The Tech-Washing of Information Access

2211074818_37ba01860fI’m frustrated.

My morning twitter perusal brought this article to my attention.  “Public Knowledge for the Public Good: Working Toward Digital Access in the Spirit of Aaron Swartz” is all about the various ways technologists are preserving access to information.   My initial thoughts can be summed up in this tweet by @libskrat:  “We’ll compare ourselves to librarians, but not actually admit they work toward open, much less TALK TO ANY.”

Seriously.  Not a single librarian mentioned in the entire article about the work to make information more accessible.  Or woman, but that’s another rant for another day.

This happens time and time again.  A technologist is compared (or compares himself) to being a librarian, but somehow…better.   Oh, don’t get them wrong…librarians are great, in a Rousseau-ian Noble Savage sense.  “Aren’t they cute, with their books and cardigan sweaters and shushing?” they seem to be saying.  But now the Internet is here and they’ll show us how information can REALLY be made accessible.

For the longest time, when stories like this would come out, I’d blame myself and librarianship as a whole.  Clearly we’re not doing enough to promote our services, to show our history, skills and knowledge of information access issues.    But today something changed.   Maybe “snapped” is a better word.  But for whatever reason, it finally occurred to me that maybe the fault doesn’t lie entirely with librarianship. Maybe the people writing these glowing articles about techies and the techies themselves are failing to do basic due diligence to see who is already in these information access spaces and seeing what they’ve done.   And maybe, just maybe, learn some thing from them.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think librarianship is a big tent and you don’t need a MLS or even work in a brick an mortar library to earn the title librarian.   So I welcome new comers to the space and invite them to join in on the millennia of progress that librarians have already made.

Which reminds me of another news article that I saw today.  Walmart is closing over a hundred stores today, many in rural areas.  Many in areas where they pushed out the local mom and pop businesses in order to bring in the shiny new store.  But, when that store was no longer profitable, Walmart left and now there are food deserts going to be popping up in their absence.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

I worry that grant monies and other capital (human and otherwise) is going into projects and schemes that may not go the distance needed when looking at information access and preservation issues.  Fail fast and fail often is great, but not when institutions that have been around for hundreds of years are pushed out of the space and then, after failure,  an information desert is left in the place where a library once stood.  Yes, libraries should change to meet modern needs of information consumers, but how can that happen when we’re continually left out of the conversations that dictate what the important needs of the future are?

Like I said, it’s frustrating.

Photo Credit: Steve Rhodes via Compfight cc


  6 comments for “The Tech-Washing of Information Access

  1. Scott Frey
    January 28, 2016 at 1:45 pm

    Well, the article does mention John Palfrey, Brewster Kahle, and Gary Price, who are/were librarians. And the Digital Library of America and the Internet Archive are, at least by self-definition, libraries. We just need some articles that emphasize that librarians and libraries — including librarians in libraries with a brick-and-mortar presence — are and should be on the forefront of providing access to information.

  2. January 28, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    Didn’t even mention Open Library which was AARON’S PROJECT but somehow a little too library-like maybe for this guy. I take your point, I was happy to see Brewster and Palfrey and other library-adjacent people but I think maybe you’re talking about people who work in a real life library of some sort and didn’t just build a tech layer on top of some content?

    Because that’s the thing to me, that he service we do, service to other human beings, is a critical indivisible part of what we do and the one thing most of these project are missing. And a thing Aaron cared about.

  3. Library Advocate
    January 28, 2016 at 4:27 pm

    Uh, Brewster and John are NOT librarians. Working with/around really does not make you a librarian. You know how many hundreds of librarians they could have interviewed that are experts on this topic? (And, gasp! maybe even some female librarians?) Fail. Epic fail. Nice work Sarah!

  4. January 29, 2016 at 12:35 am

    I agree with a lot of what you say, and also with Jessamyn’s point about the direct service role (indeed I think that the really ‘high-touch’ parts of library service are important and need to be translated effectively to new platforms and media, while a lot of middle-ground service related to ready-reference or being “technicians” of a lot of print-technology interfaces will soon be lost.)

    But I do put a lot more of the blame on libraries. Or, I guess, while I agree that too often the “starring roles” in these takes are attributed to non-librarians versus librarians, I think there is also an underlying reality for which librarians (or, at least libraries) and our institutional and professional conservatism are at fault. A lot of librarians think/talk/write about these issues. A few (Jessamyn and you among them) have even jumped out into individual leadership roles.

    But libraries, institutionally, have largely missed the boat. I know academic libraries, and especially academic law libraries, best; but I think a lot of this perception can be generalized. Rather than being a creative force and a resource base for really inventing their/our own future and *building* ways to translate the cultural and social missions of libraries into a digital information environment we (again, institutionally) have tended to pretty passively allow the future to happen to us. And *most* of the really creative and innovative recent work related to information access has therefore come from outside of traditional libraries and outside of the formally-defined, credentialed, library profession.

    What libraries actually have said with their budget and staff allocations (ultimately their loudest “voices”) has been almost completely conservative and has only shifted from a preference for both print-based/print-first priorities and from proprietary/closed publication models slowly and with seeming reluctance.

    Libraries’ cultural mission does mean that we need to think long-term and that a “bet the farm” version of “fail fast” wouldn’t work. But we should have long ago become much more nimble and have much more readily embraced models of pilot projects and incubators and idea labs and been willing to embrace “fail fast, fail often” on individual projects.

    Your “information desert” scenario is scary. But if it is likely it is specifically because libraries and librarians have been slow to fully explore and embrace what their roles need to be in light of the disruption and the various convergences between what “creating” and “publishing” and “cataloging” and “collecting” phases of an information life cycle even mean anymore. Too often I felt like some among our institutional and professional leadership was intent on making our own obsolescence a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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