The user becomes the collection

(This is a previously unpublished post  from my WordPress drafts folder. I’ve cleaned it up and finished some thoughts, but mostly it stands as written in November 2010)

The user becomes the collection

At this Fall’s ACRL Northwest conference, I had the good fortune to participate in a panel discussing the future of libraries. We were asked what we thought the theme of the conference would be five years in the future. In the month or so since the panel took place, I can’t seem to stop mulling over the answer that I gave. I said something along the lines of “The user becomes the collection”, meaning that libraries, instead of providing access to static content will instead provide access for our users to connect with networks of like minds. I predict this trend will continue to the point where libraries become more about curating networks and connections between thinkers and creators of information and less about the static content we store in our collections.

A recap of the ACRL-NW 2010 conference is available alongside a full report and several videos from the event including the final panel that I am discussing here. My comments on the user becoming the collection come at the 25 minute mark.

I’m starting with an assumption that observations about the interactive web and the services that power it will carry over and apply to the library. One key observation that I’m applying to the future of libraries is:

For any contemporary information service, the network of users is more important than the structure or the content the service provides.

Currently and traditionally, libraries offer content or their collections to users. Authors and readers became separate classes of people. The library’s job is to take the content created by authors and make it available to readers. This distinction is emphasized by key technology of the print world: the printing press. Gutenberg’s mechanical movable type printing press enabled a single author to reach a mass audience of readers. These readers could not easily communicate with either the author or with other readers, unless they had access to a press and became authors themselves. Libraries as we know them developed under this system. Authors wrote while libraries collected and made their collections available to the masses. Today, we would describe this as a read-only technology. Larry Lessig has a wonderful explanation of the difference between read-only and read-write technologies:

In read-only culture, “creativity was consumed, but the consumer was not a creator.” This is from Lessig’s TED talk: On the Laws that Choke Creativity (the read-write vs. read-only distinction is made in the first three minutes, but the entire talk is well worth the 20 minutes it takes to watch, both for its content and for Lessig’s presentation technique.)

My argument today is our traditional focus on building and providing access to a collection of content is based in a world where the leading information technology was read-only. The advent of read-write technology and the changes in the way we communicate and store information this enables will forever alter the way we think about our collections and our user communities.

Example 1: (Wikipedia entry) is a social news site. It’s core functionality was to allow Digg users to vote on news stories. Digg’s users vote on the news stories they read. Users that like or dig a story bump it up Digg’s rankings. Users that that don’t like or bury a story vote it down the rankings. With a large an active community of users, Digg’s homepage became a very useful place to find news stories that have been socially filtered. Digg provides a social editorial service that serves as an alternative to newspaper editors. Digg’s top stories were chosen by the community of news readers, rather than by a single editor or editorial board. Readers like you and me decided the top stories of the day.

Digg became a darling of the social media set. Along with Wikipedia, Delicious, and Facebook, Digg was an example of the power of the read-write web. At one point, Kevin Rose, Digg’s founder was offered a buyout worth $60 million dollars and later rumors of a Google buyout mentioned a $200 million dollar price. Then, after the site’s managers made some unpopular interface changes, users fled the site and its value to outside investors plummeted. The lesson: the value of this kind of site lies in its user population, not in its content, or its technological architecture.

Example 2: Wikipedia

The best description of Wikipedia I’ve ever come across is from Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody.
“Wikipedia, which looks like a reference work to the average viewer, is in fact a bureaucracy mainly given over to arguing.” What he’s saying here is that the content on Wikipedia is only “the residue of the arguing, being the last thing anyone declined to disagree about.” (Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, pg 279) While it certainly is useful to have a collaboratively written encyclopedia, we’ve had encyclopedias for a long time. Wikipedia’s genius new addition to the game was never content, rather it was the way it leveraged community contributions (read: arguments)  into something useful. Corey Doctorow repeats this point in a BoingBoing post about Disney and Content.  He says: “5 exabytes of information being created every two days (an amount roughly equal to the sum total information created between the dawn of civilation and 2003, according to Google’s Eric Schmidt), content is no longer rare, expensive, or difficult to acquire. According to the law of supply and demand, the economic value of any particular unit of information must necessarily fall. Thus, content is no longer king.

Example 3: scholarly publication

My last point to consider here is scholarly publication. The angle I’m considering is one that comes up quite frequently in discussions about institutional repositories and the crisis of journal prices. The basic economic argument for institutional repositories works like this:

Taxpayers fund research through public university salaries and federal grants. The copyrights for this research are then turned over to journals in exchange for printing and distributing the articles to a wide audience. The journals do not pay scholars for rights to their work. They also do not pay scholars for the peer review processes that filter and provide a seal of legitimacy. The publishers then turn around and charge the same universities that have already paid for the research once, seemingly outrageous and ever-increasing prices to access them through academic libraries. The central question that people are asking is: in an age where digital publication makes it possible for groups to make their content public at very low costs compared with running a printing operation, does it still make sense to sign over all copyrights in exchange for printing?

Briefly summarized, institutional repositories (IRs) are digital archives of the research that takes place on a particular campus. Rather than having to re-purchase access to scholarship a university has already funded once, the repository cuts out the middle. The reason IRs are significant for this conversation is that they clearly identify the community of scholars as the product, rather than viewing the content this community produces as the product. Of course researchers still use the journal article to communicate their findings, but what is truly significant is the ongoing conversation. IRs are capturing local conversations and leveraging them in a similar manner to the way the Wikipedia leverages arguments, and Digg leverages links. In all three cases, content is secondary to community. At least, this is the promise that IRs hold. I would be remiss if I didn’t hedge the claim here with the admission that many IRs sit unpopulated and the conversations are taking place through other channels.


What I draw from all this is that focus on content over community (with content understood as a fixed object of value) is an artifact of printing as a technology and a medium. In oral societies, stories were content, but they were not fixed, so networks of storytellers were needed to keep them in the groups’ memories. Print, by fixing content into semi-permanent forms made content more lasting and created the impression that content was more important than the conversations that inspired or created it. Now that digital media are replacing print as the primary means of information storage, transfer, and retrieval, we are rediscovering the primacy of community over fixed content. Libraries contemplating their future will do well to consider this. When content was king, libraries were revered as temples of content. If, as I suspect is happening, content becomes a byproduct of conversations and communities, our status and use to the communities we serve is bound to change. In light of this, our best service is to focus on these conversations and communities so that we will be prepared as our users become our collections.

This is a major shift for libraries. When print was king, libraries existed as places where print was preserved and shared. Now that disruptive technological change is shifting our culture’s relationship with content, libraries mean something different to our user populations than they used to. This doesn’t mean that libraries will necessarily become redundant, obsolete, or a niche service to print fetishists; but it does mean that the status quo is no longer a sustainable option. It is hard to innovate when you offer a necessary service. After all, people love libraries as they are. Change means, to some degree, leaving behind the thing that people love, with no guarantee that our users affections will transfer to the new us. On the other hand, not changing, which in this context means keeping our fixation on content and ignoring the increasing importance of networks and communities of content-users, pretty much guarantees that “anachronism” will be an accurate descriptor for libraries in the future.

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