Librarians as Human Filters

What do you expect from a speaker with stickers like these on her computer! Elizabeth (Liz) Lane Lawley’s keynote on Social Computing and the Info Pro was everything I hoped for and then some. The founder of the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Lab for Social Computing, Liz is currently a visiting researcher at Microsoft, or the "bourg," as she termed it.

When Liz spoke two years ago at this conference, no hands went up when she asked who was blogging. Today, there were quite a few bloggers in the crowd. She commented on her surprise to hear flickr as part of a hallway conversation and not just research. (That was Andrea Mercado who has been posting some great photos with the IL05 tag.)

Building on Lee Rainie’s comments on the "long tail" from yesterday’s keynote, Liz said that librarians are good at the long tail part, at finding things that aren’t on everyone else’s lists. Technologists are trying to creaate algorithms that are the equivalent of a good librarian, but we need to be using these tools to augment, not replace, to extend our reach, but not take people out of the equation.

How to make search better, Liz asked, and then suggested that it has little to do with algorithms and more to do with social networks. Put your bookmark list into, and friends who are following the same topics can check them out, or follow the lead of your "trusted friends" on Yahoo! My Web. Take it one or two steps further and librarians (or doctors or other professionals) can become human filters. The La Grange public library uses to bookmark frequently used sites for reference staff. (Let’s hear it for Jenny Levine, The Shifted Librarian!) For anyone but librarians, it’s not the joy of searching, but the joy of finding! But they do want to know what we have found! Imagine how libraries, using social network software like can become an information source for their publics, become a filter that helps people find good information. Isn’t that what we are supposed to be doing?!

Liz suggested tagging is the other end of the "long tail," depending on the consensus of the masses and how people think about things. Tagging needs a critical mass of people; if an obscure document isn’t tagged is it any less important? Possibly not. Do we really want a "majority rules" environment when it comes to finding stuff online? (Google’s certainly pushing us in that direction. Be sure to attend the Google-brary evening session tonight.)

Continous partial attention, what Lee Rainie called "hyperconnected," is not limited to teenagers, Liz contends. In fact, she says Microsoft was so amazed at her multiple windows and how she works continuously on many things, giving each task her partial attention, is part of why she is there this year, as sort of a human guinea pig! How do we react to the idea that people are not giving us their full attention? Not well, but it’s the new reality. (For instance, I was madly clicking away on my keyboard during Liz’s keynote and even snuck out of my notes page once or twice to check other references.) We have to find a way to be part of the continuous conversation and get a share of the partial attention. Attention is a form of capital. Liz says to check out the article, Meet the Life Hackers, that was in the New York Times Magazine on October 16 (no link since it’s behind the NYT wall!). She suggests that "life hacking" is better than prozac for part of this tech generation!

Social bookmarking, tagging, etc., who is better equipped to help influence the direction of what’s to come than people who already know how to organize information? That’s us, Internet Librarians, human information filters to the rescue!

Nancy Garman
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P.S. Check out some other posts about what Liz had to say:
Jenny Levine, The Shifted Librarian
Andrea Mercado, Library Techtonics
Liz Lawley’s own blog, Mama Musings

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