He’s my newest VBFF (is a virtual best friend forever a thing?) I’ve just finished reading his contribution to the Cluetrain Manifesto. If you are one of the dedicated few who have hung out at Adventures in Libraryland for a while, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of Everything is Miscellaneous. I’m also a fan of and have blogged about Too Big To Know. How this chapter of Cluetrain got past me I don’t know.
I will say that I was laughing out loud at parts of this chapter as I recognized attributes of myself and the organizations that I work in being described in often amusing and sometimes frightening terms. While the Cluetrain Manifesto is primarily a book about business management, Weinberger has a lot to say to librarians and has a lot in common with Lankes and Buckland who I’ve also recently blogged about. The chapter’s title is The Hyperlinked Organization. It was first written in 1999, but like Lankes and Buckland is at least as relevant today as it was then. The discussion of flattened organizations is somewhat old hat now but the way Weinberger discusses the reasons behind that levelling of the landscape is refreshing and does add new insight to my thinking.
The idea that organizations get flattened not by choice but by necessity is interesting. The concept that the hyperlinked world allows connection and conversation to happen across geographic, time and hierarchic boundaries says that regardless of how much control an organization tries to exert, these connection will happen regardless. This was written in 1999 when the hyperlinked world was very new and the tools, by today’s standards, were very primitive!
What does Weinberger mean by hyperlinked anyway? Of course, hyperlinking is the basic concept that text on a web page can be linked to anywhere else on the web and that, in itself is cool, but prompts a bit of a “so what?” reaction. The implications and extensions of the idea of hyperlinking are far reaching and very cool. I won’t tear it apart in the same way that Weinberger does. He says it so well that you should just read the article. But in terms of the library world, the ideas that hyperlinks connect ideas and expression rather than data and the idea that value is in connectedness less than the content itself has deep implications for libraries.
Let’s start with the value of connectedness. We, in libraries, have spent centuries collecting and valuing the contents of our collections. If you are studying Beethoven, you might go to the Beethoven Center at the Martin Luther King Library in San Jose which prides itself on collecting the composer’s manuscripts and writings about him. Museums are the same in that if I want to see the Mona Lisa, I go to the Louvre. People spend huge sums of money for the right to have certain works in their collection. Weinberger argues that in an age where information is no longer scarce (I can see digital versions of the Mona Lisa that are close enough for most purposes to the original in seconds on my phone), real value isn’t in the information or information objects themselves, but in the ability to connect to them or connect with others who have ideas and other knowledge relating to them. For libraries, this concept is profound. It means that libraries are no longer collections (or at least the emphasis is less on the collections) but are incredibly powerful hyperlinks. We are the places that people come to to connect to information, regardless of where that information might be housed.
The “collections” that libraries house do shift in emphasis. While there will always be a need for someone to house the original copies of artifacts, whether that is in a physical form or on a server, libraries now start to build collections of specialized local knowledge. This knowledge might be information about a particular community or knowledge generated by a community that is reflective that community’s ideals and thinking. That knowledge gets collected, stored, organized, searched and retrieved on the libraries own servers. Depending on the mission of the library, those servers then open up to the world to contribute to the world-wide, decentralized “collection” for all to use. The library collects, organizes and distributes it’s own special knowledge, and provides the hyperlinks to it’s users so that they can find the information that they need in the larger world-collection.
The idea that hyperlinks connect ideas and expression rather than information is also an important idea for libraries. While libraries traditionally offer easy access to quick information (often referred to as reference collections), the need for quick access to data is satisfied much more easily on the Web. The library’s role as hyperlink to that data is important, especially for the more obscure data one might be looking for. But more important is the meaning that is often reported between datapoints. The expression of information through documents is much more easily hyperlinked than it is stripped down and placed in a spreadsheet. The act of telling the story of research adds context, opinion, explanation, and conjecture that can be more valuable than the data itself. Also, in putting data into easily searchable and manipulatable forms, so much potentially valuable information has to be stripped out. Libraries can create value by curating documents to add meaning to a body of knowledge. The juxtaposition of particular pieces of research in a collection can build meaning in a way that the research presented separately can’t have. The conversation – oral, visual, or written – around information adds to the value of the information itself.
If the value in libraries is in the hyperlinks rather than the collections, then there are going to have to be significant changes in how we deliver our services and we will need to retrain our users in how they think about the library’s role in their lives. We are still primarily collection focused, certainly in term of the “brand book” that our users hold on to. Our organizational models and infrastructures are based heavily on the need to manage these collections. We need to perhaps spend more money on servers than books. Perhaps we need to spend more time developing web spaces than cleaning up MARC records, although a cataloguing system of some sort needs to be used to help us create those hyperlinks for our users. The spaces in our libraries need to be built around conversation and creating and manipulating content, rather than storage and processing. Maybe we become the yellow brick road rather than enchanted forest.