I was on a panel earlier today at the LAUNC-CH Conference, which I think went well, though I killed the conversation at one point, never a good sign. Anyway, Abby Blachly of LibraryThing was the keynote speaker, and I had the good fortune to have some conversations with her during the conference, plus have lunch together. I’ve written here about LibraryThing before, and I fear that I came across as somewhat anti-LibraryThing, or rather anti-cataloging-one’s-own-books. Which I again admit has a lot of appeal (I have renewed CueCat lust), but which I know myself well enough to know could be about the hugest time-waster imaginable for me. But Abby totally sold me in her talk. I find now that I left my notes in the Friday Center… oops. What I did today, which is what I usually do during talks, is not so much take notes on the talk as write down interesting quotes from the speaker. All of those are lost now, sadly. (I’m tempted to call the Friday Center but I’m sure that would be futile.) But one thing that Abby said (paraphrasing, obviously) is that tags work only in very large numbers; 5 tags doesn’t do anyone any good, but when you get 500 tags then they start to become useful. I suppose I always knew this intuitively, but it’s still useful to hear it articulated clearly. Abby also said that “bad” tags tend to wash out statistically, and that in the aggregate tags tend to be really excellent at identifying the best of genres. Again, makes intuitive sense.
I also happen to have just finished reading The Long Tail (book, not article). Coincidence? Again, not new by any means. But my regular readers (all three of you) will know that I am deeply skeptical of Wikipedia and frankly all collaborative tools, folksonomies and folks-fill-in-the-blanks. I don’t understand the motivation of contributors. Or rather, I understand it intellectually (I’ve read plenty of research papers on what motivates Wikipedians, open source developers, etc.), I just don’t understand it viscerally. I think it’s a side effect of never really having had any serious hobbies except reading. (Could you consider having an insatiable need to look up random crap a hobby? Born to do reference work.) But again, I was completely sold by Anderson’s argument in the book. I think what did it for me was a quote (again, paraphrasing, because I can’t now find the exact quote) to the effect that we live in a statistical world, and in a statistical world natural phenomena follow power law distributions. Again, not exactly a novel insight.
So the point is, I’m sold. The insight that I’ve had today is that it doesn’t matter if I don’t get it. The fact is, collaborative tools work, and as Larry Niven writes in another book I recently reread, “nothing that works is silly.” So I am going to make a concerted effort to figure out how collaborative tools may be used in library services. Of course LibraryThing is already doing this, as are others. But to my knowledge no one is evaluating these services. What are the costs and benefits to a library of implementing collaborative tools and services? What core services can be made more efficient / more robust / more whatever by implementing such tools? What services can be offered that could not before? It seems to me that a tipping point has been reached (probably was reached a long time ago and I was just too slow on the uptake to notice) and Library 2.0-style services are mature enough that it makes sense to start evaluating them and looking at them critically with an eye to learning the lessons of these experiments. Now I need to figure out what the research and evaluation questions are.