The Need for Theory?

Conrad Taylor’s Whose Information Profession Is It, Anyway?adds to an already expansive corpus of literature on the definitions of the information profession. If librarians have a tough time explaining what a librarian is, information professionals have mountainous terrains to travel before they can come close to a consensus. One point that Taylor points out is the lack of a definitive, universal “theory” which the information profession can build on, as a starting place for standardizing practices and promoting the profession.   But as Taylor warns, in the internet culture of today:

With its self-service approach to information discovery and skepticism about classification, disrupts this paradigm.  Meanwhile in public libraries, half the space looks like an Internet cafe, and the job of librarian isnt’ what it used to be.

Examining Susan Myburgh’s ideas, he proposes that the information profession needs to draw on a “constructivist” agenda, one which draws on such fields as semiotics, linguistics, cultural studies, and epistemology.  In other words, there needs to be a manifesto that requires a “clarity in our thinking”.     It seems that this is begging to say it’s time that we take  hold of social media as a core of whatever grand meta-narrative we choose to evolve for this profession.    It’s true that the “librarian isn’t what it used to be,” and perhaps this is the precise time for library and information professionals to grasp the profound changes taking place.   Let’s take a look at a few reasons why:

(1) Evaluation Metrics - A culture of assessment has always been a main staple of the information profession. To promote, to evaluate, to provide value to users. Most libraries measure the value of their reference services, the usage of collections, the number of patrons and users taught in classes, among the many items.  How do we evaluate social media?  How do we measure the impact a reference inquiry on a blog post?  It’s nigh time we become the experts on evaluating social media itself.  We can fill the role of experts on this critical area of information.

(2) Promoting the Physical, Using the Digital – The library (or information centre) has always been about connecting users to the physical space, of promoting its collection (whether print or digital) to its audience, or contributing culturally and humanely to its community.   Historically, it’s done this mainly through print.  Businesses, entrepreneurs, activists, politicians (in no particular order), are all mobilizing social media as their tools for engagement.    We should too.

(3)  Gathering, organizing, and dissemination - At the core of the profession is still an inherent need to do all three things — and do them with precision and recall.  Yet, in the world of digital media, it’s become more interesting to capture the ephemeral nature of “information.”  Social media has great power in assisting us in doing this, but social media has been the source of compounding much of the problems, too.   Last check is that the Web has more than 48 billion pages indexed, and is slowly climbing into the petabytes.     With this said, isn’t it about time librarians start finding ways at controlling and organizing this digital chaos?    Why not?  The Library of Congress has already made the first step.

Here’s to the Gray Areas

These days, a popular way to make a splash in the media is by making some drastic proclamation on the future of libraries. These edicts usually start by citing the explosion of ‘free’ information, readily accessible to ‘everyone’ and go on to declare the death of the book or the librarian or the library itself. They spend little time discussing the facts, like accessibility issues, the backlog of digitization, the quality of the cataloguing/indexing of large-scale digitization projects, the false sense of technological confidence and poor assessment skills of younger generations or the history of the integration of new technologies.

As an academic librarian in love with books and technology – and the places where they intersect – I sometimes take these attacks to heart. After all, these declarations are not only assaults on my livelihood and the future of my profession, but indictments of my worldview and vision of our collective, democratic future.

image for 5 myths about the 'Information Age'

from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Bob McGrath

Which is why it was so refreshing to see the article “5 Myths About the ‘Information Age’” by Harvard professor Robert Darnton in The Chronicle of Higher Education today. There are no difficult, futurespeak concepts here. The article lays out the five simple myths and grounds them in plain good sense and a healthy dose of media history. Not only does Darnton point out the issues listed above that are so often missed by the library-slayers, he includes fascinating tidbits like our potential misunderstanding of the nature of reading in past centuries and underlines the current popularity of libraries both on and off campuses.

Darnton is no luddite ivory tower dweller. He’s been at the centre of recent discussions on creating a US national digital public library and sees the endeavor as a step in fulfillment of the democratic potential of his nation. Instead, however, of grabbing a attention with radical rationalizations cheaply achieved, Darnton argues against the sound-bite specialists with a few well-researched statements which pointedly avoid hyperbole.

