LISWiki and the Tragedy of the Non-Commons

Or, observations on librarianship and the future of information science on the occasion of LISWiki’s tenth birthday

“If the Confederacy falls, there should be written on its tombstone: Died of a theory.”
 — Jefferson Davis

I can still see the look of shock on poor Jimbo’s face. The year was 2005 and I was attending the ALA’s Annual Conference in Chicago. In one of the larger meeting rooms, there was a panel with someone from the Library of Congress, a few other bigwigs, and Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales, the founder of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia seems a given nowadays. It’s mostly accepted, warts and all, as part of the information landscape. There are Wikipedians in residence at museums and libraries around the world. But a decade ago, the Internet was much more of a frontier than it is now. Facebook was limited to college students. YouTube was in beta.

And my coworkers were up in arms about me adding a link to Wikipedia from the library website. Most academics had their heads in the sand about the promise of democratized information formats. Librarians called it “a joke at best” and couldn’t fathom how a project built by anonymous, unpaid editors could possibly compete with the rigor of scholarly sources.

Purists of the profession still underestimate the laziness, for lack of a better word, of modern information-seeking behavior. People will be satisfied with a Google search result. They don’t apply what are now pretty much the historical research methods of looking up controlled vocabulary terms in inverted indexes and navigating the stacks to obtain a presumably authoritative publication.

Back in Chicago, one of the speakers, when it was her turn, got up and said, ‘It’s a real honor to be on this panel with Chris and Pat and Drew.’ After a pause for effect, the speech continued. Jimmy looked side to side after that, realizing he was not amongst friends.

Later, during the Q&A, almost every question was an accusation directed at him. ‘What’s to keep me from adding bad information to Wikipedia?’ for example. ‘I hope that a librarian wouldn’t do something like that,’ was the response. I would have said, “the same thing keeping Jayson Blair, James Frey, and Andrew Wakefield from publishing their lies: not much.”

I created LISWiki, the Library and Information Science Wiki, three days later. It wasn’t much work. I registered the domain name, installed MediaWiki, and made a few edits before advertising the site to other librarians. I wasn’t too afraid to fail, but had high hopes. I wanted to see how members of the profession devoted to organizing and disseminating information could use the new platform to showcase and share the terms and concepts of their trade.

“It was a work of art, flawless, sublime. A triumph equaled only by its monumental failure.”
 — The Architect, The Matrix Reloaded

I’ve been involved in a bank heist. Between college and library school I bounced around several fields, one of which involved a stint at a credit union. One day, the branch I was working at was held up. There was nothing cinematic about it, and I didn’t even notice anything amiss until other people started locking the doors.

It was standard procedure to close the building after a robbery, and an e-mail went out to all branch managers informing them about the incident. They would then, presumably, digest this information and share it. But another branch’s manager was off for the day, and tellers working there became curious why customers started reporting that the first branch they tried to visit was closed. My buddy Kim called me and asked, “Ya’ll get robbed or something?”

Information hoarding is the often passive act of deliberately withholding information from people that would benefit from it. I’m not talking about securing your passwords or merely playing your cards close to your chest in what you choose to share with others. The credit union’s policy of a pointlessly tiered disclosure mechanism was not only likely driven by selfish motives, but created ignorance where there should not have been.

The totalitarian aspect of deriving a sense of power from keeping secrets has no business in my profession; in theory, information hoarding goes against a fundamental principle of librarianship to value the preservation and sharing of knowledge. In practice, in my experience, it is a sociopathic disorder that is unfortunately present in a fair number of librarians. Their motto seems to be, “If you love something, lock it up.”

Whether through a misguided need for control, politics run amok, or a bastardized view of the “information is power” concept, we can be loath to freely share our knowledge with patrons and colleagues alike. My library, for example, has digitized many copyright-free images and posts them online, but lays the spurious claim to charge others for their use. When an unauthorized re-publication is discovered, people are not pleased that the collections are being shared, and are upset that our library is not given credit as the entity that made the digital image available.

In retrospect, it should have been no surprise that LISWiki did not become the prospering, fully-fledged community encyclopedia that I had envisioned. People questioned its purpose, chose to devote their time elsewhere, and started other projects in parallel. As it stands now, ten years on, the wiki is not as good as the ODLIS (one of any number of library lingo glossaries, all separately developed and maintained) and pales in comparison to the wiki for a video game regarding how well it has matured.

Reaching potential contributors, especially for an incomplete project, is a challenge. I could have added more structure to the site before launch. Yet if everyone only participated in endeavors that were already mainstream successes, progress would not be possible. It can still be difficult to displace established systems, such as the Qwerty keyboard layout, even when they are inferior to newer alternatives. Also, people at other institutions don’t work for me, and certainly aren’t obligated to donate their time editing LISWiki.

To get LISWiki up to speed, I targeted fellow librarians that were involved in other wiki-like projects and wrote to them about the possibility of merging or copying their information into the project. There was limited reception to such overtures. One of the people who did not wish to collaborate has since died, her website gone offline, and that resource now no longer exists. You can’t take it with you.

I pay for the domain renewal each year [I originally registered, but since it’s a non-commercial site, I’ve switched to, and although I let the former registration lapse, it was renewed by domain squatters] and try to keep up to date with patches and spam countermeasures, but am uncertain about the long-term future of the site. Although some sections are fairly developed, it’s more or less a curiosity and a disappointing testament to what librarians can and cannot do with wikis.

