Why should I trust you? You’re a librarian!

‘Trust me, I’m a raaaaaat’

Librarians. We’ve got tickets on ourselves, haven’t we? Fancying ourselves as leaders of crusades against fake news and information illiteracy and all that. Styling ourselves as trustworthy gateways to all the balanced, unbiased information your heart could possibly desire. Go on. Ask us. Make us feel relevant again.

Modern reference librarianship has a certain smugness about it. People could just as easily Google their answers, we tell ourselves, but instead they come to us. To us! Never mind the fact we use Google half the time ourselves to find the answer, or that people tend to only ask for a librarian’s help out of sheer frustration (often with our resources), people still come to us for answers! They like us! They trust us!

Now, maybe my LIS degree program is deficient in this regard, but I don’t recall ever coming across the library version of the Hippocratic Oath. (Turns out someone invented one.) Thankfully, malpractice lawsuits against librarians aren’t really a thing. But what, really, is stopping a librarian from dispensing biased or unreliable information? How does a user know, really know, that a librarian is any more inherently trustworthy than a Google search?

The short answer is: they don’t.

We, as librarians, can’t appeal to academic authority, as much as we might like to. Plenty of people working in libraries don’t have degrees in the field. (I don’t yet have mine.) No, we didn’t all go to school for this stuff. I work with awesome people who have life experience in other areas. Doesn’t make them any less trustworthy, any less reliable or any less capable of answering patron questions.

Much as we might claim otherwise, each librarian will bring their own implicit biases to their work. Where, for example, do we draw the line between collection development and censorship? For many librarians, at least on ALA Think Tank, it turned out this line was the (now-cancelled) prospective book by professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos. Plenty of librarians refused to buy the book in an effort to support minority patrons and fight hate speech. Plenty of other librarians pledged to buy the book in an effort to support free speech and fight impressions of censorship. Each side has considerable merit, even if the point is now moot. But how can patrons trust librarians either way?

It’s no secret that librarianship in the Western world is dominated by white middle-aged cat ladies who like tea and cardigans. My only point of diversion from this stereotype is my hatred of cats. With such a homogenised workforce, there are few opportunities for minority patrons to see themselves reflected in their knowledge workers. Indigenous patrons, for example, may have good reasons not to trust white librarians. We cannot simply expect our patrons to trust us. We have to earn that trust.

Our chief competitor, Google, owes its success to a secret algorithm that ranks search results by various metrics. Librarians, particularly in academic and school environments, spend considerable time and resources on teaching students how to critically evaluate their Google results and their news(feed) consumption. I’ve yet to come across a libguide on the subject that implores students to evaluate librarians themselves. Sure, I can’t see how Google’s brain works for myself, but nor can I see a librarian’s brain. That IFLA infographic on fake news promotes librarians as unbiased sources of truth. This sends entirely the wrong message.

This infographic drives me bonkers

Some have argued that critically evaluating everything we see and hear is what got the world into this mess. I respectfully disagree. I firmly believe the key to information literacy is to evaluate what the librarian says with the same tools one ought to be using to evaluate everything else. Tools that librarians are falling over themselves to teach. There are no unbiased, impartial sources of information. Not encyclopedias. Not government websites. Not reputable news organisations. And definitely not librarians.

Am I shooting myself in the foot? No. I’m being honest with myself and I’m being honest with the patrons I serve. I recognise that a deeply-held, professional sense of duty is the only thing stopping me from telling my patrons porkies, and I want them to know that too. I want them to use those critical evaluation skills right back at me and hopefully recognise the merit in my answers. I want them to know better than to take me at face value.

I want them to know better than to trust me.

Sick of hearing about linked data? You’re not alone

‘This looks a little bit complicated’ … you don’t say… #lodlam #lasum2016 @lissertations 8 Dec 2016

I’m not attending ALIA Information Online this year, largely because the program was broadly similar to NDFNZ (which I attended last year) and I couldn’t justify the time off work. Instead I’m trying to tune into #online17 on Twitter, in between dealing with mountains of work and various personal crises.

As usual, there’s a lot of talk about linked data. Pithy pronouncements on linked data. Snazzy slides on linked data. Trumpeting tweets about linked data.

You know what?

I’m sick of hearing about linked data. I’m sick of talking about linked data. I’m fed up to the back teeth with linked data plans, proposals, theories, suggestions, exhortations, the lot. I’ve had it. I’ve had enough.

What will it take to make linked data actually happen?

Well, for one thing, ‘linked data’ could mean all sorts of things. Bibframe, that much-vaunted replacement for everyone’s favourite 1960s data structure MARC, is surely years away. RDF and its query language SPARQL are here right now, but the learning curve is steep and its interoperability with legacy library data and systems is difficult. Whatever OCLC is working on has the potential to monopolise and commercialise the entire project. If people use ‘linked data’ to mean ‘indexed by Google’, well, there’s already a term for that. It’s called SEO, or ‘search engine optimisation’, and marketing types are quite good at it. (I have written on this topic before, for those interested.)

Furthermore, linked data is impossible to implement on an individual level. Making linked data happen in a given library service, including—

  • modifying one’s ILS to play nicely with linked data
  • training your cataloguing and metadata staff (should you have any) on writing linked data
  • ensuring your vendors are willing to provide linked data
  • teaching your floor staff about interpreting linked data
  • convincing your bureaucracy to pay for linked data and
  • educating the public on what the hell linked data is

—requires the involvement of dozens of people and is far above my pay grade. Most of those people can be relied upon to care very little, or not at all, about metadata of any kind. Without rigorous description and metadata standards, not to mention work on vocabularies and authority control, our linked data won’t be worth a square inch of screen real estate. The renewed focus on library customer service relies on staff knowing what materials and services their library offers. This is impossible without good metadata, which in turn is impossible without good staff. I can’t do it alone, and I shouldn’t have to.

Here, the library data ecosystem is so tightly wrapped around the MARC structure that I don’t know if any one entity will ever break free. Libraries demand MARC records because their software requires it. Their software requires MARC records because vendors wrote it that way. Vendors wrote the software that way because libraries demand it. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that vendors currently have little incentive to break.

I was overjoyed to hear recently of the Oslo Public Library’s decision a few years ago to ditch MARC completely and catalogue in RDF using the Koha open-source ILS. They decided there was no virtue in waiting for a standard that may never come, and decided to Make Linked Data Happen on their own. The level of resultant original cataloguing is quite high, but tools like MARC2RDF might ameliorate that to an extent. Somehow, I can’t see my workplace making a similar decision. It’d be awesome if we did, though.

I don’t yet know what will make linked data happen for the rest of us. I feel like we’ve spent years convincing traditionally-minded librarians of the virtues of linked data with precious little to show for it. We’re having the same conversations over and over. Making the same pronouncements. The same slides. The same tweets. All for something that our users will hopefully never notice. Because if we do our jobs right and somehow pull off the biggest advancement in library description since the invention of MARC, our users will have no reason to notice—discovery of library resources will be intuitive at last.

Now that would be something worth talking about.