Cross posted from Hypermarc
As I’ve done in the past, I will be blogging through the process of the reading Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations with a bigger picture summative post at the end. I think that this is particularly important in a book like Shirky’s where he wrestles with clear and distinct ideas in each chapter.
Given that Shirky wrote this book in 2008, it is not surprising that the broader overview in the introductory chapters has been repeated, transformed and worked with by any number of others through blogs, talks, videos and by Shirky himself in different venues. His observations about the way connected, internet based technology is allowing people to organize around topics based on interest rather than location and requires little if any management structure or cost has now come into the realm of common knowledge. The Arab Spring that was organized through Twitter and Facebook and collected and dispersed via smart phones is one widely cited example of this kind of grass roots organization to achieve incredible political feats that happened two full years after Shirky’s book hit the book stores. The bank of stories related to the power of crowds organizing through social media continues to grow. What makes this book fascinating is the analysis of why we are able to do what we’ve never been able to do before because of the way technology allows to think and act. His explanation of the business side of flattened organizational structures due to the decreased or effective elimination of transactional costs (both in terms of time and money) is not an angle that I’d ever really thought through and has some interesting implications for the management side of library work. But this is not where I’d like to focus my thinking in this post.
Everyone is a media outlet is the name of chapter three. This chapter looks at the growing amateurization of many of the more creative professions. He focuses primarily on journalism in his discussion but also mentions musicians, photographers and even mentions librarians as among those affected by ability of the masses to do what was previously only achievable by a few trained experts. Two of the more interesting concepts that he claims are at the root of the rapid demise of the professional status of many occupations relate to scarcity and the tying of professional status to old technology. He argues that journalism is risking extinction as a profession because it ties itself to publishing and publishers are defined as those who own printing presses, TV production studios or other expensive means of recording and distribution. The expense of these pieces of technology make publishers scarce and gives publishers the control of the means to hire journalists and distribute their work. The problem for journalism as a defined profession comes when the means to publish and distribute get easy and inexpensive enough that pretty much anybody can do it. When I can blog for free, then everyone, or no one, is a journalist. At some level, it doesn’t really matter if you call bloggers journalists or not, but Shirky cites a number of cases of where protecting the anonymity of a journalist’s sources becomes a real issue when the definition of who is and is not a journalist is unclear.
This kind of thinking has a direct implication for libraries. The role of librarian as collector of books and other documents is called into question when the contents of those books become readily available, often for free in digital form through the internet. If the only definition of a librarian is one who collects books, our profession is in serious trouble. No matter how much we love them and how many of them are still not available in digital form, the fact is that it won’t be too long before all books are available in some form easily and conveniently online. We won’t need to collect them in centralized collections. It is rapidly becoming too inconvenient to deal with driving, parking, opening hours, checkouts and any number of other impediments to ease of use when more and more books are available on your smart phone or Google Glass. The documents cease to be scarce and tied down to these restrictions brought on by their physical nature, so why would we collect them besides, maybe for sentimental reasons? In other words the transactional cost of acquiring the document that you seek has become significantly cheaper in a digital world.
So, I think, one of two things will happen. Either, as I think Michael Stephens suggested at one point in our course material, maybe libraries become completely decentralized. The physical collection of the libraries disappear, and librarians, if we still exist, become itinerant workers. We take our skills to the “patron” rather than the “patron” coming to us. Or, the brand becomes something other than books. The reason a library exists becomes social and/or educational. If Lankes is right and the library is the conversation and the collection is the community, then the library’s physical space becomes the space that that conversation happens. People gather to talk and work together to produce new knowledge or objects of knowledge (object not necessarily meaning physical object) to further that conversation. The physical space is inseparable from the virtual space where these objects are collected and organized in ways that librarians have particular expertise.
The worst possible outcome is that we don’t talk about the future of the library profession and let the future happen to us. Shirky talks about the plight of the scribe who was an extremely valuable member of the intellectual community but became obsolete with the advent of the printing press. While it is hard to determine with certainty from this vantage point, judging by the “impassioned defence of the scribal tradition” published in 1492 on the printing press, the poor scribes didn’t even see the death of their profession coming. We need to keep the conversation going and reinvent or refocus the profession so we don’t go the way of the scribe of yore.