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Two-way libraries, open catalogues and the future of sharing culture
Posted By Phil Minchin On September 11, 2013 @ 6:30 am In Uncategorized | 28 Comments
For various reasons, libraries have largely ignored the volume of new content whose creation has been enabled by the internet. We have failed to recognise that the same systems that created all those creative opportunities also offer opportunities for us. Among those potential boons are tools that could help us deal with the floods the internet unleashed, and a great many more opportunities for us to help serve our communities besides. This article outlines the big-picture issues at play in this conversation; then, rather than explore the practical implications in a monologuegraph, links to an open document so readers can participate in developing those opportunities.
Three things make a library a library rather than a mere staffed warehouse for written (or other) works: the catalogue, the shelving, and the community. Library staff – the kernel of the library community – group and sequence their collections in logical, predictable orders and then index them to help people find the works they’re looking for; they store works in ways that prioritise accessibility rather than – or along with – efficient use of space; and they work to share their collections among a particular community, whether that community is defined by shared academic interests, shared occupations, lineage, a common employer, or something as basic (and democratic) as shared geography.
This last point is, to me, the fundamental activity of libraries: sharing. Cataloguing and specialised storage are essential, but ultimately necessitated by sharing; a private collection which will never be seen by any other person, not even an heir, usually has far less need for transparent organisation. Libraries have always existed to create a common ground where everyone has access to the same works and the same information. Who is able or encouraged to access that common ground is, of course, a product of the politics of the society in which the library stands; but once free to roam within the library space, everyone has the same scope for learning and discovery according to their individual interests and abilities. And the work of library staff is not only to manage logistics, but to create and maintain a social space where this ideal of a common intellectual resource is as closely realised as possible, as expressed both in the interactions in the space and in the systems that organise, store and share the library’s collections.
As we all know, all three of those things (indexing, storage and sharing) have been radically transformed by the Information Revolution and the shift of people’s attention from broadcast to networked media.
Storage on the digital network
Reams and gigabytes could be, and have been, written about the transformation of storage in the electronic age (including, but not limited to, the shift from printed codices to e-books). On top of the necessary spatial compression inherent in electronic storage, allowing us to store massive amounts of culture in tiny physical volumes, we no longer even necessarily need to store things ourselves: consider where your catalogues and e-books are physically located. Enclosing multiple forms of electronic media – not just static pictures, but sound, animation, complex real-time interactive systems, any new stimulus which might be expressed through as-yet-unseen output devices – within an e-book is also possible now. Finally, storing works in machine-readable form also obviously requires that we have access to technology to translate it into human-readable form; and this requirement, coupled with the speed of electronic transmission, has meant that “storage” is almost as much a referential process as it is a physical one (part of the reason for the amorphous metaphor of the “cloud”).
Libraries’ slowness to stake our claim in this transformation, while understandable (I am a codex-fetishist myself), has seen us largely surrendering the e-book field to the legally-obliged-to-be-unreasonably-greedy corporations lurking behind our natural allies, the publishers. As a result we have been locked out from lending some electronic materials entirely, by DRM seemingly designed to circumvent lending (and the right of first sale which is one of its foundations). The Douglas County Library (DCL) e-publishing initiative is a commendable and momentous first step, and I can only urge that more library staff explore the trails being blazed by DCL, and the many fascinating sidetracks branching off that trail.
So we are now beginning to explore how to employ new storage media in the fulfilment of our mission. I am arguing here that the shift to a networked, all-to-all distribution architecture also has implications for both the other core characteristics of a library. Both the process of sorting and indexing information and the process of sharing have been radically transformed by the rise of the network. However, libraries’ awareness of these changes has largely focused on the challenges they create for us; we have neglected to consider the ways in which, just as the network has boosted the supply of information by orders of magnitude through efficiencies in the creation and distribution processes, it can also create efficiencies and opportunities we can use to keep abreast of the flood and even offer our patrons new services.
