Empty Nest Syndrome

Birds Nest

I made myself chuckle a bit when contemplating just what the future holds regarding digital collections. I know that such topics are still fresh in the minds of librarians but I was thinking of the matter on a more abstract level. My thoughts were,

As we continue to see a greater increase in the amount of the collection which becomes digital, how do we relate to those items? In a sense, the digital books are more like children going off into the world on their own. Yes we try to keep in touch, but who knows what has changed in their lives. Maybe they have decided to throw out that old kitchen set (which was a family heirloom) or maybe they got a tattoo. [Think losing content and adding flashy features such as RSS for searches]

We don’t hear from them as often as we would hope and who knows what crowd they are associating with these days. [Which groups are using them and how often.]

And as we all know the only time they call is when they need money or help out of a jam. [Subscriptions and technical services.]

But everything will be fine as we know that they were raised with care…but what were their influences. Perhaps there are some of us who view these digital materials more like an estranged spouse. Bitter at the strange and incorporeal nature that a digitally born book can now exist as.

I myself wonder at what will be the end result of the merger of electronic technologies and the creature we see as a book. Are we approaching something much like the Memex once devised by Vannevar Bush in 1945? Before I knew of Mr. Bush’s amazing suggestion, I wondered if being able to electronically notate on a digital reader; and then to be able to save and share those notations, would be of any practical value. In a sense, these hyper-trails would be akin to reading the comments left by previous users on a web page.

I also feel that such a innovative electronic reader would make finding associated information and conduction research something that is as easy as creating a live bookmark on your browser. What if these bookmarks are then linked into a universal record for the item, and through the use of a much more flexible cataloging system, those links are made available through the catalog interface? True we can hope to find a link to materials through social bookmarking sites, but a library can offer access and insights on materials that are close but not necessarily directly linked to the original item.

So even if we can make a digital reader that displays amazing hypermedia extras in the text, organizes associative bookmarks and notations, and allows you to open a new book without foraging in the stacks; will there be a solution as to how we will assure the permanency of materials? I find it curious to muse upon how the path may lead us. In the early days of mechanical printing, you were given the book unbound. It was left to your discretion to preserve the copy and in many ways make it more manageable. If there would come a time when paper copies were thought of, by the publishers, as nothing more than a vestigial organ of bibliophiles; perhaps libraries would be given a piece of digital information. The library could then either display the data through a schema, like XML, or make a limited amount of print copies in high definition. The library could then print the pages on archival quality paper and bind the copy for either physical use or historical preservation. Granted we don’t truly have the means for permanent digital archival storage, yet, but there may come a time.

There is something comforting about having the books you are using for your research sprawled out before you. It is equally as comforting to know that the reference material you need to use is sitting at arms length and doesn’t care if you are authenticated by your IP address. But are such thoughts shared by those who need them only for what they say and not for what they “are.” To back to my earlier rant of analogies, one can think of digital collections being associated to books the same way that instant messaging is associated with a conversation over tea. We may lose the intimacy of being in the same physical space and with that lose the guarantee the person we are sharing our tales with truly is who we thought. Then again, it is pretty hard for someone to transfer a photo they took (if they didn’t bring it) or share with me a video they think is pretty amazing; without using their best descriptive pantomime skills.

To bring this back to libraries, librarians must make themselves aware of how technology changes not only the book but the way users use information. On the blog Library News, in the post “33 Reasons Why Libraries Are Still Extremely Important“, the author makes many wonderful observations on technology. Though it has been seen by many to be the bane of library shelves and threatening the librarians purpose, technology cannot replace the skills of a librarian. As digital collections and resources grow, the librarians will be the keystone joining the materials to the users who are searching. Perhaps we can step in before the labyrinth is filled with vendor minotaurs.

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