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.