Panlibus Blog

Rangaswami revisits the livebrarian

99514863 6D9Ebeec56 M from Flickr

In a conversation that grows more interesting with each iteration, JP Rangaswami last night revisited his original thoughts on the ‘livebrarian’. I responded to his initial post yesterday, and would now like to drill down a little more into this latest chapter.

JP writes;

“…that the profession of librarianship has understood the need to change with the times, and that they are looking at the web and to the web quite seriously”

Well, that’s a relief… The themes of ‘disruptive innovation’ addressed in the white paper [PDF] to which I linked yesterday have much to offer in this context. Libraries are not, as some commentators have argued, rendered obsolete or irrelevant by the Web… so long as they recognise the need to reach out, to engage, and to become of the Web. Libraries that fail to engage with their actual or potential users on their own terms; libraries that fail to reach out of their buildings and off their web sites in meaningful and valuable ways; libraries that fail to recognise the importance of diverse resources, both physical and digital, ‘authoritative’ and not; libraries that persist in placing themselves as gatekeepers between the searcher and that for which they search; libraries that respond to searchers’ problems in navigating the system by suggesting that they have undertaken the search ‘wrong’. Those libraries deserve to cease to exist, and they will not be missed.

He continues;

“…the time dimension associated with the World Live Web is one that has magical possibilities and horrendous potential for problems as well”

Given my rather different perspective on time, I agree… and remain intrigued by the opportunities!

JP finishes this section of his post by stating that;

“we need to look at the social space and engagement and experience as closely as we look at the classification and finding and retrieval, and within this we need to understand more about the relationships and trust bonds between searcher and find-enabler”

This must lie at the heart of the conversation. Trust is key, and it is something that libraries have gained over many years. On the whole, the population trusts libraries [PDF of a report I commissioned in a previous life, one finding of which is that libraries are regarded as trustworthy to the sample of the UK population questioned]. How do we maximise the potential of that ‘brand attribute’, without squandering our hard-won status? How might libraries, with their trusted status and perceived authority, insert themselves into social flows with a light touch, guiding, assisting and facilitating whilst not controlling, hectoring, or stifling? It’s not necessarily something that has always been done correctly in the past, and it would be both dangerous and wrong to suggest that librarians know how to tag and classify ‘correctly’.

JP quotes my point, that;

“The library of Library 2.0 exults in integrating the consistency and cohesiveness of formal classification systems with the more fluid granularity of the folksonomy”

before going on to caution;

“There’s the rub. How to take historical taxonomies and ontologies and mold them into such a shape that they can be enriched by the Wisdom of Crowds, while managing to keep out the Madness of the self-same Crowds. Capture the passion, connect with the perseverance and patience, discard the Damn Fools and their biases and anchors and frames.

This can be done. This will happen. But only if we allow the passion of the amateur to flourish at the same time as the professionalism of the ‘expert’. There’s a Long Tail aspect somewhere in this, where we need to move out of the Hit Culture and understand that Search and Find become real when you deal with the outliers, the low-frequency requests and responses. That’s where expertise comes into its own. In the niches, in the nooks and crannies.”

[my link]

Oh, absolutely. Partly, the answer lies in a very large crowd contributing to our view of a very Long Tail, in order that some of the inevitable quirks and biases are ironed out to a degree. Community ownership must surely also have a role to play; ensuring that the Crowd itself comes to self-police a resource in which it has invested effort, to which it has an attachment, and in which it perceives a value. Opening up individual library catalogues to comment, classification and tagging surely provides none of those things. Aggregating, sharing that aggregate, and offering it as something to which anyone can add and take away… Do that, and we might see something interesting emerge, especially as the original contributors begin to reabsorb – or call programmatically upon – the community’s enrichment of their seed. [Although in a different area, our Directory work begins to leverage some of this potential.] Why not allow anyone to comment, to classify, and to amend, offering means for them to identify themselves if they wish? A browser of the whole might then choose to give more regard to alterations made by a librarian, or by a professional in the subject, or by an inhabitant of Beverley. They may simply choose not to give credence to additions made by those who chose to remain anonymous.

JP goes on;

“Paul Simmons had some very interesting thoughts about ‘unused’ pieces atrophying and being greyed out, whether it’s software functionality or links or information or books or whatever. There’s something about the idea that I like, that intrigues me, yet I push back. Because it’s to do with the time dimension. There may be some things that come into play only once in a blue moon, but that doesn’t make them less important. In fact at blue moon time they may be critical, far more important than anything else. I think that holds true for software, for links, for information. And for books.”

It is certainly true for material culture such as the humble book, and all too often we are in danger of falling into the trap of believing that resources not visible to Google do not exist, and therefore have no value. It is, of course, untrue, but it will take a very long time to digitise all of the books in existence today, even if we should want to. Part of the answer here lies in recognising the hybrid nature of the environment in which we exist today, and finding ways to more easily make the connection between the local and the remote, the digital and the physical. In one small way, integration between libraries and online services such as Amazon illustrates part of this, but there is more to say and so much more to do. What, if anything, is ever ‘unused’?

Finally (for now);

“What I have seen so far in web-enabled ‘Ask and I shall give you advice’ services is less than promising. Even Damn Fools are better. Which is why I am glad that the profession of librarianship takes this issue seriously, their domain expertise is necessary. But it is not sufficient, not until we get the value of the Wisdom of Crowds and the movement away from the Hit Culture.”

Erm. Yep.

And there, for just now, I shall stop. JP’s essays, and the comments posted in response, have proved fascinating to me, and I look forward to continuing to explore the boundaries with the benefit of all the different perspectives being brought to bear here. Thank you, JP, for getting this particular mental ball rolling…

Today’s post is again illustrated with a Flickr image that combines the bank (JP works for a London-based investment bank) and the library. On the basis of this search, there are plenty more where these two came from, so I look forward to an ongoing conversation. Today, Martin Male provides a Creative Commons-licensed image of the old Bank of Nova Scotia building in Ottawa; now the Library of Parliament. Having gone through a phase three or four years ago of visiting the Canadian capital regularly, I’ll be there once again in just over a fortnight, so will look out for this bankrary!

Update: {sigh} Now I need to find pictures of libraries and telephone boxes.

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One Response

  1. Thinking about the Future Says:

    JP Rangaswami leaves investment banking… but hopefully not blogging

    Over on the ‘work blog’, I’ve posted a couple of entries this week, following up on posts by ‘Confused of Calcutta’, JP Rangaswami. He posts today that he’s leaving London-based investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort, to join our former telecoms monopoly,

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