” Tis far better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. “
-Quote variously attributed to Benjamin Franklin, Galileo, Socrates and Abraham Lincoln
” You get the network that you deserve. “
Being in the library/information business for more than a decade has taught me to take a long-term perspective about new companies or products (and possibly, a somewhat jaded outlook as well). What do I mean by this?
The technologies of Web 2.0/3.0 distribute your website, saves your comments on Twitter, immortalizes your blog-postings, shares your photos (for good or ill), exhibits your conference presentations or business plans, allows you to create an instant survey on Google Docs… each of these become instantly visible by those in your network, or worldwide. (As YouTube.com famously advises, “Broadcast Yourself”.) This connectivity has been described as ambient intimacy.
One of the first lessons a new blogger learns is how ridiculously easy it is to trip up online… when you make a mistake in a public and highly-distributed way, such an online event can make one very glad for the solitude of the workplace cubicle (while your face turns a deep, burning and lasting shade of red). But that’s also a shared experience. By joining up into the collective “we”, it is possible to be anonymous yet harder to be invisible. In digital life, these terms are elastic, relational, relative. And Google never forgets.
Two recent examples of the downside of all that connectivity come to mind. In 2008, a PhD student/blogger wrote on her Nature Network blog LabNotes that “I hate PubMed. I hate it with a burning passion.” As seen in the comments garnered by that post, she was given a mild dressing-down by a variety of scientists, bloggers and medical librarians. Some of us even offered to teach her how to search the database better.
Another more recent example involves the June 2009 roll-out of a clinically-oriented website named Clinical Reader.com, as medical librarian-blogger EagleDawg describes it, with additional commentary found at The Health Informationist blog.
These events have been Twittered about aplenty. One could take the view that the company’s response to the librarian was that of a newbie… turn the prism, see it as free publicity.
By taking the long-range view, it’s not surprising to appraise commercial or non-commercial web sites as they come and go, in a literal sense*. Some sources stay the distance, some disappear quickly, some just can’t deliver a quality array of information, some sites are just plain ugly to use or to teach others to use, some crash frequently (thus losing your data), or are so difficult to navigate for results that users simply give up (and so then turn to Google Scholar).
For librarians, the perspective is a bit different than that of a researcher or medical student. We are highly concerned with the content, scope and utility of individual information sources for our unique clientele. That is why the mission of the librarians is to spend funds wisely, distribute the information efficiently along networks, assist those who have questions or problems with “digesting” the data, and to train our users to search well, collect and analyze their data.
Librarians aren’t the end-consumers of the information assembled by our subscriptions; we are more like information brokers and, to some extent, strive for impartiality.
Talk to almost any librarian with decades of experience, and they will tell you how it was before Google. It was different.
The first library I worked in after graduate school was an academic library where the database subscriptions were delivered on CD-ROMs and loaded on an IBM server for distribution throughout the local area network. Each month a new CD-ROM arrived and the old one was either returned to the company or discarded.
If a faculty member or student needed a comprehensive literature search, a librarian would use a dial-up modem to connect to a commercial information services corporation, Dialog, which charged by the minute for connection time, and charged individual fees for seaching a database, displaying citations, and for downloading each and every item. Before even connecting to the site, the librarian had to check the so-called Dialog bluesheets to learn the scope and arrangement of fields for an individual database (or, which one of 300 individual databases were the best to search?). It was all too easy to spend $100 of the library’s money on a search which might take 8-10 minutes. And I still miss SilverPlatter.
Any student doing research had to physically be in the building in order to do any work. Once the search was completed, they then had to trek around the stacks to locate the individual article in the journal. They could read it in the building, or make a copy of it to take along for later reading. After typing up a finished copy, the students handed-in a copy to their professor at the end of the term. There was no TurnItIn then.
Sounds like ancient history, doesn’t it?
It was an analog world. Our digital natives wouldn’t recognize the place.
And truly, it is so great in 2009 to offer our users Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine online. What would our residents or students do without their ability to search and access medical information via Up to Date, PubMed or dozens of other sources?
* To take a brief “time-capsule” look at just how far academic libraries and collections have evolved over a decade can be appreciated by reading this ERIC Digest from 1990.
Finally… getting back to the feeling-jaded comment? There are some who might feel a bit over-stressed by this always-on technological connecting. If that applies to you, then check out the 2009 Cultural Dictionary (2nd edition) created by the ad agency Cramer-Krasselt, where the following definition was recently found:
Image credit: C-K Cultural Dictionary – Copyright 2009 – All rights reserved