Karen’s Uber-Trend

I’m tempted to respond in kind to some of the lively posts about Top Tech Trends I’ve read on this blog. But I don’t have much to add about web services, the eternally backwards ILS, or standards-clueless vendors, other than “you post for me.” I particularly enjoyed Leo Klein’s discussion of his MEGO response (Mine Eyes Glaze Over) to traditional “fat client” virtual reference software, and Sarah and Leo’s accolades for lightweight IM clients. Sometimes I wonder what a refrigerator designed by librarians would look like–and how long it would take to chill food.

But to get back to my point, in thinking about top technology trends affecting libraries, I tried to step beyond the specific trends I see in society and look at the changes for the last several decades. (In other words, I tried to be Cliff, without the brains or the leather jacket.) In doing so I saw I must return again to a point I made in January. Information is becoming a conversation. Information is no longer asynchronous received wisdom disseminated in formal publications to a passive and largely unexamining community. Instead, increasingly, information is increasingly synchronous.

Information’s synchronicity is apparent in the blogging spectrum, where it has become expected that communities will not only read, listen, and view information, but write, speak, and illustrate their responses, which become an additional form of information. This synchronicity is apparent in Amazon reader reviews, blogging exposes such as Dan Rathergate, the rise in independent video and television, and podcasting, an underground “folk radio” phenomenon poorly understood by our own profession even though the most popular library websites do not get a tenth as much traffic as the most popular podcasts.

Writer A publishes an article, perhaps a blog post, perhaps an article in a well-known magazine. In the old days, aside from a letter or two to the editor, carefully vetted for publication, that would be the end of it: the writer hath spoken. The article, now part of the corpus of received wisdom, would be cited in indexes, and after its initial debut retrieved for future edification by reading the article itself, in situ, or at the greatest remove, a photocopied version of the article that was a facsimile of the article in situ.

These days, when Writer A publishes an article—or a blog article, or webcast, or a recording–the conversation has just begun. Reader A, finding the article and commenting about it, becomes Writer B, who is read by Readers B, C, D, E, and F, who then become Writers C, D, E, F, and G, who are then read by the rest of the alphabet many times over. It is like rabbit sex: generations of readers who through the act of writing–the reader’s procreation method–quickly and prolifically multiply, producing generations of more readers who become writers who are then read by readers who become writers, ad infinitum, ad network.

The original article, infinitely linked and relinked and now indexed in everyone’s favorite search engine, grows legs and wanders across the information universe. It is no longer safely ensconced within its tidy cocoon of its original publication. It is examined—cruelly or carefully, depending on your point of view—without much concern for the author’s original intent, or for the theme of the publication, or any other niceties. It is examined, in fact, as if it were not a recent article but an artifact unearthed decades or centuries in the future, like a potshard found in a cave.

For better or worth, each word so exposed by the disembodied article stands on its own merit and can be and often is endlessly discussed and examined and discussed some more and reexamined in the seemingly infinite ink-pot of the digital universe. The writer’s words no longer represent the opinion of the publication that presented them originally but of a body of thought, even a “community.” Discussions range from the evidence-driven to the fantastical, millions of miles from the intent of the original piece of work. The author’s ideas, bumped off their petard of publication privilege, now stand on their own, naked in their interpretation, and live and die on their own merits, without the mantle of assumption from the publication that originally published the piece.

The original writer, if she is unwise or daring enough to intrude on this discussion, may find herself the object of meticulous examination and fisking, not merely for what she said when she published the piece, but what she then said about her writing later on.

This is the world we inhabit today. This synchronicity has moved from potential to reality to expectation. The questions I have for libraries are how can you integrate your services in this post-modern, subjective, synchronistic universe? It is good to see libraries where the staff wear headsets and zoom around on rollerblades using wifi handhelds to answer reference questions. But what is your library doing to participate in the larger trend? Does your ILS offer user reviews on its resources? Do you blog library events and solicit user comments? Do you hold writers’ workshops (I know many of you did this year, courtesy of an ALA-Family Circle writing project)? Do you have new, ungrudging, encouraging tools that engage your users in the conversation about information? Where is your synchronicity?

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