Daily Archives: May 15, 2006

Book Soup

Kevin Kelly has a manifesto, “Scan This Book,” in the New York Times Magazine. He suggests readers are about to enter paradise as books are digitized. Not only will the third world have access to the world’s greatest libraries (terrific; can we have reliable electricity with that?) but by swimming in a liquid sea of book soup everything written will be reinscribed, shared, modified in creative new ways, uncovered, linked, reborn. “In the clash between the conventions of the book, and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail.”

There is always in these utopian dreams the assumption that books within covers are separate and unsearchable and readers who read printed books have never shared their experiences, as if sharing and blending can only happen if the texts are digital. Libraries don’t lock books up; they put them together so they can be discovered. And readers have always shuffled, even when what they’re shuffling is on paper pages. Will discovery be easier with an electronic search engine? Certainly – if you’re looking for something specific. But a small library is sometimes better for discovery than a huge one. It’s just a different kind of discovery.

Digitizing books does highlight the problem of using “copy” as a key concept of law in a digital age. But being able to search the content of books online won’t fundamentally change the way we read or write. We already tag, shuffle, share, and reinscribe. The only real change in how we do this will come if publishers react to the “threat” of access (or the opportunity of licensing access) by moving to a pay-per-view model. Or if the invitation to modify texts means erasing the embarrassing bits of history.

The “revolutionary” affordances that Kelly describes of the digital library are true of the traditional library. Let’s hope we don’t lose them as publishers overreact to manifestos like these – or as people in power try to rewrite the record or sell it to the highest bidder. As Linda Kerber, President of the American Historical Association, points out in a frightening essay in the Chron, this utopian dream has a dark side. If we’re not vigilant, we could lose our national memory.

To Improve What You Do – Study People

Academic librarians are no strangers to the process of asking our users “how are we doing?” Conducting user surveys, either for measuring satisfaction or service quality, are traditional methods for gauging how well the library meets the needs of its users. The results, we hope, will better inform us on how to improve library services, operations, and resources. The challenge with user surveys is that we don’t really know how accurately they measure our success. Usability studies have gained popularity more recently, but those efforts tend to focus solely on the library web site. But the idea is correct. Learn to improve by watching what people do when they use your systems, services, or resources. ACRLog has previously reported on how librarians at the University of Rochester are using anthropological techniques to study their user community. Clearly, the popularity of using such techniques is growing.

The latest issue of PC Magazine has a lengthy article on “corporate anthropology.” It discusses how computer makers are hiring anthropologists who spend time with product users to better understand how consumers are actually using the products. From the article:

Product development has historically been predicated on a “build it and they will come” basis. But times are changing, consumer choice is increasing and the game plan has evolved. Ethnography, a branch of anthropology, uses a variety of research methods to study people in a bid to understand human culture. Since top companies across several industries are treating ethnography as a means of designing for and connecting with potential customers, technology companies have recently begun investing significantly more research time and money into the field. At chip giant Intel, for example, the company spent approximately $5 billion on ethnographic research and development during 2004.

The reference to “build it and they will come” should resonate with academic librarians because that is frequently how innovation occurs in our libraries. We tend to put new services or resources out there for our user communities, and then we wait to see if anyone uses it. In those situations where new efforts flop we lack the methods to better understand why and what corrections to make. And even if these new resources or services are used, without a design approach there is no formative evaluation in place to identify where improvements can be made. I see the use of anthropological techniques as fitting into a design process in that it is a more thoughtful approach to the planning and implementation of services. But I also see connections between the use of “library anthropology” and “non-library professionals” in that most smaller university and college libraries, those with greater resource constraints and the inability to add folks like anthropologists to their staffs, will be more challenged to improve their libraries using these innovative techniques.