A failure of imagination - the problem with format neutrality

28 May 2012

I often hear librarians promoting their ‘modern librarian’ credentials by saying “it’s about the information, not the container”.  By this they tend to mean that librarians in a world of instantly downloadable ebooks, subscription journal databases and multiple other formats for audio, visual and written works should be format-neutral.  That we should not be concerned about in which formats information is available, as long as it is available somehow. But what if it is about the container?

About the container

If it wasn’t about the container I wouldn’t become enraged every time I’m using my iPad and tap on a link to an interesting-sounding website coded with Flash.  If it wasn’t about the container frail old ladies wouldn’t ask if you have any large print books published in soft back and not too long please dear I can’t hold them up in bed.  If it wasn’t about the container your members would be able to download their Overdrive books to a Kindle.  If it wasn’t about the container the US Department of Justice wouldn’t be suing major publishers for collusion because they were so desperate to break Amazon’s market power.

The reason your library website stinks and it’s all your fault is that you thought the container didn’t matter. How do you expect your members to find things when the container the information sits within resembles a pool of vomit or, at best, a trifle?  Because it’s about the container your patrons don’t know what your library provides for them, because when they click on a link to find journal articles it takes them from the Everytown Library to a weird website called Galcentage, or EBOLA, or something.  And didn’t I just log in before?  What even is this?  Because it’s about the container is why Google only has one box.  Because it’s about the container is why User Experience experts have jobs, and why they call it ‘UX’.  Because it’s about the container is why Myspace has 30 million users and Facebook has 901 million.  Because it’s about the container is why there are blog posts called “20 of the world’s most beautiful libraries” and why there are none called “20 of the world's most useful libraries rated in terms of the information they can make available”.

About the container is exactly what it is.

Designed for the job

Last week US President Obama ordered all major government agencies to make two key services available on mobile phones within a year.  He hasn’t asked them to create two new services, he has ordered them to make two of their existing services fully available from a smartphone.  Obama knows that the information is important, but the container determines whether or not it is useful.  Likewise, part of the success of Wikipedia is due to their focus from the very beginning on fast load speeds and widespread accessibility.  WIkipedia wanted to be the encyclopaedia for the world - not the world in the usual American sense of ’All 50 states plus Britain and the nice bits of Europe’ but the actual world.  The world of crappy 26kbps dialup modems in the Andes and 2G feature phones in Africa.  Wikipedia isn’t the prettiest thing to look at, but it is perfectly designed for the job it wants to perform.

Thinking that all containers are equal is what has led librarians down the dead ends in which we sometimes find ourselves.  Considering an ebook edition and a hardback edition of the same book to be equally useful is all very well, but what happens when the publisher has different ideas?  What happens when HarperCollins decides you can only lend the ebook version 26 times?  Or when Penguin decides you can’t have any ebooks at all?  Or when your members can use any ereader except the one that 80% of your ebook reading members own? What happens when I bought the ebook from Amazon and now i want to transfer it to my Sony reader?  Is subscribing to a bunch of journals or licensing ebooks really the same as owning them?  Can you really say that you have electronic access to a title when the only way members can get it is to go to the library and ask a librarian for the password to log in?

A failure of imagination

Thinking that the container doesn’t matter betrays a failure of imagination.  When ebooks finally started to become available commercially librarians jumped on them, thinking they would be just like paper books only better - no damage, no overdues and no shelf required.  But why would they be just like paper books?  Ebooks are nothing like paper books.  Lending an ebook is an absurdity.  There is no technical reason why every member of your library can not be reading the same ebook simultaneously.  There is no technical or physical reason to set a limit on the amount of time members have to read ebooks.  The amount of energy, money and technical development put towards making ebooks lendable just like paper books reminds me of the old story about NASA developing a pen that would write in zero gravity, whilst the Russians just used pencils.  The idea of ‘lending’ ebooks is a simple Pavlovian response to hundreds of years of dealing with physical books.  The new container for books changes everything - distribution, economics, interactivity, standard length, even the way we understand the world.  Saying that nothing has changed and then getting shitty when publishers beg to differ doesn’t help your members - quite the reverse.

An Open Access journal called Wordpress

The Open Access movement in universities appears to be gathering steam.  I have admired their work and their good arguments, but I sometimes wonder if they too are victims of a failure of imagination.  The whole institution of academia and career progress within universities is based around the getting papers published in professional journals, which in turn are rated according to some arcane calculation of their worthiness.  Obsessing over open access journals only makes sense in these terms.  If the issue was only that new scientific discoveries need to be made available free of charge to the world, it would be a simple matter of each researcher having their own website and posting their papers as the research is written, with peer review via the comments - an open access journal called Wordpress.  Instead, researchers and publishers are caught in an absurd discussion around ‘green open access’ versus ‘gold open access’, Harvard University’s library says it can’t afford to subscribe to so many journals any more, and citizen researchers have long been locked out of any meaningful role in scientific progress.  All because the measured value of researchers is tied to the seventeenth-century economics of scientific publishing.

Perfect access under imperfect conditions

I’d like librarians to forget about content for a little while - we solved that problem already.  The problem you need to solve isn’t the storage or accumulation of information.  The problem you need to solve is access to information and useful ways to share ideas.  Not access according to the old models, or your present circumstances.  I want you to think about the perfect model of access, under imperfect conditions.  Not what can be found at a PC terminal inside the library with a librarian at your elbow, but what can be found from a smartphone on the bus when the monthly data plan is running low and the assignment is due tomorrow.

Do you want to help your community to access ideas worth sharing?  Well you’d better make sure your catalogue makes it as easy as TED.com does.  Want to make sure your online tools are useful and clear no matter what device is used to access them?  Follow the lead of Wikipedia.  Want to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful? You’d better have a search tool as user-friendly as Google.  Want to give people more power to share and make the world more open and connected? You’d better make a platform as powerful as Facebook.  Want to help your community to think different?  Make sure your services as intuitively easy to use as Apple’s.  Want to provide a platform for your community to create their own content and share ideas with the world?  Better make it as reliable and easy to use as Wordpress.

Sound hard?  You bet it is. But you didn’t become a librarian so you could sit in the quiet surrounded by books did you?

Discussed by

Literate Owl

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