Last year I received an intriguing message from someone who called himself “The Efficient Librarian.” He had recently completed my online course Building a Second Brain, and said he wanted to talk about a collaboration.

This mysterious sender turned out to be Doug Crane, writer of The Efficient Librarian blog and director of the county library system in Palm Beach, in South Florida. In his role managing more than 500 library staff in the second largest county east of the MIssissippi, I learned that Doug was on a mission: to update the library for the digital age.

Doug had discovered David Allen’s Getting Things Done method years before, and in 2012 developed a workshop to teach the method to his staff. It was received enthusiastically, and he went on to speak and facilitate workshops at regional library conferences and associations across the state of Florida. Today he is the director of a sprawling network of 17 branches managing 1.2 million items, including books, CDs, DVDs, and many others

Doug called me because he had seen in my course a vision for the future of libraries. He saw that rather than being a force of disruption, technology could usher in a new golden age of Idea Management. An age when librarians spent less time helping people find reference materials on the shelf, and more time helping them solve complex problems using both online and offline resources.

In Doug’s manifesto, he points out that librarians were the original knowledge workers. Long before any of us experienced the stress of “information overload,” librarians were figuring out how to organize huge volumes of information and make it accessible to the public. Long before Google adopted it as their mission statement, librarians were hard at work inventing systems and tools to “organize the world’s knowledge and make it universally useful and accessible.”

But over the past few decades, the Internet upended the profession. As generation after generation of new online platforms emerged faster and faster, libraries struggled to adapt. No longer were librarians the guardians and gatekeepers of scarce knowledge. Instead, they had to learn how to help people make sense of abundant information online, vetted by no one. The controversy about how to cite Wikipedia in class essays was just the very tip of the iceberg – we now live in a “post-truth” era where every source of information is suspect.

In Doug’s vision, librarians could become not just reference specialists, but personal research consultants. They could master the skill of traversing multiple streams of information flowing through our increasingly digital lives. And they could teach that skill to patrons, unleashing a wave of creativity and empowerment in the communities they serve.

Imagine a future where a library was not primarily about the specific information on the shelves, but about the skills of curating, filtering, digesting, and managing information. Like a martial arts dojo, it would concentrate on training people in skills that would be useful outside its walls. 

Just as dojos teach not just the practical skill of karate, but a whole mindset of honor, respect, self-discipline, and courage, libraries would teach not only the skills of Idea Management, but the mindset needed in a digital world – self-efficacy, objectivity, tolerance, and skepticism.

Doug and I realized that we shared a belief that Idea Management, supported by the tools of digital note-taking, could be one of the most important frontiers in librarianship. That librarians could once again take a leadership role on the information frontier by embracing the powers of technology. Doug recommended two books outlining the challenge and the opportunity that public libraries are facing, and as Lauren and I read them, a whole new understanding of what is at stake dawned on us.

We decided to work together on a one-day workshop for the Palm Beach Library staff. It would be a customized version of our Building a Second Brain course, with the goal of equipping their librarians with the latest skills and tools for Idea Management using technology.

The tour

In May 2019, we touched down in Miami and made the short drive north to West Palm Beach. 

It is a massive county spanning beachfront, lakes, urban and suburban development, and inland agricultural land. It is famous for its wealth, including many high-end hotels, golf courses, and beachside resorts. Trump’s winter estate, Mar-a-lago, sits on an offshore island, and his lavish golf course lies directly across the street from the library headquarters. But there is also significant poverty hiding behind the gilded reputation, with 20% of the county’s children living below the poverty line. A land of excess and contradictions.

For our first day in town, we went on a tour of the library network, visiting two branches and an annex. We were amazed at the incredible diversity of the items they have available for borrowing, and the sophistication of the services they provide.

Alongside the usual fare like books, magazines, reference titles, and microfilm, the Palm Beach Library also offers:

  • Wireless hotspots for those who don’t have Internet access
  • Bird-watching kits with binoculars
  • Curriculum kits for daycare centers and preschools with large-format picture books and hand puppets
  • Tablets, laptops, and virtual reality goggles
  • Book-club-in-a-bag, with a set of 10 books and discussion questions

These items combine different kinds of media according to an intended purpose, instead of a static, one-size-fits-all piece of content. The trend of “user-centered design” that has swept the technology world is now finding its way into libraries. In example after example, we saw that the library staff had noticed a need, and then brought together a set of materials that fulfilled it in the most convenient way possible.

