3 February 2010
I promised a meatier post on Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s post, so here we go…
* I think Andy is very much right that people are the future. Surely one of the big lessons of the Internet in general and web 2.0 in particular is that people are the killer app — technology that lets us interact with data is great, but technology that lets us interact with data and people wins every time. And addicts us like nobody’s business. And pushes us over qualitative, emergent-behavior boundaries, where new ways to communicate mean newly organized patterns and possibilities of interaction.
* And I’m with @librarythingtim that libraries are and must be changing; “If libraries end up as a way for rich people to indulge children on a visit to a big city—what carriages mean today—well, crap! How did that happen?!” and I, too, “hope people use [Bivens-Tatum’s] essay as a way to “kick it up a notch” intellectually, get past the small stuff…”
The thing that works for me most (among many working things!) about Bivens-Tatum’s post is the point that it’s not about that small stuff. The Future of Libraries isn’t Facebook or SMS reference or what-have-you. The specific technology is, if you will, Plato’s shadows on the wall — specific manifestations of much larger ideas.
The Future represented by this technology, to me, isn’t any one platform; it’s big ideas like democratization of content creation, self-publishing and the attendant opportunity for important voices to come from unexpected and perhaps non-privileged corners, the possibility for people to connect across boundaries — geographic, political, social, corporate — and create their own dialogue that poses challenges to all those boundaries, long tails and finding your tribes far away (but maybe not nearby), remixes, reallocations of power, ubiquitous metadata.
There’s a value to ephemeral technology; we do need to be where our users are right now, and that can change. But there’s a long view here. How do our interactions with, our adoptions of, technology affect our ability to participate in a broadening discourse? to facilitate content creation and remixing? to give voice to the historically disempowered? to pose, and help others pose, questions about the validity and use of those boundaries? to accept that it’s harder and harder to be gatekeepers in a world of broadening access and increasing expectations of access (which I for one think is a good thing) and find ways to facilitate and guide (…while still remembering, and reminding, that there is information kept tightly behind gates, and sometimes it’s the information a discourse needs)?
Specific technologies are manifestations of the principles that guide an emerging future. Those principles are still being digested and determined by cultural mechanisms; cultures, like libraries, seldom change overnight. Me, right now? You can pry my WordPress and Twitter and Google from my cold dead hands — until, perhaps, you softly and gently supercede it, like Mosaic over Lynx, like web interfaces over scp and ftp, like, well, Google over Yahoo in a revelatory moment circa 1998; I’ll try to cling to principles.
[*] The title? From, of course, the top Google hits for “is the future”. I’m a fan of robots myself. (But not, you know, creepy sex robots. I vote against library adoption of this emerging technology. Thanks.)
12 November 2009
Update on Cushing Academy, the school that ditched its print collection for Kindles &c — worth knowing about now that the academic year is underway. Some pros, some cons, not a lot of detail. Interesting that a wide variety of administrators, including a library administrator, are quoted approvingly (I wish I could’ve been around for that decision-making process). Depressing money quote:
Sophomore Elsie Eastman says she’s here all the time now. “I remember last year I barely went to the library,” she says. “I loved the library — I just barely ever went.”
10 November 2009
That slideset yesterday was funny, so I’ve RSSed the guy’s blog. Liked this recent post about data-mining your circ records. His university now has a recommender system (both “people who liked this book also liked” and “people in this course of study tend to like”) and a course-of-study-specific search functionality (nursing and law students want different books when they search for “ethics”). Turns out the recommender service is very popular and noticeably increases how much of their collection circulates (which my little ROI neurons like). Also provides suggestions for refining large searches based on search data. And keep an eye out for the very clever acronym which will warm your heart if you, like me, were online in the early ’90s.
9 November 2009
Hilarious slideset on library 2.0 OPAC features with a great subtitle — “Utilising Web 2.0 in the OPAC: lipstick, cowbells and serendipity.”.
12 October 2009
Chronicle of Higher Ed article on discovery layers in library catalogs. Doesn’t say much I haven’t already seen (although if you have no idea what I mean by “discovery layers” do read it; it’s a good overview). I did like this bit, though:
“It’s sort of our answer to, Why it is you need a library when you have Google?” said Ms. Gibbons [vice provost and dean of the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries]. “What this is going to do is show how much you’ve been missing.”
Positioning libraries to stay relevant is, of course, a major obsession these days, and I liked how she phrased it — not exactly as “let’s present ourselves in ways that are familiar to the users” (although I do think that matters), but “by presenting ourselves in ways that are familiar to the users, we can better showcase ways that we are already awesome.”
