Web 2.0 continues to stand out as a dominant theme in libraries today. Almost any conference that touches on libraries and technology gushes with presentations on blogs, RSS, social computing, wikis, user tagging, and other manifestations of the Web 2.0 brand. Some of the most exciting new developments I see in library automation today involve some aspect of this new way of thinking about the Web-building an environment that's more focused on the user, that embraces dynamic content over static pages, that not only delivers content to users but also seeks content from users, and that fosters engagement, participation, and collaboration.
As adopted in our realm, these concepts are often labeled Library 2.0. We've seen enthusiastic adoption of this genre of technologies in libraries. Blogs are standard fare on library Web sites. Wikis have become a popular approach for intranets and staff Web sites, and they facilitate collaborative projects of all sorts. Libraries are involved in second Life and other virtual environments. Reference services regularly engage users through instant messaging and texting. We've opened up some of our resources to user tagging, ratings, and folksonomies. Librarians have become proficient in delivering and receiving content through RSS and other XML-based protocols. Web 2.0 technologies came at a time when librarians were struggling to meet the expectations of a new generation of library users and to become more relevant and engaged with their users.
That said, I worry about some of the pitfalls involved in this view of the Web. In the May 2006 edition of The Systems Librarian, I wrote about my concern that many libraries lacked even the basics of a functional Web presence: "Web 2.0? Let's Get to Web 1.0 First."
This month, I want to push the topic in the other direction. Web 2.0 risks hampering the true potential of the Web by casting a particular approach or subset of technologies as preferred and neglecting others that may have higher strategic value. While the technologies branded as Web 2.0 represent a positive step in the evolution of the Web, they are but an incremental shift in a much larger continuum of progress.
Most of what we call Web 2.0 technologies can be seen in applications that were widely deployed long before Tim O'Reilly coined the term in 2004. Notable figures such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee don't see Web 2.0 as a helpful concept:
Web 1.0 was all about connecting people. It was an interactive space, and I think Web 2.0 is of course a piece of jargon, nobody even knows what it means. If Web 2.0 for you is blogs and wilds, then that is people to people. But that was what the Web was supposed to be all along. (8-22-2006, www-128.ibm.com/ developerworks/podcast/dwi/cm-int 082206txt.html)
The last thing that we need is a static view of the evolution of the Web. I don't necessarily see it as helpful to plant a signpost that marks the passing from one phase to another as if it were a border crossing. I see the evolution of the Web as gradual and nowhere near complete. Labeling it "2.0" makes it sound as if we've reached a new plateau that will be level for a while. I hope we're not on level ground but are continuing to climb an upward path toward an even more effective computing infrastructure. When I look at the current suite of trendy Web technologies, I don't see a mature environment. While there's lots of promise, there is lots of hard work ahead of us to forge the technical environment that will best help librarians meet the needs of their users.
Web 2.0 has become a trendy marketing concept. If you want to cast your product or idea as cool, just call it a Web 2.0 technology, regardless of how deeply it embodies the full range of ideals. I see Web 2.0 as helpful to the extent that it helps librarians let go of very outdated views of the Web and move forward in the adoption of newer technologies and services.
Regardless of the validity of the Web 2.0 label, I see a long trajectory ahead. The current fascination with blogs, wikis, and social computing must lead to a more mature technical framework that will better position libraries in an ever-more-competitive information landscape. The challenges presented by nonlibrary information products and services remain formidable.
Focusing on Results, Not on Technologies
I see a lot of promotion of the current suite of Web 2.0 applications as if they were goals in themselves. We should be looking for ways to make library Web sites more efficient in delivering content, in promoting the library, and in engaging users. The current suite of Web 2.0 components contribute toward those goals, but rely on solid Web 1.0 fundamentals and he in anticipation of next-generation technologies yet to be unfurled. Let's not be tempted to put up a blog on the library's Web site, call it Library 2.0, and think that we're done for a while. I don't think many librarians actually look at things that way, but I do want to emphasize the need to look past what's trendy today.
One of my main concerns with the current implementation of Web 2.0 technologies lies in their tendency to create even more silos of information. It's not a good thing to create lots of small containers of isolated information. But that's exactly what can result as a library builds out a new environment based on Web 2.0 components. We pour information separately into blogs, wikis, static Web pages, the library catalog, and digital library collections. I see the need for an infrastructure that provides all of these features on the front end, while managing information more comprehensively internally. Unfortunately, I see few options for implementing that architecture with the technologies available today.
New Generation of Library Automation Applications
Largely due to the influence of Web 2.0, we've seen a flurry of activity toward spiffing up the front end of library automation systems. The emerging generation of interfaces sports much-needed improvements such as relevancy ranking, faceted navigation, visual search, user tagging, and results delivered through RSS. Features such as these certainly make library applications more competitive among a sea of alternatives at the commercial Web destinations. The last year has seen remarkable progress in developing much-improved interfaces.
It's even more important to go beyond superficial user interface features and to develop library automation technologies that fully embrace the architecture associated with Web 2.0 and beyond, that of Web services and the service-oriented architecture (SOA). The next generation of the Web involves not just a more interactive approach in dealing with users through social computing, but it also prescribes an environment for dynamic communication of computer systems between themselves behind the scenes. The Web services framework allows all the separate applications in a common information environment to exchange information among themselves in an efficient and meaningful way. Web services defines a set of flexible protocols for the interchange of XML-based information between computer systems. Web services falls well within the technologies associated with Web 2.0. While librarians have been fairly quick to embrace the front-end components of Web 2.0, we've lagged behind in adopting Web services as a key supporting technology.
It's in this area that I see the greatest need to move beyond the current landscape as defined by Web 2.0. It's important to get past a library Web presence put together as an ad hoc set of isolated applications and to develop a more comprehensive environment built from the ground up to embrace social computing on the front end and interoperability on the back end.
To Run an Enterprise, It's All About Architecture
In the business computing environment, one of the major trends is taking Web services to the enterprise level. Rather than focusing on Web services to address individual problems, the emphasis is on using them in an organized and systematic way as the fundamental architecture for large-scale and complex business applications. The trend is toward creating service-oriented business applications that rely on Web services for all aspects of communication among the many applications involved in an organization's business and information environment.
The library world today lags behind in reinventing its automation systems as service-oriented business applications. Most of the library automation systems on the market were designed prior to the emergence of Web services as the preferred architecture for interoperability. Many are evolving to embrace this approach.
The need for better information architecture and applications that are built for interoperability increases as librarians add ever-more components to their automation environment. Standard library automation components for academic libraries typically go beyond a core ILS to include link resolvers, federated search tools, and electronic resource management applications. Almost all libraries have amassed a huge amount of content in what might be considered Web 1.0 vessels such as static Web pages and content management systems. Add to that Web 2.0 components such as a set of blogs, wikis, and RSS feeds. Taken together, the cumulative effect involves an enormous amount of information managed through many separate, incompatible systems without a common information architecture. Many strategic problems remain unsolved in the development of the library Web environment that are barely touched by the current set of Web 2.0 applications and services.
Web 2.0 Isn't the End, It's Only the Beginning
In the end, I think the Web defies all attempts to label and classify its development. Web 2.0 was an attempt to characterize a broad set of trends that were prominent in 2004. Given the rapid pace of change in the development of the Web, any expression of a preferred approach is bound to have a short shelf life.
The popularity of Web 2.0 technologies in libraries is but the springboard for whatever comes next. Much of what was espoused as new and interesting in Web 2.0 has moved into the realm of commodity technologies. Inventing the future is a never-ending process.