From the catalogs of babes

{August 6, 2009}   who curates the real-time web? we do.

friend of mine invited me to call in to a web talk show about “who curates the real time web?” after I posted some characteristically snarky answers to the question on his Facebook page. I tried to call in, but between my phone-phobia, my partial deafness (I have a really hard time hearing on the phone) and the time constraints of the show, I didn’t quite make it on-air.

The initial summary of the session (the irony of it being no longer available on the site, as far as I can find, is not lost on me) included the authors’ suggestions for some sort of curatorship, software or human. My haunches bristled when I saw the use of the word “curator.” Other words bandied about during the talk were “archiving” and “taxonomizing.” They didn’t know it, but what they were asking for was a librarian. And we already exist. Here a bunch of much-lauded tech-entrepreneurs think they just came up with the most brilliant idea in the world to help users navigate information. Well, I hate to break it to you, buddies, but we’ve been around for thousands of years, and that’s what we do: we select, process, organize, deliver, manage and mediate access to information, and instruct users how to locate, evaluate, and effectively use this information.

 But there’s obviously still some sort of need, or else this whole discussion wouldn’t have been happening. Why?

Needlelane Silos by jhritz

Needlelane Silos by jhritz


In library jargon, a “silo” generally refers to a disparate, stand-alone resource that cannot be searched in an integrated way with other resources. A common example is the inability to ingrate subscription databases of newspapers, magazines, etc., into the online catalog. A patron has to search the catalog for books, then a separate database for newspaper articles, a third for magazines, etc. In business, I generally hear silos referred to in terms of departments functioning independently, in a “one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing” kind of way. I think the same thing is happening here, with libraries and librarians in one silo, and the tech-savvy entrepreneurs in another.

Let’s look at this discussion: who were the speakers, and who was the target audience? Businessmen, tech-geeks, entrepreneurs. Middle-and upper-class educated users and developers of technology. People motivated by sales and funded by venture capital. Basically, what I’d call the “technical elite.” As far as I could tell, no librarians, curators, archivists, or taxonomists were invited to be on the discussion panel. Libraries and librarians are not part of the tech-elite demographic. While there are nuggets of progress here and there, librarianship overall is a slow-evolving profession and often last to the gate in terms of technology. I’m not in denial about how backwards we are. How long did it take us to move away from the card catalog? Have you compared a library OPAC to Google, Amazon, Netflix?

These companies spend tons of money and market research on giving their users what they want, making it easy for users to find what they seek. Libraries want to do the same. But they don’t have the same resources and motivations. They don’t turn a profit and don’t have investors. Traditionally underfunded to begin with, many libraries and librarians are seeing their budgets cut further and jobs cut altogether. Libraries don’t have the same financial resources and motivations as tech entrepreneurs.

Libraries and librarians aren’t limited to a certain target market or demographic.  I felt a blatant bias in the talk show participants–talking about how “everyone” gets up in the morning and checks Twitter and how “everyone” is on Facebook. According to Pew, only 35% of American adults have a social networking profile, and only 22% of those people are on Facebook (MySpace still leads at 50%, but interestingly enough, I never heard it mentioned in today’s discussion). A mere 11% of online American adults use Twitter. I can forgive the speakers a bit due to their intended listening audience. I understand a business targeting the tech-savvy demographic, since they tend to have more education and disposable income. And I understand that these are the people on the forefront of things, and even though only 11% of people use Twitter right now, that number could be expected to rise as the service becomes more ubiquitous. So I’m willing to cut a little slack there. But talk about closing yourself off in a silo! Who’s curating the web for the rest of America?

The librarian silo is starting to crumble at the bottom from rotting woodwork. The tech-business silo can’t be built any taller without more resources and materials. I can’t help but think maybe if we were all in the same barn, instead of off building our own silos, our Twitters and our OPACs, we could achieve real progress, for both sides of the spectrum. Librarians have immense value to offer. We know how to organize, annotate, and recommend materials and information. We have a history of credibility, authority, and reliability (unlike “brands” that were recommended as reliable sources).  We have exactly the skills called for in today’s discussion. But we just don’t have the money, the support, or the technological skills. The tech elite wants their web organized, and they have resources to throw at it. They just don’t know how to do it. Imagine what we could do if we broke down those silos and worked together.

