Friday, February 03, 2006

Libraries and the Heart

"Putting the personal into what we do! I honestly believe the best libraries of the future will encourage the heart and librarians will put humanity into the library's virtual presence." The title and the quote are lifted from a recent post by Mr Tame The Web, Michael Stephens.

I thought of Micheal's comment--one of his "top ten for 2006" items--when I read a post on Liz Lawley's blog, mamamusings, in which she tells a story about what happened when she posted an old family photo on Flikr. Briefly, her grandfather had lost track many years ago of the four siblings shown with him and their parents in the photo but shortly after it went up on Flikr, a second cousin of Liz's from Brazil left a comment--and connections were made.

One of the wonderful, fabulous by-products of the technology we have at our fingertips is this web of humanity that can be built from exposing artifacts. Liz posted a personal photograph, but libraries and historical societies are treasure houses of letters, photos, building plans, fire maps, and oral histories that belonged to, were created by, used by real people who had families and who have descendents. When we digitize these treasures we are not just creating versions of these objects, we create opportunities for people to enrich their lives, to contribute to the stories they tell.

I have my own story. Some years ago, when I was working in Sales here at OCLC, I set up a small library in Montana with access to WorldCat on a trial basis. That year, the Denver Public Library had begun adding to WorldCat records for their extraordinary Western History photographic collection. Many of the records contained a link to the photo described. Many of those photos contain images of Native Americans who lived in the Little Big Horn area, now served by that library I was working with.

After a few weeks into the trial of WorldCat, I called the librarian to see how things were going. He told me there was a line-up of people at his one computer to use WorldCat, in a community that did not usually make heavy use of the library. Well, I like WorldCat myself but what was this about?

A woman in his community had come across the DPL photos and had recognized her grandmother, in a photo she had never seen. When she told others, they too found images of relatives and people the elders of the community had known. They could name these people who were unnamed by the photographer. But, there was no way to add those names to the photos then (and indeed, as there isn't in local systems or WorldCat, still) to enrich the documentary record of the community. But now there are services like Flikr that allow people--members of some library's community--to do this themselves.

But libraries need to help people by providing access to the documentary records of communities they serve, and by providing structure in the search environment to help people find pictures of ancestors, and by linking to and blending in content owned and generated by people in their communities with library-curated material.

I'll quote Michael again: "Technology and libraries in the 21st century are wedded, and this marriage is a long-lasting one. A library that recognizes how technology can improve services for its community is destined for success." And I'd add, not just improve services for the community but also enrich their lives.

1 comment:

Alice said...

You've inspired me. My Dad gave me two photo albums last week, of family photos. Some were old--like of his Dad's family when his Dad was a kid--and some were (no surprise) my brilliant artwork from age 4. I could post a few of these on Flickr and alert my hometown library that they are available...very cool!