FYI France

File 10.2011b FYI France Essay :

 

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Libraries Digital and Real: new opportunities

by Jack Kessler, kessler@well.com
for, Bulletin des Bibliothèques de France, 2011, t. 56, no. 6, p. 28,
"Bibliothèques et numérique : de nouvelles opportunités"
http://bbf.enssib.fr/consulter/bbf-2011-06-0028-002

 

October 1, 2011

"No hay, en la vasta biblioteca, dos libros idénticos"
-- Borges, La Biblioteca de Babel, 1941

 

W hen people read, nowadays, they do not always read a book. Now so much of the material we read is on-screen, or on-air, or lumped together under the vague term multimedia. And these days, too, we scan things, or view them, or hear them -- or we hear them while we view them and scan them, all simultaneously.

Googlers in my San Francisco neighborhood, average age 25, no longer can be reached by telephone -- the term now is "voicemail" -- or even by email, which for them is just too slow, or certainly via postal mail, an antiquated procedure known nowadays as "snailmail" and used only for advertising.

Even the language changes. To reach our neighbors now we must "text": the noun becomes the culture's most popular verb -- je text, tu text... nous textons... il faut textoter, "text me!". And language elsewhere follows texting forms: "C U later", and the infamous "wazzup?", both now have meaning in all media -- for that is what this new generation reads, they read texts -- not, or not only, books.

So much the worse then for professions and cultural institutions closely associated with "books": it is in the very names -- librarian, library, libreria, liber, bibliotheca, bibliothèque, bibliothécaire, biblio.

During the 1970's and 1980's people began to worry about the disappearance of the book, the much-exaggerated death of print. By the 1990's and 2000's they worried more seriously, as the digital realm exploded in size and significance, and as library budgets either shifted from print into digital resources or imploded entirely. And now it is the 2010's...

Now, though, new roles emerge, and old roles re-emerge, in this world which reads so much in digital texts. These roles include services previously performed by libraries, for a very long time, for readers of printed books. A few of these roles will be considered here, in the context of changes which not only allow them to remain but increasingly even require their use in digital technique as well. It is important to know where and when and why the old tools are needed for the new tasks.

The changes to which new and re-emergent library roles respond involve both the quality, and the quantity, of the information now in use -- both the type of information and the sheer amounts of it, now flowing to users, and increasingly flowing from the users themselves.

 

1) Qualitative Change

Transitions in Media

Until recently the most interesting discussion of "transitions in media" was the debate about the Renaissance shift from manuscript to printed books1. Now a new transition-in-media is under way, to digital text -- or, more accurately, to the introduction of new digital text techniques, into a reading world previously dominated by print.

The commercial world appears to lead the way, in the current transition. Daily headlines proclaim the arrival of yet another fabulous digital text tool: an iPad, iPhone, Amazon, some "cloud" service, a Baidu-this or a Google-that.

It must be remembered, though, that the advertising industry currently paying for most of this is omnipresent now too: on all of the new digital media for which its funding model does so much better than older subscription and membership and pay-per-use models did -- also on older non-digital media which are so enthralled by the new and who perfected the advertising funding-model in the first place.

To societies immersed in information-media, as ours in both The West and The East are so completely, now, the circular notion that commercial advertising should promote media and that media should promote commercial advertising has become an accepted commonplace. It is a funding model which works well for some purposes but not so well for others, however.

We grow inured to context-sensitive ads, for example, popping up alongside our email messages as we type them -- just as TV viewers once grew accustomed to viewing on-screen ads which sprouted there, growing in numbers and in lengths, during that medium's 1950's early years, a development which in its time drew heavy criticism2.

The commercial arena reinforces the structure of the current digital public domain: the greater the Internet coverage, the greater the commercial revenues and profits, and the greater the commercial revenues and profits, the greater the Internet coverage -- for now...

This has not always been so: the commercial advertising industry is a highly-fickle funds source -- as television and radio industries, all recently abandoned by their advertisers in favor of online clients, will attest -- for those same advertisers abandoned newspapers for them, back in television's 1950's and 60's heyday -- as in Hollywood, "online" is just the prettiest new face on the block, the one certainty being that there will be others, and then advertising like any fickle fan or lover will depart again.

There are other worlds to consider, as well... The Internet and digital information do not just inhabit the current digital public access Matrix3, the one at the moment so completely dominated by its commercial advertisers -- both also flourish elsewhere, on user hard drives, in user smartphones, floating amid other user accounts out on the Internet cloud(s).

