Anarchy and the role of control in the library

Would students welcome greater collaboration and the illusion of control?
(Image c/o Roberto on Flickr.)

Last week I pondered what a library would look like if the hierarchies were dismantled and, rather than being a library service provided by professionals with a limited amount of engagement in the delivery process by its users, it would be a collaborative process between the two. Professionals would work in partnership with users to provide a truly collaborative library service.  The service would neither be controlled by users, not would it be controlled by the professionals, it would be controlled collaboratively, with professionals making the ultimate decisions but with users playing an active, rather than passive, role in the delivery of the service.

When thinking about the possibilities for partnership, I got to thinking about the success of social media.  Here are a bunch of services, created by experts, that are then made available to users for free…these services subsequently become incredibly popular.  But what makes them so popular with users?  Is it simply because they are free (doubtful as many free services never catch on) or is it because, as I would argue, they provide a service the user sees as valuable and that provides them with an “illusion of control”?

All social media provides users with a certain degree of control.  You control your privacy, the content you post and, to a certain extent, you control how it works for you.  This illusion of control bestowed upon the user is what, I think, helps to maintain loyalty.  As long as they feel that there is an element of control, they are content with the service and will continue to use it, building their networks and finding new ways of using the technology.  The problem starts when the limits to our control become apparent.

Whenever there is a slight change in service, users tend to take to the social media platform affected and loudly complain about the change, or the loss of control.  Take, for example, the continual changes to Facebook’s privacy settings.  Initially they were clear and easy to understand then, as the need grew for Facebook to monetise the data it has on users (the data the user has been led to believe they control), so came multiple changes to the privacy functionality.  With each change to this functionality came less control and increased dissatisfaction with the service (to the extent that many have left due to the loss of control of their data).  Of course, the service still remains incredibly popular, but with each loss of user control the service loses another slither of users.

Similarly, Twitter receives a great deal of criticism from users whenever it reduces the level of control users have on the service.  One of Twitter’s great strengths early on was that people could build on it and enhance the user experience (I’m thinking services like Tweetdeck which served a very useful function for many when it was first released…and continues to do so).  Other users would then utilise these additional services feeling that they had a degree of control over how they interact with Twitter, they could choose which app they utilised and didn’t need to restrict themselves to ‘official’ applications.  However, as with Facebook, there has been a growing need to monetise content/data which has resulted in third party apps rapidly diminishing as Twitter seeks to control content and, therefore, its users.  Users increasingly have no choice but to use ‘official’ Twitter applications to make effective use of the service.  From making the service one that the users built on and controlled (albeit in collaboration with the people behind Twitter), it has increasingly become one that Twitter fully controls, reducing the role of the user in its development.  This, in turn, has led to a low rumbling of discontent amongst service users as the tools that they utilise have gradually been taken away from them, taking control out of their hands and putting it in the hands of the service provider.

More recently, the furore over Google Reader demonstrates the response when a useful service that users can build upon, control and use in a way that meets their needs is taken away from them.  Indeed, as one commentator points out, there is now a trend away from user control as services increasingly come to the realisation that money is more important.  What we have seen is that services grow quite rapidly on the basis of this illusion, at a key point control is then shifted back to the service creators, away from the service users, which then leads to a (modest admittedly) degree of negative rumbling about the service.  In other words, users are fine with the service so long as the illusion remains.  Shatter the illusion and people begin to question why they use the service and may even stop using the service altogether.

In terms of social media, therefore, removing an element of ‘control’ from the user can lead to a substantial degree of dissatisfaction with the service.  But the key thing to remember is that there was a high degree of satisfaction initially leading to a kind of evangelism, preaching the value of such tools to friends and acquaintances, massively increasing the user base and encouraging others to build tools on top to add value to the service  And it was, in my view, the illusion of control that created this sense of devotion and affection for these services.

And perhaps it’s this illusion of control that libraries can take advantage of.  Rather than simply handing over the reigns to the user, a degree of collaboration between the user and the service could be developed that empowers the user.  Provide the illusion of control whilst also ensuring that the user is permitted to exercise this control within a narrow framework.  So, for example, patron driven acquisition (PDA), which has already been utilised in a significant number of libraries, is one component in this illusion of control.  Enabling PDA whilst ensuring that the professionals have ultimate control provides the illusion of control, makes for a more responsive service, yet also keeps within permitted boundaries of control.

Another example is cataloguing.  I am a big fan of folksonomies as a cataloguing tool in libraries (caveat: whilst information retrieval was my highest scoring module, I am no cataloguer!).  Rather than a librarian classifying an item using their terminology and a formal classification scheme, why not enable the users to classify items using their own language?  Such a system would be more democratic, less hierarchical and ensure that classification is derived from the users’ language rather than that of an authoritative, hierarchical taxonomic scheme subjectively employed by a librarian.  However, the system would have its own limited controls to ensure preservation of the illusion of user control.

