Dean Rowan wrote some really interesting comments to a previous post that got me thinking. As I was getting ready to post my reactions as a comment, I realized it was worth a post:
Thanks for your thoughts, Dean. I've taken a little time to think them over and can offer a few responses:
"Any notion that library … users might need to bone up just a bit on the tools they use is anathema."
I think that it should be as easy to find a book (or other resource) in an OPAC as it is an amazon.com. I believe this not because it would meet the user's expectations, but because amazon's interface is GOOD in that it helps the user quickly find what he/she is looking for. I believe that a user shouldn't neccessarily have to learn an unfamiliar taxonomy or use a counterintuitive interface. I believe this position is particularly in line with two of Ranganathan's wonderful laws:
- Every book has its reader.
- Save the time of the reader.
I don't think easy-to-use interfaces should be designed and adopted because they'll be appealing to users who don't want to learn new things. I think easy-to-use interfaces interfaces should be designed and adopted because they serve the interests of the user. (I also, by the way, believe that there is generally an inverse relationship between the power of a GUI and the ease with which it can be learned and used…and that multiuple interfaces should be available for any system to meet the needs of all users- but that's a post for another day).
Having said this, I share what I think is your skepticism of "social applications" as library tools. I think folksonomies and tagging are really neat, and I have no objection to, for instance, having users "tag" their favorite books in an OPAC- but at this point it is more of a gimmick than a useful tool. I see (so far) little use for these tools except in the area of community outreach, but I'm waiting for Meredith Farkas to convince me otherwise, so I am keeping an open mind.
Also, I think I disagree with both you and Meredith in lumping RSS in with "social applications." RSS could be described as a file format, maybe as a DTD or 'flavor' of XML, or maybe as a protocol, but it isn't an application and isn't really social. RSS, for me, is about radical personalization, and paring down the avalanche of information on the web to just the golden nuggets an individual really wants. Sure, making RSS feeds out of del.icio.us or Bloglines searches is sort of social, but that's not RSS- that's Bloglines and del.icio.us.
"But you show how users who don’t understand a technology’s limitations need to be coaxed into understanding them if they are going to reap the technology’s benefits."
I think that's close to how I feel about it, but not quite. I believe that librarians need to be excellent writers, teachers, coaches, and interface designers. Like any good coach or teacher, I think the librarian should teach the user (or provide the user with documentation for self-teaching) as much as the librarian believes the user can usefully absorb. If the user is able and willing to learn the details, great! But since (for example) my grandmother just wanted to learn how to use Outlook Express so she could email her family members, step-by-step instructions were appropriate. She doesn't need to know what "SMTP" means or what a "DNS" is. She doesn't want to know, and my trying to force the knowledge on her would make her unhappy and anxious about asking for my help again. Short version: I would agree with your statement above if you inserted just one word (underlined below):
"…users who don’t understand a technology’s limitations need to be coaxed into understanding them if they are going to reap the technology’s full benefits."
Lastly, I really enjoyed this comment, Dean:
"we’re urged … to believe that technology will not merely help us to make decisions … but that it will make the decision for us. And if it’s really good, technology will resolve our problems even before we knew we had them, thus dispensing with any sense that we have 'preferences' at all."
I read it a few times to make sure I understood what you were saying. I'll bet that, like me, you know people who find talk of a techno-uptopian future in which human rationality is superfluous ridiculous, and that these people are all technologists. Technologists know how stupid computers really are!
Thanks again for all the great foodthought, Dean!