Archive for the ‘library technology’ Category

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Something is the Future

Wayne Bivens-Tatum, a Princeton librarian and blogger, wrote an excellent post, called “Nothing is the Future.” It attacks a certain sort of insipid library futurism—and is going all over the “Twittersphere”:

The kindest interpretation of statements like “the future is mobile” or “the future of reference is SMS” or “the future is librarians in pods” or whatever is that the librarians are trying to create that future by speaking it. The incantation will somehow make it so…. The less kind interpretation is that the authors of such statements are reductionist promoters, reducing a complex field to whatever marginal utility they’re focused on and claiming that this is the future, while simultaneously promoting themselves as seers.

The obvious and most likely statement is that nothing is the future, as in no thing is the future, period. Anyone who tells you different is just plain wrong. With technology, it should be clear to anyone who bothers to see past their obsessions that formats and tools die hard. Some people like to imply that if librarians don’t take up every new trend they’ll become like buggy whip makers. I should point out that there are still people who make buggy whips. Buggy whips aren’t as popular as they once were, but they’re still around. There are even buggies to accompany them.

I started to reply in comments, but my words added up. So here they are:

Though a purveyor of “Web 2.0” ideas—I founded LibraryThing, what can I say?—I think it’s a great post.

The rhetoric you describe rings true. It starts, I think, from the popularizers and enthusiasts who take up new technologies and communicate them to the great mass of librarians whose life revolves around other things. To get through the clutter—to be one of the things you take back from a weekend of ALA or PLA talks—the message is simplified and the rhetoric ratchets up. “This is useful” loses out to “this will save you.” As it passes through libraryland the cycle repeats in spirals of simplification and amplification. Over and over I see broader intellectual discussions of technology and the future of libraries reduced to trivial and ephemeral exhortations like “every library needs to be on Meebo!” or “the future is SMS!”

It’s depressing, but it’s not unique to library technology. You see it in other trends, like “green libraries” (they’re the future, didn’t you get the memo?). It’s in the dynamics of communication. Your post is a good corrective to it.

At the same time, you’re missing something. I don’t know if you’re missing it for real, or just in this focused expression. But there’s a powerful “yes but” here, and it needs saying—shouting even!—lest people take the wrong thing from your post.

For all the nonsense and hype, librares are subject to an extraordinary and rapid cultural change. They have already changed drastically—especially if “libraries” means what libraries mean to culture generally, and people who don’t work in them.

Libraries are in the “information business” and this business is in one of the most profound transformations in human history. This isn’t buggies vs. Stanley Steamers—different ways of getting to the habberdasher. It’s horse-and-buggy culture vs. everything the car has brought—mass production, suburban living, the Blitzkreig, the global economy, global warming and the sexual revolution. Certainly, as you say, carriges continue to exist as objects that convey people, but their meaning has been utterly transformed. 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?!

The world is changing, and for all the noise about this or that technology, I don’t think libraries are dealing with it squarely. (Forget Web 2.0; libraries haven’t really ingested Web 1.0 yet.) “The future is X” isn’t the best response to that change, but it’s a response.

I expect your post will get wide circulation. It says something that hasn’t been said before as well. But if it prompts librarians to dismiss technology’s impact on the future of libraries, it will do great harm. Instead, I hope people use your essay as a way to “kick it up a notch” intellectually, get past the small stuff and confront the very real changes ahead.

PS: By the way, LibraryThing is releasing a universal mobile catalog. It’s the future. No, really! 🙂

Labels: library technology, LIS