20 February 2010
Here I am at the Past’s Digital Presence conference at Yale (gorgeous campus, wonderfully multidisciplinary crowd). One of this morning’s sessions apparently had a lively debate on Google Books — I say “apparently” because I was not at it but ah, the magic of Twitter. I had a thought on it at the time but it really didn’t compress well into 140 characters (oft-revised, failed attempt).
So here’s the story as I got it from the fragments: a flap covering up a scandalous part of a circa-1900 book is not in the Google-digitized version; the original text is revealed. (Why? Flap treated by Google as unimportant, or as an impediment? After a century of use the flap fell off? Who knows?)
Which got me to thinking about the revealed (implicit? explicit?) choice here: that the text of the book — in contrast to its history or context — is the important thing to be preserved, possibly the whole of its value.
Which is, I think, an easy assumption to have as we swim in streams of digital texts, streams where “platform-independent” is a good thing, streams where content and presentation layers can be separate (and that’s a good thing too). Indeed, digital texts can seem not to have a history, in that they do not tend to accumulate visually apparent marks of their use, and often the marks they do accumulate require special technical skills to see. (And when they do accumulate obvious history it can badly break paradigms — what was that controversy the other year when revision-history information in a Word document revealed classified information? People’s surprise indicates that they had a paradigm which was broken. Similarly, things like CommentPress or Copia or Sidewiki or Wikipedia, which make histories and marginalia obvious, are striking in part because of that feature.)
All of which is to say: we have a blind spot for the non-textual content of books; we tend to think that the textual content is the content. And I wonder if Google thought about this when doing Books. And I wonder if their blind spot is more severe than the norm, as I expect Googlers’ text consumption patterns are even more geared toward the digital than everybody else’s these days.
My cryptic notes tell me that somehow this issue came up in a talk on digital curation afterward, but alas, they are too cryptic for my current caffeine level…
3 February 2010
I promised a meatier post on Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s post, so here we go…
* I think Andy is very much right that people are the future. Surely one of the big lessons of the Internet in general and web 2.0 in particular is that people are the killer app — technology that lets us interact with data is great, but technology that lets us interact with data and people wins every time. And addicts us like nobody’s business. And pushes us over qualitative, emergent-behavior boundaries, where new ways to communicate mean newly organized patterns and possibilities of interaction.
* And I’m with @librarythingtim that libraries are and must be changing; “If libraries end up as a way for rich people to indulge children on a visit to a big city—what carriages mean today—well, crap! How did that happen?!” and I, too, “hope people use [Bivens-Tatum’s] essay as a way to “kick it up a notch” intellectually, get past the small stuff…”
The thing that works for me most (among many working things!) about Bivens-Tatum’s post is the point that it’s not about that small stuff. The Future of Libraries isn’t Facebook or SMS reference or what-have-you. The specific technology is, if you will, Plato’s shadows on the wall — specific manifestations of much larger ideas.
The Future represented by this technology, to me, isn’t any one platform; it’s big ideas like democratization of content creation, self-publishing and the attendant opportunity for important voices to come from unexpected and perhaps non-privileged corners, the possibility for people to connect across boundaries — geographic, political, social, corporate — and create their own dialogue that poses challenges to all those boundaries, long tails and finding your tribes far away (but maybe not nearby), remixes, reallocations of power, ubiquitous metadata.
There’s a value to ephemeral technology; we do need to be where our users are right now, and that can change. But there’s a long view here. How do our interactions with, our adoptions of, technology affect our ability to participate in a broadening discourse? to facilitate content creation and remixing? to give voice to the historically disempowered? to pose, and help others pose, questions about the validity and use of those boundaries? to accept that it’s harder and harder to be gatekeepers in a world of broadening access and increasing expectations of access (which I for one think is a good thing) and find ways to facilitate and guide (…while still remembering, and reminding, that there is information kept tightly behind gates, and sometimes it’s the information a discourse needs)?
Specific technologies are manifestations of the principles that guide an emerging future. Those principles are still being digested and determined by cultural mechanisms; cultures, like libraries, seldom change overnight. Me, right now? You can pry my WordPress and Twitter and Google from my cold dead hands — until, perhaps, you softly and gently supercede it, like Mosaic over Lynx, like web interfaces over scp and ftp, like, well, Google over Yahoo in a revelatory moment circa 1998; I’ll try to cling to principles.
[*] The title? From, of course, the top Google hits for “is the future”. I’m a fan of robots myself. (But not, you know, creepy sex robots. I vote against library adoption of this emerging technology. Thanks.)
Am reading through Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s justly hyped post on the future of libraries and quoting it at everyone I know. The husband responds,
The future of libraries is as brain-slug repositories. I know; I’ve been there, I’ve heard the hungry mewling of their larvae, heavy with absorbed books, groping damply for unwary patrons. The future of libraries? They do not fear fire; bring a sword.
Man, there are reasons I love that guy.
2 February 2010
One of the things that I’ve been wondering (e.g. in re my last post on serials subscription economics) is how this rent v. own dichotomy for books is going to play out.
Because the fact that e-resources subscriptions are like renting, not like owning, is very salient to librarians, and was not obvious to some of my non-librarian friends — but it will be. Because we are all eBook owners now*, so people are tripping over this issue more and more. The inability to lend his electronic library really bugs my friend John, and the related DRM issues really bug another, famous John.**
This seems to me like a good thing because what we really need is not so much a set of policies as a cultural consensus — what does it mean to purchase, to access, a book? How does intellectual property interact with ownership, copying, access, all those strange things that are constrained differently when property is physical? What do, and what should, we expect in terms of our interactions with electronic resources? Those strike me as questions that can’t be answered inside institutions, can’t be answered until they’re crowdsourced, munched on by the slow machinery of culture until new paradigms emerge.
[*] In point of fact I’m not. Come back to me when there’s something with both eInk and good PDF support, including annotations. Or when you feel like giving me one for free.
[**] Sorry, John-that-I-know. When your robot army crushes the world beneath its overlordly boot, you, too, will be famous.