If anything, it is even more imperative that we think seriously about these possibilities and work to realise any that prove worthy than it is to start doing e-books well, vital though that absolutely is. The transformation of storage has added some interesting technical possibilities to e-books, and capacity to link to reference material and translation notes allows the construction of new works around the originals, but it is ultimately the most trivial of the three shifts: the translator of the Oresteia makes more of a difference than whether it is read on a scroll, a page or a device. The same is not true of electronic catalogues as compared to card catalogues, nor of networked file sharing as opposed to printing, shipping and shelving codices.
Some questions that from exploring these possibilities arise include:
The nature of the topic is such that I can’t offer a concrete, comprehensive implementation process. Each library will prioritise different things from among the wide array of options that arise from applying the principle to their specific circumstances. What’s more, some possibilities only emerge from a large inter-library consensus. (Helping to build that consensus, and enable those possibilities, would certainly be a desirable outcome for this article. Note too that the consensus need only be large, not unanimous.)
Given that inability to describe exactly how these things might pan out in your particular library context, this article will focus on a big-picture analysis. Despite this, my ultimate focus is far from abstract and hypothetical. I see many logical consequences at a more practical level, tools and measures that arise from the changes outlined here. However, including those in this article takes it over 10,000 words, and in any case a static list of my own ideas is not exactly in keeping with the spirit of the article. Instead I have posted them in a shared document so that readers can not only see the practical ideas I have, they can expand upon them, and share their own.
So what are these big-picture shifts? Let’s look at them in the two areas we’ve identified: organising and sharing.
Organising information on the digital network
This is, of course, a colossal field of endeavour. Metadata schemata and standards are subjects for someone much more qualified than me.
But the challenge that has faced us since the first gloriously quixotic attempts to catalogue the internet is twofold. The first is coming up with a schema that is sufficiently flexible to allow adequate description of the tremendous and growing variety of material out there, both on the network itself, and made visible (and in some cases possible) by the network. I know enough to know a lot of amazing work has been done to achieve exactly this. The other is applying that necessarily subtle and complex framework to some portion of the torrents of new material created every day. The last estimate I heard – which was a couple of years ago now, and therefore too out-of-date to bother referencing – was that 3 days’ worth of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. And of course, that’s just one sharing site, and one with (if anything) slightly higher barriers to entry than many. So much is not worth our attention that it seems futile even assigning staff time to find the material that is.
This second part, having been created by the network, is the part that the network can help us solve.
For any individual library to take on a task like this is ludicrous. But there is no need to do this individually – we have networks now. We can share – and mutually filter and validate – the metadata we create.
What’s more, there is nothing saying that the initial process of filtering and even broad subject sorting need to be undertaken solely by library staff. We’ve always relied on external parties – previously, publishers – to make the initial selection pass on the worth of works. Why not involve the public? Authority is an issue, but we have ways around that – for instance, we have a pretty good idea who has read a lot on any given topic – and once this process has gone on for a while we will have even more information about the trustworthiness of people’s selections and the accuracy of their descriptions. And of course, the problem of managing authority (authorisation and privilege) is not new to networked environments.
This would be feasible even at the individual-library level, but the value of a tool like this scales exponentially as the pool of potential contributors increases – as does the perceived value, due to the network effect that makes such technology more useful the more people use it.1 Once we have a useful record, whether it came from library staff or library patrons is useful but not decisive metadata, and either way it can be shared like any other.
Seemingly impossible tasks have already been tackled in these ways. One online games company has recently crowdsourced translation, and even Google Translate is designed to allow its users to suggest improvements to its engine. However, perhaps the most striking example of this is the Guardian’s ingenious crowdsourcing of investigative journalism into MPs’ misreporting of expenses. In brief: a successful FOI request forced the UK government to reveal MPs’ expense claim forms to the press, so they released the data as individual image scans, a format that made individual documents human-readable, but incredibly difficult for automated processes to read and summarise. So the Guardian posted the archive online in a site which gave readers a chance to read and summarise one document at a time – including vetting documents already read – and most importantly, to see live updates on the progress of analysing the whole archive, with notable achievements and finds being shared with all participants.
More closely relevant to libraries, the National Library of Australia’s Trove digital newspaper archive is encouraging users to correct the OCR interpretation of the scanned text. And then, of course, there are collaborative cataloguing projects like WorldCat and, even more so in terms of the openness of its crowdsourcing, Open Library. But both of these, in different ways, are limiting themselves to legacy conceptions of what constitutes library content: WorldCat to items already discovered and collected by libraries, and Open Library to books. Those limitations serve a valid and valuable purpose for those particular projects, but if we are attempting to examine the full field of possibility, shedding both preconceptions will dramatically expand our horizons.
