Experience: The Teacher
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
Back in the day — many years ago, now — when I worked the desk as a reference librarian, I recall there was always one type of question that used to drive us to drink. (Alright, alright, I remember the Groucho Marx line too — “That’s not a drive. That’s a short putt.”) The questions we used to wince to receive were true “reference” questions, namely chasing down citations. In particular, we dreaded to get a request that led off with the words, “I remember reading an article in [fill in the blank] about [fill in the blank] days/weeks/months/years ago.” (Newspaper requests were always the worst.)
Our aversion to this type of “reference” request may seem odd, considering that we called ourselves reference librarians, but the explanation lies in those fill-in-the-blanks. Requestors would stand there before us, gazing into the mists of memory, fingers twitching as if they could almost feel the paper in their hands, rubbing the newsprint off their fingertips. And, of course, the source they remembered so clearly was almost always as wrong as the time period they assured us they remembered so well. Not always, but almost always. The source they sometimes got right, but the timeline was hardly ever accurate. Two days became 6 weeks. Two months became 2 years.
Sigh. But loyal to our task and — thank the Lord — armed with online databases, we soldiered on until we found what they thought they had read, even though it was almost never where or when they claimed to have read it.
Well, here we are today in the digital millennium facing a torrent of digitization, driven, in large part, by the need to preserve an archive that both makes a permanent record of present and past documents and makes that record accessible to all, or, at least, to authorized users. Past records, frozen in document formats based on immovable print, have their own set of challenges — costs, intellectual property, formats, costs, etc. Present content, however, which incorporates digitally networked content — ouch!
We must develop a durable infrastructure that can stand the challenges of a massively expanded user base, the vulnerabilities of private sector-based retrieval, the declining commitment to traditional archival functions, such as libraries, and, at the same time, one that can deal with all the ordinary problems of massive digitization — costs, intellectual property, formats, costs, costs. This is going to be fun! Nonetheless, it has to be done. And it can be done. It’s been done before. After the end of World War II, the explosion of scientific and technical research led to a critical overload of publishing, indexing, abstracting, and library services. People pulled together. Scholarly societies hunkered down. The government coughed up. Today’s sophisticated information technology was born out of the need to solve those problems.
So here we go again. And, as any good reference librarian, any good professional searcher can tell you, before you start on any project involving access, step one is the “reference interview.” The first thing you do is to assess user needs and user perceptions. This becomes even more critical in archiving digital content, because — to a large extent — user perceptions define a “publication,” a “digital document,” as much as the content creator’s or content owner’s.
For example, today I read an excellent piece on the problems consumers face dealing with copyright these days. Walt Mossberg wrote the article (“Congress Must Make Clear Copyright Laws to Protect Consumers”) for the March 22, 2007, issue of The Wall Street Journal. The official citation adds “Page B1” to the citation. Of course, I’m reading the document as part of my WSJ.com subscription. If I need to see it again someday, I can tap into the 90-day access archive that comes as part of my subscription (here come those timelines again!) or switch over to Factiva for older content. However, by the time the article reaches Factiva — or the ProQuest CSA Historical Newspaper file, something will have fallen out. The Mossberg article includes a video clip concerning the Viacom suit against Google’s YouTube service.
We are living in a multimedia world. Generation upon generation now have been raised with television sets. These days, the sets children sit plopped in front of may have the height and width, if not the depth, of small refrigerators. High school students take film classes and tote around digicams the same way that past generations might have taken English lit and toted around paperbacks of the classics. People perceive video and audio as normal means of circulating information. They will need that information to be as available and as searchable in an archival record as text.
And here’s yet another example. On March 22, 2007, the Washington Post carried a story that the Huffington Post blog had unmasked the creator of a mashup video posted on YouTube that attacked one leading presidential candidate as coming from a consultant to another leading candidate. Ignore the politics here, but look to the blogging. The information industry has begun rising to the task of archiving major blogs. EBSCO Publishing has announced that it will incorporate Newstex blog archives in its EBSCOhost service to libraries. Can’t get much more traditional than EBSCO! Not that LexisNexis, Alacra, Voxant, and others don’t also include Newstex blog content. But the Washington Post article linked directly to this specific blog posting, as well as to the video and other coverage. So a reader of the Post — or readers of any other newspapers that did the same among the more than 400 sources citing that topic in Google News this morning — might recall the article in the Huffington Post as part of their Washington Post experience.
It’s the user’s experience, the user’s memories, the user’s perceptions of the information-gathering process that will structure the user’s searching and successful accessing of archived content. Recognizing and analyzing the experience must underlie any successful attempts to create new accessible archives. Already some new tools are in place. Users can add their own terms to metadata for content in many systems. Folksonomies have arisen. Cloud-tagging and other ways of recording user perceptions ensure that enriching content with improved metadata can continue beyond the time of publication, beyond the perception of “official” indexers, beyond even the perception of the content creators.
We who are responsible for the memory of humankind must look to how that memory works as we create the new stable and accessible archives that can carry the 3rd millennium into the 4th.
Barbara Quint's e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.