The library also offers a range of services designed to make its catalogue as widely accessible as possible. For example:

  • Talking Books, a nationwide program for patrons who are visually impaired or can’t hold a book
  • A Books-by-Mail program, which sends books free of charge to patrons who are mobility impaired or can’t visit a branch
  • The Bookmobile, a mobile library bus that sets up shop temporarily at schools and other underserved locations around the county
  • Free lunches for students during the summer, when they lose access to free lunches at school

These special programs are in addition to about 300 events and 400 computer classes held each month, reaching 10,000 people every year. 

Throughout our tour, we were surprised to see the extent to which technology was being integrated into every aspect of the library’s operations. 

The main branch has a CreationStation – a soundproofed digital media room where patrons can record podcasts and music, and edit audio or video on late model Macs. Several other branches will be adding such spaces soon. RFID stickers applied to books are part of an electronic tracking system that not only saves time, but protects patrons’ privacy. And behind the scenes, we watched gleefully as a new sorting machine automatically whisked incoming returned books to the correct bins for reshelving.

At the same time, we saw how technology could be an obstacle. 

According to this CNN article, loans of ebooks and audiobooks are taking off, growing at a rate of 30% per year. Libraries nationwide offer over 391 million ebooks to their patrons, including free display space at over 16,000 locations. These titles make up 45% of the total reads for major publisher Macmillan, but this isn’t in direct competition to sales: over 60% of frequent library users have also bought a book written by an author they first discovered in a library, according to Pew.

But incredibly, these digital files have to be purchased one license at a time. A multi-use audiobook license might cost $50-100, limiting how many people can read it at any given time, and only lasting a certain number of reads before it has to be re-purchased. The limitation in this case is not an outdated library not keeping up with the times, but an outdated publishing industry that continues to treat digital books like their physical predecessors.

Far from being a dusty, stale institution stuck in the past, what we saw on our tour was a vibrant, dynamic, quickly evolving organization full of people who care deeply about accessibility for everyone. Lauren and I were blown away by the breadth of the library system’s programs and services, and all of them offered for free to anyone. We came away with the sense that the library was an absolutely vital part of the community, especially for those with the fewest resources.

And this isn’t an isolated case. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, about half of all Americans aged sixteen and over used a public library in the past year, and two-thirds say that closing their local branch would have a “major impact on their community.” And Millennials are the adult generation most likely to have used a public library, with 53% of Millennials (those ages 18 to 35 at the time) responding that they had used a library or bookmobile in the previous 12 months (compared with 45% of Gen Xers, 43% of Baby Boomers, and 36% of those in the Silent Generation).

Libraries are thriving, but their reputation in the digital age is not. Many question whether they are needed at all, now that information is accessible from anywhere. We saw that new practices in Idea Management could strengthen the role of libraries in a modern, digital-centric world. 

The workshop

Through informal conversations, illuminating anecdotes, and a recent staff survey, we discovered that the needs of the library staff fell into 5 buckets:

  1. How to take advantage of digital tools
  2. How to use discretionary project time
  3. File fragmentation
  4. Summarizing and communicating learning
  5. Community Research Service challenges

1. How to take advantage of digital tools

In recent years libraries have dramatically shifted from focusing exclusively on books, to offering a wide range of CDs, DVDs, magazines, audiobooks, ebooks, and other media. In recognition of this trend, about a third of the library graduate programs in the United States have dropped the word “library” from their titles, and are now known as “information science.”

But the role of technology in the everyday work of library staff has been much less clear. The proliferation of quickly changing software programs, devices, operating systems, and online platforms has left people fending for themselves.

We decided to make the workshop a hands-on experience, with each person bringing the devices they typically use to try out the new note-taking methods we would be teaching.

2. How to use discretionary project time

With budget cuts and the public’s more widespread access to basic information, library staff increasingly have more discretionary “project” time. Instead of completely structured and routine tasks, there are more one-time or unstructured projects such as creating new programs, changing the layout of a space, developing a new resource, or organizing an event. Such projects require not just self-management, but creativity.

We decided to emphasize both actionability and creativity, leading participants through formulating a Project List and identifying existing sources of knowledge they could draw inspiration from to make their work easier and more effective.

