A few days ago, I shared some thoughts about David Weinberger’s book Everything is Miscellaneous (and Weinberger actually left a great comment, too – how cool is that?). This post is the second part of that series. It covers three random thoughts that didn’t really fit into the first post (and weren’t big enough for their own posts, either… except maybe on Twitter… 🙂
Thought #1: Weinberger makes some very valid points about current search systems and how newer ideas, like tagging, provide better findability. His discussion of this was fascinating – but I would have liked to see him resolve the dissonance that went off in my head when he explained how tagging and better search capabilities allow multiple subject headings and tags without having one be a dominant tag or subject heading. That certainly works great in the digital world… but how does that work in, say a library with physical bookshelves? The book can only be put on one shelf at a time, which means you need a dominant subject (unless there’s a better way for us to store and track material). How do allow for both randomness and back-end order at the same time?
My guess? We’re in transition, folks. Transition from a purely physical information world to a purely digital information world, and this type of problem appears when mixing physical items with useful digital search capabilities.
Thought #2: Weinberger says, “Put each leaf on as many branches as possible… In the real world, a leaf can hang from only one branch” (pg 103). And “Hanging a leaf on multiple branches makes it more findable by customers” (pg. 104). This really relates to my Thought #1 above. Weinberger is pointing out that in our new digital world, we don’t have to be chained to the same old organizational systems we relied on in the physical world (ie., subject headings and ILS systems, for example). We can see what del.icio.us and flickr are doing with tagging and searchable customer descriptions, and figure out how to incorporate those newer ideas into our search systems. What a great idea!
Thought #3: On page 105, Weinberger writes: “Give up control.” Ouch! Librarians don’t like to do that! He continues: “That’s why it’s so powerful to let users mix it up for themselves… [online], on the other hand, we just naturally expect to organize information our way, through tags, bookmarks, playlists, and weblogs.”
Are you hearing that? Our customers want to tag, bookmark, set up playlists, and participate via blogs, comments, etc… are you allowing them to do that?
Weinberger says: “Users are now in charge of the organization of the information they browse. Of course, the owners of that information may still want to offer a prebuilt categorization, but that is no longer the only – or best – one available. Put simply, the owners of information no longer own the organization of that information.” (pages 105-106). That is HUGE. We – librarians, libraries, information professionals… are NO LONGER IN CONTROL OF ORGANIZING INFORMATION. Our customers do that now.
So why are we here again? We can still do some great things. We can, as Stephen Abram says, “improve the question.” Customers don’t know how to ask the correct questions to find the most appropriate material. This doesn’t change in the digital world. Right now, there’s still a learning curve on advanced search functionality. That might certainly change, but our expertise doesn’t change.
To put it another way – sure, I can replace the brake pads on my car… if I have a weekend to kill, money to buy tools I’ll never use again, and a copy of the instructions handy. Or I can take my car to an auto mechanic who (hopefully) has changed hundreds of brakes, has the expertise in place, and knows what to do when something strange pops up (like, say, what he’d see if I brought my car in after attempting to change the brake pads… :-).
We are the information experts – that never changes.