Continuing with the “livebrarian” theme

I guess my last post intrigued quite a few people, judging by the number and nature of the comments. In some ways we come back to the Nurture Versus Nature theme, and to the meaning of “expertise”. [An aside, I am still ploughing through The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, all 900 pages of it, including the index. If you’re interested in the issues surrounding expertise, it looks well worth a read. More later.]

Four themes stand out from the comments:

  • One, that the web has many bad librarians: bad in the context of their anchors and frames, bad in the context of their biases and gatekeeping, bad in the context of the expertise they possess (or not, as the case may be)
  • Two, that the profession of librarianship has understood the need to change with the times, and that they are looking at the web and to the web quite seriously
  • Three, the time dimension associated with the World Live Web is one that has magical possibilities and horrendous potential for problems as well
  • Four, we need to look at the social space and engagement and experience as closely as we look at the classification and finding and retrieval, and within this we need to understand more about the relationships and trust bonds between searcher and find-enabler

So thank you everyone for your comments, I continue to be blessed. Let me try and take some parts of the argument a bit further.

First on gatekeeping and expertise and Damn Fools.

Paul Miller gave me some very useful insights into what librarians are doing today. I was particularly taken with this:

The library of Library 2.0 exults in integrating the consistency and cohesiveness of formal classification systems with the more fluid granularity of the folksonomy.

There’s the rub. How to take historical taxonomies and ontologies and mold them into such a shape that they can be enriched by the Wisdom of Crowds, while managing to keep out the Madness of the self-same Crowds. Capture the passion, connect with the perseverance and patience, discard the Damn Fools and their biases and anchors and frames.

This can be done. This will happen. But only if we allow the passion of the amateur to flourish at the same time as the professionalism of the “expert”. There’s a Long Tail aspect somewhere in this, where we need to move out of the Hit Culture and understand that Search and Find become real when you deal with the outliers, the low-frequency requests and responses. That’s where expertise comes into its own. In the niches, in the nooks and crannies.

Paul Simmons had some very interesting thoughts about “unused” pieces atrophying and being greyed out, whether it’s software functionality or links or information or books or whatever. There’s something about the idea that I like, that intrigues me, yet I push back. Because it’s to do with the time dimension. There may be some things that come into play only once in a blue moon, but that doesn’t make them less important. In fact at blue moon time they may be critical, far more important than anything else. I think that holds true for software, for links, for information. And for books.

I fully accept Stephen Smoliar’s points about the role of credentials and of domain knowledge in conversations, and those of John Dodds and Anant in similar vein. My point was more to do with keeping the barriers to entry as low as possible, so that the folksonomy is also allowed to flourish. This is not easy to do, but should be easier with the web and with modern tools. Much of this is borne out in Paul Miller’s piece and the pdf he links to.

John Dodds’ other point about the paucity of fluid multidimensional skills required by a “livebrarian” is also of particular interest to me. With the tools we have today, we can attach time and location and context information much more “richly”, thereby improving the whole search process, something that Simon Hollins referred to in an earlier comment. We have the technology.

Once we move into an n-language n-data-type n-discipline-or-genre n-location model, I think we will also need to move into an n-person-distributed-librarian model. We have many historically disenfranchised people, some illiterate, some unable to see or speak or hear, some unable to move, many unable to understand more than one language. The web allows us to re-enfranchise everyone, but only if we get the “livebrarian” right.

Which means we have one more social shift to deal with, that of moving from deterministic request-response to probabilistic and context-aware and heuristic.

The Livebrarian becomes an aggregated “recommender”, seeking to use both formal as well as folksonomic information, enrich the request with context and location, then summarise the recommendation for the searcher. I cannot help but think that this is best done by providing wetware librarians with software assistance and peer-generated collaboratively-filtered information.

What I have seen so far in web-enabled “Ask and I shall give you advice” services is less than promising. Even Damn Fools are better. Which is why I am glad that the profession of librarianship takes this issue seriously, their domain expertise is necessary. But it is not sufficient, not until we get the value of the Wisdom of Crowds and the movement away from the Hit Culture.

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to try out Dan Pett‘s recommendation on Enquire.

Paul Anderson‘s comment on the futility of polarised debate with respect to all this is also important. We need to be comfortable with grey when pushed towards black and white. We need to be comfortable with Analogue when we are pushed towards zero and one. We need to be comfortable with Mu.

Often polarisation takes places as a pendulum response to an entrenched situation. Over time, the polarisation becomes less intense and a sustainable change takes place. Isn’t that how paradigms shift?

A coda. When I was a kid I used to read Dennis The Menace by Hank Ketcham. I found it hilarious. And in this context, two of the strips come to mind:

In one, Dennis is standing in the middle of a shopping mall. He gets asked by a friendly policeman if he was lost. And he replies “I’m not lost. I’m here. It’s my parents who are lost”.

