Thursday, 14 June 2007

Librarians and Web 2.0

Yesterday I attended a seminar organised by the City Information Group, entitled "Will technology replace the research centre? How will the corporate librarian's role evolve?". There was a small panel comprising Euan Semple, Mike Angle (Alacra) with Mark Chillingworth as chair(Information World Review).

The members of CIG are largely corporate librarians and researchers. Much of their time is spent fulfilling requests for information by accessing proprietary online databases such as LexisNexis. The thrust of the panel's argument was that Web 2.0 is a potential threat to this role, since it is essentially that of an intermediary, and Web 2.0 implies disintermediation.

I expected the audience to be largely up to speed on what Web 2.0 is, but that did not appear to be the case. At least, several of those who spoke up appeared to be deeply ignorant of the subject. And a show of hands implied little hands-on experience, at least, with blogs and wikis, Wikipedia excepted.

The other theme from the audience was authenticity/accuracy of the information to be found in blogs, wikis and social networks. Many of them were very keen to believe that it was unreliable and could therefore be ignored.

I felt a sense of déjà vu. I am not a trained librarian, but I managed a corporate information centre for year back in 1998. At the time the Web (Web 1.0?) was really beginning to gather steam, and I found myself grappling with not dissimilar issues then.

So what in fact has changed, if anything, and is there more need now than 9 years ago for the role of librarians to evolve? I think two things have changed in the last couple of years. The first is that the arrival of mass publishing via blogs, wikis and other social media has made available a great deal of (free) information which can be surprisingly accurate and current. The second is that there are in effect now a lot of amateur librarians out there on the Web - people who are willing to spend time uncovering information for the benefit of others, and linking to it. These two facts taken together imply pressure on the paid-for, authenticated information sources and pressure on the professional searchers.

So what's the answer for library people? Throw in the towel? I don't think so, but in my view a fairly radical change of role is needed. Information specialists need to include the 'informally created' material in their universe of relevant information and they need to understand how best to access it. They also need to act as enablers of the setting-up and fostering of the frameworks that make creation (and retrieval) of such material possible within an organisation.

That's my view. What's yours?


Matt Moore said...

I seem to recall that the CIG had a session on the internet in the mid-90s where attendees were polled as to its expected business impact. Most of them thought it would have no impact at all. They don't have a good track record in these areas.

Corporate librarians have been wringing their hands about this stuff for years. They need to continue to move from a "doing" role to an "advising/coaching" role. Oddly enough, I think PR people are in exactly the same boat. Strange bedfellows...

Frankly I think it's a golden opportunity to move up the value chain & do something more interesting but not everyone else sees it that way.

N.B. I am a qualified librarian & former member of CIG.

Simon Carswell said...

Around '95-'96 I don't think many people understood the potential impact of the Internet. The www had barely got off the ground at that point. But by the late 90s things had become (or should have become) a lot clearer.

I agree with you about moving up the value chain. Actually, we all need to keep an eye on that, not least because so many services can now be offshored.