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Wednesday 18 January 2012

The opportunity of the SOPA blackout

I don't know how this will come across, but I have serious reservations about the suggestion I've seen in a few places that libraries can take advantage of Wikipedia being down to promote the library.

I mean, yes, we can do that, but if libraries are only useful when Wikipedia's down then libraries are pretty crappy. And yes, I know that's not what people are meaning when they're suggesting/doing this, but it's what it comes across like to me at least. I envisage hordes of students desperately trying to finish their assignments grudgingly admitting, "Okay, for that one 24-hour period in a lifetime when Wikipedia's down, the library's kinda useful. Apart from being slow and clunky and not giving me enough or up-to-date enough information. Thank $Deity Wikipedia's back up tomorrow!"

Because to be honest, when it comes to ready reference, everything sucks compared to Wikipedia. I'm a librarian, I know my library's resources, and I'm also a geek and know how to search the web at large, but if I want a quick introduction to almost anything I go to Wikipedia. If I want to figure out what model my cellphone is, if I want a description of a database that isn't a salespitch, if I want a listing of all the episodes of White Collar, if I want a summary of King Lear, if I want to decode a biochemical reference query I've just received by email so I can start answering it...

If I want to know something and I want to know it now, not in two minutes time, I go to Wikipedia. Because none of the library's references resources is anywhere near as convenient, easy to use, up-to-date, or thorough.

(If I need to know for certain I'll double-check elsewhere. But that doesn't happen nearly as regularly as needing to know it now.)

So to me, the blackout as an opportunity to promote the library as a replacement for Wikipedia is just an opportunity to show people one of our greatest weaknesses. The strengths of a library are so much more than that, but we can't promote them by setting up this comparison.

The real opportunity of the SOPA blackout is to educate people about intellectual property and freedom of information. You know -- that thing which the blackout was supposed to be about.

Beyond the simple ethics of not hijacking an important cause (and btw, I have even graver misgivings about using the blackout to promote the databases sold to us by the publishers supporting SOPA!), teaching people about this stuff is a much more important part of our mission than pointing them to the encyclopaedias. And fulfilling this mission will do far more to promote our real strengths.