Sometimes, I come away from library-related events mulling, in a not-quite-positive way, over some of the thoughts that were articulated. I guess these can be described as my “uh-oh” moments: they’re instances when someone (or even many someones) comes out with something that perplexes me. They can also be instances of silence when I don’t think there should have been silence; that is, when something important goes unsaid. I had two of those moments at the SLQ Unconference, one of the unsaid variety, and one of the said.
Need before the tool
First of all, and perhaps most importantly, I don’t know that there was quite enough reiteration of the fact that the customer’s need, or the service imperative, must, must, MUST come before the technology. We cannot adopt an attitude of “oooh, shiny new thing, let’s give it a try” – at least, not in developing services for our libraries. In our personal and extra-curricula lives, and even within defined work-play situations (like Learning 2.0 programs), it’s fine to play with technology for the sake of it. We shouldn’t, though, grab at new technologies and attempt to deliver services using them just for the sake of it. There must be a defined need for a service, and we must carefully evaluate the tools we have available to us to deliver it. We must think through the options, and those options should include our full swag of tools, not just the Web 2.0 ones. If a static HTML page or a database driven interface would work better than a blog, we must be prepared to let go of our techno-lust and get back to basics.
Wikipedia (and the web?) are never going to be as good as our collections
I heard a couple of times, from a couple of people, this idea that “the information we have in our collections is always going to be better than what our customers find online”. No, no, no! This is not what Web 2.0 is about, people!
(Aside: Interestingly, the phrase used was, I’m pretty sure, ‘find online’, not ‘find in Wikipedia’. I can kind of, almost see the rationale behind our fear mongering about the quality of information in Wikipedia. But to use the generalisation ‘online’? Hmmmm. If I had the time to spare, I’d hyperlink every word in this paragraph to a quality online resource on a different subject, just to prove my point. Maybe they meant Wikipedia by inference. Maybe they said ‘Wikipedia’ and I heard ‘online’. I’m going to cling to the idea that one of these two scenarios is true, because the suggestion that the information we have in our collections is necessarily better than anything that can be found online is just so bewildering that I have to hope that’s not what was meant.)
We go on and on about how user generated content is wonderful. “Let people tag our catalogue records”, we cry! “Let people comment on our blogs”, we argue. Why, then, do we insist that what we have in our collections is absolutely, necessarily better than what can be found online, simply by virtue of being in our collections? I’m not sure that I see a great deal of difference between letting users tag our catalogue records (or even pulling data from Library Thing into our catalogues) and the authorship model for Wikipedia. If we continue to tell our customers “Wikipedia bad, library good”, we’re going to set ourselves up for a fall, because no matter what we do, our customers are going to use it. And not only our customers, but our staff: if I need some basic information on something techie-ish, my first port of call is Wikipedia, because the information I get there is consistently good and more up-to-date than what I get anywhere else. Wouldn’t it be better, then, to teach our customers about using Wikipedia wisely, and about how they can contribute to make it a better resource, than to try and stop them from using it?
Everyone’s an expert: that’s a basic tenet of this Web 2.0 world we’re operating in. And you know what? It’s true. Wikipedia facilitates the documentation of the knowledge everyday folks have stored in their minds on every topic you can think of. It’s democratisation, globalisation of the knowledge sharing process like we’ve never encountered before, at least not to this extent. Wikipedia allows you and me to document that which we are experts on. As a result, there are information artifacts in Wikipedia that are pure gold, and that are simply not published anywhere else.
Yes, let’s focus on making our resources as easily discoverable as Wikipedia articles, because our resources are good (and our discovery services often aren’t that great). But Wikipedia has its place, and sometimes it’s going to be able to supply more up-to-date, more detailed (dare I say better?) information than what’s in our collections.
[the virtual librarian steps down off her soapbox]