Lazy Consensus and Libraries

Happy feet

Photo courtesy of Flickr user enggul

Librarians, as a rule, don’t tolerate anarchy well. They like things to be organized and to follow processes. But when it comes to emerging technologies, too much reliance on planning and committees can stifle creativity and delay adoption. The open source software community can offer librarians models for how to make progress on big projects with minimal oversight.

“Lazy consensus” is one such model from which librarians can learn a lot. At the Code4Lib conference in February 2012, Bethany Nowviskie of the University of Virginia Scholar’s Lab encouraged library development teams to embrace this concept in order to create more innovative libraries. (I encourage you to watch a video or read the text of her keynote.) This goes for all sizes and types of academic libraries, whether they have a development staff or just staff with enthusiasm for learning about emerging technologies.

What is lazy consensus?

According to the Apache software foundation:

Lazy Consensus means that when you are convinced that you know what the community would like to see happen you can simply assume that you already have consensus and get on with the work. You don’t have to insist people discuss and/or approve your plan, and you certainly don’t need to call a vote to get approval. You just assume you have the community’s support unless someone says otherwise.
(quote from http://incubator.apache.org/odftoolkit/docs/governance/lazyConsensus.html)

Nowviskie suggests lazy consensus as a way to cope with an institutional culture where “no” is too often the default answer, since in lazy consensus the default answer is “yes.” If someone doesn’t agree with a proposal, he or she must present and defend an alternative within a reasonable amount of time (usually 72 hours). This ensures that the people who really care about a project have a chance to speak up and make sure the project is going in the right direction. By changing the default answer to YES, we make it easier to move forward on the things we really care about.

When you care about delivering the best possible experience and set of services for your library patrons, you should advocate for ways to make that happen and spend your time thinking about how to make that happen. Nowviskie points out the kinds of environments in which this is likely to thrive. Developers and technologists need time for research and development, “20% time” projects, and freedom to explore new possibilities. Even at small libraries without any development staff, librarians need time to research and understand issues of technology in libraries to make better decisions about the adoption of emerging technologies.

Implementing lazy consensus

Implementing lazy consensus in your library must be done with care. First and foremost, you must be aware of the culture you are in and be respectful of it even as you see room for change and improvement. Coming in the first day at a new job is not the moment to implement this process across the board, but in your own work or your department’s work you can set an example and a precedent. Nowviskie provides a few guidelines for healthy lazy consensus. Emphasize working hard and with integrity while being open and friendly. Keep everyone informed about what you are working on, and keep your mission in mind as the centerpiece of your work. In libraries, this means you must keep public services involved in any project from the earliest possible stages, and always maintain a commitment to maintaining the best possible user experience. When you or your team reliably deliver good results you will show the value in the process.

While default negativity can certainly stifle creativity, default positivity for all ideas can be equally stifling. Jonah Lehrer wrote in a recent New Yorker article article that the evidence shows that traditional brainstorming, where all ideas are presented to a group without criticism, doesn’t work. Creating better ideas requires critiquing wrong assumptions, which in turn helps us examine our own assumptions. In adopting lazy consensus, make sure there is authentic room for debate. Responding to a disagreement about a course of action with reasoned critique and alternate paths is more likely to result in creative ideas, and brings the discussion forward rather than ending it with a “no.”

Librarians know a lot about information and people. The open source software community knows a lot about how to run flexible and transparent organizations. Combining the two can create wonderful experiences for our users.


Action Analytics

What is Action Analytics?

If you say “analytics” to most technology-savvy librarians, they think of Google Analytics or similar web analytics services. Many libraries are using such sophisticated data collection and analyses to improve the user experience on library-controlled sites.  But the standard library analytics are retrospective: what have users done in the past? Have we designed our web platforms and pages successfully, and where do we need to change them?

Technology is enabling a different kind of future-oriented analytics. Action Analytics is evidence-based, combines data sets from different silos, and uses actions, performance, and data from the past to provide recommendations and actionable intelligence meant to influence future actions at both the institutional and the individual level. We’re familiar with these services in library-like contexts such as Amazon’s “customers who bought this item also bought” book recommendations and Netflix’s “other movies you might enjoy”.

BookSeer β by Apt

Action Analytics in the Academic Library Landscape

It was a presentation by Mark David Milliron at Educause 2011 on “Analytics Today: Getting Smarter About Emerging Technology, Diverse Students, and the Completion Challenge” that made me think about the possibilities of the interventionist aspect of analytics for libraries.  He described the complex dependencies between inter-generational poverty transmission, education as a disrupter, drop-out rates for first generation college students, and other factors such international competition and the job market.  Then he moved on to the role of sophisticated analytics and data platforms and spoke about how it can help individual students succeed by using technology to deliver the right resource at the right time to the right student.  Where do these sorts of analytics fit into the academic library landscape?

If your library is like my library, the pressure to prove your value to strategic campus initiatives such student success and retention is increasing. But assessing services with most analytics is past-oriented; how do we add the kind of library analytics that provide a useful intervention or recommendation? These analytics could be designed to help an individual student choose a database, or trigger a recommendation to dive deeper into reference services like chat reference or individual appointments. We need to design platforms and technology that can integrate data from various campus sources, do some predictive modeling, and deliver a timely text message to an English 101 student that recommends using these databases for the first writing assignment, or suggests an individual research appointment with the appropriate subject specialist (and a link to the appointment scheduler) to every honors students a month into their thesis year.

