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Information Scotland

The Journal of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

ISSN 1743-5471

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August 2008 Volume 6(4)

Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

Like something almost being said...

Web 2.0: mullet of tomorrow?

Don’t rush to embrace what appears to be new without thought, or you might end up looking foolish, say Tony Ross and Richard Fallis.

We’ve all seen them, and cringed. Middle-aged sufferers of male-pattern baldness in convertible sports cars and aviator shades. Trendy vicars in quirky jumpers, contending that Jesus is ‘cool.’ Tory-boy prime ministerial candidates in backwards baseball caps, striving to win over the ‘yoofs’ of today.

We like to think that ours is a liberal, Guardian-reading society, characterised by a ‘live-and-let-live’ attitude. But, really the people above deserve to be ridiculed, for their distorted sense of themselves and of reality, and their desperate desire to be something they are not.

Most ridiculous of all may be establishment figures, who over-reach themselves in a bid to prove that they are relevant, and still ‘with it.’ Such efforts are foolhardy, and doomed always to fail. As Grandpa Simpson once said, “I used to be with it. But then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems scary and weird. It’ll happen to you!” Even those who were with it, once, inevitably end up out of touch themselves.

Librarians, we feel, need to beware these pitfalls in their rush to utilise Web 2.0 technology, befriending users via social networking sites such as Facebook or uploading content to YouTube. We are not saying that librarians should steer clear of Web 2.0. This column has always maintained that our profession must adapt to technology, and embrace the opportunities it presents, rather than running scared. Rather, we are warning librarians of the risk they run, should they wade too deeply into cyberspace for the sake of seeming innovative.

Libraries, and hence librarians, in the public sector are totems of democratic establishment. Yes, they contribute to a free society. Yes, they serve the virtuous function of facilitating open access to information. As librarians, we like to think of ourselves, not as hoarders of knowledge, but as gatekeepers to knowledge. But, while the gate that we keep may always be open, it is a gate, nonetheless, redolent of orthodoxy, and the mediation of authority. Therefore, librarians, whether they like it or not, are representatives of the establishment, which is why they must tread carefully in the domain of Web 2.0, where the emphasis is on providing direct and unmediated access to information.

As establishment figures, librarians are doomed to appear out-of-touch to core sections of the demographic. But these are sections that no-one, not even advertisers, pop stars or hit moviemakers, can ever be certain of winning over. Care must therefore be taken by librarians when courting these groups, since incursions by any representatives of the establishment into areas and media, such as Web 2.0, which are popular precisely because they are deemed free and anti-establishment, may stir up resentment among users, causing them to migrate en masse to locations that librarians, having invested heavily in Web 2.0, will be hard pressed to reach.

Of course, the perceived freedom of Web 2.0 technologies is illusory: Facebook et al are now corporate entities, which most people use not to be rebellious or to change the world but because they are dependable brands of proven quality. Given this, librarians may see Web 2.0 as a means of connecting with people on a personal level, and of relocating libraries back to the heart of local communities. But, laudable an aim though this is, it may only generate more antipathy towards libraries, since people, historically, have seldom welcomed intrusions by the establishment into their daily lives.

The explosion of Web 2.0 brings with it great possibilities for librarians, but it could also suck us into showing too much zeal for new technology. Underlying this is, perhaps, a degree of insecurity within our profession. We seem threatened by financial decision-makers who are determined to allocate more and more LIS posts to the burgeoning ranks of IT professionals. So as to justify our continued existence, we try to sell ourselves as being on the cutting edge, and champions of change. As proof of this, we dive headlong into Web 2.0, like children competing to have the shiniest trainers in the playground.

Our guess is that, in five years, once Web 2.0 has become properly embedded in society, and can be spoken of in everyday terms without people losing their heads, librarians will look back on the zeal with which they first pounced upon it and cringe, much as survivors of the 70s now look back in horror at the size of their flares. Web 2.0 might well change the world, and librarians should ready themselves for that eventuality. But it might also prove to be the hi-tech mullet of tomorrow, and we should curb our enthusiasm for it accordingly.

Tony writes: Since the previous issue, I have secured a scholarship to undertake a PhD at Glasgow University, starting in October, and for that reason this will be my last contribution to this column. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to thank editor Debby Raven for giving me the chance to write for Information Scotland, and those readers who have followed and supported the column, which I will be leaving in the capable hands of Richard, and newcomer Kathleen Menzies, a colleague of mine at the Centre for Digital Library Research.

Tony is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Digital Library Research at the University of Strathclyde. Richard is an Assistant Librarian within NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde.

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Information Scotland Vol. 6(4) August 2008

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Last updated: 29-Aug-2008