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Librarians offer plenty in a social media world

librarian_teacherCongrats!  The Internet has made you an honorary librarian. Since writing that post, I’ve been thinking about what’s the purpose of credentialed librarians when social media enables many of us to fill some of their roles.

Steph, a librarian in Melbourne, Australia, feels that the Internet has made her a better librarian.  She states:

In many ways the Internet has made me a better librarian. I am able to answer questions more quickly and efficiently. I know that there is more to what’s available than a search engine or Wikipedia can provide. I love the fact that there are cool databases available through university libraries with hundreds and thousands of amazing articles that I can search!

Like her, I feel that the Internet makes librarians more useful and needed. Here are some ways that credentialed librarians and information professionals help us in a social media world:

 

1. Confronting the filters that search engines use to narrow our browsing experience

One of the trends that has bothered me over the recent years is that search engines are getting better at personalizing information for each user. Eli Pariser has written about this trend in his book The Filter Bubble. For instance, search engines take many factors ranging from demographics, computer/operating system information, location, and browsing habits to make the information it presents a person more relevant to them.  While this may make the search results more relevant, one is less likely to get introduced to new things.

It doesn’t matter if it is a different shoe website or political point-of-view, exposure to new information and things that challenge our world view is important.  People fret about totalitarian countries like China censoring search results for their citizens.  Although many sites may not have such a suspicious motive, filtering (which is related to censoring) content is still troublesome.

Librarians can help individuals understand the filters that affect their Internet browsing experience and can help them find a wide variety of information to help them make well-reasoned decisions.

2. Finding less accessible information

Some things are just hard to find – even on the Internet.

One major barrier is determining the proper search keywords.  For instance, there are really technical and scientific terms that only people with highly specialized expertise can accurately understand.  This can certainly affect someone who is searching for health information.  At times the subject requires precise scientific terms that only a few of us know, but within the Internet surfing population there’s a wide range of age, familiarity with languages, and medical related literacy.  A librarian can provide great assistance in finding more robust search terms regardless of the topic.

Another major barrier to finding some information is the format that it is in.  Some information may reside in obsolete or fragile media like microfiche or Betamax tapes.  Very few people have access to the equipment required to access information in these formats, and librarians can help provide such equipment.

The needs of certain individuals also is an important factor.  There are plenty textual or audio files on the Internet.  How do people who are hearing or visually impaired access this information?  Librarians can help people find (or convert) information in formats that are accessible to them – regardless of their specific needs.

3. Searching better — even using those pesky library databases

Beyond using search engines, there are plenty of databases on the Internet that have their own unique search functions.  Anyone who has used their public library’s electronic catalog can attest to the fact that sometimes it is difficult to use the different fields like title (exact), title keywords, author, genre, etc.  Then there are databases like JSTOR, LexisNexis, and ProQuest.  That’s only accounting for publicly available databases, and there are many tailored to specific industries and professions.  These are robust tools, but their power comes from complexity.  Librarians use the databases provided by their organizations regularly, and their familiarity can make life easier for those of us who don’t use them as regularly.

4. Improving tagging

“Tagging” is a hip synonym for “classifying.”  We can even throw big words like “taxonomy” and “folksonomy” into the mix (to appear smart, of course); these are systems that help us organize information.  Taxonomies are more rigid since there are strict guidelines on the terms used in them while folksonomies are much flexible by allowing people to add terms with less control over format and standardization.  Sites like Delicious and blogging platforms that allow users to come up with their own terms are more aligned with folksonomies than taxonomies.  Despite their differences, these two different categorizing philosophies can help each other as Daniela Barbosa of Dow Jones explains in her The Taxonomy Folksonomy Cookbook ebook that I reviewed.  Librarians can bring harmony to folksonomies and taxonomies allowing the strengths of each to benefit information users.

A very simple example of these two systems working together is when people contribute to a folksonomy by tagging pictures with tags like “apple” and “mouse.”  Taxonomy terms associated with the pictures would provide further context and reveal whether the pictures are of computer equipment or biological specimen.

Museums are organizations that can benefit from librarians’ expertise with both taxonomies and folksonomies.  The Steve Project aims to improve the utility of tagging by allowing members of the public to help describe art and artifacts displayed at museums.  The hope is to prove “that social tagging may provide profound new ways to describe and access cultural heritage collections and encourage visitor engagement with collection objects.

5. Understanding intellectual property issues

The Internet has made it easy to share information.  This includes sharing a recently aired TV episode, a song, a captivating picture, an interesting book, informative research material, etc.  How about fan fiction? Such information wasn’t created for free, and creators have intellectual property rights provided through copyright, patent, trade mark, and trade secret protections.  The rest of us also have rights granted to us through fair use and the public domain.  Intellectual property laws are complicated and are typically enforced with strict regulations and stiff penalties.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t have access to intellectual property lawyers nor can many of us afford their services.  However, that’s where librarians can provide expertise.  There are many organizations like the Center for Intellectual Property at the University of Maryland University College – where I did my graduate assistantship at – that offer great resources to both librarians and members of the public that can promote an understanding of intellectual property issues.

In case you’re wondering, the picture I used for this post is from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain – click here for the details.

6. Compiling lists of reliable sources of information

Just because something is on the Internet, does not make it true.  That is why there are resources like dmoz that are maintained by human editors (not fancy algorithms).  Such sites provide an editorial stamp on their quality as well as organize them into highly distinct and descriptive categories, and this is a great service to information seekers.

Granted, dmoz is no longer very useful since Google’s algorithm no longer gives more weight to its links than to many other types of links.  Further, there are too few editors to review the link submissions while people try to spam the directory for search ranking purposes.  Having acknowledged that, I still feel that the directory model has value if it is done in a different manner that allows for more manageable submission policies, and librarians are great candidates for gatekeepers of such directories.

I also further would like to note that there is some subjectivity that can cause drama when it comes to evaluating the quality of information related to political, religious, social, and many other sensitive topics, but that does not completely negate the usefulness of edited directories – especially non-profit ones.

7. Teaching information literacy

As mentioned above, there’s a lot of information on the Internet, and information quality varies online.  Information Literacy refers to the ability for one to determine the quality of information.  There are several factors that one can use to assess information quality.  A major factor requires evaluating credentials of individual/organization providing the information as well as their motives.  Further, one should consider how frequently the information is updated and the ability to verify such information.  These are skills that school librarians teach children, and they can help the rest of us improve our information literacy, too.