Becoming Nodes of Information

By Michelle Boule |

Lee Rainie has been directing the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project for the past 10 years. He was recently interviewed by Project Information Literacy about a new book he is writing about what he calls the “new social operating system.” In the interview, Lee says some interesting things about the way information is used and created and the role librarians play in this new operating system.

Nodes are actors in networks. Usually, we’ve thought of network nodes as people, but increasingly, organizations can be “nodes” that provide information and advice that help people make decisions or cope with problems. People become nodes by acting like friends and being content creators. In the book, Barry and I cite lots of data from his four decades of research and Pew Internet findings that show how you can become a node by following the Golden Rule, being helpful, building trust by sharing your thoughts and experiences (including via social media), admitting mistakes, and being open to a variety of people and points of view.

Lee’s idea of nodes sounds a lot like the traditional role of librarians. We know that, as librarians, we are equipped to “provide information and advice” and of course, as librarians, we love to be helpful.  As institutions and as individuals, librarians spend most of our time trying to be nodes to our communities in different ways. Later on in the interview, Lee mentions librarians specifically and our unique positioning to fill the information needs around us.

Still, I have a lot of interactions with librarians and they would insist that those “you’re a dinosaur” perceptions are hopelessly out of touch with what’s happening in the library world. Library spaces are being changed precisely to take account of the networked learning environment that I discussed in the last question. Moreover, librarians are among the most advanced advocates on some campuses for the proposition “we’ll give you what you want where you are; you don’t have to come to us (although we could help you even more if you did).”

These are librarians who embody the idea that they can be “nodes” in students’ and scholars’ learning networks. Barry and I argue in the book that people rely on their social networks to help them learn and evaluate new information. In the world of fire-hose delivery of digital data, librarians could be particularly valued for that traditional expertise, updated for the digital age.

To me, the idea that Lee brings up--that we can be nodes of information in an individual’s learning network--is not a new concept, but the way in which we do this is constantly shifting. For librarians, simply "being online" is no longer enough to make an impact in the lives of our community--we have to connect on a personal level with people online, in their social networks, and as individuals.

I think that that we must strive to build a relationship with people in our network for the sake of the connections themselves, not as a means to an end. We live in the social networks, and many of us are already doing this. We then seek opportunities to be a node of information for individuals in our network when the opportunity arises. The information sharing becomes a by-product, albeit a very important one, of the relationships we have created and nurtured online.

For librarians, this means that we should--indeed we need--to be spending quality time online, living our lives are many of us already do, sharing with the world an honest version of ourselves. We must start to take more seriously the connections we make online, even in our personal spaces. We should never pass up an opportunity to offer information where it is needed. For many of us, librarianship chose us and we do not stop being a librarian when we leave our library building.

Where does this new idea of networks and nodes leave institutions? Lee’s idea of nodes comes from personal, individual connections. Though he does say that organizations can become nodes, I think it takes individuals to make an institution a true node. Organizations can, as Lee stated, provide spaces that can nurture these new kind of networks.

These spaces should be both physical and online. When creating physical spaces that are conducive to network creation and information sharing, institutions should not forget to create these kind of spaces for employees and as well as for the community. We often forget that our employees need space to create if they are to become important individually to our community. Institutions must provide the technology and freedom to their employees if they are to be a true node for information.

Next week, many of us will be traveling to New Orleans for ALA Annual. While there, we will spend time going to presentations, talking to exhibitors, giving presentations, planning a world takeover in true #makeithappen style, and many other fabulous things. We will do all of these things and then we will share our experiences online in tweets, on facebook, in photos, and on blogs. We will be sharing our experience with our network and our networks reach far beyond the scope of librarianship.

We are nodes of information in our social networks. We can not miss the opportunities that come our way to do what we, as librarians, do best: Share information with others.