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Libraries in the age of social knowledge

This article appears in the issue May 2007, [Vol 16, Issue 5]

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Some social networking sites succeed, and some fail. Frequently, the ones that succeed don’t just connect people and hope for the best. They provide social objects, items that the group can share, talk about and build relationships around. In business teams, “deliverables” frequently serve that purpose: As the drafts of the proposal or report or spreadsheet get passed around, team members contribute, and along the way expose a bit about themselves and build relationships. Social objects build societies.

Libraries have many virtues, but treating books as social objects has not been one of them. In fact, the things on the shelves of libraries have been treated in exactly the opposite manner. A library book is passed from one person to another, in serial fashion, intact. You are penalized for making the book your own by, say, highlighting passages or writing in the margins, no matter how smart your annotations are. In fact, libraries have been “Shhh!” cultures, a characterization many librarians have been struggling to change for a couple of decades now.

Because libraries have been physical spaces, this has made perfect sense. Your book mark-up, no matter how smart, distracts others. Your jabbering away in one of the library’s reading room disturbs other. That’s just how space and matter work.

Libraries have had to protect their objects against the predations of the social. But that’s exactly the opposite of how social objects embed themselves in our relationships. Social objects are changed by their interaction with each person, and discussion occurs around those changes.

In a digitized, networked world, however, works of knowledge can be fully social. They can be built collaboratively. They can be altered and maintained by crowds. Even when they’re written by a single person, they often contain within them social functionality such as comment fields. So long as they are on the network, social functionality can be layered on top of them, whether they like it or not: They can be tagged and organized, they can be reviewed, they can be commented on and linked to, they can be rated, they can be reused and repurposed within the limits of the law. And it is in that socialization that they gain value: The commentary and contextualization adds and refines ideas. Mere links to the knowledge objects make them part of the vast inhalation and exhalation that is the network.

Libraries in such a world don’t have value because of their collections—when works are digitized, we only need one collection and it’ll be spread all over the Web—but because of their metadata. When everything is available, libraries help us find what we need. But it’s not at all clear that physical libraries are particularly well suited to that task. We can find much of what we need simply through search engines. We can find more by tracing through blogs and using the new social navigation tools, such as tags. Nor do we need libraries in order for us to talk about what we’re learning; the open market seems to be doing a pretty good job innovating in that space. Libraries will continue to exist, curating special collections and perhaps will be reinvented as social learning spaces, but they are not going to have the role or prominence they once had. The transition period is likely to be shorter than the length of a generation, although that depends on unknowables such as how the courts interpret copyright law and how Congress responds.

But librarians are a different matter. These dedicated professionals are heroes of knowledge. They will continue to deploy their facility with organization and connections, although I suspect they will look a bit more like information architects, inventing new ways to pull knowledge together. A certain type of subject matter expert will also do some of the traditional work of librarians, knowing the obscure byways of knowledge within particular domains.

As works of knowledge become more and more social, we will still need humans staying one step ahead, guiding us with greater wisdom than the works themselves can muster. Those are our librarians.

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