What Is New about Library 2.0

By Jenny Levine |

I've been fascinated by the conversations taking place about Library 2.0, because even just a year ago it seemed unthinkable we would be at the point at which we have a name for the next generation of online library services. And yet, here we are.

Unfortunately for me, other commitments have kept me offline for much of the last few months, so I've missed the details of those discussions. Still, I feel compelled to weigh in on some of the more recent questions about the concept, with caveat apologies if some of this has already been highlighted elsewhere and I just haven't seen it.

For me, "Library 2.0" is not just about making your content easier to use online or getting feedback from your users. It's about letting others use granular pieces of our content where they want, when they want, how they want, automatically, specifically online (although users can then also mash our content however they want in the physical world, too). Read that over a second time and you'll see that it is a very new concept for libraries.

Traditionally, we've locked up our resources behind passwords and barcodes, keeping things in catalogs and databases no one else can access except by coming to our sites to do manual searches. Even our digitization and local history projects are like this, not to mention our knowledge and expertise.

Have we always solicited feedback from our users? Sure, but not online, other than as a one-way form that sends the comments to one person. This and this are VERY new and VERY different from what librarians did before 2005. In my presentations, I highlight how libraries are using these tools to replicate the connections, services, vibrancy, and knowledge base we already do so well within our buildings. But when you go look at our Web sites and Web services, you see very little of this, and you have to come our URLs to do it.

In the meantime, while we were busy burying and hiding our content and resources, the rest of the world decided to share—openly. As a result, libraries are not in that mix and we're not where the users are. Complete strangers do very cool things with Google Maps, A9, etc., because they have open APIs (programming interfaces) that let them. Libraries don't.

If you want to think small and look at L2 through the lens of only what we have done in the past, then yes it is nothing new; however, if you look around at what is happening on the rest of the Internet, you'll see there's been a very different shift, and new services that create a sense of community and make connections have arisen, which has, in turn, created new expectations on the part of users. Look no further than the August 2005 Technology Review article, Social Machines, for proof. L2 is about doing the same thing with libraries ONLINE.

I've said before that 2005 was the year libraries finally "got it," because we now have tools that help level the playing field, and even small libraries with few resources can participate. As was pointed out in numerous blog posts and presentations this year, any library can blog, wiki, offer RSS feeds (at least of headlines, and now we're finally working on vendors to provide other content in feeds), instant message, podcast, Flickr, etc. If you take a step back and look at what all of those tools and technologies could mean for a library's online presence, you can't help but be optimistic about what L2 can do for us IN THE SPACES WHERE OUR USERS ARE. Again, a very new concept.

So pieces of the big picture include things like constant change, making the library user-centered, and encouraging user participation—but there's a lot more to it than that. There's also disintermediation of content as well as shifting your services to where your users are. When L2 opponents say that libraries have been doing these things all along, they're right—IF they're talking about doing it within the library's four walls. However, they've failed to understand that we don't do this online (well, most of us don't—a few leading libraries have finally started).

For example, Steven Cohen wrote:

Again, stuff librarians have been talking about for decades. How is this anything new? Constant change: What about fighting censorship, freedom to read initiatives, the entire YA concept, renting cassette tapes, CDs, software, DVDs, or buying 15 copies of the latest best-seller? Tell me that these concepts have nothing to do with any of the 3 Casey ideas. I can come up with many more examples from library history that fit his ideas. It would seem to me that libraries have always been dealing with the idea of constant change (the 'perpetual beta'), being user-driven and trying to being in new users. [Library Stuff]

Steven has a point, but only if you apply his examples in the physical world. In the online world, it's very different. Show me an example of librarians doing a great job of fighting censorship online where the content can be reused elsewhere, users contribute, and the content is user-centered. The problem is that librarians just haven't thought like this (in all fairness, most of the world didn't until the last year or two), but now we need to really start applying these concepts to our online services, and that's where "Library 2.0" comes in.

Is technology a big piece of it? Sure, because you can't do things online without it. Does that make it all about technology? Heck no. Does that negate it? Heck no. Just like Web 2.0 is about technology AND people, so is Library 2.0.

The easiest way to illustrate this is to look at the sidebars on many different blogs. On the sidebar of mine, I can display my most current Flickr picture with just a snippet of code. The picture lives on their server, but I can reuse it however I please on my site. Take that into the library world and look at Edward Vielmetti's site where he's displaying the RSS feed of what he has on hold at his library. Can I do that with any content from your library? Most likely I can't, and again, that's where "Library 2.0" comes in.

A few months ago someone asked me, "Can you have Library 2.0 without Librarian 2.0?" My answer was no, you can't, because while L2 is driven by technology, ultimately it's about what people (in this case librarians and library users) do with the technology. I think that's why Michael Casey focuses on reaching out to new users (in this case, online users); inviting customer participation online (and displaying it there, not just soliciting it); and relying on constant change (online) as three foundations of the movement.

Personally, I find that L2 opponents tend not to work at an actual library, so I have to think that some of their confusion and fear about the concept is they don't know what a struggle it is for a modern-day practitioner to have to try to create L2 on her own, as an addition to the five other hats she's already wearing. Her only hope to do any of the things implied in these discussions is L2 as a wider movement across the profession. Those librarians who do have some (if not all of) the involvement in maintaining the library's online services and Web presence do tend to pick up on the concept faster.

As John Blyberg says, we shouldn't get derailed on the semantics of this. Is it really worth arguing about whether this is new or not or driven by technology or not when we could actually be implementing this stuff? I don't think so, and frankly that's one reason I won't spend much more time on those discussions. In general, I'd rather help libraries do all of this than talk about who invented it, how far it goes back, or discuss whether or not enough librarians know about it. If other people want to have those discussions, more power to them. I worry that kind of tangent has been detrimental to blogging, RSS, and a whole host of other technology- and physical-world related concepts, not just "Library 2.0," and I'd hate to see that happen here, too.

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