library as conversation

I find it interesting that the conversation model is used frequently in favorable comparisons, implying that there is value in speaking and in being heard. I won’t contest that, but I think that it can sometimes gloss over power dynamics. In this way you can ask for input, for example, ignore it when you make your decisions, and then claim you “listened” to all the interested parties. Technically true, but not in spirit. This is apropos of nothing, just a sort of meme I’ve noticed lately. What I wanted to mention is Participatory Networks: The Library as Conversation which looks like a well-funded mini project produced for the American Library Association’s Office for Information Technology Policy by R. David Lankes and Joanne Silverstein, of the Information Institute of Syracuse.

They want feedback. They have a wiki and a forum. Please consider reading the draft and letting them know what you think about their ideas. I haven’t read it all yet, but the table-heavy image-heavy home page design with no actual text on the page (even using images where text naturally should go) and no ALT tags on all the images raises “participation” red flags in the “Who is this call for participation really geared towards?” way. Seriously, it’s a great idea to have the library be more interactive for the patrons. However, another slick web page that seems to be selling the idea of participation with phrases like “libraries are in the conversation business” makes me a little wary.

The paper has few endnotes or footnotes making it tough to detemine whether untrue assertions like “to join LiveJournal, you must be invited, thus the community confers identity” or typos in URLS ( are author mistakes or source mistakes. This is a smart paper, so I’m sort of just splitting hairs here, but I feel like in some ways I’m waiting to read papers written by people who use these social software networks in their daily lives, not just get test accounts to study them and write about them. The extreme local nature of libraries means that even smart ideas will have a hard time catching on in broad ways if you can’t make them relevant to all kinds of libraries. Just because social software and the read/write web make sense to techies, kids and academics doesn’t mean that I can explain it to the librarians I work with, yet. Wikipedia has an entry for the phrase “Will it play in Peoria” and that’s what I think about when I read papers like this.

5 thoughts on “library as conversation

  1. Excellent post (well, maybe you’re just hitting my hot buttons!). “Extreme local nature of libraries” – something that needs to be said more often. Questioning the “library as conversation” idea: I’m with you here (and yes, I’ve commented back to the writers).

    One aspect of any movement for all libraries is that it has to translate into individual movements that are slightly different in each of 12,000 public libraries, each of X,000 academic libraries, each of… Which is no easy task. Since I regard the “extreme local nature” as a great strength of America’s public library system, it’s a task that can’t be overlooked.

  2. You don’t have to be invited to join LiveJournal! What a nimrod! All you have to do is sign on for an account! You can do the same with Deadjournal, Blogger, TypePad, etc. Thanks, Jessamyn, for getting my ire up. You so totally rock!

  3. Nothing in the authors’ work adequately addresses the biases and barriers that already prevent libraries from “facilitating conversation” for all community members equally.

    The authors state: “Libraries seek to create rich environments for knowledge, and have taken the stance, that they are not in the job of arbitrating the conversations that occur, or the ‘appropriateness’ of the information used to inform those conversations.”

    In fact, libraries *do* arbitrate through the policy decisions they make (e.g. collection development, fees, fines) and by the degree to which they communicate and collaborate with the entire community.

    On the surface, I don’t see anything inherently transformative about this project. The Segway Scooter was supposed to radically change the way we work and live. Of course, access to this amazing (and now recalled) device was fraught with limiters — not least of which was income level. At some point, the reality of exclusion must be confronted here.

  4. Bear in mind, however, that it is a draft document and your feedback is welcomed – so it is initiating a conversation around these issues.
    I think all the comments here are most valuable, and it’s a Web 2.0 drafting process that’s at work here – Lanke’s work is surely not definitive at this stage. Proselytising, perhaps, but certainly not set in concrete. The digital divide, as always, puts a big question mark over all Web conducted ‘conversations’, and of course public librarians will take that on board very seriously. As they should.
    Hope you enjoyed Oz, Jessamyn.

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