Christmas Past
Time Wrestling

Why I Dislike the "Library 2.0" Tag

The notion of using the best technology available, including all of the Web 2.0 tools, to improve library services and to reach out more directly to our communities is one I absolutely applaud.  And I think that this graphic representation of how we might be looking at what we're doing has real potential.   But the terms that we use to describe things are important, both in what they say directly and in their larger context, and “Library 2.0” fails to be really useful in both of these.

As a denotation of something specific, “Library 2.0” is logically vacant.  This becomes clear when you begin to parse some of the chatter about whether it refers just to the technology or to something broader.  If it is just the technology, then what in the world is so different about IM, Blogs, Wikis or whatever this year’s cool tools are?  Librarians have always used the latest technological tools.  Fifteen years ago it was gopher.  Twenty-five years ago it was databases distributed on CD-ROM.  Thirty years ago it was 2nd generation ILSs.  Thirty-five years ago it was online bibliographic databases, and so on.  In the late 19th century it was the invention of that technological marvel of human ingenuity, the card catalog.  The notion that Web 2.0 tools are so radically different that they create a demarcation so significantly different that it represents a radical shift from all that has gone before strikes me (if you'll excuse me) as somewhat naïve and historically ignorant.

On the other hand, if Library 2.0 is about more than the technology – about a focus on customer service, reaching out, embracing change, listening to users etc., etc., then what the hell was Library 1.0?  Does this imply that the libraries that I’ve been working in for nearly a quarter of a century, and the libraries in which my mentors worked and their mentors worked were somehow anti-customer service?  That they weren’t interested in reaching out to their communities and tailoring services to meet their needs?  Why have I been going to "managing change" workshops for my entire professional life if trying to change how we do things is an idea that just arrived?  If “Library 2.0” is going to mean something it has to mean something substantially different from “Library 1.0”.  I can’t see it.  If people have trouble defining Library 2.0, they need to try defining Library 1.0.

But more troubling to me is a subtler connotation inherent in the term.  I understand that the pro-“Library 2.0” folks are all about better customer service and a focus on the patron.  I believe that.  And yet, I still see too many posts where the focus is still on the library and not on the relationship between the librarian and the community.  There is still far too much focus on using these tools to get people into the library.  (For example, this by the Industrial Librarian, who I often agree with).  But the power of these tools is that it makes it possible in many, many cases to provide services to people without forcing them to come to the library.  When we see our goal as getting people to come to the building, we are missing the opportunity to expand the power and reach of our services by several magnitudes.  Don’t get me wrong – the library building remains critically important.  It is a very powerful tool in our arsenal.  And for 7,000 years, the only way we could provide services to people was to get them to come to the building.  The real revolution, and the real opportunity, is that librarians no longer need to be limited by the library.  But that requires a significant creative shift in how we think about what we do.  Much of the chatter I see about Library 2.0 is getting there, but using that term clouds the thinking. 

To my public librarian colleagues:  Think of the members of your communities for whom coming to find you is still a hardship – people in distant rural communities, people in urban settings with poor public transportation where the nearest branch is still a long distance away, people in nursing homes for whom travel is out of the question.  What about setting up relationships with nursing homes so that there is easy computer access, librarians training people how to use it, and delivery services that come by on a regular basis (and be sure to find out which nursing homes the parents of your library board members are in and start there!)   What about partnering with local hospital libraries to expand your ability to direct people to good sources to answer their healthcare questions?  The goal needs to be providing services and tools to our communities that enable them to better manage their information needs/desires.  When coming to the library is the best way to do that, great -- but when we can do that by going to where they are, then that's what we ought to be doing.

If we become more innovative, more radical, more creative librarians, our libraries will be just fine.  But if the limit of our imaginations is how we can use these tools to try to get people into the library, then we ain’t very revolutionary yet. 



Very good post. I interpret Library 2.0 to mean taking advantage of new interactive technologies to provide outreach services to patrons in innovative ways. This certainly evokes the feeling of, "what were we trying to do before now?" and I agree with you about reaching out to patrons instead of pulling them in. However, you know how librarians and professionals and general like cutesy names for "revolutionary" ideas that seem to be common sense - knowledge management, anyone? If sticking a label on it gets people excited about service possibilities, then I'm all for it.

I think there is some potential in the "Web 2.0" tools to promote the services of librarians, separate from the physical library and not linked to a specific institution. For my own part, I've started answering some Yahoo! Answers questions with a moniker including the word "librarian." It's a subtle form of promotion, but I was concerned about the quality of answers, particularly on health topics, that some users were providing. My challenge to other librarians ( to do something similar was pointed more toward my new librarian colleagues as a tool for keeping reference skills sharp, but I'd be happy to have you join in! :)
R. Walden

T Scott

Thanks for the invitation -- I may do that!

While I appreciate the point about any label that gets people motivated is good, and I've worried about being too persnickety with it, I think I'm too much of a word freak to say that just any label will do. Words are powerful, and when the word is vague and cognitively empty (which I think "Library 2.0" is) then, instead of helping to focus our thinking, it keeps our thinking vague as well. "Web 2.0" is actually very clear and specific, so I understand the appeal of the analogy -- I just don't think it works. To the extent that it has generated a lot of discussion about roles and services, that's a good thing, but I think we'd be better off deciding the term wasn't such a good one after all, and move on.



Have you read the essay "Ontology is Overrated," by Clay Shirky?:

Shirky talks about "adding the shelf back" in the digital world--Creating elaborate cataloging schemes for digital objects, just as we did for physical objects. He argues that this isn't necessary anymore, and that we need to let go and become comfortable with user-defined categories.

This is tough medicine for librarians enamored of intricate classifications. Similarly, it is hard to let go of the notion that people should still come to library buildings. We seem to be at the beginning of a long curve of professional readjustment to the realities and potential of the Internet age.

Paul Miller

"But the power of these tools is that it makes it possible in many, many cases to provide services to people without forcing them to come to the library".

Absolutely, and part of a very interesting post.

The current generation of tools are a means to an end. They are a way to take some of the value from which visitors to the physical building benefited (and continue to benefit) and offer it to those who need it elsewhere. This moves beyond the notion of delivering library services via an online manifestation of the library through its website, and begins to see them available alongside and integrated with complementary offerings from other parts of a university or government, or services such as those from Amazon, Google, or eBay. None of these tools are perfect. Few of them, by themselves, are even that special.

There have certainly been technological advances before, and you list several of them, but Library 2.0 seems - to me, at least - to denote a quite remarkable convergence of technologies, of general capabilities amongst a growing cohort of the population, of changing attitudes, and of potential.

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