we are not the experts

In the spring I was invited to speak at a design event hosted by Continuing Studies. We would each have 10 minutes to talk about what’s been happening in our respective fields, or what our careers have been like for the past 10 years. Public speaking is slightly scary, but the idea of speaking at an non-library event scared the crap out of me. Of course I said yes.

I really enjoyed the other speakers: architects, graphic designers, interaction designers, folks working in sustainable design. Favourites for me included architect Marianne Amodio, who talked about feeling love in the details of design and Oliver Kellhammer, an interdisciplinary landscape artist, activist and wonderful weirdo.

My talk was titled “Power and control: How library catalogues have changed in the past 10 years”. Sound thrilling, right? There’s been a big shift in the past 10 years with libraries becoming more empowered with technology and embracing open source software and starting to develop their own systems, instead of relying on expensive proprietary software that didn’t meet our needs. I gave some examples of how controlled vocabularies are awesome, and how user tagging provides another way to access information. About 5 years ago when I was in library school the conversation about user tagging was framed in a really dumb way: either controlled vocabulary or tags.   It didn’t take long for librarians to figure out that ‘both’ is the correct answer. I used some examples from radical cataloguer Sandy Berman to illustrate how Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are slow to change and sometimes really absurd, like Cookery–Indic instead of Indian cooking, and Electric light, incandescent, instead of lightbulb)   Also Tim Spalding’s talk “What is social cataloging?” has some great examples of where user tags are far more useful than LCSH. The best example of this is William Gibson’s   Neuromancer. LSCH for this title include:

  • Business intelligence — Fiction
  • Computer hackers — Fiction
  • Conspiracies — Fiction
  • Cyberspace — Fiction
  • Information superhighway — Fiction
  • Japan — Fiction
  • Nervous system — Wounds and injuries — Fiction
  • Science fiction
  • Virtual reality — Fiction

“Nervous system–Wounds and injuries–Fiction”?? Neuromancer is the best example of cyberpunk, which is not listed in the LCSH.

I remember librarians fretting: what would we do if someone tagged something incorrectly? What would we do if someone tagged something using a naughty or rude word? And what would we do about things like plurals (i.e. dog vs dogs), should we clean up the tags our users apply, so that there’s consistency? If other people saw messy or inconsistent tags, what would they think of us? Would they still trust us?   The attitudes underpinning these conversations were that we don’t trust our users and as the “experts” we think we know better than the people actually using libraries. It makes me a bit bonkers that our library catalogues have sucked so bad that we need 1 hour instruction sessions to teach people how to find things. Instead of being unidirectional (from us the “experts” to our uses), I wish we viewed instruction as a way for us to teach our users about some of the information we provide access to, and for users to teach us how they are actually looking for things.

A friend who works at A Very Large University was telling me about an internal debate their librarians were having about library FAQs on their website. Currently the FAQs are maintained by only librarians, are out of date, and according to analytics data, don’t seem to be answering all the questions that users seem to frequently ask. One such question, asked by hungry students, was “where can i get food?”. He suggested allowing users to add their own questions and answer and rate whether the answers was useful or not. Similar concerns to the tagging debate were brought up: what if users answer questions incorrectly, or in an incomplete way? What if these FAQs get out of date because they are not being properly maintained by a librarian? Librarians seemed to want to teach users the right way to navigate the library website to find this information. Hungry users just wanted to find the closest place to grab something to eat. This is another example of us dictating what the correct way to find information, instead of being responsive in changing the way that we do things to better serve folks.

We need to let go of the idea that we are the experts and instead view library spaces, collections, websites and catalogues as places for co-creation with our users. We need to thoughtfully evaluate data, have meaningful conversations with our users, and really listen to what our users are saying. We will need to give up some power and control and that’s okay.