There also is a growing body of digital information users more resistant to commercial advertising than the general public, and these are greater than average users of online information. Examining a few such user groups gives clues to new information services now emerging, or re-emerging.

And new digital tools arrive, new access points for information: these may convert to advertising, as so much of the Internet now has, but they may do so in different and competing ways -- so the fickle lover may leap yet again, those advertisers who left newspapers for TV, and then TV for the early Internet, in a heartbeat will leave the Old Lead Story for the Next New Thing -- currently to mobiles, the services of which link to the giant telephone companies we all thought had long since gone away4, as recently-stalled firms such as Cisco and Microsoft and Intel only now may be discovering... Per the latter's Andy Grove, "only the paranoid survive" in hitech5.

Interesting developments, challenges, risks, all. They have in common, though, the usual view of industry developments merely from a commercial perspective - - of how the major commercial firms currently funding online services and activities view things.

Transitions in Users

Another useful picture of digital information is the customer's point of view, instead:

Professionals. Lawyers, doctors, accountants, professors, scientists, engineers... Consider the organizational characteristics of certification, and conventioneering, and importantly the peer-review journals which distinguish such fields.

Their websites are filled with publicity for professional equipment, services, publications, upcoming conferences, just as their print journals have been. But the process is narrowing: professionals do not have the time, for the vast varieties of commercial advertising nowadays made available to the general public online.

The same is true for scientists: microscopes yes, but hot cars and Hollywood gossip no... The early Internet mixed things together, but now that we are over our early generalist fascinations there is not time enough in life, certainly not professional life, to read through all of that. It's no longer about information search and retrieval, now it is about filtering, resisting the flood, specialization and focus.

Professors, as well: academic publishing is the province of the little-read obscure text, adding its minuscule contribution to the knowledge corpus of some highly-specialized field, part of a complex process of relentlessly-incremental peer review -- no best-sellers, no large print-runs, few accolades, little revenue -- academic publishing does not fit the commercial advertising model, its per-unit costs are far too high.

Parents, also, are natural clients of those who would help with online digital information: parental control of what their children read is a strong force in all societies. Safe-search mechanisms answer this need, but commercial marketing is suspect. There is a significant role to be played by information professionals who can win the trust of anxious parents.

The elderly, too: by the sheer weight of their current demographics... The Postwar Baby Boom matures in 2012, in Europe and the US and East Asia, one of the largest population bulges in the histories of any of the nations involved. This is Bill Clinton, born 1946, flexing clumsy fingers on his tiny birthday-gift iPhone, as he hunts and pecks his way -- not really understanding what a tweet is, or why his video applications do not work -- gently encouraged by daughter Chelsea, born 1980, who lives and breathes it all the way the rest of her generation do -- a generation gap far wider nowadays in places like India, where adept youngsters must teach elders who never even had a telephone.

One size does not fit all: digital information needs product differentiation, and service specialists, for elders as it does for professors and professionals and anxious parents and other increasingly-specialized customers.

Roles for Librarians

Specialization is one thing the information professions need to do now, more than they have done.

The largest and most financially-successful of the commercial responses to online digital information so far have offered plain vanilla, one-size-fits-all approaches: AOL, Ebay, Yahoo, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter -- all these have aimed at providing mass audience, economies-of-scale services -- "On the Internet nobody knows you're a dog", runs the famous cartoon caption, and although there was specialization in its early 1990's years, this middle-age 2000's era has seen the greatest growth in offerings to the general public.

The suggestion is, then, that as the Internet matures greater specialization among users will occur. The growth spurt is not over -- household penetration of Internet services and devices is nowhere near complete, globally -- but important nitches already are developing, which presage further specialization to come. When information professionals discuss "digital intermediaries" roles for themselves, then6, it is a wise strategy to target such efforts carefully, toward emerging groups which really need it.

And particularly as the Internet grows, as it is about to do massively thanks to mobiles... the inundation not only continues, it takes a quantum leap...

 

2) Quantitative Shift

The tipping-point... the development now-arriving which already is bending and soon may break our current information capacities, providing new and interesting opportunities for the optimists among us...

If the commercial world is shifting us at all now -- from books to texts and in other new directions -- one further and far more significant shift is being made by the readers themselves, to mobiles. Customers have needed these tiny hand- held mobile things for a long time.