Comments section is kind of disheartening. I shouldn’t be surprised that the demographic that reads the Chronicle is the demographic that is conversant with old-school catalog searching ;), but so many of the comments read as “fix the user, not the catalog” and…that just never works. Even if the user is uneducated about, e.g., subject headings (and let me tell you, one semester of library school showed me it is amazing how undereducated you can be about catalogs after even a humanities MA), even if the existing technology works really well once you put in the time to learn it — fixing users just never works.
It would make me sad if discovery layers made it impossible to do the sort of precise, controlled searching library nerds get good at, but another of the lessons of Google (or, for that matter, of any number of intimidating databases) is that your clean searchbox doesn’t mean you can’t have that functionality. But if you say to users “you can’t even play until you’ve spent a couple hours learning how” — well, just like my last post — that means there will be a lot of users you never get at all.
Make it easy. Or, at least: make the first hit free.
13 August 2009
I’ve just started reading Tyler Cowen’s new book, Create Your Own Economy. (That is to say, I’ve just finished Chapter 1.) I should preface this by saying that Cowen is one of my great intellectual crushes and his blog, Marginal Revolution, has taught me a lot and strongly influenced my thinking on some matters (as well as introducing me to one of my other great intellectual crushes, Sudhir Venkatesh). And I say all of these complimentary things because I’m going to spend the rest of the post cranky.
Chapter 1, roughly speaking, is about two things: the information explosion in modern society, including the tools that both generate and help us manage it; and the autism spectrum as a frame for helping Cowen understand his own thinking, and all of us better manage that information explosion in our own lives.
Now, I’m fascinated by the autism spectrum. I will download/read anything I come across with Temple Grandin in it, I’m fascinated by the way non-normative minds both illuminate the norm and broaden the meaning of humanity, and reports (particularly self-reports) from that spectrum tend to be the most personally gripping of all dispatches from non-normative terrain. But I can’t stand the way geekdom, a few years back, flocked to the spectrum — or, rather, the metaphor of the spectrum — for self-understanding. There’s a reason the DSM includes differential diagnoses, and therapy, outside (and perhaps neutral) observers. The faddishness of self-diagnosis, the appropriation of the metaphor as an explanation (or perhaps excuse) for oneself without the actual diagnostic process and its consequences, the cherry-picking of personally useful or (dare I say) sexy elements of a descriptive sketch on a web site without taking into account the full picture…right. Drives me crazy. For all that it’s a fascinating spectrum and, even, sometimes, a great metaphor.
And then (page 9!) I hit the word “catalog”.
Librarians have a passionate conversation going on the nature and meaning and management of information overload. Part of this passion surrounds the idea of cataloguing. And one of the key things here is — a lot of librarians get apoplectic about the lack of cataloguing online (in the very services Cowen refers to — Flickr, del.icio.us, iTunes, among others. Cataloguing’s a technical term, a technical idea in librarianship. It involves high (often very exacting) standards for metadata which facilitate precise and comprehensive searches. (Which are, really, often neither as precise nor as comprehensive as some librarians would like to think, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.)
Cowen sees a world of technical tools helping us to manage information overload…I see a world of tools which, don’t get me wrong, I spend a ton of time on and am madly in love with, but which create as many problems as they solve in that. I can get freakishly excited about crowdsourcing and folksonomies and what-have-you, but they also have very serious flaws with regard to some of the problems that cataloguing, in the librarianship sense, aims to solve. The tools we have now are very nascent. Our ability to organize information with them is in some ways very limited. (Why does my iPod have three different genres with names like “Electronica/Dance”, except differently punctuated? Did the geeks at the wedding I was just at get around to creating a hashtag for their photo uploads of the event — and if not, how will I find out what happened after I left, and even if so, how many sites is it scattered across, and how many photos will I miss because they missed the message? Why does my task management software not freaking integrate with my calendar?)
The fact that I can even ask these questions is, don’t get me wrong, pretty cool. This sort of participatory, decentralized information culture is going to lead us in all sorts of great directions, even though few to none of them will, I expect, resemble cataloguing (and somewhere in the dusty corners of librarianship, people will be shaking their fists at the sky about this). But Cowen’s view of what is going on in information tools is so very, very different from a lot of the views I encountered in my Information Organization class.
