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Interview: D.C. Public's Digital Initiatives Librarian, Aaron Schmidt

Lianne Ho

Aaron Schmidt
Aaron Schmidt is the new Digital Initiatives Librarian for the District of Columbia Public Library. Last April, as part of the Margaret Chisholm "Motivate, Inspire, Lead" lecture series, Aaron spoke about the way the Read/Write web has changed the world of information and what libraries can do to become more user-centered institutions. And during the Autumn 2008 quarter, he was a guest lecturer for the iSchool, teaching a class called "The Usable Library."
(I took it, by the way. It was pretty awesome.) Aaron was kind enough to let me pick his brain about a number of topics, including his new job, teaching for the iSchool, and his vision of the ideal library.

Lianne Ho: First of all, congratulations on your new job! Tell us a little about it and what you're most excited to work on.

Aaron Schmidt: Thanks! During my time as the director of a small public library outside of Portland, I was working for the District of Columbia Public Library as a consultant. I was working with a great team of people and we generated a ton of great ideas to pursue. The Director of Information Technology Services, Chris Tonjes, was involved with and encouraging of this idea generating. We came up with a compelling list of projects and then talked about me coming on full time. The DCPL is doing the right thing by focusing just as much on transforming their digital presence as they are on their physical locations. So now I'm the Digital Initiatives Librarian and get to telecommute from Portland to DC.


LH: What was your MLIS program like? How did it prepare your professional career?

AS: My MLIS program was pretty traditional. I graduated right on the cusp of libraries getting involved with the Read/Write Web but that world hadn't yet made it to the LIS curriculum. So while my education gave me a solid grounding in the library world, much of what I've done has expanded upon what libraries have traditionally done by incorporating things that developed outside of the profession. An equally important element of my professional development was working as a circulation clerk, my first job in a library. I learned about being the public face for a library (important!), formed my opinions about providing excellent service to people and witnessed how libraries can change people's lives. This practical bias is reflected in my teaching, writing and presenting.


LH: What does an effective 21st century librarian need to know? What skills/qualities should they have?

AS: I think that the 21st century is a great time to be a librarian and I'm optimistic about the future of the profession. We're perfectly primed to help both the information world and individuals deal with the big changes in things like copyright, authority, and new media literacies. In order to do this, and serve people's changing information related needs, we must be creative, flexible and curious.


LH: Let's talk a little about the LIS 589 class this quarter. Was that your first time teaching a class?

AS: The class was titled The Usable Library and it was about examining libraries to figure out ways to make them easier for people to use. We covered a variety of topics including things from the physical world, reference desks for example, and the digital realm, like OPACs.

Back in Illinois I taught a number of courses for the College of DuPage's Library Technical Assistant program but this was my first time teaching in a MLIS program. It was also my first time teaching a distance class.


LH: How do you feel it went? Anything you're particularly happy about? What might you do differently next time?

AS: Primarily I'm happy that people seemed to enjoy the class and that some students have already been able to apply ideas they've developed in class on the job. A couple of students have also reported that a switch has been flipped and they can't stop being critical about usability and design. This was a secret hope. I bet that these folks will be producing some quality stuff for their libraries.

I knew I'd learn things from the ideas students presented. There was a lot of creative thinking in the class. I'm also pleased that I learned a bunch not only about libraries but about teaching and designing a class. This one was a significant departure from other iSchool distance classes in that it used open web tools (mainly the blogging software WordPress) that people might use personally or professionally. While I don't have anything to compare it with, it worked out well and students gained experience with real world tools. However, everything was behind the UW firewall and this presented some information distribution/tracking issues. Specifically, students couldn't use Google Reader to keep track of blog comments which is something on which I had planned to work with them.


LH: One of the things you had the 589 class blog about was our personal library visions. So, what's yours? If you had a blank slate to create the ideal library, what would it be like?

AS: Hey, no fair! Okay, lately I've been thinking about the future of content in libraries because I'm afraid that the digital rights management (DRM) of downloadable stuff is going to eventually edge libraries out of the content game. Publishers don't think they have any incentive to help us distribute their content far and wide, though I think they're mistaken about this. Libraries won't be able to match, say, the huge Watch Instantly catalog on Netflix. What libraries can do, though, is add value to the content. So I suppose I'm big on the "library as community gathering place" model of libraries. It would be easy to spout off a bunch of cool tech that libraries could get involved with, but most of all I want libraries to connect with people, and connect people by producing interesting stuff and helping people produce interesting stuff.


LH: Are there any new technologies/Web 2.0 developments that you're particularly excited about right now?

AS: I recently joined Netflix and am blown away buy how much stuff I can watch on demand. Goodbye productivity! In this way, content is becoming really cheap and this is totally related to the above question too.

I hadn't really been excited by any gadget type thing for years but I think the iPhone is an important device in that its screen resolution makes it a heck of an eBook reader. It really is the first capable device for reading that people are carrying around on a regular basis.

Oh, and today I learned that its possible to insert inline annotated notes into Google documents!


LH: In light of the current economic situation, do you have any advice for librarians looking to make changes and improvements "on the cheap"?

AS: Libraries can do so much to improve on the cheap. In fact, if there's no funding for big new projects it might be a good time for libraries to assess what they're already doing. It isn't expensive to bribe people with lunch in exchange for you asking them to do a few tasks on your website. Those who took 589 this past quarter will recognize this as basic usability testing. Brian Herzog's idea of "Work Like a Patron Day" is zero cost and probably illuminating. You know from class that a personal pet peeve of mine is ugly and mean signs in libraries. It certainly doesn't cost much to make them helpful, friendly and pretty.


LH: What was the last book you read? What are you reading right now?

AS: I just finished rereading parts of Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The desert crash section (which inspired parts of his The Little Prince) is a particular favorite.

Right now, if I'm to be honest, I'm thumbing though one of the first cocktail recipe books. It is from 1887 and has the best name. The Bartender's Guide: How to Mix Drinks or the Bon-Vivant's Companion.


Thanks, Aaron! For those of you who want more, check out Aaron's blog, walking paper

January 10, 2009
Vol. XIII Issue 2

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