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Daily Archives: January 5th, 2008

A shoutout to the Playful Librarian, who picked up on a great article about impression management on the social web in the New York Times the other day.  Here is his post, here is the Times article.

The Playful Librarian says he wants “to understand how social networking technologies are blurring the lines between public and private behavior”.  This question takes it out of the realm of virtual space and into that of public spaces- physical public spaces.  How does activity on the social web bleed into the physical world?

Right now I’d say the social web exists as a major conversation piece in our daily lives.  Its not enough for me to just play Scrabulous with my Facebook peers, it is not even enough for me to IM with them during the game.  Without fail, when I see those people “in human” we talk trash about the Scrabulous game, about Facebook in general, about the apps we use, why its way better than MySpace, etc, etc.  This may seem like minutia, but it is absolutely not.  It important to note that however intricate the social web phenomena are, they are ALWAYS tied to real world experience, if only through conversation.  For example, successful online dating leads to real dating, “in human”.  Put simply: most social web tools at this point lack the complexity of interface to actually redefine space.

Where does the line between public and private behavior begin to really get hazy?  I suspect this happens in the more robust online environments, places like Second Life or other gaming environments.  I’d suggest that the greatest blurring of public and private behavior happens in these virtual environments, between avatars.  Just as a tool like a hammer becomes an extension of your physical self when you use it, an online environment becomes an extension of your space when you greet and interact with other characters there.

In the physical world we are beginning to see the same extension of space into the virtual world, but it is a little different.  Mark Shepard writes in “Urban Computing and its Discontents” about observing a person in a bar in Brooklyn:

“The guy was constantly shifting his attention between his conversation partner and his new iPhone…. Mr. iPhones attention is constantly shifting between the virtual and actual modes of presence… What happens when the virtual and the actual are not understood in terms of a strict dichotomy but rather a continuity or gradient? How might we design for scenarios like this?”

I’m guessing we’ll see these two scenarios meld not-so-seamlessly into one in the coming years, like the heads side and the tails side of a coin somehow meeting in the middle yet retaining distinct opposite sides.  Admittedly that’s cryptic, but it’s the best I can give for now.  I’m going to be interested in designing our public libraries to operate in both of these spaces, on both sides of this coin and in the murky area in between.  I’m excited to create access to information for patrons coming from virtual or physical spaces.  The definition of space is changing.  These are exciting times.


Public libraries who want to receive Erate funding have to use filters on their public computers to be in compliance with CIPA.  I’m not going to debate that.  Personally, I think filters are a real drag, but they are already in place all over the country so we have to create policies to use them effectively.  No filter has proven to be 100% accurate in blocking a given type of content.  We need policies to deal with the reconsideration of blocked content. Librarians have to be able to assess, site by site, what is blocked by filters every time a patron complains about their inability to view material.  Then they form committees to review the content, and according to their policy on what material is unacceptable either block the site or allow it to be displayed.

Creating committees is a great way to get things done; they allow everyone to feel as though they’ve contributed to a final decision.   Too many committees make for organizational junk.  An agile, effective organization is a lean, transparent organization.   Redundancy detracts from agility.  It is important that organizational structure reflects the theory behind policies, and that committees are never formed just to keep people busy.

Consider a well designed website.  A good site has a minimum number of pages and offers the clearest possible path to any given piece of information.  Information architects create wireframes and do paper prototyping before they actually build a website to eliminate unnecessary pages.  An organizational chart should be subject to the same scrutiny.  An organizational chart is a wireframe for structure.  Redundancy on a website is an absolute disaster: if there are two paths to two different pages that perform essentially the same function, a user can’t navigate the website logically.  Similarly, redundancy in an organizational structure makes for poor communication and inefficiency.

In response to challenges about books, libraries have committees and policies to evaluate whether or not the books should remain on the shelf.  Take a look at the banned and challenged books information on the ALA website.  Books are always being challenged; Americans have a rich history of wishing to shelter their children from information that might compromise their purity and integrity from infancy through their teen years.  How is challenging a book any different from challenging web content?  It isn’t.

In 2004 OCLC published “Content not Containers”, a paper spawned by the proliferation of consumer electronics and informed by the media ecology theories of Marshall McLuhan.  It described the way information formats have become increasingly less important to the end user than the information itself.  Libraries do not have separate committees to reconsider music, movies, or databases.  We do not need to differentiate between media formats, because we are concerned with the content. People fear new media because they don’t understand it.  First radio, then TV… Those damn kinds and their rock n’ roll… now the internet.  It’s really all the same.  We should be leaders in recognizing that, and our organizational structure should reflect this.

It is of vital importance that libraries do not form separate committees for the reconsideration of electronic content.  Reevaluating the content on websites should be an added responsibility for whatever committee currently considers challenges of print materials.  Forming a new committee weakens the foundations of the argument presented in Content not Containers (a disservice to those of us who believe filters shouldn’t be there in the first place), adds unnecessary organizational junk, and creates sluggishness of communication.