And that’s the other thing that made it hard to read this chapter — hard because some little bat of an idea was beating its wings against the cage of the book, wanting to argue and break and go off some other way. It’s one of the major difficulties I had in 415 in reverse. In 415, I read librarians’ conversations on these themes, and they had so little in common with conversations, on the same topics, that I’ve seen socially, in the worlds of computer geeks and online communities; I kept ranting at the papers I was reading, when they’d say something was obviously impossible but I could point to real-world examples, when they’d make statements with fundamentally different assumptions than those I’m used to seeing and take them as absolute truth. And here, I read Cowen’s piece of the conversation, and it has so little in common with what librarians have to say. “Libraries” appears precisely once in the index (page 43!). A brief scan of the index suggests that none of the philosophies and technical contributions of librarianship make an appearance in this book at all — and Cowen has a tremendously wide-ranging intellect and is a heavy user of his local libraries. Among non-librarians, he seems one of the most likely to really know things about library ideas.
I kept having the feeling in 415 that if librarians and non-librarians are having separate conversations about information tools, culture, philosophy — and if non-librarians are the ones out there generating and using the tools, with or without the theories, in a flawed but fecund creative explosion — then librarians, convening slow committees to generate precise tools — will be obsolete and never even notice. Cowen’s book, thus far, does not bode well for this.
How do we bridge those divided networks? How do we bring some of those conversations, and conversationalists, into a common sphere?
21 July 2009
The always fascinating David Weinberger blogs on transparency vs. objectivity. Worth reading the whole thing — the argument gets deeper as it goes along. But here’s the part where I really started thinking:
Transparency prospers in a linked medium, for you can literally see the connections between the final draft’s claims and the ideas that informed it. Paper, on the other hand, sucks at links. You can look up the footnote, but that’s an expensive, time-consuming activity more likely to result in failure than success. So, during the Age of Paper, we got used to the idea that authority comes in the form of a stop sign: You’ve reached a source whose reliability requires no further inquiry.
Hence — to move the opening sentences from that paragraph to the close:
We thought that that was how knowledge works, but it turns out that it’s really just how paper works.
Of course just about anyone nerdy enough to chase footnotes knows that appeal to authority is a fallacy, but he’s got a point there: when it’s hard to do, you’re more likely to rely on the authority of the source, to seek out authorities who are trustworthy (or who have a cultural aura of trustworthiness clinging to them, like his newspaper example — at least for certain newspapers), and to have an intellectual edifice that depends on your ability to, well, trust without verifying. Blogs let wacky opinionated perspectives proliferate, but linking and searching substantially lower the cost of verifying, so objectivity’s role and importance decrease.
(The searching is key, though — link ecologies can, I expect, be navelgazing, and they often do a poor job of getting beyond our love of confirmation bias…)
So where’s the library connection? Libraries have historically been, I think, edifices built on objectivity. We’re the neutral observer. We’re the place you can trust, full of the sources you can trust. Authoritative knowledge! Come and get some.
I come across a lot of articles in my class readings written by librarians who are clearly getting the thrashing heebie-jeebies from this transition away from objectivity (and also, as it happens, comprehensiveness). Tagging, from faceless wild-west Internet crazies, versus sober and structured subject headings, assigned by trained experts? Wikipedia…(same argument)? And I admit, when I was teaching, it was frustrating to see my students head straight for Google when we went to our beautiful library with its excellent collection…
…but it wasn’t because they were going to Google over books; it was because they were going to Google without having developed the sophisticated cognitive apparatus you need when you can’t just trust a source. They didn’t have tools for evaluating the reliability of sites, nor even for situating their content within a broader body of knowledge they could have used to do that evaluation. Appeal to authority is lame, logically speaking, but it’s a good starting place while you work on appeals to your own intuition.
Anyway, that’s a digression. The point is, libraries have, I think, bought heavily into this culture of objectivity — historically, culturally, even architecturally. Many librarians relish their roles as gatekeepers, want the catalog and metadata that give you brilliantly precise searching if only you will master idiosyncratic syntax — and then bemoan users’ tendency to flock to an unadorned search box and keyword-search without a delimiter in sight — something they can do by themselves and, increasingly, anywhere.
I don’t think a lot of librarians, or libraries, know how to position themselves in this shift. So, ideas? What’s the role of a cultural institution, a neoclassical edifice, a, dare I say, neutral authority in a world of omnipresent always-on kudzu-like explosions of transparent information? Can the question even be answered with that set of adjectives and nouns? If not, how do they change?