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Jenny Levine on Library 2.0

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Photo: Jenny LevineJenny Levine received her Masters of Library Science degree from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, in 1992. Since 2006, she has been the Internet development specialist and strategy guide at the American Library Association's (ALA) information technology and publishing departments, a role which involves exploring emerging technologies and teaching them to other librarians.

She is a keen advocate for gaming services in libraries, which she frequently writes about on her blog, The Shifted Librarian. Jenny is also the project leader of ALA Connect, the ALA's new online community service, which will enable the organization's 1,300 active groups to work virtually, in a transparent manner. Here, Jenny discusses her views on libraries and Web 2.0 technologies with Margaret Adolphus.


Now is an exciting time to be a librarian. While some people (including librarians) believe that the Internet makes libraries redundant, there is a growing consensus that we need experts to guide us through an increasingly complex maze of information.

And the Internet changes all the time – every week it seems something new crops up which provides a new way to communicate and collaborate, and hence a new source of information to be mined. Librarians, being professional information brokers (although they too may be confused) do have a framework against which they can assess new developments.

Many, too, are early adopters of the new technologies and will, according to the ALA's Jenny Levine:

"get out there and explain it to the rest of us".

Which is just what she does herself: she is a "technology evangelist", who manages to be both technically savvy and have the ability to explain the benefits in simple language.

In fact, her first introduction to the Internet occurred as a young reference librarian fresh out of library school in the early 1990s when she used a Compuserve dial-up account to find a recipe for Irish soda bread for a customer because she couldn't find one on the shelves.

It's an incident that typifies her pragmatic approach: technology is of most value when it helps improve customer service. And ever since, she's been hooked on the Internet, and finding ways it can be used to help people.

Now some years later, she's Internet development specialist and strategy guide at the ALA, a post she's held since 2006, and which involves exploring emerging technologies and teaching them to other librarians. She was originally appointed to help ALA with their online strategies and in particular with their online community service, which had been launched the previous year and which was not doing well.

And she's out and about as well, organizing conferences and attending them: last year her travels took her all over the USA; to Southeast Asia in October; and London in December. She also has a blog, The Shifted Librarian ( – the title denotes the shift from pursuing to receiving information), from which she feeds people interesting material on new technologies.

Much of her job also involves educating both her colleagues in the ALA, and librarians all over the USA – the ALA now has over 100 blogs and wikis. But she also gets involved with initiatives around particular applications: last year, for example, saw her busy with video games. She put on a symposium on gaming and learning, organized National Gaming Day (November 15 2008), and helped start a project to study gaming and literacy with an $800,000 dollar grant from the Verizon Foundation, part of which involved releasing a gaming tool kit and providing small grants to ten libraries to get them started with gaming.

ALA Connect

Another major current project is ALA Connect, the ALA's new online community service, which will enable the organization's 1,300 active groups to work virtually, but in a transparent manner so that everybody can see what everybody else is doing.

Jenny is the project lead, managing the internal communication, developing the functional specification, articulating and negotiating requirements to, and coordinating with, the developer. The programming, development and design of the wire frame of the interface have all been outsourced.

The first phase involved a total revamp of the existing service, which was difficult to use and didn't have any newer tools like blogs and wikis. The ALA deliberately chose to go for the open source content management software Drupal ( in order to free up licence fees for the development of features.

This phase already has the building blocks for virtual professional networking: you can build a network of "friends", and list your interests. This functionality will be enhanced in phase 2, when the software will use people's interests to connect them to relevant information, and there will also be other features such as the ability to do online résumés.

But it's in phase 3 when "things really start to get interesting". It will be possible to see friends' conference arrangements, so that you'll know what days they are going to be there, and what their schedule is. Based on your declared interests, relevant sessions will be highlighted, and on the same principle, you will also be informed of new publications and continuing education sessions.

The term "phases" is probably misleading, as features will be rolled out as they are ready, but the plan is to start work on phase 2 in summer 2009, and phase 3 in 2010.

Cut out the guilt

The trouble with Web 2.0 services is that while none of them may be that complex, they are often difficult to use intelligently; and the sheer number (see Figure 1), and the rate at which new ones keep popping up, is very confusing.

Image: Figure 1. Screenshot listing some of the many Web 2.0 services available, e.g. Ask, Backflip, Ballhype, Bebo, Blinklist, Blogmarks, Delicious, Digg, Diigo, Facebook, Fark etc.

