Await no further word or sign from me: your will is free, erect, and whole-to act against that will would be to err: therefore I crown and miter you over yourself. – Purgatorio XXVII
I have always been a librarian, although of rudimentary academic chops. For as long as I can remember friends and family have come to me for resources and answers, as well as guidance on how to navigate the world of information. It was from young age that I became obsessed with knowledge and it’s presentation in the world. Nothing would brighten my spirits more than watching some elderly British chap from a deadpan documentary roll out ancient scrolls and talk of a world which is now in dust. Weaving a portrait of the past, a world of mystery and virtue, those historians, classicists and archivists planted in my mind a seed which would soon germinate as a passion for research, knowledge and special collections. I was also introduced to technology at a young age and was posting on bulletin board systems and Usenet by the time I was five. Technology, as an expressive vessel of knowledge, became natural to me as limbs, and a conduit by which I learned to investigate the world of information which I now master in my greater years.
But it was not always so that I found myself in library school, nor did I until relatively recently choose this path. My earliest experiences with education left me with a feeling of frustrated malaise: often the teachers did not appear to know as much as I did, and they were often unable to answer my inquiries. While I grew up I became a prolific investigator of information and used digital systems, from times before the advent of the Internet, to share and study. This fanatical thirst for knowledge eventually translated into an autodidactic disciplined life, austere, modest and in quest of truth. Accordingly I became discontented with my early education experiences: I knew of a case of the world which did not reflect what was being taught in textbooks, and became interested in educational methodology and the prospect of becoming a teacher to reverse the incomplete and false I observed being taught to young minds.
I began my undergraduate studies in education, but upon observing and student teaching I found that there existed a system in the public schools which demanded conformity and uniformity of subject coverage, and an ocean of red tape and corruption which appeared insurmountable. Accordingly I changed my focus of study to history, returning to my love of the ancient, and I became a specialist in Hellenistic history and the philosophy of Stoicism in particular. Though upon graduation, with no teaching credentials or intention of teaching in the public schools, I though of a means by which I could involve myself with education while simultaneously furthering the scholarship of the special collections I had developed a passion for. Librarian seemed natural, and so I found my way to SLIS. What drew me to the school was it’s cutting edge technologies and an emphasis on digital technologies. By the time I began my coursework at SLIS I was already a bit of a Wikimedia advocate and hacker who believed in the complete destruction of information silos, proliferation of all information, radical decentralization of authority and Web 2.0 pillars. SLIS only seemed natural, anything less technologically savvy would probably bore me too easily.
Virgil in the Darkness
This is the mindset I entered SLIS with, and that which I leave it, although it is now well developed, savvy to the academic theory and buttressed by a wealth of internship experience. For me the essential nature of a librarian is the Virgil of Dante’s Divine Comedy. We are expert guides and teachers to navigating a world of mysterious darkness. The world of darkness which we skillfully and deliberately navigate is the new domain of the Internet age. Because as the Internet is theoretically a tool for good, the new generation is too prone to misuse it, and unlike the computer nerds like myself who were privy to watching it evolve and expand, the young and elderly today are lost in it. Yes, the young can very quickly text message each other, and seem to use devices of complexity with ease, but they do so unskillfully; they operate with a working rather than technical understanding of their toil with no real awareness of the rare resources being consumed or the impermanence of the mass of information they store.
The librarian’s task in this age is as guide to this world of unstable media, digital divide, information saturation and “losses in abundance.” A technical understanding of media and the fundamental nature of digital information is the chief proficiency of any contemporary librarian and it frightens me that so few of my peers are unaware of the lifespan of digital or optical media, or that the majority of their personal files, if left unattended, will become corrupt within a decade. This is a major fact which should be on the mind of every librarian.
Unlike our forefathers, who were more or less laborers, the contemporary librarian is an engineer, creator and manager of complex digital systems. This is not to suggest that the contemporary librarian is immune to labor, for he is more overworked than ever before, but what I mean to say is that the librarian should be envisioning smart solutions to the challenges of the day rather than attempting to confront them by hand. And it is not enough to rely on the IT department, they are not librarians, and their understanding of metadata, theory of information and user model is limited. What is true is that the most skillful librarian’s work is outweighed a thousand times over by volunteers on the Internet. One need look no further than Wikipedia to observe a flourishing decentralized system.
The librarian cannot compare to the workload of volunteers, and so should not attempt to else he embodies Sisyphus. The librarian will not win that battle. Instead the librarian should be the one guiding the creation of the systems which facilitate collaborative, decentralized work. The librarian spends his time most effectively as the facilitator of great digital projects, the administrator and the theorist rather than attempt to confront a problem with outmoded, labor-intensive techniques. The librarian’s value in the contemporary age is as a theorist, visionary and architect of greater systems; those who have failed to study the technologies which now dominate the information retrieval experiences of today’s patron do themselves and the profession a disservice.
