Data, Computing and Libraries

We all know that data is the Big New Thing. We have pivoted from digitisation – turning existing physical stuff into data – to having to deal with data that was born digital, and never had an analogue life.

There’s quite a bit of anxiety in library land about how to deal with all this data. We know it fall very much in our remit and well within in our old fashioned values about access to information; equity, privacy, description, accessibility, veracity. I’d like to argue that we have a wonderful opportunity to apply these values, using a lot of the concepts we are really familiar with, with a new few tools, and we will remain as relevant and integral in the intellectual lives of our patrons and colleagues as we always have been.

There are a couple of ideas we need to grasp first though, and they are about a complete change in perspective. We are going from a point, not so long ago, when data was scarce to a future (if not a present) when data is plentiful. Every time you call a lift [1] , swipe your key card, check your email, enter a store, buy something, or open a webpage you leave a trace, a record in a database. Every second measurements about the weather, heights of rivers and positions of space-junk are recorded and stored.

The old internet adage, “information wants to be free”, has never been more true. How do we help our patrons deal with this data? A lot of money is being made out of fuelling an anxiety over this – selling books, consultancy and some plain old fashioned snake oil. If we pull on our old school librarian cardigans, and tie up our buns, we can see we already have the skills and knowledge to take us most of the way. Take ‘truthiness’ for example [1]. We have always been a bastion for veracity in information. In the old days, it was the encyclopedia or specialist reference. Now we look at wikipedia – and the talk page, and compare that with specialist sources [2]. We have the ability to show our patrons not just the facts they may have been looking for, but also how to compare different sources – remember, there is no one place to find data, and never will be again.

Another idea that needs turned on its head is that young people know how to use computers. A car analogy is useful here – in model T days everyone needed to know some mechanics. Now, there are few that know the details of their car’s mechanism, and fewer still that can do anything productive about it. The same has happened remarkably rapidly with computers. Their ease of use means that everyone can do most of what they need, so the desire, or requirement to get under their hoods has diminished. By having an understanding of how data flows through the Internet and how it can be manipulated is a necessary skill for Librarians, so they can advise their patrons, make data equitably available, describe it, deal with privacy and veracity issues. See – the same old values, just framing another form of information.

So, how do we get those skills? How do we make ourselves useful and valuable to our colleagues and patrons? If you’ve read this far, then you have the most important trait to be successful; curiosity. If you bring curiosity to your view of the world, then you’ll eventually have a problem or a question, and that will give you the impetus to learn the tools you’ll need. In many ways, the specific tools are irrelevant, it’s the desire to scratch an intellectual or practical itch that is the most important.

In my next post, I’ll describe a way to get started with itch-scratching, a way to bootstrap your understanding of data and computing


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