The most intriguing aspect of this article, for me, is its example as an antithesis which both refutes the end-of-the-library manifesto and shows how a truly considered opinion can be arrived at and constructed. In this guise, it underlines a trend I’ve been noticing develop in social media, one that came up recently in – of all places – an episode of a favourite podcast, WTF with Marc Maron. It was during a very thoughtful and intelligent conversation between Maron and Conan O’Brien that the latter observed that there had been a drift in the North American cultural conversation towards extremism and intolerance on matters of opinion. As the late-night comedian saw it, there was no longer room in the public discourse for nuanced viewpoints or seeing value in things that you’re not passionately in like with. You LOVE it or HATE it, there’s no room for sort-of-liking-the-character-and-attitude-but-not-connecting-with-the-message-so-much-but-it’s-easy-to-see-how-it-connects-with-people-who-had-that-experience…

O’Brien placed the blame for this squarely on the current extremist attitude in US politics and the ongoing fight for national identity, but I think a case can be made that Twitter and Facebook, with their limited-character status updates and tacit encouragement of attention-grabbing declarations (what’s lonelier than a FB status update with no likes or comments?), seem to foster all-or-nothing opinions. Taking over where the TV soundbite left off, the overwhelming interactiveness and content-generation of social media mean the opinions have to get even more extreme to be heard.

Don’t get me wrong – I love social media. There are so many new and exciting ways I can interact with friends, colleagues and strangers. However, more than once, I have stopped myself from commenting or liking a post because I felt I wouldn’t be able to approach the subject honestly or with enough justice to the range of my thoughts and I was reluctant to be misinterpreted by enforced brevity. There are plenty of tools that allow for this deeper interaction, it’s just a matter of promoting the right ones for the right tasks.

The ways in which new technologies play out in our shared and individual lives are never right or wrong – they always contribute in both positive and negative ways to society. Like Darnton, we need to be interested in yesterday, today and tomorrow, as well as in understanding the full and multi-layered trajectory of the path technologies take in our lives. While the extremists are declaring the imminent demise of my livelihood, I’ll be looking for ways to use social media to deepen the discussion and make my chosen career an integral, viable one for many years to come.

The Dark Side…

Even before Facebook so rudely changed my profile without asking me, then had the gall to tell me it had been my choice, I had already been getting more and more frustrated with software and cloud program privacy agreements/terms and conditions. Then I saw this awesome graphic on Mashable:

infographic depicting stats on privacy agreements

This infographic was created by SelectOut, an ad-tracking opt-out initiative..

Data data data

gleened from Stephen’s Lighthouse – can’t wait to dive in!

Beyond the Nation-State and Social Media

It’s a recent phenomenon: social media is altering world history.  As the recent Iranian resistance from twittosphere has shown, as well as the recent events in China, Burma, Russia, Tunisia and Egypt resistance, not even the tightly drawn cloak of authoritarian regimes can regulate what seeps through the social web.  Just look at what Wikileaks is doing to open up once tightly withheld information, and ultimately, the political order.

Don Tapscott argues in Macrowikinomics, that we have entered the age of “beyond the nation state.”    Microfinancing, virtual activism, and global agenda partnerships via the social web are but a few developments that are breaking down the nation-state’s grip, and challenging the very notion of its importance to its citizens.  Non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) are clearly gaining legitimacy and relevance, even by nation-states.   NGO’s have become effective change agents. And social media is only intensifying this change.

Vancouver-based HootSuite is one example of how social media is challenging the stronghold of the notion of the state.  In particular, social media  helping people in Egypt circumvent the government’s shutdown of the Internet.  Hootsuite, which offers social media portal feed for cross-posting to Twitter and Facebook, is reporting that signups are up sevenfold this month in Egypt, with the most from this past week of January — mostly from mobile devices.

The company, which offers users a social media dashboard for posting to Twitter, Facebook and other social networks, reports that signups are up sevenfold this month in Egypt, with most in the past week and most from mobile devices.   Blocking Internet access and text messaging as well as Twitter and Facebook, the Egyptian government hasn’t deterred its people from going through proxy servers or using third-party applications like HootSuite and TweetDeck to voice their dissent.

Here’s something interesting: although HootSuite users who had already signed up before the Internet are being shut down in Egypt, they are still able to use the service as new users who must register a new account online at   Moreover, iPhone users can sign up for new HootSuite accounts through the mobile app.  From all the developments we’re witnessing about the transformational change social media has afforded us, it’s changing the course of history as well.   We’ll see more in the upcoming years ahead.

Social Media and Information Retrieval

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how information is retrieved from social media applications. Given the sheer volume of information that’s being produced even as I type this post, it can feel overwhelming even to keep up with the relatively small number of blogs and feeds I follow daily. One of the issues is that, while I might find something interesting, I may not have a context or need for that particular piece of information at the moment, and it quickly disappears from view. Given the explosion of search tools for managing social media, I suspect I’m not the only one with this problem. Being able to retrieve things at point of need is becoming increasingly essential, and increasingly difficult. I recently took a more in-depth look at the search engine Social Mention, but there are tons of these tools out there, like Who’s Talkin, Technorati, and Samepoint. Do you use any of these tools? What are your favourites?

