cross-posted from Hypermarc
OK, so Plan A didn’t come together. I had fully intended to blog as I progressed through the book and, life got in the way, and that didn’t happen. I did post a reflection on the first three chapters a week or two ago and so this post should probably be called “Post 2 and Final Reflection” or something like that, but it isn’t. The nature of Shirky’s book is that it addresses a number of disparate but very much connected ideas and each could be blogged about on their own. Instead, I will take a look at some of the bigger ideas and look at them through a library-specific lens.
The “Big Idea” in this book is that people organize differently than they ever have because technology has reduced the transactional cost of organizing so much that things that were previously so inefficient to undertake are now possible and happening. It no longer takes significant time and money to bring people together, so we tend to organize for often pointless reasons such as dance flash mobs while organizing for crucial reasons, such as political revolution, is so quick and easy that it can happen right under the noses of authority. Libraries can take advantage of this in the way we respond to user needs. In the past, we first would have to identify a change to or addition of user needs through observation or some sort of survey mechanism. If that survey mechanism was done through response cards, the collection, reading and analysis of those cards could be cumbersome. We can replace the comment card with it’s digital manifestation making the process of producing, distributing, collecting and reading the cards much more efficient. But this is only replacing old technology with new. The real need here is to improve the library space to address immediate needs. The concept of library as platform introduced by Weinberger and reflected upon by me says that the library is a space that can be built upon by users in much the way this WordPress blog is built on by bloggers and commenters. The library can be structured so that flexible furnishings in the digital space and dynamic web services in the virtual space allow users to tailor these spaces themselves to address their immediate needs. What used to take months or years as people expressed a need for more comfortable seating, this need was recognized by the library, budgets were adjusted to anticipate the cost, research was done on the different specific furnishings available and the chairs were costed out, a vendor was selected, the chairs ordered and then delivered, can now happen in seconds as people simply move or even create items to serve changing needs. This level of technological shift fundamentally shifts how we look at libraries. They are no longer a static controlled environment out of necessity, they are a dynamic space addressing immediate needs.
Now, the implications of this kind of user-controlled space are interesting. In this kind of space we try first, analyze later, or, in Shirky’s words, “Publish, then Filter.” If our spaces are dynamic, we can afford to simply try something out. If we shift tables and chairs into a different configuration and it doesn’t work, we’ve made sure that they are on wheels, so shifting them back is as easy as it was to try the new configuration in the first place. If we decide to put book reviews in the catalogue and our school community abuses this review space by flooding it with inappropriate content, we simply remove the widget. The cost of failure is so low, that we should invite failure much more often. Shirky’s comparison is from the world of journalism where, when one is writing for a big name paper publication, the cost of failure is high. The time and money spent on producing each issue of a publication is significant enough that the publisher needs to make damn sure that every single article is worth it’s weight in gold (almost literally). If the blog post that I’m writing now turns out to be utterly useless crap, or worse, damaging or offensive in some way, I remove it. I didn’t pay for the web site. I didn’t spend months editing it. I didn’t print and distribute the content using costly machines and materials. I simply delete it. This shifts the thinking from analyze to death before committing to run it up the flagpole and see what happens.
In the school library, this “Publish, then Filter” idea has particular ramifications. In as much as it allows the school library space to be more responsive, it also impacts the curriculum of the school library itself. When I was a kid (oh god, I’m feeling old), the Encyclopedia Britannica was one of the most sacred texts in my house and in the school library. Information was scarce and this treasure trove represented the way into a world of learning that was unparalleled. More importantly, you could trust it. There was no way that the editorial board was going to risk their reputation or the significant cost of printing and distribution by releasing a product with blatant errors. You “knew” that the material in these tomes was “authoritative.” In the current model where anyone can write anything for free (as I’m doing now), there is a significant shift as the filtering shifts from the editor to the user. We can no longer trust everything that we read, because the transaction costs are so low that everyone is a publisher. It falls to the reader to shift through what is credible and what is not. The curriculum of the school library has to focus heavily on filtering and resource assessment skills and mechanisms. We, as all libraries do, continue to help with this filtering by building collections of resources that we believe to be credible and address the needs of our communities, but, as our students have access to “all the worlds knowledge at their fingertips,” we need to help them develop their skills at, as Rheingold phrases it “crap detection.”
There is so much more in Here Comes Everybody that can’t be addressed in a simple blog post. I will be relying on this book as I talk to students studying Cory Doctorow’s Homeland as they look at how students in that story used technology to organize themselves to stand up to government authorities. I will be comforted by power law distributions when I recognize that I’m one of a very small group who is actively doing something in a community and recognize that the large number of people making tiny contributions add significant value. I will also continue to ruminate on how communities are connected both within small communities and between these small communities that form larger communities. There are lessons for libraries in all of this, many of which will not sink in for some time, I’m sure.
The one thing to keep in mind in the reading of this book – which I do encourage you to do – is this book is about people. It is about how people organize to accomplish things. It is not about technology except in that advances in technology have lowered the transaction costs allowing people to do more things more efficiently. There seems to be a tendency to think of Shirky as some sort of techno-evangelist and I don’t think that he is. (Of course, I’ve never met him and he might completely disagree with me!) I read him as someone who recognizes the power of people to do amazing things, and that technology has been able to remove many of the barriers that prevented these great things from happening. If there is one Big Lesson for libraries, or anyone else, in all of this, it might be to stop thinking about the way it has always been done, because the restrictions that necessitated those behaviour patterns in the past may well have been removed and we need to think about the way things could be done.