:: Digital Libraries Columns


Library Journal "Digital Libraries" Columns 1997-2007, Roy Tennant

Please note: these columns are an archive of my Library Journal column from 1997-2007. They have not been altered in content, so please keep in mind some of this content will be out of date. :: Digital Libraries Columns

Hustle and Flow


   It hit me while looking at the activity report for the photographs I
   had uploaded to Flickr lets you see how many people
   have been looking at your photos, in various time increments, and for
   several months no one had looked at them. These very same photographs
   on my personal photo site generate significant hits
   every day. That's when I understood. Flickr, similar to other new
   interactive resources like blogs or link-sharing sites (like, is all about flow.

   The constant refreshment of new information, or flow, is about grabbing
   your attention. People use these tools mostly for current awareness
   rather than to find previously posted content. For evidence, consider
   the voyeuristically fascinating utility called 1001. This free
   Macintosh program "allows you to step into the stream of photos passing
   through Flickr and to quickly see what's new at the moment."

   When you start up 1001, it opens a window on your desktop that it
   refreshes on a regular basis with photos newly uploaded to Flickr. Even
   if you have it in the background, it pops up a small semitransparent
   square that previews each uploaded photo in a slide show. A click will
   bring up a larger version of the photo and a link to the Flickr site
   hosting it.

   This can be a strangely addictive experience, since you have the sense
   of having your finger on the pulse of a large community. What exciting
   discoveries lurk around the next corner? Will someone upload an amazing
   photo? That is the power of the new.

   The pitfalls of the new

   However, a focus only on the new can lead to dangerous
   shortsightedness. What if you want to find a picture that streamed
   through a few days ago? In many cases, sites and the tools that support
   them are not set up well for locating content.

   Flickr does not make searching obvious or consistently effective.
   That's because the content is often poorly described, if at all. When
   users upload their photos, they can "tag" them with uncontrolled terms.
   The resulting soup of term variations, words with double or triple
   meanings, and useless tags (e.g., "cameraphone") makes it
   difficult to find much beyond the basics (e.g., "Paris"). Some
   oft-quoted individuals have dubbed such uncoordinated efforts
   "folksonomies" (user-created taxonomies), but that doesn't mean they
   work well.

   The blog bog

   Photo sites are not the only sites that exhibit good and bad
   characteristics of "flow." Blogs are tailored to maximize the power of
   flow. The only blogs that are read are those that post new content
   regularly. This new content is streamed seamlessly to the reader's
   favorite current awareness tool.

   Users tend to focus solely on the new, and although blogging software
   makes it easy to assign posts to topical categories of the blogger's
   own invention, it's not clear that readers use those categories for
   much of anything.

   Tools such as Technorati and Google's Blogsearch help with searching
   blogs. But, again, the focus on flow can render the search for an old
   post difficult if not impossible. If you remember where you read
   something, you can search an individual blog with better results, but
   that presumes you already know where to look. By default, Technorati
   ranks search results based on age, and rightly so. Technorati is all
   about flow and the pulse of the "blogosphere." For example, it will
   display a bar graph of the number of times your search topic was
   mentioned in a blog in the last week. It will also automatically pull
   in the latest Flickr photos that match your search.

   The role of libraries

   As librarians, we have a role in trapping the best of this flow in
   reservoirs. If we could perform such behind-the-scenes batch processing
   tasks as topical clustering, automated metadata enrichment, and
   content-tailored indexing, we might be able to enhance retrieval
   significantly. Current awareness is a useful goal. But being able to
   locate something you've seen before can be important as well. So we
   must collect, organize, provide access to, and preserve the best of
   this information and content flow.

   For more on the wired library, see the netConnect supplement mailed
   with the January, April 15, July, and October 15 issues of LJ

                              Link List
   [147] Flickr
   Google Blogsearch
   [150] 1001
   [151] Technorati