Technolust - the fifth column of the information counter-revolution

Sun Mar 31 2013 00:51:51 GMT+1100 (AEDT)

I'm going to start with a story about growing up in Tasmania in the 1990s.

The economy wasn't great, with unemployment at around 11%, no economic growth to speak of and a high State debt. In these formative years, I was surrounded by both the defeatists and the hopelessly optimistic. Many said that the Tasmanian economy had no hope and had been on the downward slide since the end of Transportation. Others dreamed of the One Big Project that was going to save us all: the Mt Wellington cable car, the Oceanport cruiseship terminal, the enormous pulp and paper mill, the largest catamaran factory in the world.

The Oceanport company turned out to have $1 to its name, the catamaran company went bankrupt, the pulp mill dream ultimately saw a prominent businessman gaoled for bribery, a Premier resign in disgrace and the state's largest company fall into receivership. The cable car dream quietly slinked away, only to return recently as the economy again started to go sour.

But in the intervening decade, Tasmania's economy flourished. There was no One Big Project that achieved this. There were however lots of small projects. There was the ongoing success of the King Island Dairy. There were dozens and dozens of independent bed and breakfasts serving a growing tourist trade. There was the ever expanding Taste of Tasmania and Ten Days on the Island festivals. There were interstate expansions of home-grown beer and seafood brands Boags and Tassal. There was no one big project, just one big vision – a vision based on contested but broadly shared values of wholesome clean produce, pride in work and lack of pretention. Tasmanians still complain about their economy, but the improvement is obvious to someone like me who left 12 years ago.

Tasmania's problem wasn't a lack of big projects, funding or infrastructure.

It was a failure of self-belief.

We are in an era of unprecedented change for libraries and the life of information. Bookstores throughout the western world are closing down. Libraries in the USA, UK and some in Australia are being defunded or closed. Many question the relevance of libraries, including some librarians. I am again surrounded by defeatists and the hopelessly optimistic. Many librarians appear to be searching for One Big Technology to save us. I believe that just like in Tasmania in the 1990s, this is a flawed search.

I am not here to tell members of the Victorian Association for Library Automation that librarians should not embrace technology. But technology by itself is not the solution to the problems of libraries, because technology is not the cause of the problems of libraries. New technology is simply a fact of contemporary life.

When we introduce a new technology or program into our libraries, we need to be clear about why we are doing it, what it will achieve, and how we will measure its success. To do this we have to return to some basic ideas about libraries and information.If librarians are to successfully position libraries for the future, we must think about not just what libraries could do, but what they are, and what they are for.

A system for sharing ideas

I think it is useful to think about libraries not as buildings or collections or even as services but rather as a systems. A system that combines different practices, approaches, concepts and strategies into a unified whole.

At its heart, a library is a system for sharing ideas.

Each library system works in a slightly different way, but over the centuries four principles have underpinned the way libraries operate:

The reason for their primacy is that these four principles are crucial to the efficient and effective sharing of ideas.

PRESERVATION is the thing that ensures we can continue to share ideas between generations. Effective sharing of ideas requires that ideas remain easily discoverable and sharable. We might also call this 'findability'.

OPENNESS or EQUAL ACCESS ensures that ideas spread as far as possible. The more people exposed to an idea, the greater chance it has of being useful, even if it is only useful because it enlivens discussion or brings together a society in mutual disgust.

INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM works together with equal access when it comes to encountering ideas – it is not enough to provide equal access to approved or worthy ideas, we must provide access to ALL ideas. If such access is to be possible, of course, we also need to defend the right to create and record controversial ideas in the first place, otherwise we will have nothing to which to provide access and less ideas will be shared.

PRIVACY is crucial if equal access and intellectual freedom are to be effectively defended. Intellectual freedom means nothing if citizens are constantly looking over their shoulders. The chilling effect of the possibility that a future employer or a government official could discover ones reading history is enough to inhibit intellectual freedom, and this is bad because it slows or stops the sharing of ideas.

Whilst all four of these principles are worthy in of themselves, it is their combination to the purpose of maximising the sharing of ideas that justifies their position at the heart of how libraries operate.

