April 28, 2006

Library 2.0, nerds, geeks and long tails

Doing some reading and thinking lately:

  • Coming Together around Library 2.0: A Focus for Discussion and a Call to Arms by Dr. Paul Miller, Technology Evangelist, Talis. D-Lib, v12i4, April 2006. I was really expecting to be seriously annoyed with this article. Anybody with the title Technology Evangelist who works for a self-styled library 2.0 vendor is really going to come at things from a one-dimensional point of view. Right? Well, an interesting couple of bits of the article:
    Many of the library sector's current systems and processes may well be overdue for criticism, especially when viewed through a lens shaped by experience of the lightweight, flexible, intelligent and responsive applications encountered online every day. Our innumerable opaque information silos, our endless authentication challenges, our wilfully different interfaces, and our insistence on attempting to suck everyone and everything into the library building or onto the library site – all of that, we should collectively be prepared to admit, could be better.

    But, importantly, it can be. Behind the self-interested yet flawed business logic that drives the assertion of ownership over something so basic as the humble catalogue record or statement of holdings, behind the pointless competition between vendors over core, common infrastructure components that sees them refusing to cooperate and therefore raises costs for themselves and their customers, behind all that and more lie dedicated armies of highly skilled librarians, large numbers of eminently capable programmers and developers, an almost wholly untapped body of structured data just waiting to be leveraged effectively, an incomparable agglomeration of material culture, and a global population of current and potential information consumers to whom 'the library' continues to shine as a worthwhile and valued concept.
    Somehow this really seems to make sense to me. The vision I see here is that the library should be about it's patrons, not about its own internal structures or about the excentricities and idiocies of the vendors it depends on. Easy to say, sure, but a lot harder to make this vision a reality. But at least if you can articulate the vision, you can start to work towards it.
    To achieve our vision of Library 2.0, in which libraries become ever more relevant as visible and accessible providers of valuable content and context, I strongly believe that many of the models in evidence today require dramatic change. As a domain, we need to break down the unnecessarily strong walls between our silos of information. We need to break down the walls between our systems, and the barriers between the groups working to develop and extend each individual system. We need to develop, nurture, and leverage a true development community across libraries and vendors, and we need to be prepared to share far more than we do today. There are lessons to learn from the world of open source, and there are lessons to learn from the community-nurtured specifications that drive Web innovation far faster than our more traditional standardisation processes tend to manage.
    Again, this is a vision I can live with. What's more interesting is vibe I get from the article. It's not confrontational, not "my way or the highway" it's let's roll up our sleeves and get something done, not because we think it's cool but because it's the right thing to do for our patrons.

  • Libraries and the Long Tail: Some Thoughts about Libraries in a Network Age by Lorcan Dempsey, Vice President, Research, and Chief Strategist, OCLC. D-Lib, v12i4, April 2006. This one's basically about how we should think about our collections as we move forward into the future. How to make them more accessible and more useful to our patrons.
    The historic library model has been physical distribution of materials to multiple locations so that the materials can be close to the point of need (as in the bookstore model). And again, in the network environment, of course, this model changes. Resources do not need to be distributed in advance of need; they can be held in consolidated stores, which, even with replication, do not require the physical buildings we now have. As we move forward, and as more materials are available electronically, we will see more interest in managing the print collection in a less costly way. We can see some of this discussion starting in relation to the mass digitization projects and the heightened interest in off-site storage solutions. In each case, there is a growing interest in being able to make investment choices that maximize impact – based, for example, on a better understanding of what is rare or common within the system as a whole, on what levels of use are made of materials, and so on. In fact, again looking forward some time, it would be good to have management support systems in place that make recommendations for moving to storage or digitization based on patterns of use, distribution across libraries, and an agreed policy framework.