And on this note Wikipedia must be mentioned. While academics cringe when the word is mentioned and often spout the perpetual fallacy that the service is not rightfully academic because “anyone can write anything” they lose their patrons to it. And why not? Wikipedia, and other free Web 2.0 services such as Google and Flickr, are superior information retrieval systems when compared to our library systems. Not only do they find information in a much more precise and heuristic manner, but they also involve the user in the creation of content. Content which is, at least in the case of Wikipedia, comparable to expensive, privileged, supposedly more rigorous academic equivalents. I have spent a great deal of my coursework as you shall see in contemplating my competencies, debunking the fallacy that Wikipedia is untrustworthy and represents a danger to library science or academia. On the contrary, librarians must be willing to operate by the Web 2.0 pillars which power information systems such as Wikipedia, else we will lose our patrons. These pillars have been succinctly defined by K. A. Coombs (2007) and are central to my professional philosophy:
- Radical Decentralization
- Small Pieces Loosely Joined
- Perpetual Beta
- Remixable Content
- User as Contributor
- Rich User Experience
Rapid decentralization is recommended to enable library staff to seamlessly update, expand upon and personalize the library’s web presence. While Web 1.0 models typically involve a highly centralized and static data structure, hindering frequent updates due to stiffness of use, Coombs recommends a Wiki-style content management system in which staffers are able to collaboratively edit website content. Accorded to the shift in technology is also a change in doctrine and command and control: while changes to Web 1.0 websites typically have to be confirmed by an administrator, Coombs argues that this responsibility should be delegated to library staff.
Secondly, Coombs argues that the inflexible designs with their inherent tendency to “silo” data should be deconstructed and converted to a series of “small pieces loosely joined.” In practice this implies redistribution of data to interactive blogs, wikis and content management systems. The functionality of Web 2.0 services can be achieved with little expense due to the prevalent availability of open source software such as Mediawiki for wikis and MovableType for weblogs. Content management systems should be designed to be modular, offering distinct modules for different content types. This result of this latter design feature “is that content is reusable throughout the site.” Modular data can also be recombined and transfigured to aid in the formation and work of collaborative projects. This methodology allows for new module classes to be added without having to change the underlying foundation of the website, enabling long term viability and expansion.
Coombs thirdly argues for the benefits of the perpetual beta. This notion “embraces change and creates an environment where systems are deployed early so that iterative and constant improvements can be made.” An important component of this design decision is to survey the end-user population to determine which additional systems to develop as well as making them a part of the development process. Feedback from the users is critical as it allows constant improvements to the digital services being offered.
Remixable content speaks to the ability of data to be reused in other applications. Essentially this involves offering an API (application programming interface) to users so that they can use the underlying technologies behind the library’s portal to support affiliated projects elsewhere. Coombs makes special note of how useful this can be across university systems, in which a perpetually updated API can be used as a foundation for department websites, database systems and data aggregation. The importance of remixable content speaks to the need of Web 2.0 developers to collaborate with other developers and with the end-user to ensure a rich user experience.
Coombs argues that another important Web 2.0 pillar applicable to Library 2.0 is the notion of user as contributor. The author performed an anecdotal survey, concluding that library staff members tended to feel that their websites needed to be more engaging and useful to the end-user. One way in which this can be affected is to “[provide] them with a space where they can create content and give feedback.” The author contends that most library websites do not provide this service to users. For the case of the particular library website which Coombs was active in redesigning (University of Houston) wikis were implemented for library instruction classes, a medium in which users are able to create and maintain content alongside librarians. Websites could be designed so that users could tag, review and catalog the collections. The author also expresses that users could contribute to site content itself, although special attention must be paid to the technical implementation of such a process so that security and integrity is upheld. Faculty archive repositories can be designed to provide a space where research materials can be contributed so that collaborative projects will take root organically.
Lastly Coombs stresses the importance of ensuring a rich user experience. Allowing users to contribute content and exposing them to an extensive variety of content are two ways to accomplish this. In addition interactive multimedia can be offered including podcasts and streaming video. Instant messaging and chat reference can be added to the website to offer additional ways in which the end-user can interact with librarians. Customized content can be offered through “subject-oriented portals,” without the risk of breaching user transaction confidentiality.
All of these methods are ways in which libraries can update their web presence in order to avoid losing their users to the Web 2.0 alternatives, most prominent of which is Wikipedia. If we librarians are able to adopt the technologies of the now while wielding the wisdom and expertise of the past, and open our structures up to the end-user rather than remain rigid and centralized in exclusion, we may flourish.
