Sunday, 20 January 2008

Gatekeeper or signposter?

We did a practice run of our BOBCATSSS workshop for some of our colleagues last week and this has been the starting point for some interesting discussions.

The librarian's traditional position of authority, as gatekeeper between the user and the information they seek, is now being eroded - as Chris Anderson identified in The Long Tail, anyone can now publish their thoughts online, without the need for a publisher's investment in printing or distributing their material. And as so much information is available free of charge, the power of the one who holds the purse strings is diminished.

Perhaps we can get ideas of how we should redefine our role as librarians by examining the response of publishers, who are facing a similar threat.

As the quantity of information increases, so does the gap in the market for services which help the user to find that which they need. So the quality control (peer review) and marketing aspects of the publisher's role become more important than the physical production and distribution of the content.

Some forward-thinking media organisations have responded to the potential threat of user generated content by incorporating it into their publications - for example the BBC News site which invites video or photo contributions from the public, or The Guardian's Comment is Free blog site in which regular columnists from the newspaper engage in debates with the readership, the highlights of which are reproduced in the paper.

These organisations understand that in a sea of user generated content, the quality material can be hard to find - and so they become signposters, pointing their readership towards the stuff worth seeing. There are, of course, other ways these services could be provided (e.g. Digg, Reddit) ; but as established information brands, publishers and traditional media organisations have a head start in these roles.

Likewise, as librarians we have an established brand within the user communities we serve - people are accustomed to coming to us as a source of quality information, so the way to ensure that we have a role in the changing information landscape is to demonstrate that we are participating in it and just as able to apply our skills here as we have been throughout history.

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