4 July 2009

why even the future needs librarians

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 7:59 pm by Andromeda

So I was watching the new Star Trek movie and… (bear with me here).

At the end of the movie, offstage, we’ve got 10000 Vulcans on some colony, bereft of their planet, trying to rebuild their culture. And what’s one of the first things they’re going to do? Re-establish libraries. And hand out research grants to anyone who wants to fly around the galaxy combing libraries and archives and museums for vestiges of Vulcan culture. (Because, come on. Even the ten thousand Vulcans remaining are sure to be ludicrously wealthy, due to their skills with Science, and the Banking System of the Future has to be massively distributed, or it’d be incompatible with widespread spaceflight. They’ve still got access to their cash.)

So why (I think to myself) do they not sit at their awesome future computers, with their faster-than-light internet and digital libraries, rather than handing out all these research grants to people, going on long trips to interact with physical objects?

Well, they do that too, of course. But the future — while it may boldly go where no one has gone before, having toppled racial and species barriers — has probably not toppled bureaucracy, and funding shortages, and backlogs. Museums which have five copies of something have only gotten around to digitizing (or uploading) one, because they have more pressing things to do than be comprehensive, and it’s probably one of the other four that has some marginalia of suddenly crucial importance. Or they’ve digitized (and uploaded) all five, but it’s in some cruddy format that’s hard to search, like today’s jpgs of pages of text, or utterly obsolete. Or they had enough cheap interns from Starfleet Library School to get everything online in whatever the cutting-edge format is, but their indexing systems can’t keep up. Or weren’t designed for the kind of queries that a nearly-extinct civilization on a sudden cultural heritage binge is going to generate. (Because, seriously, what are those? I can’t even imagine.)

Doubtless I’m projecting the present too much into the future here. Maybe the future has robots that digitize everything for you, and seamlessly cross-platform file types, and automatic indexing so perfect that unicorns and rainbows pour forth from the servers.

And yet…I doubt it. I doubt that even the Gene Roddenberry utopia is free from everyday logistical constraints.

And even if it is, in the present, those everyday logistical constraints are hard. And indexing is desperately hard, and even more desperately underappreciated. You can’t connect people with information if you don’t have findability, per the Peter Morville book whence my tagline comes. And one of the best tools for bridging that findability gap is between our ears. (Even if they aren’t pointy.)