If Second Life is the answer, what was the question?

28 February 2008

The Library 2.0 proponents believe that we should meet our users in whatever spaces they choose to inhabit. As you know, I only partially agree with that notion at the best of times.

But what about when that space is a notorious haven for violence, perversion, pornography and criminal activity?

Australia’s greatest exponent of Second Life in libraries is without a doubt Kathryn Greenhill, Emerging Technologies Specialist at Murdoch University Library, also known by the alias Emerald Dumont. Task 22 of the 23 Things program salutes her passion for virtual worlds by asking us to investigate Second Life and how libraries are using it.

There are a number of influential library bloggers who push for libraries’ involvement in ‘gaming’, not for play but for learning. I’ll be posting on the Swinburne Library Blog in the near future (so stay tuned!) about how Swinburne internet architecture researchers use gaming technologies to measure our CPU usage. But how many true ‘gamers’ amongst our library user population would be involved in gaming for the sake of learning? Call me old-fashioned, but I imagine most of them just want to escape from the realities of work and study life and be entertained. And that’s perfectly fine.

I love the idea that new technologies can help libraries reach users whose access has previously been limited by distance, time and/or disability. Peter Lor’s inspiring plenary at VALA2008 (PDF) pushed us to think of our libraries as politicised spaces. It’s an angle I’ve always been reluctant to accept, as I believe that our role is to provide an information service with as few barriers as possible, not to push a political agenda. Yet arguably, our anti-censorship, pro-freedom stance already places us in direct opposition to any form of government, no matter how (purportedly) democratic.

The notion of librarian as anarchist is so divorced from the popular culture concept of conservative, tweed-and-pearl-wearing shushers to be laughable. Yet anarchy actually much closer to the reality than the stereotype will ever be. Underneath the calm exterior, we librarians like to stir the pot.

IFLA (in the person of Peter Lor) encourages us to bring our politics to work with us. Lor argues that we need to become skilled manipulators of the information economy to ensure that no-one is excluded or left behind. To that end, Africa-specific table of contents service Africa Journals Online has been created to help journals published in the developing world gain international exposure. Similar projects in Nepal, Vietnam and Bangladesh are also underway. Contributions to the PKP support forums indicate that the development of free, open source journal hosting software allows academics from developing countries to disseminate their research both in local and worldwide spheres, free from the usual barriers of cost, distance, language, and cultural imperialist prejudice.

I’d love to think that we could use Second Life in similar ways, but it’s an unrealistic goal. Firstly, there’s a technology barrier that for the moment remains insurmountable. Dana notes that the technical specifications for Second Life require better-than-average graphics cards and fast internet connections — beyond the capabilities of most middle-class Australian households, let alone the unreliable PC access available to users in developing countries. This barrier may go some of the way towards explaining the remarkably low Second Life adoption rates in Australia (again, thanks to Dana for an excellent interpretation of the stats). On the basis of these statistics, librarians’ usual argument for participating actively in Second Life — because our users are there — is at best misguided.

Secondly, while there are no humans in Second Life — only an endless parade of impossibly beautiful avatars — it is nonetheless run by humans, and sadly we seem as incapable of creating a socialist utopia in virtual space as we are on earth. Virtual worlds have sparked considerable media and legal controversy over cases of virtual rape and paedophilia.

If we’re going to coax people out of their comfort zones and into new and exciting places, we need to be sure that they’ll be safe. With the lack of control in Second Life — which is admittedly its defining characteristic and perhaps its greatest benefit in an entertainment context — we can’t make any such promises.

Thus, I’m inclined to disagree with ‘Priceless‘ that Swinburne Library will eventually need to inhabit Second Life, because I’m (thankfully) not the only one in vehement opposition. I support those of my colleagues who think it would be more beneficial to master the real world libraries first, before trying to expand into virtual ones.