Booker says:

Excellent points about some missing skills, maybe, on the business side and some missing resources on the library side. Seems a natural that the two sides would meet in the middle for a bit of a barn dance. Why they don’t involves more than one question. If you’ll indulge a bit of devil’s advocacy, I’d argue that librarians have seemed quite content to stay in their own silos dancing their own familiar steps. (You imply something similar with your question about why library search looks so completely unlike other tools users love.)

That said, I heard the same bias you did. It came out most strongly in the argument over stream of consciousness versus ‘memory,’ the former characterized by the expanding feed of various social media traffic and the latter by the ‘old web’ of pages of relatively static pages stored more or less permanently for retrieval as needed. The old web more closely resembles the sorts of resource collections librarians traditionally handle, and it’s probably susceptible to many of the same techniques. But how can librarians catalog the constant barrage of short blurts for later retrieval, and why would the want to? SM’s products have a short shelf-life, and their main relevance is bound up with events of the passing moment. They make a lousy encyclopedia, or at least a highly suspicious one. But no one is willing to wait around for the librarians to find time and resources to fix it all for us.

My answer would involve the librarians participating in developing functional specs for the filtering tools that nearly everyone agrees are desperately needed. (Well, they’re not needed if the SM traffic is of such negligible value that it doesn’t matter much how much of it one misses; but in that case, why bother with any of it?) Librarians know the scope of the job, and they’re familiar with the abject frustration of knocking their heads on the sides of all their own silos — a point you make well –so they have both the motivation to find methods for interoperation and the knowledge to say what the technology should do.

The tech people are in such a hurry to build things, however — competition and their tinkery nature being what they are — that they hate waiting around for anyone to say what the nifty new tools *should* do. The loss is theirs, when their tools fall short, and ours as users, when we limp along with weak technology. The pace ain’t going to slow, however, and each of the silos has its own mission to fulfill for the people driving its construction. The silos of Babel seem likely to persist and proliferate, and I suspect that the best practical solution would involve standards-based semantic tools that allow links between the silos. The librarians had *better* be involved in that conversation.

Ivy says:

>I’d argue that librarians have seemed quite content to stay in their own silos dancing their own familiar steps.

It wouldn’t be an arguement. I’m in complete agreement.

>But how can librarians catalog the constant barrage of short blurts for later retrieval, and why would the want to?

I didn’t get into it much in this post, but I’m thinking less of librarians doing tweet-by-tweet cataloging but rather a) something more along the lines of what you suggest, with creating filtering tools and b) heading up more cross-contextual information literacy instruction (which I know you and I have discussed personally before, and I have been meaning to write about here on the blog), teaching users how to curate for themselves, for their own individual needs.

Re: librarians creating filtering tools – bang on, with the caveat that it’s going to vary depending upon what kind of audience one serves. In an academic research context, the domain experts would laugh their asses off at the notion of us filtering their information on their behalf. I bet it would be the same in a special library environment. Researchers and business people know their subject matter much more than we do and are inherently better at recognizing pertinence and relevance for themselves. That said, there is a role in developing the filtering tools and marketing them to the individuals who will be searching, finding, using the filtered information. The key is that they’re going to be configuring the filters we build. In the public or school library context there may be more need for pre-filtering info on the customer’s behalf (akin to collection development).

In terms of metadata librarianship, the filtering development role has already been usurped by start-ups like PubGet. The area where we can add the most value in my opinion is in developing enhancements to the metadata already inherent in our records. In academia I think that’s going to translate into assisting researchers with their information output as opposed to our traditional role of managing input into our collections. When they release a “publication”, we can ensure that it’s sematicized and thus optimized for search engines and crawler.

I think it’s the interoperability of the output that’s going to break the silos in the end. If content is king, metadata enhanced content is god. The problem is that old-school catalogers think they’re cataloging for humans. In the metadata world, we’re cataloging for machines. Until there’s a paradigm shift in the brains of the old-schoolers, we will continue arguing about subfields in uniform titles and the programmers will pass us by.

Booker says:

> we can ensure that it’s sematicized and thus
> optimized for search engines and crawler

So librarianship comes to encompass editorial work. Or where is that boundary?

[…] search tools configured to select resources based on semantic cues I specify. And I want help from my librarians in creating and deploying these tools, since they're building on generations of experience in […]

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