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Pensees du Webcred

I was going to write two separate reports about Webcred, one for the journalists and bloggers, and another for my Libraryland colleagues. I stared at the computer screen for a very long time, then slapped my forehead. This needs to be one piece, because the whole point is to cross-pollinate ideas among the communities sharing in this discussion. After all, information is a conversation.

Furthermore, I don’t need to–and should not–write a report per se (nor should I repeat comments from other posts or from my brief comments at Webcred). I’ll have other writing opportunities to explore specific topics. Webcred was an extremely well-documented conference, with transcripts, web sites, blog entries, audio, IRC logs, rosters and email providing a clear picture of the discussions that took place over January 22 and 23 at the Kennedy School of Government. I will not, should not repeat simple narrative information you can get elsewhere. A roomful of smart, caring people got together and talked about journalism, blogging, ethics, and much more. Everything was discussed; nothing was concluded; much happened; to quote the title of a favorite library blog, it was All Good.

My responsibility, as a stranger from a strange land, should be to begin sensemaking, to look at all that was said and not said, and present my comments from a librarian’s perspective: things that were important to me; things I need to share. Therefore, I have begun generating these Pensees (or if you prefer, Small Things Loosely Written)–snippets of thought that fall into my lap while I’m doing other things. I will add to these Pensees as thoughts occur to me, and if need be, cut slips from the main plant and let them root separately.

Pensees du Webcred

Information travels through space and time. Information is on a journey that ideally never ends (because the end of the journey is when information disappears).

Information users also travel through space and time, and experience information in slices, some brief, some long, some only once, some repeatedly. Information also comes to users through a number of personal filters, including their world knowledge, world view, and accessibility challenges such as economic status, physical ability, age, and access to education.

As information travels through time and space, it can quickly lose context and meaning, particularly for the user experiencing the information in slices of time of time and space.

Metadata is a traveler’s trunk of meaning, information about information, like a catalog record describing a book or an XML tag structuring a Web document. As a librarian, I’ve met a lot of metadata, but I never metadata I didn’t like. Metadata should be firmly lashed to information at the beginning of its journey and if possible added to along the way, over the Donner Pass and through cordones sanitaire, so that information becomes less “lossy” and in fact richer in meaning. To paraphrase David Weinberger’s expression, the more “messy metadata” an information packet has at the beginning of its journey, and the more it acquires along the way, the more likely it is that the information will remain more or less intact (or at least meaningful and true to itself) through its lengthy and ideally infinite journey through space and time. (You can always reorganize metadata, but it is wickedly hard to recreate long after the fact.)

Librarians are primarily concerned with last-mile issues: access, organization, preservation, intellectual freedom, and information literacy.

Content providers, such as journalists and bloggers, are primarily concerned with first-mile issues: creation, dissemination, delivery.

Both librarians and content providers have high stakes in ensuring that users experience credible, “user-ready” content. Librarians express these high stakes in numerous codes and statements that repeat, amplify, and update the profession’s commitment to information access.

Information is a conversation, not a lecture. Users can and should be given the opportunity to participate in information’s journey. But it should not be a forced march. Those who can participate in the discussion have an obligation to recognize the many silent stakeholders we represent: the single mother working 12-hour shifts at Walmart, the visually-challenged user slowly reading a blog through text-to-sound software, the older person experiencing the Internet for the first time, the librarian serving a busy line of users, and the many quiet, regular users of information who, like lurkers on an email list, play an important and underlooked role as an audience of listeners.

People don’t like to discuss ethics, but everyone believes ethics are important.

Information exists along continuums of personal and public publishing. (There are other continuums–is that the plural?–but for this discussion, the personal – public continuum is most relevant.) All of these continuums are valid and valuable in their own right, but context may change the value of a continuum in relation to other information. I accept a family Christmas letter as important information others want to share with me (if not entirely believable); I wouldn’t want the New York Times to base a news report on it.

All content producers, publishers, and providers are allies in the same cause. Defining the cause is part of the challenge. And like information’s travels, the process of definition is also one that never ends.

Just as meeting face to face is a different experience than talking over a blog, the nuts and bolts of information provision is a much different experience than the process of its creation. No stakeholders understand users better than the “last mile” communities, which include librarians and advocates for the information have-nots and somewhat-nots. This isn’t because journalists and bloggers and publishers don’t care about users. It’s because librarians and access-advocates connect directly with users, and see and experience users in the users’ contexts. It is one thing to know people read your newspaper. It is another thing to put a newspaper in someone’s hands.

Anne Lipow, a great librarian, innovator, educator, and publisher, often said that the user is not remote from the librarian, the librarian is remote from the user. This is true for all information communities. Our users (readers, patrons) are right there, where they should be; we are the ones who need to close the distance. Part of the excitement about new information services, such as blogging, is that blogs directly and indirectly work to cross that bridge, both with the type of content they can provide–reflecting, commenting, correcting, and augmenting the MSM, as well as through their own reportage—and through their collective poke in the back to traditional journalism.

Education isn’t enough, but it’s essential. Users need education about evaluating information. Creators need education about creating information worth evaluating. Information managers need education about users. We all need to know more about each other.

The “guerilla journalism” classes are a great idea, the kind of added-value superuser activity we are now seeing from the blogosphere, and one many librarians would be interested in. Libraries have been in the business of “guerilla consumer” training for some time. One lesson we can share from our experience is “each one teaches one.” You can’t possibly share all of your knowledge with everyone you need to reach, but it is feasible to identify superusers and educators (formal and informal) who can carry information back to their communities and share it in their own language and according to local needs and interests.

We all forget what we really do for a living; it’s the nature of the work beast. But once in a while, when you can, remember the user. And if that’s hard to do, as it probably is, find a librarian, and she’ll remind you.


N.b. My Writing Plan

So many ideas, so many important issues to write about! In addition to these Pensees, I will be writing two or three pieces of varying lengths, from a 300-word write-up for American Libraries to an 800-word fire-and-brimstone piece about ethics and (library) blogs for Library Journal and then a much longer piece destined for parts unknown.

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