I’m afraid that for me, A Librarian’s Guide to Etiquette has the final word on this:

‘Librarians should think twice before joining Second Life in an attempt to connect with patrons. Your patrons don’t want to be friends with you in real life, so it’s not likely that they’ll be interested in hanging out with your avatar.’

Further links:

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Library 2.0, or why I’m not running off to join the cult just yet

26 February 2008

I’ve been particularly interested in reading everyone’s posts on Library 2.0. Like any radical movement, Library 2.0 has its sceptics and its fanatics. There is a very lively Ning community, a large bibliography on the subject by librarians who can’t get enough of it, and there’s absolutely no chance you’ll attend a library conference this year without having to sit through at least one cringeworthy session on Library 2.0 and the mission to make libraries cool.

Yet the question remains: how radical is Library 2.0 really?

Let’s start with definitions. A quick review of the literature suggests that the boundaries are very broad, and very poorly defined.

Back in December 2005, Sarah Houghton-Jan had this cheerful opinion:

‘Library 2.0 simply means making your library’s space (virtual and physical) more interactive, collaborative, and driven by community needs …  The basic drive is to get people back into the library by making the library relevant to what they want and need in their daily lives … to make the library a destination and not an afterthought.’

But by January 2006, she was starting to sound a bit jaded:

‘Perhaps Library 2.0 is just one of many perpetual regularly scheduled library-world wake up calls to re-focus on the users and what they want.’

The same year, Meredith Farkas declared herself a 2.0 sceptic:

‘Library 2.0 and Web 2.0 don’t exist. Web 2.0 is hype. Library 2.0 is just a bunch of very good ideas that have been squished into a box with a trendy label slapped on it.’

This remark put her at loggerheads with the fanatics, or ‘twopointopians‘, as the Annoyed Librarian pointedly describes them. There is a tendency for discussions on Library 2.0 to become very heated; whether or not ‘twopointopians’ are the ‘earnest, humorless librarians’ the Annoyed Librarian suggests, they nevertheless condemn anyone who doesn’t agree with their perspective as out of touch, afraid of change, and worse still — professionally negligent.

I don’t consider this a valid description of Meredith Farkas, who has (quite literally) written the book on social software in libraries. She is hardly averse to change, or to the role that technology might play in the libraries of the future. She recognises that many libraries have fallen behind:

‘There are plenty of libraries that never do surveys and that never ask their patrons what they think or if they’re happy. Some people have been teaching the same things in their information literacy classes for years, in spite of the fact that students aren’t using the same tools to do their research anymore.’

Michael Stephens’ popular library blog Tame the Web sits squarely at the other end of the spectrum — in the pro-Library 2.0 camp. Stephens looks at how several pro-Library 2.0 writers define the concept, and compares their assumptions with Wikipedia’s definition of Library 2.0. From the snapshot of the Wikipedia entry Stephens provides, we could just as easily be reading about Web 2.0, since the definitions are almost identical:

  • Beta is forever
  • A disruptive idea
  • Harness the long tail

What Meredith Farkas and other sceptics recognise, but the Library 2.0 champions don’t see, is that one of the biggest stumbling blocks for Library 2.0 is just that — the fuzzy term. An increasing number of library bloggers are beginning to repudiate the title ‘Library 2.0’ because they feel it has been hijacked, or ‘co-opted‘, by overzealous librarians and vendors:

‘the term Library 2.0 has been co-opted by a growing group of libraries, librarians, and particularly vendors to push an agenda of “change” that deflects attention from some very real issues and concerns without really changing anything … We’re blindly casting about for a panacea and it’s making us look like fools.’ (blyberg.net)

I would argue that the tag ‘2.0’ has always been meaningless rhetoric, no matter to which subject it is applied. Tim Berners-Lee, the originator of the Web, loathes the term Web 2.0, describing it as ‘a piece of jargon‘ so meaningless that ‘nobody even knows what it means‘. He argues that if Web 2.0 means user-generated content like blogs and wikis, then it still means ‘people to people‘, which is ‘what the Web was supposed to be all along‘.

