Brown Bag Report: David Weinberger on Libraries as Platforms

David Weinberger,  who is a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University, and former co-director of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, presented a talk  on Libraries as Platforms: Enabling Libraries to Become Community Centers of Meaning part of the Program on Information Science Brown Bag Series.

In the talk, illustrated by the slides below, David  discusses how libraries can increase their relevance in a networked world by creating information platforms that enable communities to locate, create, and discuss contextually relevant connections among information resources.

In his abstract, David describes his talk as follows:

Libraries are in a unique position to reflect a community back to itself, enabling us to see what matters, and to use that information so that the community learns from itself. This is one of the primary use cases for developing and widely deploying library platforms. But becoming a community center of meaning can easily turn into creating an echo chamber. The key is developing interoperable systems that let communities learn from one another. We’ll look at one proposal for a relatively straightforward way of doing so that’s so dumb that it just might work.

David describes libraries as a “black hole on the Net” — the knowledge and culture that only libraries have entrusted with is generally not available on the web. He claims that the core institutional advantage of libraries is not only access, but an understanding of what matters to specific communities paired with incentives that are fully aligned with those communities.

His talk that … Meaning comprises a set of connections that are important to a community. Libraries have always been aligned with user communities and helped them discover and make sense of meaningful information. And changes in internet and communication technology create an opportunity for libraries to help communities create and reflect back community meaning.

The talk suggested that Libraries can move toward this by creating API’s that enable open access to their open content, and metadata (broadly defined) related both to content and to the local use of that content; and conjectured that linked data approaches are necessary for integrating platforms and metadata at scale.

David discussed StackLife as an example. StackLife  uses circulation metadata to provides a private  a shareable, public (aggregated) normalized measure of physical book usage in several libraries. It enables , and is shareable — allowing for comparisons across libraries.

David not discuss privacy  in detail but noted it as a key issue —  to build successful platform for creating meaning, libraries will need to rethink their approach to of patron privacy: Rather than discarding information on patron behaviors and use of services, we need to collect it, and use it in service of the community. In this vision, libraries will provide the infrastructure — and new tools using this infrastructure will be written by people outside of libraries (as well as within).

I will note that the Program is engaged in research toward creating a modern approach to privacy concepts and controls. I will also note that to maintain a platform will require digital sustainability   and organizational sustainability. Realizing the former will require designing systems with a view towards supporting long term access. Realizing the latter will require identifying stakeholders that have mutually reinforcing incentives to create digital stuff, use digital stuff created by others, and maintain platforms for such stuff. (Typically, in sciences, such stakeholders are clustered around sets of domain problems…)

A recurring theme of David’s talk was that “libraries won’t invent their own future.”: Libraries can now see and participate in the cultural appropriation by their communities of the work entrusted to libraries. And open platforms will enable the world to integrate library knowledge into sites, tools, and services that libraries on their own might not have envisioned or have had the resources to develop.

This resonates with me, and I will add that any successful platform will almost certainly require using tools and infrastructure neither built by nor for the libraries. It will also require us to collaborate with organizations far beyond our boundaries. 

See also: drmaltman