Thursday, 29 May 2014

Adaptive Librarians and Artificial Life Forms

An article from the Wall Street Journal’s “Speakeasy” blog opens with a statistic from a Pew (an American research centre) survey which claims that 34% of Americans think public libraries haven’t kept up with new technology, while 55% disagree. Although these percentages probably wouldn’t be identical in Canada, I don’t believe the opinions of our citizens would differ very much. If I went into the nearest library to my home in London, Ontario, I’m 99% sure that it would look just as it had when I was nine years old. It’s a small neighbourhood library and the only technology available to patrons comes in the form of computers provided for using the internet or searching the library catalogue. The only NEW technology I’ve actually seen appear is the digital self-checkout, which isn’t exactly going to change lives or lead young minds into the future of publishing and books as we known them. I’m almost positive I could accomplish more alone in my room on my laptop than wandering amongst the limited stacks and massive monitors at the library.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article presents a contrary suggestion. It claims that we need libraries, and librarians, more than ever. I’d like to believe this is true. The institution and the librarian are presented as a space and an instructor, where and to whom one could go for help with unravelling the tangled ball of yarn that is internet research. The president of the American Library Association, Barbara K. Stripling, goes so far as to call librarians the “digital guides” of ebook readers who may feel overwhelmed by the new technology. I am personally not a reader of ebooks. I don’t know whether my own public libraries not carrying this technology has had anything to do with it or not. However, if ever I were to start checking books out of my local library on an ereader, I think a librarian in the know would be a great asset. Librarians, in my opinion, seem like trustworthy and authoritative individuals by nature. I believe I would feel quite comfortable going to them on a device I was unfamiliar with as I wouldn’t worry about being judged for my lack of know-how like I might be in other locations or situations (e.g. at a computer store, or surrounded by tech-savvy peers).

The next part of the WSJ article goes from the ease of asking a librarian for help with research to the somewhat unnerving concept of drones. Choosing between the two, I’d certainly prefer to have a librarian walk me through the use of an ereader than have Rosie from “The Jetsons”/the robot from “Lost in Space”/Marvin from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” whiz over (or trudge depressingly, in the latter case) with my digital copy of. . . War of the Worlds, for example. I know I’m combining drones and robots here, but generally I’d rather see ebooks as the future of publishing in libraries than a servile drone who might accidentally roll over my foot or chuck a book at me from across the library that whacks me in the head.

I think the WSJ article hits its stride towards the end. The writer suggests that another possible future is with “living libraries,” which allow patrons to be in direct contact with librarians or other possessors of knowledge, no matter where they are. To me, this sounds fantastic. I picture it as a sort of interactive encyclopaedia where, once you’ve found information from a book (physical or digital), you can expand on what you’ve gathered immediately with the help of an expert. It’s basically like reading an intro to, say, American modernist poetry, then getting a one-on-one talk from Gertrude Stein to expound upon the concepts you just read. The benefit of the real thing being, of course, the exclusion of corpse reanimation. Maybe this sort of thing would be over in the drone library across the street. The last idea I find interesting from this article is that future libraries could be destinations for participation in cultural activities. I’m going to pick this up later on with a case study on the Boston Public Library.

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