I remember the 1960's punch-card fodder, chads hanging or not, which we fed to giant mainframes -- then to the delicate minis, sensitive like young pedigree colts, they required insulated clean-rooms and separate staffs to provide for their care and feeding.

The 1970's personal computer on-arrival was just another in-box, creating double-work and economists' talk of a Productivity Paradox7 -- it replaced the mini's terminal, adding an A slot for programs and a B slot for data... those 5¼-inch floppies, I have some in my office still, no idea what's on them or how to read it...

In the 1980's, then, I took along on business trips a further re-packaging of the old mainframe capacities: this one labeled "laptop", and significantly it was portable. That used 3½-inch floppies which did not flop, I still have those too. My first laptop-with-case weighed 15 pounds: not-so-portable -- "great if you have a substantial lap", it was said.

All through that evolution I longed for a thing I could put in my pocket: some one very small device enabling me, on an airplane or in a Mumbai taxi or a Paris hotel-room, to do my work and obtain news, contact family, read texts, also change travel tickets, store money, buy socks... a well-known litany... Apple heard that consumer-call, and today I write this sitting outdoors on a park bench, on one of their amazing iPhones.

The truly revolutionary development, though, happened with the data. Per Moore's Law8, while hardware has been getting smaller and more mobile -- transparent, as XeroxPARC9 said, banalization -- data has been growing, enormously, exponentially, and now it moves back to the mainframe, or at least to the old mainframe's modern distributed-processing equivalent, the cloud10.

As the devices have shrunk, their data capacities have grown. The tiny iPhones and other mobiles on which users now research and compose and edit and publish offer internal capacity 32g, they weigh 4.8oz...

Back in the 1980's the equivalent was a NEC Multispeed laptop, external storage 720k on 3½-inch disks, and only 640k capacity inside11 -- proudest possession on the plane, though... but try finding a compatible plug for a US appliance in a 1980's Paris hotel -- or any kind of plug plus reliable power supply, in a Dak bungalow in India -- they've dammed the Himalayas since... And in the 1980's there was no Internet at all, yet.

What is being done, with such increased capacities, already is phenomenal: digital photographers now take 100's of stills and videos per session, store thousands, send many online to friends and their friends return the favor . and music, recorded or created and edited and transmitted, the social networking fad is very much about sound files -- and text, in massive amounts, from family recipes to vast genealogy collections, and to book-type texts which in the past would have been held by libraries -- and immediacy, from US political campaigns to revolutions in Cairo.

The new distributed technologies -- these tiny mobiles, which everyone even in African megacities and Cambodian rice paddies now possess -- make production and dissemination of data a two-way street. Consumers now produce as well as consume, and who is to say how much they will produce, with the enormous capacities they have, recently-arrived, on their own mobiles connected to the Internet cloud(s).

 

3) Service Gaps

Delighted with the surprises and capacities the new media provide us, perhaps -- some of us are difficult, a few even fear the "new" per se12-- all of us still expect the old functionality, as well.

So the new media offer us, for instance, mind-out-of-body experiences -- virtual reality, personal walks on Mars, clothing which diagnoses and treats our illnesses and recharges our on-board batteries as we walk13, and enormous digital text libraries providing access to resources previously located only at great distances if accessible at all.

But a user's questions, beyond the normal delight at new capacities as-expected, tend to be traditional:

* Reference. Where can I read more about all this?

The famous "Do you have a book about horses?" has been a byword of the library profession for many years, its response depending on the character of the user posing it and the spirit in which it is asked: from a teenage equestrian it takes on different meaning than from a seven-year-old child -- a school librarian and a law librarian each would suggest a different research path.

Automated services try to force users to do our own question-refining, the way bank ATMs force us to become bank tellers14. In so many information-searching situations though there is no substitute for a reference interview with an experienced librarian.

* Sharing. How to share it with my friends? The great clue, seen by some but missed by so many, which launched social networking...

This era of Friendster, MySpace, Orkut, Twitter, Facebook will benefit, soon, from skilled people online assisting others in navigating sites, their complexities, their risks and pitfalls and simply questions about them. Early-adopters of social networking were from the same demographic -- young, well-educated, wealthy, nimble-fingered -- how much more complex the process now becomes as the elderly, busy professionals, young children, multilingual users overseas, use the services.

