Sunday, February 24, 2008

Archiving and Paper

(rare glimpse of sunshine)

So this weekend I finally got caught up on reading some newspapers that had been creating a fire hazard in the apartment. And I read a letter in the New York Times Sunday Business section from last week (Feb. 17) that I found really interesting. The letter is responding to this article about the paperless home. I'm not sure you can see the pictures in the online version of the article, but the images showed these really sterile, unrealistic-looking living spaces. All screens and gadgets, with the bookshelves empty. Who knows why they even included the bookshelves really. When I saw the pictures, my (predictable librarian) response was sort of "yeah, right," and I kept moving, but the couple of letters the Business section got were really interesting.

In particular the one by Jonathan Spira, which you can read on the NYT link above or as copied below:

"To the Editor:
The article provided an excellent look on the move to digitization, but the elephant in the room is a compatibility conundrum that has been with us since days of the first computer.
Books printed hundreds of years ago are accessible without any special equipment. Contrast this with millions of files on obsolete diskettes and tape cartridges.
One might presume that the technology revolution of the late 20th century has increased our ability to preserve our history and cultural artifacts. In actuality, we have failed.
Moving all of our papers to digital form without a plan to ensure accessibility not only five years from now but also 100 years and beyond is not making information more accessible but risking that it will become less accessible."

OK, I'm excited about this for two reasons:
1) This guy does not seem to be a librarian -- in fact the byline says he's chief executive and chief analyst at Basex, Inc., "A knowledge economy research firm." -- so he's coming from a place quite distant from Libraryland.
2) I've been thinking the same things.

SO IT'S NOT JUST ME (& other librarians).

For a long time now I've been concerned that libraries & librarians risk sounding behind the times, old-fashioned, irrelevant etc. etc. etc. when they voice opinions in this vein.

But even though I've been on essentially the same topic here for weeks now, I'll say it again:
Hooray for books.
Hooray for paper.
Hooray for physical items that do not require a technical intermediary.

The darker side to this, of course, is that maybe the few people who are aware of what's happening can't do anything to change it...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Access and Ownership

Yep, it's February

A few of my recent posts have been on the topic of books. I think the reason is this: Despite the usefulness of the web as an archive of information, there is still value and importance attached to a physical collection. What I mean is, there are lots of things I know and then forget, and when I want to retrieve them I use google. Then there are other things that I want to own, rather than just have access to.

A few examples: every time I want to make a certain recipe for pasta sauce, I can find that recipe online. But after a while I want that recipe printed or in a book on my shelf -- I don't want to have to rely on the computer for access to it. I can use every time I want to find a word's definition, but after a while I prefer a dictionary sitting on my shelves. Netflix is great to play movies instantly, but I still want my favorites on DVD. 

The main point here is that creators of content think they're doing everyone a favor by providing access to it online. And while they're right on one level, for some things ownership is preferable to access. Sometimes I don't want to have to request access to something from a third party. I just want to have it.

The thing is, I think consumers have been getting a sweet deal on content while we've been allowed to buy a copy of the work. Imagine -- a copy of a movie or piece of literature, and you really OWN it. You aren't just provided access to it -- you own it and can do whatever you want with it, within certain legal copyright restrictions. Where once the web threatened this model, the trend in online business (particularly with the big guys) now seems to be this: license limited, temporary online access to customers, and stay away from providing them with a copy they can own and distribute. 

But back to the place of libraries in all of this. Books and physical copies of materials are increasingly devalued. However, libraries have the responsibility to continue to collect physical copies so that when patrons or customers are denied access to them for whatever reason (money, servers, not being near a computer), they can still find and use the material. Yet on the other hand, libraries are also responsible for providing online access to all manner of materials for their patrons, and they risk becoming irrelevant if they focus exclusively on physical media. I seriously doubt that budgets will ever allow libraries to maintain both a complete physical collection and access to the range of expected content and services online. My cynical thought is that physical collections will thus be neglected in favor of access to online materials, and that private collections of physical things will replace libraries as repositories of artifacts. In bleakest of terms, this implies that by choosing short-term relevance, libraries would lose their long-term value. 

Sunday, February 10, 2008

More about Books

Foggy driving this week. I'm not sure I saw the sun, actually. 

I want to start by saying this: Having received my MSLIS from Syracuse University's iSchool, I was resigned to the idea that books were on their way out. I thought that for all practical purposes, everything in the future would be electronic, and books would be left in the dust. 

Now maybe this will still be true, but I also see signs of the opposite. For example, Slashdot has a book review section. In an online article in Smashing Magazine about web design, comments repeatedly refer to a book. Someone I know who's working on a Ph.D. in the sciences maintains a whole shelf of texts to refer to. 

I don't know why these things should hold my attention, except that part of me hopes that a book still has value to a fast-paced culture focused on the present and the disposable. Even digitized books may prove valuable more because they are searchable than because they are readable there. 
I know this is short, but I'm going to stop now before I start to sound stodgy. If it's not too late...

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Decentralizing Information

(photo by Julie Copenhagen)

Steve Jobs, in an article about the success of Amazon's Kindle, was recently quoted as saying "It doesn't matter how good or bad the product is; the fact is that people don't read anymore." I'm sure Jobs was referring in part to the National Endowment for the Arts 2007 study that outlines the decline of reading in America, but I find his statement sensational at best and false at worst. And I wonder if actually people read as much as they ever did, but not in the ways we've traditionally defined 'reading.' 

Because the picture is complicated by the fact that some people prefer to read books, some people prefer to read newspapers, others read news streamed to their personal devices, others read through web browsers, others read only what their friends send them on Facebook, and others read novels on their cell phones. Added together, this does not spell the end of reading, nor of reading for pleasure. It doesn't even spell the end of books. What it does mean is that an array of media types have to be understood and supported in order to connect to users who are more and more diverse in their reading habits. 

And what does this mean for libraries? Libraries are the ones with the responsibility for understanding and supporting patron habits regarding information. They are charged with supporting the expectations and needs of these users. 

And so far, librarians have been obsessed with the issue of format rather than delivery of services and content. But the only time a user cares about format is when it gets in the way of getting from Point A to Point B. 

What is more relevant to libraries than the alleged death of reading is this: thinking about information only in terms of its format is no longer effective or productive. The library has grown -- from being isolated in a building with a defined collection to having resources and a collection archived on the web in ADDITION to 'traditional' physical material on shelves. 

I really don't have a grand conclusion here -- I'm just trying to figure out how to serve library patrons most effectively. I'm sure I'll add to this thread in the coming weeks.