Cutting Edge or Over the Edge?


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We librarians have always been cutting edge: We were often the first within our organizations to have online search capabilities; remember Lexis Ubiq terminals? Our colleagues and coworkers caught up with us, sort of . . . at least they all got PCs so they could use Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets.

Fast-forward a decade. The Web appeared and va-voom! Of course, this was the same time that info pros were busy rolling out information to the desktop enterprise-wide, often perplexing non-info pros with a surfeit of options and choices. "Click here for Dow Jones/News Retrieval," "Click here to search Inspec." We librarians were so far ahead of the curve in terms of information familiarity that we overwhelmed clients with all the powerful databases we'd paid a bundle for, which we just knew they'd find useful. Unfortunately, it's roughly the info equivalent of taking a tree-hugging tofu eater into Jean Georges in New York City. (Um, I'll just have a salad and dessert, please.) Bottom line: we were comfortable with advanced tools and resources, but just putting them in front of our clients didn't get them to use the sources.

Not soon after the Web became ubiquitous, we started hearing about the evils of "data brokers"—shady characters who "use the Internet" to gather all kinds of information about you (how much you paid for your house, that night you spent in jail, and, presumably, whether or not you're wearing clean underwear). Then, we hear, these data brokers sell this information to your spouse, employer, insurance company, and even that nosy neighbor down the street. Of course, as any public records researcher knows, much of the legitimately gathered information in these databases has always been findable; it's just easier now with more fee-based online services aggregating the information.

Once again, these sources are getting bad press because someone other than an info pro is describing how these tools work and what information they contain. This time, there was a Chicago Tribune article appearing in mid-March, describing how reporter John Crewdson "easily" discovered the names of thousands of CIA personnel "through Internet searches." Cue the spooky music. Although Crewdson declined to specify his search techniques or what online sources he used, he did say that it involves fee-based information services, although a non-info pro will read the article and conclude that a Google search for CIA undercover agent will turn up a neat list of covert operators and secret military bases. Once again, a little knowledge and a modicum of paranoia turns what should be a non-story about basic competitive intelligence research into another case of "Eek, it's all on the Web for free, and now they know about me!"

To add to the confusion about what's on the Web and where it's headed, the phrase Web 2.0 is finally surfacing in the mainstream media (for a nice outline of what may be considered Web 2.0, see Tim O'Reilly's 9/30/05 blog post on the subject at http://weblogs.oreillynet.com). And at least among the info pro community, we're also trying to get our heads around Library 2.0. Once again, we're on the cutting edge of exploring ways to use the new Web 2.0 networking and collaboration tools, far earlier than most of our clients. We're rolling out RSS feeds and wikis; we're considering allowing library users to add tags to catalog entries or to rank or rate library content; we're re-using the information from Google Maps or Craigslist to provide a customized "view" of information for the library's user groups. Even something as simple as instituting a social bookmarking service or Web-based information management service for internal clients might provide a great way to bring users into the world of Web 2.0. There is, of course, as much hype as substance with the meme Library 2.0. Walt Crawford collected more than 60 descriptions of Library 2.0—everything from "Library 2.0 means abandoning services that serve small or unimportant groups" to "Library 2.0 encompasses every library that doesn't want to be a relic." (See his essay in the Midwinter 2006 issue of Cites & Insights, http://cites.boisestate.edu/civ6i2.pdf.)

What is so remarkable about Web 2.0—and by extension, Library 2.0—is that it works when it fosters collaboration. Most Web (read: library) clients use information in a relatively passive way. They use a search engine or online catalog to find information. They read it. Perhaps they incorporate it into a report. But we're not seeing much data mining, nor are most users aware of how they could manipulate, contribute to, or enhance the information they use. How can we help harness the collective intelligence of our users in such a way that they can easily adopt new technologies and we don't wind up with the twenty-first century equivalent of all those desktop icons to information sources our patrons never use?