January 2, 2008
As much as I enjoy new technologies, I still appreciate the older stuff. If not for the creative energy of the people who came before us, we wouldn’t be as well off today. It’s like the old adage attributed to Isaac Newton: We see farther because we stand on the shoulders of giants.
Joseph Janes’ column in the new issue of American Libraries (January/February, 2008) prompted me along these lines today. He used the old National Union Catalog as an example. For twenty years, it was an invaluable resource. Does anyone use it now? I barely remember seeing it in the basement stacks when I was in college. It’s been replaced by WorldCat, a vast improvement. But each new tool builds on the concepts, if not the technology, of its predecessors.
In my online database classes I hold up an old green copy of the 1990 Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature before delving into the much more interactive sources available online today. It illustrates how far we’ve come in a very short time.
Janes offers two reasons to keep the old works in mind. I’d call them Perspective and Context.
- Perspective is the humbling reminder that “everything ends.” The latest tool always looks great, but don’t expect it to last forever. Even the Next Great Thing will end someday, too.
- Context. Here’s Janes speaking of the Union Catalog:
“Even though this behemoth had a comparatively brief run, it was useful and we learned from it and moved on. It represents a milestone on our path of innovation and development, which, in the end, is what matters.”
It’s context that motivates me to read history as often as I do. (I even enjoy the history of science – a discipline whose current theories almost always obliterate their predecessors.)
We have no idea where our current tools will lead us, but we may be certain that they — like the behemoths of Library 1.0 — will become obsolete one day. “All tools end,” Janes says. “The path remains.” I think it’s the context that lets us know where to post the “You Are Here” signs on that path as we move forward with the Library 2.0 world.
October 21, 2007
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.