Whispering the News to Marian: Libraries on Fire

Whispering the News to Marian: Libraries on Fire (Moveable Types of Information Literacy)

Librarians get furious when someone from the outside tries to suppress a text. A library must have order. A patron reshelve a book? Never!

“Heaven help us, if the library caught on fire,” sings Harold Hill “and the volunteer hose brigademen / Had to whisper the news to Marian.”

Imagine a library with the doors open 24 hours a day, where patrons can reshelve books whenever they want to — and wherever they want to. Where patrons can write in the margins, rip out pages from one book and stuff them somewhere else. The result would be chaos! How would patrons find what they want? How would it be possible to cope with holdings that change overnight? And the dancing — teenagers dancing on the tables! Who could get work done in that environment?

What if, instead of unqualified chaos, the result would be an information system organized by the users, reflecting their use patterns, their interests, and their goals. Such a system would be inherently populist. In certain areas, it would be more mirror than window, so users would need to be trained to recognize and account for weaknesses and look beyond them.

Librarians would have to learn to read these systems. If they did, the might notice new trends, as a new subcategory suddenly appears, and fills up with new entries and cross-references, all supplied by patrons (who are simultaneously authors). Such a system would be constantly changing, but not necessarily constantly degrading; it would be self-updating. Should vandals break in, an army of volunteers would break in at the heels of the vandals, picking up and reshelving the books almost as quickly as the vandals emptied them.

Vannevar Bush imagined such an expert system, not so much in the Memex itself, but n the culture of professionals who would exchange not just results, but also the “trails” of associations that led them to those results.

Students who are far less rigorous about their trailblazing use another such system — Google. The PageRank formula calculates the value of an individual web page by counting the number of inbound links, and weighting the value of those inbound links according to the relative value of the referring page. So anyone who can create a web page (or fill in user-friendly web forms to create a blog entry) can affect, to some small but recursive degree, the rank of a page. Large groups of like-minded users can hack Google, as evidenced by “googlebomb” pranks (such as “french military victories” and “miserable failure”).

If you are a blogger, you probably know about “blog spam” — the automated creation of “fake” weblog comments designed to affect the PageRank of a site not affiliated with the spammed weblog.

Now that Amazon.com offers whole-text search, it offers some of these services. Books on Amazon.com are filed according to the traditional subject headings, but they are also grouped in different ways — people who bought this title also bought these. Each user who makes a purchase adjusts the weighted network slightly. Amazon.com users can also create annotated lists, which turn up in the search fields. (See “Information Literacy” via the Amazon interface.)

Even more radical is the Wiki, a form of electronic authorship that completely decentralizes authority and encourages all readers to annotate, expand, edit, or completely revise a common text.

Wikipedia, the best known wiki, is an open source encyclopedia. Any user can create, expand, or modify a “topic”. While the personality-driven blogs are often considered valuable because of the explicitly-stated biases of the blogger, a core value of Wikipedia is the “neutral point of view.” Authors who create or edit articles because they have an axe to grind are quickly neutralized — that is, a small army of volunteer editors will sweep through a newly posted text, removing loaded words and jargon, commercial plugs and disinformation, as well as vandalism (such as deleting an entry or posting copyrighted material). As you might expect, Wikipedia does an excellent job covering the interest of libertarian computer geeks. Its offerings on The Simpsons and Star Trek are truly masterpieces. That kind of selection bias is harder to counteract (though some Wikipedians are attempting to do so, via the Crossbow project).

On the other hand… see “Librarian: Don’t Use Wikipedia as Source“.

Veteran blogger-baiter Andrew Orlowski is among those who have raised serious doubts about the value of Wikipedia. Wired magazine, which has a great reputation for identifying emerging technological trends has on several recent occasions linked, without comment or qualification, to the Wikipedia entry for a technical term. Given Wired‘s technophiliac history, Orlowski would probably consider this as evidence to shore back up his opinion.

See: Outline