I am one of those that waxes reminiscent of the days of the corner book store and record store.  Those places that you could go to browse and talk to people about the authors and music that you love.  I complain abut the big box stores, the lack of service and the big piles of the latest top ten novel, but not the more obscure title that you’re looking for.  And don’t get me started about how the Amazon’s of the world are eating up every local independent.

Then comes along Spreadable Media to complicate things.  The discussion around services like Amazon as being the potential saviour of niche markets makes me rethink my disdain.  The idea that large online retailers or digital media distributors are helping sustain genres, creators and works that would otherwise become inaccessible and financially unsustainable is intriguing.  I wonder how much the jazz and classical audiences have grown because you can get that obscure CD that would never sell in the corner CD shop online.  I wonder if Steampunk would have become popular without the digital communication streams.  The idea that these special interests are supportable in a centralized digital world is intriguing.  As Tim O’Reilly reminded us a couple of days ago in a Tweet, “Big data is what happened when the cost of keeping information became less than the cost of throwing it away. – George Dyson.”  It is certainly cheaper to keep old titles in an Amazon warehouse than it is at the corner bookstore.  It is cheaper to digitize and send or print on demand than it is to have shelves full of a single title.

What does this mean to libraries?  We have operated on a model of scarcity for decades.  We weed, not simply because books become too dated to be of use, but because we need the space.  Digital copies eliminate (or drastically reduce) the space issue.  It becomes economically feasible to keep those old history books whose use might change but the books don’t become useless.  It might be possible to have every volume of an obscure science fiction series for the one person every five years who thinks it’s the greatest read ever.   In this paradigm, we value items in our collections for their use alone and don’t have to measure them against other issues like the cost of the space to maintain them.

Now this does miss an important attribute of the corner record shop or local library.  These spaces have people who have particular interests and tastes.  These interests and tastes are reflected in what is in the bins and on the shelves.  They come out in the conversations.  They are an embodiment of the niches that are given life support by the big online retailers.  Portland is known for Steampunk, not because there is something in the water supply that generate that particular sensibility, but because there are people who have the interest and many of them run clothing shops, book stores and DVD libraries.  They support the culture because it is something that they love.  It is the personal connections that support these niche markets, much more than any big online retailer could.  The difference is that the big online retailer has a much greater reach than the local shops and hangouts of Portland.  While there may be a critical mass to create a visible culture in Portland, there are far more people potentially exposed to these ideas by the big online retailer.

The local library has the same local affect.  There are people with interests that tend to impact the collection and love to discuss their interests with anyone who will engage them.  It is the face to face spreadability of ideas that makes the local library an exciting place to be.  It is the uncatalogued human resources that have the biggest value.

3 thoughts on “Spreadable Media – An Interaction – Part 5

  1. Thanks, Marc. This post raises a key point that I think can’t be lost…that trends of spreadability are not “online only”…of course, word of mouth and passalong and sharing media have long been a deep part of our culture…and also that many of these online trends connect deeply to “real life.”

    As an aside…that seeking out of really obscure titles is something, a decade ago, I leaned heavily on my library’s Interlibrary Loan department to be able to do. I wonder how such a position might morph to a “content detective” sort of role in the future…to help people navigate all the systems needed to find that obscure piece of work, online or off, that they’re looking for…and to help them gain access to it. That is still a specialized skill that can become even more daunting as the amount of information to sift through ever grows…

  2. I still use ILL! There are just some things that aren’t digitized or are cheaper or easier to access physically from a remote library. There are still folks at your local library who’s entire life is built around answering these questions and getting you matched up with the information you need. These are your friendly Reference Librarians. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be as happy a lot as they once were as people are happy to rely on the top page of results on Google. But for the more obscure pieces of information, they are a god-send!

    Your point about this sharing of knowledge and media as being a long standing part of our culture is one of the things that I’ve liked most about your book. There is nothing new in the basic concepts of spreadability. What is new is the technology that we use to do the sharing and the scale that the sharing is being done on.

  3. Agreed, Marc. And I think ILL is still a godsend. Too often in my research, I can find reference to things online that aren’t otherwise available OR in my library or one of the databases it owns. These content detectives remain the professionals who help us find what we’re looking for. I’m of the stern belief that one of the few things I wish everyone came out of college with was a passion for finding information about something they care about…You can’t teach the passion, but you can help people discover it. And I think it’s an aspect of intellectual life all of us could have. My father has it for genealogy, for instance…myself for academic research projects. But that determination to find information and not give up until you do…and to be skeptical and seek out the truth in relation to something you’ve heard…gets at the heart, I think, of what it means to be a citizen in a digital age.

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