Opposites Attract

By Tom Peters |

A quick question:  What is the opposite of librarianship?  What’s the first thing that comes to mind?  I can imagine some of you thinking that the Web is the opposite of librarianship.  Perhaps for some of you, tagging came to mind because it’s so uncontrolled and messy.  Or perhaps Amazon's Kindle is the opposite of librarianship, as it tries to create an instantaneous celestial bookstore.  Perhaps some of you wondered what “opposite” means in the context of this question.  Maybe the question prompted you to ask in return, “Well, before we search for its opposite, perhaps we should wonder what librarianship itself is.”  There’s no correct answer to this pop quiz...it's just food for thought.

As I think about this question myself, I keep coming back to a very tentative thesis that has been forming in my mind over the years.  To wit:  The rapid development and deployment of information technologies and computerized networks in the past 25 years, coupled with the explosion of information and data, combined with the diffusion of the power to create and disseminate information (blogs, tags, photos, videos, audio recordings, etc.), has created a situation in which the opposites of librarianship are in the ascendant, creating new relationships with librarianship itself.  

Although that last sentence reads like a dissertation topic, let me try to begin to address it here in a few hundred words, then save the dissertation writing for much, much later. 

Before we dive into some examples, however, we also should ruminate on a related question:  Regardless of how we and our coterie of colleagues decide to respond to this pop quiz, we also should consider how our profession responds to what it perceives as it opposite.  Some members of the profession – hardliners, I guess we could call them – advocate a combative response to the opposites of librarianship.  We should shut and bar the gates of our profession to these Huns and Visigoths.  We should denounce them publicly.  The way some members of the profession respond to Wikipedia is Exhibit A.

Other members of the profession, and I count myself among them – these would be your typical Commie pinkos in days of yore – are fascinated by all these recent developments that seem to fly in the face of some core values we've developed over the years.  Rather than shun and belittle these developments, we should scrutinize them to learn what they tell us about the future of information and information services.   

Here are a few examples of what I have in mind.  

1.      From Here to Eternity:  The archival impulse always has been a strong component of librarianship.  We often think about and plan for the long-term custodial needs of information objects, be they animal, mineral, vegetable, synthetic, or digital in nature.  The Huns and Visigoths, on the other hand, focus on the here and now (and, the hardliners would say, willfully ignore the long-term impact of their actions).  They develop services like Twitter and the Kindle.  There are too many library web-based reference services that guarantee a 24-hour turnaround time, when even a 24-minute turnaround time would be unacceptably slow to most potential users of such a service.    

2.      Power to the People:  Traditionally librarians have liked to design (or purchase) information systems that are more-or-less complete when they are made available to the population served.  The idea and practice of extended public betas sprung from the Huns and Visigoths, not from us.  Additionally, if some user of the library wants to gather and ingest our information riches, then go away and write a dissertation, that’s fine.  They have our blessing.  If, however, a horde of users wants to add value to the information systems and services that we thought were more-or-less complete when we rolled them out, that rankles a bit.  It can be difficult to embrace the idea that tagging, commenting, rating, and adding personal content to a public information system is the way to go.  As new information services are designed and deployed, the Huns and Visigoths will be pushing this envelope of “power to the people” big time. 

3.      Precious Information Objects:  The traditional stance of librarianship is to cherish individual information objects.  This springs directly from the historical fact that librarianship developed in times and places where information objects were scarce and precious.  The Huns and Visigoths have grasped the idea that we now live in an age of info-plenty, with no end in sight.  Most of the traditional systems and processes developed by librarians for handling information are being overwhelmed.  One example:  Although I’m very encouraged by the audio description movement, which makes digital photos and other non-textual visual information accessible to blind and low-vision individuals, I worry that the average time to write and record an audio description of a single digital image – approximately 30 minutes – is too darn slow to make a dent in the growing welter of outstanding digital images available online.      

4.      The Biggest Opposite of All:  For me, the information systems being hatched by Google, Amazon, Twitter, and the remainder of the barbaric legions are little more than the play of light upon the information surfaces of our lives.  The big forthcoming sea change -- which, alas, may swamp librarianship -- is the coming merger of the longstanding opposition between experiential learning (the school of hard knocks) and vicarious learning (book larnin’).  Libraries, librarianship, and library use are thoroughly entrenched in vicarious learning.  People use libraries to read and learn about the collective experiences and insights of others.  The Huns and Visigoths, particularly their avatars in virtual worlds, are developing information experiences that blend experiential learning and vicarious learning.  Libraries probably need to become information theme parks.  Who wants to go to today’s theme park to read about someone else’s experience riding a roller coaster?  We want to experience that for ourselves!  Library users of 2050 probably will make the same demand of libraries.     

Opposites attract.  Hence the interesting information times in which we live.