Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Desktop vs. cloud computing and librarians vs. daytraders

ReadWriteWeb has an interesting article by Nova Spivack on cloud computing:

Everything is moving to the cloud. As we enter the third decade of the Web we are seeing an increasing shift from native desktop applications towards Web-hosted clones that run in browsers.

This article presents a good overview of the topic, especially the shift most people who work online are experiencing, with regards to managing information:

The Web is constantly changing and the biggest challenge is not finding information, it is keeping up with it. The desktop of the future is going to be more concerned with helping users manage information overload - particularly the overload caused by change. In this respect, it is going to feel more like an RSS feed reader or a social news site than a directory. The focus will be on helping the user to manage and keep up with all the stuff flowing in and out of the their environment. The interface will be tuned to help the user understand what the trends are, rather than just on how things are organized.

Spivack also uses an interesting perception of librarians as a profession:

Users are going to shift from acting as librarians to acting as daytraders. As we move into an era where content creation and distribution become almost infinitely cheap, the scarcest resources will no longer be storage or bandwidth, it will be attention....
...In order to cope with the overwhelming complexity of our digital lives, we are going to increasingly rely on tools that help us manage our attention more productively -- rather than tools that simply help us manage our information.
It is a shift from the mindset of being librarians to that of being daytraders. In the PC era we were all focused on trying to manage the information on our computers -- we were acting as librarians. Filing things was a big hassle, and finding them was just as difficult. But today filing information is really not the problem: Google has made search so powerful and ubiquitous that many Web users don't bother to file anything anymore - instead they just search again when they need it. The librarian problem has been overcome by the brute force of Web-scale search. At least for now.
Instead we are now struggling to cope with a different problem - the problem of filtering for what is really important or relevant now and in the near-future. With limited time and attention, we have to be careful what we look for and what we pay attention to. This is the mindset of the daytrader. Bet wrong and you could end up wasting your precious resources, bet right and you could find the motherlode before the rest of the world and gain valuable advantages by being first. Daytraders are focused on discovering and keeping track of trends. It's a very different focus and activity from being a librarian, and it's what we are all moving towards.

I think this is a great complement to librarians - it illustrates the authority and expertise the profession has been known for in the past - but it also presents a challenge. Our users are experiencing this deluge of information now - so how are librarians changing to meet the challenge? I know this shift is one part of Library 2.0 thinking, and learning programs like Learning 2.1 are keeping library staff up to date with new tools and techniques. But are there library programs out there (face-to-face or online) where librarians are helping users caught in the information flood?
I have a small amount of experience in a special library, and the biggest thing I learnt there was the value a librarian can offer by creating customised information 'feeds' for each staff member. That feed could be made up of table-of-content alerts, journal article alerts, new and relevant websites etc all delivered directly to the user. Public libraries have a much wider and more diverse customer base, but I can't help but wonder if the special-library approach is one way to help our users. Helping customers setup customised alerts on our online databases is just one way to help, especially if we highlight the authoritative nature of the contents of databases, and the fact that while we may be adding to their information stream, we are adding quality, useful information.

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