The Blog

Respect Your Librarian. But Feel Free To Google.

In brijit, publishing, social media on Wednesday, 2 April 2008 at 14:51

I spoke at a gathering of librarians last week. Thanks to Jill O’Neill at the National Federation of Advanced Information Services (NFAIS) for including me. The 50-year-old organization “for groups that aggregate, organize and facilitate access to information” was hosting a one-day forum on The Future of Bibliographic Control, and wanted Brijit there to talk about user-generated content. I’m always happy to introduce Brijit to a new audience, and with Philadelphia only a quick Amtrak ride away, I was glad to do it.

The other speaker on user-generated content was Susan Chun, the founder of Steve, the art museum social tagging project. Susan has set out to make museum collections more accessible by creating a tool that allows professionals, enthusiasts, and laypeople alike to tag items in more mainstream, less technical ways. Kind of a Del.icio.us for museums. Love it.

She pegged her talk around an email she’d seen while working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. After hearing the story, it’s hard to imagine anyone questioning the value of collaborative, consumer-focused tagging, especially to institutions with large collections.

The author of the email in question was trying to locate a specific painting. He could describe what it looked like in some detail: a “renaissance” painting with an “hourglass” on a “table” in front of a “man.” But the author knew neither the artist’s name nor the title of the painting. And despite the fact that the Met had a terrific academic record of the painting, replete with provenance going back more than a century, Susan was only able to locate it by asking around among the experts she knew in the museum. Tag it with terms people use, and finding this painting is a cinch. Tag it exclusively with traditional bibliographic information, and it remains hidden.

Project Steve and Brijit are attacking different problems in different ways, but the overarching philosophy is the same. Give people the ability to collaborate and be creative within a structured environment, stand back, and watch the magic happen. My presentation on the hybrid editorial model (slides here soon) highlighted this point.

As I told the NFAIS audience, I know practically nothing about what they were discussing most of the day. I’m no expert on the library-publisher supply chain. I’m unfamiliar with the alphabet soup of industry organizations and projects, from NISO and UKSG‘s KBART working group to the OCLC or the EEBO. And I’m not at all interested in whether a particular document is considered a monograph or a serial. And neither is (almost) anybody else.

We’re lucky to have librarians and systems that have put us on a firm curatorial footing for generations. But they have to negotiate legacy systems in a way that we Web-native organizations don’t. I don’t envy the task of trying to shoehorn modern content creation and distribution into standards of a bygone era.

One of the other presenters talked of her frustration with a colleague who lamented the fact that people check Google before the library’s own catalog system. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

The metadata of ISSN X, volume this, page that, is not meaningful to the vast majority of people. Metadata at Brijit means the basics of how most people want their content in an increasingly online, mobile world: title, author, source, date, and TAGS. On an article by article basis. And everything with a link back to the underlying material (where available), so that you can go right to it. We’ve built Brijit to dovetail with consumer behavior, not fight it. It’s a search-driven, link-based, short-form world, and we’re just living (and working) in it.

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