Digital Dilemmas

I keep noting interesting things to read, and all of them appear to be about one of two things: this intriguing new digital world of ours holds all kinds of exciting potential – or digitization is fraught with moral, economic, legal, and cultural risk.

On the positive side, there’s Richard Ekman’s editorial in the Washington Post, “The Books Google Could Open.” He points out that, for higher education, having even snippets of books available will help students expand their horizons beyond the local library collection and avoid the problem of ordering a book through interlibrary loan, only to find it isn’t really useful.

Colleges and universities have conflicting interests in this dispute. Some operate their own publishing houses and hope to sell books. Some faculty members are authors and hope to earn royalties from sales. But the major interest of colleges and universities is as users of information — helping thousands of students and teachers find what they need and making these materials available. In this regard, the advantages of Google’s service are enormous, especially for smaller colleges without huge budgets for library purchases.

But hang on, says Ben Vershbow at if:book. Librarians who jump ont his bandwagon are selling culture and society short and should hold Google accountable. By letting Google dictate the terms, and keep them secret (until enterprising reporters use the law to open them up) major libraries are letting a corporate entity rummage through their collections, digitize what they want without limiting future potential use, and reap the rewards.

Google, a private company, is in the process of annexing a major province of public knowledge, and we are allowing it to do so unchallenged. To call the publishers’ legal challenge a real challenge, is to misidentify what really is at stake. Years from now, when Google, or something like it, exerts unimaginable influence over every aspect of our informated lives, we might look back on these skirmishes as the fatal turning point. So that’s why I turn to the librarians. Raise a ruckus.

The Atlantic has an article (a nice bookend to the recent one in the New Yorker) on Wikipedia that is largely positive. Marshall Poe calls it “history’s biggest experiment in collaborative knowledge.”

For all intents and purposes, the project is laying claim to a vast region of the Internet, a territory we might call “common knowledge.” It is the place where all nominal information about objects of widely shared experience will be negotiated, stored, and renegotiated. When you want to find out what something is, you will go to Wikipedia, for that is where common knowledge will, by convention, be archived and updated and made freely available. And while you are there, you may just add or change a little something, and thereby feel the pride of authorship shared by the tens of thousands of Wikipedians.

So isn’t this Web 2.0 great? Not so fast, says Tom Scocca in an article on YouTube in the New York Observer, which seems to require grumpiness in its house style. Once the Web was “a text-based panopticon,” embarrassing writers whose words lived on, however stale or ill-considered. Now every embarrassing moment ever captured on television lives on . . . and on, and on.

Print could aim to be stolid and enduring, piling up in libraries or, at worst, on microfiche. TV made its getaway. If you weren’t right there and watching with everyone else when something happened, you didn’t see it. Reruns or syndication could give you another chance, but you still had to catch the moment . . . YouTube dispels the mystical air around witnessing things. The TV audience doesn’t have to stick around.

There you have it, our “brave new world” – according to either Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest or Aldous Huxley. Take your pick.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

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