Web 2.0, SunRocket, and the library brand

SunRocket, the second largest VOIP phone service provider behind Vonage, recently, and suddenly, went belly-up. I was one of the 200K plus victims of phone service that was there one day and gone the next. I talked to my parents on Sunday night (7/15). Monday night (7/16) I noticed that the usually green light on my SunRocket “gizmo” (their name for their analog telephone adapter, or ATA) was red. On Tuesday, when I logged into WordPress, their highlighted post was about how SunRocket was dead and gone. There was no word from SunRocket and I was left to figure out for myself what was next; should I go with the local phone service provider, should I jump on one of the offers from SunRocket’s competitors, or wait for SunRocket to tell me where I should go next. I ended up sticking with VOIP and going with a competitor that had been one of my early choices.

Suddenly I was one of 200,000 people scouring the web for for any hint of what was going on. Reading posts from laid-off employees. Obsessively following the news, trying to figure out what I should do next. For VOIP providers, 200K new customers were suddenly ripe for the picking (assuming that they didn’t feel so burned by SunRocket that they went running to Ma Bell or Verizon – or whichever monopoly is your local provider). There were press releases picked up as news stories about how this or that provider was going to “save” SunRocket’s abandoned customers.

Some of the offers seemed too good to be true. After all, I had chosen SunRocket for how cheap it was and paid for a year’s service (actually 15 months with my 3 months of free service for signing up! I really should have gotten the free phone instead). I looked up reviews to see who had a go reputation – although clearly financial information would have been a better basis for a decision. I looked at 3 websites that allow users to post their reviews of VOIP providers. Reading the reviews, something was clearly wrong. The reviews varied wildly for any one provider.  One reviewer would describe the service as “the best they’ve had” and the next would tell a horror story of hidden fees. And if you read long enough you would eventually come across reviews for one company accusing another company of padding their own reviews or sabotaging their competitors.

How was I to interpret these reviews? How was I supposed to choose a VOIP provider (if you are considering VOIP for your phone service I would recommend getting any financial data you can and see if you can get information on their strategy for acquiring new subscribers)? What I needed was someone to tell me who I could believe.

This made me think about recent focus groups we had conducted in order to redesign the website at MPOW. In those focus groups it was evident that the only reason that some of the students used the library’s website at all was because of the library brand. They were told by their instructors that they needed to use “academically valid” websites and the easiest way to accomplish that was to use websites with the libraries imprimatur. I really could have used someone who would have told me where to look for good information about VOIP providers.

When I was in library school, we were taught that users rely on the library to sort out the quality stuff from the chaff. These days it seems that this is a forgotten role of libraries, at least in the discussions.  For books, at academic libraries the approval plan dictates much of what the library buys, assuming there is money in the budget to buy books.  For journals, “the big deal” drives the library’s purchasing decisions.  For everything else, users – including librarians – turn to the web, where both need to evaluate the resource on a case by case basis.

This is my frustration, I want one place to go that has good information about VOIP providers.  Consumer Reports is a source for good information, but thre is too much lag in the information available there (the last review of VOIP providers appears to be in the January ’06 issue).  I see this as somewhere the library can still intervene.  That we can still collect good information, so people (me, myself and I) don’t have to cross their finger and hope what they are reading is reliable.


Disposing of the Disposable Librarian

There has been a lot hand-wringing and blogging about a recent article in the New York Times, along with an earlier article in the New York Sun. The gist of the complaints is that the articles trivialize librarianship, may be sexist, and ignore the fact that librarians have been “hip” for a long time. If you missed it you can get started here. I think it is much ado about nothing. Around the same time, the American Association of School Librarians blog had a post about Disposable Librarians. The gist of this post is that school librarians are leaving their jobs, to take new jobs or retire, and their positions are not being filled. According to the author of the post, disposable librarians are partially to blame for these positions not being filled, or being filled by people who are not degreed librarians.  The post focuses on issues specific to school libraries, but it isn’t difficult to see similarities in other libraries. In short, these are librarians that are not adding value to their libraries. I’m sure you know them. They enforce rules for joy of enforcing rules. They are afraid to do any assessment, unpleasant truths are best left in the dark. And things worked fine before all this technology, why should they waste their time learning it.