Figure 1. Screenshot of some of the Web 2.0 services available

The commonest question Jenny is asked, is how to select the most relevant, and make best use of, these tools.

She recommends critical awareness rather than total immersion.

"I liken it to being in a library with books, of course you haven't read every book, but you're familiar enough with what a book is and with genres so that you can at least converse about them. Even if you don't know a specific title, you know how to navigate that type of format.

"And so what I tell people is they are never going to understand and use every Web 2.0 tool, nobody I know does, and to set yourself up with the expectation that you can is only going to make you feel guilty.

"Now there are certain tools that you will find of great value, and you have to take the time to figure out, is this tool useful to me? You might come to the conclusion that it's not practical for you now, but you'll keep it on your radar and try it again in a year. What tends to happen for me is that a service isn't really useful until there's a critical mass of my friends on it. For example, Facebook doesn't do you any good if you don't have any friends there, because it's all about your network. So in six months or a year, you might revise your opinion about a particular service because a lot of your friends are on it."

A good way of finding out about services is to post a question on the Library 2.0 Ning network ( – a lot of librarians are early adopters and quite happy to explain things to the rest of us.

Bridging the digital divide

If the new information landscape is confusing to the librarian, then how much more so will it be to the average citizen? A new digital divide has grown up: it used to be between those who had access to the Internet and those who didn't, now there's a second one between those who understand Web 2.0 and those who are stuck back in Web 1.0 or even 0.0. Helping people navigate this new landscape is an important role for librarians.

"We taught people how to find information, we taught people how to use computers and I think it's a natural progression that we will teach people how to create content and how to participate in this new type of online world.

"For some time now, libraries have provided spaces where people can meet together – for example, talking about books, or children doing craft. Librarians have a framework for the way information is changing, so we are well placed to offer a space where people can get their questions answered, and just play with these new tools."

As an example, she points to Princeton Public Library's Gadget Garage, which she affectionately terms a "technology petting zoo", a place where you can come to the library and play with gadgets:

"Knowing that when you went to the library to borrow a book or a video, you could play with these tools, or have someone sit with you and explain them, would be a huge benefit to the community."

Developing nimble services

We all have a mental image of libraries which is hard to get rid of – mine is of waiting for hours at the reference desk for a librarian to be free to answer questions. One of the changes that Jenny gets excited about is the way that the ubiquity of technology forces the library to be ubiquitous too, so that we have a choice about how to interact with it.

She has called for libraries to develop nimble services, meaning ones that adapt to the user's requirements. A good example of this is Twitter (

"I can go to the Web and log into the Twitter website and I can use it as I've used every other website, or I can use it through my cellphone via text messages, or by downloading a special application for it, or I can use it through my instant messaging client, or I can download a special piece of software to my computer."

What this gives is the ability to choose how you interact with the service – and where:

"If I am out shopping maybe I want to use my cellphone, but if I'm at my computer I want to use the Web. It's my choice and Twitter adapts to what I want."

Librarians, too, need to be proactive in meeting users and not just sit behind a reference desk waiting for them to approach. She hints at conservatism in some parts of the profession and a reluctance to adopt new ways of doing things, although equally other librarians are enthusiastically adopting new technologies where these can improve services:

"We sat at the reference desk and waited for somebody to walk up. And then we had the telephone and a discussion about whether it was ok to do telephone reference. And eventually we decided 'yes, it is'. Next we had the fax and wondered if it's ok to fax somebody an article. And we had a debate about that, but finally it was agreed we could. Then we had the Internet and asked 'is it ok to do e-mail?', which in the end we decided it was, but we would only get back to you in 24 to 48 hours."

Nor does ubiquity of service provision necessarily have huge resource implications, as so much can be automated. Thus, for example, it ought to be possible to have the catalogue available through the cellphone, and text the library to find out what books have been checked out: all this information is already on the system somewhere.

And many old services were quite resource intensive. Take for example the Night Owl Reference in the US, where a librarian would be paid to sit by the phone all night in case someone called after the library was closed: it wasn't a full-time position, but it was still a salary and a desk. By contrast, QuestionPoint, the OCLC's 24/7 virtual reference service, is based on collaboration between libraries, there's always a librarian available even if it's not the local one.

