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.