Impact Factors For Library Literature
Which Country Am I Living In?

Saying What You Mean

I'm not quite as concerned about the impending demise of the sentence as James Billington seems to be in this article from last Sunday's Washington Post, but the "creeping inarticulateness" that he speaks of is certainly apparent everywhere.   I confess that I still find it shocking that in the early discussions of the definition of "Library 2.0" there were many proponents of the term who argued that it didn't matter, or that it was even preferable, that we not have a clear definition of the term, that it's very vagueness was actually an advantage.   That librarians, society's guardians of knowledge, were saying this, still depresses me.

One sees a similar attitude among some bloggers who describe their posts as "just getting my thoughts out", or "trying out ideas", or "just doing rough drafts" -- as if ideas and the language they're expressed in are somehow separable. 

I first began to appreciate the beauty and critical importance of sentences from reading the great short story artist Harold Brodkey, who was absolutely manic and obsessive in his devotion to getting each sentence right -- the right words, the right tone, the right balance, the right music.  All of those carry meaning, and if one element is off, the writing fails.

As an editor, one of my roles was to pay a lot of attention to sentences.  I recall many instances where I would spend a considerable amount of time on a single paragraph, going over it again and again, trying to sort out exactly what the author was really trying to say.  The challenge then was to come up with alternatives that maintained the tone and voice of the author, while clarifying and conveying the actual meaning.   It would be easy enough to rewrite it to sound like me -- but I always wanted it to sound like the original writer.  That's what makes an editor.

Those who see "publishing" as simply a matter of doing some kind of peer review, clarifying some of the facts & conclusions, and then putting things up on a website, miss the importance of that kind of editing.   A well edited article carries the reader along -- it feels effortless.  Without it, reading becomes a chore.  How many ideas never get the distribution that they deserve because the prose they're encased in makes reading just too damn much work?

Language is dynamic, of course, and I don't consider the shorthands and emoticons that are used in chats and tweets and texts to be evidence of the degradation of the written language.  They're useful and often quite clever ways to convey simple meanings within certain technological constraints.  But they're a  very thin thread to hang complex meaning on.

As I grow older, the notion of "story" becomes increasingly important to me.   I was talking to someone about the presentation that I was working on for Scotland.  "I've got the arc of the story figured out, now it's just a matter of pulling together the images that I want to illustrate it, and making sure the transitions work the way that I want them to."  I always think of a presentation as telling a story, as having a plot, as requiring a certain flow to take the listener from beginning to end. The Post writer makes the point, "The sentence itself is a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Something happens in a sentence."

I often get compliments on my writing, and I'm grateful for that.  But it's quite simple, really.  The first thing I try to do is write good sentences.


walt crawford

An eloquent post. I should read it once a week and try to improve my own sentences. Thanks.


From one who is struggling horribly lately, thank you!

Mark Funk

While I absolutely agree with you on the importance of good sentences, I have never understood your objections to the vagueness of the phrase "Library 2.0." You seem to want Library 2.0 to be a well written book. As an author progresses from sentence to paragraph to chapter to book -- each has been (or should have been) carefully considered, crafted for clarity, tone, and voice. The author wants the reader to have a very precise understanding of the concept or action being conveyed. For the most part, the author has one chance to get this right; after it is printed, there are no corrections, additions or subtractions. (I'm ignoring revised editions, but you get the idea.)

Contrast this finished, authored piece with the concept called "Library 2.0." First off, there are no authors, no committee writing standards; just people writing and talking about it. It's a movement, a new idea -- still growing, still evolving, changing even as its environment changes almost daily. To object to the concept as you have done previously because it contains elements currently practiced is one thing, but to demand precision and definitions is to deny its very nature. It's an organic meme, and it not only has different meanings to different people today, it will probably have different meanings to those same people next month. You may as well object to a jazz piece played differently by different artists.

If Library 2.0 could speak, it might well echo Whitman:
"Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)"

T Scott

If I thought that people who used the term were simply playing jazz with language I'd have no problem with it. But most people using it seemed to think that it actually means something -- there just hasn't been any agreement about what that is. I'm okay with words & terms having incomplete, fuzzy, somewhat ambiguous, context-based meanings. But when a word means whatever someone wants it to mean and that can change day by day, then it doesn't enhance communication, it interferes with it.

Maybe the situation is changing and now people are just using "Library 2.0" as a poetic shorthand way of referring to a desire to embrace change and do good and explore new communication tools and reach out to our communities. That's fine. But it's pretty clear that's not what was intended by the people who first started using it, and who believed that it defined a substantially new way of thinking about libraries. When people say we must embrace Library 2.0, but then can't tell me what that actually means and why it is different from what we've done in the past, then I think they're being incoherent.


I'm with Mark on this one. It doesn't bother me that "Library 2.0" is undefined and ever-shifting, because that's the stage it is in right now (with the legitimate caveat that a lot of "1.0" is still in "2.0"). In ten years this vagueness would be disconcerting, but right now I just say, "roll with it."

This isn't to say that precision and careful crafting aren't still valuable. Right now I'm working on an essay, off-blog, the old-fashioned way: in fits and starts; with many drafts. Hopefully it is clear and compelling by the time I am through.

For my own blog posts, I have a different standard. I strive not to spout off gibberish, but more casualness feels OK. If somebody uses their blog to "think out loud" and states as much, what's wrong with that? As long as you know their intent, you know how to read it.

