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Cornell University Librarian on Meeting Community Needs Beyond Contributions to the “Common Good”

By Anne R. Kenney, Carl A. Kroch Cornell University Librarian. Anne Kenney offers observations on current trends and new ideas affecting knowledge organization, preservation, access and management relevant to Cornell University Library staff and operations in a weekly email message entitled “Take One” (posted with permission).
Ithaca, NY In 2006, journalist Jeff Howe coined the phrase “crowdsourcing” in a Wired Magazine article to describe how the productive potential of the willing many can be harnessed to perform work that previously depended on a specialized few. The following year, economist Michael Jensen published a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which he posited that “new trends and approaches to authority have taken root in Web 2.0.”  Jensen suggested that the power of individuals to contribute information and opinions leads to the “democratization of authority,” citing the success of Wikipedia.  Yet a Wall Street Journal article last November entitled “Volunteers Log Off as Wikipedia Ages,” noted that contributors are leaving the project faster than new ones are joining and that the net losses are increasing dramatically.  The first three months of 2009 witnessed a ten-fold loss of editors compared to the same period in 2008. A number of reasons were advanced for this dramatic decline: the saturation of subject coverage, the increase in rules associated with contributions, debates about appropriate content and viewpoints.
Indeed, Cornell’s own crowd-sourced open access repository, arXiv, experienced growing pains as it transformed from a free-wheeling repository to one in which a level of content vetting (requiring new contributors to be “sponsored”  by those who have already published in arXiv) was implemented.  A quick look at contributions to arXiv, however, indicate a steady increase in submissions year after year.  Some fields have flattened but remain steady, such as High Energy Physics, suggesting community saturation.  Others continue to grow dramatically, such as Math, suggesting a rapid adoption of arXiv by that community.  See the interesting graph at  The success of arXiv over  time is based in large part on serving real needs of discrete communities beyond just contributing to the “common good.”  Similar commitments are found in volunteer communities that have shown steady interest in a particular topic, epoch, or genre, such as genealogists, Civil War buffs, birders, and  jazz historians.  Technologists have touted the power of crowd sourcing and focused on enabling technologies, including standardization, low barriers for contributing, interoperability, the power of killer aps.  But equally important is sustaining the interest of participants over long time frames and compensating for inevitable ebbs and flows.  That’s where libraries will continue to play a vital role as protectors and purveyors of the scholarly, cultural, and scientific record even as they reach out to engage communities of interest.