Who’s in Charge Here?

Libraries as leaders in an increasingly leaderless information landscape

August 2, 2010

Joseph Janes

Lady Gaga is totally playing us. I mean, “Alejandro,” a song that even ABBA couldn’t get past the semifinals of the Eurovision Song Contest, a video that includes her wearing a machine-gun bra that Madonna would be embarrassed by . . . and it’s a worldwide hit. (For my money, “Bad Romance” is much more satisfying.)

Say what you will, though, she’s got the pop culture zeitgeist figured out, and you can’t take your eyes off her. She is also, I believe, engaged in a highly ruminative performance-art consideration of the corrosive effect of fame, more specifically the pursuit of fame, on our culture. A hard message to swallow; overlay with synth in “Paparazzi” and it goes down much easier.

And she’s one of the few people who can move the culture with a flick of her manicured hand. Sarah Palin can too, or at least she can get people talking, but there aren’t a whole lot of others who wield great influence or can be a tastemaker. Even Oprah’s having an uphill battle getting people not to text while driving.

When Google began its news site in 2002, it got attention in part because it was entirely automatic. The “front page” stories got there as a result of popularity, novelty, linkages, probably other things as well, much as their search algorithm determines rankings. What there wasn’t was editorial control . . . or judgment, or decision-making, or attempts to influence public opinion, or thought of any kind. That’s now widely accepted, functionally ignored, and has extended since then; searching Google on a timely topic provides a live scroll from blogs, Twitter, and other feeds.

Now comes word that Yahoo, the most popular news site on the web, has launched a new blog called The Upshot, which uses search data to help drive its coverage; scanning what people are searching on and then using that to guide what to cover and how deeply.

It’s easy to take potshots at this, that Upshot (whose M.O. is more than a little tricky to glean from its site) will prize speed over depth, that simply giving people what they want doesn’t do society any favors, and that it’s yet another sign that the inmates are running the asylum. Please—that all sounds so 20th century; as a couple of young State Department employees opine to anyone who will listen, the 21st century is a bad time to be a control freak.

So what else is new? I hear a strong resonance with the “give ‘em what they want”/”give ‘em what’s good” duet that librarians have sung for decades. In the really old days, many librarians quite seriously argued against open stacks, not because things would get stolen, or misfiled (though true) but because uneducated people who weren’t used to looking for books might pick the wrong ones.

I’ve always thought that an unprofitable debate, turning to (who else) Samuel Green, 1876: Give “every person . . . the best book he is willing to read.” He might say today that in a post-control-freak world, exerting a little control, a nudge, in people’s own direction is the way to go.

With fewer strong hands on the cultural levers, millions of individual ones take over. In this kind of highly social, nobody/everybody-in-charge world, what would library-as-influencer look like? Not taking a partisan position, but helping, say, a community to have a broad discussion of citizenship or democracy, going deeper, pushing the conversation further, providing context as well as venue, might be along the right lines.

And now I wonder what else Gaga and Green might find in common . . . but that’s another story.

Joseph Janes is associate professor at the Information School of the University of Washington.



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