We can cast all we like, but we may not catch any fish

28 February 2008

As I’ve mentioned before, I am not the Annoyed Librarian. But as Kathryn Greenhill suggests, every librarian gets annoyed sometimes, and some things annoy us more than others.

One of my chief irritants is the fad for podcasting.

I’ve never been able to get enthused about podcasts. For starters, podcasting is not a new technology. Like many of the ‘Web 2.0′ concepts, it’s simply an old idea repackaged and then aggressively marketed. Podcasts are just glorified audio files, and we’ve been listening to those for years.

And then there’s the term itself. It’s frankly woeful. It’s believed to have appeared first in a Guardian article in February 2004, suggested as an alternative to ‘audioblogging’ and formed by condensing the words ‘iPod’ and ‘broadcast’. Yet multimedia search directory ZENcast maintains that it’s actually short for ‘Personal On Demand broadcast’.

Whatever its etymology, ‘podcast’ is ghastly. Since it does away with spaces, it qualifies linguistically as a ‘runtogether‘, but it should never be considered a real word. And it’s not alone. ‘Podcast’ isn’t actually the worst Web 2.0 aberration of the English language — at the moment, I think it’s a tie between ‘vodcast’ and the truly horrible ‘vlogging’.

Libraries seem to be obsessed with podcasts, and I don’t know why. We’re meant to foster equitable access to content, but the use of the proprietary name ‘iPod’ suggests that we’re peddling an expensive Apple product to our users. What about generic mp3 players? Or even no players at all? Since when did libraries prostitute ourselves for a brand name? (Oh, hang on — Thomson, Elsevier, Springer, SirsiDynix — well, I guess I just blew that theory out of the water …)

(‘Katamari Damacy iPod’, from emsef’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence)

Phil Bradley discusses some of the challenges of using podcasts in the library setting in his book How to use Web 2.0 in your library. This is a great all-round book on the rise of emerging technologies in libraries. It’s enthusiastic but not gushy, and Bradley addresses the risk of its content dating quickly by providing an accompanying website. We have a copy of the book in our collection, but I’m afraid you can’t have it at the moment as it’s sitting on my desk.

Bradley argues that podcasts have become universally popular because of their convenience. Users can listen to them on a PC while they’re working, or download them to mp3 players to enjoy at their leisure. I worry that part of the reason libraries have been so quick on the uptake is that yet again, podcasting is considered a cheap option because it can be practised and maintained in-house. The only essential piece of equipment for recording is a microphone, which often comes as part of a PC’s initial package. Add to this one of the best audio manipulation software packages on the market (which just happens to be a free, open source download), and you have a very cheap tool for promoting the library if someone with the necessary technical knowledge is prepared to donate time to the task.

I’m wary of the notion of library budgets driving library services. It’s fine to want to employ our users’ tools to help them access the library, but if we want a half-decent information service we need to maintain a high standard of professionalism. We also need to be prepared to spend money. Many people from overseas find the Australian accent impenetrable; given that our international student numbers are already sizeable, and we’re hoping to lift them to about a third of the student body over the next few years, we need to ensure that we’re not developing services they’ll find utterly inaccessible. There’s a strong argument for hiring professional voiceover artists to read our scripts. After all, we run theatre studies courses here; I bet there are plenty of students who’d jump at the chance for some work experience before they graduate. And on that basis, it wouldn’t cost us an arm and a leg.

There is also the ongoing issue of accessibility. Audio recordings are offensively exclusionary to anyone with a hearing impairment, and they are also less than appealing to students with a limited grasp of the language. All students, regardless of their ability to interpret spoken English, will tell you that listening to a lecture online is not the easiest way to absorb information — it’s too easy to become distracted and disengaged. We need to be careful that the reasons we choose to utilise new technologies are the right ones; many libraries are guilty of desperately clutching at whatever faddish Web 2.0 tools come their way in the hope that users will find their services relevant and fun. We need to be careful that we’re still driving the technology, and that it’s not the other way around.

Of course, there are applicable uses for podcasting in academic libraries. Visitors to the National Gallery of Victoria can hire audio guides to help them make the most of the Gallery’s collection. Why don’t we do the same? As Tony suggested at a forum on international student needs, a walk-around audio orientation is a wonderful tool for students who can’t or don’t want to attend conventional library tours at the start of semester. We keep being told that our ‘net generation’ users have a short attention span and are fond of discovering new things for themselves – well, this is a much more interactive way for them to familiarise themselves with our resources. There are plenty of students who choose to spend their first few weeks on campus socialising, rather than learning about our services. That’s fine, and actually extremely valuable. But we should ensure that we’re ready and waiting for them later in the semester when they need the library, and that we meet them with whatever resource they find helpful and accessible – not just a gimmick.

Blogger’s note:
If you really must listen to a podcast, you may be interested in this interview with Geraldine Brooks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Australian writer, and author of Year of wonders, March and People of the Book. I’ve always found Year of Wonders remarkably similar to a (much older) British children’s book, A parcel of patterns, but then they’re based on the same historical event so I suppose that explains it. After all, there’s no such thing as plagiarism in fiction — only homage.

I found the interview by running an exclusive audio search on the EveryZing search engine. EveryZing has a built-in multimedia player, so users can search for a podcast, click on the result that interests them and listen to the audio directly through the EveryZing website. From the player, users are also given a number of other options, such as downloading the audio, subscribing to the podcast series, copying custom HTML code to a website, or rating the podcast on digg, del.icio.us and other popular website sharing services.

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: