This post is cross-posted from Hypermarc.


Hyperlinked Libraries.  Digital spaces.  Social Media.  Jacked in.  I love this s@#*!

So why is the most fascinating part of Buckland’s deconstruction of library services involve paper?  It’s not because he wrote in a time when paper dominated.  We haven’t really progressed far from that in a lot of ways.  It’s certainly not because he was unaware or couldn’t consider the implications of the Automated and Electronic Libraries.  As I said in my last post, he speaks of these in a way that feel very familiar from a present day perspective.  I think that it’s because he is able to look at the basic nature of the Paper Library and get at everything important about the nature of libraries themselves.

He tells us that paper is a “localized medium.”  This is something that he explores repeatedly throughout the book.  This very aspect of libraries – the fact that they are physical entities that exist in a physical space – is likely the one biggest concept that libraries are wrestling with today.  We are fond of our book collections.  Anyone who has a love of libraries has fond memories (or maybe some scary ones too) of getting lost in the stacks.  Librarians, as Buckland points out, love spending – other people’s – money on cool books to add to their collection.  We measure our success by counting the number of items we have on our shelves and how many times they have passed through our security gates.  Without the physical entities of our books, shelves, rooms and buildings, how do we define ourselves?  I would venture to guess that many folks in the library world will never get beyond this basic question.

Paper, by it’s physical nature, can only be used by one person at a time.  If someone else has that copy of the newest John Green novel out, too bad.  You’ll have to wait.  Two people can’t share the same copy.  Paper also is harder to duplicate than digital.  These are aspects of paper that the media industries like.  They can attempt to control physical entities and manage their business paradigm based on copies sold.  They get bent out of shape when people make copies of CDs and DVDs.  Books, thankfully for them, cost too much to duplicate in the physical form.  And, God Forbid that someone should actually lend their copy of an item to someone else!  These aspects of paper (don’t forget that Buckland refers to any physical object collected in a library as paper) are undergoing a lot of change as we wrestle with the idea of digitizing all of our content.  The business around the production of copies of media will either have to change significantly or die in order that we can remove this major restraint on the use of media objects.  Content creators are finding new ways of distributing and marketing their creations in order to ensure that they can still support themselves and their ability to continue to create.

Paper is inflexible as a medium.  In a culture that is becoming more participatory, people want to get their hands dirty and work with “things.”  We have come through a long period where “progress” was measured by our ability to do less.  Technology represented ways of giving us more leisure time.  We can be more comfortable being entertained than entertaining ourselves through the building and creating of “stuff.”  Certainly, entire industries thrived on the idea that certain people have “talent” and should be elevated to a level that they are allowed to create and those of us who don’t have the same amount of “talent” buy the products of those that do.  Digital media make it cheaper and easier for anyone to create their own “stuff.”  We can take the “stuff” of others and remix it to make new “stuff.”  We can collaborate with others to create new “stuff” and, most importantly, we can share our “stuff” with the world and talk about it.  This is much harder with paper.  With paper, material needs to be transcribed into a form that can be worked with if someone wants to edit, remix, quote, or translate that material.

Finally, paper takes up space.  This, as mentioned above is actually a good thing, isn’t it?  A library is a place that stores a collection of items that are managed by librarians, right?  This is how we define ourselves.  This definition is what causes society to think that they have no need for libraries any more.  Physical space is expensive.  Digital space is cheap.  Physical entities are restrictive.  Digital entities are “free.”  The breaking away from large physical spaces allows libraries to bring more documents to their users/patrons.  It allows money to be allocated on resources rather than infrastructure.  But then, what is a library and what role do librarians play?

This is the topic of a future post…  😉  My thanks to George Carlin for his influence in paragraph 5!


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