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