the information commons: why didn’t I get this before

Doing reading for my academic libraries class last night[1] I had one of those blinding-flash moments and though, OK, now I get what the Information Commons idea is for. It’s for everyone’s favorite ongoing conversation, marketing the library — but not in the sense of getting people in the door because you have comfy chairs and coffee.[2]

What it is, is…

Academic libraries are next to useless if they model themselves as sources of fact. The world is full of sources of fact, or at least satisfice-y factiness, and lots of them are free and easy; you can get them on a whim and on your couch.[3] And if I need more depth, and lazy is better for me than free, I can one-click on Amazon and get it next day via Prime (or, if I owned an ereader, instantly). And yet, as Andy just said, “most talks about the library budget are controlled by the things we buy“.

The things we buy — a place where libraries have less and less comparative advantage.

But academic libraries are great as guides through a process. There are all kinds of facts and “facts” and books out there on the intarwubs, but if I don’t know how to construct a good search? or evaluate the trustworthiness and utility of materials I find? or identify materials best suited to a particular kind of paper or research project? or select tools for manipulating and presenting that information? Or if, purely hypothetically, I have never had to write a research paper before college and suddenly I have a 25-page term paper due and I have literally no idea how to organize an argument that size in my head and keep track of all my notes?[4] Woo, that’s hard to google for.

The model of the information commons in the article I was reading was — not just comfy chairs and ready availability of technology, although that’s part of it — but staffing by cross-functional teams who are able to help people with all phases of their research process (including, possibly, partnerships with the writing center, the computer help desk, et cetera…). It’s a physical and conceptual model that makes the library a potential partner across all phases of, say, writing a term paper — not just the first step where you’re looking for sources.

And this is what gets back to marketing. Libraries have to be understood, by the world at large, on a broader basis than “the things we buy”, or there really is little point to library funding. There are lots of ways to buy stuff. But a physical and conceptual model which facilitates collaboration across all phases of the research process, which embeds help where and when patrons need it, gets the point across that libraries are about process and partnership. And that, my friends, I cannot order overnight, not even if Amazon had Optimus Prime.

Right. I get that now. Information commons: a good thing. And not just because I really, really like coffee.

[1] Beagle, Donald. (2002, September). “Extending the Information Commons: From Instructional Testbed to Internet2.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 28, pp. 287-296.

[2] OK, not just in that sense.

[3] e.g. you could google the Wikipedia article on zeugma. That was easy!

[4] In practice what I will do is not know librarians are useful for this, put it off until 24 hours before it’s due, blitz through whatever happens to be not checked out from the library at that point, get two hours of sleep, and make it work. Hey, kids: don’t take me as a model of study skills. Please. (I’m better now.)[5]

[5]Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, my undergraduate campus’s library has since closed, and graduate program #1 now has a coffeehouse (which makes me jealous like whoa).

3 thoughts on “the information commons: why didn’t I get this before

  1. For the linear thinkers out there, is the problem (ha, as if there is “the” problem) that there isn’t a bright line of “what I, the patron, do” and “what the library / the librarian provides”? On one end of the spectrum, you have the person who has no idea how to start; on the other side of the spectrum, the librarian is doing all the work. To clarify, “the problem” being “how do we keep libraries relevant in this day and age”, which is borrowing a bit from Andy’s most recent blog post.

    So okay, I’ve gone from Square Zero (“where do I get help”) to Square One (“libraries can help me”), but there needs to be a 10-point list of “this is *exactly* how a librarian can help me”. Then insert your arguments about cross-functional teams — how I get handed off from team to team to assist me in the next area of specialty.

    Of course, this doesn’t work for non-nerds like me who want ordered lists. 🙂

    And to further clarify, if I don’t know what a library *today* is good for, then I’m not likely to stop in, since I can get coffee anywhere, so going to a library for that isn’t such a big draw. To me, it’s about putting “the library” back into my list of things I immediately think of when faced with (say) an information problem. For instance, nowadays, that’s “google” or “ask my friends” probably via lj or fb.


    1. To me, it’s about putting “the library” back into my list of things I immediately think of when faced with (say) an information problem.

      Yes. That. Well put.

      (That said, if you ask LJ or FB about an information problem, chances are good you will get at least one library suggestion, from me. 😉 But you are right about the broader point, that not everyone has the tremendous good fortune to know a library science student!)


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