Here’s to the Gray Areas

These days, a popular way to make a splash in the media is by making some drastic proclamation on the future of libraries. These edicts usually start by citing the explosion of ‘free’ information, readily accessible to ‘everyone’ and go on to declare the death of the book or the librarian or the library itself. They spend little time discussing the facts, like accessibility issues, the backlog of digitization, the quality of the cataloguing/indexing of large-scale digitization projects, the false sense of technological confidence and poor assessment skills of younger generations or the history of the integration of new technologies.

As an academic librarian in love with books and technology – and the places where they intersect – I sometimes take these attacks to heart. After all, these declarations are not only assaults on my livelihood and the future of my profession, but indictments of my worldview and vision of our collective, democratic future.

image for 5 myths about the 'Information Age'

from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Bob McGrath

Which is why it was so refreshing to see the article “5 Myths About the ‘Information Age’” by Harvard professor Robert Darnton in The Chronicle of Higher Education today. There are no difficult, futurespeak concepts here. The article lays out the five simple myths and grounds them in plain good sense and a healthy dose of media history. Not only does Darnton point out the issues listed above that are so often missed by the library-slayers, he includes fascinating tidbits like our potential misunderstanding of the nature of reading in past centuries and underlines the current popularity of libraries both on and off campuses.

Darnton is no luddite ivory tower dweller. He’s been at the centre of recent discussions on creating a US national digital public library and sees the endeavor as a step in fulfillment of the democratic potential of his nation. Instead, however, of grabbing a attention with radical rationalizations cheaply achieved, Darnton argues against the sound-bite specialists with a few well-researched statements which pointedly avoid hyperbole.

The most intriguing aspect of this article, for me, is its example as an antithesis which both refutes the end-of-the-library manifesto and shows how a truly considered opinion can be arrived at and constructed. In this guise, it underlines a trend I’ve been noticing develop in social media, one that came up recently in – of all places – an episode of a favourite podcast, WTF with Marc Maron. It was during a very thoughtful and intelligent conversation between Maron and Conan O’Brien that the latter observed that there had been a drift in the North American cultural conversation towards extremism and intolerance on matters of opinion. As the late-night comedian saw it, there was no longer room in the public discourse for nuanced viewpoints or seeing value in things that you’re not passionately in like with. You LOVE it or HATE it, there’s no room for sort-of-liking-the-character-and-attitude-but-not-connecting-with-the-message-so-much-but-it’s-easy-to-see-how-it-connects-with-people-who-had-that-experience…

O’Brien placed the blame for this squarely on the current extremist attitude in US politics and the ongoing fight for national identity, but I think a case can be made that Twitter and Facebook, with their limited-character status updates and tacit encouragement of attention-grabbing declarations (what’s lonelier than a FB status update with no likes or comments?), seem to foster all-or-nothing opinions. Taking over where the TV soundbite left off, the overwhelming interactiveness and content-generation of social media mean the opinions have to get even more extreme to be heard.

Don’t get me wrong – I love social media. There are so many new and exciting ways I can interact with friends, colleagues and strangers. However, more than once, I have stopped myself from commenting or liking a post because I felt I wouldn’t be able to approach the subject honestly or with enough justice to the range of my thoughts and I was reluctant to be misinterpreted by enforced brevity. There are plenty of tools that allow for this deeper interaction, it’s just a matter of promoting the right ones for the right tasks.

The ways in which new technologies play out in our shared and individual lives are never right or wrong – they always contribute in both positive and negative ways to society. Like Darnton, we need to be interested in yesterday, today and tomorrow, as well as in understanding the full and multi-layered trajectory of the path technologies take in our lives. While the extremists are declaring the imminent demise of my livelihood, I’ll be looking for ways to use social media to deepen the discussion and make my chosen career an integral, viable one for many years to come.


Data data data

gleened from Stephen’s Lighthouse – can’t wait to dive in!

What’s your library’s digital influence score?