Jenny responds to messages on the ALA's Twitter service within 24 hours, which she is able to do because she gets a text message when someone sends in a tweet:

"It doesn't take a whole lot for me to respond at night, but if I chose not to I could still do it in the morning, I've been alerted to it. So I don't think we're at the point yet where people will totally ignore the library because they're not responding within one minute, I think people give us some leeway as long as we're responding within 24 hours."

Jenny would like to see the library profession as a whole approaching the major search engines to talk about ways in which the services of local libraries could be integrated, for example by embedding a search box or an instant message window. That way, people could link up with local services and not just be at the mercy of the generalized results of a search engine:

"I think we have to start looking at who our partners are in the information world and work with them more closely."

The library as play

Games have been enthusiastically taken up by the ALA, and by US libraries in general. Yet this is a controversial area, and recently neuroscientist Susan Greenfield claimed that playing video games wired up people's brains wrongly, reducing them to an infantilized state and shortening their attention span (see Derbyshire, 2009).

To which Jenny responds ruefully that she has spent her entire life:

"being told that whatever I'm enjoying at the moment is rotting my brain, whether it's rock and roll or television or movies. These kids may be looking at a screen, but they're actively engaging with it. They have to make quick decisions, and the input and feedback they have into the system is interactive and they can make changes to the game's story".

She also cites numerous studies in defence of games: the Federation of American Scientists (2006) put out a report which claimed that the skills kids learned in video games were exactly the ones that 21st century business is looking for:

  • the ability to multitask,
  • to take in information,
  • make decisions,
  • plan and adapt to new systems.

And Kutner and Olson (2008), in the first truly neutral study of violence in video games, claimed playing these games with others could be a means of working out their aggression in a situation that they recognize as fantasy, in a way they can't in real life. The real cause for concern is when a child who is deprived is playing those games on his or her own.

These conclusions were supported by the Pew Internet and American Life Project report on teen gaming and civic engagement: connections were actually stronger between people who gamed together in a room than if they were gaming with people online (Lenhart et al., 2008).

Just as libraries provide safe and neutral spaces for people to learn about new technologies, so they can offer a social space to play computer games in a team situation, which encourages interaction.

"Kids could sit in a room at home and game together, but it's when they're doing it in a public place and meeting diverse groups of people and interacting with them that we start seeing extra benefits. So, for example, if there's a dispute they learn how to work this out among themselves. Someone once said that gaming at the library was one of the few places that these kids learned what society expects of them as citizens. Because in school your behaviour is so restricted that you don't learn how to work things out and socialize with people, and there are few places left in the community where you learn these things any more.

"It's also a great way to interact with the community and people of all ages. One of my favourite pictures is of a high-school kid playing Dance Dance Revolution with a middle-school kid who's half his height. And that transaction would not happen in school, it is so uncool for the high-schooler to play with the middle-schooler, but yet it happens at gaming in the library because the library provides a neutral space. And there's a programme in New Jersey where kids mentor seniors and teach them how to play video games."

Quite apart from civic benefits, it means that new groups come into contact with librarians who can develop relationships with them and introduce them to other media. In addition, libraries are places for having fun: recently, Jenny played library mini golf in her local library, Downers Grove Public Library, a great way of raising money and bringing in new patrons. See Figure 2.

Photo: Figure 2. Photo of children playing mini golf at the Downers Grove Public Library, IL, USA.

Figure 2. Having fun in the library

Where next?

Jenny's work for the ALA has taken her all over the USA, and last year, she also visited London and managed to tack a trip to Malaysia and Cambodia on top of the Bridging Worlds Conference last October. This year, however she's been turning down most invitations because:

"I want to be at home more, I moved into a new house a year-and-a-half ago and I've barely unpacked".

She also plans to get puppies, and she will be blogging about those on The Shifted Librarian. Sounds like a great reason for keeping that particular blog on one's radar!


Derbyshire, D. (2009), "Social websites harm children's brains: chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist", Daily Mail, February 24, available at:… [accessed March 20 2009].

Federation of American Scientists (2006), Harnessing the Power of Video Games for Learning, Federation of American Scientists, Washington DC, available at:… [accessed March 20 2009].

Kutner, L. and Olson, C.K. (2008), Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth about Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do, Simon & Schuster, NJ.

Publisher's note

This profile of Jenny Levine was written by EMX Editor, Margaret Adolphus.