Don't be enthusiastic just because it's digital

We're a funny, niche lot, those of us lurking around computers in libraries. We have a responsibility to inform those around us of the implications of our pokes, prods and musings, and to perpetuate within and without our institutions the best fruits of our discoveries. It's a process requiring accuracy, and also a greater, more holistic understanding of the position of the library as an institution in society in order to develop the greatest benefits from our efforts. This can be tricky for us, as usually, we're not librarians.

Some of you will recall the 1990s, some of you won't, but let me briefly re-tread some ground here - the 90s were the decade when social interaction via computers hit the mainstream, and world + dog developed an impression, fuelled by blistering 56Kbps download speeds and new MMX processors (tm), that the interweb was gonna change everything. The collective digestion of this concept took place in the blink of an eye. A condition coined by the US military think-tanks in the immediate post-WW2 era called "techno-euphoria" (which doesn't relate to anything taking place in a warehouse around loud dance music) accurately summarises the appetite of the individual for the empowerment of the unyielding machine, and collectively the interaction between individuals and their computers in the 1990s has underlined the validity of this observation.

Certainly, we did/do appear to be quite attached to our great machines, and few of us can imagine wanting to live life without them or some functional equivalent. From the perspective of a record-keeper particularly, digital systems held/hold a lot of perceived and real promise, because of the ability to effectively freeze a record at point 1 in time and make the data-stream digested by the human senses static across periods of time (ie until point 2), a perceived problem with physical/analogue records. I have gotten up on a soapbox in the past and argued for the fact that the point of value in a library/archive relates back to the characteristics of the medium used for information storage, and I still feel that this point is maybe not lost, but at least misinterpreted, by a lot of people working within archival institutions, due to that techno-euphoria we experienced in the 90s. I see too much evidence, daily, of a blinkered faith in technology to believe otherwise.

If I can focus on one, small, aspect of "digital" - software - let me try and convey part of what I mean. I imagine that in thirty years, the people we call librarians now - cataloguers, collection developers, etc - will be required to have an understanding of the philosophic divisions discussed in works like "The Cathedral and the Bazaar", they will need to have an awareness of economic models like consumer perpetuation within the context of commercial digital products (pdf, 229KB).

They will need a solid background in the debate around copyright in the digital age (via Lawrence Lessig, for example), and dare I say, a cynical awareness of the desire of large media to cripple the digital medium with similar reproduction issues to those that prompted the initial migration from physical mediums to digital in the first place. They will need a natural awareness of the change in social interaction and communication that now informs people's information expectations. This understanding will need to be a living, breathing, osmotic part of their world, in order for a "digital library" to be a successful thing.

My point is, that during these formative years of the digital libraries of the world, we need the familiarity of technologists with the debates within the digital tools and methods available to us, in order to minimise our false steps. If we take the easier path of behaving like digital consumers ourselves with our decision-making, the only thing seperating us from what Joe Public can do at home himself is the scale of our provided services - and most people reading this would know how good digital systems are for ironing out differences in scale. Aside from meeting our core needs in terms of functions, let us also be judicious in our digital choices in terms of whether we are serving Joe Library-goer with innovative thinking, or serving Joe Library-goer by paying software multinationals millions of dollars each year to give us their branded form of innovation in lieu of our own (Innovation v.3.72 now available! Licensing terms apply). We can contribute much more than that.

We need to to be working to promote open standards that people - individuals - public - can participate in and benefit from, like the web standards recently launched by the NZ Government. We need to be working hard on developing hardware and software agnostic digital object standards, on an open basis, and champion them, so that Adobe/Apple/Microsoft don't become the curators of the worlds digital output. And in my opinion, we need to provide people with the openly accessible, indiscriminatory, Read/Write digital archive they need - that might sound crazy, but making books freely lendable to the public probably sounded mad to the inhabitants of the religious libraries that predated the printing press too. It's not enough that we are enthusiastic about working in a digital world, we must be thoughtful and discriminating in our development of that world, and be committed in carrying out the work required to enable people to benefit from it.

By Emerson Vandy

Emerson is Digital Services Manager, taking good care of Papers Past, nzresearch.org, and occasionally a beard.

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