Thursday, November 08, 2007

Is This the 21st Century?

I recently attended the OCLC CAPCON meeting in Washington, DC. The topic was social networking. There were some entertaining presentations, most notably the one highlighting OCLC's new Sharing, Privacy, and Trust in Our Networked World report. My "aha!" moment at the meeting came from the presenter who reminded us that social networking is a default action of human nature. Reading a book and discussing it is a form of social networking. All that has changed, in many ways, is the way that we network.

Inspired by the talks, I returned to the office and vowed to spend a few minutes every day evaluating how people communicate on the web. My main goal is to try to figure out how archivists might use these 21st century tools to reach out to our users. Some of my colleagues and I have been talking for the past year of making a movie to put on YouTube. What it would look like and what it would tell people is still unclear.

I joined Facebook. After two weeks, I have eight friends. All except one are librarians or archivists. I am not entirely clear how Facebook can help reach out to users, but I sense that its strengths lies in its applications. I've added several to my profile, including "Cities I've Visited." This allows me to pin on a map every city I've ever visited, and so far, I have 112. This makes me proud. And I willingly sat for about half an hour pinning them all. Imagine if we could develop some tool that would introduce people to archives in such a way. I found out that the Harry Potter character I most resemble is Hermione Granger. As a reward for filling out a five question-survey, a picture of Hermione Granger now appears on my profile, letting everyone know how cool I am. If I want, I can have quotes from the Doctor Who series appear in my profile automatically, set up a daily romance horoscope, and rate my favorite beers.

I can also allow access to my own visual bookshelf, which turns out to be a very popular item. People like contests and points an incentives. What about an application to rate your favorite archives? Or have a manuscript a day appear on your profile?

I know that digital library projects take time and cost money and manpower to do correctly. I know that Apple or Microsoft or Flickr or YouTube have computer programmers and money at their beck and call. But this is the 21st century. When I see how long it takes a digital library project to get off the ground, and what is involved in supplying correct metadata and preservation-quality images, I wonder, how much is worth it? Not that I don't think we shouldn't be digitizing. I'm all for it. What I wonder is how much we need to let go of our control in order to make more available. When I was a young one, I was sure that we'd be flying by the year 2000. I also thought that I'd be married to Paul McCartney. Turns out, that wasn't such a far-fetched idea - Heather Mills is only four years older than I am.

I have great respect for all the members of our profession who are working hard to improve access and to make archival materials useful and fun to our patrons. And I know it costs a lot of money to design iTunes or the Flickr upload tool. But boy are they easy to use. With a click of a mouse I can rearrange my music library 50 different ways. Who wouldn't want to have that option with an archival collection?

I feel like this is something that is on its way. I just hope I live to see it. Just like I hope I live to see flying cars on the Beltway.