In completing one of my assignments on information organisation and retrieval [PDF], I looked at how folksonomies could be deployed in libraries with particular reference to Delicious, a tool that allows users to categorise articles on the internet (quite effectively until it experience a serious decline).  Picking an article by Peter Merholz, it was clear that whilst there was a wide range of tags applied, there appeared to be a general consensus amongst users about the subject of the text.  Bookmarked (at the time) by 56 Delicious users, it had 61 different tags applied to the item.  However, what was clear was that after the first three tags applied there was a steep drop off in popularity of the remaining tags.  What emerged was a consensus around three main tags: “metadata”, “tagging” and “folksonomy”.  What this suggests is that not only did users identify common themes, but that it is possible to develop a controlled vocabulary at a certain point which could then be utilised to ‘encourage’ users to tag the item in a particular way.  This could be achieved by either adding the most common tags by default to the user’s classification, or by indicating that they are “suggested tags” (as it does on Delicious).  This ensures that there is a certain degree of ‘control’ whilst also enabling the user to add further tags that are relevant to them. As I concluded in my assignment:

This combination of controlled vocabularies and user-based tagging is not only useful for indexing information materials on the internet, it could also be use to allow library users to search photos within library collections, as well as books that are available through the OPAC. User-based tagging does have its limitations, but in combination with the principles of a controlled vocabulary, the possibilities of providing a service more relevant to the end user should outweigh any concerns about its application.

As with social media, giving the user illusion of control over elements of the service may increase their engagement, increase their loyalty and turn them into evangelists for the service.  Working in collaboration with users to a greater extent may result in substantial benefits for both user and service.  They buy into a service that is much more responsive to their needs, able to adapt and create more flexible services, and the service builds loyalty and increased usage.  But, do users really want this level of collaboration?  Are they happy for the service to determine how they interact with it, with limited input other than when the library permits it?  Or do they actually want more input and a greater sense of ‘control’ of the resources they are using?  I guess it would be ironic to impost a system of collaboration upon users if they had no interest in collaborating with the service.  But then again, maybe they would be interested in closer collaboration…

Anarchy! In the library!

Should libraries be more…anarchistic?
(Image c/o seven resist on Flickr.)

One of the things I have been mulling over for some time now, is the idea of overturning the hierarchical structures in libraries.  That sounds rather grand…probably grander than it actually is.  I guess what I have been pondering is whether we can turn the library service from being run in a ‘top down’ fashion to one that is more of a collaboration with users.  One where the professionals and the users work in tandem rather than professionals selecting resources and then telling the user what is available and how to use it.

It’s hardly a radical idea, much of what would constitute a non-hierarchical library service is already in action.  Take patron driven acquisition (PDA) for example.  PDA is, essentially, a method by which materials are purchased for the library based on known patron demand.  This has been used in a number of academic libraries already and is probably no longer the radical new idea that it was when it was first rolled out.  However, the idea is not restricted to academic libraries, teenagers have also been involved in the stock purchasing process in public libraries (again, not something massively new despite the spin in Surrey’s press release).  But what if this level of involvement by users in the purchasing process was extended across the whole of the library?  From books to databases to equipment…could this even work?

Instead of the library saying to the user we have purchased this resource for you, why not ask them what resources we should purchase, which we should stop subscribing to and which we should expand?  Rather than making the library a hierarchy with the professional librarian sitting at the top, occasionally seeking feedback from the library user, why not make it a collaboration between user and professional?  Why not build a library service where the professional and the user are equal partners in the process?

I’m not even clear myself how a non-hierarchical library would operate or whether it is even feasible to enable a situation whereby both the user and the professional have equal control over the library service, how it is delivered and what resources it makes available.  Could you ever, in either public, academic or school libraries, allow the user to have complete equal say in the running of the library service?  Is it possible for user and professional to work in real partnership?  How would it work if such a relationship was developed?  Maybe some people feel that their library service already works fully in partnership with its users.

But it’s not just in terms of working in partnership with users, a non-hierarchical library wouldn’t levy fines for late returns (what is more hierarchical than inflicting a punishment on a user to control and influence behaviour?).  Again, this is not a new idea (this article on the initiative dates from 2006), there is nothing radical or revolutionary about introducing such a system.  But it is another step towards creating a hierarchy free library service. One in which the service is not seen so much as us (the professionals) and them (the users), but as an equal partnership, with no divide between the two and no hierarchy to assert authority.