T Scott

"Casualness" is great. I'm all for it. And certainly one of the great things about blogs is that you can use them in whatever way you want -- including "thinking out loud". But then people should not be surprised if they're misunderstood or if someone challenges them on the grounds of what they actually said, as opposed to what they think they thought they were trying to say.

T Scott

And I guess I have to say that I still have trouble with phrases like, "because that's the stage it is in right now."

What is "it"?

Mark Funk

Hmmm, a battle between Lewis Carroll and Walt Whitman...

T Scott

I'll bet Walt loved Jabberwocky.


"It" = "Library 2.0" in that sentence.

I agree that if definitions change too frequently that's a sign of incoherence; and that blog posters who are "thinking out loud" should be prepared to face some criticisms.

But as long as the definition of Library 2.0 is relatively stable, I'm fine with some fuzziness about it. "Relatively" is the operative word here, I know. But asking for totally precise definitions at this stage of the game seems premature to me.

OK--It's time to read Jabberwocky while strolling leaves of grass.

I guess I am

T Scott

Yes, I know that "it" refers to "Library 2.0", but that doesn't tell me what it is. If, as you say, the definition is "relatively stable", can you tell me what that definition is? And do you have some confidence that the majority of people who use the term would agree? Give me a definition and some evidence that it is a shared definition among the people who use it and I'll shut up about it.

Marcus Banks

My sense of the shared definition of Library 2.0 is: Using tools like blogs, wikis and social bookmarks to deliver library resources and facilitate collaboration. Whether this is what libraries have always done is another question--this is simply my sense of what the definition is.

Will take a bit longer for me to look into whether there is truly a shared definition, but that seems like a fun weekend project. But even if there's not a shared definition yet, I think that's OK because the entire "2.0" concept is still new.

Here's a thought experiment: Does everyone mean the same thing by "interlibrary loan?" Sure--it seems to mean loans between libraries. But in Library A that could mean between any library in the world; in Library B it might be restricted to libraries within a consortial system.

Another example: "Circulation desk" means the place where you check out books at Library A; at Library B it's the place where you check out books and also get technical help for logging onto the campus wireless network.

So, even with very established terms there is some fuzziness based on local context. This is why I am not worried that Library 2.0 is not well defined yet; I think it's too early to expect that.

T Scott

In their article in Library Journal ( Casey (who is credited with first use of the term) and Savastinuk explicitly reject the notion the Library 2.0 refers simply to the use of certain tools -- they make a far broader claim.

David Lee King recounts an anecdote ( in which a particular customer service episode which has nothing to do with social networking is held up as a primary example of Library 2.0.

Blyberg suggests that "The true pursuit of Library 2.0 involves a thorough recalibration of process, policy, physical spaces, staffing, and technology so that any hand-offs in the patron’s library experience are truly seamless." (

If there was a consensus that "Library2.0" simply referred to the use of "tools like blogs, wikis and social bookmarks to deliver library resources and facilitate collaboration" I'd have less trouble with it, but the claims of the most prominent and prolific bloggers on the topic have been much broader, and it is in their attempt to claim some kind of paradigm shift that I believe they fall into incoherence.

Your thought experiment fails in that there is no ambiguity about the fact that ILL refers to the exchange of materials between libraries -- that there are numerous ways in which that service might be implemented doesn't shake the shared understanding that it involves a transfer of materials between libraries.

Marcus Banks

There seems to be a "messianic" stage whenever anything "new" comes along (new in quotes because whether Library 2.0 is totally different than 1.0 is another question.)

This messianic stage was certainly part of the open access debate--it still is today, but at much less of a fever pitch. These days more people recognize that we need to work with publishers as the scholarly communications system evolves, rather than always vilifying them.

So I think the same thing is happening with Library 2.0--sweeping claims at first; wild over-reach next; then a settling down into a shared understanding.

Maybe we should establish a rule of thumb: Don't take any of the blog posts or articles that appear in the first six months (maybe a year?) of a movement too seriously. That cmprises the infancy and adolescent stages.

OK--Everybody knows what ILL is. But circ desks fill different functions depending on library. I bet that circ. assistants from different places would need to define terms at the beginning of a meeting about circulation. Might only take 30 seconds, much less time than it would take to define Library 2.0. My point is that there is always a little fuzziness, even with tried-and-true terms.

Dean Giustini

Marcus (and Mark)

You are both sensible chaps. I also like Scott's point about the shifting definition of Library 2.0, and that it can be used as a kind of shorthand.

I'm with Mark too about the 'foofarah' about the use of web 2.0 - what's the problem? as long as we don't misuse/abuse it, it's helpful.



When we nail this one down, can we please set to work on "informatics"....


walt crawford

Boy, this thread brings back memories...of trying to figure out what Library 2.0 meant back when it really was claimed to be a movement, and after much research and a 32-page special issue of Cites & Insights (, still not knowing what "it" is. (Marcus: It ain't a fun weekend project. Trust me on this one. Adding 28 months more data to what I did then won't help.)

Has the situation improved since early 2006? Certainly not in terms of a clearer definition or a stable meaning.

As for "Web 2.0," that's simple: It's a trademark for a series of conferences held by O'Reilly. In other words, it's a brand name.


So true Walt! As soon as I wrote those words I realized the folly of my ambitions!

The comments to this entry are closed.