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The Alexandrine Dilemma

Mark Pesce gave a keynote entitled “The Alexandrine Dilemma” at the New Librarians Symposium last Friday. He spoke about how Library Science, its skills and philosophy, are necessary for everyone to embrace and understand as we move forward in our networked world.

Quite inspiring, as someone who’s selected that line of work, if I do say so myself.

A few samples:

In fact, because the library is universal, library science now needs to be a universal skill set, more broadly taught than at any time previous to this. We have become a data-centric culture, and are presently drowning in data.

I could go on and on, but the basic point is this: wherever data is being created, that’s the opportunity for library science in the 21st century. Since data is being created almost absolutely everywhere, the opportunities for library science are similarly broad. It’s up to you to show us how it’s done, lest we drown in our own creations.

The dilemma that confronts us is that for the next several years, people will be questioning the value of libraries; if books are available everywhere, why pay the upkeep on a building? Yet the value of a library is not the books inside, but the expertise in managing data. That can happen inside of a library; it has to happen somewhere. Libraries could well evolve into the resource the public uses to help manage their digital existence. Librarians will become partners in information management, indispensable and highly valued.

In a time of such radical and rapid change, it’s difficult to know exactly where things are headed. We know that books are headed online, and that libraries will follow. But we still don’t know the fate of librarians. I believe that the transition to a digital civilization will founder without a lot of fundamental input from librarians. We are each becoming archivists of our lives, but few of us have training in how to manage an archive.

When you announce yourselves to the broader public as the individuals empowered to help us manage our digital lives, you’ll doubtless find yourselves overwhelmed with individuals who are seeking to benefit from your expertise. What’s more, to deal with the demand, I expect Library Science to become one of the hot subjects of university curricula of the 21st century.

One interesting note – and somewhere I think Mark misses the boat:

It’s interesting to note that books.google.com uses Google’s text search-based interface. Based on my own investigations, you can’t type in a Library of Congress catalog number and get a list of books under that subject area. Google seems to have abandoned – or ignored – library science in its own book project. I can’t tell you why this is, I can only tell you that it looks very foolish and naïve. It may be that Google’s army of PhDs do not include many library scientists. Otherwise why would you have made such a beginner’s mistake? It smells of an amateur effort from a firm which is not known for amateurism.

This isn’t a shortcoming of Google – this is a liberation from the shortcoming of the historical reality of shelf space as the limiting factor in a physical library. These numbers have all been subjectively applied by the local librarian and rarely agree across libraries. Additionally, these subjective assignments reflect more about the culture making the assignment than the content of the work.

I’m surprised Mark swung so wildly on this point. If we’re all sharers now, and we bring our own opinions to the table. What we need more than ‘search by catalog number’ is a means to sift/sort the multiple readers’ opinions of what a book/work is about. This may include expert and non-expert opinion – the point is that the work can be filed in multiple places at the same time.

As Clay Shirky has said, “there is no shelf”:

People have been freaking out about the virtuality of data for decades, and you’d think we’d have internalized the obvious truth: there is no shelf. In the digital world, there is no physical constraint that’s forcing this kind of organization on us any longer. We can do without it, and you’d think we’d have learned that lesson by now.

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  1. jkd | December 10, 2008 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    It is weird how usually-reasonable people have such odd reactions to Google Book Search and the general move away from LOC. Is there any real question that the number of people who are comfortable using Google long, long ago exceeded the number of people even vaguely familiar with using the LOC categorization system? Or that it’s on a far more basic level just easier to use and more intuitive? Or how it odd it is to think about continuing to classify the information-object “book” in a way that’s different from and not integrated into how all other information is categorized and classified? Yes, preaching, choir, etc.