs, and the latest technologies in libraries, but one big step that less tech-inclined public libraries could take toward the read/write movement would be diversifying their public computing profiles and offering different tiers of computing services based on user needs.  Content creation isn’t always glamorous, high production work.  It can be a tweet.  A blog post.  A photo collage.  Much of it is already happening, libraries just need to optimize the inventory in their tool sheds to support it.

DPLA: Could you talk a little bit about what you’ve dubbed as “Library Outposts” and where they may conceivably fit into this New Library?

NH: The Library Outpost is a storefront library facility in a busy commercial area with no permanent book collection.  Working for Brooklyn Public Library, a 58-branch library system with an efficient delivery system moving books and media between locations, I observed the way individual library locations functioned like nodes in an information network.  The Outpost is a library facility that leverages the connectivity of an entire network of libraries by housing materials only after they are requested for delivery online.  This frees up space at the service point for all of the other creative activities that the New Library of the digital age should support, without abandoning access to traditional media resources.  This creates the space needed for digital media labs, coworking spaces, and other services I mentioned earlier.

The Library Outpost may very well be an inevitable future considering the advancing digital standard and the impending death of print as the primary format for books.  I’d like to see libraries recognize this and intentionally plan for differentiated service points, with Outposts as hubs in the New Library.  If the construction of nodal libraries like the Outpost is reactive to budget problems rather than a proactive application of additive services, it will be received quite differently.  The time to invest in agile new facilities for the New Library is now.

DPLA: Lastly, now that the DPLA initiative has taken on an emergent conceptual and technical structure, what’s your vision for the DPLA? Which final features do you firmly expect to see and which do you dream of seeing?

NH: I’ll give you an example of how the DPLA might scale a great project to become even better.

I’m paying close attention to the LibraryYOU project at the Escondido Public Library (CA).  I think it is a great first step toward integrating the discovery of community-created content with all the rest of the books, movies, and music that libraries lend.  I interviewed Donna Feddern about the whole thing on the PLA Blog, and I encourage you to read what she has to say.

The DPLA could extend and assist in the work that Donna is doing by scaling such an app to work for any community in the country.  The DPLA could have provided the workspace and the developer community to support Donna’s project.  One of public libraries’ greatest strengths is their attention to local needs, but the same strength can work against libraries when we try to share with each other.  This is because every library has different capacities and capabilities, different technologies, different organizational structure, different everything.  As a matter of principle, public libraries all want to share their innovations with one another, but they are hard pressed to do so.  I see great potential in the DPLA as a connector and an enabler for sharing.


Note: Views expressed in interviews with DPLA community members do not necessarily reflect the views of the DPLA as a whole.

Leave a Reply