To be clear, I’m not claiming that libraries actually could collaborate to index the entire Internet – or even that this is desirable; the value of a project like this would be in up-to-date curation and showcasing of resources and opportunities. (And really, the same is true on a smaller scale of literature, especially since the rise of the e-book – to say nothing of things that blur boundaries, everything from professional electronic-only journals to fan-written alternative novels to commentaries by authors. How many libraries of record even attempt to keep copies of these things?) But, again, we need partners similar to the role publishers played, people to filter through the available offerings and perform basic selection, sorting, initial tagging and then record maintenance. Search engines are fine, but not without their problems, and leaving the business of helping our patrons navigate the internet entirely to search engines is like leaving the navigation of literature to Amazon: they definitely play a positive role, but libraries’ commitment to the big picture regardless of profit means that we seek to add value that can never be a priority for them. Further, a well-designed inter-library system would also help individual libraries to discover and curate content specifically for their local community, through (for instance) peer recommendations between similar services and similar users, as well as supply a general selection of the best online resources.
This may seem like an impossible task – but in fact both the tools for this sort of co-ordination, and the public understanding that such activity is possible and potentially valuable, already exist. Even if some reworking of both is required, we already have a head start on making it happen.
Sharing on the digital network
Sharing, of course, has quietly become one of the major economic and political issues of our time. Though it rarely makes mainstream news, corporations have gone to incredible lengths at national and international levels to protect their projected (by them) profits, demanding and enacting extraordinary infringements of human rights: the rights to privacy, control of privately-owned property, access to information, legal review, freedom of speech and more are all being sidelined in the fundamentally futile attempt to prevent unauthorised copying over a network of computers.2
Libraries should have been present at every stage of that conversation, since facilitating sharing with the public while protecting and promoting creators is a balance we have been juggling for over a century. Furthermore, I can think of no other major social institution which is nominally outside the political sphere3 which even attempts to balance the sharing of culture and information – both of which are created to be shared – against the rights of creators, around which a great many large and powerful commercial institutions have formed.
Those institutions, the publishers and their successors in the newer media (movie studios, music and game publishers, etc), were initially formed and run by people who valued the cultural work that they enabled, and who explicitly risked financial failure in order to bring works that seemed important to the public eye. Now, however, while it’s still the case that many such individual people are indubitably in publishing more for love than for money, a cursory look at the shifts in ownership, legal structure, reporting systems and activity among the big publishing companies in all media makes it clear that profit has become the primary objective, rather than simply a prudent requirement for sustainable operation. This is nowhere more evident than in the way the publishers and their representatives have framed the conversation (or perhaps the phrase is “prosecuted the argument”) around sharing.
The assumption heavily pushed by corporate representatives is that every person who accesses a work for free is a lost sale; their sweeping statements about lost profits (often in the same period as historic amounts of profit are actually being made) depend on the assumption that every unauthorised copy made is money that the user of the unauthorised copy would absolutely have spent buying the work otherwise. That’s somewhat understandable from a corporate perspective, but libraries have always known that sharing doesn’t quite work like that.
Further, framing the debate in these highly adversarial terms – particularly, using the language of “piracy” indiscriminately to describe individuals sharing content on a non-profit basis and the industrial-scale unauthorised commercial copying that saw creators left in penury while others got rich from their work4 – has ignored the fact that most people instinctively understand that engaging with a creator’s work means entering into a relationship with them, and that like any relationship, mutual benefit is key.
