Saturday, August 16, 2008

On Library 2.0: or, Digital Refugees

I'm seeing a theme emerging in my own posts throughout this Learning 2.0 process: "This is really great, and I can appreciate its value to global culture...but I'm not interested in using much of it myself."

Hmmm...I guess this is why I named the blog The Surly Librarian. I could have called it Old Dog Librarian, except that I can learn new tricks. They just have to be ones I intend to use. Convince me that I might value using a trick and I will learn it.

That grumpy intro having been written, let me step back from personal preferences and intentions, and see what I want to say about 2.0....

I began with Tom Storey's introduction to Where will the next generation Web take libraries?. He describes what he sees as the plusses of Web 2.0. I have mixed feelings.

In Web 2.0, the Web becomes the center of a new digital lifestyle that changes our culture and touches every aspect of our lives. The Web moves from simply being sites and search engines to a shared network space that drives work, research, education, entertainment and social activities—essentially everything people do.
This "shared network space" has obviously changed the political and economic realities of the whole world...for the people who have access to it.

I don't object to the positive changes; I make use of them myself. In fact, I believe the opening out of the world of communication—across space and time, across every sort of political, cultural, ethnic, religious or other barrier—may be the most importance evolutionary step the human race has made since the development of empirical science.

Just one non-trivial example: The Chinese government could not prevent global awareness of it's negligence and political manipulation following the earthquake in May, and people across the globe have been able to coordinate with each other to send aid, all because of this "shared network space."

However, as I keep saying, I am extremely concerned for the millions, perhaps billions, of people who do not have access, or, if they do, lack adequate skills, education and savvy to navigate the high-speed, consumer-oriented world to which the Web caters.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I have an ethical concern over the cavalier way in which contemporary American society neglects and abandons those who cannot "keep up" with the latest in social, economic and technological interaction.

There is a moral tradition of responsibility for the well being of those less fortunate than oneself which seems to have fallen out of the American mindset. We may pay lip service to the notion of the digital divide, yet we don't generally see a moral obligation to help digital refugees to cross the divide.

Non-trivial example: JPL cannot realistically afford the staff time it would take to help non-computer savvy customers to apply for employment, unemployment, welfare benefits, etc., all of which must be done online. It's not our mandate. We aren't funded to do it.

However, the government agencies which do have the mandate to provide such services send their customers to us.

This leads me to my second comment, responding to part of Rick Anderson's Away from the “icebergs” piece. Here's the passage which bothers me:

Reliance on user education: Libraries are poorly equipped and insufficiently staffed for teaching....

We need to focus our efforts not on teaching research skills but on eliminating the barriers that exist between patrons and the information they need, so they can spend as little time as possible wrestling with lousy search interfaces and as much time as possible actually reading and learning.

Obviously, we’ll help and educate patrons when we can, and when they want us to, and the more we can integrate our services with local curricula, the better. But if our services can’t be used without training, then it’s the services that need to be fixed—not our patrons.
Anderson perpetuates the conventional fantasy: namely, that our only obligation is to make stuff available, the "newest, most improved" stuff, for those consumers who know about it and want it.

My professional training and ethics focus elsewhere. As a librarian, I understand my primary role to be helping customers learn how to access and use information resources for themselves.

If all of my attention and skills and time much be committed to dumbing down technology so that customers can use it without having to think about it, then I may be in the wrong profession.

I am greatly distressed that learning how to learn is no longer a core expectation of our culture. I'm not interested in cooperating with the abandonment of that expectation.

Call me old fashioned. It's a moral as well as a practical issue for me.


Note: See my next post for an article I had bookmarked before I read Rick Anderson.

It's called "Getting The Most Out Of Your Library," by Williams Hicks of Digital Web Magazine, and it could be read as a counterargument to Anderson's "Away from the 'icebergs'."

1 comment:

Kema said...

This is a great post, Mike. Very thoughtful (as usual).