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Library 2.0: Reaching out to the public to enrich the collection

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The University of Virginia's "Cruse" scanner is the largest owned by a library and allows for antique maps and other documents to be digitized and put online. (Photo courtesy of University of )

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Students use laptops while studying at Columbia University's library. (Sarah Morgan)

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Students use laptops while studying at Columbia University's library. (Sarah Morgan)

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Students use laptops while studying at Columbia University's library. (Sarah Morgan)

For decades, all anyone at the Library of Congress knew about a World War II-era photo in its collection was its generic title, “Street in industrial town in Massachusetts.”

But after it was posted online about a month ago, several people wrote in, allowing the librarians to identify it as “Sylvia Sweets Tea Room, corner of School and Main Streets, Brockton, Mass.” People also shared memories about the shop and the town, including one man who wrote about watching the victory parade for boxer Rocky Marciano from his father’s law offices above the Tea Room.

The photo is part of a new effort by the Library of Congress to learn more about some of the historical photographs in its archives. Since January, more than 3,000 images from the library’s photo collection have been available on the popular photo-sharing site Flickr (www.flickr.com/commons). Viewers are encouraged to “tag” the images with descriptions and comments.

“It almost seems like there’s people out there doing nothing but tagging photos,” said Matt Raymond, a spokesman for the Library of Congress. “It’s been so much fun--I hesitate to use a word like that, this is serious government business--but it’s been so much fun to see the comments.”

The Commons Project, as it is known, is serious library science, too. By inviting the public to add information to its collection, the Library of Congress has taken a step towards becoming what some believe is the brave new library: interactive, organized around the public’s interests, and partnered with outside Web sites. It’s Library 2.0.

But efforts to open libraries to more interaction with the public have prompted a simmering debate among librarians. For some, linking up with popular Web sites is an essential part of keeping libraries relevant in an age when information is easily available online. Many think new technologies have the potential to help libraries organize information more intuitively. And, as the Flickr project demonstrates, interactive technologies may even add new information to a library’s store of knowledge.

Others, however, see more hype than substance in these new trends. Online fads change quickly, and libraries cannot always keep up. Some librarians are worried that allowing public input into library catalogs won’t work or won’t generate valid scholarship. And it remains unclear whether people really want digital interactivity with their library.

“The role of the librarian as gatekeeper or controller of information is gone,” said Michael Stephens, a professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill.

Supporters of technological changes in libraries say that the librarian as gatekeeper can be replaced by the librarian as expert voice in the dizzying amount of information offered online. Like the Library of Congress, many libraries are simply trying to bring their collections and expertise to Web sites people already frequent, rather than trying to drive traffic to library Web sites.

“It makes eminent sense to go where the users and where the image enthusiasts are, and Flickr clearly has them in the millions,” said Raymond.

Some librarians believe that this type of partnership is an essential way to keep libraries not just accessible, but relevant. According to a 2005 study by the Online Computer Library Center, only 1 percent of people looking for information online start with a library Web site.

Many librarians are excited about the potential of new interactive technologies to make their collections easier to search. Sites like Flickr provide an exciting model, by relying on users to organize vast amounts of information by adding tags to each photo or article they see.

“For the longest time, we used these weird words in our world,” Stephens said. Cookbooks, for example, are cataloged under “cookery.” “How many times have you stepped up to your friend and said, ‘Hey, I need a recipe--where’s the cookery book?’”

But some librarians are wary of committing too heavily in interactive technology. The University of Virginia Library, for example, was an early Internet pioneer and has been putting books and other collections online for years. In 2001 when it created a vision of the “Library of Tomorrow,” it included interactive “information communities” where scholars working on similar topics could connect and share resources. Now, however, it is focusing on scanning its collections and putting them online.

“These things go in and out of style so quickly,” said Charlotte Morford, director of communications for the UVA Library. “Technology’s changing so fast that we are focusing now on simply making the materials available.”

UVA’s librarians are not the only ones with hesitations. Not everyone sees the potential for interactive technology to make library catalogs easier to use.

“Tagging doesn’t work unless you have lots and lots of people doing it,” said Michael Habib, who writes a library science blog.

Tagging also doesn’t work if only fanatics do it-–nor does any interactive Web function that asks for public contribution. Some librarians feel any project that asks for public input risks being hijacked by a few people with strong agendas.

“So many of those user reviews, you can see the blade of the ax being ground,” said Walt Crawford, who writes a library science blog.

On Wikipedia, the communally written online encyclopedia, only one out of every thousand users actually contributes, he said. Those that do may be the most passionate-–and not the most objective.

People may, in the end, not really want to interact with their library, Crawford added.

“I use my library a lot, but I don’t think I spend my time online chatting with it,” said Crawford. “Interesting ideas don’t always work. And whether they work depends on the local community more than on how eager you are to make it work.”

E-mail: sem2160@columbia.edu