3. File fragmentation

We heard a lot of comments about the “fragmentation” of the files the library staff were managing. They already store many different kinds of information digitally, but it is scattered across different platforms, saved in different formats, and accessible on different networks or devices.

Although some of this is unavoidable due to county policies and Florida Public Records laws, we knew that we could show people how to organize their files in a simple and consistent way that supported their projects and goals, using the PARA method

4. Summarizing and communicating learning

A lot of knowledge work involves gathering unstructured information – such as at a conference, from a book, or in a committee meeting – and then packaging it up in some form so it can be conveyed to others. And we found that library work is no different – often someone would attend a conference or event, and struggle when they had to come back and communicate what they had learned to their colleagues.

We decided to train participants in Progressive Summarization, a method of structuring and distilling notes to make them easier to retrieve. We knew that this tool would help them take what they already do and are already an expert in, and make it available to others.

5. Community Research Service challenges

One of the newest and most valuable services offered by the Palm Beach Library is their Community Research Service (CRS). It is a free service offered not only to patrons but also to local government agencies, non-profits, and other community groups. Trained librarians are assigned to these organizations to help them locate the best resources for whatever research they are conducting, and then put them to use.

The CRS represents an important shift not only from looking up facts to solving complex problems, but also in taking staff outside library walls to do work in the community. This is part of the library’s mission to “bridge the digital divide,” helping patrons to find, filter, curate, and digest good sources that they can put into action. It’s about not just providing the right answer, but teaching people to find answers for themselves.

In Doug’s words, “I really want to get the bulk of our staff who work in these branches more engaged in the community that they serve. I want to see them ultimately being as comfortable being outside the building, delivering library services, as they are in the building.” He wants his staff to “…be that expert in teaching people those initial digital literacy skills; not only how to discern what’s a good information source, but to manage the information sources.”

Although this service was not directly in the scope of this workshop, we knew that equipping the participants with reusable resources would allow them to translate what they learned with us into their own computer classes and other workshops, which reach 10,000 people every year. 

We developed and open-sourced a OneNote Resource Guide, a public shared notebook containing helpful resources on how to use Microsoft OneNote, a free note-taking app available on all the major operating systems and mobile devices. We also decided we would upload all the recordings, slides, and other materials produced for the training to a private online course on the learning management platform Teachable. Control of this course would be turned over to the library administration at the end of the project, so it could become a renewable educational resource for current and future staff to review.

The outcomes

The training was a success, producing a lot of insights for both participants and for us. Here were some of the things that the 30 participants said they took away from the experience:

  • “Useful concepts of learning, organizing, capturing and storing info”
  • “Breaking down challenging projects into intermediate packets”
  • “The ‘containers versus stream of information’ analogy: that we shouldn’t, and cannot possibly, save everything”
  • “The idea of not recreating the wheel, use existing sources of knowledge”
  • “Keep capturing in mind at all times”
  • “I have a place to pull from my past learned knowledge and not lose it/refer back to it whenever I want”
  • “OneNote ‘notes’ can include whole articles, files, voice recordings, photos, etc. which, depending on what kind of a project you’re working on, could be a big plus”
  • “Digital note taking can be a time saver, there are different ways to incorporate digital note taking into daily work”
  • “Use previous work examples as templates”
  • “Keeping all notes in one place makes it easier to keep track of tasks and projects”
  • “How to make use of knowledge that is captured (actionable v. inactionable)”

By far the biggest challenge we encountered was in the implementation of the technology. Participants had a range of difficulties, from network firewalls that prevented them from syncing their notes, to install permissions on computers owned by the organization, to challenges with understanding how the methods taught could be put into practice on slightly different configurations.

For future trainings, we’ll either need to leave the implementation for later and focus on the principles, or have a standardized note-taking setup that everyone uses.

A new kind of curation

One theme that came up again and again over the course of the project was curation. We saw that curation was an existing activity, very familiar to librarians everywhere, that we could draw on to show how Idea Management could be a central part of the future of libraries. 

Library staff are already experts on how to distinguish the best sources, compare and contrast similar works, make practical decisions about what to keep, pick works that cover different aspects of a topic, and vet them all for accuracy and relevance. All we needed to do was shift this activity from being primarily a public service offered to patrons, to being a practical skill that they could teach patrons to exercise for themselves.

