Antifragile Libraries pt 2: Antifragile librarianship

9 December 2013

In my last post we considered the idea of Antifragility and how libraries might consider making our collections more anti-fragile. Today I'd like to discuss how we take the antifragile concept further by considering an antifragile approach to discovery, as well as exploring librarianship as a tool for antifragilism.

Arguably, the whole idea of libraries, particularly public libraries, is inherently one of antifragility. The public library allows those with an interest in knowledge or ideas to pursue that interest, without requiring the individual means to fund it. The more our world changes, the more valuable the public library becomes as a source of ideas, information and inspiration. Our communities become stronger and more resilient as they share and discover old skills, new ideas and inspiring stories.

Crisis librarianship

We have seen this starkly in the US since the 2008 financial meltdown. With thousands of citizens thrown out of work and personal, state and federal budgets in chaos, public libraries in the US have never been busier. Whether requiring assistance to fill out government paperwork, internet access to apply for jobs, or simply some solace and reflection, Americans have flocked to public libraries at precisely the moment the technology utopians have been declaring their irrelevance.

Public libraries played an important role in another time of crisis in the US, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the surrounding area. As centralised federal and state bureaucracies flailed, public libraries in a variety of states of physical repair continued to operate, with queues of citizens arriving to gain information - about family and friends, about government assistance, food, transport and housing.

Braquet also reminds us of the utility of reading for pleasure in a moment of crisis. Witness accounts from the aftermath of Katrina show that the use of libraries as a place for mental escape and a sense of normalcy was crucial to the emotional and psychological health of the survivors. This role has been remarked upon in other contexts such as the Theresienstadt Ghetto during the Second World War (also referred to by Braquet), and during the Siege of  Leningrad (when Leningraders suddenly became interested in books about the 1812 French invasion and the Russian Civil War).

Service was not just continued during these crises - the librarians stepped up and in many ways the library became better and even more relevant in the moment of crisis.

Encouraging antifragility through better discovery tools

If our job is to encourage the anti-fragile scholar then we need to design systems to enable that. Catalogues need to provide balance between serendipity and straight search/findability - using concepts like Mitchell Whitelaw's idea of generous interfaces. There is also huge scope to expand the use of metadata. Google Scholar, for example, lists the known articles that cite each article that comes up in a search result. Imagine a library catalogue or search tool that connected the references listed in each work to create a concept map of which books/papers contributed to which others, and which claim to be more unique works standing on their own. Whilst we have tools for academic papers (and to a lesser extent, books) that rank them in terms of 'impact factor', what the independent scholar/autodidact really wants to know is not so much which books or papers are most influential, but which works they don't need to bother reading. That is, which items simply discuss the same things as something she has already read? A tool like this would be less interested in how many works cite any particular work, and more interested in which works share the same influences. In some ways this is a bit like a "Wilkin Profile", but perhaps it is more easily understood as a Literature Map for works rather than authors. We may well also see some interesting tools emerge from the work of Franco Moretti when it comes to discovering links between various works of literature.

The fragile

Despite the natural inclination of public libraries to nurture antifragility, those of us managing them can lapse into fragilising our libraries and the communities they serve. The drive to make libraries more efficient, or more 'modern', often results in a much more fragile and risk-exposed institution.

Consider journal aggregators - the EBSCOs and Proquests of the world. In a rush to provide access and the newfangled technology of full text keyword searching, libraries have eventually found themselves in a perpetual hostage negotiation in order to continue to provide access to academic journal articles. It was more efficient and easier to outsource digitisation to publications and aggregators, but ultimately this has resulted in a much more brittle and expensive solution.

Now we are seeing exactly the same story play out with ebook distribution platforms. Public librarians have fallen over each other to sign up to Overdrive - a platform offering digital books with all the inconvenience of physical lending including one-copy-at-a-time lending and artificial 'wear and tear' - but as an extra bonus, you don't even actually own the files! Well played, librarians.

If we look at what we're doing from an antifragility perspective, concepts like Open Access, Creative Commons and LOCKSS become even more important. From the library's perspective, churn in the publishing industry is fantastic for a system like LOCKSS. It means that we get the benefit of high quality publications, but when the publisher goes broke the articles are released in to the wider world. Likewise, the more change, energy and experimentation there is in the use of Creative Commons licensed works, the stronger the system becomes. Open Access more generally provides benefits in this way. Released from the restriction of one publisher enforcing one way of presenting and providing access to any given journal, article or monograph, Open Access publishing opens the field to a wide open field of new possibilities. Most Open Access experiments will fail. But the more there are, the stronger and more valuable the model becomes. If DOAJ fails, other aggregators will spring up from the ashes. If Weave collapses (and I certainly hope it doesn't), other library UX specialists will learn from whatever led to its failure and build something better. In the meantime, some clever undergraduate is probably sitting in a dorm room right now creating a new tool to take data from multiple journals and present it in a completely new and useful way. Because they can do it without having to ask permission.

Instead of being worried about instability, change and chaos, we should realise that it is what makes libraries more valuable. We can harness this by embracing creative destruction and building our systems to be strengthened by change. After all, libraries are for use.