More musing about search: The role of the “livebrarian”

Following my recent post about search, there were some very interesting comments. Some suggested the emergence of new tools that are better at helping us find what we are looking for, by providing richer context and colour to the information. Some suggested that as we get better at defining who we are and what we are doing, as we get better at role and context definition, we will get better at finding things. Some suggested that the fault, dear reader, is not in our stars (or other wild cards) but in ourselves; that we should get better at defining what it is we are looking for. Some likened search to library visits, and moved from there to the role of librarians and the social engagements that take place, and on to the motives.

Great comments for which I am truly grateful, and there is work for me to do in following them up.

But in the meantime. I’ve been musing.

There are a number of critical differences between the physical libraries of yore and the digital library that is the web. I think there is a way of categorising them:

  • Time. Libraries are static. The web is live.
  • Shape. Libraries have books and magazines and CDs and DVDs and tapes and a few other things. The web has all of these, sound, picture, video, text.
  • Location. Libraries are physically located in particular places. The web is everywhere and global.
  • Scale. Libraries contain a discrete and finite number of items. The web is infinite.
  • Classification basis. Libraries rely on Dewey and its extensions. The web relies on tags.
  • Nature. When you take a book out of a library, it is with you and not with the library. When you take something out of the web, it is still there.
  • Speed of change. Libraries measure their purchases and their culling and their weeding in months. The web does it in seconds.

I could go on, but that’s not the point.

The point is that the web is live.

So we need livebrarians. Part bookseller, part journalist, but primarily librarian. Librarian of something that is live.
And guess what? We have livebrarians. All over the place. Every webmaster is a livebrarian, every blogger is a livebrarian, every creator of “UGC” is a livebrarian.

  • They do a number of librarian-like tasks which may not be that well understood or appreciated.
  • They categorise, using tags. This helps others find them.
  • They point out where things are by linking to them.
  • They go out looking for new things and make sure that the new arrivals are shown as such.
  • They take care of the old things and prune the stock as needed.
  • They even review things and comment on them, much like you have “staff picks” in libraries and bookshops

The libraries we have are new, a different paradigm. The tools we have are not yet fully fit-for-purpose, we’re still building out the library. But the tools are getting better. The librarians we have are a different breed, but they exist.

And our readers are different as well. Now they can tear things out of books, scribble on them, mix the pages up, throw them up in the air to see if they land buttered side first.

And they can write as well.

Kids are allowed to make noise. In fact everyone’s allowed to make noise. There are no SILENCE signs in the web.

We have to get better at using the tools we have. Particularly with tags and with microformats.

We have to get better at telling people what new tools we need. Because we’re the authors, we’re the borrowers, we’re the lenders and we’re the librarians. If not us who?

And we have to ensure that our new libraries have no termites or woodworm or silverfish or damp or dry rot.

Otherwise called bad IPR and bad DRM.

13 thoughts on “More musing about search: The role of the “livebrarian””

  1. I think this misses some critical points that also reflect on past conversations about Wikipedia; let me focus on two of them.

    Most important is that librarians are trained professionals, just as editors of encyclopedias and newspapers are trained professionals. There are all sorts of issues of judgment that go beyond the “livebrarian” bullet list; and I would be extremely concerned if we were to ignore them casually. To put it bluntly: If any damned fool can be a “livebrarian,” then “livebrarians” will turn out to be a community of damned fools. (Readers of Sholem Alechem will see this as a great opportunity to write a tale about “The Librarians of Chelm!”) This is why I have been so interested in the experiment to introduce editorial validation into the German Wikipedia process model. It is also why I continue to get my news from sources for which I have some knowledge of the underlying editorial process.

    Equally important is that issue of social engagement that I tried to stress when anand first started talking about librarians:

    There is no substitute for social engagement with librarians, just as there is no substitute for social engagement with teachers. Library science is as much about practice as it is about theory, and the practice happens to include dealing with the people who want to use the library! Now, for all the skepticism I have articulated, I actually believe that we CAN engage at a personal level through social software; but we are not really there yet in many settings that do not involve virtual combat or casual socialization. My skepticism has to do with reckless assumptions that we are already there or that getting there is a matter of “fixing a few technical bugs.” We need a better understanding of what is really going on that is as strong on social theory as it is on mastery of technology. Making social engagement work in a way that would turn the Web into a librarian, complete with a (large?) staff of qualified librarians could be the best thing that ever happened to the Internet. I just wish more people would take the social side of the challenge as seriously as they take the technical!

  2. Stephen’s got it bang on. What if you could go to Yahoo or Google, and what if you could be patient for a qualified answer and what if there was a “staff of qualified librarians” at the other end waiting to help you out?
    Then you would not get a zillion results for your search request — you would get a handful; all useful, all relevant, all pertinent.
    Back to bricki and wiki: we neither expected nor demanded instant solutions in the bricki world– and the reality is that the net has reduced the wait, not elminated it.
    Even when I’m I’m in a frightful hurry, I’d prefer coffee the way my mother made it. It would have been terrific if it came faster, though.