These disposable librarians are a bigger problem for librarianship than an article in the style section of the NYT. Every disposable librarian makes it harder for the rest of us to do our jobs. They perpetuate the stereotype that librarians sit around all day and read. They give librarians a bad name. As a result we end up fighting against perceptions of librarians. If we had confidence in our colleagues, that they weren’t disposable, we wouldn’t feel the need to defend ourselves. Of course, if there weren’t so many disposable librarians, we wouldn’t need to worry about it.

The good news is that people are fighting back against the disposable librarians. For example, Laura Cohen, at Librarian 2.0, has written a Librarian 2.0 Manifesto. The contrast between the disposable librarians and the librarians follow the manifesto is easy to see. One point that stood out to was: “I will validate, through my actions, librarians’ vital and relevant professional role in any type of information culture that evolves.”  It really hits the nail on the head.  This is how we avoid becoming disposable librarians. But I can’t help wondering, is it really a 2.0 phenomena?

The manifesto is a useful tool for librarians to read and think about how they are providing services. Am I putting the library before the users? Am I holding on to practices that are no longer applicable? Am I moving my library forward? But are these things really something new. Shouldn’t librarians have always asked themselves these questions? Haven’t they?  Shouldn’t the manifesto apply to Librarian 1.0, 3.0 or even 0.1. I don’t think you need to be a librarian 2.0 to move your library forward or to show the value of librarians. Is it really that important to get your administrators to blog? (For that matter, are there really people that fear Google?)

On Library Garden, Tyler Rousseau had a post that asked, “Why do we have professional librarians who refuse to keep up with the professional and technological requirements?” Laura’s response lists 3 possible causes: “our culture of optionalities”, “2.0 is a great leap”, and “the speed of change”. I won’t dispute that change is quicker, but I don’t know that if change were slower, people would be any more comfortable with it. Two point oh is a big change. Big enough that sometimes I really don’t get some of it (Twitter? Really?). The biggest change is that for much of the 2.0 stuff to work, you need to have a substantial community of users.  To see an example of what happens without the community, check out this post on fauxonomies.  And, truth be told, if my friends were on Twitter, you could bet I would be too. For that reason, a lot of it may never touch the majority of people. Which is to say, I think this 2.0 stuff looks bigger when you are part of it. And it looks like it came out of the blue, but these things have been creeping up on us for decades. Lack of agreement in our standards is a major problem. But it isn’t the “aspirational standards” that are holding us back, we wouldn’t want everybody moving lockstep in the same direction anyway. It’s baseline standards. What is the minimum level of service a library should achieve? What do we expect as a minimum requirement from out librarians? I started this post talking about disposable librarians. We need to enforce a minimum level of competency, so there is no such thing as a disposable librarian. So that when a librarian is changing jobs or retiring, their administrator begs them to stick around to train their replacement.

So this is my answer to Tyler’s question: we need to not allow disposable librarians in our institutions. How do we do that? First, we should look at the quality of the graduates of our library and/or information schools. Are schools exchanging a diploma for the cost of the tuition? Next, we need to look at management. Does management treat it’s employees as professionals by both giving them professional responsibilities and expecting professional results? Lastly, we need to look at ourselves and our colleagues. Do we have the support and the training to move the library forward? Do we have the interest and the will? Ultimately, it up to us to keep setting the bar higher so that our colleagues will join us in providing services that users need and want; our management will give us the leeway to do what we think is right and expect that we will get results; and our library and/or information schools will need to produce graduates who can keep up. And no one will need to worry about disposable librarians or how hip the librarians are in Brooklyn again, because our actions will speak for themselves.