There’s a questionable investment involved in gathering information and building a site that may not be needed or used. There are good and bad aspects alike to being either proactive (doing stuff just in case) or reactive (completing tasks just in time) in library work:

  • Proactive: Compile and report on library use trends
    Reactive: Pull statistical data as it is requested
  • Proactive: Amass a research collection in case it might be of use (wasting money on items that will never be read)
    Reactive: Acquire library materials as they are requested (called patron-driven acquisition or PDA)
  • Proactive: Encourage authors to publish in open access journals
    Reactive: Passive PDA; refuse to consider cancelling subscriptions to exorbitantly-priced publications
  • Proactive: Visit classrooms and instruct students how to conduct research
    Reactive: Answer questions at a public service point
  • Proactive: Build an open repository of library concepts and practices
    Reactive: When you start a new project, ask colleagues if they have already done it (optional)

Traditional publications, conferences, e-mail discussion groups, and other back channels still exist for librarians trading information about their workflow. Many library-related ideas are covered in Wikipedia, but librarians have been unable to focus on a centralized list of library activities. Individuals who have tried to solo such endeavors—from early directories of digital reference pages to more recent compiled lists of library events and organizations following the latest service trend (it used to be coffee shops, nowadays it’s 3D printing)—have achieved some notoriety, but the projects all eventually fail as the person gives up their commitment.

Having distributed contributors to a project provides stability. One of the other benefits of wikis is how rapidly a group of editors can publish information. “Wiki-wiki” means quick in Hawaiian. In contrast, I’ve had colleagues wait almost two years to see their articles published in peer-reviewed journals.

Librarians like to do their own thing. Perhaps it comes from being introverted and not terribly social creatures. There’s also the control factor behind a “not invented here” syndrome. This was especially true when LISWiki was created, during the heyday of the Library 2.0 movement and the blogging boom, when many people were clamoring to make a name for themselves by evangelizing new fads. Many librarians also still possess an underlying distrust of wikis.

“Nature cannot be fooled.”
 — Richard Feynman

I occasionally edit Wikipedia. My last change was to the wording about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s college career. I rewrote the phrase “left Marquette” to the clearer (or so I thought) “dropped out of Marquette.” That passage has since been altered to read that he “chose to discontinue his studies.”

There are problems with Wikipedia. Editing scandals still happen, and there’s a constant tug of war involving vandals, deletionists, and censors within a user base that’s not always interested in building an unbiased encyclopedia. But over the years, Wikipedia has not just proven itself to be largely self-correcting, but its vulnerabilities have also strengthened our cultural awareness of how misinformation can propagate.

One of the reasons I have allergies, I suspect, is that my mom is an unabashed clean freak. According to one microbiological theory, “There is an inverse relationship between the level of hygiene and the incidence of allergies and autoimmune diseases. The more sterile the environment a child lives in, the higher the risk he or she will develop allergies or an immune problem in their lifetime.” (Source)

So just as a dirty childhood strengthens the adult’s immune system, exposure to Wikipedia’s imperfections promotes a resilience to disinformation. As the recent cases involving Chris Kyle and Brian Williams demonstrate, there will always be a need for a healthy dose of skepticism and critical inquiry. Trolling behavior and the breaching of social norms have even been praised for exposing systemic vulnerabilities and teaching us not to fall prey to hoaxes and scams.

During the Internet’s early days, society was arguably more programmed to unquestionably believe the printed word. Ideologies and conspiracy theories still drive the denial of scientific truths, but would chain e-mails such as the $250 cookie recipe spread so fast today, or have we become less gullible?

Before the Web existed, it was easier for librarians to promote censorship via biased selection practices. This ‘ignore it and it will go away’ mentality could be why certain librarians don’t want to link to Wikipedia, or why others chose not to engage in sharing information via LISWiki.

“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”
 — Marc Antony, Julius Caesar

The library is nowadays largely bypassed as a source of information. Search engines are developing more intuitive interfaces, helping us move towards the goal of creating self-sufficient researchers. But this new technology is disruptive, and people feel threatened by change.

Librarians aren’t known for being cutting-edge trendsetters. If your career exists because of how things used to work, an understandable pathology develops to resist reform. Job security can even be in conflict with fulfilling your professional mission. Instead of admitting that a lot of what we do is obsolete, we cling to old fashioned practices and use circular reasoning to insist that we are relevant.

Libraries are valuable. We have our fingers on the dike protecting against the commercialization of knowledge. As more content becomes open and accessible, we must look beyond our role as information gatekeepers and the library as a book warehouse or even an e-content buying club.

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
—Oscar Wilde

Imagine approaching a legislator on a twin earth with no libraries and asking for legal protections to buy books and lend them out freely to members of your community. The sharing of information, you would argue, would not be to promote capitalistic interests, but for the common good of educating a mentally affluent society.

The sharing economy is built on the idea that some things are more valuable than money. You see it in the lack of patent restrictions on seat belts and the polio vaccine, and it’s why most Wikipedia volunteers donate their time to the project. There’s even the radical theory that sharing is not a crime.

When something so important becomes free, however, whether through libraries hiding subscription costs or the wealth of information available online, people can lose sight of its value. It’s only when those things are taken away (as with your privacy) that their true worth becomes apparent.

If a democracy is run by people who show up, then new information formats empower those of us inspired and willing to share. The real value of information isn’t in putting it away in a vault like a gold bar, but sharing it openly with others. What will your legacy be?

Check out my other posts for related commentary.