What’s this all about, Part 1: The Rise of Citizen Librarians

I got the idea for this blog from Dan Gillmor, a journalist who over the past few years has been documenting and encouraging the “citizen journalism” movement online. He gave an inspiring presentation at the Digital Library Federation’s forum earlier this month on some of the work being done by amateurs and professionals to gather, analyze, and spread news around the world using the powerful, easy-to-use tools provided by blogs and other online communication technology.

The technology is essential for enabling this kind of activity broadly, but the true value comes from what many people have been inspired to do with the technology. “Citizen journalism” isn’t a pretentious synonym for “blogging”. Rather, it describes ways in which ordinary people provide news, analysis and commentary to the community at large, using relevant journalistic principles, but outside established, professional media channels. The blog is one common medium that now makes this work easier, but it’s not the only medium for the work.

Collectively, citizen journalists cover many beats that the traditional media do not and cannot, due to limited time, resources, and interest. Through the Internet they can reach any other online reader who finds their work of interest. They aren’t limited to readers who live in a limited area or who pay for a subscription to their service. They do not replace professional journalists (though they may be threatening to some of them). Rather, savvy journalists and news organizations find ways to improve their own work by building on the work of their non-professional colleagues.

It occurred to me that a lot of what I’ve observed and encouraged online for the past fifteen years could, along similar lines, be characterized as “citizen librarianship”. The term’s not new; it’s been used, for instance, in discussions on rebuilding New Orleans. The practice it describes goes back considerably further than that: Lots of people, inside and outside of established library organizations, have been collecting, describing, organizing, making accessible, helping people find and use, and preserving information of all kinds. They’re serving constituencies that are potentially much larger than that of any purely physical library. It’s becoming increasingly easy for people to do this work online, with the various digital tools that are available or in development. And collectively, these citizen librarians have the potential to provide much more in the way of both collections and services than professional librarians can on their own.

I’m not claiming that everyone who uploads their pictures to Flickr or tags some web sites in del.icio.us is a librarian, any more than everyone who blogs is a journalist. But the more that people adopt principled methods for collecting, describing, and doing all the other things I list above with information, as a service for their communities, the more they’re acting as librarians. And the more the things they build function as libraries.

It’s not just individuals, of course, that are creating these new libraries and library-like services. Big corporations are doing it too (sometimes to much publicity). And many non-profit organizations, including many established libraries, are putting up new libraries and library services online. Many of these new sites, though, are still powered largely by the particular individuals who thought them up, or by lots of independent individuals that collectively build them up.

All this activity has seriously disrupted libraries, and disrupted the way that many library constituents perceive them. In some circles, there’s been notable pessimism and concern that libraries may now be obsolete. The new libraries and services may be threatening to some librarians and libraries that don’t adapt, just as bloggers may threaten the livelihood of some news purveyors that don’t adapt. But I believe that savvy library professionals can and will find ways to improve the services they offer by building on the work of their non-professional colleagues. Going the other way, I believe that the “citizen” and other non-professional librarians can increase the usefulness of their collections and services through adopting principles and practices that librarians have developed over the years. And I think there’s a lot more that people in both camps can do to share their work and expertise.

Or, to put it another way, the future of libraries, if they are to best serve their communities, must include understanding and building up “everybody’s libraries”. And here I mean “everybody’s libraries” both as a collective group, and as a concept. I’ll explain what I mean by the concept, which I’ve chosen to title this blog, in Part 2.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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1 Response to What’s this all about, Part 1: The Rise of Citizen Librarians

  1. Pingback: What’s this all about, Part 2: Everybody’s Libraries « Everybody’s Libraries

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