Friday, May 27, 2011

This post was going to be a two-line pointer to Godin's and Anderson's posts, referenced below. It became too long for a tweet, then too long for a Facebook post, and most likely, too long to read. If you survive it, thanks.

Seth Godin has written an interesting and provocative post on the future of the library, and more particularly on the future of the librarian. In brief, he argues that librarians, who should be the Vergils for future Dantes, are now seen not as expert guides in a sea of overabundant information, but rather as the people who manage that place where all the books are at. Libraries, he avers, are keeping librarians back. Excellent piece, and thought-provoking, and I thank Kent Anderson at the Scholarly Kitchen for bringing it to my attention.

One question (and one comment below): What about Europe, where the relationship between librarians and patrons--and, indeed, between readers and library books--is very different? I can't even try to fathom the different political processes by which European universities, university libraries, and other public libraries are funded, but I have heard many many accounts* of the use of a university library or archive, and the theme that comes up again and again is that the librarian or archivist figure is more of a Kerberos than anything else---not with respect to patrons but with respect to books: Kerberos would happily take you in, but he wouldn't let you out! When you use a library in Europe, your relationship to the books is much more heavily mediated than here (where the librarians are like bloodhounds snoozing by the fireplace; no interaction with them is needed unless or until you ask them to help track something down). The big distinction is whether the stacks are open for browsing or not, of course: may the patron wander among the books, or do you have to request something specific and await it? (This leads to my thought, but let me continue the query.)

I could see this relationship working out in several possible ways as more and more direct access to more and more information becomes more and more normal. Either the habit of putting requests to people continues, and librarians "hard power" by means of exclusive access becomes "soft power" by means of higher-quality access. OR the difficulty and cost (in time and effort) to use libraries (because of that mediation) makes a shift to electronic direct access all the more appealing.

A lot depends on politics and funding, of course, but more, I suppose, on whether the mediated relationship brings more or less value to the access. When you ask a librarian for, oh, G.E.M. de Ste. Croix's The Origins of the Peloponnesian War, does the librarian raise the issue of its Marxist slant, its flaws and its virtues, and suggest some important interlocutors one would do well to read as well? Or do you have to deal with a grumpy librarian to read something that some fusty old professor (we have only young and attractive professors here in the U.S.) told oyu you should. (See Sandy Thatcher's comments on the Scholarly Kitchen post; we in the publishing industry, must perforce think in economic terms of "Where can I add value?" and "How can I get paid for it?")

Now, the thought: One of the great virtues of libraries as "book warehouses," is browsing. Andy Abbott theorizes browsing thusly (starting in the last lines of p. 17):
random inspection of a local knowledge vicinity for items with a high probability of payoff, particularly in terms of taking one to productive new localities. It is crucial to recognize that this happens at many different levels in library research, not just at one: within books as one turns pages, on shelves as one searches for a book, in the stacks as one walks by unknown call numbers, in bibliographic indexes and other research tools as one glances through topics, and so on. In all these cases, the power of browsing is great.

Andy goes on, and I have to quote him at length:
Browsing has two requirements. First, the materials being browsed must already themselves be highly ordered either by virtue of their internal structure or by their places in an indexing or cataloguing or classification system. Otherwise, adjacency has no meaning and browsing can't work. Second, the browsers must have broad knowledge that primes them to recognize likely connections. This is the rationale for general exams, for example. (Note that by this argument, one can even think of conversation with other scholars as a form of mutual browsing.)

This insight provides us with a first reason why much of library technologization doesn't work very well. The assumption is that give "the right indexing system," you can replace the expert browser, and any college freshman will be able to write good scholarship. But this can't be true because such an indexing system would only work if it encoded the expertise of all the possible expert users. But in that case it would reproduce the confusion (of all the different possible associations to a given item) within itself, giving the novice no more guidance than the old tools. What technology usually offers, in fact, is the expertise of only one user - a hard-coded set of hyperlinks - which is obviously vastly impoverished from a computational point of view unless you can assume that there is one (or a few) right expert(s), which is seldom true in the areas that employ library research.

I emphasize browsing because such random search in pre-organized localities, although important in the natural sciences (it is after all Pasteur who said that chance favors only the prepared mind), is by no means as important as it is in library research. Library research as currently practiced is unthinkable without browsing. It is quite often the case that library researchers do not know exactly what they want ahead of time; indeed one might define skill at library research as the ability to recognize, when we have found something, that it is in fact something that we ought to have wanted to find. To be sure, library researchers are sometimes quite focused in their needs. But even during tasks like coding and focused retrieval, browsing goes on in the background. It is for this reason that artisanal researchers do not often subdivide their work and give brute force tasks to others; they worry about the loss of browsing.

Browsing in this extremely broad sense and at all these many levels is thus one thing that absolutely must be protected in the research libraries of the future. It means keeping materials ordered and in a setting where they can be effectively scanned in the random fashion that browsing demands. Since, as we have noted, browsing involves many levels of organization, all of these levels need to be preserved, not just the order of books on shelves.

The question, now in 2011, is not just "What is to become of librarians?" given the changing role of libraries, but "What is to become of browsing?" --- Is browsing in this precise sense, possible on the internet? Is anything else possible? (Or are we fooled by terminology--"web browser"?) I've complained before about some of the vices of Google books, for example, but Google actually does attempt to look at the organically-developed relationships amongst sources, and then present a list of possibilities--is that a (precisely) browsable list? But Google Books also assiduously ignores meta-data; the self-organizing instructions of scholarship--and I'm not sure it's started to parse things as simple and structured as footnotes.

Ah well. I've overstayed my mental welcome, and I've got work to do before the weekend.

*I think immediately of Umberto Eco's opening essay in Candida Höfer's luscious book of photos, Libraries, as well as an account, source long forgotten but perhaps in The Chronicle of Higher Ed, of an American scholar's experience using Interlibrary Loan while on research sabbatical at Trinity College, Dublin. I may be generalizing over-much from tales of the Vatican Library, whose staff and policies are legendarily, erm, protective.

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