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Tony Ageh, chief digital officer of New York Public Library. (Wikipedia / Maxim Thompson Photo)

First: It’s not just about digitizing books.

That’s the biggest misconception that the public has about the role of digital technology in libraries, according to the chief digital officer of what is arguably the world’s largest public library.

New York Public Library’s Tony Ageh was recently in Seattle to talk about libraries’ digital transformation. Ageh made the point that tech now permeates pretty much all of a library’s operations, from ebooks and article databases, to systems for checking out materials and tracking fines.

Still, don’t look for your library to be on the bleeding edge of digital.

“What I previously imagined was a weakness I think is a strength, which is that libraries have been very reluctant to move too quickly and have allowed the marketplace and allowed other organizations to kind of prove things work before libraries have taken the plunge,” said Ageh, who before joining NYPL oversaw internet and archive efforts at the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). “I think that has actually inoculated us against waste or harmful behavior.”

That kind of fad-or-trend, wait-and-see behavior appears to generally suit libraries well.

“Librarians are incredibly risk averse,” he said. “I think they do care very much about patrons and about the impact that their work does, and so we’re very unlikely to take a chance when we’re dealing with public money and when we’re dealing with patrons; we have a personal relationship with them.”

The lion greets visitors to a well-known New York Public Library branch. (GeekWire Photo / Frank Catalano)

But that doesn’t mean the public institutions aren’t looking forward. On Ageh’s list of significant digital services a library can provide is loanable WiFi hotspots, such as the ones offered in Seattle Public Library’s program. “I think the leadership of places like Seattle are more inclined to try and open a conversation with — maybe not the older generation — but the next generation of library users to say, ‘Okay, what are you expecting? What do you need? How can we help you get to where you need to be?,'” Ageh said.

Ageh sat down with me for a public interview this fall at the Seattle Public Library’s Central Library. Up for discussion was not just digital transformation, but how that innovation is balanced with patron privacy, an increasingly sensitive topic.

Listen to the podcast recording below for portions of the public interview program, and keep reading after the link for a transcript of highlights from the public conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Frank Catalano, GeekWire: You are the chief digital officer at the New York Public Library. What does the chief digital officer do?

Tony Ageh, New York Public Library: I do two things. One is I’m responsible for the digital transformation of the entire library, so I’m responsible in the same way the chief finance officer is for every dollar that you spend throughout the entire library … I’m responsible for the entire digital footprint or the digital activity in the entire library.

What do you find to be the biggest misconception by the public about the role of digital in a library’s mission?

Ageh: I think most people think libraries of books and therefore they think digital is digital books … the first question anybody asks me is, “How long is it going to take you to digitize all the books?”

If you look at American Airlines, they have made a complete transformation, digital transformation. Everything you would do with American Airlines, now you would do digitally. You can book your ticket, you can check in, you can get through the gates. You can literally get from the moment you want to start flying to the moment you arrive using some kind of digital interface. The only thing you definitely use is a physical airplane. You use a real plane and they’ll probably literally really lose your luggage. But those two things are still physical. Everything else is digital.

And the role of the library would be the same, virtually everything that you do in some way or other touches some digital activity, whether that’s the catalog, or booking a hold, or paying your fine, booking a room, using WiFi. There are digital activities all the way through every aspect of a modern library. Only one of the things we do is deliver the books themselves digitally ….

I think the role of digital in the context of a library is to deliver the most relevant and at-the-site service that we can or that the public expects us to.

What’s the biggest challenge in implementing what the role of digital is in an institution as large as the New York Public Library?

Ageh: I think avoiding distractions and staying focused on the things that we have to do, or the things that are the most essential things for us to do right now. Digital technology is full of opportunity and it’s a great tool kit … so we can very easily distract ourselves and start doing things that we like to do rather than things that we need to do. The most important things we need to do are to make sure that people, whoever they are, can get to the material that we have, to be able to use them in the way they need to use them. Probably in some degree of privacy so that they’re not exposed to prying eyes. I think the challenge is that it’s a very large collection, and it’s trying to focus on the things that people need most, rather than the things that we most want to do

Prior to the New York Public Library, you were at the BBC. What was the biggest difference do you see in moving from what essentially is perceived primarily as a broadcaster, to a library institution like the New York Public Library?

Ageh: I was more interested in the role that new technologies could bring to reimagining the greater potential of the BBC beyond making just programs … There was so much value, so much of the narrative of British culture and history had been inadvertently recorded as they were making the programs. Everything from kind of the change in society, and the change in the way that we conveyed information. I wanted to find a way of unlocking that. So I would say that the more important thing for me is the similarity between what I was trying to do at the BBC and the opportunities I get within the Library because I was really trying to make the BBC into a library.

