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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies

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Shape Shifting
Volume 39, Number 1 - January/February 2015

Shape shifting is a staple in many mythologies, from Greek and Roman in Europe to Native American and Asian. The idea that humans can change into other entities, particularly animals, is powerful symbolism. Power that derives from shape shifting can be mysterious, malignant, or life-enhancing. For information professionals, let’s concentrate on the life-enhancing part of it—without totally forgetting about mystery and malignancy.

Libraries are transforming, changing their shapes. University libraries are putting collections into storage to become information commons. Public libraries call themselves the living rooms of their communities. Law libraries are going all-digital. Corporate libraries adopted virtual models years ago. In fact, shape shifting for libraries started 40 years ago, when information began to be available in electronic format.

Formats are not stable, they are shape shifting as well. We deconstructed formats when we started searching for individual articles on Dialog and for individual court records on Lexis back in the 1970s. Today, digitized information exists outside of context. A webpage, a book chapter, a newspaper article, a market research report, and a scholarly journal article can all look the same once they are in electronic format and discoverable from unified metadata.

Libraries used to have collections. We put books, periodicals, reports, and newspapers on shelves. Unstable formats change the very nature of “a collection.” News broadcaster Al Jazeera has an interactive project called Palestine Remix that lets users splice together clips from documentaries to tell their own stories. How do we “collect” things like Al Jazeera remixes? What about Nature’s “sharing” of links to read-only articles? Subscribers to 49 journals published by Nature can share a link with nonsubscribers, who can then read and annotate the articles but can’t download or print them. Can libraries “collect” these?

Publications are not created for libraries. Publishers want readers more than they want findability. Therefore, librarians are always playing catch-up. Decades ago, print publications led librarians to create indexes and thesauri to manage that information. When publishers talk in terms of “engagement” and “the user experience,” how do information professionals manage a collection? Do we need alternatives to indexes and thesauri? How do we move findability markers into a remix world?

In a noncontextual, shape-shifted world, how do we control for quality? If I read a book and you read the same book, but the endings are different, how do we add that to a collection? If we have a scholarly journal article that runs 25 printed pages, and we have a letter to the editor that is half a page, but both have the same title and cost the same amount of money (assuming no subscription to the scholarly journal), how do we determine equity? Are the shape of an article and the shape of a letter valued the same?

Shape shifting can benefit libraries, making them more relevant to users, but transformation raises many new issues for information professionals. It’s not just about entities that are born digital and not adhering to traditional format distinctions. It’s about new models, new perspectives, and new vocabulary.

Marydee Ojala

Marydee Ojala is Editor-in-Chief of Online Searcher (the successor journal to ONLINE) and writes its business research column ("The Dollar Sign"). She contributes feature articles and news stories to Information TodayEContentComputers in LibrariesIntranetsCyberSkeptic's Guide to the InternetBusiness Information Review, and Information Today's NewsBreaks. A long-time observer of the information industry, she speaks frequently at conferences, such as WebSearch University, Internet Librarian, Online Information (London, UK), Internet Librarian International, and national library meetings outside the U.S. She has adjunct faculty status at the School of Library and Information Science at IUPUI (Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis). Her professional career began at BankAmerica Corporation, San Francisco, directing a worldwide program of research and information services. She established her independent information research business in 1987. Her undergraduate degree is from Brown University and her MLS was earned at the University of Pittsburgh.


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