In the second, Dennis is looking at a dictionary. When told that he needs to know how to spell a word in order to find the word, he looks bemused and says “But then what do I use to find out how to spell it?”. Or words to that effect.

I think we should also look at our children and at Generation M, to see how they search and how they find. They don’t have our biases and corruptions. Or expertise :-)

More later.

7 thoughts on “Continuing with the “livebrarian” theme”

  1. If the technology exists to tag everything more efficiently, what is the guidance role of the livebrarian? Is it that of helping to formulate the questions of the searchers and, if so, how can you ensure that this is done objectively?

    The point about children is an interesting one. My searching skills were clearly formulated within my education (pre-search engines) and, I believe, they enhance my search engine-based searches. I presume (because I know I would do it if I were young) that children today go straight to Google and I wonder if they are given any guidance on how to use it.

  2. John, the independent school system in California, where my wife teaches, has recognized that such things as search skills are a matter of “media literacy” and deserve a place in the middle-school curriculum (if not earlier). I am not sure how many public school systems have given this more than lip service, but what can you do when you lack the resources of most independent schools? John Seely Brown used to like to say that you see the future in what the kids around you are doing. Unfortunately, he never used to promote the corollary: You can SHAPE the future by the education and guidance you provide those kids! I just do not buy JP’s idea that the education and guidance we can provide is a matter of bias or corruption. I just worry that, for too much of the population, both education and parenting have become so impoverished that they are corrupting both values and the general sense of being-in-the-world. If that is the case, then we have little to expect from the Wisdom of Future Crowds.

  3. I guess I must have my wires crossed somewhere. Stephen, I am all for education, all for education in the use of social software, all for the use of social software in education. And I don’t think that’s where the corrupting anchors and frames come in. I also agree wholeheartedly that we are impoverished in our parenting skills, and, particularly with the onset of nanny states, risking being impoverished in many other things, especially risk appetite and risk-taking.

    The constraining and often corrupting anchors and frames I speak of tend to be in us. Not all of us, but many of us. I am part of that many.

    I see a whole new opportunity in Generation M, who for some reason have managed to avoid some of the biases and corruptions. And my pushback against expertise is in order to give them, and the generation after them, the ability to bring their unvarnished selves to bear on all of us.

    Does that make any more sense?

  4. I think I share the disquiet of Stephen on this. I am enjoying this thread very much because the goal is such an admirable one and we should all work towards it, no question. But I increasingly realise how fortunate I was to receive the quality of early (non-private) education that I did and specifically the ability to formulate and research an argument.

    For me the true role of education is learning how to learn and when that foundation is laid then great potential is unleashed as I have witnessed in my university days here and in the US. I agree with JP that unvarnished selves should be encouraged but on both sides of the ocean an increasing proportion of people are not so much unvarnished as untouched.

    If you are functionally illiterate and or innumerate, the ability to search is hugely compromised and in many cases the will to search is destroyed. I hope I’m not being overly defeatist on this (and I am sure that the combination of “literate” individuals and social software is immense even if the literate are a minority), but when I move away from this keyboard and the incredible insights and opinions to which it gives me access, I am very aware of a huge and I think growing digital divide.

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  6. I think John has hit the nail squarely on the head with his distinction between unvarnished and untouched. I also agree that Clarence Fisher knows how to “touch;” and, if I am to believe what I have read about him, then he deserves all the awards and recognition he has received. Unfortunately, he is only one person; and that has two implications:

    First, I suspect that his skill in “touching” is inversely proportional to the number of people he has to “touch;” at it remains to be seen how “reproducible” (to invoke Giddens language) that skill is.

    Secondly, as my father has always delighted in saying, “One is not a statistic!”

    To develop that point, I really cannot figure out, for the life of me, just how good Judy Breck’s Golden Swamp is at “touching.” Since I think this would be a great way to pursue this discussion, I invite everyone to visit the site at:

    I do not need to be sold on how cool it is, but that may be the problem. To invoke another metaphor, my consider is the Golden Swamp may be one of the best circuses on the Web at a time when we have all those students (and probably plenty of teachers, too) hungry for bread. (All those jokes comparing the Bush Administration to the Roman Empire are finally beginning to register with me!)

    Don’t get me wrong. It is not my intention to disparage cool. However, just as there has never been a Royal Road to Geometry, there will never be a “Superhighway to Being in the World.” I am not just concerned that Generation M may be untouched by teachers who can guide without disrupting those “unvarnished selves;” I am concerned that the extent to which they perceive the world through their media experience may be leaving them untouched by the world itself!

    ZEN FLESH, ZEN BONES includes a story about the master teacher of Zen, Gasan (an unvarnished self if ever there was one). The story goes that he was visited by a university student who brought along a copy of the New Testament and read him passages from the Sermon on the Mount. After hearing the text, Gasan said, “Whoever said that is not far from Buddhahood.” If we cannot communicate with Generation M through today’s classrooms, can we at least figure out how to “touch” them as the student “touched” Gasan?

Let me know what you think

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