Comment to: What do library users really want? March 22, 2012

Comment to: What do library users really want? March 22, 2012 Heather Pretty

I am honored that you are taking such an interest in my paper. You bring out one aspect that I have not discussed at much length, and it has probably been a mistake on my part, which is to outline what are some actual steps people can take in the future. This is actually why I mentioned evolution, but that involves some nuances. I am not an expert in evolution but there are some ideas there that can be of help.

If we look at evolution, we see that it works by taking very small steps. It wasn’t that there was a trilobyte one day and a couple of years later, we have Socrates and Einstein. Such huge steps in evolution do not take place, so what we interpret as “progress” in evolutionary terms takes place in very small steps, very haltingly, and with lots of errors. Such a process, I believe could be very useful for almost anyone looking at the changes we are facing in the information environment today.

Also, when images of evolution take place in the popular mind, it is pictured as “the law of the jungle,” each individual for him or herself, dog eat dog. So, the image of evolution is literally one dog who viciously attacks another dog, eats him and forcibly takes his mates, all for himself. Very bloody. While these sorts of things occasionally happen in evolution, experience shows something else can occur just as easily. When an environment is under stress, it turns out that there is a great deal of cooperation among individuals that occurs, and that a group that cooperates and helps one another in various ways actually has a much better chance to survive than any single individual. This only makes sense.

When I consider these matters, and try my best to translate them into what librarians are facing today, I believe that it would be much wiser to do a couple of things:
1) take small steps when making things that are useful to the public. Concentrate on making small changes—even changes that you may think would help only a single searcher—because we should assume that any method or tool that can help one individual can actually help many more. And then, as these small improvements that can help others add up, those multiple improvements will eventually become one great big improvement.  This has been what has happened in many situations.

An added advantage here is that with small steps, any mistakes can be more easily admitted and the mistake fixed or discarded. If you have devoted months or years to a project, it becomes too difficult to admit that it went in the wrong direction in the first place.

2) The key to it all is to communicate and share your improvements and failures, so that the small improvements do not stay isolated. By sharing, others can take your small improvement and use it themselves, changing it when necessary and sharing their changes with others who can further improve on those improvements. This is the process that takes place in the animal kingdom and also within humanity. 

It is almost impossible to foresee which one of the changes will survive and which ones will be discarded, but each one on its own is an honest attempt at improvement. Yet, if people hoarde their tiny improvements, the process is doomed to oblivion. There will also be steps forward and backward.

RDA and FRBR are attempts, in my own opinion, to make giant leaps forward and these can be compared to the first fish coming out on dry land and saying its problems would be solved if it could slither along the ground like a snake. But that is only how it seems to that first fish becomes it doesn’t yet know that much. As it learns more, the fish may actually want four legs, or maybe two legs and two arms, maybe wings so it can fly. At any case, all of those developments are far in the future, and the fish should concern itself with survival in a new environment.

Now that there seems to be general agreement that the FRBR user tasks are not actually what users want to be able to do, the purpose of FRBR has turned into entering the Semantic Web, which is offered as a solution. Of course, the Semantic Web barely exists today and nobody can possibly know if it is a solution for anything or not. Or even if it is part of a solution. Therefore, it is an act of faith to maintain that it is worth the costs (for it will entail major costs), but we cannot know.

I believe the costs and risks are too high to pay for just a simple act of faith when at the same time, librarians could be introducing all sorts of innovations that the public could use today.

Maybe all this seems a little vague, but perhaps not. We should concentrate on helping people now, today, in whatever ways we can (as we do) but then to communicate what we do so that we help more than the few locals, and others can get ideas of their own.

With the web, this can be done easier than ever.