A participant in a Learning 2.0 program recently posted on his course blog and to an ALIA elist about libraries’ use of free, commercial web 2.0 services. He analogises that libraries’ use of free web 2.o services like Blogger, del.icio.us, YouTube and the like is “privatisation by osmosis” and he is concerned by the lack of debate about this issue.
He’s right – there hasn’t been a great deal of debate in the biblioblogosphere, but I’m sure this is an issue that many libraries and librarians have grappled with on a local level.
There are a few points I’d like to make on this issue… But first, I should point out that I agree that (where possible) libraries should be developing infrastructure to support their 2.0 services. So, onto my stream-of-consciousness response…
Libraries as content producers
The author of “It’s the Queen of Darkness, Pal” suggests that libraries’ use of commercial providers might mean that they don’t see themselves as content producers to the same degree as they have historically:
It seems to me that libraries used to see themselves as content providers, actively providing tools for finding information. At the moment, it feels more like we have resigned ourselves to using the services of the private sector.
I’d like to suggest that libraries’ use of third party providers doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t producing content or don’t see themselves as content producers. In fact, in some ways, I think use of free third party providers can free us up to produce content, because we spend less time maintaining the back end of the systems that house the content. Indeed, libraries’ quick up-take of content-based technologies like blogs seems to me to indicate that we are very concerned with developing content.
Sure, we mightn’t want to rely on third party providers to maintain a record of our business transactions or our content for the purposes of records management. I would suggest that any library using a third party provider for any 2.0 (or 1.0) service should be exporting content for archiving in their local records repository. But I’d also suggest that a library with, for example, a blog hosted on their own server, should also be doing this.
Yes, libraries should build and host their own infrastructure for 2.0 services, but…
The author asks why libraries aren’t hosting their own web 2.0 technologies, and he also suggests an answer:
The superficial answer is, of course, that libraries don’t have the funds. The deeper underlying answer though is that, really, our society has decided that it’s information is best entrusted to and run by the private sector on an advertising funded basis.
Do we (as in society) really think our information is best entrusted to the private sector? I’m not so sure about this. I know that I personally am often a little nervous about entering or display personal information in/via web apps or tools. I think it’s more that it’s very easy to entrust our information to the private sector, and the private sector seems to be very good at providing tools that work for people. I think libraries have been so quick to use commercial web 2.0 services for exactly the same reasons as individuals have: they work and they’re easy to implement and use.
Should libraries be hosting their own 2.0 services? Absolutely! It would be awesome if, for example, a library offered a social bookmarking tool that their customers could use as an alternative to del.icio.us. But as the author of “It’s the Queen of Darkness, Pal” acknowledges, there are hurdles libraries need to jump in order to be able to do this sort of thing. It’s not just about money – we all know there are robust open source options for a lot of the technologies we’d like to implement. There are many other issues, too, which impede libraries in building 2.0 infrastructure, such as:
- lack of library staff with the technological expertise to allow for implementation and maintenance of the technologies
- the need to respond to new technologies and user demands quickly often dictates that we need to find fast solutions, and hosting the technologies locally can result in time lags between identification of demand or need and implementation – an externally hosted commercial service might be a great interim solution in instances like this
- the need to work with and within in-house enterprise architecture requirements
- cultural and organisational factors, including policy, procedures, history
Some libraries are in a position to independently develop their own Web 2.0 infrastructure. Some are in a position to work with their parent organisation’s IT services to work towards the development of such an infrastructure. But some do not fall into either of these categories.
As one response to the recent thread on this topic on the NewGrads elist pointed out, it’s technically possible to buy a domain name and host your library’s virtual services entirely separately from your parent organisation’s web presence and without any input from your local IT people. But many libraries are not in a position to do that, often for the same reasons as those listed above.
Is commercialism really an issue?
Consider the other commercial services libraries make use of every day – particularly those that involve data hosting and end-user service provision. We purchase subscriptions to online resources from third party vendors. Many libraries also use “software as a service” models for external hosting of their LMS or other systems. How do these two examples differ from, for example, delivering a blog via a free service such as WordPress? Other than the fact that the first two cost money while the latter is free, I’m not sure that there is a great deal of difference… Or is there? Is the fact that the Web 2.0 services are free an issue? Is the fact that they are mainstream (ie non-library) services an issue? How about a service like LibGuides? Where does that fit in?
Scattering the breadcrumbs
I think there’s one other very important reason that libraries use commercial Web 2.0 services rather than build our own infrastructure, and it’s a reason that means a lot of libraries will continue to use these commercial services: we’re attempting to meet our users in their own space. We’re “scattering the breadcrumbs” and placing our services where the users will see us – that is, in the spaces they inhabit. If we hosted our own services, would we be able to do this as effectively? If we created a social network space on the library’s website, we might create a space in which those users who actually come to our websites could interact with each other and the library, but we wouldn’t be reaching out to, for example, the users of Facebook who’ve never even contemplated visiting the library’s website.
Should libraries be using free, commercial Web 2.0 services?
The answer? I don’t know if there is one. Perhaps it’s that where possible, libraries should use a combination of local infrastructure or locally hosted services and commercial tools that can position us in the user’s space.
But I think what must be acknowledged is that, as it stands right now, there are some libraries for whom implementing their own locally hosted services or infrastructure is just not a possibility, or not a possibility that will be realised any time soon. For those libraries, free commercial services are their only option, if they’re to make use of Web 2.0 tools at all.
I’m really glad that there is finally some debate happening on this topic. I hope it continues and some other people weigh in. This is something I’ve been pondering at length recently, and I’d really like to hear others’ thoughts.