There are many other systems for sharing ideas. Why do we need libraries? What is our 'unique value proposition'?

Libraries are a system for sharing ideas

in a way underpinned by the values of


This is our 'Unique Value Proposition'. This is what makes us different to Kindle Lending Library, Google Books, Apple iStore etc.

The Information Revolution / The Information Counter-Revolution

There have been many information revolutions throughout history: The revolutionary pattern is always that more people have access to more information and more people have the ability to disseminate information. That is, it increases both the READ and WRITE capacities of a civilisation). These are not necessarily equal (eg email increases the distribution of the ability to 'write' more than to 'read' whereas radio does the opposite).

In our own time, we have seen an exponential growth in both the ability to read and discover ideas and the ability to create and disseminate new ideas. The combined power of personal computing and open communication standards like HTML opened up almost infinite communication possibilities. The world wide web allowed anonymous or pseudonymous communication and information sharing on a global scale. Project Gutenberg invented the ebook and imagined it as a freely available public good.

It was inevitable that some people would fear this.

Revolutions always upset the contemporary power balance – that's what makes them revolutions. Incumbents will always try to reverse or co-opt the new revolution to maintain their existing power.

So we see that every revolution incites a counter-revolution.

In our own time, the counter-revolution fights on a wide front and creates some surprising combinations.

Some of these technological changes have been presented to us as new exciting products of the information revolution. As in the past, often the counter-revolution is cloaked in the language and imagery of the original revolution. Just like Stalin replacing the Czar, the tyranny of the publishing and broadcasting barons has been replaced by the tyranny of Apple, Google and Amazon.

As information professionals, this is the one time when we can not be neutral. In the battle over information, we must be partisan. Everything we stand for is under attack.

The fifth column

During the Spanish Civil War, General Emilio Mola told a journalist that whilst his four columns of troops approached Madrid, a 'fifth column' of supporters inside the city would undermine the Republican government from within. As librarians it is easy for us to be seduced by new technologies and inadvertently undermine the values we should be protecting. When we support or accept technologies that contradict those values, we become fifth columnists like Mola's Nationalists.

This is why I choose to talk about our contemporary love affair with new technology. Technology needs to help us to be revolutionaries, rather than collaborationists. And new technology must be useful as a tool, not merely as a symbol.

Paul Saffo says that the best gauge of a device's style quotient is whether it is as useful to its owner when it is turned off as when it is turned on. Saffo says that:

All civilisations fail by turning everything into entertainment and fashion. We need to become more explicit and conscious of deciding to make something new, instead of just doing it because it's novel.
So if the reason you are introducing a new technology is that everybody else is doing it, or you want your library to appear to be keeping up with modern trends, I strongly suggest you think again.

This doesn't mean that you should stop looking for new ideas, new technologies and new solutions. We need to be constantly looking for new ways to serve our communities. But it is important to realise that you are always making choices, even when you're not making them.

A choice to spend money on one technology means less money for other technology. Money for a 3D printer means less money for cataloguing or a new discovery layer, or faster wifi, or whatever.

And sinking into irrelevance by doing nothing is also a choice.

Margaret Thatcher famously said that

The problem with Socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money.
The problem with technolusting librarians is the same. Finite budgets require careful thought.

When you are considering the introduction of a new technology, you need to consider it in opposition not just to what you currently have, or lack, but in opposition to every other thing you could be spending time and money on.What is it about THIS technology that makes it so much more worthy of your time and money than any other technology? What is it that makes it so useful to your community?

So, what are the features for which we need to look? Steven Johnson's book Where good ideas come from provides great insight and direction for people like us who are in the idea-sharing business. Johnson takes his readers through seven basic concepts that work together to provide a fertile environment for ideas to flourish:

So these are the features for which we should be looking, and I could take you through them in more detail, but ensuring a new technology has those features is not enough.

As librarians, the most important question we need to ask of any given technology is not “What are the features?” but rather “What are the consequences?” Specifically, what are the consequences in relation to the Unique Value Proposition we discussed earlier: “Libraries are a system for sharing ideas in a way underpinned by the values of preservation, openness, freedom and privacy.” Sharing ideas isn't enough – it has to be underpinned by our values.