Virtues of the Librarian
While I believe the Web 2.0 pillars should guide the basic duties of a librarian in this contemporary age, insofar as they serve as a philosophy of technology, user accessibility standards and a method to temper the digital information world, they do not provide a fundamental vocational philosophy. For that some refer to the American Library Association’s code of ethics, but I have never been one to live by the writ or words of others. While acknowledging the professional code of ethics as necessary, one may not flourish in a vocation (That is to say: calling of life) without a deeper, more fundamental, value-based set of virtues to operate by. I perceive the virtues of the librarian and of the information scientist to be:
- Wisdom: The librarian lives by the rigors of evidence and research and has a duty to redress superstitious or unreasonable assumptions about knowledge and the case.
- Freedom: Information should be free for educational or personal purposes, and the librarian has a duty to free it wherever possible. Human beings should have a means and the support to express themselves creatively.
- Courage: The librarian is an advocate for minorities and those who lack the skills or resources to access information or express themselves. The librarian does not cater to or tolerate corporate interventions into unadulterated knowledge. The librarian directly and without apology opposes or ignores laws and actions which restrict intellectual freedom.
- Service: The librarian is a servant of the greater community and a popular educator. The librarian nurtures the cosmopolis and considers all human beings to be part of a global community and that information is indifferent to creed or race. The librarian fosters empathy and carefully listens to the plight of his patrons.
- Faithfulness: The librarian does not use his position or resources to his own benefit, divert institutional resources to enrich himself or partake in activities which are of a morally dubious nature. The librarian is a role model for and a teacher of the young.
- Knowledge: The librarian is a perpetual student who continues to study the world, trends of circumstance, history, society and his craft in order to manufacture systems which properly process information. The librarian has an awareness of the relationship, structure and content of all that is known, at least in an approximate sense. The librarian understands the transitory nature of matter, of media and the destructive effect of time.
The Old, New Again
With this understanding of librarianship I return to the passion of my childhood: the old things. As I chose to pursue historical archives and special collections as my specialty in the library field, I come to it with the aforementioned values and philosophy. An appreciation of the Web 2.0 pillars, my undergraduate studies in history and my application of the virtues of librarianship syncretize in the archival science. For in archives combine cutting edge digital technology, an appreciation for ancient things and a character of discipline, service and dutifulness. My professional goals in this area include:
- Securing a career in which I preserve, manage and document special collections to the best of my ability.
- Produce scholarship and freely share research findings with allied institutions and the Creative Commons.
- Engage in classical studies or history work.
- Provide effective and timely access to all collections.
- Serve as a popular educator in classics and ancient history collections.
It in this area that I will primarily “contribute to the cultural, economic, educational and social well-being of our communities,” as I will be a guardian, preserver and popular educator of cultural heritage. In this sense my goals and the ways in which I will contribute back to society are married: to have goals which do not benefit the greater good is not in my character. In my personal life and internship work I have already pursued this path. With the former I have provided free information resources to the public via my personal website and YouTube account for nearly a decade, while with the latter I have meticulously developed collections for ESL students, helped contribute to well functioning reference systems, the finding databases of Stanford’s archives and started to create a special repository for Yuba College.
Throughout this portfolio you will observe evidence of my application of:
- Applying Web 2.0 pillars, digital divide, and obsolescence theory.
- Applying the aforementioned virtues and philosophy of librarianship.
- The primacy of archives, special collections and matters pertaining to storage, media evaluation and preservation.
Conway, Paul. “Preservation in the Digital World.” The Commission on Preservation and Access Newsletter Number 88 (1996).
Coombs, K. A. (2007). Building a Library Web Site on the Pillars of Web 2.0. Computers in Libraries, 1 (27). Retrieved from http://infotoday.com/cilmag/jan07/Coombs.shtml
Hedstrom, Margaret. “Digital Preservation: A Time Bomb for Digital Libraries,” Computers and the Humanities Volume 31, Number 3 (1997): 189-202.
Krause, C. (2009). The Web 2.0 Paradigm: Impacts on Library Science Methodology and Professionalism.
Note: A portion “Virgil in the Darkness” has been directly copied from this work.
Miller, P. (2005). Web 2.0: Building the New Library. Ariadne, 45. Retrieved from http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue45/miller/
O’Reilly, T. (2007). What is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software. Communications & Strategies, 1, p.17. Retrieved from http://ssrn.com/abstract=1008839
Rothenberg, Jeff. “Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Documents.” Scientific American Volume 272 Number 1 (1995): 42-47.
Saini, A. (2008, May 14). Solving the web’s image problem. BBC News. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7395751.stm
Sanger, L.M. (2009). The Fate of Expertise after WIKIPEDIA. Episteme, 6 (1). Retrieved from http://www.eupjournals.com/doi/abs/10.3366/E1742360008000543
Zimmer, M. (2008). Critical Perspectives on Web 2.0. First Monday, 13 (3). Retrieved from http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/issue/view/263/showToc