Information and data - Libraries as somewhere on the journey

I am using this blog post as a way of collecting my thoughts around data, linked data, the semantic web and where libraries sit in all this. Traditionally libraries have been very much a one stop shop. Whether this has been a search the catalogue, find the book and get it out approach, or the search the database, find the article, read it or download it experience, libraries have tended to be the start and the finish of a search inquiry.  We of course have been very happy about this too, as it has built on the foundation of the value of libraries being in the storage of information.

However the world is changing and libraries are already examining how they stay relevant in this new world and find their place.  I am an exponent of part of the value of public libraries lying in the relationships they build with their communities and starting to provide the facilities for them to tell their own stories how and when they like.  To move away from the more traditional curated approach of storage and retrieval and become a powerhouse of community creativity by fostering it and encouraging it in the way they capture and store their realities of being alive.

However, this is not the only place that libraries can improve their value proposition. Of course there are many possible places this can be done. One opportunity that I have been discussing with colleagues recently, is the idea of libraries as not the beginning or end of a search, but much more just a cog in a global information and data storage network of linked data.

Libraries have data, lots of data.  What has begun to restrict us and indeed lesson our perceived value, is that lots of other people have information too and often it is easier to find.  It might not be as trustworthy or as vetted, but as we are seeing, this does not matter when people can be easily presented with multiple sources, multiple reference points, and it is all so easy.  We can thank Google for this, and whether we like it or not, they have done their job very well and people like going there to find information.

So what if libraries redesigned themselves, to share their records and enable this information to be harvested?  If we started to view ourselves not as the physical place people came to find something, or the website that people visited to find information.  Rather, what if we viewed ourselves as a global contributor to knowledge, to search and to helping people find what they need.  To help them go where they need to go online to find information.  What if we started designing our storage with this in mind and designed our search to start trawling the semantic web.  Our results to bring back not only information we held, but information held by others around the world, and not just in databases we subscribe to.  Our information to be available to all who want it, as they look for what they need.

This approach would take not just a quantum shift in thought by many libraries, but by their funders too.  Public libraries are in general funded by their local communities and as such they tend to take a very limited approach to the value they create by looking locally.  Indeed, it would be very hard in most cases to argue to your local funder that there was value in creating content for the global community, rather than the local.  Yet, I believe it is worth trying to have these discussions and create this sort of thought shift.  Surely if enough of us took this view, then the global benefit would flow all directions and it would be an argument that held good weight both in benefit to the community and the global good.

Also, of course, much of this approach would require a shift in thought by library management system vendors and by the publishers of content the libraries currently buy or subscribe to.  The concept of wide sharing of data and information runs counter to the profit model for these businesses (especially publishing) and yet, for the continued survival of libraries and therefore the purchase of their resources, this model might need to change.

To come full circle, not all data libraries have is purchased.  Imagine, a world, where libraries enabled their communities to tell their stories.  Enabled them to store them, create them, and entertain with them.  Imagine a world, where these stories where shared not only locally,  but globally.  Where you could search from one place and travel the world, reading about people, communities, experiences and what it means to be part of humanity.  Isn't that a dream worth holding and trying to make a reality?  Might that not be a world, where libraries were valued and an integral part of the wealth, spirit and soul of both their hometowns and the world in general?