digital information technologies and the librarian

The MSc Library Science course I’m taking comprises classes on “Digital Information Technologies and Applications”. It’s substantially about the Internet, and its uses and implications to librarians and libraries—being blogging one of them.

Blogging is one of the many tools of personalisation available in the World Wide Web; it enables expression of a self, of a company, of a community, through text, images, and videos, to a wider online public. This very website is a blog; this blog takes form of a website through WordPress, one of the most popular platforms available for blog-making—as it offers the possibility of hosting your own blog/website for free. Premium (the Web’s favourite ‘paid’ word-softener) features are available.

Microblog is a term used to define websites and applications that allow quick & easy sharing of text and image through your personal profile with others’ profiles. Facebook, Twitter & Instagram can be considered microblogs. Compared to a blog such as this one, these microblogging platforms, or social media, or social network services, provide less personalisation of interface and more interaction between users. You are more an user of the platform than an owner of a website/blog; however, you can have your social media profile stolen from you, as digital information about & by you is also you, if we think of Floridi’s inforgs.

Many libraries keep their own microblogs/social media profiles: this is the British Library on Twitter; this is the New York Public Library on Facebook; and this is the Bibliothèque nationale de France on Instagram.

It’s all about the sharing of information, communication: keywords of great interest to the librarian. After all, doesn’t the library (physical or digital) consist of documents that communicate some sort of information?

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Along with all new exciting possibilities, Digital Information Technologies may pose many problems as well, especially concerns about ethics, which include ownership (‘your’ Flickr photos belong to whom?); digital literacy (what use if you can’t use?) and digital divide (a new form of inequality); computer ‘misuse’ and cybercrime, such as viruses, hacking, and information war; privacy, security, identity, and surveillance; artificial intelligence and agency in digital entities; algorithms and their opaqueness, secrecy, and false neutrality. These issues and many more make many (including myself) question the democratic value often attributed to the Web and the opportunities it offers to users.

It may all look a bit scary. But actually using and exploring critically the many dimensions of the Web, including social media, is important for one to become aware of the very diverse ways in which people are communicating today. It is important to participate having in mind these ethical implications of digital technologies:

The ‘internet’ may not be the answer, but the questions the term raises are nonetheless crucial. The questions of how society designs technologies while also organising social relations … remains a crucial intellectual and political problem. The ‘internet’ may not be the solution to the problem of democracy, but a democratic future will still need to consider, among other things, questions about technological systems of human interconnection and related political, legal and economic questions.
—Thomas Streeter. 2016. Internet. In: Peters, B. ed. Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society & Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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And apart all these concerns, the Internet also brought with it a deluge of information. Historically, librarians know the feeling of being overwhelmed by information enabled by a new technology: in the fifteenth century, right after the invention of Gutenberg’s mechanical movable type printing, a torrent of printed matter, specially books, took over cities and homes and shelves. How to make sense of all that information? How to organise all this documentation? Does everything matter, or should there be some selection—besides, where will we find space to keep all these books? Collecting, organising, and cataloguing have been developed tremendously, if not by will, then by need.

The Internet provided us with an unimaginable capacity to collect and spread information, and new forms of organising and cataloguing have emerged and keep emerging. Librarians worry about issues like How to filter good from bad information?, How do we catalogue and organise a set of websites?, How can we better use the tools of the Internet to facilitate access to and understanding of information, in the many ways it presents itself?

megan-amaral-cc-2-0
Can you imagine cataloguing the Web in one of these? Librarian must always keep up with new technologies to be able to make sense of the world  —Photo by Megan Amaral, CC2.0

A good understanding of the different information resources available online today is key knowledge of a librarian today. The notion that there are many distinct ways of finding information in their very nature: the type of information one needs should correspond to the way of finding it. Should I look for this bit of information on Google? Or maybe use my local library catalogue? Or the huge British Library catalogue, maybe? What about specialist, high-detailed and high-structured databases? HOW do I choose, HOW do I use each of them, and maybe most important: WHAT is the difference?

The Web may cause an unstoppable information deluge, but it also enables tools for organising and indexing physical, pre-digital matter as well. Library catalogues were once amazing wooden boxes full of little drawers containing cataloging cards, one for each book or document. ‘Hyperlinking’ was analogue, with cards ‘redirecting’ the searcher to other drawers and other cards, and a new indexing system demanded a duplication of everything: you would need to make a copy of every card and build a new set of little drawers if you wanted not only to provide search by Author, but also search by Subject, for example. You get the nightmare. But the cards system is actually a much more complex and flexible way if indexing than having everything written down on a notebook, and it is even considered a precursor of Internet in terms of cataloguing and linking capabilities.

card-catalogue
A Catalogue Card. It was once a visionary invention. Note the early attempts of interaction by users, ‘comment-like’ interventions to the system. Photo by Eric, CC2.0

Online catalogues are the standard for libraries today. Search by Author, Keyword, terms in the Title or Abstract or Content; possibilities are great. Search within search; get citation references; find related items. The ability to link data enables an amazing network to be developed; a real digital Web. And if you have your own library, you can use LibraryThing to catalogue your books, find and produce accurate metadata about them, and connect with other users of the platform.

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Digital Information Technologies are everywhere in the librarian’s work. It relates to communication; community building and enhancing; finding and disseminating knowledge. It can’t be ignored, but also, it must be mastered. I’ll end this post with some of the librarian skills from R. David Lakes’s list found in The New Librarianship Field Guide (and formulated from The Salzburg Curriculum) which bare strong ties with Digital Information Technologies issues and studies:

Engaging and evolving with technologies: Librarians must constantly evaluate new technologies to determine which are most useful to their communities;
Reaching out: Librarians must reach out to, and learn with, their communities;
Imparting technology skills to communities across generations: Librarians must find ways to reach across the divides of access, age, knowledge, environment, and motivation in their communities;
Creating and maintaining an effective virtual presence: Librarians must keep up with technologies in order to maintain an effective virtual presence within their communities regardless of space and time;
Collect: A collection should reflect a constant dialogue with the community. What is important and unimportant? To whom is it important? When is it important? How can librarians build and share ideas?
Communication: You must understand how and when to communicate, and that different communities will associate different terms and meanings to things.
Innovation: Librarians must constantly look for ways to improve the systems that serve their communities, adapting ideas from across industries and communities.

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References:

Lankes, R.D. 2016. The new librarianship field guide. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
Peters, B. ed. 2016. Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society & Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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