Digital information doesn’t need a shelf

Last week I responded to a video that Michael Wesch and his cultural anthropology students recently posted on YouTube. I also mentioned another video without much comment because I hadn’t quite digested it yet. Now that I have, I’d argue that it is more significant than the first.

Without spoken words, Information R/evolution examines the remarkable transformation that our whole notion of information is undergoing within today’s digital technology. Information is the foundation of libraries. A library is a place to access and interpret information. Always was. The perception of a library as a warehouse of books is — like it or not — false. It’s just that information was once stored almost exclusively in books. That’s not true any more. Information is now delivered in many ways, with digital formats growing exponentially. Libraries are adapting by providing digital online resources and portable devices.

But as we move to more digital formats, libraries must also be aware of even more dramatic changes taking place in the way information is organized. Three-dimensional objects (i.e., books) get cataloged and placed on a shelf in a specific place. Pure digital information, however, is fluid and finds itself at home anywhere. There’s no single specific place for it. There’s no shelf. And there is a declining reliance on a single rigid authority to decide “where” its homes might be. Future categorization will be a flexible collaborative activity.

This strikes at our basic concept of information. Libraries are in the information business; we should be prepared for this shift. Clay Shirky (“Ontology is Overrated”) and David Weinberger (“Everything is Miscellaneous”) — both of whom are mentioned in the video — told us about this trend in recent years. The power of organizing information with tags on social websites has made the trend obvious.

Dr. Wesch’s fast-paced video is about giving up the shelf. That is an extremely difficult concept for those of us whose brains were wired pre-Internet. But the fact is, our brains are naturally wired this way. Mentally, we put our thoughts not in one place but in multiple places. We carry ideas in our heads not on a shelf but connected to other ideas … and experiences … and hunches. It’s the nature of information to be miscellaneous, connected in countless ways, and always subject to review.

Watch the video. Whether the idea excites or frightens you, digital information doesn’t need a shelf.

2 Responses to Digital information doesn’t need a shelf

  1. Memo Cordova says:

    Great title for a post, Steve. I’d put that on a bumper sticker🙂 I watched this video, then I watched his previous one, and thinking about both I came away with the distinct notion that we’re still grappling with notions so new (digital spaces, virtual self) and inherently personal (our chaotic yet sensible-to-me mental juggling we experience on a daily basis) that our ability to consume information, and of how we think about it too, is not only being challenged but is being radically changed even as we speak.

    This kinds of videos certainly put a brake on the notion of “it’s too much and too fast!” and allows us to pause and ponder the wonder of it all.

  2. Steve Campion says:

    You’re absolutely right about the pause and ponder aspect, Memo. We often get bogged down in the details of what we’re doing. We need something like this to pull back and think of the bigger picture; see the tide and not just the lapping waves.

    Regarding the “notions so new”: It’s a challenge keeping up on changes to the way information is handled, stored, consumed, etc. Libraries have to accept that challenge, though. It’s difficult and chaotic but it ‘ll keep us on our toes!

    [Bumper sticker, huh?]

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