Crowdsourcing – A Library Phenomenon?

A doctoral student at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, Andrea Wiggins, successfully defended her dissertation today. She studied citizen science and the discussion touched on the idea of crowdsourcing. I started thinking about the concept of crowdsourcing in the context of libraries. I know that crowdsourcing is “in” right now. I try not to be a Luddite, but I think we need to look carefully at the phenomenon before leaping to integrate it into our library operations.

I have witnessed an Internet filtering system whose categorizations of websites are built through crowdsourcing. First, let me just say that, in my opinion, it is not a good filtering system – the categories are not well-defined and result in very biased application. That is actually my concern with crowdsourcing. Once biased categories are established, will only those who accept those biases contribute? Will input from the public ever reach a balance or will the crowd surge to one side?

I have been thinking about participatory librarianship. That may be a form of crowdsourcing. I recognize the value of attending to the needs and priorities of the community I serve. I do want library patrons to participate in the creation of knowledge and even the operation of the library. But how will I guard against biases creeping in – the teen area becoming so loud with actively engaged teens reading, talking, and listening to music that the library revolves around them and older people who prefer a quieter atmosphere feeling marginalized?

If I create an interactive catalog, with patrons being encouraged to add tags and rate the books they read, will I be giving up my professional responsibilities for maintaining a balanced collection? What if I detect that a certain point of view is becoming favored in the comments and tags? Is it my job to monitor and make sure that the “crowd” maintains a balanced perspective?

I am excited by the possibilities for collaboration and participation offered by crowdsourcing in the library environment, but at the same time, I am taking a cautious and thoughtful approach. I think we have much to figure out about how this phenomenon contributes to the knowledge and well being of our communities.

Photo credit: Jennifer Ann Peters

1 comment

  1. Francine Joy Allen

    Hello. I am glad to hear of someone exploring the issue of crowdsourcing because, as a public librarian, I am concerned that our profession adapt to the “information revolution” in a way that libraries, as an institution, can remain relevant to society at large. I hope Ms. Wiggins has explored ways in which librarians can facilitate balance in crowdsourcing. Indeed my own attraction to the library profession has always been the desire to be a “gadfly”, encouraging people to expand their thinking – admittedly easier said than done. In these specialized times, I’ve adopted a personal saying, which is that “we can’t all be DaVinci or Einstein, but why shouldn’t everyone get to be Socrates?” (of course Socrates endured persecution, up to and including execution – hopefully that won’t be the lot of people who like to ask questions, but hopefully more people – I’m thinking patrons here – will be willing to endure being unpopular for the sake of asking necessary but unpopular questions about the many issues we all face in todays’ world.)

    So what is the role of a librarian in facilitating healthy, balanced discussion. I think mostly it is to set the example of raising questions for the consideration of patrons who are crowd-sourcing, etc. In my years providing reference and collection-development at a series of small public libraries, I try to introduce new resources (books, web sites, reference-strategies) patrons may not have thought of. I don’t know that I’ve done anything all that ground-breaking, but I do adhere to this technique, for instance as a children’s librarian, I’ve tried to add more items to the collection about current events (the Gulf Oil Spill, how elections are influenced by special interest groups, etc.) whether or not these issues are sought out by kids either for school assignments or for recreational reading (although I would dearly love to see more school systems ally with us in getting kids to be interested in issues going on around them presently as our world changes at a faster and faster pace.) Similarly, if a patron (often an adult) has some hazy recollection of a lesser-known expert who may or may not have published writings on their subject of expertise, a traditional reference-interview continues to help me help them to get the information they want, just as it did in the days when print-sources and librarian-controlled subject-access was prevalent – perhaps even moreso in this age in which one can find web sites, blogs, etc. to connect them with their topic of interest. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for librarians is encouraging patrons to be patient and persistent enough to engage in these methods of reference-interviewing, Socratic thinking, etc. At any rate, thank you, Ms. Wiggins and Ms. Stripling for the above blog-post, as it has inspired me to realize this ongoing role of libraries and librarians in providing value to their communities.

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