The major finding of the 2010 Digital Influence Index — released by Fleishman-Hillard International this week — emphasizes the Internet and its importance for consumers worldwide. The study measures the degree of use of digital goods, services and behaviors including social media. The DII now includes ~50% of the global online population in France, Germany, Canada, China, Japan, the UK and the United States.

The Digital Influence Index sheds some light on the global influence of the ‘Net on our lives along these themes:

  1. Lack of funding: Globally, the digital dominates in influence. The ‘Net is the most important medium in the lives of consumers everywhere but many countries continue to underinvest in it.
  2. On the edge: Asian users are early adopters. The ‘Net is the most important medium in all countries, especially in China, home to the world’s largest and fastest-growing population of online users.
  3. Canadians are social: Sixty-nine per cent of Canadian consumers have a Facebook account, compared with 47 per cent across the seven countries. While Canadians use social media, they are cautious about how much they reveal online. 
  4. Beyond mainstream: The digital is core to decisions worldwide for research, the economy and peer influence. The Internet plays an integral role in decision-making.
  5. Information overload: More users are trying social media, sharing everything and generating content — alot of personal information is shared and too little of it (in raw form) is useful.
  6. Trust: some users trust the most when they have access to multiple sources — and their networks are important sources.
  7. Contracted bloggers are not trusted: Net users report low trust in content produced by sponsored or paid bloggers.
  8. Real-time channels: microbloggers trust those that engage in real time, and who monitor online activities. They view online listening as a sign that organizations care about them. ~75% percent of survey respondents say companies that microblog — sending short, frequent messages via Twitter or status updates on Facebook — are more deserving of their trust than others.
  9. Mobility gap: As services and speed accelerate in uptake, mobile users are buying smartphones in droves — but realize only a fraction of their potential. While the mobile Internet is growing, a gap exists between what mobiles can do and what individuals use them for…
  10. Where now?: Will the Net grow or flatten out in years to come? Will users influence its growth? Answers vary in various parts of the world but in China it is a resounding “yes!” 24 per cent of Canadians believe that the Net will have an influence on their decisions in the next two years.


Here comes “The Social Network” [Film]

David Fincher’s new film The Social Network arrives in movie theatres in October. Columbia Pictures has put out a poster with the Mark Zuckerberg character on the cover with the caption “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” The Social Network stars Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake and Andrew Garfield. It is based on the book The Accidental Billionaires and Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook.

Fincher says:

“What did it feel like for someone like him to be 17 to 21 and have all these venture capitalists tapping him on the shoulder and saying, ‘Come over here’? If success accelerates the process of you becoming who you really are, how does that work when success happens so rapidly? How we feel about Zuckerberg is not how I see the story. The way I see drama, the context is the story.

Futures Thinking, Past Publishing

Today, the ACRL released the 33-page “Futures Thinking for Academic Librarians: Higher Education in 2025” by David J Staley (director of the Harvey Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching in the History Department of Ohio State University) and  Kara J. Malenfant (ACRL scholarly communications and government relations specialist). I have come across Dr Staley’s work before in projects relating to the use of technology to present history and historical collections and have been impressed by his early grasp of the ways in which new technologies would and should profoundly change the nature of academic writing. [Staley, David J, From Writing to Associative Assemblages: ‘History’ in an Electronic Culture. from Writing, Teaching and Researching History in the Electronic Age. 1998. Sharp.]

This will undoubtedly be a provocative report and the impetus for much professional soul-searching. However, there is a definite irony in a futures report in which the “editable” appendix (with a suggested activity for academic libraries) is offered in the form of a Word document as opposed to being published one of the many suitable tools available in the social media/online collaboration realm. Was this choice borne of

  • a fear of the transience of “the cloud”,
  • an (perhaps unwitting) adherence to familiar writing/publishing tools,
  • the desire to give the feeling of ownership over their version of the appendix to the participating libraries,
  • the belief that the more traditional formats will be more acceptable to a larger audience, or
  • a combination of these and/or other factors?

This seems to point to an opportunity to study not only what is being said about libraries and social media but how this work is being presented and shared. Are highlighted trends and suggestions in reports such as this one being reinforced by their publishing format?