Friday, May 4, 2007

I can fly!

In a nutshell, the Library 2.0 movement is the biggest load of crap to hit the profession in 10 years.

Let me take that back.

Library 2.0 is going to save your job.

Truly, I believe both of those statements.

I believe that the Library 2.0 movement can save the profession. The image of the librarian is still a bland one. You know the picture. And for the most part, we live up to the image. For every "bad ass" librarian blog you read on the Internet, there are still 50 "Marians" out there weeding their collections and clipping local interest stories from the paper, and generally behaving like librarians. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But the profession is at a point of crisis. Bean counters want to eliminate my job. And yours. And since I'm not anywhere near retirement age, I want to keep my job. But what crisis is causing this? You know how people always talk about things like paradigm shifts and killer apps, well, we're getting to the point where computers are becoming better searchers than we are. Or at least the perception that computers are better is becoming so prevalent that it is virtually a fact. I don't think the battle is over, but we're definitely losing it. I was just reading an article on various searching products: software that can index and search for documents on the Web, on your computer, on an intranet server, or on a post-it stuck to the seat of your pants. The truth is that more companies are devising better ways for people to find stuff. Combine that with the trend to digitize everything and soon that shift will happen and all the knowledge we (librarians) have on finding information will be moot.

So what do we do if we're no longer the best searchers in town? How are we going to transform ourselves in order to remain relevant? Maybe we need to become "helpers."

Have you ever heard the phrase, "how may I help you?" You'd better learn it now because when your job changes from information management or information retrieval to helper, you'll be saying it fifty times a day. Giving good customer service is how we’re going to keep our jobs.

"I help people every day," you might say. But the helping is going to change. You help people find books and articles, but soon you'll need to help them fill out unemployment forms online or make immigration appointments (in Florida, public libraries are taking on these duties). Even help them by bidding on junk on eBay. "But I do that already," you might answer. No, I mean, really help. Assist. Hand-hold. We need to become computer and technology experts. And we need to become friends. Every government agency sends people to the library to download forms: we need to do that. We also need to help people to understand those forms. We need to teach.

And this is why I like Library 2.0. We need to learn about this stuff.

The hype that everyone is using 2.0 sites is bogus or at least questionable. A recent story on MSNBC cited data by Hitwise as showing that less than two-tenths of a percent of Internet users contribute new content to sites like YouTube and Flickr. So maybe your patrons are not contributing content to the web, they still need to use it to find grandma's 90th birthday video or pictures of drunken Hollywood starlets behaving badly.

And because of the hype, most libraries are adopting the Library 2.0 model (see Google links: go ahead read a few links; I'll wait) and allowing librarians to play with the technology. And this is a good thing. We need to know what these technologies are because our patrons want to know.

And this isn't going to end with Myspace, Facebook, Blogger, Second Life,, digg, etc. We also need to think about the rule that when your parents start doing something (or if you see it on TV), it's already dead. Imagine how dead something must be when librarians start doing it. Another technology is just around the corner.

We need to follow the money and right now, the money is in 2.0. As long as companies advertise on these 2.0 sites, they’ll be around. Unless the bubble bursts like the one did after a few years (then we can go back to our books :) ).

But for now, librarians need to embrace this technology because frankly, we're ugly, and unfortunately we can't just take off our glasses and let down our hair and become beautiful like librarians in the movies (believe me, I've tried). So let us embrace those sexy avatars who are thinner, beautiful, and lead much more attractive lives than we do (my avatar is a spy in Europe!). Open a Second Life account and build your virtual body and fly around (did you know you could fly or teleport in Second Life?). Go to Meez or Yahoo! and create a cute avatar to represent yourself on the Web.

I understand the argument that virtual-selves and avatars are just adding an unnecessary layer to providing service. But it only takes 10-20 minutes. And your library will probably want you to do it on work time!

Imagine the transactions you can have with your patrons after you’ve created your Second Life character:

Patron: (tenth question to real librarian) ...and can you help me find a biography of Martin Van Buren?

Librarian: (to patron) Why don’t you come visit our virtual reference desk at our Second Life library and I’ll show you how to use our catalog?

Patron: No. I don’t think so.

Librarian: But you're missing all the cool animation of the virtual me folding my arms, tapping my foot and rolling my eyes in exasperation at your incompetence.

Patron: That's okay. Seeing it in person was enough.

Whatever we need to do to help patrons we should do. And that’s an idea that isn’t new. Be good at your job and help people. How hard is that?

Yes, I’ll be the first one to agree that all these Web sites are crap. But some crap is necessary. And this is that kind of crap. Besides, a lot of it is fun and there are a lot of librarians who want to help you learn how to do it.

Ultimately, this is an opportunity for us to collectively get excited about something. And maybe that's what we need, to get excited. And maybe our patrons will become excited, too. And they'll love us. More.