Trust in Librarians

I’ve spent the early weeks of Summer 2008 catching up on my reading. I’ve finally read Wikinomics, for example. I’m also trolling through my Google reader, bookmarks and photocopies of short pieces that I promised myself I would pay closer attention to “when there’s time.” In these articles and posts and books I’ve noticed a recurring theme. The idea of trust, and how Web 2.0 is changing who we trust and what we trust arises again and again.

Jordan Furlong identified trust as a challenge in the world of law firm KM, prompting me to ask the question: Do librarians have trust issues with the emerging world of 2.0?

In Wikinomics, Tapscott and Williams talk about the Net Gen — those growing up with Web 2.0 — and their impact on the culture of business and the Web. “The Web is no longer about idly surfing and passively reading, listening or watching. It’s about peering: sharing, socializing, collaborating, and most of all, creating within loosely connected communities.” (p. 45) “While their parents were passive consumers of media, youth today are active creators of media content and hungry for interaction.” (p.47)

This change in attitude toward media and information could have a profound effect on libraries. Just think about your collections — in the past, a subject-matter expert (the librarian) was delegated to select, collect and control information that came into the organization. Purchasing books and subscriptions, licensing databases and other digital content was all handled through the library. Usage was monitored and controlled. Reference consisted of leading the user, helping them “refine” their question, and matching it to the available resources. But we’re seeing a change in the way that information is consumed by Net Gen.

“Rather than being passive recipients of mass consumer culture, the Net Gen spend time searching, reading, scrutinizing, authenticating, collaborating and organizing…” (Wikinomics, p. 47)

Web 2.0 is taking information out of the established pipelines and putting it “out there.” Wikipedia, blogs, and even Facebook are seen by the Net Gen as legitimate sources. How many librarians out there shuddered at that last statement? I know I felt a frisson of concern when I read the passage for the first time. But this is where trust comes in.

According to Tapscott and Williams, the collaborative nature of Wikipedia actually may make it more accurate than the Encyclopedia Britannica (p. 75). More eyeballs reviewing the information may make it easier to spot inaccuracies, and because Wikipedia is created on a dynamic platform, errors can be corrected much more quickly than the hard-copy publishing cycle permits.

Darlene Fichter identified trust as an issue a long time ago (first take) (followup). In order for libraries to keep up with Net Gen, we’re going to have to learn to trust our users more. I confess that I rolled my eyes when I first read about folksonomy and tagging — how can one ever get consistency in describing like items if you don’t have authority control? Library Thing is teaching me that many hands make consistency.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon all pretence of filtering — librarians can help to abate the risk to their organizations in many ways. Information literacy becomes even more important as information sources proliferate. Libraries may not themselves be the filter, but librarians can continue to help users become savvy in evaluating information sources. There is a role for us if we’re willing to play by the new rules: openness, peering and sharing. See Joan Lippincott’s detailed and insightful review of the challenges and opportunities, Net Generation Students and Libraries. Taking initiative from Educause, how can our firm, court and government libraries learn from the experiences of universities and adapt as their students become our colleagues?


  1. I like how you have tied all these ideas together. Definitely our role is continuing to evolve. More people are learning to index things for themselves, albeit in a different manner than those of us in the library are used to. Tagging systems allow us to harness that effort. I agree we can now develop our roles as educators, helping people even more with their critical thinking and evaluation skills. We can also share our knowledge of research methods to help guide them in being more efficient with their time.

    For more on how people are moving away from being passive consumers to becoming content creators, check out the video of a Clay Shirky talk I posted to my blog back in April. I haven’t read his book Here Comes Everybody yet, but I bet it ties into this theme as well.


  2. Great article Wendy.
    I think trust comes from building relationships with our users/clients/tag groups/Fackbook friends/connections on Linked in.

    Relationship building may seem like a phrase from the past, but it is more relevant than ever in this new shared world.

    Cheers, Shaunna