King James, Gutenberg, and Information Abundance

Libraries are solutions to the problem of information scarcity

Libraries, broadly speaking, are solutions to the problem of information scarcity. Given a world in which information is rare, difficult to acquire, and expensive; collecting information into a central location where it can be shared with a population of users is a very good idea. People who on their own could not afford to purchase all of the books they want to read can pool their money and build institutions that collect, house, and share books. Libraries are genius solutions to the problems posed by information scarcity.

More and more often, however, I’m left wondering what happens when information scarcity is no longer the overriding information issue? It is still a big issue, mind you, and for the present, libraries are still appropriate solution to information scarcity. However, digital information products, the Internet, WordPress and other free self-publication platforms, and Wikipedia have changed this. Or at least have changed this for people w/ computers, smartphones, tablets and ubiquitous broadband connections. As one of my favorite librarians has pointed out: the IMDB app on a smartphone has changed bar-bets about movie casts forever. Wikipedia on a smartphone changes ready-reference for ever. We’re still figuring out the full extent of the disruption, but for many of our patrons this means that they no longer need libraries to discover that Lima is the capitol of Peru or that Val Kilmer starred in Real Genius.

The King James Bible & Wikipedia: information in the hands of the masses

Lisa Miller’s belief.net blog post: My Take: How technology could bring down the church made some connections between the King James Bible and current disruptive technological changes in the information world. I thought it was very interesting to read how other fields are dealing with the same issues libraries face. Bear with me, please, and I’ll explain. The KJV was the first version of the Christians’ scriptures available in the English language to the masses. Before its publication and distribution, members of a church congregation were completely dependent on their priest or minister to both provide and interpret their spiritual information. After it was published and distributed, anyone who was literate and could get their hands on a copy had direct access to the holy text. Before the KJV individuals who wanted information about the scriptures where wholly reliant on their churches and priests/ministers to provide it. After the KJV, they had personal access to the information, but still had use for someone to help them put it into an appropriate context.

Compare this to libraries. Before digital information, ubiquitous broadband, peer-generated content, and self-publishing platforms (hereafter loosely referred to as “the Internet”) libraries were the prime source of information to a community. After the emergence of the Internet, our patrons have less need of us as sources of information, but more need of us as providers of context, of  filters, and as sense-makers for that information. The library of the future must be a solution to the problem of information abundance, since the Internet has rendered many of the problems of information scarcity moot.

This is why I think we can compare today’s libraries with churches in England after the KJV was published.

[ Note: this doesn’t mean I’m going to stretch the metaphor to include the round-heads overthrowing the monarchy, the restoration of the monarchy, or the Glorious Revolution; but it may mean I’ve read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle a few too many times. Every librarian should read Stephenson’s Liebniz talk about classification theory and his design for a mechanical catalogs of books.]

Libraries today are an institution that traditionally have had the mission to supply our patrons with access to information. This is still a real need for many in our communities, especially the most economically vulnerable, but technological innovation is changing this mission by starting to solve the core problem that libraries were founded to solve.

Libraries are solutions to the problem of information abundance

Where I’m going with this is simply to point out that the crisis that libraries are facing now has been faced successfully by others in the past. The facts that our patrons have access to a wealth of information before they ever step through our doors or touch an item in our collections, do not inevitably lead to the coming irrelevance of libraries. I think it means that libraries have to shift our focus to solving new kinds of problems. We’re good with descriptive metadata. We’re good at indexing and abstracting. We’re good at talking with people and helping them figure out what information they need and then helping them find it. All of those skills are applicable to the problem of information abundance. We may just need to get used to the idea that our libraries will (someday) no longer own the information we’re helping people find. Instead of cataloging our own collections, maybe we’ll be applying tags to existing content. Maybe we’ll be teaching website creators how to describe and apply descriptive cataloging to their webpages (something the marketers call SEO). Maybe we’ll be collecting the links, networks, and communities of our users and leveraging that data to help make local resources findable. All of these things need doing and we have the skills to do all of them. Many people have said this before (few more eloquently than Eli Neuberger), but it bears repeating: providing access to circulating collections is outmoded. Thankfully, libraries do a lot more than provide access to library collections.

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