A recent post here reminded me of studying the history of copyright in library school. The origins of copyright can be seen as a three-way tug of war among businesses, the public, and the government.
I think this tension also exists currently in the modern networked marketplace. It seems applicable to content that is published digitally, for example. Publishers see an avenue for reducing costs, but there is a problem with the lack of control over digital content. So, publishers invent new controls to preserve their business. While that is going on, the public happily embraces online content, but by and large resists the new controls. Government, meanwhile, treads the fine line of creating rules both to give the public what it wants (cheap stuff, easy access) while encouraging profitable business.
As with copyright, librarians are somewhat stuck in the middle of digital publishing. We generally don't want to be lackeys for business, and tend toward supporting the public, but libraries are frequently supported by governments. It's an interesting vantage point.
Something slotted into place for me last week, perhaps prompted by this article and this Amazon page. Suddenly I caught a glimpse of where this crazy information world is going:
We're all going to have our own personal libraries in the cloud that we can access anywhere and at any time. This portable collection can be built over a lifetime. It is not format or device-specific, but instead is compatible with multiple platforms and hardware.
All we're waiting for is ubiquitous connectivity (for when we don't have the object we need on hand), and many people already have that, almost -- you can see them becoming disoriented when they wander out of signal range.
While this type of collection seems very possible, I doubt it will be free, and that is where libraries can come in. What we need are digital objects that will self-destruct after a set amount of time. When certain objects (copies of a digital original) reach a set expiration date, they can disappear -- from all locations except the original. Is it naive to imagine something like this, with libraries still part of the picture? I can easily imagine appreciating a temporary, loaned digital object as a user, because I wouldn't want just anything included in my personal floating library, even if it were possible.
Or has this ship passed libraries by? I notice that the word 'library' in certain contexts means something different from what it used to. And when the word library is brought up in a media-related conversation, it often means an individual, customized collection of digital objects. Maybe the future is already here.
I was glad to see a recent New Yorker article confirming what I have begun to suspect: It's difficult to calculate the cost-benefits of customer service. I worry about this because I spend a lot of my time assisting people as they try to use the library. I work really hard at this, and I think I do a good job, but I'm not sure I could demonstrate the tangible benefit of what I do.
It's true the library collects reference statistics, and so I have a lot of numbers at my fingertips that reflect the types and volume of problems we handle, but translating those into student success is tough. Should I be counting the number of enthusiastic 'thank-yous' I get every week? Should I try and get the name of every person I help so that I can track their subsequent achievement? (Yikes.)
The fact that librarianship is a a service-oriented profession is a source of pride for many in the field. But the bulk of an academic library's beneficiaries are students, and on a campus they are an ever-shifting population. This means that unless we establish long-standing relationships, it is difficult to call upon them when we need support.
I can understand that people accountable for money don't like messy calculations. However, it's hard to quantify -- never mind take exclusive credit for -- a student who has a wonderful experience when helped by a librarian, who goes on to write a stellar paper, and who stays in school instead of dropping out.
This is almost as difficult as justifying the benefit of a library building and collection. Many people have an intuitive sense that a library is valuable, and that service at the library is also valuable, but I worry about how to demonstrate that value in black and white. The public image of a library is great -- libraries are generally viewed as a social good -- but I'm concerned that in the future we'll have to do more than hide behind that.
(For further reading, here is a post on a similar topic at greater length, in the context of special collections.)
I notice a lot of nostalgia floating around out there for printed materials. I would understand if it was just librarians, whose ways of organizing things are being wrecked, but it's also from educators and downright technophiles (see The Shallows). I understand this, I really do. And there are plenty of instances where I too prefer a printed book. Then again, I'd rather not forget that our recent escape from being dependent on the printed page -- despite print's many advantages such as The Focused Concentration! The One-On-One Dialogue that a printed book permits! The ability to Spill Coffee on a printed object and still have it function! -- is something to celebrate.
We are moving away from a world where print sufficed for many things but wasn't ideal, into one where we can use it for some things but don't have to for others. (Learning how to pronounce a foreign language? Looking for lyrics to a song? Hooray for not being limited to a print world!)
As with many discussions, it's tempting to turn the conversation about printed materials into a simplistic pro/con debate, and although the situation is complex, I've caught myself wanting to commit firmly to either printed books or an e-reader and be done with it.
But right now there are certain situations where print is still superior, and perhaps it's important to identify which situations those are so we can move forward from there, instead of feeling we're losing something by not printing the vast quantities of junk that used to appear in book form. Instead of waiting for printing, binding, and delivery, we can now choose to bestow printed status only on certain things. When we want to focus, when we don't want to multi-tast or socialize, we print the thing. And skimming -- which, let's be honest, is a valuable skill for many serious readers -- is now easier than ever.
This last is where e-readers are getting things wrong as they attempt to replace printed books: They forget that the main benefit of a printed book is the ability to do a close, sustained, uninterrupted reading. (Also, my personal gripe is that e-readers are not durable. I buy a book, read it, and there's the chance that I can sell it or swap it with someone else. I buy a Kindle, use it, get sand in its buttons, and nobody wants to take it off my hands.)
We find ourselves at the point where the consequence of printing something is an elevation of the content being printed. Spending the energy on putting something into a printed format lends it importance. The question is, how often does that need to happen? Most writers like to think that their work is worth printing and putting into a book so that an audience can devote sustained attention to it, but now they face a filtering layer of the online world. Suddenly there might be less need to expand an idea of dubious consequence into an entire book.
Which I think is a good place to end for the week...