The last day of 5 Days, 5 Facts, is finally here. Today’s post is about how today’s users are ALL about the answer, and not at all about the format.
Fact 5: Format is dead, long live content
I was at an ‘away day’ relating to the History of Print Culture last week, and people were talking about the media revolutions of the past and how they’d influenced the culture. I was struck how all of these, from the Gutenberg Press in 1450-odd onwards, were all about the format or the platform. The invention of the printing press, then new types of printing on a larger scale, then different formats allowing for faster and wider distribution – all these were examples of the format dictating the way in which that media revolution effected the culture. As my friend and colleague in the History department Rafe Hallet pointed out in his presentation, each new technology became the dominant influence through a sort of natural convergence of favourable circumstances: the power of the new technology was often overstated (as is often the case with new and exciting trends), the new technology was innately a rejection of the previous technology so it was well placed to supersede what had come before, the new technology created new audiences who were only part of this new media revolution having never been reached by the previous ones, and of course the whole thing was self-justifying – very often each new media revolution was the medium for spreading the good word about itself. In none of this do you get a sense of the people (or the user, or reader, or whatever you want to call them) being anything other than passive in the whole process – they are being dictated to by the technology, and are not really influencing anything themselves.
Compare and contrast that to the media revolution we are undergoing today. If you accept that the internet itself cannot be described as a ‘format’ (it is a platform which supports many formats) then we are for the first time experiencing a revolution in which the format is not dictating to the people, but in fact it is the other way around. The people are not passive, they are active in shaping the revolution – the web provides a fluid, mellifluous stage on which to present an ever-changing array of content and format according to people’s needs. The media themselves are no longer the driving force and no one format is king – in that sense, without wishing to sound glib, it’s a media dissolution rather than a media revolution. This death of format is permeating everything, including scholarly research, and that affects libraries.
Previously format was very important in search activity – if you wanted to find out about, say, the coronation, you might check a (physical) newspaper archive and try and find all the information you could. Or if you wanted more academically rigorous sources, perhaps you just look through sociological or anthropological journals. Today, research is showing, people just want The Answer, and they absolutely don’t care what format it is in. This is a product of the heuristically simple Google homepage, which just has a search box for keywords (as opposed to a library catalogue which is a little more complicated, for example), or perhaps the Google homepage is the product of our newly simpler needs. (Of course, you can limit by format or date or anything else using the Advanced Search on Google, but by and large people don’t tend to use this feature. Indeed, this is symptomatic of the widening realisation that digital literacy and information literacy are nothing like the same thing, and although clearly the Google Generation have the former, this is not leading to them having the latter. This month’s report, How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age, found students were dialling down the aperture of all the different resources available to them, sticking with a few, and not varying the way in which they used them – even when going after very diverse information goals.  Similarly, the UCL report into the Google Generation found that the idea of the new breed of expert searchers is a ‘dangerous myth’, and that a study of the literature over the last 25 years showed no improvement in young people’s information skills.)  So nowadays a search on the coronation would bring back results from newspapers, radio broadcasts, film archives, perhaps even blogs and, in the future, Google Waves, as well as traditional academic books and journals – and this is exactly what the researcher wants. People now are format agnostic, and content is their only God. The Discoverability report from the University of Minnesota Libraries identified one of the five main trends to emerge from its research as follows:
‘The format of useful and discoverable information objects is much broader than those traditionally offered through libraries; users increasingly rely upon multimedia objects, data sets, blogs, and other “grey” objects to meet their information needs.’
So where does that leave us, the Information Professionals? I think we have to have an awareness of all the stuff I’ve talked about in this series of posts, and this one and the horizontal searching one are clearly very closely related. I think we need to do everything we can to overcome the limitations of our very format-driven procedures and computer programmes. I think we can treat this is an opportunity, as I said on Day 1, to become the source of authoritative information (regardless of format) rather than just the gate-keepers of a small selection of information, And I think eventually we will need to bite the bullet, and redesign the catalogue (which is, after all, our users’ primary point of contact with our services these days) from the ground up. I’ll end with a quote from an interview with the very sensibly forward-thinking Eric Lease Morgan:
‘If it were up to me the scope of the catalogue would include the full-text of journal articles and books (or at least their metadata pointing to permanent URLs where the full text is located), images, sounds, movies, data sets, computer programs, etc. The search interface would be Google-like. One box. One button. Search results would embody a bit of “smarts”. Did you mean? Too many, try this search. Too few, try this one. Limit by format, genre, date, and audience — a.k.a. faceted browsing. After a bit of interaction the search interface would get to know you like a reference librarian does. It could remember you and your preferences. It could make recommendations. It could send you emails and allow you to blog against it.
My idea of a “next generation” library catalog is not really a catalog at all. Instead, it is more like a tool - a library research helper - supplementing the functionality of librarians in a networked environment.’ 
Amen to that.
So that’s it! The end of 5 Days, 5 Facts - I think we can all breathe a sigh of relief now…