The problem of creators not having their rights in their creations recognised – and more pragmatically, not being rewarded for creating, and not being able to recruit collaborators on the expectation of having such rewards to share – would of course be a profoundly serious one. But in fact, sharing a creative work earns it, and its creator, exposure and builds their audience – the most important thing from an artistic point of view. Once you have an audience’s attention, the basic logic of “we can’t make these works without the work-hours and resources5 to do so” is self-evident, and while some people are indubitably shortsighted and greedy, fan culture also shows that the public will invest tremendous energy, time and money in supporting and promoting the works they love. What’s more, I believe that libraries can and should play a significant role in encouraging the community to support the creators of works they value. So I’m not convinced that the collapse of the creative sectors is an inevitable result of unrestricted, unsurveilled copying; the existing business models may fail, but that does not mean all models will, nor that works published under the older business models can’t be brought into more open ones. (Either way, it’s entirely another question whether creating a one-sided, unaccountable power structure and putting its controls largely in the hands of the existing hierarchies is a proportional response to that potential problem.)
Meanwhile, other voices are seeking to be heard over the inflamed rhetoric of the “anti-piracy” vs “free the information” argument: new possibilities are enabled by precisely that dramatic reduction in the overhead of publishing a work in the networked age. And some of those voices are in the communities libraries serve.
Which is where the two-way library comes in.
Two-way libraries (no, not Library 2.0)
Some years back, at least here in Australia, there was a lot of buzz around the phrase “Library 2.0”. This consisted of libraries extending their outreach efforts onto Web 2.0 social media, such as Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and similar services. The courses of that name were fantastic, and more generally these efforts were laudable in that they helped people engage with libraries and use our services more effectively.6
This makes sense. As we’ve established, one key feature of the network is that it requires the ability to transmit information both ways. Unlike broadcast media, which unilaterally decide what to distribute based on their own priorities and information gained through other channels, the network allows a much more reciprocal – and potentially even mutual – relationship. It is not an accident that among the first user interfaces created for the proto-internet were precisely user interfaces, tools for users to interface with other users. Bulletin boards, forums, chat rooms, MUDs: all these predate the modern web we see in our browsers today, which if anything tended to be a slightly retrograde step in terms of interactivity, redeemed only by how easy it was for new users to navigate others’ hypertext and to add their own. And even in the last decade, some of the most innovative tech has been directly peer-to-peer. (“Web 2.0” is indirect, or mediated, peer-to-peer communication.)
Libraries, meanwhile, have largely operated on a one-way model: we acquire our collections from the outside world, usually from the big “broadcast” mass-publishers, and make them available for our communities. Setting aside the past economic realities that have mandated this until relatively recently, there is, of course, tremendous value in this approach: unless a library service serves over half the population of the world, chances are that there will be more of interest coming from outside its community than inside it; and regardless, one of the roles of any good library service is precisely to help its community see beyond its own horizons.
This basic model has continued to this day, making the term “Library 2.0” somewhat misleading. The defining characteristic of “web 2.0” sites is that the operators of the sites don’t create the content that brings people there. Rather, they act as facilitators, providing a framework that others fill. Facebook, ebay, WordPress – none of these sites produce very much that is directly meaningful themselves, except to talk about their own operations. The interest of these sites lies entirely in the content produced by their users. The closest equivalent before the rise of the internet would be the letters page and classified ads of the old print media, but even those are an imprecise analogy, given the lag between submission and publication, and the necessity to exclude the vast majority of submissions purely on the basis of space constraints. (The closest library equivalent would be the old community noticeboards… but it’s striking how few libraries have implemented even an electronic equivalent of this basic functionality, let alone anything with the additional structure and utility afforded by electronic media.)
However, another long-running thread in libraries’ work has worked in counterpoint to that trend: the local history services often delivered by libraries see libraries collecting and curating material produced by the local community. Usually this takes the form of masses of official documentation, and again, this is for good reason: the records are important, they are sourced from institutions that already have relationships with libraries, and there is often nobody else who cares enough to keep them.
Increasingly, though, libraries are beginning to recognise that they can actually provide tremendous value to their community by acting as an institution of record not only for historical (especially official) material, but for the life of the community as a whole and as it happens.
To put it another way: we can be libraries of our communities as well as libraries for our communities. We can act as gateways not only for our communities to access material published in and gathered from the wider world, but for the local community – and its individual members – to publish itself to the wider world, including to itself, by providing spaces, tools and communities (particularly including knowledgeable staff) that support these things, allowing our patrons to use the library both as a space to create new works and a channel through which to share them.