* Databases. How to record it? Nearly always an older media question: wax- sealed or impression-sealed documents signed and even written in manuscript, in an age of printed text -- printed documents ditto, in an age of digital -- still- photo evidence of a movie, for publicity or indexing -- written notes of some stage play which changes with each performance, quarto editions15 -- a celluloid version of a virtual reality performance which changes constantly too...

Users, to developers' perpetual dismay, always want records made in older more familiar media, at the loss of the new experience -- a matter of trust, the reason for wanting a backup being that the user doesn't really trust the new medium yet, or its so-called backup procedures. So they freeze the dynamic in the static, hoping to avoid startup glitches, of the beta-testers of new products which we all have become. Again this area needs people who remember the past: screenshots and OCR... relational database instead of flat file... "lossy compression"... Librarians know these things, and can explain them. Few inexperienced users will learn them quickly, from the best Online Help instructions. And from the byzantine Online User Forums which increasingly substitute for those? Never in a million years...

* Archiving. How to store, archive, safeguard it?

How to Zip a file, or un-Zip... what media survive best in a bank deposit box... why to make a backup... Accumulated wisdom of the ages, not yet online, or available there only in scattered and incomprehensible form... A librarian both knows all this and can teach it effectively.

* Indexing, editing, marketing... customer relations... invoicing & collecting... -- the mundane realities, they pay the bills.

The Dotcom Boom, 1995-2000, initiated the commercial Internet but then foundered largely on the innocence of early technical inventors, who too often dismissed editing, marketing, customer relations, back office, and budgeting for all of that. Then, when bills began coming in, and complaints, and returns, budgets were found lacking... numerous examples...

The adoption of any innovation always is a marriage of the two, of user surprise combined with user expectation -- the distance communication of the Internet has been a wonderful surprise, but we still need to type comfortably, perform telephony, search & retrieve, see pictures, store our backup data somewhere, do our billing and our late payments and our customer complaints.

Libraries

If any of this sounds familiar... and all of this should sound familiar to librarians... well, most libraries are trying. The US Library of Congress long has been in the forefront of the online digital text frontier, with many remarkable efforts such as American Memory; academic research libraries have too, on their own or through remarkable cooperative collections such as the California Digital Library and HathiTrust16. In other nations as well, France among the leaders: Gallica, and other remarkable projects of the Bibliothèque nationale; similar from many of the bibliothèques municipales, the Guichet du Savoir of the BM Lyon for example; and nowadays nearly every French village library offers some sort of online information service17.

But libraries need to see their role as information, separate from digital or data or certainly from just books -- as the texts contained, not the containers. Google's new CEO, founder Larry Page, grasps this distinction, recently telling staff he now wants meaningful "information" retrieved from searches, not just "data"18.

And users do not see them this way, to them librarians are about printed books: it's like someone from the telephone company trying to assist my young GoogleNeighbors with their texting -- if there is one person who would not know about that, in their eyes, it would be someone from a "telephone" company.

 

Conclusion: etexts & ebooks & the insecurities of clouds

Both the quality and quantity of our information world are changing, then -- in the latter sense significantly, and that very soon.

A mobile-equipped world, inter-linked globally via Internet, may produce more than just revolution in the Middle East and Tehran... and London... and China if recent reports of government nervousness there are correct19... It may revolutionize our buying habits, as its commercial boosters hope, and it may inundate our world with user-generated information, such that previous information overload floods will appear to have been mere trickles.

Such anyway are the dreams and nightmares about the new mobiles and their Internet cloud(s): optimists see wonderful resources, new capacities confirming the prescience of Moore's Law that we never really will run out of room -- pessimists see hurricanes threatening to swamp us all and create vast new dangers, from subversive revolution to copyright chaos.

One aspect of preparation for our digital information Götterdämmerung offers great opportunities to specific groups, and that has been my central point here. It seems to me that more and more people, trying to deal with vastly-increased quantities of online digital information, at one or another or several points will require intermediaries: professionals, if not identical then very similar to the librarians and archivists before them, who can and must specialize in helping users with online digital information.

The systems simply can't keep up, or if they can then the users can't. The systems we have now function poorly: skimming information from the top of an enormous Google retrieval-heap is no substitute for real relevance decisions -- metadata structures do not begin to make the subtle distinctions about user queries made by experienced professional judgment and face-to-face contact -- that we have come this far in resisting and using the digital information overload flood is due largely to such tools, but now global mobile access seems to me to presage a quantum leap in the quantities involved, and for this we are unprepared.