How successful do you think you were?

Ageh: Pretty successful. Originally the archives of the BBC were completely locked away and almost impossible for anybody to get to. Only program makers could get to them. Now It’s just normal that anything the BBC has produced is considered to be available, will be made available to the public.

That then is an approach that you’re taking with the New York Public Library as well? In collections at libraries, making them more accessible?

Ageh: Exactly. I think it’s a more of a demand structure. I think the challenge for us is to create a system — I wouldn’t get as far as just-in-time digitalization — but to be able to respond to a research or to any member of the public’s, “I would like to get a copy of this in a digital format that I can use in this way, for these purposes,” and for us to be able to respond as quickly as possible to that request.

Seattle Public Library’s Central Library. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

As things become more digital they move more freely, including content. You also have information about those who are accessing, or using, or manipulating the content. What is the proper role of a library in dealing with the issue of where does the data continue to move freely? And when should the library step in and say, no, that’s, that’s far enough? 

Ageh: I’ve got to be honest. I don’t know … If I come into the library, I’m protected by the walls of the library as a space … Nobody’s watching what I do. No one’s checking the books I read. Nobody’s asking why I’m reading things. Nobody keeps a record of anything I do. And in the old world when you had a physical book, that would be definitely the case ….

There’s a real concern in the digital world as you start your search, you log in, we know who you are and what time you’ve logged in and we know what you’ve put into the search engine. We know how many failed searches it took you to find the thing you want. We know what you did when you found the thing that you want. We know if you booked it, if you asked to hold it, if you took it out. If it’s an ebook, we can see if you’ve opened it, we can see if you’ve read it, we can see where you stopped reading it, we can see when you brought it back. And we can see that about everybody else ….

I feel all of these are great vulnerabilities. I think both we and Seattle and every library I know, but certainly this library and New York Public Library, we delete all of those records, and we delete them the moment we possibly can. There are many things we don’t bother tracking at all.

But it does concern me that the machines themselves may not be doing that. The systems that we rely upon, or third-party organizations that provide some of those services, may not have the same attitude. And not because there’s anything wrong with them, but I just think they may not have the same diligence and the same concerns. That is a concern to us.

On the other hand a library, particularly archives, rely upon information being made available to the public that some people would prefer the public not to know about. They’d like people not to know certain history of their tax records or other correspondence. So there’s a very difficult line for libraries to be able to make available public information that should be in the public domain, while at the same time respecting the rights of an individual to remove information from the public domain.

What kind of expectation of privacy should an individual have as a library patron? Many of us now have realized that when it comes to Facebook, social media, and online systems that are commercially operated, that the reality is different than the what our expectation had been. Is the expectation of privacy when an individual comes into a library to use online or digital materials different? Should it be different?

Ageh: I think it should be different. It would be true to say that it keeps some people in the libraries awake at night. We have a person whose only job is to worry about patron privacy , a privacy officer. That is the only thing that [he] ever worries about. He worries a lot about it ….

We are talking to as many people as we can. And every library I’ve ever been to, every librarian I’ve ever spoken to, seems to be a far more concerned about it than I think the public think they are. And in most cases than the public are themselves.

I think it is a real issue because the quality of the services that people have become used to — whether that’s Google, Amazon, Facebook, which are all fine services — take for granted that people are reasonably comfortable with the information they gather about them in order to make the services better. I think libraries are beginning to feel that we are not part of that industry. We have to think very differently about it.

If I were to be a good informed library patron are there questions I should be asking of the library?

Ageh: I don’t think there’s anything you need to ask that we wouldn’t have asked ourselves, and I think we would give you a positive answer … I don’t want to overstate it, but we take it very, very seriously. It is something that we think is front-and-center of the concerns that we have about the role the library has dealing with people in this era.

Are you getting more questions from patrons about privacy these days? Especially in the current environment when people are concerned, and the terms always thrown out about a “surveillance state” or “surveillance technology?”

Ageh: We’re not getting as many as we would like or expect … I think we are aware that we need to stimulate more questions and more challenge.

Do you think people are placing their trust in the right places when it comes to the library?

Ageh: Yeah, I think so. I can’t think of anything that any library that I know of has done that would put anybody at risk. There may be things that it would turn out that we should have had more foresight about. I can’t imagine what they are now ….

