From selection and recommendation to curation and suggestion

22 February 2012

A couple of weeks ago I went the the VALA 2012 conference and saw an inspiring keynote closing address from Eli Neiburger.  Whilst the talk itself was great, it was the question and answer session afterwards that inspired this particular post.  Eli was asked about the skills new librarians will need, and the first thing he said was ‘curation’.  But what exactly is this, and why is it different to what we’ve always done?

Curation and selection are opposites

Imagine a military museum with a particular number of rooms and a certain number of weapons on display.  You follow the path from room to room and stand behind the velvet rope looking at the exhibits.  This is the world of selection, where a limited number of items can be collected and stored in a restricted space.  Every poor decision about what to collect costs money and time, but more importantly also has an opportunity cost because something else could have gone in the space.  This physical reality has led to the traditions of commercial publishing and newspapers, as well as selection and collection development in libraries.

The world we live in is decreasingly bound by these realities.  On the internet, the opportunity cost of hosting a file is approaching zero, such is the cheapness of computer storage.  In this new world, the options available to military weapon enthusiasts look more like this.  If Neo wants to know where the most interesting guns are, he’ll need help, especially if he wants to find one of these  (thanks to Eli for the tip).  He’ll need a curator.

Curation provides guidance.  it doesn’t restrict choice, but rather opens doorways.  It is a way of making sense of an endless number of choices.  it’s a map - patrons can wander off the map if they like, you’re just giving them a place to start based on what you know.  The other key difference is that selection takes place before an item is available to your users, whereas curation simply makes it more visible after it is available to them.

This reminded me of an important distinction regarding how librarians provide personalised service.

A good book

Public librarians often get asked to recommend a good book to read.  All of us have fallen in to the trap of then immediately doing so.  This may feel like we’re providing great service, but it is actually an example of very poor and thoughtless service.

What patrons of course mean by ‘a good book’ is ‘a book that I will appreciate reading’ - not ‘a book you enjoyed’.  For this reason librarians long ago invented ‘the reference interview’.  This handy tool works for most enquiries and is needed because most people need a bit of coaxing to explain exactly what it is that they are looking for - whether it’s a book on dinosaurs or the latest Stephen King novel, it’s surprising how difficult it is to work out sometimes.

So once you’ve worked out what they are actually asking for you might then simply try to think of what you have in the collection that is most like that thing.  If you’re providing fiction books, this can get tricky.  It means you’re either going to fall back on one or the other of the following strategies:

  • recommend something you have read that you really enjoyed and is somehow ‘similar’ to what they say they enjoy.
  • recommend another author based on the genre of the books they tend to enjoy.

Neither of these is really all that useful - one of them is essentially spam, whilst the other could have been provided by Amazon or LibraryThing.  These patrons come to us because they want suggestions about what to read next that will expand their world and provide meaning to them in their current state of mind.  If they wanted more of the same they could have found it.  They’ve come to you because they don’t want more of the same (even if they don’t know it).  To serve these patrons properly you need to  make a psychological and verbal leap from recommending to suggesting.  The School of Life’s Bibliotherapy service is an example of the sort of thing we need to aim for.

If you are recommending something, it’s more personal for both them and you.  People think of ‘recommend’ in the same group of words as ‘guarantee’.  When a patron wants help to find a new book for recreational reading you can’t take the risk of recommending, because what they are actually asking for is assistance taking a leap into the unknown.  You can minimise the risk to an extent, but they want a bit of risk in their choices because that’s how we find interesting new ideas, new ways of seeing and new art-forms. If you recommend something you are implicitly bearing the risk that they won’t enjoy it.  Do that enough times and nobody will ask for your recommendations any more.

All this is much harder, of course, but Librarians exist to help people expand their minds.  In postmodern libraries we need to do this by curating and suggesting, rather than selecting and recommending.