Fear Factor

Allan’ provocative post got me thinking more about a few topics:

1. the progressivist/regressivist narrative re: the internet and social media

2. the tool/task-centric narrative approach of much library 2.0 literature

3. the transliteracy model and the current redefining of librarians’ relevance/professional mandate

These all seem to be interconnected to me in a space many librarians find downright scary, where fear is a prime motivator. How many of us are adopting these tools and moving our services into this space because we are afraid of being left behind, of becoming irrelevant, of losing ground in the areas where our clients congregate? Are we becoming cheeleaders for new media without understanding what our actual message is? How many librarians are adopting social media and spending more professional time online, while simultaneously harbouring fears of the long-term change that new media is creating not only in our work and our society, but inside our own skulls?

A few days ago, The Guardian published a fairly balanced, yet ultimately alarmist, article by John Harris entitled, “How the internet is altering your mind.” The impetus behind the piece is the UK publication of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, and Harris admirably provides a forum for both supporting and critical voices (as does the Globe and Mail in their review of the book here). However, Carr’s message – that scientific evidence is showing that these tools are not just making us less creative but dumber – and his own behaviour patterns seem to have spooked Harris enough that his article has a distinctly pessimistic tone. Harris’ reaction is an altogether human one – and one which can be found in latent or blatent form in many ‘stories’ of library 2.0, be they tales told in numbers or words.

Transliteracy – defined on as “the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks” – provides shape to an opposing, positive narrative outlook to search for in library 2.0 literature. Whether termed “transliteracy” or not, this vision of librarians using social media to be active agents in the creation a multi-literate society is a powerful one, and definitely one I will keep in my own mind as I design applications for 2.0 tools in my own library.

End of Creativity, the Rise of Social

In the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly, with the theme being 14 3/4 Biggest Ideas of the Year, Walter Kirn argues thanks to social media, boredom is close to extinction. Not only that,

But what else has been lost? Creativity, just maybe. Because when one thinks about the matter—though we really have no reason to think about the matter, or to think about anything since boredom disappeared—the keypad and the touch screen now do the work that used to be the business of the daydream. Remember daydreams? No, of course you don’t.

Kirn certainly makes some provoking thoughts here.  Yet, the tension between creativity and the rise of technology has always been at the forefront even since the days of the Gutenberg Press.   What I think we need to put in perspective are three crucial ideas in this discussion:

1.  Time – A Nielson survey revealed that 40% of online time is spent on just three activities — social networking, playing games and e-mailing — leaving a whole lot of other sectors fighting for a declining share of the online pie. Americans today are spending nearly a quarter of their online time posting comments, pictures and video on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.   This doesn’t tell us the entire picture.  The television pie has been taken on by the social web.  Instead of watching series re-runs, audiences are watching 2-3 minute Youtube clips, shared Twitter links, and online music (downloading).  From the living room to the laptop, entertainment has become portable and mobile.   Is this a good thing?  That’s hard to say, considering experts have been battling this debate since the advent of radio and television.   What we can discern for sure is that although the medium might have changed, the content (education and entertainment) has not.

2.  Creativity – It would be premature to conclude that the artistic and scientific geniuses of the next generation are hindered by the Web.  On a digital level, mashups have allowed many to reuse and remix works of art, of content, and even data for purposes that usually are not intended or even imagined by the original creators. Steven Johnson has argued that the web has actually had the effect of “cognitive calisthenics.”  Despite every generation’s worry about technology —  the printing press, the telegraph, and the radio — the fact is that each generation became more efficient — if not intelligent —and being able to handle ever-more complex economic, social and knowledge practices.   As we really can’t measure individual ‘creativity’ quantitatively, what we can discern is that from the arts and sciences we’ve done quite well for ourselves.

3. Socializing- If social media has anything to do with it, the World Cup was all about socializing the experience of sports.  On Twitter, for instance, World Cup helped set a  a new Tweet record, when on June 24th during the Japan vs. Denmark match, 3,282 Tweets flew across the stream every second, beating the previous record by almost 200.  Although research has shown that teens spend much of their online, this online conversation has become a “third space” where youths congregate socially on the web on Facebook, MMOG’s, and texting.  Far from a isolation, the social web has extended and enriched the social process conversation, actually helping sustain many groups and building niche communities.   Technology provides access to communication — regardless if it’s 18th century letter writing or 21st century texting.

Using Social Media to Gain Feedback

Feedback is an incredibly valuable source of information for libraries. Librarians collect all kinds of statistics, utilise polls and other surveys, and request feedback on programs.

One of the issues involved in using social media tools in libraries is knowing how effective they are. With many tools, we can gain a sense of this through looking at usership: how many Twitter followers does the library account have? How many facebook fans? How many blog readers?

Yet there are also other aspects to gaining useful feedback. Part of the value of social media is allowing two-way communication between libraries and their users. Libraries control the ways through which users can communicate with the library, so part of the goal of using social media can be to create ways for users to respond to and interact with the library. For example, users can:

  • Respond to or re-Tweet items using Twitter
  • Write on the library’s facebook page or “like” items
  • Comment directly on items in the library’s website
  • Create tags for items in the library’s catalogue to demonstrate how they view the collection
  • Collaborate with librarians on wikis
  • Create videos, such is in the University of Toronto’s I Love The Library contest

In these ways, libraries can listen to users as well as speak to them. Dean mentioned many other possibilities in his recent post on collaboration.

However, social media tools can also be a great way of learning how users feel about specific tools and about the library in general. This is something that is fairly widely discussed in the marketing world, and something that libraries can definitely tap into.

This doesn’t have to be something that takes up a large amount of time – RSS feeds make it easy to set up alerts or aggregate content mentioning the library. Some good tools for doing this (via Chris Brogan) include Technorati, Google Blogsearch, the Twitter search feature, link checkers, or Crazy Egg. Google Alerts, Feedstitch, and Topsy are also possibilities.

How do you listen to your users?

Locative Media, Augmented Reality, Context-Awareness, & Smart Technologies

With recent advances in mobile media, global positioning systems, and cloud computing, Web 2.0 and social media has transcended the boundaries of the digital to the physical.      Although in the 2010 Horizon Report the time-to-adoption horizon for simple augmented reality is forecast for the next two to three years, the use of this type of technology is clearly ahead of schedule.  In the report, it asserts,

Augmented reality has strong potential to provide both powerful contextual, in situ learning experiences and serendipitous exploration and discovery of the connected nature of information in the real world. Mechanics in the military and at companies like Boeing already use AR goggles while they work on vehicles; the goggles demonstrate each step in a repair, identify the tools needed, and include textual instructions as well. This kind of augmented experience especially lends itself to training for specific tasks.

At the same time, such technologies have also been somewhat confusing, especially as terminologies have been incongruent according to different standards and industries.   Regardless, academic librarians are well positioned at the forefront of this technology.  Why?   Much of the students that we deal with are Generation Y or digital natives, are already well versed in mobile technologies such as iPhones and are using them at the reference desk; as such academic librarians face questions at the reference each day from student’s accessing touchscreen technologies.   Moreover, what about RFID technologies?    Far from being limited to warehouses and farm animals, libraries in fact have been developing such technologies for better usage of its shelving spaces for the better part of this decade already.    With the advent of mobile technologies, however, academic librarians need to continue to move ahead and they need progress to the next phase: how to develop services which will serve our users seamlessly in the semantic web world.   Here are just a rubric of terms.

1. Augmented Reality - The concept of blending (augmenting) virtual data — information, rich media, and even live action — with what we see in the real world, for the purpose of enhancing the information we can perceive with our senses.   It’s also term for a live view of the physical real-world environment whose elements are augmented by virtual computer-generated imagery. 

2. Context Awareness – Linking changes in the environment with computer systems, which are otherwise static.   As such, computers can both sense and react based on their environment, producing an replicating elements of artificial reality.   Context aware devices may even make assumptions about the user’s current situation

3. Locative Media - Allows users to reveal where they are (i.e.  exact location within any geographical area) and all of the places they have visited by using mobile or handheld phones.  Although its communication may functionally be bound to a location, the physical implementation of locative media however is not bound to the same location to which the contents refers.     In using technology such as global positioning system (GPS), locative media  ultimately disrupts and challenges the relationship of consciousness to place and other people.

4.  Smart Technologies - Is used primarily in an educational settings, where users annotate and control computer presentations including during their lectures, saving the presentation with the notes directly from the whiteboard to the compute. The annotated presentations can be made available to students for review outside of class or saved for future use by faculty.   the idea is interactivity, where the whiteboard is an interactive tool that uses touch detection for user input – e.g. scrolling, right mouse-click – in the same way normal PC input devices, such as a mouse or keyboard, detect input.


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