People are sick of 2.0. Wikipedia earmarked the article on Library 2.0 for deletion in late 2006, claiming it was a neologism without substance. The entry was only saved by aggressive lobbying on the part of heavyweights like Jessamyn West, David Lee King, Karen G. Schneider, Bill Drew, Walt Crawford and the term’s originator, Michael Casey.

When we’re discussing a push towards involving users in decisions about the future of their own libraries, applying version numbers to successive waves of theory is patently ridiculous. It places an uneven focus on technology, which already sits on a pedestal in the eyes of twopointopians. Novelties such as gaming and social networking software can’t solve the crisis in the relationship between library and user. While we can’t hope to provide better services to our users without better technology, it is only the means to the end, and not the end itself.

Amanda at Data Obsessed believes that:

‘the important part of it [Library 2.0] is not the shiny technologies but the intention behind their implementation … those intentions are classic ones — perhaps those provided by Ranganathan.’

If you’re a librarian, it’s likely you’ve heard of Ranganathan, the early 20th century Indian librarian who wrote the seminal text Five laws of library science.

His laws are simple:

  1. Books are for use (so every library user should be able to access them)
  2. Every reader his or her book (every library should cater to a wide range of books for a wide range of users)
  3. Every book its reader (even the most unusual book in the collection will find a reader)
  4. Save the time of the reader (make searching for a book as quick and painless a process as possible)
  5. The library is a growing organism (if the library doesn’t grow and change, it will fail to meet its users’ needs)

Can we apply these rules to our libraries? Indeed, does Library 2.0 apply these rules to our libraries?

Back in 2004, Alireza Noruzi (correctly) wondered if Ranganathan’s laws could be related to the Web:

  1. Web resources are for use
  2. Every user his or her web resource
  3. Every web resource its user
  4. Save the time of the user
  5. The Web is a growing organism

Yes, technology can help us to achieve all five of Ranganathan’s goals. We can house larger quantities of digital material than we ever could with print, which allows us to cater to more users — those who can’t come into the library in person, those with a disability and those who speak languages other than English. We can use RSS feeds and social bookmarking sites to provide desirable content to our users, allowing them to pick and choose what suits them. If they desire it, we can even visit them in the online spaces they choose to inhabit. Best of all, we can use blogs to open up a two-way dialogue with our users, and to build communities of practice with others in the profession.

But there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered. What else do we need, aside from technology, to make this happen? Is Library 2.0 really a new release, or just a bug fix? What, if any, are the new features packaged in Library 2.0? And indeed, is the term ‘Library 2.0′ the only problem? If we just find a new name to describe the movement, will we be able to get on with combating the growing crisis in libraries?

Perhaps not. Meredith Farkas, who among other professions is a trained therapist, maintains that catch-all terms are misleading. Lumping everything that’s wrong with libraries under the heading Library 1.0 disguises the roots of the problem, and therefore prevents us from finding a cure. ‘Why do people like to squish things into these neat little boxes as if the world was meant to be that way?‘ she rues. ‘Web 2.0. Library 2.0. I don’t like labels and I don’t like boxes.’

Farkas argues that by continuing to squabble over the scope of Library 2.0, we are ‘focusing on the wrong things.’ She thinks we should ‘be more concrete‘ in the way we describe change to libraries, librarians and users. She maintains that the concept of Library 2.0 ‘seems a lot more pie-in-the-sky than teaching a group of librarians what a blog is, why it’s a good thing for libraries, and how they can start one.’

Of course, Farkas is right — not just that we should do away with the label of Library 2.0, but that we are wasting time thinking about it. The only reason we exist — the only reason we have ever existed — is to fulfil the information needs of our users. These needs might be explicit or implied, immediate or long-term, and the users we serve may be known to us or anonymous, but ultimately they are the only motivation for our existence. And if we’re not concentrating on serving them, whatever excuse we give, we’re failing.
A selection of perspectives on Library 2.0: