May 18, 2010

In the Flow and John Seely Brown

I attended a lecture by John Seely Brown yesterday where he talked about the ideas behind his new book; The Power of Pull: How small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion. The lecture was recorded and should be placed online here sometime in the near future, but there are several videos of other lectures at the website above.

I'm not going to discuss his talk in detail, but it did get the little gears in my brain churning away, connecting some other ideas and inspiring me to write this post.  Generally, JSB talked about how current and future enterprises are evolving into what he calls a "Pull economy" - simply that knowledge is created using collaborative networks.  He talked about a great many other things, how universities and other educational institutions can harness this, gave some successful examples, etc. But what specifically got me thinking was the link between this and what R. David Lankes said in his keynote speech at the 2009 Charleston Conference: "The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities." Lankes speaks a lot about participatory librarianship, which, to me, is an example of a knowledge network as described by John Seely Brown.

Another tie-in is Lorcan Dempsey's discussions about librarians being "In the Flow" of research.  To generalize again, it's the idea that librarians cannot just wait for researchers or whomever to think "What I need is a librarian", it's positioning ourselves to be part of the research process, to anticipate a need and already be there to meet it. Or, as Dempsey says, "The library needs to be in the user environment and not expect the user to find their way to the library environment."

So, that's the framework for this whole rambling post, because as I was pedaling home after the lecture, I was thinking how this pull network would work in academic libraries (more specifically ASU, but I think it can be generalized).  A common refrain in librarianship lately has been "be where your patrons are," specifically regarding the creation of library spaces in social networks - a Facebook page for the library, a Twitter account.  But I think that this is a little misleading and too vague of a statement. It's not so much being where the patrons are, but being where they ask their questions, their "Does anybody know...?" questions.

It's a mistake to assume or expect a knowledge seeker will come to the library specifically to ask a question.  The creation of knowledge networks enables a knowledge seeker to pull from a diverse pool of expertise.  It's a waste of a seeker's brain power to figure out who specifically to ask for any one question - the point of a network is to toss out the question and pull a response from any number of possible experts, hopefully the right response.  These questions can range from questions about restaurants to research to IT help and so on, but the knowledge seeker expects answers for all of these things from their network.  They do not want to have separate networks for separate issues, especially because their interests may start to overlap - the IT help may be specifically related to a research-related software issue, for just a quick example. The point of the network is its diversity and flexibility.

So this means that for the academic librarian to be in the flow, they must be in the network, wherever that may be.  Of course, that's not easy, since every knowledge seeker creates networks using different tools: Friendfeed, Facebook, Twitter, good old fashioned listservs, etc. To further complicate things, I'm starting to think that it shouldn't even be just one librarian: traditionally, at least at ASU, the relationship is usually a librarian with or without subject expertise assigned to specific subject/colleges/departments, etc.  But I think this needs to change.  Knowledge creation is increasingly interdisciplinary, it's no longer possible nor practical to expect all of, say, a chemistry researcher's knowledge needs will be met solely from resources within the field of chemistry.  Therefore it no longer makes sense for only one librarian to be in the knowledge network - it should be all (or several) of the librarians.  This would further broaden the pool of expertise in the network.  The librarians should be prepared to be able to supply answers to diverse knowledge needs.  I even wonder if librarians should stop worrying about having subject expertise. Our true expertise is knowing how to organize and discover information - if we are but part of a knowledge network, we should focus on our expertise and bring it into play when it's required.  The subject expertise comes from other parts of the network - it seems to me that's a battle we're rapidly losing, and maybe we should stop fighting it.  Without advanced degrees (PhDs) in the field, faculty regard that knowledge as superficial anyway - what they really want from us is the expertise we bring to bear from the field of librarianship.

Practically, this poses several questions. How do we determine the networks? ASU has an awful lot of knowledge seekers - how do we monitor them all? How do you assign all the subject librarians (meaning all librarians who interact with faculty and students) to be a part of all of the networks?  Is that even possible?  I don't know.  Part of me wonders if it would generate more work than we can handle, but part of me argues that the work would be distributed - after all, we would be just a part of the pool.  Finding the networks would be difficult, and it's possible that we would not be accepted to many - it's impractical to befriend every student at ASU on Facebook and expect to be able to manage that.

But maybe this isn't something for right now, maybe it's something for next year.  Maybe it's developing better tools to manage it - some network aggregator that allows customized filters - maybe you could filter by question?  But wouldn't it be cool? We would be participating in the discussions, we would be in the research flow and part of the network.  I think this very well might be the direction we need to go.

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