Saturday, July 16, 2011

The book as 'good'

Something that no doubt goes through every student researcher's mind is the idea that, quite possibly, their apparently novel concepts and lines of inquiry are actually already common currency. It was interesting then to read another article by Harvard librarian Robert Darnton that made the rounds in the office recently. The article in question is 5 Myths About the 'Information Age' (featured awhile back in The Chronicle of Higher Education). I'm not going to fill space discussing these five 'myths' per se - feel free to read the article yourself - but rather draw out a couple dominant themes that emerge from between the lines, which seem pertinent to a discussion on the future of libraries.

So what's a book for these days? Some things have changed and some things haven't. People, I believe, like to call it the 'Information Age' because, first, there's a lot more of it (though that growth trend prevailed long before the Internet) and, second, the way we access it and share it is a little different. I'm yet to do quantitative analysis on library mission statements, but I'm assuming that the word 'information' is usually in there somewhere, along with various indicators that such information is to be disseminated, shared, promoted and so on.

So what's a book for these days? Does it contain information? Sure. Is it the best means of learning and information transfer that we have at our disposal? Probably not. It's part of a mix. For anyone who read the special report on the future of the news media in last week's Economist, it will seem a very tenuous argument indeed to suggest that something that is printed and published, even when peer-reviewed, inherently holds more value than something even as apparently inconsequential as a Twitter feed. Why? In all sectors we are seeing the ascendancy of local knowledge.

An example I read about recently: an academic, published analysis of insurgency didn't turn things around for US forces in Iraq - the field manual that was eventually put together by David Petraeus required individual experience on the ground (and, thinking back to my last post, it required both significant elements outside of the US Army, along with dissenting officers within it), and some of the best insights and commentaries on the topic were first disseminated via email. Going back to Twitter, entire news articles were written around IT consultant Sohaib Athar's Twitter feed from Abottabad during the Osama Bin Laden raid.

The most important information out there is not in a book. Where is it? It exists in a state that Darnton's analysis of the information age doesn't mention at all: born-digital, often accessed via portable devices. The average person may actually be reading more now than they ever have before (I can't prove that, but I would be interested to know), it's just that they may not be reading books. There's a CEO in Spain who over the last 6 years has closed down 200 print publications and switched all his company's efforts to Internet advertising - the results seem to indicate that when he says "Paper has no future, it's in mobile applications," he's probably right.

For my part, I would enjoy the opportunity to be able to use my university library, it's just not relevant to the work I do anymore. I'm not the only one: there is an entire digital economy populated by individuals who will never (and indeed probably shouldn't) read a book on their field. Books are useful in certain contexts, they just move at a different pace. One medium isn't inherently better than another, but to shut out the emerging information patterns that exist in the world around us cannot be a positive step for the healthy future of libraries as engaged and relevant spaces.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The significance of the edge

Kurt Vonnegut said: "I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center." Now, people who know me pretty well will know that I've been listening for awhile to a show called The Bhangra Mixtape put together by a DJ named Sonnyji. Why do I enjoy this show so much? In a nutshell, for two hours each week through a live set, Sonnyji starts from the eponymous Punjabi Bhangra music of the show's title and sallies forth into Hip Hop, House, Techno, Drum and Base and musical styles the world over. At first the experience can be a little jarring, but you come to relish the twists and turns which can be both humourous and, mostly, illuminating. And this is why I find the Mixtape so interesting - it's a truly experimental space that has changed the way I listen to music, by forcibly removing me from my comfort zone as each transition pulls away the proverbial rug. There's a musical dialogue going on here, obviously appealing to a wide demographic; you get the sensation of having experienced something new and therefore of having learned something new.

If this example seems out of context for a thesis on the future of libraries, that's really the point. When tackling questions surrounding the future of organisations and the roles within them, it seems unlikely that you'll make much progress by only asking those who already occupy positions within that organisation. There is always a comfort zone, and it may not be helping; better then to step outside of it in order to appreciate its true function and the actual relationships that can make or break said organisation. It would seem that these relationships are best explored by actually engaging external stakeholders in a dialogue.

I mentioned before the 'larger picture' of political, economic, social and technological interdependency and this method of interrogation is already quite common, known as PEST analysis (or PESTLE, if you wish to add legal and environmental considerations) which identifies the above macroenvironmental factors for strategic management purposes. In examining relationships, you find a mutual exchange, with the greatest benefit from the point of view of a cultural heritage instution being that the acknowledgement of their actual role in national and international society can reveal what works, what doesn't and where an institution is heading in its development. An obvious question then is: can a library that doesn't engage in digital iniatives honestly claim that it is still fulfilling its mission statement?

A few days ago, during the public sector strike in the UK, I was walking past the British Library where PCS union members were manning the picket line. On the leaflet that one of them gave me was plug for a petition to 'save our cultural assets', launched through the PCS at the end of September last year. Once I had added my signature I was taken aback to learn that I was only the 543rd person to sign since the petition was launched 9 months ago. I wondered why an apparently high-profile campaign would fall so flat? This is pure speculation, but the cultural heritage sector feels isolated. It's incredibly hazardous to venture a definition of culture, but the days of powerful yet discrete cultural insitutions existing for a common good seem long gone. Continuing to subscribe to such notions only make the sector an easy target, lacking as it often is in a cohesive or informed voice for its true relevance.