Sunday, November 26, 2006

To Shirk These Mental Shackles

I wanted to quickly follow up my last post with something of an update to one from a few weeks ago. I received a number of excellent comments pointing me to instances of projects that in many ways lend themselves to the criteria I had suggested. iToolbox and Academici are both social networks or sorts that lend themselves to a more restricted audience and specific functionality then MySpace. iToolbox is a site directed primarily at IT professionals. In implementation, it is structure much less like a MySpace and more like a traditional forum or modified wiki. This is not to put it down, the site has certainly made great leaps in improving upon forum implementations of the past. I also don't want to pigeonhole it into one particular methodology. The site has a wide variety of useful functionality and it seems to be continuing to experiment and improve.

The other site that was suggested, Academici, is a little closer to what I had envisioned. To put it in as few words as possible, Academici is a MySpace for knowledge workers. I haven't used the site, but from what I garnered from the documentation it shares many of the same features as the mainstream social networks. However, in addition to the more traditional functionality ,it also offers more targeted functionality such as the ability to share abstracts and papers as well as open them up to discussion. It is difficult to tell from the description, but the site also seems to have search and contact functionality tailored specifically for academics and other research intensive professionals. Generally, I'm impressed with both these sites and am thrilled that their are those out there working to develop more targeted, and I think, more useful social networks.

My concern, however, is that it is not libraries working to develop these sites. I think the cause for my concerns is largely evident in the Academici implementation. While I have nothing but praise for the work they have done, I can't help but imagine how much better it could be if it were run in the context of a library. Firstly, for research networks to be effective they simply can't exclude, and while Academici does have a free option one still has to pay for the full functionality.

That having been said, my monetary concerns are secondary to my firm belief that the networks functionality could be better as well. The ability to share papers or abstracts is wonderful, but in truth it is nothing more then what many researchers are already doing with blogs. Perhaps their is a certain virtue to the simple feature consolidation that Academici has achieved, but it seems so small as to be almost not worth mentioning. What would dramatically increase the value of such feature consolidations is if rather then providing access only to the few unpublished works, drafts and preprints that a user has created since his registration, users could access their potential collaborators entire opus. Once more, would it not be fascinating if one could view in a user's profile a impartial ranking of their authority determined through some measure based on citation information. Similarly, it is one thing to open up publication to debate on a social network, it is quite another to attempt to draw conclusions or in fact any value at all from them, but what if each comment was accompanied by a ranking, again determined through the use of citation information? To bring my suggestions even closer to the profession itself, what if users could enlist the aid of a trained librarian, within the very context of the network, to aid in the location of relevant colleagues to befriend or contact.

I find this last suggestion the most interesting as it is by far the purest application of library and information science to the online realm. In fact the suggestion I'm really making is that in the context of the online social network a person, or more precisely their profile, is nothing more then a document. To broaden the suggestion, and I'm certainly not the first to suggest this, in an online context everything is a document. Given this universality of the documentary format, their seems little reason that librarians should limit the application of their profession to the retrieval of only that which has remained unchanged between the physical and virtual worlds. In a social network like Academici , users, at some level at least, are simply documents and as such should be well within the purview of the librarian. While in the past a patron might have approached a librarian looking for publications on a particular topic, now in the social network context it seems equally reasonable that a librarian might better serve the patron by locating an authority on the topic or even better a community of authorities.

I must admit their is a certain futility and pointlessness in postulating about the potential of things that don't exist, but my goal is not to make idol feature requests or spin tales of times to come. I suggested these possibilities merely to illuminate the differences between advertising decades old practices online and actually applying the tenants of a centuries old profession to a new digital world. Finally, I would like to suggest that we should not confuse the intellectual paradigms that bind us to the brick and mortar with the librarian profession itself. To shirk these mental shackles is not to abandon the profession, but to free it.

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