Ethyl Blum, librarian

Privacy Implications

But should we? Are these sorts of interventions creepy and stalker-ish?* Would this be seen as an invasion of privacy? Does the use of data in this way collide with the profession’s ethical obligation and historical commitment to keep individual patron’s reading, browsing, or viewing habits private?

Every librarian I’ve discussed this with felt the same unease. I’m left with a series of questions: Have technology and online data gathering changed the context and meaning of privacy in such fundamental ways that we need to take a long hard look at our assumptions, especially in the academic environment? (Short answer — yes.)  Are there ways to manage opt-in and opt-out preferences for these sorts of services so these services are only offered to those who want them? And does that miss the point? Aren’t we trying to influence the students who are unaware of library services and how the library could help them succeed?

Furthermore, are we modeling our ideas of “creepiness” and our adamant rejection of any “intervention” on the face-to-face model of the past that involved a feeling of personal surveillance and possible social judgment by live flesh persons?  The phone app Mobilyze helps those with clinical depression avoid known triggers by suggesting preventative measures. The software is highly personalized and combines all kinds of data collected by the phone with self-reported mood diaries. Researcher Colin Depp observes that participants felt that the impersonal advice delivered via technology was easier to act on than “say, getting advice from their mother.”**

While I am not suggesting in any way that libraries move away from face-to-face, personalized encounters at public service desks, is there room for another model for delivering assistance? A model that some students might find less intrusive, less invasive, and more effective — precisely because it is technological and impersonal? And given the struggle that some students have to succeed in school, and the staggering debt that most of them incur, where exactly are our moral imperatives in delivering academic services in an increasingly personalized, technology-infused, data-dependent environment?

Increasingly, health services, commercial entities, and technologies such as browsers and social networking environments that are deeply embedded in most people’s lives, use these sorts of action analytics to allow the remote monitoring of our aging parents, sell us things, and match us with potential dates. Some of these uses are for the benefit of the user; some are for the benefit of the data gatherer. The moment from the Milliron presentation that really stayed with me was the poignant question that a student in a focus group asked him: “Can you use information about me…to help me?”

Can we? What do you think?

* For a recent article on academic libraries and Facebook that addresses some of these issues, see Nancy Kim Phillips, Academic Library Use of Facebook: Building Relationships with Students, The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Volume 37, Issue 6, December 2011, Pages 512-522, ISSN 0099-1333, 10.1016/j.acalib.2011.07.008. See also a very recent New York Times article on use of analytics by companies which discusses the creepiness factor.

 


The Start-Up Library

“Here’s an analogy. The invention of calculus was shocking because for a long time it had simply been presumed that you couldn’t divide by zero. The integrity of math itself seemed to depend on the presumption. Then some genius titans came along and said, “Yeah, maybe you can’t divide by zero, but what would happen if you “could”? We’re going to come as close to doing it as we can, to see what happens.” - David Foster Wallace*

What if a library operated more like an Internet start-up and less like a library?

To be a library in the digital era is to steward legacy systems and practices of an era long past. Contemporary librarianship is at its worst when it accepts the poorly crafted vended services and offers poorly thought through service models, simply because this is the way we have always operated.

Internet start-ups, in the decade of 2010, heavily feature software as a service. The online presence to the Internet start-up is of foundational concern since it isn’t simply a “presence” to the start-up — the online environment is the only environment for the Internet start-up.

Search services would act and look contemporary

If we were an Internet start-up, we wouldn’t use instructional services as a crutch that would somehow correct poor design in our catalogs or other discovery layers. We wouldn’t accept the poorly designed vendor databases we currently accept. We would ask for interfaces that act and look contemporary, and if vendors did not deliver, we would make our own. And we would do this in 30-day time-lines, not six months and not years to roll out, as is the current lamentable state of library software services.

Students in the current era will look at a traditional library catalog search box and say: “that looks very 90s” – we shouldn’t be amused by that comment, unless of course we are trying to look 20 years out of date.

We would embrace perpetual beta.

If the library thought of its software services more like Internet start-ups, we would not be so cautious — we would perpetually improve and innovate in our software offerings. Think of the technology giants Google and Apple, they are never content to rest on laurels, everyday they get up and they invent like their lives depended on it. Do we?

We wouldn’t settle.

For years we’ve accepted legacy ILS systems – we need to move away from accepting the status quo, the way things have always been done, and the way we always work is not the way we should always work — if the information environments have changed, shouldn’t this be reflected in the library’s software services?

We would be bold.

We need to look at massive re-wiring in the way we think about software as a service in libraries; we are smarter and better than mediocrity.

The notion of software services in libraries may be dramatically improved if we thought of our gateways and virtual experiences more like Internet start-ups conceptualize their do or die services; which are seemingly made more effective and efficient every thirty to sixty days.

If Internet start-ups ran their web services the way libraries contently run legacy systems, the company would surely fold, or more likely, never have attracted seed funding to start operating as a start-up. Let’s do our profession a favor and turn the lights out on the library way of running libraries. Let’s run our library as if it were an Internet start-up.

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* also: “… this purely theoretical construct wound up yielding incredibly practical results. Suddenly you could plot the area under curves and do rate-change calculations. Just about every material convenience we now enjoy is a consequence of this “as if.” But what if Leibniz and Newton had wanted to divide by zero only to show jaded audiences how cool and rebellious they were? It’d never have happened, because that kind of motivation doesn’t yield results. It’s hollow. Dividing-as-if-by-zero was titanic and ingenuous because it was in the service of something. The math world’s shock was a price they had to pay, not a payoff in itself.” – David Foster Wallace