Thursday, January 27, 2011

As goes the codex, so goes the library?

I subscribe to the blog to keep aware of what the library trend spotters/setters (it is written by OCLC Research staff) have to say. Today, one of the authors posted a two part talk given by Eli Neiburger, Associate Head for IT and Production at the public library of the tech-happy town down the road (Ann Arbor.) The online talk was given as a part of a Library Journal/School Library Journal online summit.

The title for the presentation is “Libraries at the Tipping Point: How eBooks Impact Libraries” - but it is also known by the title “Libraries are screwed.” You should watch the presentation - it is about 20 minutes between the two parts. He has some convincing things to say and he says them quite convincingly. My response is below.

I think he makes two main points in this presentation and I’ll respond to each point.

His first point is that the codex is being/has been “outmoded” by the ebook, pointing out that outmoded is different than obsolete. He defines outmoded as being replaced by a more convenient and usually increasingly less expensive format. He mentions candles and vinyl records as examples of other outmoded technologies. He describes an ebook as a text delivery device. And so now I quibble. With his other examples of outmoded technologies, like candles and vinyl records, the user is for the most part passive. The user receives light whether from a candle or an LED - the user receives sound, whether from vinyl or MP3. The codex is different, however, because the user physically interacts and manipulates the codex - and does this in ways that would make no sense in the ebook environment. If an ebook is a text delivery device, a codex is a text interaction device. I really think it is a fundamental difference, and I think the “outmoded” explanation is off.

That doesn’t mean that I can’t imagine libraries replacing codex’s with ebooks - library directors seem to love that kind of thing. But, in replacing the codex with the ebook, these library directors are changing the user’s experience in ways that did not happen in the conversion from VHS to DVD (or to streaming video).

But that's just a minor issue, what really captures my attention in his presentation is what he discusses in the 2nd half of the 2nd part.

He speaks about the purpose or function of the library. The original purpose of libraries, he suggests, was not to purchase commercial content for use by the community but to store and organize the content of the community. Whether this was the original purpose or not I’m not certain, and I don’t particularly care, what it is, however, is a good and valuable purpose for the library. His vision of future relevant libraries based on their original purpose is to be both a local repository for local information and culture, and to facilitate the creation, recording, publishing of that local information and culture. (This used to be a significant function of the local newspaper, which is why that newspaper is such an important part of a local collection. Unfortunately, the local paper as a local product is becoming scarce.) One function of the library that Neiburger doesn’t explicitly mention, but I think goes hand-in-hand with its role in the collection, production, and presentation of local information and culture is that libraries then also play the vital role in the preservation of that local information and culture. Collect, create, sustain.

For the longest time, public libraries have filled the role of buying and sharing commercial products, with this local culture angle often playing a very minor role. As our ways of relating to and accessing these commercial products changes, I think Neiburger rightly challenges libraries to seize this opportunity to reshape (or remember) their purpose and their relationship to their patrons.

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