Today the Users, Tomorrow the Objects

By Tom Peters |

Stan FrebergAbout forty years ago Sunsweet Pitted Prunes ran a famously funny TV ad, written by Stan Freberg.  It featured a stuffy British character actor complaining about the fact that prunes contained pits and were wrinkled.  Once you have a prune pit in your mouth, there is no graceful way to extricate it.  All wrinkled fruit is abhorrent.   

Then he is offered a new Sunsweet pitted prune.  He displays some interest and enjoyment, then reminds the off-screen pitchman that the prunes still contain wrinkles.  Cut to the punchline: "Today the pits, tomorrow the wrinkles. Sunsweet marches on." 

I was thinking about that classic commercial today as I pondered how librarianship marches on.

Today the Users

Remember those genteel discussions we used to have about what to call the people who darkened the doorways of our physical libraries?  Calling them patrons was rather patronizing.  If we called them customers, that contained a whiff of filthy lucre.  To call them clients straddled the fence between business and the professions, which made us uncomfortable, as fence straddling is wont to do.  Referring to them as users made them sound like they were information addicts.  Perhaps they were. 

Then the Internet and the Web came along, spawning phrases such as "remote users" and "remote patrons" and the "library without walls."  It was all very exciting.

The funny thing was, no one I spoke with about this naming issue ever entertained the notion that "none of the above" should be considered as a suitable sobriquet for library users.  One lesson of recent history is that "none of the above" was the correct answer all along. 

Turns out, many library users did not want to be mere users of libraries, library systems, and library services.  They wanted to contribute to the richness and value of "our" systems by adding reviews, comments, tags, ratings, and even -- perish the thought -- their own original creative works.  They wanted to help us make library information systems even better and more useful, and they didn't want to do it merely by completing an annual feedback survey. 

Now these "Creative Artists Formerly Known as Users" are pushing the notion of communal information systems in interesting, sometimes troubling, ways.  They are the pits, and I mean that in the sunniest, sweetest way.

Tomorrow the Objects

PrinceHave you ever noticed how much of what we do as librarians relates to information objects?  We select objects (books, electronic resources, digital audiobooks, etc.), acquire and organize them, describe them, circulate them, archive them, convert them, and mollycoddle them in every way imaginable.  We are so object-oriented, sometimes it is difficult to see the forest for the trees.

Not only have we given information objects a lasting professional embrace, but we also have designed our information systems so that users and "Artists Formerly Known as Users" should show proper obeisance to information objects.  We expect them to search for, cite, save, print, copy, and share information objects.  Many people have come to accept that using an information system is all about searching for and using information objects.  If an information experience were not object-oriented, what would it feel like?    

Here's an interesting wrinkle.  What if the future of experiencing information will be less oriented toward objects and focused more on the total experience?  Experiencing information will be more like taking in -- and then immersing one's self in -- a scenic vista than counting and hoarding blades of grass.  Some of the recent developments in "serious games" and virtual worlds seem to point to such an information future.  

This does not mean that information objects will become useless.  Each gestalt information experience will be constructed of information objects, which are carefully crafted and organized by librarians, end-users, and other experience creators -- the artists formerly known as content creators.  While attention to information objects will continue to be essential during the initial design and redesign phases, the creative, immersive use of information systems will emphasize the learning experience, not the individual information objects.     

Today the users, tomorrow the objects.  Librarianship marches on.