The flood of information available to everyone online has ushered in a new reality: all of us need to become curators, able to pick out the signal from the noise and decide what it means for us. Without this skill, we are at the mercy of a relentless stream of updates, notifications, distractions, and news flashes pushing us in one direction or the other. Most of this content is designed to influence our thinking and behavior, not in our own interest, but in the interest of advertisers.

One of our underlying goals for the workshop was to provoke a cultural shift in the library, to show the staff that they already possess powers of curation that are desperately needed by their patrons. We wanted to make sure everyone got the same message, recognized the same challenges, and started a conversation about what it would look like for the library to become a space for learning and practice in the new skills of Idea Management.

Idea management and the future of libraries

Through this work and other reading, I’ve come to believe that Idea Management is critical for the future of society, and more specifically, the future of libraries. 

It is a higher order skill that ties together research and action, fact and narrative, objectivity and meaning, all in service of people’s projects and goals. Librarians are perfectly positioned to be the leaders in understanding, implementing, and training others in the best practices. To take on this new discipline as the next era of their mission to make human knowledge universally accessible and useful.

As Doug Crane points out on his blog, notes could be considered the most relevant unit of knowledge in today’s digital world: “Notes are the basic unit of knowledge management. I define a note very broadly as an ‘information artifact with perceived value.’”

The physical format of the information we consume is no longer relevant. Information has been abstracted away from its delivery mechanisms, and can now arrive in any format, on any device, and via any channel.

The most relevant unit of knowledge is now something less tangible, but no less valuable – a “snippet” of knowledge that represents a coherent idea. The simplest way to save such an idea for personal use is as a “note.” Whether that is a digital note or a scribble on a legal pad, it represents an external memory that can be created and later retrieved.

Doug continues, “Since they are so plentiful, the care and management of notes is the key challenge of knowledge work, which is addressed by the field of personal knowledge management.” If notes are the fundamental unit of knowledge work, then we need to learn how to manage them skillfully at a large scale. We need to learn how to curate our notes as knowledge assets, like a treasure trove that grows in value with every little bit of effort we put in.

We can design better software to make digital note-taking as easy as possible. But we can only get so far without human help. Idea Management also requires hands-on training, because it represents a fundamental shift in people’s relationship to information. According to the best-selling book The Second Machine Age, “…for technology to make a difference,…for every dollar of investment in computer hardware, companies need to invest up to 9 dollars in software, training, and business process redesign.”

Instead of constantly seeking the public and the new, Idea Management shifts attention to the private and the timeless. Instead of always creating new things on the spur of the moment, it encourages people to build up reserves of research and creative inspiration. Such a deep change in mindset requires specialized training and a real human to show the way. Librarians can be the coaches that help us usher in a new relationship to information.

Idea Management turns the concrete tools of librarianship into skills, and then puts those skills at the service of individuals, inside and outside the library. We need to take what librarians already do, and make it digital and available across time and space. We need professional curators to teach others how to curate their own knowledge in service of a better life. We need to teach people how to find, filter, curate, and digest the knowledge that is available all around them.

As a side effect, such a change could transform the library profession. As Doug puts it, “…[librarians] generally join the profession to make a fundamental impact in the community. I want to ensure that they’re achieving their own goals and dreams through their work and that it is more than just serving time and getting a paycheck.” In his vision, “the library system would make such an incredible impact in the community that people just naturally know the modern value of a library beyond childhood nostalgia and what it’s done to shape the community in the digital age.”

There are over 100,000 libraries across the United States, deeply embedded in communities in every corner of the country. They are part of an existing tradition that everyone knows about. They meet people where they are, simply because the libraries are there too. And they reach millions of people at minimal cost: Columbus, Ohio has one of the highest rates of in-person visits in the country, and residents pay only about $86 per year for a $100,000 annual income home. 

Libraries ushered in the modern age with the promise of universal literacy and access to knowledge. They could once again be the spark that lights a revolution in a digital age that we are all struggling to adapt to.

If you are interested in bringing our course to your library, public or not, please email lauren@fortelabs.co for more information.

Thank you to Brendan Schlagel, Jessica Burton, Andy Sparks, Bushra Farooqui, James Alkire, Doug Crane, and Lauren Valdez for their feedback and suggestions. Any errors, omissions, or indiscretions are purely mine.


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