Sombre but promising: reflections on web 2.0

Since this column started, I've talked about a lot of web 2.0 tools...

Since this column started, I've talked about a lot of web 2.0 tools that librarians can use in their everyday work. Recently though, I've been noticing a disturbing trend. Mendeley, the citation manager, has been sold to Elsevier. Google's RSS Reader is being pulled in July. Jing screen capture is focusing on a paid model. Bloglines disappeared a long time ago. What does all of this mean? One interpretation could be that I am a terrible web 2.0 columnist, and you should take my recommendations with a pinch of salt. On that basis maybe you can feel less guilty about that LibGuide subscription... Another interpretation, however, could be that we're reaching some kind of new stage in the evolution of the information landscape or infraestructure, and that these developments could be signposts or indicators of a need for reflection. In this column I will consider this theme further.

So I may be a terrible columnist, but from the very first, I did point out that web 2.0 was not just about the technology. Instead it was the social and philosophical change that was important; by and large, librarians saw that these new tools helped uncover opaque practices (such as informal scholarship habits- who knew Twitter would be so key for academic networking?) or enabled new teaching, learning and outreach opportunities (for example chat reference). As such, we were thrilled to be able to move our librarian mission into online spaces, seeing these tools as a way to expand our reach- for example, by integrating digital literacy into classes or providing access to materials in different formats and locations. We jumped on the web 2.0 bandwagon, and the enthusiasm of the tech startup evangelists perhaps matched the exhilarated relief that we felt at this reinvention of the library. We can connect with people! We're relevant! We're not screwed! It was exciting, especially because compared to the early LMS or clunky desktop products that we were used to, these new information tools seemed so open and liberating.

Except these tools actually weren't that open. Ecosystems designed to lock us into proprietary systems grew faster than you can say interoperability. “Neutral” ranking algorithms perpetuated tired racial, cultural or gender stereotypes. Even worse, the new tools collected data on us. A lot of it. And they kept it for a long time. We moved from the “democratisation” of the information environment to becoming the product within a few short years. And libraries, as preservers of the cultural archive, to say nothing of champions for privacy and equal information access for all were suddenly looking a lot less resilient.

So what does this mean? Were all the nay-sayers actually right? Am I recommending that we hole up away from the digital world? Do we need to take a massive bite of that nasty tasting humble pie? Well, no; d) none of the above. To some extent, I think a lot of these changes are still just aftershocks from the collision between developing and established communication practices. However, I also believe that recent developments are a really loud wake up call to us as librarians. No longer can we sit back, enthralled at how web 2.0 has revitalised one part of our mission. These new information tools form a core part of the information environment. And scary developments like the loss of privacy and access are an unmistakable sign that we need to re-engage with that other aspect of our role as information professionals. That part where we analyze, study and assess the information environment. That part where we critically engage with the bias and costs of traditional or subscription information tools such as databases as well as new tools and practices such as Mendeley or GIS. That part where we ask and teach others to ask the hard questions, especially in relation to our core values of preservation, privacy and equal access. As Hugh Rundle says in his excellent “Technolust- the fifth column of the information counter-revolution” (read it!) “we are being distracted with baubles while we are shepherded away from the real action.” We are being distracted with how we can use Web 2.0 to expand our mission, while neglecting to examine “Who is setting the standards? Who determines the rules for access? Who is deciding how ideas can be shared, and by whom?” That is not to say that the baubles don't have their benefits. Web 2.0 innovation has trampled all over traditional limited boundaries and has inspired so many positive changes. However, if our role is to manage and curate today's information environment then we must also be asking important questions about privacy and control and authority in all aspects of new knowledge societies. These are the key questions that we are missing. More importantly, these are the key questions that are not being asked by many other people.

The digital world cannot be uninvented. Neither would I want it to be (What would I do without Twitter!); nor should librarians stop paying attention to how new tools and technologies can improve other aspects of our core mission. However, I would argue that we are failing in our job if we remain passive onlookers while the worlds of information are shaped around us. These are our natural habitats, and, unlike all these great new tools that I keep telling you about, it is clear that our library values are still rock solid.
Alison Hicks
University of Colorado, Boulder