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Tuesday 13 November 2007

Web 2.0 and Library 2.0

(Rather belatedly: the text of my contribution to our institution's report-back session after the Lianza 2007 conference. I had a five-minute time limit or I wouldn't have composed a speech in such detail. Links are to my blog posts about each conference paper. The papers themselves are at the Lianza website.)

Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 are the buzzwords of the decade. They're all about the new kinds of interactive websites out there, and about the new ideas about getting our users participating in improving our libraries.

Last millenium (I love being able to say that) most web pages were just like a page in a book: someone wrote it, and a bunch of people came along and read it. This millenium, more and more websites are like a whiteboard where the person who owns it hands out a pen to everyone who comes to visit. So you get blogs where visitors can comment. Wikis where visitors can fix typos and add information. Websites where users can create social groups and share information with each other. All of that is Web 2.0.

Library 2.0 is the realisation that a lot of people like this approach -- sharing information instead of just taking it. And it's the idea that if we let people participate in the library like this, then they could help us make our services more useful to them.

This is a huge idea, which is why there's a lot of talk about it, both for and against. At the conference, I went to at least eight papers about it, so most of them I'm just going to skim over.

I'll start with the ones against -- or at least, the cautious ones. Peter Darlington talked about the IT perspective - about how they have to be careful with new technology, planning for the worst. Modern systems are extremely complex, so they have to make sure that anything added to it doesn't compromise its security, and doesn't make everything crash.

Andy Neale talked about how we don't have to jump on every bandwagon. We should focus on what we're trying to achieve: he was very keen on figuring out what you want to do first, and only then working out how you're going to do it technically.

Brian Flaherty and Paul Sutherland were more enthusiastic about Web 2.0. They did point out that there's no use in just setting up blogs and wikis if they don't actually add value to our services. But we can use modern technologies to make our search systems easier to use, for example. And we can use them to get users participating in the library.

Paul Reynolds talked more about users participating and creating content, and about harnessing that. We create subject headings, which is great, but if we let users add information about levels we don't look at, that'd be even better. Or if we let users present search results in a completely different format -- like showing books about Captain Cook on a map according to where they were published; or a Beethoven CD side-by-side with an encyclopaedia article about him; or an email every time a new book about cochlear implants is added to the catalogue. We don't have the time to do all this sort of thing ourselves, but if we made our data openly accessible then our users could do it.

All of this might sound pretty theoretical, so I'll get into some examples of what libraries have been doing. The University of Waikato has been creating interactive tutorials, online library tours, and podcasts (that's essentially blogging by voice instead of typing). A lot of the technology they used to do all of this was available for free on the web.

CPIT have been working on podcast library tours for the same reason as Waikato, so students can listen to them whenever and wherever they need them. They also created a video tour in NZSL, and they're wanting to do a tour in Te Reo. Again, they talked about focusing on the users, not the technology.

And for the same reason I want to mention the Dental Library at Otago -- they didn't use any new technology at all, but it was the same idea of getting students participating in their own learning. Instead of the normal library tour where students trail around listening passively, the Dental Library created a treasure hunt where the students were essentially creating their own tour.

So you don't need to use technology to get users participating in the library - but it can let you do some really amazing things. I'm going to finish up with the Horowhenua Library Trust. Their council asked them to help gather all the pieces of the local cultural heritage that were scattered among small organisations and private individuals. So they created a piece of free web software and they asked the people in their community to participate by adding their own information onto the website.

At the conference they played us a recording of a builder who'd never seen a computer in his life -- but within an hour and a half of going into the library, he was cataloguing images of machinery for them. They were overwhelmed with volunteers -- retired secretaries, people who'd say they could maybe do half an hour a day, and now they're doing it full-time, four days a week. People are logging in and adding information about photos that no-one else could identify.

Their view of Web 2.0 is of "radical trust": trusting their community to create their own library -- and by giving that trust, they're getting an amazing digital library that they couldn't ever have created without that community's participation.