Linked Data & Stolen Smells

How not to store Data (from “The Most Toys”)
“Knowing stuff other people don’t makes me feel like a big man.”
—Carl Carlson (The Simpsons)

The desire to collect curiosities with no functional purpose, whether it be bottle caps or dinosaur bones, is perhaps a case of our innate survival instincts run amok. It’s not only the wackos you hear about hoarding cats, or Howard Hughes with his bottles of urine, that do this either. Consider how much collective time has been spent obtaining Pokémon achievements, for example. Then there’s the physical manifestations of information, which even in the case of a Gutenberg Bible, have no intrinsic value.

Bibliomania is unabashedly alive and well in libraries. Institutions boast about their physical collection size, as if that nowadays has much of anything to do with how useful it is. Librarians are particularly proud of their expensive materials and rare collections, yet when it comes to sharing, at times betray a mindset more indicative of private museum curators than members of a profession devoted to disseminating knowledge.

Our library system recently joined forces with the Digital Public Library of America. 399,940 pieces of digitized content are now discoverable through the DPLA site. As a condition of getting records loaded with links back to our digital objects, we had to release them with a CC BY license. I’m pleased to say that all sixty participating libraries in Wisconsin did this.

If we claim the right to get upset when vendors restrict use of the metadata we pay for, then we have the set a good example ourselves. As with the case of promoting open access publications, where we want faculty authors to willingly add their works to our institutional repositories, it’s simply a matter of practicing what we preach.

I’ve always thought it was bad form for a librarian to say, “I bought a lot of books on that subject for my collection.” It’s not our stuff. We’re tasked with organizing and preserving it, yes, but thinking of objects on the shelf as under our personal ownership can impede efforts to offer access to them. When we tell patrons, “don’t look it up on Project Gutenberg, because that can be an unreliable source, but go through us instead,” are we genuinely concerned with the accuracy of online information, or are we rather promoting inefficient research by preserving our own self-interest? Now maybe that’s a bit of a straw man example, as most librarians don’t ignore the value of electronic formats. But I don’t see everyone eagerly contributing to scholarship by being on board with digital libraries either.

Disintermediation can be threatening. Much of the hostility directed at Internet projects such as Wikipedia and Google Books by librarians is driven by a transparent fear of being made obsolete in our historic role as information gatekeeper. Controlling and restricting information can make you feel powerful, just as showing off a private stash of something perhaps gives one a sense of importance.

Electronic information formats break many of the ties and limitations of physical mediums. Putting information on the Internet similarly undercuts the traditional role of a library as a manuscript stockpile. People can get what they need without having to use a library, at least directly. This obviously makes libraries less important. I don’t know why it’s seemingly blasphemous to acknowledge that reality. Perhaps we’ve become so obsessed with demonstrating our worth and communicating our value that we fail to realize the best ways to actually provide service in the first place, regardless of who gets the credit.

The records and rights to slavish reproductions of old photographs or other media are not only digital objects that we have no business laying claim to, distributing them as broadly as possible is the modern incarnation of circulating books being made freely available to our constituents. In 2016, keeping our collections locked away in closed stacks or acid-free boxes is no longer the most productive method for libraries providing access to information. And what better way to negate all those stereotypes we hate of the shushing schoolmarm who does nothing but stamps and shelves books than to break those customs, stop acting like medieval monks, and be more on the forefront of information technology?

Further Watching

Check out my other posts for related commentary.