  3. So we’re back to “trained experts” and “professionals” and “thou shalt not pass until you show the secret sign” and “this is complex, you won’t understand it”.

    My problem is I really think that any damned fool can be a librarian. Trained people tend to have the anchors and frames that the trainers put in. Training is good. Education is better.

    And if we are talking semantics about training and education, I would use the traditional example of sex training versus sex education.

    I think we need to be careful.

    Maybe that’s just me.

    I fully take on the points about the social engagement and general social aspects of it. Markets are conversations.

    I have met quite a few excellent librarians and booksellers whose education is real life and whose training is passion.

    We need to be careful. No holy of holies please.

  4. The problem is that too many damned fools are “librarians”. Not literally librarians, of course, but gatekeepers and guides. I fully take your point about anchors and, by extension, sacred cows but think you are optimistic about the potential of most would-be librarians.

    The livebrarian you identify is an individual requiring a fluid intelligence (derived from a variety of sources) which, in reality, is possessed by very few people.

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  6. anant, I do not know if you have seen Yahoo! Answers. I think it is an excellent example of what you DO NOT want! The URL is:

    The problem is that it dodges that critical adjective you use, “qualified.” The result is that it is just another social space where the environment has a different structure. (Also, I think it is hobbled by the fact that you are limited to 110 characters for your question!)

    This moves me into JP’s domain. Most important is that I am not sure what JP was trying to say about training and education. Here in the United States, you need both education AND training to be a librarian (and, for that matter, to be any form of journalist). This is how you get the right balance of theory and practice.

    My other point is that you do not deal with complexity by either finessing it or ignoring it. There is a lot of wisdom behind recognizing that a question may NOT have a simple answer. (As H. L. Mencken said, “For every complex question, there is a simple answer … and it is WRONG!”) Expertise is not about secret signs; it is about being adequately credentialed to speak with authority in a given domain of discourse. If you seriously believe that markets are conversations, then I would think you also need to respect the value of authoritativeness in the texts of those conversations!

  7. Jp, on the subject of culling and weeding the livebrary, I don’t think you push the idea far enough. I’ve always felt unused, untagged or unpopular links should just fade away. Go grey and archive themselves.
    This places time as a crucial dimension of the web, such that now is more relevant than then.
    Do you think this is the case?

    As an aside, maybe this concept should apply within applications whereby never used features could dissolve to on-demand plugins, as direct feedback to the community that created it.

  8. I am tired of this comparison between libraries and the web. Why must it be one or the other? Why can’t we simply recognize the benefits of each system (which changes depending on who you are, by the way) and use them for what they are good for? I use the Internet for lots of things, but when I need real advice about how best to conduct certain research, or which reference materials are most authoritative, I’ll seek an experienced Librarian every time. And its not about “any damned fool” being a librarian – you could say that about lots of thing. What is important is who actually has the energy and passion for information organization and access.

  9. I think that this discussion is really about a basic problem of information retrieval:

    Whom do we trust?

    We trust a) those who we know to have provided us with valuable, accurate and reliable information in the past and b) those who we know (many) others to place trust in.

    Ergo, information without social context (because trust is a part of the larger social context) is a useless. How do I know that someone is a “trained professional”? Because some authority that I believe to be trustworthy told me so and because he has proven his expertise to me in the past. Now, why do I read JP Rangaswami’s blog and not that of some random MySpacer? Because I know that he’s an innovate thinker and experienced information technologist. Because other people whose writing I like link to him. And, most importantly, because I deduct from the fact that I found his past blogs interesting that his future blogs will be relevant as well.

    I think this transcends the debate about “web vs. library” and “experts vs. amateurs”. The expertise of the lone librarian who is incredibly knowledgeable is invisible to me unless I’ve met him in person, unless the building he works in is around the corner or at least in the same city, unless I have proof (!) that my trust in him is well placed.

    What it boils down to is trusting institutions vs. trusting individuals. The New York Times has managed to grow to be a trusted institution over a long period of time, in a forest with just a few tall trees – the old media ecology. Now we’re suddenly in the middle of the jungle (sorry for the silly metaphor), where it’s much more difficult for such an institution to grow slowly over many generations, because on the web institutions are no longer causally local, no longer closer or further away from me. To take this one step further: institutions are already virtual in that they aren’t people – on-line they are doubly virtual because they also lack an individual identity.

    But trusting people still works. We do what we’ve always done – building social networks – and we do it because we believe that those in our network can provide the most reliable advice. The problem with the web in its primitive current stage is simply that there is an ocean of anonymous voices that posses no authority precisely because they’re anonymous.

    Lastly, before you accuse me of propagating some sort of “information mob rule”: my point is not that information and knowledge are relative and debatable, or that whatever trusted person X says is always right. My point is that we face the exact same problems on the web and with user-created content that we face in the real world whenever we look for information – whom do we trust? The answer can only be that we trust those that we know, be it in person (which is always preferable) or only virtually.

Let me know what you think

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