In a world where the opportunities lie in the ability not only to learn, but to create novel ideas and works from that learning and get them out to find their audience, this is only going to become more important. It’s deeply heartening to see the focus on these possibilities from groups like Beyond Access and especially Librii.7
But even this idea is limited by historical preconceptions: the library mediates between creator and audience, and content is assumed to be a finished work rather than a more ephemeral opportunity to engage with culture. Some, possibly much, of what our patrons can offer each other and the wider world might be time-limited – or might be works other people have created which the patron for whatever reason is willing to share for free.
To properly consider these questions in full, we need to think in fully networked terms: each part of the network may be a source, a destination, or a mediator.
Libraries on the digital network
How can this translate to libraries? Let’s consider.
If the mission of the library is to gather and make accessible information, culture, and opportunities to access both those things, and to do so with an eye to quality, at first it doesn’t seem like there is much room for this sort of approach. Even before the internet, there was far more being produced than libraries could reasonably store and include, and as we’ve seen, output has only increased.
But that ignores the fact that much of what we can now offer comes with no need for us to store anything other than the metadata of where to get it, and a great deal of material can now be stored in purely electronic form, creating at most a requirement for a little hard disk space and network bandwidth, something that is generally within our ability to organise (since we have to have those things anyway). We are largely neglecting the tremendous opportunities for our patrons created by new publishing models such as Creative Commons, donationware, and a great many other innovations.
Libraries have begun to include links to the Project Gutenberg e-books in our catalogues… but what of the vast number of other creative works which are similarly available free of charge to our patrons? Do we have policies for what constitutes “free” – freeware, donationware, some or all of the many models of shareware, other? Do we insist on free as a condition for inclusion on our catalogue? Cost aside, what of the many self-published e-book (and other e-artform) creators whose creations may well be worthy of inclusion in our libraries?
What of archiving? Although the default assumption is that only a reference location would be stored for most online works, individual works published in electronic form under a suitable license and of particular relevance to the library’s community, including whole sites if they were relatively static, could be archived on a library’s server to avoid the danger of link rot. Even where the work is commercially published, of course, we could still potentially negotiate mirroring rights.
Similarly, what role should libraries play in the crowdfunding economy, where publishing platforms allow the audience of creative works to directly underwrite the creation of new works – and even, at the creator’s discretion, influence its development? Should we be looking at having a crowdfunding component to our collections budget – and policies on what kinds of projects draw our support?
Few libraries have even raised the questions – and that’s understandable. As we’ve seen, library spaces and systems were built around storage and circulation of physical items, and it was similarly built into our acquisition processes to rely on publishers to be a first filter of quality: all, or almost all, books had to go through them in order to see publication, and we rarely had access to the works they rejected (and those we did see were still heavily reduced in number by the cost and difficulty of self-publishing in a pre-internet era).
But neither of those is necessarily the case any longer. So on the one hand we have more options than ever to sift through, and on the other we have filters whose priorities are becoming a little too focused on the short-term and which moreover intrinsically exclude a great deal of valid work. What’s a library to do?
Well, why not recognise that for all of our considerable expertise in sharing and making things accessible, the wider group [our patrons + our staff] collectively knows more than any limited staff body possibly can? That they can help us filter, and gather, and even organise, those opportunities for access to culture and information?
Why not turn to the same crowd that made all this stuff, and is reading it all?
We’ve already begun to do this for what is in many ways a core librarian activity: reviews and recommendation. As we’ve seen, availability is less the issue now than navigability; librarians’ key skill is supposed to be sorting the wheat from the chaff. Yet most library catalogues now include public ratings and reviews, if not more active forms of recommendation. Admittedly at that point the public is commenting on works that have already passed one selection process, but are we seriously arguing that our filters exclude all chaff – or should even attempt to do so?
So where could we go from public reviews and ratings?
Let’s return to first principles. The object of the library is to gather, organise, and share relevant cultural works and information – or rather opportunities to access these, since we have already established that we are willing to direct our patrons to use third-party providers. What other opportunities might exist if we start to think of our patrons and our communities as sources and mediators, as well as users, of our sharing services?
