For today’s installment, I’ve dusted off a post I’ve had sitting in draft since 2008. Uh-huh. 2008. I’ve updated it so it makes sense in the here and now, but I haven’t done much editing, because I think it’s really interesting that we’re still having conversations about the relevance of the ’2.0′ tag. Right no, in my research group, we’re trying to come up with an alternative language to think about all the 2.0s: Library, Business, Government, Enterprise. For me, the best fit for an alternative term (at least around libraries) is ‘participatory’: The Participatory Library.
When the early proponents of Library 2.0 argued that Library 2.0 is not about the technology, I think they did themselves a disservice by not clearly and simply articulating what it is actually all about. For me, the strong link (other than technology) between Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 is that both are about participation. So these days, when I talk about ‘the concept formerly named Library 2.0′, I tend to talk about the participatory library.
I found it interesting when I unearthed this post to discover that I was having the same thoughts about an alternative language two years ago that I’m having now.
So here it is: out of the vault…
Just before I wrote the first draft of this post, I got asked to do an interview on Library 2.0 for a non-library publication. At one point during the interview I said to the interviewer “Ummm, this is kind of a weird topic to pick up in such a generalist publication” (from memory, I think it was a general government news broadsheet). It’s pretty cool that something library-related has gotten enough mainstream interest to generate an article in a publication targeted at a more general audience.
Unsurprisingly, the interviewer’s conception of Library 2.0 was pretty much entirely technology-centric. It’s noteworthy that technology is the aspect of the Library 2.0 ‘philosophy’ that someone outside libraries has picked up on. And it’s interesting that this interview came up at this particular point in time: firstly, given the conversation that was happening in the biblioblogosphere at that point in time around the debasing of the concept of Library 2.0, and secondly, given a paper I was due to present at a conference in a couple of days time.
The interviewer came across my name on the 2008 VALA program, and so was interested in my work with IM. It was kind of a tricky interview, because our understandings of Library 2.0 differed. I think technology is a central part of Library 2.0, but I’m not sure that the interviewer had heard too much about the other aspects of Library 2.0.
Why did we do IM at the National Library in 2007? We thought it could be a good step forward in virtual reference service provision, for a number of reasons, one of which was that the technology seemed to be responsive and flexible and fit for the purpose. We thought our customers might prefer to use an IM client they were familiar with rather than navigating to a web page to use a proprietary chat product that was essentially trying to replicate the technology they were used to, but not really succeeding (in my view). We did it because we were looking at ways to overcome some of the well-documented issues with proprietary chat reference products. In short, we did it for the users and to reach out to non-users, not for the sake of technolust. It was kind of difficult to explain to the interviewer that the technology, while a motivating factor, was not the main impetus for the pilot.
Is the Library 2.0 label any good to us?
Around the time I started writing this post, there was a fair bit of discussion around the Library 2.0 discourse and whether the rhetoric is any good to us, or whether the term has been debased* to the point of no return. I’m in two minds about this (both then and now). If the concept of Library 2.0 helps us to get library staff interested in and thinking about technology, if it means we deliver responsive, needed services in the way our customers want them delivered, if it means getting people engaged with the library, then that’s great.
*See the comments on this post, not so much the post itself.
But I just don’t know how much useful a term as open to conjecture as this one is can really be. Largely, I think we’ve failed to reach a definition of Library 2.0 that we can all agree on. Yes, many have attempted to define it, but in doing so, they’ve been more focused on what it’s not about (technology) than what it actually is about. (Go here and see how one librarian has attempted to grapple with what this thing we call Library 2.0 really is.)
For me, Library 2.0 is about user-centredness, responsiveness, and meaningful innovation informed by research, evidence and evaluation. It’s about participation. In my last role, where I was responsible for online collections and services for a large public library, any thinking I did about Library 2.0 was intrinsically related to technology, but that was more because my business was online services, not because Library 2.0 is technology is Library 2.0.
The early proponents of the term tell us that Library 2.0 is not just about technology. Maybe not, but whether we like it or not, it’s an enormous part of it (and there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as our forays into technolust land and focused on user needs).
At the time I drafted this post, I was preparing to give a paper at a conference that’s aiming to go beyond the hype of Web 2.0. I presented there on Gold Coast Libraries’ online library project, which encompassed a range of initiatives, some a little 2.0, but most decidedly 1.0. So I’d been pondering the whole Library 2.0 thing and whether I really had anything invested in the Library 2.0 rhetoric. I certainly love that it’s given technology and particularly online services a raised profile in library land. But I think the answer I came up with in the end was that I think some of the rhetoric is floored, and I’m certainly not wedded to the term.
No matter how much we theorise about Library 2.0 NOT being all about technology, the whole concept of Library 2.0 is wed to the concept of Web 2.0, and I don’t know that we can impose a divorce. A lot of people are caught up in the tools. I (and many others) have said it before, and I’m sure we’ll all say it again: it’s got to be about the service and what the user wants, first and foremost. But, with a concept that is so intrinsically linked to Web 2.0, I’m not sure that we can entirely shift the focus from the tool to user needs. Alongside Library 2.0, we’ve been encouraging people to play with technology through Learning 2.0 / 23 things programs. It follows that people who play with this stuff are going to want to put it to use. Can we blame people for succumbing to the shiny and putting the tool before the need?
The rhetoric around Library 2.0 cannot be separated from technology because the 2.0 meme will not allow it. We can’t coopt a technology concept like ’2.0′ and apply it to our context and expect people not to tie it up with technology in their heads. Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that Library 2.0 is (at least in my head) about user-centredness and engaging our users and non-users. But it’s also about technology, and using technology to achieve user-centred services, community engagement, and meaningful change.
Have we debased the term Library 2.0? I don’t think so. I’m not sure we’ve so much debased it as picked the wrong term to describe the phenomenon in the first place. Where the early proponents probably saw the 2.0 meme as a way of articulating next generation library services, the mainstream has linked the meme with its origin: technology. I have to say, while I’m in total agreement that the technology shouldn’t come before the user need, it’s pretty hard to tow the line that Library 2.0 is not just about technology when I’m yet to see or read about a non-technology based Library 2.0 initiative. (Or maybe I should say: a non technology initiative that’s been labeled as Library 2.o-ish.) If you went to a conference with Library 2.0 in the title, and you heard about storytime (with paper books, not ebooks), bookclubs (of the physical kind, not the blog based) and newsletters (of the dropped-in-your-snail-mail-box kind, not the rss kind), would you feel ripped off? I’m pretty sure I would, and yet these anecdotes could well epitomise the tenets of Library 2.0: empowering users through participatory, user-driven services, a focus on constant and meaningful change, improving services to current users, and reaching out to non-users.
Do we hear about libraries implementing non-technology based Library 2.0 services? Not in my experience. And what does that tell us? That this term, defined by the masses, is intrinsically linked with technology. At technology conferences (and non-technology conferences) we often here about the how, not the why: how we used this tool to do this. The tool focus is hard to avoid when we hear so much about it.
Maybe it’s time to stop talking Library 2.0 and come up with a term that gets to the guts of it: let’s get the words user, needs, responsive, service, evaluation, participation in there. If I were to describe what it is I tried to do in my last job, where I was the ‘innovations’ person who was responsible for online services, I’d say I was in pursuit of responsive, streamlined, flexible online services that meet the needs of our customers. Not as sexy as Library 2.0, but much less airy-fairy, and open to far less conjecture. I think The Participatory Library just about cuts it, so that’s what I’m sticking with for now.