Friday, March 2, 2007

internet fears

One of the things that seems to show up again and again in relation to the Internet is fear. The most recent incarnation is the reemergence of DOPA (Deleting Online Predators Act). Apparently, Rep. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican has reintroduced the act. For more information, see the recent CNET story.

What the Internet really represents for a lot of people is a frightening loss of control. While we could have some interesting discussions about what this loss of control means to parents (feel free to offer comments in this area), I'd like to focus on what this loss of control means to librarians and IT people.

I've been thinking about the IT angle for the past week or so as MSL struggles with ITSD over implementation of some new web tools. Looking at it from their perspective, I can see why they're not crazy about things like CMS (Content Management Systems), blogs, wikis and the like. Security is their chief concern. They're trying to keep unauthorized people out of their servers. We can be seen as threats to security by seeking to let more people in as blog and wiki contributors, commenters and the like. No wonder so many library blogs are on blogspot instead of their own servers. Sometimes it's just easier to go around than to confront. But it does show a bit of a disconnect as our library web pages continue to be static top-down information sources with no interactivity. And we go outside them to talk about what really matters and connect with people.

As librarians, we've spent a lot of time trying to control information - in a good way, of course. We've introduced controlled vocabulary and cataloging structures. We've sought to evaluate information and offer diverse, balanced and authoritative viewpoints.

Then the Internet comes along. People start tagging. Wait! What about our controlled vocabulary - Library of Congress Subject Headings?! You can't just assign any old TAG! Yes, they can and they do! And it seems to work. It may not be controlled but it's certainly more intuitive.

We're also facing a major paradigm shift in who is a consumer vs. a provider of information. Now that anyone can create a blog and have it picked up by web search tools, how do we decide which internet information sources are worthwhile? What is the librarian's role in providing access to information? Should we be acting as a gatekeeper to attempt to ensure quality information for our patrons? Or should we be enabling them to establish their own information networks? If we try to hang on too long to the gatekeeper role, we risk making ourselves irrelevant as patrons increasingly work around us. But, if we abandon our quest for quality and balanced information, we also risk becoming irrelevant. After all, Google is still far easier to use than most library search tools.

I think there are several things we need to be doing.
  1. We need to continually push to make our catalogs and databases easier to search and use.
  2. Part of that is making sure that we can add our resources to search tools our patrons are already using like the Firefox search box.
  3. Allow patrons to be able to tag search results and make it easy to add them to bookmarking tools they're already using like Furl or
  4. Make use of technologies. Why shouldn't patrons be able to review library materials and/or make recommendations and lists?
  5. Why not have librarian recommendations and lists as well? It's a good way to highlight parts of your collection that you feel warrant another look.

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