So we do have new opportunities -- new concepts such as etexts, new tools such as ebooks -- the question is what will we do with these, what will we gain and what will we lose, what mistakes will we make and how best to minimize those.

Who would have thought digital information would dominate the greatest industrial structure paradigm shift since the 18th c. Industrial Revolution? While by the end of the subsequent century every "industry" worthy of the name was reliant upon "machinery", by the end of only the following decade any 1990's industry not yet "online digital" was in trouble, so much so that in the mere two years since that decade itself turned, 2010, most still resisting failed completely.

Now online digital appears to be dominating our politics, social relations, healthcare -- I rarely see my doctor, now, instead I "text" him -- education is digital, and online, so are our newspapers and magazines, and our books. We need people to talk with, about all this, people who know the technology, can teach us, will listen. We are the users, and increasingly we produce the information -- the tweets, the Facebook postings, the online photos and videos, the etexts -- we need to be careful, to consider where all this is headed, to discuss it with someone both knowledgeable and discreet. Librarians used to do this for us, they will be needed again.

 

Jack Kessler, kessler@well.com

 

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Footnotes:

1^ Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, 1979.

2^ Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, 1957 (La persuasion clandestine, 1958).

3^ William Gibson, Neuromancer, 1984 (Neuromancien, 2001) ; John S. Quarterman, The Matrix, 1990.

4^ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell_System_divestiture

5^ Andy Grove, Only the Paranoid Survive, 1996 (Seuls les paranoïaques survivent, 2004).

6^ "Digital intermediaries": http://rarefrontier.org/?p=173

7^ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Productivity_paradox

8^ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore's_law

9^ XeroxPARC: http://www.parc.com/research/publications/results.php?author=944 -- see inter alia, M. D. Weiser, "Some computer science issues in ubiquitous computing", in D. Milojicic and F. Douglis, R. Wheeler eds. Mobility: Processes, Computers and Agents (New York : Association of Computing Machinery, 1999) pages 421-430, also (Reading, Massachusetts : Addison-Wesley, c1999) ISBN 0201379287. Excerpt: "Ubiquitous computing enhances computer use by making many computers available throughout the physical environment, while making them effectively invisible to the user..."; See also, M. Weiser, R. Gold, J. S. Brown. "Origins of ubiquitous computing research at PARC in the late 1980's", in IBM Systems Journal (Armonk, New York : International Business Machines Corporation, 1999) volume 38, number 4, ISSN 0018-8670, 188-670, pages 693-696 ; and, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PARC_ (company)

10^ http://www2.sims.berkeley.edu/resources/infoecon/ -- best general source for the Internet's statistical record until now... past performance offering no guarantees, however, regarding future events...

11^ "http://www.thecomputerarchive.com/archive/Computers/PC portables/NEC MultiSpeed.PDF

12^ "I am not afraid of new ideas, I'm afraid of old ones." -- attributed to John Cage -- much-quoted by, among many others, Amazon.com.

13^ http://www.media.mit.edu/ -- best resource for keeping up with all of this...

14^ It is worrisome that face-to-faceless communication gets promoted, even enforced, by so many digital applications: it is backwards, face-to-face is one principal attraction of modern resurgent megacities -- face-to-face services have great futures, in such cities. See the writings of Laura Nader -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura_Nader -- and, regarding cities, Saskia Sassen, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saskia_Sassen, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Kessler/Sassen.

15^ http://www.bl.uk/treasures/shakespeare/homepage.html

16^
http://memory.loc.gov ;
http://www.loc.gov/rr/askalib/ask-memory.html ;
http://www.cdlib.org/ ;
http://www.hathitrust.org/

17^
http://gallica.bnf.fr ;
http://www.bnf.fr ;
http://www.guichetdusavoir.org/ ;
http://www.bm-lyon.fr/ ;
http://fyifrance.com/fyi1plib.htm

18^ Per Alan Eustace, Google senior vice president, in the online econference "Google Inside Search Event" held June 14, 2011: see http://www.google.com/insidesearch/ ; Matt Rosoff, "How Larry Page Thinks About Search", on Business Insider (June 14, 2011, 2:47pm) http://www.businessinsider.com/how-larry-page-thinks-about-search-2011-6

19^ "China social networking site warns bloggers" (AFP) Aug 26, 2011. http://tinyurl.com/3dcth2n ; http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5j0R2Jo5rWk22hYsGUztb9L8NiB9g?docId=CNG.b45654449c3f8004a6e2153e7776a5b4.341

 

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