The Future of the Library: From Electric Media to Digital Media
Robert K. Logan and Marshall McLuhan
Chapter 1 – The Library: The Physical Extension of Man’s Memory (Mother of the Muses) — A Study in Media
User as Content (pp. 12-13)
The cognitive agent is and becomes the thing known. — Aristotle
The twelfth-century German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote ‘A book is a mirror; when a jackass looks into it he does not see St. Paul looking back.” The eminent librarian Jesse Shera expressed a similar sentiment.
A book is a “container for things contained” yet what that thing may be dependent upon him who reads. For the author the book is the physical embodiment of that he thought he put theme, but to the reader its content is a variable. (1971, p.21)
Both the physicist and the librarian are making the same point, namely, the user is the content. This insight into the nature of the book applies to all media, including the library. The content of a library, paradoxically is not its books but its users, as a recent study of the use of campus libraries by university faculty revealed. it was found that the dominant criterion for selection of a library was the geographical proximity of the library to the professor’s office. The depth of the collection in research’s field was not as important a criterion as convenience (Dougherty & Blomquist, 1971, pp. 64-65). The research was able to convert the nearest library into a research facility that met his needs. In other words, the content of this conveniently located facility was its user. Any library can be converted from the facility it was designed to be, into the facility the user wishes it to become. A library designed for research can be used for entertainment, and vice-versa. As we move into greater use of electronic media, the user of the library will change even more. As the user changes, so will the library’s content or the use to which the content of the library will be subjected. In other words, as the ground in which the library exists changes, so will the figure of the library. The nineteenth-century notion of the library storing basically twentieth-century material will have to cope with the needs of twenty-first century users.
What is key about these goals, however, is that they limit themselves to the user finding an entry in the catalog (albeit FRBR goes on to having the user obtain the item represented there). A study done by the University of Minnesota Libraries in 2006 (UMN 2006) took a much broader view of their users and user needs. They asked their faculty and graduate student users questions like “Where do you work when you are conducting research?” “How do you share source materials?” Just these two questions already reveal quite a lot: the librarians are not assuming that one conducts research in the library, and acknowledge that many people work in teams or groups that share resources among themselves. They also asked about library use: how often do these users visit the physical library, and how often do they visit the library web site, and what do they do there?
The authors of the report (who modestly remain anonymous) then developed a model to describe what they had learned. They borrowed the core of their model from a humanities researcher, John Unsworth
, who described the primitives of humanities research as discover
, and share
. Of these, only discover is usually seen as directly related to the library, and many, perhaps even most, discoveries take place outside of the library catalog. Yet if your view is that libraries support the research function, then all of these primitives could possibly have some interaction with the library. The share
primitive includes teaching, and the library may be directly connected to the course management system such that course materials are shared through library functions. The gather
function includes acquiring and organizing, which might mean library support of bibliographic tools. And the create
function could be supported through shared annotation tools, which could be especially important in those disciplines where research is done through collaborative work.
I was particularly struck by this passage because I keep a print out of UMN’s Model beside my desk where I work:
If one accepts Wilson’s statement that users wish to find the text that best suits their need, it would be hard to argue that libraries should not be trying to present the best texts to users. This, however, goes counter to the stated goal of the library catalog as that of bibliographic control, and when the topic of “best” is broached, one finds an element of neutrality fundamentalism that pervades some library thinking. This is of course irreconcilable with the fact that some of these same institutions pride themselves on their “readers’ services” that help readers find exactly the right book for them. The popularity of the readers’ advisory books of Nancy Pearl and social networks like Goodreads, where users share their evaluations of texts, show that there is a great interest on the part of library users and other readers to be pointed to “good books.” How users or reference librarians are supposed to identify the right books for them in a catalog that treats all resources neutrally is not addressed by cataloging theory.
Wilson’s analysis presages the search and retrieval capabilities of Internet search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo. He also writes that power of bibliography is greatest if it extends over the entire bibliographic universe, not just a single selection (one universal library as opposed to the local collection); that the user is better served the fewer retrieved items must be reviewed before satisfying the user’s request (as in targeted ranking); and that direct access to the text is a greater power than restrictive use (open access).
Due to the philosophical nature of the book, one has to tease out these brilliant ideas; they are not laid out as headlines or clear conclusions. Yet in the text Wilson may have laid out a new direction for libraries decades before those same principles were discovered by Internet entrepreneurs using new technologies. Imagine if Internet search engines had the same goals as library catalogs and designed their products to cater to only those users who came to the search box knowing either the title or the author of the document they were seeking.
Karen Coyle, The Model, FRBR Before and After.
“What difference would it make” is at the core of his philosophy, which was practical, or pragmatic, in its concern for what the consequences of a belief are rather than what its truth is. That is to say, most philosophy is geared toward finding out the existing condition of things. James focused instead on how beliefs shape the world. Rather than ask whether or not God existed, James might try to ascertain what difference belief in God would make to how you live your life or how a society conducts itself. What is the consequence of the belief, rather than the truth of it? It is a deeply American approach, directed toward the malleability rather than the immutability of the world, toward what we make of it, rather than what it is made of. This aspect of Jame’s philosophy is sometimes misinterpreted as a kind of easy solipsism akin to the contemporary New Age motion that we each create our reality (a crass way of overlooking culture, politics, and economics — that is, realities are made, but by groups, movements, ideologies, religions, societies, economics, and more, as well as natural forces, over long stretches of time, not by individuals alone).
Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disasters, 2009
Secondly, you’ve probably heard the term “singularity” or “technological singularity.” This term has been used in math to describe an asymptote-like situation where normal rules no longer apply. It’s been used in physics to describe a phenomenon like an infinitely small, dense black hole or the point we were all squished into right before the Big Bang. Again, situations where the usual rules don’t apply. In 1993, Vernor Vinge wrote a famous essay in which he applied the term to the moment in the future when our technology’s intelligence exceeds our own—a moment for him when life as we know it will be forever changed and normal rules will no longer apply. Ray Kurzweil then muddled things a bit by defining the singularity as the time when the Law of Accelerating Returns has reached such an extreme pace that technological progress is happening at a seemingly-infinite pace, and after which we’ll be living in a whole new world. I found that many of today’s AI thinkers have stopped using the term, and it’s confusing anyway, so I won’t use it much here (even though we’ll be focusing on that idea throughout).
The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence, Tim Urban, Wait but why
Following the scientific community’s lead in striving to describe the physical universe through observations, we adapted the concept of an observation into the bibliographic universe and assert that cataloging is a process of making observations on resources. Human or computational observers following institutional business rules (i.e., the terms, facts, definitions, and action assertions that represent constraints on an enterprise and on the things of interest to the enterprise)5 create resource descriptions — accounts or representations of a person, object, or event being drawn on by a person, group, institution, and so on, in pursuit of its interests.
Given this definition, a person (or a computation) operating from a business rules–generated institutional or personal point of view, and executing specified procedures (or algorithms) to do so, is an integral component of a resource description process (see figure 1). This process involves identifying a resource’s textual, graphical, acoustic, or other features and then classifying, making quality and fitness for purpose judgments, etc., on the resource. Knowing which institutional or individual points of view are being employed is essential when parties possessing multiple views on those resources describe cultural heritage resources. How multiple resource descriptions derived from multiple points of view are to be related to one another becomes a key theoretical issue with significant practical consequences.
Murray, R. J., & Tillett, B. B. (2011). Cataloging theory in search of graph theory and other ivory towers: Object: Cultural heritage resource description networks. Information Technology and Libraries, 30(4), 170-184.
GV: You mentioned “media archeology” and I was wondering if you’re referring to any of Shannon Mattern’s work…
RP: Well, she’s one of the smartest people in the world. What Shannon Mattern does that’s super-interesting is she teaches both urban space and she teaches libraries and archives. And it occurred to me after looking at her syllabi — and I know she’s thought about this a lot, but one model for thinking about archives in libraries — you know, Megan was the creator of the specialized taxonomy for this pace, but in a broader sense, collections are cities. You know, there’s neighborhoods of enclosure and openness. There’s areas of interchange. There’s a kind of morphology of growth which nobody’s really examined yet. But I think it’s a really productive metaphor for thinking about what the specialty archives have been and what they might be. [Mattern’s] work is leading in that position. She teaches a library in her class.
Situated Knowledges, Issue 3: Prelinger Library, Geogina Voss, Rick Prelinger and Megan Prelinger.
We live today with an abundance of “product”—there are more books than readers who want them, as evidenced by the copious piles on remainder racks at our bookstores. It wasn’t always thus, of course. Before the advent of printing, each copy was unique and there were few of them. Printing brought exact copies, but it also brought editions, as printers throughout Europe produced their own versions of texts. One European intellectual of the 1500s, Conrad Gessner, felt a need to gain some control over this tsunami of works; he set out to create a universal bibliography of all works in print, but not all of the various editions of the works. Gessner’s Bibliotheca Universalis was in part a response to what he saw as wasteful duplication among printers, and he hoped that a list of available works would lead them to concentrate on new works rather than reprinting works already on the market (Serrai and Serrai 2005). Here it can be said that Gessner obviously did not understand the economics of the book trade.
In my research I have not uncovered the tipping point that led library thinkers like Seymour Lubetzky and Eva Verona to take up the question of the work versus the edition. Yet somehow between the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, it appears that the number of different editions in libraries had become burdensome to users. Although it was still essential to distinguish between editions, it also became important to inform the user that a certain group of editions represented the same work. In just a little over one hundred years we had come full swing from presenting users solely with works, then solely with editions, to needing to gather editions back into their work groups.
Karen Coyle, FRBR, Before and After: The Work
Given the ongoing and increasing machinization of immaterial modes of production, an attention to the affective nature and labor of technology in life and work and the ways in which it also impacts human subjectivity and gender seems a fruitful new line of inquiry for feminist thinkers concerned with labor issues. If we take up a call to arms to think about life and work and the subjects we wish to become, how might new technologies enhance, augment, or limit our feminist political desires for subjectivities free from domination? In the context of the academic library, how does the disruption of the digital library allow us to rethink and revalorize the subjectivity of the librarian?
Sloniowski, Lisa. “Affective Labor, Resistance, and the Academic Librarian“, Library Trends, Vol. 64, No. 4, 2016 (“Reconfiguring Race, Gender, and Sexuality,” edited by Emily Drabinski and Patrick Keilty), pp. 645–666.