The Tao of Librarianship

Taoism is, among other things, a philosophy that originated in China in the 3rd or 4th century BCE. It began with Lao Tzu’s writing of the Tao Te Ching and is still around today. It is a philosophy which values balance, moderation, compassion and being pliant and adaptable. There is a wealth of wisdom from the Taoist philosophy that could be applied in librarianship.

Laws Create Lawbreakers (58) – “Where government stands aloof, the people open up.” Instead of constantly trying to control the behavior of your users, see what they do and create guidelines around that. Instead of setting furniture up a certain way and then moving it back when it gets out of place, see what configurations users like and allow them the freedom to make spaces their own. Instead of having strict mobile phone or food rules, recognize that as humans we need to communicate and eat. Outlining numerous strict library policies makes for a lot of broken policies, shushing, and saying no constantly.

Bend, Don’t Break (76) – “When a plant becomes hard it snaps.” Libraries, especially in academia, have done things certain ways for many years. We continue purchasing print journals. We still have items on microfilm. We still tell people to turn off their mobile phones in the library. In order to not become outdated or obsolete libraries and librarians should cultivate an attitude of softness. We should examine services, collections, and policies constantly to see if they are still meeting user needs and if they are still in touch with reality.

Realize When Enough is Enough (9) – “Instead of pouring in more, better stop while you can.” A key concept in Taoism is that one opposite follows another. Emptiness follows fullness. As librarians, we keep taking on new roles and offering new services without dropping other services. This is a recipe for disaster. Instead of doing a few things really well, we fall into the trap of doing a lot of things poorly. By holding onto legacy services and trying to do everything, we are in fact defeating ourselves. There is only so much energy and so many resources that we can provide. We need to think strategically about what we can drop and what is most important to our community. One way is through a great presentation that I saw at ACRL about Planned Abandonment.

Be Like Water (8) – “The best are like water, bringing help to all.” Water helps all people, that’s it’s nature. Just so, we should constantly be thinking about how we can best serve others. Water also is quite adaptable. It can fit easily into any sort of container and it naturally goes with the flow. Librarians too should be able to change themselves, their services, and their resources to meet their community’s needs. They should be able to adjust along with the changes that are constantly happening in the world both technologically and socially.

The Tao is typically translated as “The Way.” It’s a very nuanced concept, but at it’s core it refers to the true nature of the universe. And the point of Taoism is to live in accord with The Way. Instead of struggling against everything all the time Taoism states that humans should try to see how things actually are and live in harmony with them. This can be a very illuminating idea for libraries.

Librarians need the ability to be in touch with reality and not be blind or naive. The job of a librarian does not have to be a struggle against obsolescence or a constant proving of  their value to stakeholders and administrators. Instead librarians can try to understand what is actually of value to our patrons and be leading the parade instead of fighting against it.

The quotes and numbers above refer to chapters/sections of the Tao Te Ching translated by Red Pine, though there are plenty of free translations available as well. 



The New Deal On E-Books

I said a few weeks ago that e-books are a different sort of medium than print books. Now we are seeing how some of those differences are shaking out. Harper Collins recently changed their terms of use to cap the use of their ebooks at 26 checkouts, at which point if libraries still want access they will have to repurchase the book. This set off the library community. There are a lot of blog posts on this (there’s a good roundup of them at Librarian By Day). There are also a plethora of tweets under the #hcod hashtag.

Below I am posting the eBook User’s Bill of Rights. It’s a good document outlining what ebook users want (and probably should be able) to have and do. I know as an e-book user I get really annoyed that I can’t use some of them on my iPad or Android devices. What are your thoughts about the bill of rights or the new Harper Collins terms? Let me know your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtags #hcod and #ebookrights.

The eBook User’s Bill of Rights

Every eBook user should have the following rights:

  • the right to use eBooks under guidelines that favor access over proprietary limitations
  • the right to access eBooks on any technological platform, including the hardware and software the user chooses
  • the right to annotate, quote passages, print, and share eBook content within the spirit of fair use and copyright
  • the right of the first-sale doctrine extended to digital content, allowing the eBook owner the right to retain, archive, share, and re-sell purchased eBooks

I believe in the free market of information and ideas.

I believe that authors, writers, and publishers can flourish when their works are readily available on the widest range of media. I believe that authors, writers, and publishers can thrive when readers are given the maximum amount of freedom to access, annotate, and share with other readers, helping this content find new audiences and markets. I believe that eBook purchasers should enjoy the rights of the first-sale doctrine because eBooks are part of the greater cultural cornerstone of literacy, education, and information access.

Digital Rights Management (DRM), like a tariff, acts as a mechanism to inhibit this free exchange of ideas, literature, and information. Likewise, the current licensing arrangements mean that readers never possess ultimate control over their own personal reading material. These are not acceptable conditions for eBooks.

I am a reader. As a customer, I am entitled to be treated with respect and not as a potential criminal. As a consumer, I am entitled to make my own decisions about the eBooks that I buy or borrow.

I am concerned about the future of access to literature and information in eBooks.  I ask readers, authors, publishers, retailers, librarians, software developers, and device manufacturers to support these eBook users’ rights.
These rights are yours.  Now it is your turn to take a stand.  To help spread the word, copy this entire post, add your own comments, remix it, and distribute it to others.  Blog it, Tweet it (#ebookrights), Facebook it, email it, and post it on a telephone pole.

To the extent possible under law, the person who associated CC0 with this work has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to this work.



E-books Are Not Horseless Carriages

Model T

Photo by thehenryford on Flickr

I’m reading the book (on my iPad) What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly the co-founder of Wired Magazine. It’s an optimistic look at the nature of technology and our relationship to it. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in philosophical, historical, evolutionary look at technology. I can’t say that I agree with all his arguments, but I’m finding thought provoking passages on almost every page. This one from chapter 12 stood out in light of the current issues in the library world:

“We make prediction more difficult because our immediate tendency is to imagine the new thing doing an old job better. That’s why the first cars were called “horseless carriages.” The first movies were simply straightforward documentary films of theatrical plays. It took a while to realize the full dimensions of cinema photography as its own new medium that could achieve new things, reveal new perspectives, do new jobs. We are stuck in the same blindness. We imagine e-books today as being regular books that appear on electronic paper instead of radically powerful threads of text woven into one shared universal library.”

We gravitate to what we know and what we’re used to. An e-book is not a book on electronic paper. It is a completely new medium that will have myriad unanticipated effects, both positive and negative. I’m guessing “electronic paper” and “e-ink” are both going to sound a lot like “horseless carriage” in 20 years. Also the way we consume, share, and interact with e-books is going to be different than paper books. We are inventing the future right now through our action and inaction. We should be mindful of the past, but not so wrapped up in it that we aren’t able to see the future.