Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Time to be Leaders not Users

Recently I jumped on the Ruby on Rails band wagon, having played around with PHP for a year or two. Ruby on Rails, a framework for developing online applications, was developed by a programmer at 37Signals, a web design firm turned software development house. Part of the Ruby on Rails indoctrination, as I’ve come to discover, is understanding and accepting the 37Signals design gospel. Even prior to the Rails explosion 37Signals was respected in the online community for their blog, Signal v. Noise and other writings. One of the things that they preach is what I would describe as “specificity in design”. By this I mean that applications should be developed with a very narrowly construed purpose. The example they use quite frequently is that of the master craftsman. The craftsman has tools, many tools, each with a very specific function. The true craftsman does not use a Black and Decker all in one, or a swiss army knife, but a tool meant only for that single job. I increasingly find myself looking at the tools I use and the things I encounter on the web, including social networks, and evaluating them based on the 37Signals criteria.

From what I’ve seen most of the social networks would have a real problem meeting the 37Signals standard. MySpace is perhaps the worst feature glut offender, but the same can be said of most of the others, to one degree or another. This seems to be a problem mostly because of the lack of definition in most social networks. They’re not sure just who they appeal too or what people are going to use them for. The lack of focus causes them to crowd their sites with features and various visual components with little cohesiveness. Then users come in and further confuse things by adapting the sites’ disparate features for all sorts of functions. I’m not sure this is a good thing, in fact I’m almost positive its not, and from the readings it seems libraries are as guilty as anyone else.

I am not saying that libraries shouldn’t use social networks or that social networks are a negative thing for libraries, but one has to consider for just what purpose they intend to use a social network and whether they’re using the right tool for the job. I think in most cases the answer is no, but more importantly it seems the question isn’t being asked. If libraries were asking the question and thinking about it critically I think that far few would be spending their time and resources putting up MySpace profiles.

So what should they be doing?

This brings me to my second idea/inspiration. I was recently reading an article in this months Nature entitled “2020 Computing: Science in an exponential world”. The gist of the article is that the amount of data being produced by modern science is overwhelming the traditional methods of scientific communication/storage. While a portion of the article is addressing simply storage and creation, it also address the scholarly use of data, particularly the increasing degree to which original research is conducted by data mining and not experimentation. As one would expect from a science journal they come at the issues from a very “preserving scientific method” perspective. The authors are very concerned with issues of reproducibility and long term preservation and less with how researchers themselves are coping.

I couldn’t help but think while reading the article that the solution to many of the issues they were raising, any many they weren't might be found through the use of a social network. If research is happening entirely online through databases and data mining, it seems silly that they should have to step offline then to participate in scholarly communication and collaboration. It also strikes me as silly that they should have to use inappropriate tools such as Google and blogs to keep themselves online and up to date. Their should be a social network for academics that is designed specifically to facilitate positive scholarly communication and collaboration. It also strikes me that the construction and maintenance of such a social network should be the responsibility of the library. It was revealed to me a few months ago that it was the special libraries at Canada’s big Toronto banks that constructed some of Canada's first corporate intra nets. While this might not seem to require anywhere near the same level of skill and understanding as the creation of an effective social network, it did a decade ago.

Libraries today have no excuse for passivity. The cost and time to develop applications such as social networks is decreasing rapidly as both the tools and platforms improve. Libraries need to think critically about where they spend their dollars. Is it more valuable to spend millions on electronic journals that place you at the mercy of vendors and publishers or is better to spend a fraction of that on developing a system that truly makes use of modern technology and insures a role for libraries in the future as more then simply spending committees. It seems that it is no longer enough for libraries to be the users of generic or inappropriate tools.
I have less time to think on this then I would like, but I hope to refine my understanding over the next little while and post more on the topic.


Martin said...

I stumbled on this via a google alert. After reading it, I wondered if you are referring to feature sets more, or the lack of tailoring a site to its audience and purpose?

At ITtoolbox, we've been working on make a Professional Network that caters to a particular audience and provides the features and tools that will be most useful to that audience.

We're just getting going in this arena, although we've been about community for our entire existence (8+ years). Hence, I'm interested in what you have to say.

amanda said...

Love the idea of libraries being instrumental in establishing a social network for academics. Such networks have already started popping up on the 2.0 landscape (one is academici) and, sadly, libraries aren't playing much of a role there either. I, personally, like the idea of social network-type features integrated into institutional repositories. Seems to me that that would kill *many* birds with one stone!

maximum_access said...

To be honest I was really thinking of both features and audiance. I see your point, Martin, they certainly could be address as two seperate issues. In the case of public libraries the audience is obviousely going to have to be fairly inclusive, perhaps even to the extent of a MySpace or Facebook. In that case my concerns are primarly feature related.

On the other hand I think special and academic libraries should be involved in developing tools for specific groups and while that would entail addressing many feature issues they would largely be a product of the needs of the specific group.

I just took a look at IToolbox and in many respects it's precisely what I'm talking about. I don't want to sound as thought I'm belittling what's already out there, including IToolbox. I just think that the librarian community has a great deal to offer, but tends to abdicate responsibility because of a sort of technophobia.

I don't want to make this to long, but you have definitely highlighted a need for me to clarify what I'm talking about.

Tamara said...

Interesting post --
I think you're right that librarians do have alot to offer in terms of directing the future development of effective digital service tools in the academic and special library environments. Yes, there is a fair bit of technophobia out there (I admit that even while I consider myself to enjoy and appreciate technology I am often quite intimidated by it - I hope that we as the next generation of librarians entering the workforce that will change). The heart of the matter is failing to adequately think through a social networking, web site, and virtual service project and not only conducting a thorough needs assessment, but actually creating a product that reflects the needs of the user rather than those of the information provider. That is, we should be creating virtual environments with features, functionality, and language that conforms to the audience's expectations and needs rather than making them conform to ours.

Unfortunately, I think that there are always a variety of different groups that need to use the same tools/services - and a large number of key stakeholders with any project. Creating consensus on what is "best for the user" can be a daunting task.