Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Re: Dystopias by Karen Coyle

Posting to Autocat

On 05/16/2011 05:49 PM, MULLEN Allen wrote:
I find Karen Coyle always worth reading and considering. She is both a visionary thinker and a practical nuts and bolts doer and her influence on trends and developments in library information discovery is considerable. This post deals with the danger that library discovery will be eclipsed by Google and other commercial resource discovery/use entities:

Quote: "Really, if we don't do this, the future of libraries and research will be decided by Google. There, I said it."
For a somewhat different take on this, read Stuart Weibel's It's too late:
"But, if we want libraries (as she also says) to be of the Web, then why paint Google as the bugbear that threatens our future? Indeed, I would argue there is no single organization in the Age of the Web that has done more to improve access to information in general, and research specifically, than has Google. Google Books is something we didn't have the wherewithal to accomplish, even if we had had the vision. Google Scholar on the other hand, we have no excuse for not having done within our own community. It was doable. A failure of imagination. In a sense I suppose Karen and I are converging on the same position from different sides."
My own opinion is that librarians still have to figure out exactly what it is that we provide that nobody else does. If we declare that it is the job of libraries to store and organize resources of information, I  think Karen and Stu are right--libraries won't stand a chance. Certainly libraries must be on the web, of the web, in the web, for the web, up the web, and people can add whatever prepositions they prefer.

But what is even more important is to figure out, once we are on, of, in, etc. the web, why anybody will want to come to our place as opposed to the Googles and Yahoos and Bings? It won't be because of searching or because our information is "better", although they will continue to come if they absolutely have to, e.g. to get a resource for free that otherwise they would have to pay for, but that will not be much of a reason to retain separate libraries.

Concerning metadata creation (or cataloging), there is one reason and one reason alone why somebody might prefer to use our metadata: the data itself is standardized. It isn't that there is so much more of our metadata than anyone else's or even that it's "better" in some sort of absolute sense in that it gives you "better results", but it is supposed to follow standards of AACR2 where you can get more or less guaranteed results by searching on headings. (Much of the bibliographic description is important primarily for the collection managers, and much less to patrons--but this doesn't mean it loses any of its importance!)

Yet, this focus on standards assumes that the metadata creators are trained and genuinely following the standards--something that we can't assume any longer. And I cannot see how anybody will be more likely to follow RDA standards than they have been following AACR2 standards.

I believe that when librarians figure out what they have to provide that *nobody else on the web* does, then they will be able to settle down and chart out a future for themselves. That is when librarians can begin to regard the Googles and Yahoos and Bings not as competitors, but as mere tools that they can take and mold for their own profession and their own purposes.

Reconceptualizing matters on such a grand scale is not easy when you are in the midst of them. As a first attempt, I think we must reconsider what the terms "libraries" "information/knowledge" "librarian" and "librarianship" really mean today and how their meanings have changed in the last 20 years or so. Each individual in the newspaper industry is certainly thinking about this, as they reconsider what "newspapers" "news" "journalist" and "journalism" mean.

Perhaps in 20 or 30 years, everything will be much clearer than today, but at this point in time, things are in too much flux to make any decisions.


  1. Mike Eisenberg defines a library as (and I surely misquote) "A prediction of a future information need". So, we have to predict it accurately, and we have to provide it within our business model (for free, and free of conflicted interest)

  2. You got me thinking on this one. I found the quote, which discusses the "library collection":
    To me, a “collection” is “a prediction of future need.” (Library Journal)

    I've been considering this idea and I don't think I agree so much with it. Prediction is a very vague thing, and people seem to get it wrong at least as much as we have gotten it right. The weather forecasts are wrong constantly, except when, for instance, everybody knows that in the summer in Rome we will have beautiful weather 95% of the time. Look at what has happened with the various economic predictions. Who predicted the fall of the Soviet Union or the upheavals in the Middle East? Faced with this, why in the world would librarian-types get it any better?

    In times that are more quiescent, it is much easier to predict, but in the dynamic world we are entering: political, social, cultural, as well as the information world, I wouldn't bet the house on anybody's prediction.

    Whenever I think of predicting the future, I find myself remembering the scene in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" where Zero Mostel says the sooth!

    Instead of prediction of needs, I would much prefer to concentrate on the inherent value of the resource itself. We don't know who and when someone may need something, so predicting it probably gives more chance of being wrong than being right.

    I do believe that the fundamental purposes of "selection" will have to change, unfortunately going into a weighing of "better" vs. "not so good" resources, as well as real attempts to provide people with various sides of a topic.

    To achieve this, almost all of our normal methods will have to be revamped. Too bad, but probably just as well.