Library as social setting

In a recent blog posting, Hal Stern asked rhetorically, "When you have Google, who needs a library?"

While his question was rhetorical, this is a very real question for us as librarians - one we face regularly. The question is really just a spin on the old "everything can be found on the Web" urban legend.

The refreshing thing about Hal's answer to his own question is that he touches on three things that people don't always think of when they think "libraries":

\* "Library" as a social setting (see also Beyond Google, The Journal of EDS Agility Alliance, Sun Microsystems' piece in The Road to Innovation issue)
\* The organization and preservation of knowledge for findability
\* Serendipity, or discovering information rather than searching for it

I'd like to say a bit more about each of these, but won't do so in one long posting. So in this posting (which in itself is a bit long), I'll address the first one: "library" as social setting.

Digital Libraries & Research recently went 100% digital. For years, we have concentrated on bringing more and more digital resources into Sun, because we realized Sun employees need digital, always-on access. Sun employees work everywhere and "everywhen". We want to make sure that as many Sun folks have access to the information they need as soon as they need it, and digital resources perform this function well.

As more and more information has become digitized, however, we've noticed two interesting trends:

1) People didn't want just digital or just print; they wanted both. It wasn't a case of "either/or" - it was "and/plus". Sun folks want to be able to get to the information they need quickly and digitally, but they also want to have the print available to them. Not a lot of people want to read a whole book on-screen - and if you're reading in bed at night, holding up a laptop can get pretty tiring (though the last Harry Potter hardback book weighed almost as much as a laptop).

2) Even though we provide digital resources online, and also used to ship print material to Sun employees wherever they were, people still continued to come into the library space.

This second piece is most intriguing. If you don't have to come to the library, if you can get what you need online, why would you come into the library?

Because it is a "space" with a meaning - a space that represents and encourages thought, research and inspiration. The library space is a separation from work space - you're away from your phone and email, you're surrounded by information, and it's very attractive to be there and know you've got the time and space to really dig into information. You can search for specific things, but you can also stumble upon information you didn't know existed - sometimes information that's key to what you're doing. For those of us who used the library in university or college, it's also reminiscent of the kind of deep research and thinking that we did there.

At the same time, it can be a social setting - a place to meet your colleagues, to work together in an information-filled space, to collaborate and generate ideas, to get things done. It's a place to run into someone you haven't seen in a while and reconnect, and it's a place to meet new people who are interested in the same work you're doing. It's a place to make connections - people to information, people to people, and information to information.

These characteristics - the library as an inspirational place, and as a meeting place - make library spaces unique, and those unique qualities will never entirely be replicated by a Google search.

But as more social networking and Web 2.0 tools come online, they begin to create an interesting challenge and opportunity: how do we create these kinds of virtual "spaces", where there is the combination of the serendipity of discovery, the atmosphere of research, and the social interaction components?

The Digital Libraries & Research team has always looked to new technologies coming online to address this kind of opportunity. That's why we're looking into opportunites for providing information and information consulting through Second Life, actively using wikis, blogs and tags, and continuing to look at new tools (like Ning.com and other social networking tools) to bring new "library" experiences to life, for all the Sun Learning Services audiences: employees, partners, customers and community.

Next post, I'll talk about the importance of findability.

Scott Brown
Digital Libraries & Research
Sun Learning Services

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