social search

Information Professionals as Sherpas - Part II

“…a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention…” - Herbert Simon

This is part II of a pair of posts on Information Professionals as Sherpas. You can read Part I in isolation here.

I've written before about the ever increasing mountain of information. Specifically, my point about Sherpas relates to this quote, from this post:

"We’re all aware of the very real danger that libraries could become redundant, with users being able to do their own research, unassisted, and entirely online (hence the phrase you often hear bandied about, that ‘we’re all librarians now’). Who needs a library when you can find everything yourself? The answer to that may be that you need a library as a gateway to information with integrity. The current information-seeking behaviour of our users is simply not fit for purpose for searching on the kind of staggering scale we’ll be dealing with in the near future. You can easily type a key word into a search engine and get a million hits – what we professionals of information can do for you is sort the wheat from the chaff on an epic scale. We can rule out the majority of those hits on the basis of dubious authorship, or validity, or context, or even just quality. And we can provide access to those materials which are legitimate for our users (and must brand this information accordingly, so our users understand the role the library has played in assessing it). These are roles which will become more and more important as the amount of digital information becomes more and more vast. Imagine the available data as an almost random stream of sentences, arranged without rhyme or reason across a hundred pages. You might find a sentence or two which is really useful, but overall the effort required to search through it all would be overwhelming. What the Information Professional can do, is arrange the sentences into paragraphs, the paragraphs into chapters, and provide you with a Contents page, an introduction and an index. More and more, that will become an invaluable service in the Information Economy in which we live."

Edit: Good to see Agnostic, Maybe writing along similarish lines!

There is already evidence that users want some kind of guidance, that simply typing stuff into Google isn't working any more. When Facebook purchased FriendFeed, Mashable posted this interesting article about 'the new search war'. The article suggests that with its 250 million registered users (and that figure is up to 400 million now, according to Facebook's own stats), Facebook has always been in a position to lead the way in Social Search - the web search method that determines the relevance of search results by considering the interactions or contributions of users - and that now this could come to fruition. The same article also links to a blog post from Paul Buchheit (creator of Gmail, among other things), from way back in 2008, in which Buchheit anticipates the power of 'human link data' and suggests it could one day become more useful than 'web link data'.

I already use human link data, in the form of delicious and blogs, and in real-time with Twitter, to get information. Particularly with more qualitative information, I prefer the opinions and advice of my network of peers than just asking Google's non-human algorithms to provide me with information I can trust. There are efforts to formalise this process, such as the search-engine Aardvark,which 'connects users live with friends or friends-of-friends who are able to answer their questions'. The wikipedia article on Social Searchis slightly dated in that it mentions Aardvark, but not the fact that Aardvark was acquired by Google last month, as Google seeks to even the odds with Facebook in the search-war... The recently launched Google Buzz is also an effort to tap into this side of using one's social and professional network as a knowledge pool.

Facebook looks well placed to win this war, which sucks for me as I hate Facebook and want no part of it. But getting relevant information from a network of real people exploits mobile technology a lot better than algorithm-based computing power does,  and in any case, look at how Facebook is grabbing people's internet-attention more and more while Google is declining slightly:

Graph showing Facebook increasing, Google decreasing

So, all of this points towards a move to more qualified information - information provided by someone you trust to give you the good stuff, rather than an anonymous piece of mathematics proffering you its results. And as I've said before, just as solicitors are the experts in legal matters, we Information Professionals need to position ourselves as the experts in information. The Information Professional has a valuable role to play. In a comment on a blog post about the #echolib debate, Gareth Osler suggested "How about a personal librarians friend on Facebook, someone who could answer questions, and maybe even offer timely advice on information" - which makes sense in this context. It needn't be one individual or one institution who provided that service - in the same way that asking your network for help relies on a number of them definitely being online at any given time, so you could have a network of information professionals, not formally organised, who all contribute to the 'friend' role whenever they are online. Might be interesting to try, and it might increase awareness of what we can do to help people.

Interestingly, there is some argument that the Information Professional could play this role without the platform of the library itself. In response to my entry to the LISNews Essay Contest, a comment entitled We need librarians more than ever; libraries, not so much was left by T. Scott. He argues (and this post is getting long so I've heavily edited this):

Libraries are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. They were built by librarians in order to fulfill our role in society -- to facilitate the connection between people and recorded knowledge for the whole vast range of reasons that this is important to people -- education, entertainment, self-improvement, science, art, religion, fun.... In the print world, building libraries as we have come to know them was the best way to do that. In the digital world it probably isn't.

We need to quit wasting time trying to figure out what the "role of the library" is in the digital age. Who cares? The library is just a tool. We know, if we stop to reflect, what the role of the librarian is -- as I said above, it's to connect people to recorded knowledge. It's the same role that we've always had.

There is an incredible future within our grasp -- but it's a future where our focus needs to be on librarians, not libraries.

Now I'm not convinced about the logistics of information professionals surviving beyond libraries - the issues of lack of collection, lack of funding and budget, lack of actual physical space to engage with people, all seem to point to difficulties there. But it is interesting to consider that in the digital age, the information Sherpa could exist without being tied to the dying building. Naturally I hope the buildings don't die, but I do think that the role of the Information Professional is less dependant on the library than it ever has been before.

- thewikiman P.S - I've just added a temporary page to this website about an upcoming event I'm presenting at. I'm afraid this events is only for CILIP members in the Yorkshire & Humberside region (ironic really seeing as the presentation is about escaping the echo-chamber...) so I don't want to do a proper blog post about it that'll clutter up peoples' Google Readers. But if you're interested you can click on the other pages on this blog link on the right, or just click here instead.