On relevance, standards and collaborative leadership

17 September 2012

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed an absence of posts over the last few months. After a recent promotion I’ve simply been so busy with work that I have neglected you all.

I would like to continue a conversation from the comments in my post on platform neutrality, A failure of imagination, where I suggested that librarians have a responsibility to ensure our communities have access to information in a ‘container’ or format that is user-friendly and flexible. Kathryn Greenhill argued that librarians should avoid trying to duplicate content providers like Facebook and Wikipedia and instead focus on providing access and understanding  of these tools. Kate Davis disagreed, writing that rather than librarians building our own software and online tools, we should partner with existing providers.

This exchange highlighted the complexity of these issues for libraries and librarians, and the difficulties the profession is experiencing in defining what we do and why we do it. Are we collectors, curators, or creators? How much of our role is about education, and should we hold particular ethical positions regarding what we provide or teach?

As increasingly shallow as the concept of ‘innovation’ seems to be, what is needed for librarianship to remain useful and relevant is a spurt of real innovation. Innovation not in the sense Aaron Tay warns of, where using the latest online tool is branded ‘innovative’, but the creation of better solutions to real problems. The distinction between being a Librarian, and simply working in a library, is one that librarians like to draw. But it is meaningless if librarians don’t take responsibility for developing new tools and techniques for the storage, retrieval, discovery and dissemination of texts and informational artefacts. Taking responsibility means not just keeping a sharp eye out for tools that others have created - it requires us to be part of the creation and development process.

Librarians like Melville Dewey, Charles Cutter, Henry Bliss and Sirkali Ramamrita Ranganathan were not the sort of men to ‘innovate’ by purchasing or copying the latest trend. They were real innovators and inventors - creating new ways to organise information and collections and new ways to store them. We need librarians with that sort of passion now.  The difference however is that we now live in a world of instant global communication and collaboration tools; in an “information age”. Librarians are no longer alone in thinking about how to organise information. Some see this as a threat, worrying that the Googles, Amazons and Microsofts of the world will kill libraries and library science. If librarians sit like rabbits starting at the oncoming headlights, these prophesies will indeed come true, but there is another, more exciting prospect. Kate Davis’ proposal, that librarians partner with others to develop tools and expertise, is exactly the approach we need to take. Jason Puckett proposes in a recent Georgia Library Quarterly article, ‘Open source software and librarian values’, that librarians need to support and promote open source software since we share many of the same values as the open source community. I would go further - librarians need to become part of the open source software community. There has been an ongoing low-level discussion in the profession about the need for librarians to learn to write code, and even an organisation dedicated to collaborating across GLAM and coding professions. It's high time this became a mainstream concern for librarians.

Open source software has all sorts of interesting applications for libraries and already achieves some surprising goals. To take a fairly recent example, David Rothman recently asked Should libraries start their own, more trustworthy Facebook? Personally I think the answer is ‘no’, but what interests me for the purposes of this post is that the Wordpress developer community has essentially already created the means to do it, with BuddyPress. If Rothman wants to build his own Facebook for free he can do it tomorrow.

Librarians can become part of open information and open software development without even knowing how to code. The Wikipedia Loves Libraries project for example, encourages libraries to organise ‘wiki-meetups’ where subject experts meet at the library and spend a day together contributing and editing articles to Wikipedia. Library staff could easily contribute local history articles to Wikipedia in paid time, assisting the public to access this information from a widely recognised and used source.

Commercial online services are not all bad either. The National Library of Australia uses a Flickr group as an easy way for members of the public to contribute photos to their Trove content portal. Instead of building a new tool themselves they thereby used a freely available and well known commercial tool to add to their own collection and services.

So there are plenty of examples where cooperation and exploitation of free and open software and online services is good for libraries. But we need to go further. If we are to have a strong voice in the way information is managed and made available; if we are to negotiate from a position of strength on the management of ebooks and journals; if we are to remain not only relevant but influential when it comes to the maintenance of our cultural heritage, then librarians must be part of the discussion about and development of core information technologies and techniques. This means developing and using the same standards as other information professions - for example XML, RDF and schema.org. This has been recognised by thoughtful librarians for some time, but as this paper by Hillman et al explains, the development of RDA as an RDF vocabulary was complicated by the desire to make it backwards-compatible with the ancient library-specific MARC standards. In their conclusion the authors state:

...library reliance on data standards that require that all data be created by hand by highly trained individuals is clearly unsustainable....Only by changing what we do in library environments can we hope to participate with other large users of data in building better descriptive data that we can then hope to reuse to improve our own services.

This statement equally applies to all our services. Only by taking control of our own future and cooperating with other professions and communities with similar interests can we truly serve our own members and communities. The ‘serials crisis’ in libraries was caused by a move away from cooperative independence when libraries ceded power over their serial collections to commercial monopolies. The ‘ebooks crisis’ has, in part, resulted from a lack of wider engagement from public libraries when it comes to copyright and licensing laws and ebook and web standards. Librarians have a responsibility to actively engage not just with the library profession, but with the wider world of information, literature and culture.

When governments in liberal democracies announce plans for a giant internet filter, when secret intelligence agencies in the UK and Australia demand ISPs collect and store data on every online action of their customers or when parliaments review video game classification schemes or copyright limitations and exceptions, librarians should have an opinion and be involved in the public discourse. These issues should be core concerns for the profession. Every Australian should be able to name and identify the President of ALIA, every American the President of the ALA and every UK resident the President of CILIP because in an information age librarians should be at the centre of many of our societies’ public debates. Our presidents aren’t on the news every night because we are not seen as relevant. We’re not seen as relevant because we spend too much time talking to each other about what someone else has invented or foisted upon us, and not enough time working with others to invent something better.

Librarians should be more than relevant. We should be leaders. Its time to get out there and start collaborating the future.