In the lecture for this unit, Michael Stephens shared a photo of a girl posing in front of American Gothic while her picture was taken, there are dozens of cell phones being held up by the other patrons of the Art Institute of Chicago. Michael says “I don’t know if this is good or bad, I don’t want to make that type of a judgement, I just know that this is how people experience art in the 21st Century.” With this quote in mind, I’d like to share three stories from my personal life.
1: Thinking outside the cube.
In Toronto, Ontario, there is an art studio called cubeworks. I had the good fortune to stumble upon it a few summers ago, on my first visit to the Great White North, and I was totally entranced: the artists make portraits, mostly out of Rubik’s Cubes, of famous people or images from popular culture. The really interesting thing about the gallery, however, is these signs:
I didn’t have my cell phone on me (because who wants to pay international rates? Not me, that’s who.), so I started looking at the art through my camera — and the difference was AMAZING. In person, the pieces looked blurry. Many of them were unrecognizable, and the titles didnt help. Viewed onscreen, however, they were crisp and clear.
This is, obviously, a private art gallery, which has a very different function than a typical library. Even so, I think that their line of thinking could be useful in our line of work. What if we actively try to design services that are improved by interaction through a screen? What if we host trivia nights where participants can buzz in through an app on their phones? What if we hide geocaches or letterboxes inside of our libraries, near the hiking books? What if we created suggested playlists on Spotify to go along with bestsellers or book club titles? If potential library users know that they’re getting some type of augmented reality, it may attract a demographic that would otherwise be missing out.
2: Everybody loves a wedding, but some people love social media more.
The summer after my trip to Canada, I got married, and while I like to think that I was a fairly laid-back bride I did absolutely insist on one unreasonable thing: nobody but the photographer we’d hired was going to be taking pictures during the ceremony. I’ve seen too many of my friends’ wedding photos that are just a sea of screens, and I’ve been to several weddings where the guests were so concerned with getting a perfect photo of the cake cutting or the first dance that they aren’t actually paying attention to it. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not a luddite, and I genuinely do think that constant connectivity has the potential to be a wonderful thing. But sometimes I catch myself, and I worry that I’m missing things because I’m thinking about what I’ll tweet about them.
I’ve seen library programming that’s focused on mindfulness — yoga or adult coloring programs, for example — that is usually thoroughly grounded in the analog world. And I think that’s a good thing, too. We should be able to meet people where they are, of course, but I worry that sometimes the potential of libraries to become a place to unplug, to disconnect, is overlooked because we’re too excited about forging into the future. Reference librarianship is still relevant, and will be for quite awhile, if only for the value of bouncing your research ideas off another person.
3: In which I am not omnipotent, and people are surprised.
While I’m waiting for my dream job in a library, I work as a tour guide in the U.S. Capitol building. Like most customer service workers, I am not allowed to have my cell phone with me during the work day. I always do, of course, but under no circumstances am I allowed to use it in front of the visitors. The tourists have no such restrictions, and in the past year or so they’ve been using their mobile technology to supplement their learning more and more.
It’s not often that I’m asked a question to which I don’t know he answer, but when it happens I freely admit it. Lately, though, when I don’t know an answer, within minutes one is supplied to me by someone with quick googling abilities. I wonder sometimes if people often have questions that I never get asked, because they turn to their phones instead of the real live expert standing in front of them.
On the other hand, my agency recently released an app designed to help visitors explore the Rotunda in depth, and it’s been amazing watching people interact with it in small group tours. More than once, I’ve seen someone who had downloaded it previously open the app in the Rotunda to get a closer look at a painting a hundred feet above their heads, and comment on details which they would never have noticed just by looking at the room. I’ve had people ask me in-depth history questions based on something the app mentions in passing, and I’ve had people compare historic pictures of the room to what they see before their eyes, and comment on the changes.
I’m not sure, exactly, what this has to do with libraries, but I feel like the connection is important even if I can’t articulate it. I doubt anyone would argue, at this point, that the ubiquity of mobile information is going to change things drastically, but I suppose that David Weinberger is right when he says that libraries should “create an environment in which the rest of the world can make everything out of libraries that can be imagined.” It’s our job to make sure that we have the right mindset for them to do so.