Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Chudnov's Mission

Library mission statements are pablum intended to placate everyone and offend no one. It could be different, as I recently found out because of a tweet and a blog from Lorcan Dempsey, which led me to the personal mission statement of Dan Chudnov:

How refreshing!

Chudnov blogged this in 2006, the year in which Time Magazine's person of the year was “You.” Youtube had just exploded into our consciousness. Social networking was hot. This was the end of broadcasting and the beginning of narrowcasting. Time Magazine realized then that new web technologies would center around the individual and his or her personal needs and wants. The world embraced this idea.

Libraries could have aligned with this fundamental shift. But seven years later, libraries remain rooted in the concept of providing services for the average user of a particular community. Chudnov's mission is a radical departure from this model and an ambitious goal. Give to the masses what not so long ago was a rare commodity of only the most privileged: a personal library that archives all the information one has created, has consumed, is consuming, and intends to consume.

In 2013, parts of this vision have been realized. Unfortunately, libraries were largely on the sidelines. A slew of commercial enterprises provide aspects of personal digital libraries, either free of charge or at relatively low cost. Google is organizing the world's information, but its personalized services put the individual front and center. Browsers keep track of the information we have consumed, and they let us bookmark the information we intend to consume. Netflix keeps track of our movies, the Kindle store of our books, iTunes of our music, and Gamefly of our games. We archive our writings, our observations, our pictures, our videos in social networks, cloud-based storage, and blogs. Amazon, Facebook, Flickr, Google, Microsoft, Tumblr, Twitter, Yahoo, and many others would love to provide as many services as possible to each of us as part of their corporate strategy. The current situation is chaotic and messy. Yet, the last thing we should strive for is an orderly, easy, convenient information landscape dominated by a few commercial entities and governments. We should wish for more chaos and more providers competing with one another.

We take it increasingly for granted that we can experience our entertainment on our terms. We want to watch our movies and TV shows when the time is right for us, not when a network decides we should watch it. Unlike DVD rentals, streaming services never sell out no matter how many of our neighbors rent the same video. Yet, when it comes to academic libraries and professional information needs, researchers still accept that their individual requirements are subject to community compromises. Researchers whose information needs are much different from those of average library users are effectively relegated to second-class status.

How can a community-based library adapt? What is its role in an environment increasingly dominated by commercial enterprises? What are the specific steps it can take to help its users develop a personal library? What kind of help do its users need? Should the community library provide alternatives for commercial services? Or, should it merely supplement them? How do these new services fit with institutional traditions and commitments? Should the library help its users regain control of the information they ceded to for-profit companies in a Faustian bargain? If yes, what are the concrete steps that can accomplish this? Should the library help its users regain control of search engines dominated by commercial priorities? If yes, how?

Chudnov's mission statement leaves considerable freedom for interpretation. Like all good mission statements, it sets a direction. It provides a long-distance view. It crystallizes what is important in a time of information overload: focus on the real information needs of individuals. Libraries ignore this at their peril.