Web 3.0 (Librarian 3.0?)

Web 3.0 is an exciting documentary (for some of us, at least!) that introduces the semantic web to the non-technical expert.  Kate Ray has done an incredible job interviewing people who not only are experts in the field but are also able to explain in plain terms what people actually mean when they refer to the semantic web.  The documentary is under 15 minutes in length, so you should watch it for yourselves.

[vimeo 11529540]

The arguments made in Web 3.0 have a definite LIS ring to them even though Ray didn’t interview any librarians.  We find computer scientists, social media experts and other gurus talking about the issues that turn information discovery a difficult problem on the Internet.  But to the LIS professional, the documentary shows us that although we have expertise in electronic information organization, retrieval and research, we’re don’t always sit at the table when the future of our macro information systems and structures are discussed.

Consider some of the statements made at the beginning of the documentary.  Having watched the film and and read the transcript a couple times, I’ve picked up on an argument covered time and again in library schools. We have a problem called “too much information,” and we know that librarians can deal with it, but we’re not certain if we’ve done a great job telling others that we can help to fix this mess.  And the words spoken by these professionals who aren’t librarians reveal this:

John Hebeler, uber-experienced software developer:

You have all this data, all these access points, and there’s really no way to really help you deal with it except for stuff you can pull into your human brain. And you can only pull in so much. So you’ve got this massive amount of potential, but there’s not any real tools to harness it.

David Weinberger, Author, “Everything is Miscellaneous”:

We have so much stuff that we have to deal with. Individually, as a culture. So much – that it just bursts the bounds of any physical library. You know if we had a Dewey Decimal System for everything on the web, the trillion pages and all the subpages and all that, we wouldn’t find a thing, that system simply can’t work.

Hebeler is on to something when he thinks there’s no feasible way to deal with all the “access points” we must know in order to acquire the information we want to learn.  The development of the Internet and the World Wide Web created so many information nodes that it’s difficult to be an expert in Subject X as well as in Subject X’s information sources.  Hebeler’s only got it half-right though, since several sectors of librarianship work to understand access points and pathways in a particular field.  And to bring Weinberger into the equation: there may not be a proper index to the Internet as there might be to a book, and the web certainly isn’t ever going to be classified in the way DDC does to a library, but librarians have developed means to solve these problems.  We’re experts in data location and retrieval because we study the topography of our information sources.  We can plot a course through Parts Unknown to find the treasure.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m picking on Hebeler or Weinberger, because I’m not.  These people are talking about organizing the Internet and I’m talking about getting librarians to realize that they, too, can play a role in this feat. But is this what happens when librarians don’t properly explain what they do to other information professions and to the public?  People outside of LIS often aren’t aware of the Great Things We Can Do ™ in LIS; I think another statement by Hebeler shows this:

There should be enough information out there that you should be able to ask for something extraordinarily specific, but you can’t. You pretty much have to do all the integration in your own head, you’ve gotta come back and see all the stuff that comes back from Google, and say, Oh, I wonder how I could ask that, cause this was kinda right but this was wrong…Oh, I see why it came back, came this out, that isn’t what I want though.

Hebeler’s words show where the division between librarianship and information architecture appears.  Whereas any librarian with his salt would say, “But I can help you with that.  I know how to integrate things, how to tie all the loose ends together so you can get what you’re looking for,” the more tech-savy amoung us might suggest that the loose ends can’t be tied up at all with our present tools and that we only think we’re doing a bang-up job when really we’re only half-way there.  While we are creating new paths with the tools we have, others see a gap and are creating tools that improve on what we’re working with today.

Here’s the crux of the matter: Ray’s interview with Hebeler shows librarians where things are and where we aren’t. Although we are constantly developing new means to cut a pathway through the information jungle to locate data for our clients and patrons (and we’re doing a good job at it), others are improving the tools we use with little input on out part.  The people who are working on the semantic web don’t always understand that we often have something to offer to this discussion. That’s not their fault.  It’s ours.  We should be finding a chair and sitting down at this table.

Some librarians organize data, and other librarians discover and access it.  The semantic web is going to continue to develop and I think it’s important that we insert ourselves into the ongoing dialogue because we play such an important role in the way that people store and access things in their lives.  To cut to the chase: we’ve got something to contribute and it would be a shame if we couldn’t help in this endeavour.


Still wondering what the Semantic Web is?  Hebeler summarizes it in a nice jargon-free way at 4:30 into the documentary:

Hebeler: The Semantic Web, at it’s lowest level, is just an expression of information, that’s all it is. So the, how the web works today, for the most part, is human to human. A human being puts something in some format, the computer is, all it knows about is formatting information. It knows it’s supposed to make this bold, it knows it’s supposed to underline this, the computer doesn’t know anything more than it’s just a bunch of bits. So semantics merely adds extra information to help you with the meaning of the information.

[Notes.  I discovered this video at Information Literacy meets Library 2.0 in late June.  Kate Ray provides interview transcripts on her website.  Pertinent links can be found on the film’s page.]

Understanding librarianship

When I first enrolled in library school (or into a school of library and information science – you can choose for yourself), I thought that I was getting myself into a profession that would help me, namely, to facilitate learning.  I strongly believe in education and advancement, both inside and outside the rigors of an academic environment, and I thought that being  librarian would enable me to help people help themselves.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was very much an advocate for information literacy; I still am.  Librarians, I believe, have a strong desire, if not professional duty, to help people learn how to learn, to understand the mechanics of knowledge; we’re here to teach others them how to use information to achieve their goals.

But what else is there to being a librarian?  At the end of my second-last term in the degree, I’ve come to realize that information literacy is not the only focus of librarianship.  We are all teachers in this profession, that much is true, but teaching is not our main duty (if there is one!).  If there were a few things that had to be instilled in the proto-librarian, the librarian in training, what would they be?   Here’s a few ideas:

  1. Information Literacy. Teaching may not be our main focus, but instructing individuals on how to use information systems and how to find, locate, and manipulate information and data to achieve their goals remains vital to the profession.  We’re here to help others, and we can do that best by teaching others the knowledge we have learned ourselves
  2. Information Organization. I’m a late convert to the cause, I must admit, but I now truly preach the faith of data and information organization.  This ought to be our specialty since we have the skills, knowledge, and training to efficiently organize information and create effective knowledge systems.  Information organization is far more than MARC records and “space colon space”.  Information organization is a knowledge and skill set that allows us to understand the consequences of arranging our data and files in a particular manner, or of understanding the ramifications of declaring X to actually by Y in an authority record, thereby reacting to or affecting our cultural sensibilities.
  3. Information Ethics. Our profession needs to work on the side of good and affect positive change.  Sure, we must be apolitical and unbiased when we are creating records, but even that action declares our progressive nature.  Let the information speak for itself, and help others speak for themselves by protecting access to information.  The public library is a public good, as is the written word, and it’s our duty to ensure it remains thus.

Would these be the tenets of a library school I’d run?  Perhaps, but I don’t have that much of an ego to think that way.  These three items, rather, ought to be the broad themes we talk about when we talk librarianship.  If some one is looking for career advice and is considering an MLIS/MLS, or if I find myself in a conversation about our line of work, I try to touch on these areas.  It’s a quick list that helps me explain what I do and why I do it, and how it affects the world on a regular basis.

How do you explain librarianship to others?  What does it mean to be a librarian to you?