Friday, 4 April 2008

What if the library fills with squirrels...

Notes from Web workshop (February 15, 2008, at McGill University, Montreal) session called “Web 2.0, Library 2.0, Librarian 2.0” 1.5 hour presentation by Jessamyn West, Library Consultant from rural Vermont & blogger from “” [] (professional) & “Abada Abada” [] (personal)

[Her presentation notes can be found at]

As a contrast with many of her colleagues, she prefers the title “library technologist” for the work that she does now, helping a number of small public libraries in Orange County, Vermont, primarily with their technology needs and issues.

She began her discussion of the whole 2.0 concept with some of the real basics and what really needs to be considered before any mention of 2.0 anything happens:
  • Her (and our) frustration with mere dial-up internet access and that, like it or not, many of our users still have and always will have merely dial-up access.
  • The usefulness (or not) of school libraries being wonderfully filled with PCs with high speed internet access in small towns with little or no ‘net otherwise.
  • Government agencies and companies trying to put everything on the web (and very often ONLY on the web) and the difficulty some people still have with getting access to that.
Through all of these barriers and issues, it’s still important for libraries to recognise their role in making technology fun, easy and accessible.

You know those O’Reilly programming books with the black and white animal on the cover? Well, the term “Web 2.0” comes from one in which the author was merely using the phrase like a brand name and not literally meaning any newly formed technology in particular. The web before 2.0 was just a billboard – sites, pages, information, and images posted to the internet, were just that: posted up for users to look at and admire but not interact with in any way. The desire to be able to interact with what was there, to be able to comment on articles, manipulate images, and reconfigure data, was the birth of the Web 2.0 idea. Beyond this rather vague sense of the user being able to take part in the internet somehow, the 2.0 concept is still not completely clear, including the “spin-offs” like our own Library or Librarian 2.0, similar to the US Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”

Because it is still a concept in its infancy, there are many things to do before (or while) we jump on the Library 2.0 bandwagon. Consider the elderly or novice computer user. In many ways these patrons are even more difficult to assist than the truly disabled like the blind or deaf. And although parts of Library 2.0 can seem to help, such as the idea that we are to be making our tools and services more user-centered, other assumptions make it more difficult, such as the assumption of a certain level of technology being available or interest on the part of the user. The network is not always up and running and some users create lousy content. But the important thing to remember is that you don’t want to refrain from doing something just because the supports MAY not be there someday. “We can’t get nice furniture… What if the library fills with squirrels?” Librarianship is getting much more open now so we have less and less nay-saying-for-the-sake-of-nay-saying like this, but we still have a hard time letting go.

Library 2.0 is not a “what”, it’s a “how”. It’s a way of thinking about what we’re doing without a specific list of tools and resources to do it. And it’s not always just about the web. For example, in those brochures or PowerPoint slides we create, we have a tendency t o simply use the free clip that comes with Microsoft Office. Not all of that is bad and it’s certainly better to have a graphic than not but we could also be searching through for images licensed under Creative Commons to get images that are not only free and legal but also much more interesting and attractive. The idea is that we should be experimenting, and just like so many companies and products coming out today in “perpetual beta”, it’s ok to just try something without being absolutely certain it will be perfect first.

[At this point Jessamyn pointed out that she used the term L2 as a short form for Library 2.0, but was not claiming to be starting any new trend or catchphrase for the topic. I say we should start using this right away! lol]

The book “Cluetrain Manifesto”, by Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger [], talks about how the web, and particularly Web 2.0, is changing business. “Markets are conversations,” and some companies are slowly realizing that they need to get back to a more human level of interaction and offering of service: we need to avoid data silos, for example, and resources need to allow “deeplinking”, the ability to link directly to the page or part of the web site that interests us specifically. Some illustrations of how libraries are following this trend are:
  • Pace University Library’s reminder to users that they could get a library card for the local public library system and therefore access to different and more resources if the university’s resources are not sufficient;
  • Cook Memorial Library’s use of Scriblio to provide usefully named links with friendly text in their catalogue (as compared with the University of Vermont Library’s catalogue, using the standard interface most academic libraries use now with unintelligible labels, long call numbers, jargon, etc.), the moral of the story being “keep it simple”,
    • (A comment at this point from the audience repeated the question in an earlier session about the Amazon “recommender” function and whether this was in any catalogues to Jessamyn’s knowledge. Apparently, there are some big systems that have something like this, but there are privacy issues to be considered when a library provides this service.);
  • the McGill Hospital Library’s website includes a photo of the staff which makes the library, and the work seem more personal;
  • Plymouth State University Library is using the resource type facet for multimedia types, making it easier for users to find exactly what they are looking for;
  • Koha (I believe this is the correct spelling) provides an example of the existence of fun or silly interfaces, the fact that tools can be designed in almost any way so that the users are more comfortable in the “environment” (in this case it was a tool for young children).
Another issue that is being worked through using Web 2.0 tools, is the issue of increasing numbers of workers complaining about unmanageable amounts of email being received. Using RSS feeds, blogs, social networking sites like Facebook, etc., communication can be funneled to appropriate channels to get the tools to do some of the work of sorting information flow for us.

But Web 2.0 is also about saving the time of the user, as one of the founders of modern librarianship, Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan, defended. And with the right tool or service, this doesn’t always have to translate into more work for the librarian or library staff. For example, there’s a plugin for FireFox called LibX that will allow the user to search a library’s catalogue without having to first navigate to the catalogue’s page. Also, the University of Connecticut Library is using a wiki to create a collaborative FAQ. Wikis have also been used as a platform to more easily create, update, and access the reference manual. The key is to try new things and do your own usability testing – find out what works and who it works for. We keep buying OPACs and other tools that do not work. We need to develop standards and demand compliance.

Finally, Library 2.0 is not a religion and it is not always about technology. It’s about taking the initiative. Go on... Scoot!

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