Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Library 2.0, or, How Not to Waste Time

I stumbled on a transcript from a Web 2.0 conference the other day, and I think it makes a good read. The talk was presented by Clay Shirky and is titled "Gin, Television, and Social Surplus". In it, Shirky argues that in the early upheavals of the industrial revolution, British society numbed their discomfort with gin, and in the early stages of the communications revolution, society in general numbed their discomfort with sitcoms. Just as Londoners eventually rose from their stupor and produced such valuable societal structures as public libraries, museums, and public education, so, too, the dawn of the 21st century is seeing the rise of Web 2.0 from out of the haze of Gilligan's Island reruns.

While I think it may be a bit premature to announce that we are done wasting our time watching television, Shirky has a point. Many people are finding their diversion these days on the Internet, and increasingly, Internet-based diversions involve activities that are interactive and constructive. When you step back and try to size up the behemoth that is Wikipedia, it is not unlike stepping back and sizing up the pyramids or medieval cathedrals. One wonders, "Where did people find the time to make this?" Shirky's response is that there has been a social surplus of time plowed into the wasteland of television that is now being invested in the more fruitful fields of the Internet producing wikis, blogs, DIY articles, and stop-action Legos videos on YouTube.

This social surplus of time has become an area of focused interest for libraries. I attended an Illinois OCLC Users Group conference last month on Web 2.0 technologies and libraries. It included an overview of changing views toward sharing, privacy and trust on the Internet (gleaned from OCLC's study by that title) and a fascinating presentation from Aaron Schmidt, director of the North Plains Public Library in Oregon and author of the blog, walking paper. Schmidt encouraged us to make our libraries more user-centric, and he argued that Web 2.0 technologies are great ways to do that. Thus the title of the lead article in the Illinois Library Association Reporter that just came across my desk: "Heresy and Misconduct: Evolution in Library Automation". The article's title comes from the George Bernard Shaw quote, "All evolution in thought and conduct must at first appear as heresy and misconduct." Allow patrons to help us catalog our books? Heaven forbid!

On Shirky's home page, he writes,

If I had to describe what I write about, it would be “Systems where vested interests lose out to innovation.”

Or maybe “Systems where having good participants produces better results than having good planners.”

As I see it, librarians are now standing at that juncture where all the careful planning of our catalogs is going to be opened up to participation on the part of our users. I do not want us to discard all that careful planning, but I am looking forward to the benefits of a greater participation in our efforts at organizing knowledge. It seems to me that would be a much better use of peoples' time than elaborate experiments with Diet Coke and Mentos.

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