Sunday, May 11, 2008

Libraries and the “Parallel Information Universe”

Library Journal usually doesn't make it on my to-read list, and I sometimes feel a bit guilty about ignoring it, since it has useful information for circulation staff as well as librarians. So I browsed through the latest issue, and read Mike Eisenberg's feature article on “the parallel information universe.” Though a commenter correctly points out that information doesn't exist in a “parallel” universe, I think Eisenberg provides a decent overview of Web 2.0 and its potential importance for libraries. Three brief comments:

--The idea of a “virtual study carrel” with reference services as part of Second Life is quite creative. The larger issue, however, is if it could really become “the focal point of your studies,” as Eisenberg proposes. What kind of information and multimedia material would be available that would distinguish it from other reference tools? Would libraries and universities be willing to provide on-the-clock reference services for such a project? For that matter, how difficult would it be to secure any necessary funding for creating it? In short, how would librarians establish a virtual study carrel that is not only useful within Second Life, but also in comparison to search engines, blogs, library websites, and so forth?

--Eisenberg rightly notes that social networks will help libraries to identify the “needs” of younger generations. At the same time, they need to consider the security and privacy issues of social networks and how they often relate to an onslaught of third-party marketing. (Facebook’s Beacon project offered a perfect—and troubling—example.) There’s also the fact that for all of Facebook’s stunning popularity, its applications are predominantly inane. These issues directly conflict with the Library Bill of Rights and the ALA’s interpretation of privacy. I would hope that librarians critically reflect upon how best to approach social networks without potentially compromising the rights of patrons.

--Absolutely on the mark:

“This platform for the delivery and use of digital content provides an extraordinary opportunity for libraries to serve users at the point of demand. It's also an opportunity to reach nonusers. In addition, libraries can play a major role in expanding access to those who may not be able to pay for resources, services, or even devices.”

Eisenberg also points out that “commercial interests” could adversely affect how libraries adopt digital content (something he didn’t note with regard to social networks). But if libraries are proactive on the issue, they can create a vital new reference/multimedia service for patrons—one with numerous possibilities.

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