Web 2.0: shall we jump or shall we be pushed?

To many people, we at the National Library should be doing more to enter the wonderful read/write, user-centric world of Web 2.0 (though can't we retire that term already?). Well, as usual, things aren't always as clear cut as they may seem.

Sure, we could upload all our digitised and digital images to Flickr, but there are some issues that need to be addressed. First up is copyright - many items in our collections are still under copyright, so for a start these can't be provided to a third party such as Yahoo. There is also the issue of donor agreements - we have a large number of objects that have been deposited which have specific donor conditions placed upon them which negate the unfettered release of them into the wilds of the internet.

There is also the possibility of scaring off future or current donors - if we're just blithely going to let anyone play around with their material, people may be a little hesitant to trust us with their material in the future. We want to be sure that the integrity of the images is maintained & that respect is shown to the subject. It's a tightrope, people!

Tagging and user created content brings with it a whole other set of conundrums - we should be providing ways and means for users to add their own metadata to library records/objects, but are we allowing (what some would call) the 'pollution' of the authoritative record provided by the institution entrusted to provide the authoritative record? How can we merge the authoritative record and the folksonomies created by users to enhance retrieval and provide new and interesting ways into our collections?

Social networking sites such as myspace can be leveraged for an increased profile, but I don't think institutions should rush headlong into creating profiles and befriending as many people as possible in a short amount of time and expect website hits/circulation to start increasing as a result. You need to think about what it is you're trying to achieve and tailor your contribution. Here at the National Library for example, we have set up a myspace account for Legal Deposit as beheardforever, which will be covered more in depth in a later blog post.

Still, many social networking platforms are based on proprietary API's - Facebook being a prime example. Despite recently opening up its API to developers, this API is still proprietary, and a proprietary widget must be written. This is all well and good until the next big social software revolution comes around and all these widgets need to be rewritten. It's not a scalable model. (As an aside, there's a nice list of the top ten facebook apps for librarians at the onlinesocialnetworks blog).

There is a definite need for libraries/cultural institutions to be in the spaces that our users, or potential users, are. I'm guessing a large part of our potential audience don't even know the depth of what we have available online already, or how to get it. Our job is to make them aware, but not, as far as I'm concerned, at the expense of annoying people with a neverending stream of friend requests, pokes etc, and vice versa. And no-one has yet seemed to realise the huge overhead that entry into these spaces requires - a large investment in time, for example. The whole point of social networks is that they're social! Someone needs to be monitoring friend requests, adding new content, updating profiles etc etc.

We need to get away from the thinking that we must drive users to our sites. As long as people are using our content, why should we care about website hits stats? The ultimate goal, in my opinion, is to get the Library/Cultural Institution off the web and into actual applications. The applications that our users are working with every day. Like Word etc. This is where we are likely to get traction and usage - as and when the user needs it.

A move towards Web 3.0, if you will (don't blame me, the term's already been coined, and used, notably by Google CEO Eric Schmidt.) Schmidt sees this next wave of the web as lightweight "applications that are pieced together," and which can run on any device, are fast and customisable, and are distributed virally via e-mail, social networks, and so on. You won't go to the store and buy them. A summary and video of his remarks are available on the blog Read/Write Web.

So until we reach this open source everything, open data, transparency between user and site utopia that I guess we're all aiming for, we have a lot of work, and a lot of thinking to do.

By Simon Bendall

Simon works for Internal Affairs doing something with computers. He owns far too many records.

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