Let's go through some of those values now, and some of the problems we have:


Equal Access

This is the problem that most librarians seems to have a handle on. The actions of publishers in the online and electronic environment have seen access being eroded:

Intellectual Freedom



We can see from these examples that there are many things to consider when it comes to new technology. As librarians we have a responsibility to consider these things in a more comprehensive way than the average person. But we also have a responsibility to act.

Libraries around the world are under attack. I believe this is not just a misguided belief that the internet serves the same purpose as libraries, but rather it is a deliberate attack on the values underpinning libraries.

As I said at the beginning of this talk, technology is not the solution to our problems because technology is not the cause of our problems.The information commons is undergoing a cycle of Enclosure. We are being distracted with baubles while we are shepherded away from the real action. Who is setting the standards? Who determines the rules for access? Who is deciding how ideas can be shared, and by whom?

Among our profession there is a terrible fear that we're irrelevant and a desperate attempt to 'prove' that we aren't. I see technolust and the search for the One Big Technology as a sign that we don't want to face our problems honestly. We'd rather chase the latest whizz bang whatsit than work on the harder problems. We roll our eyes at the few who are talking about metadata standards and copyright law reform, and instead spend our time developing iPad lending programs and 3D printer marketing campaigns. We talk about a future of showrooming the latest consumer gadgets, instead of skilling up to build new tools ourselves.

Well, to paraphrase Kevin Rudd,

I don't want to be part of a profession that doesn't make things any more.
I don't mean making fast moving consumer goods with 3D printers, or making social media profiles. I mean making things like Melville Dewey made a new way to organise book collections. I mean making things like Vicnet made a platform for getting whole communities online. I mean making things like Jason Griffey made a way for libraries to share ideas electronically, anonymously and off-grid. I mean making things like the developers of Evergreen and Koha made new open source library management systems. I mean making things like Museums Victoria made a way for collectors and collecting societies to easily share our heritage.

As information professionals in the midst of an information counter-revolution we have a responsibility to be pro-active about asserting the values our profession is based upon. Indeed, it is not so much what technology we make available to our communities that matters, as much as how we provide it.

If the reason we're not irrelevant is that we don't do or believe any of the things we've done and believed for centuries, then what indeed is the point of libraries?

The thing that will make libraries irrelevant is not that we don't have every new gadget as it is released. What will make us irrelevant is throwing away our unique value proposition. We will become irrelevant when we ask 'what are the features?' without asking 'what are the consequences?”

If you don't want libraries to be irrelevant, you need to make sure you're asking the right questions.

When you think about preservation, you should ask “what sort of library lends books that self-destruct?”

When you think about access, you should ask “What sort of library extends access to information by allowing publishers to restrict access to it?”

When you think about freedom, you should ask “What sort of library finds it acceptable for an algorithm to determine what information its members are allowed to access?”

When you think about privacy, you should ask “What sort of library encourages its community to invade their own privacy?”

Just like Tasmania, it is a lack of self-belief that is the biggest danger to libraries, and a fierce defence of our traditional values that will keep libraries strong, vibrant and useful into the future.

So act boldly when considering your library's next technology project. Make it something based on our values of preservation, access, freedom and privacy. Make it open. Make it a platform for sharing ideas. Make it useful.

Do that, and libraries will be more relevant than ever before.

This post is the text from a talk I gave to the Victorian Association for Library Automation (VALA) on 27 March 2013.

Paul Saffa quote: Gallagher, W; New: understanding our need for novelty and change; Penguin, 2012; p217.

Winifred Gallagher quote: Gallagher, p173.

Featured image: Delacroix, Eugene; "La Liberte guidant le peuple"; Public Domain; Provided by Wikimedia

Lightbulb picture on slideshow: Public Domain; Provided by Wikimedia

Tasmania satellite image on slideshow: Public Domain (NASA); Provided by Wikimedia

Slides available at

Audio of the talk is available at

Discussed by



The underpinning

Over the Centuries