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.

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