    There are two medium-term questions that are of great interest here. First, what future patterns of storage and delivery are optimal within a system (again, where a system may be a large library system, a state, a consortium, a country)? Think of arranging a system of repositories so that they are adjacent to good transport links for example, collectively contracting with a delivery provider, and having better data intelligence for populating the repositories, based on patterns of use and demand. Second, think of preservation. Currently, we worry about the unknown long-term costs of digital preservation. However, what about the long-term costs of print preservation? I contend that for many libraries they will become unsustainable. If the use of large just-in-case collections declines, if the use of digital resources continues to rise, if mass digitization projects continue, then it becomes increasingly hard to justify the massive expense of maintaining multiple collections – especially where there is growing demand for scarce space. Long-term we may see a shift of cost from print to digital, but this can only be done if the costs of managing print can be reduced, which in turn means some consolidation of print collections.
    Great stuff. What we need to accomplish in our libraries is very simple. Manage the transition of our collections from what they were in the past (mostly print) to what we have now (print and online) to what we would like them to be in the future (as online as we can manage) while not really having any discontinuities in access or taking too many risks with preservation issues. At the same time, we need to make sure we can figure out what to do with mountains of print material that hardly anybody is using, even if our best professional judgement tells us that they should be using it.
    I wrote about the 'long tail' in terms of aggregation of supply and aggregation of demand. In this context, aggregation of supply is about improving discovery and reducing transaction costs. It is about making it much easier to allow a reader to find it and get it, whatever 'it' is. Or, in other words, 'every reader his or her book'. Aggregation of demand is about mobilizing a community of users so that the chances of rendezvous between a resource and an interested user are increased. Or, in other words, 'every book its reader'. Finding better ways to match supply and demand in the open network will 'save the time of the user'.
    Getting our patrons the stuff they need.

  • Geeks and Nerds Battle for the Soul of Librarianship by Rory Litwin. Not sure if I agree with everything here. Litwin basically sets up a dichotomy between nice nerds and evil geeks. The character traits he assigns nerds:
    • Reads a lot: philosophy, serious literature, science, history, academic subjects
    • Unusually excited, passionate, worried and/or earnest about intellectual matters that most people find boring or irrelevant
    • Got straight A’s in school
    • Not interested in popular culture, except possibly in a truly anthropological sense
    • Prone to injuries associated with excessive or intense reading

    versus those he assigns to geeks:
    • Very techie
    • Identifies with science
    • Into science fiction, fantasy, and/or cyberpunk literature
    • Possibly into live action role playing games
    • Possibly into BDSM
    • Possibly into graphic novels/manga, etc.
    • Knows how to program a computer and does it often
    • Has a blog
    • Interested in popular culture
    • May or may not have done well in school

    would lead one to believe that he's going to come down pretty hard on poor unsuspecting geeks. It's obvious he's a nerd and is quite skeptical (even outright dismissive and hostile) about geeks and geekiness, but I think his stance is ultimately more balanced than it might seem.
    So the important thing, in this situation, is to know where you stand: to know which side you’re on and who your friends are. If you feel like you’re not sure if you’re a geek or a nerd, because maybe you have some of the characteristics of each group, you should begin asking yourself what knowledge and skills are really most essential to librarianship, and what is being done as well or better by other people?
    So, the ultimate issue is what do we think is the best path to follow for the best interests of our patrons. Not just the patrons we think are the youngest or the coolest (ie. the most like us ;-), but all of them. It's easy to say all the answers are technological; it's also easy to call the geeks names and dismiss technological solutions out of hand. The message is to preserve our core professional values and to think long and hard about how to maintain the best level of services and the widest, most accessible collections in the way the best serves the needs of our communities. Easy to say, hard to do.

    If you're going to read only one of these three, this is the one. It's challenging and genuinely provocative. The tone is quite disdainful and bitter and even a bit ugly and made me (a geek with nerdy tendencies) a bit uneasy; I hope it made a lot of nerds with geeky tendencies uneasy too. Words like "battle" and "enemy" are't comfortable and that's ok. A good counterpoint to the more utopian challenges set out in the first two articles.

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