I have several practical suggestions, which as I mentioned before are posted in a separate document which is open for you to edit here (a reference copy of the original, only open for commenting, is available here). Here is a quick summary of the topics discussed therein:
Proposals for public contributions to library work
Sharing spare copies of previously catalogued works
Sharing performances of, or related to, catalogued works
Sharing opportunities to connect and play
Creating community (with suggestions for particular tools)
Updating or clarifying catalogue records
Identifying online resources and communities
Sharing user-created works
Assisting users to publish their works
Pledgebanking for ticketing events
Problems and obstacles
Opportunities and benefits
Community engagement with the library
More responsive collections and programs
Modelling inclusion and breaking down the notion of authority-as-barrier
Higher standards of online publishing
Yet further evidence of libraries being indispensable
More opportunities for our communities
These are of course just headings, and if any of them excite you – or for that matter give you the horrors – I invite you to click through and see whether the discussion makes sense of the idea.
But before I conclude, let me stress what I am not doing in these ideas.
I am not advocating giving library users an unrestricted, unmoderated ability to do as they choose with the catalogue and collections of the library. The imagination shudders at what the destructive few would do. Qualified staff familiar with library policy and standards, and equipped with modern community management tools that allow us to observe and manage community contributions in bulk, would be a necessary part of this work. In fact, I believe libraries’ distinct blend of egalitarianism, inclusion and excellence could even make a significant contribution to the tools, techniques and assumptions available to the rest of the community-management world, and that the global public would be better for us doing so.
Nor am I saying that library staff should abandon their role as the primary collectors and curators of culture and information for the community, merely that we consider ourselves first among equals rather than the one and only, and part of the community’s own efforts rather than a sort of special silo. Of course, libraries are special – extraordinary, in fact. But we are better the more that value is accessible to our communities.
Lastly, I am not suggesting that library staff abdicate their role as custodians of the processes by which the library’s collection and curation occur. Sharing well is harder than most people imagine, and training and professional discipline will be more important, not less, in the environment these tools create. Library staff may be bringing some new approaches to the work we do, but we will be every bit as necessary to doing it, if not more so.
What I’m offering here is an idea before anything else: that our communities can be active partners in just about every part of our work of collecting, organising, and sharing culture and information.
I hope that I have argued the case that this is not only possible but desirable, and even necessary and inevitable to some degree, if libraries are not to cede the business of organising and sharing culture to entities that do not share our fundamental values. If you are sceptical, I would ask that you consider the actual practical possibilities I have outlined in the accompanying shared document before deciding that this paper’s proposals are meritless. You may be surprised by some of the ways in which these shifts in assumptions play out to our patrons’ benefit.
I very much look forward to hearing what this has sparked for others – hopefully it’s not too much hysterical laughter or devastatingly pragmatic rebuttal! But either way, I’ll have entertained if nothing else.
I suspect there’ll be mileage in these ideas for at least some readers, and I look forward to seeing where you go with it.
Thanks and acknowledgments
An early version of this paper (focusing more on the practical side) was first written in 2008 while I was working at Port Phillip Library Service, in Melbourne, Australia. Kenneth Harris, my manager there, who supported me then and has remained a good friend, was a reader on the first draft of this extended version. He was joined in this by Erica Findley of Pacific University, Oregon, and Jamie LaRue of Douglas County Libraries, Colorado, both of whom are involved in blazing some of the trails outlined here. To all three of you: I am very much obliged, for the improvements you suggested to the paper and for the encouragement and interest you offered, and I hope the many changes since that version haven’t given you reason to change your mind.
Hugh Rundle, also a Melbourne resident as well as member of the ITLWTLP editorial board, commissioned the article after seeing a presentation on libraries, community and technology during which I touched on these ideas. His good-humoured editorial advice has been much appreciated, as has his understanding of why the blasted thing has been so hard to cut into something a little less unwieldy than it was: thanks, Hugh, and I hope you’re happy with how it came out.
It goes without saying that all these people deserve credit for the article being better than it could have been, while all blame for all remaining faults rests squarely with me. Hopefully I’m right, or at least interesting, often enough to make it worthwhile.
Finally, Alison Katona of Geelong Regional Library Corporation and David Dewane of Librii both attempted to read and comment on the article, though both ran out of time. My gratitude to them both nonetheless.
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