Sorry, this has been a bit of a rambly post, but I’d be interested to hear what other people think. Can we develop a true, hierarchy free library service?  Are we already working in true partnership with users?  Do we require a hierarchy to ensure an effective library service?  Would ceding control to library users diminish the service, or would it enhance it?  Is it fair to say that we (as professionals) still ‘own’ the service and should we continue to do so?  I’d be interested to hear what other people think…not least because it will help my vague pondering.

Facilitating consent: whither the radical librarian?

Last night I watched the live stream of Noam Chomsky in conversation with Jonathan Freedland at the British Library (YouTube clip embedded below).  Billed as an introduction to the upcoming exhibition, ‘Propaganda: Power and Persuasion’, it was a rare opportunity to listen to the thoughts of perhaps one of the most influential political activists of the post-war era.  Indeed, Chomsky has probably been the biggest influence on me in terms of how I view the state, the use of state power and the role of the media (alongside Naomi Klein, whose No Logo andShock Doctrine have also had a substantial impact upon the way in which I view the world).

One of the main themes in Chomsky’s work is the role of the media and how it reinforces the actions and beliefs of the intellectual class.  Information is a tool used and abused by the state and the intellectual class to reinforce agendas and to encourage a certain world view amongst its citizenry.  The media itself plays a critical role in reinforcing these agendas.  As Chomsky himself notes here:

Now the elite media are sort of the agenda-setting media. That means The New York Times, The Washington Post, the major television channels, and so on. They set the general framework. Local media more or less adapt to their structure.

And they do this in all sorts of ways: by selection of topics, by distribution of concerns, by emphasis and framing of issues, by filtering of information, by bounding of debate within certain limits. They determine, they select, they shape, they control, they restrict — in order to serve the interests of dominant, elite groups in the society.

The New York Times is certainly the most important newspaper in the United States, and one could argue the most important newspaper in the world. The New York Times plays an enormous role in shaping the perception of the current world on the part of the politically active, educated classes. Also The New York Times has a special role, and I believe its editors probably feel that they bear a heavy burden, in the sense that The New York Times creates history.

The media, a prime source of information for much of the population, is designed to serve the interests of the elites. It then follows, obviously, that the media applies a filter to information, selecting what information reinforces existing structures, and filtering out that which damages those same structures.

Of course, given that it was a discussion about information and propaganda held in the British Library, libraries themselves entered the discussion (Chomsky argued that the establishment of the public library network had a far deeper, more profound impact on society than the introduction of the internet).  Which got me thinking about librarians, the profession and the institution of the library.

It is clear to me that the role of the librarian in society is a radical one.  We provide access to information in a society that is subjected to both filtered information from the media, and growing corporate control of the flow of information.  With the growth of neo-liberalism, the institution of the public library has increasingly become a radical idea.  After all, in a neo-liberal society, everything has its price, including information.  An institution that provides free access to anything in a neo-liberal society is by default an anomaly and a radical one at that.  It therefore follows that the role of the librarian is equally radical.  After all, a professional librarian provides access to information without discrimination, a dangerous concept in any society where information is majority controlled either by the state or by corporate interests.

It is interesting to note, however, that the radical roots of the profession are often hidden away.  Increasingly, they are hidden away under a mountain of corporate speak and superficial obsessions.  In some way this is understandable. Market forces have been imposed on much of the sectors in which librarians operate.  Where they have been imposed, it is natural to assume the mantras of the neo-liberal elites.  After all, an animal rights activist will not refuse a gun if dumped in the middle of the African plains.  But sometimes I wonder if amongst the corporate language, the core principles of the librarian aren’t being lost.

I often despair when librarians warmly enthuse about Amazon.  Primarily, this despair stems from the belief that a company like Amazon transparently does not share the values that we espouse as a profession.  They are a corporate entity who, like all corporate entities, does not put benevolence at the core of its business.  They are motivated by profit.  And if that profit comes from majority control of one of the means by which we obtain information, then they will seek to consolidate control.  Not only are their intentions anti-competitive, but they also do severe damage in terms of access to information.

I also tend to disagree with those who do not believe that values should be at the centre of the profession.  For me, without values we have no right to consider ourselves ‘professionals’. Indeed, anyone who signs up to the professional body also signs up theprofessional values that it espouses.  Personally speaking, I cannot understand how it is possible to sign up to a set of professional values and subsequently view them as an optional extra.

From my point of view, the profession stands for providing access to information to enable an informed citizenry, standing against the tide of corporatisation of information and the radical assault on the notion of free and equitable access to that information.  In a way it is sad that arguing for the very things that are the foundation of the profession is, in some way, seen as ‘radical’.  But then, if it makes us ‘radical’ in arguing for equitable access to information and ensuring consolidation of an informed citizenry, so be it.