Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The decline and fall of everything, again

"The democratic youth ... lives along day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him, at one time drinking and listening to the flute, at another downing water and reducing, now practicing gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything..." -
Plato, The Republic

Nicolas Carr, in The Atlantic this month, asks "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" For those who want more anecdotes and photographs of privileged children to accompany this query, we have a spin-off piece in the New York Times.

Both of these pieces, although they muddle the issue, are concerned about a transition from knowledge to information. Carr even implies, citing Socrates, that the invention of writing may have moved us from wisdom to knowledge, and that our decline has been on an even longer trajectory. Now, for both of these articles, the central concern is that the Web (including search engines, fanfic, and social networking sites) has shortened our attention spans at a fundamental cognitive level.

I'm not that worried. There are two potential trends that I think these pieces skip over, both of which I think librarians can help move in a positive direction.

My first unaddressed concern - and here I do in part agree with the narrative of decline - is the pervasive commercialism that comes with getting all of one's information online. Carr does talk about the incentives Google has for getting us to visit as many different sites as possible, but neither article addresses the omnipresence of advertising on most websites.
One of the huge advantages of real books, and of the libraries that contain them, is that they are one of the few places left in America where no one is trying to get us to buy anything - persuade us of an idea, perhaps, but not actually to acquire consumer goods for cash (or credit). Librarians do our best to build collections that are free from a commercial agenda, and so libraries are a wonderful example of the "third place," and the books in them are a medium that is purely about content - the information, argument, and art. This might be a point of outreach.

As a counter to the narrative of decline, there's a technological hope for long-form reading - the Kindle. I haven't gotten a chance to experiment with one yet, but this is its primary selling point - an ability, unique among electronic devices, to induce "ludic reading." Some people have asked why we need a fancy, expensive device when paper and ink do this perfectly well, but maybe the answer is that it will draw in new readers who are simply used to screens. Technology might be shifting our emphasis to one kind of thinking, but the Kindle is a new technology that might shift it back.

Friday, July 25, 2008

librarian = l33t

For months, whenever someone has asked me what Second Life is, I've replied, "It's like World of Warcraft, only you don't get to kill people."

But now, librarians can join an immersive world worthy of the name. Catalog that, n00bs!

In all seriousness, I genuinely don't understand the appeal of Second Life, and Google's new Lively looks even worse. Without some kind of narrative or shared understanding of the virtual world, as WoW has, it just seems mundane, and therefore pointless. San Jose State, for example, has an SL campus, but I don't see what advantage that has over class videoconferencing in something like OPAL or Elluminate. Why would I use a fanciful avatar to communicate professionally? If I'm indulging in fantasy, I want high fantasy. Props to Libraryman for bringing it.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

"Reading on a Dream"

Personally, I blame this on "Once More with Feeling."

What I'd like to know is - how the heck do you get so many students to use the library???

(According to the YouTube commentariat, this was filmed in Columbia's Butler Library, so the answer might be "Be in the Ivy League.")

Preserving Scholarship

Campus Technology has a great interview with Michael Keller of Stanford University Libraries on archival digital librarianship - how libraries can and must preserve the past by both creating digital copies of historical documents and by maintaining born-digital documents.

It's that second category that has a lot of really interesting possibilities. I wonder if one possibility for outreach by academic libraries is to graduate students and faculty on how to back-up and archive their own work, possibly in conjunction with IT departments. I know, for example, that my own dissertation data is in data analysis program format that's already one release behind.

And it's data we should be worried about archiving and releasing. While faculty may have mixed reactions about releasing their articles as open access, there are strong, important scientific norms about providing access to data sets, so it's relatively easy to start with them - but it's also more important. Anyone can just save their article as a .txt file and preserve the sense of it in a universally readable format. (Math-heavy articles are an exception, but those scholars have largely made the move to open source LaTex, which I expect will be accessible for years to come.) Datasets, however, need special handling to be usable into the future, and the files can get much, much larger, making them challenging. They seem like a good starting place for institutional repositories when faculty are reluctant.
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Libri & Libertas: Books & Freedom in a Web 2.0 World by Laura H. Wimberley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - Share Alike 3.0 United States License.