Thursday, September 15, 2011

So Much More

This morning, a student sent me an e-mail with a link to a series of mysterious and beautiful incidents happening in Scottish libraries this year. An anonymous (and very talented) artist has left intricately detailed paper sculptures in at least seven libraries, along with notes of encouragement and support. The first sculpture, found in the National Poetry Library, was left with this note:
... We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books… a book is so much more than pages full of words.… This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas….. a gesture (poetic maybe?)
Though the word library has "book" at its very heart (liber = "book" in Latin), any library worth its salt is all about content rather than containers. A library's mission is to provide information/knowledge/content to its patrons, and the best way to do that is to collect and store the information in containers that patrons can use. The 21st century has swept in with a monumental shift in preferred containers - as digital books on CD-ROM, then as online texts that lived on the Internet. The current wave is bringing in digital texts that arrive through the Internet, but that live on and are accessed through devices that don't have to be connected in order to be read (Kindle, iPad/Pod/Phone).

I think that the discomfort of the "digital immigrant" population's resistance to the ever shortening tether to the Almighty Screen (my bias shines through, doesn't it??) is at its heart a worry about the quality of online content. Librarians and teachers fuss about the shallowness of content and how easy it is for users to find mediocre information online; on the other hand, we happily offer periodical databases and online journals and downloadable unabridged novels.

My struggle with the Almighty Screen is ongoing. I use and teach with a computer all day, the Internet is a go-to for all kinds of questions, deep and otherwise, and I LOVE my iPad. About half of my summer books got read as Kindle books, iBooks, or ePub books borrowed/downloaded from the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library. And yet I read with concern (with a Kindle app on my iPad) the huge volume of research data collected in Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which very clearly demonstrates that the nature of electronic reading fundamentally changes our neurological pathways, and exercises very different areas of the brain than does print-on-paper reading. Carr argues that the medium IS the message, that the device determines how information is packaged and delivered. For every gain (ease and wealth of information, available to everyone, quickly) there is a loss or trade-off (we don't pay attention very well or for very long any more). Rolling the newspaper, a novel, an encyclopedia, your diary, the postal service, the typewriter, the television, the radio, and the video game console all into one portable device means potential for knowledge and potential for distraction everywhere, all the time, just a click or a flick away.

So many things are different and scary when content is separated from container. For librarians there are practical challenges -- how do we describe and store information for easy retrieval (ie, catalog) when it's not in a fixed container? How do we help people find and make sense of information when they don't have to come to the library for the container? How do we justify spending a large percentage of annual budgets to collect information that is available only as long as we pay the vendor and the electricity bill? How will artists create art out of books, if there are no books?

The Kindle experiment last spring gave rise to my "content not container" philosophy, and -- contrary to trends in many other excellent school libraries -- we're not going into the business of loaning eReaders. We will be looking to start loaning content for our students and faculty to read via their container of choice - be it a Kindle, an iPad, a Nook or a Netbook. I am looking forward to's upcoming launch of their library-loanable Kindle books (I like the way Amazon's Kindle app makes their Amazon-only books readable on many devices other than just Kindles).

The criteria for choosing the content will be the same as ever -- high-quality content that meets the personal and educational information needs of the Paideia community. Fiction, non-fiction, audiobooks, eBooks, print books too. And our daily work will remain the same -- to teach (guide, lead, coach, accompany) students and faculty to find, evaluate and use the desired information. Some things don't have to change.

Libraries are, and should always be, so much more than than buildings full of book.