When librarians talk about developing patron services in the Web 2.0 environment, I often wonder if they are simply expressing a desire to deliver more engaging services, or whether they are truly embracing the Web 2.0 philosophy. For most, it’s likely the former, but over the past 18 months, a growing number of library administrators have been actively searching for ways to capture the fast-paced development environment utilized by Web 2.0 organizations.
In October 2008 at the Readex Digital Institute, Dartmouth College’s David Seaman presented "From Ponderous Perfection to Perpetual Beta: Library Services and Superabundant Information." He talked specifically about his institution’s desire to develop a more nimble infrastructure for creating and testing new patron services. In a sense, Seaman was asking if a library can become a Web 2.0 organization.
It’s an interesting question, as the Web 2.0 concept is, in many ways, more about a philosophy itself than the technologies or services that the philosophy has spawned.1 More specifically, Web 2.0 is grounded in the idea of perpetual development, or “perpetual beta,” and of treating users as equal partners in the development process. Seaman’s talk raised two important questions that I o;d like to explore further: first, what happens within this environment when library services are not successful? And second, what is that one thing—that “big win" for libraries—that will keep users coming back, even if new services fail?
Historically, libraries have tended to take a conservative view towards the development of patron services, seeking to perfect a service before making it available to the public. This paralysis of perfection artificially limits a library’s ability to quickly develop new services for its user community. Viewing the development of patron services as an ephemeral and perpetually unfinished process is a radical shift for the library community. Coupled with that must be an understanding that not every new service will be successful and that failure must be viewed as an acceptable outcome. It is here that library administrators play a tremendously important role through the engendering of an environment that allows experimentation for the sake of experimentation to take place. Staffs need to hear from their administrators that it’s permissible for new services to be experimental; that they have permission to pursue projects that may indeed fail.
Development of services then becomes a truly interactive and democratic process. As new services are conceptualized and developed, they are immediately made available to patrons. This allows patron feedback to be integrated directly into the development process and allows new services to evolve organically. Those services that are most popular become supported, while those that fail to find an audience are dropped. And while this attitude toward developing user services may seem chaotic, it embodies the critically important idea of “perpetual beta.”
Web 2.0 and “perpetual beta” are ideas that have fundamentally changed the way developers and users have come to view software development cycles. To a large degree, the chaotic nature of this new environment has librarians worried. They are shaken. Google and Amazon, for instance, are beginning to intrude further and further into the space that libraries have typically occupied. There is uneasiness, a feeling that if librarians do not provide patrons with services that are “perfect,” their user communities will look for others to meet their research needs. Given these worries, how can the library community balance its desire to innovate and experiment against the fear that doing so will lead to the library community being marginalized? To find our answer, we need to take a closer look at how the current generation of Web 2.0 organizations has remained successful.
Organizations like Google and Flickr are examples of communities that utilize this fluid structure for the development of software and services. In both cases, their services have been able to thrive in a crowded information space.
So what’s the secret to their success? It comes down to each organization or community identifying its “big win”: that one service that sets it apart from others. Google for example, for all its size, innovation and development, can really only claim a single “big win”—search. Most of its other services, like Google Apps, Google Answers and Google Video, have all failed to produce significant revenue or interest within its user communities, and yet, because of search, Google’s influence on today’s World Wide Web continues to grow. By and large, Web 2.0 organizations are able to utilize fluid service development models by identifying their core services and then experimenting around the edges. So what is the library community’s “big win?” When this question was asked following David Seaman’s presentation, the silence that followed was disappointing. The library community provides many valuable public services for accessing disparate information sources (through local collections, ILL, etc.). Likewise, the library community has traditionally provided organization and description for resources used by its community. Certainly one of these could have been mentioned. However, as I think more about this question today, it seems that many of these library services are an outgrowth of our core mission, our “big win”—the preservation of information.
Libraries have traditionally been storehouses of information, acquiring and preserving cultural content for future generations. Libraries are unique in that their preservation of content is not viewed in finite periods of time or in finite terms of access. It is this mission of preserving information that will ultimately mask our shortcomings, as the library community seeks to develop new applications and services for its users. And it is the preservation of content that has kept libraries relevant, even as other organizations encroach on their space.
So what will be the next “big win” for libraries? I think that answer lies in the preservation of content (and access to that content). As I look at the current state of digital preservation services, both enterprise and academic, I find myself concerned for the future. Today, libraries are developing digital collections that have an increasing global reach, but it’s ironic that their collections are developed on a media that begins to decay the moment the information is committed to disk. What’s more, unlike analog materials, digital materials require constant care and curation to ensure that the digital format is not simply preserved as a collection of bits and bytes, but as an information object that can be utilized and accessed by future generations.
At present, this issue is being treated primarily as an institutional one—while in reality it’s a cultural problem. The relevance of these acquired digital objects often stretches far beyond an institution’s traditional borders. And how the library community turns this challenge into its next “big win” will determine to a large extent whether libraries remain relevant to future user communities.
1 Fortunately, a large corpus of materials exists for those wanting to learn more about Web 2.0, with Tim O’Reilly’s article, “What is Web 2.0” an excellent starting point. This article can be found: here.