We will err very much on this side of caution. We would rather not gather the information in the first place, then run the risk of holding it and losing it. And we do have to have information. With one exception, we get rid of it the moment we can. The only one exception is fines information.

GeekWire’s Frank Catalano (left) and NYPL’s Tony Ageh (right) at Seattle Public Library. (SPL Photo / Jennifer Cargal)

If you had to pick something that’s “born digital” that you wish a library would have done, do you have any examples in your mind?

Ageh: The great goal for a library is to make available material to the widest number of people in the most equal way we possibly can. In my mind something like, if not Wikipedia, the process that produces Wikipedia. A system that distributes all the authentication in a way that we believe has the greatest chance of being true, that can operate at scale, that can be made available to literally anybody as close to for free as possible. I think that’s a pretty good example of the kind of thing that I wouldn’t say a library would do, but it looks very library-shaped ….

[It’s] intended to be equally available to everybody without any variety that would be caused by, let’s say, wealth. No matter how good your hardware is, you’re going to get the same version of Wikipedia.

One of the advantages of an organization like the BBC is that it produces the same news to everybody at exactly the same moment, no matter how expensive your radio or television is. You can’t get a better version of it. You can’t get it earlier. You can’t improve on the service.

I think a library-shaped service is one that is like that. We will give exactly the same book to everybody on exactly the same terms with exactly the same conditions. You can’t come in and buy a better version of the library. There’s no gold-plated service. You can’t jump the queue. With the exceptions where we know that you need additional help, but we won’t advantage anybody. We’ll just do our best to make sure that nobody is disadvantaged.

So Wikipedia has those kind of characteristics; it is intended to be to meet everybody where they are on equal terms and there is no way of getting a better version just because of some other advantage you have.

What has been the most significant digital service a library has provided? From your perspective, what is the best thing you’ve seen?

Ageh: Apart from the [WiFi] hot spots here in Seattle? That would be high on my list. We have hotspots in New York as well, so that would be very high on my list.

Our work around ebooks. We don’t know enough about e-reading, but distributing ebooks as they stand, I think, has been an important innovation, and we did that at New York on behalf of a much broader community ….

Some of the things we do in the back end systems, things you won’t see, around the discovery layers, and what we call the integrated library system. That’s sort of central nervous system that drives all of the systems around the back.

What I previously imagined was a weakness I think is a strength, which is that libraries have been very reluctant to move too quickly and have allowed the marketplace and allowed other organizations to kind of prove things work before libraries have taken the plunge. I think that has actually inoculated us against waste or harmful behavior.

I also think that librarians are incredibly risk averse. I think they do care very much about patrons and about the impact that their work does, and so we’re very unlikely to take a chance when we’re dealing with public money and when we’re dealing with patrons; we have a personal relationship with them. These aren’t kind of faceless, abstracted users. These are people that are actually known. They come in, they share the space that we work in. And so I think we have a very different connection are definitely different sense of responsibility for people that we actually know by name ….

I think the leadership of places like Seattle are more inclined to try and open a conversation with — maybe not the older generation — but the next generation of library users to say, “Okay, what are you expecting? What do you need? How can we help you get to where you need to be?”

So what’s the role of paper going forward?

Ageh: I’m a big fan of paper … I think print books, newspapers are the best communications medium ever invented and I don’t think in my lifetime they’ll be surpassed.

They have so many advantages. It has its own power supply. It never wears out … they last hundreds of years. It’s easy to see if somebody tampered with it or modified it. It’s lightweight, it’s portable generally, it’s shareable. You can pass it around. I think books are here to stay. I think they are amazing.

I don’t think digital technologies should try and supplant books. I don’t think we should imagine that even that we should replicate them. I think we need to work out what is it that digital can do that is different from print, and become specialists in that. Not try and compete with what is already a pretty perfect communications medium.

Twenty years from now, what to you does an ideal library look like in terms of services, in terms of the relative role of digital?

Ageh: I think it will be a place of community. I think it’ll be a place of variety and diversity. I think it’ll be a place where people of all walks of life will come and do whatever it is they want to do, and feel that they were allowed to do that, and they’re comfortable to do that, and that they’ve got support from other humans who want them to do that.

What I’d really like to see is that multiplied at such scale that there are libraries or things that act like libraries distributed literally onto every street, maybe even kind of versions of libraries in people’s homes, some aspects of the role of a library that people can have with them all the time. That kind of sense of community and support. That sense of knowing that whatever it is you need, whether it’s an information need or something to support your creativity, or your ability to self-actualize, is with you all the time.

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