Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Information Online 2009: Keynote - Sherman Young

I missed Dr Sherman Young's address in late 2008 at the NLS4 conference titled "Bring out your Dead: The role of books in a post web 2.0 world", so it was interesting to hear him give the first keynote at io2009 (Information Online) titled "The Trouble with Books: Finding their place in a Web 2.0 world".

Skilfully and playfully using the formulaic narrative style found in great ORAL epics such as Homer's Iliad or the Torah; and playfully giving a sideways glance to Julian Barn's A History of the World in 10½ Chapters; Sherman was entertaining (as well as informative) as he explored the development of oral communication through to print culture and then onwards to broadcast and online communications.

So after demonstrating that the written word was not always in the ascendency, Sherman then posed the question - what role is there for book and book culture in today's online, Web 2.0, multimedia, and infobyte world?

Of course Sherman quite rightly points out there is a big difference between print culture, which is also online though often in a non-linear bit format; and books, which are often (but not always) structured as long linear narratives. However, Sherman's suggestion for the role of the ‘book’ in the future was a bit like the slow food movement's answer to fast food - books slow things down and allow for the development of long and hopefully considered discourse. People will still value books / eBooks because they are better than fast facts.

Those who know my cooking know where I stand in the slow food debate, and you only have to look at my LibraryThing profile to see my love of books. However, I worry that if we rely too much on books and slowing "things down", we may end up maintaining a small boutique position in the information future. While this small boutique position will be lovely and charming; and while we may maintain the community's goodwill through an aura of nostalgia for a simpler and bookish past, we may also run the risk of being second class citizens in the information future.

Ahh... I hear you say, now you are just being controversial for the sake of being controversial (well yes a little) because you will say quite rightly that libraries have also embraced database and lots and lots of online services which are not like books. But who are the real dominate powers in this information age - libraries or Google and YouTube? Today, are libraries mainstream or boutique in the online information world? Mmmmm.

It was therefore good that Sherman raised the question of why we have books when we have Google. Sherman used Google and the Telstra Bigpond ad that explains that "the great wall of China was built to keep out the rabbits" to demonstrate that "the internet has a wealth of information but (to its detriment) it ignores the content that exists in books". Google (and Bigpond) don't necessarily answer the question, but they do give you lots of results. Yes there is Google Books, but as Sherman explains, they are hidden to most Internet users who do not look beyond the first couple of search results.

So will the development of ebooks save books, or will we (to quote Sherman) continue to confuse book culture with print culture? And given the fact that libraries and librarians are so intertwined with books and print culture, what does this mean for us?

I was very pleased that Sherman specifically mentioned Joseph Schumpeter and his theory of Creative Destruction, as this is a particularly good way of explaining the impact of disruptive technology and possibilities it gives new players to gain the ascendency over established monopolies. Think IBM in the ascendency (growth of personal computers) Microsoft in the ascendency (the emergence of the Internet) Google in the ascendency - future - who knows. But what Sherman forgot to mention is that intrinsically tied in to Schumter's theory of creative destruction is the role of the entrepreneur. This is important as the technology alone is not enough. for example, Betamax was arguably technically better than V.H.S but V.H.S still won the day.

There has been a lot of research into what makes a good entrepreneur, but unfortunately they tend to display all the characteristics you don't often see (and sometimes don't want to see) in librarians. Entrepreneurs tend to be big picture people, fast moving, they don't like getting bogged down in detail, they often like working in disorder, they don't like rules and structures, and they don't like being told they can't do something. Of course librarians can be entrepreneurial, but does this sound like the characteristics of a typical librarian? Face it, we love rules and structures, and as a rule we distruct disorder.

One could (and some do) devote entire blogs to the theory and best practice around entrepreneurship, but to be brief consider this: the OECD thinks it is so important they have "launched an Entrepreneurship Indicators Programme (EIP) to collect internationally-comparable statistics on entrepreneurship and its determinants". If you are interested (and you should be) go to:

Personally, I hope books (and librarians) are, to quote Monty Python, "Not dead yet", but to survive in an ever faster changing world we need to understand how to utilise emerging disruptive technologies. We also need to be even more resourceful and entrepreneurial. Sherman's address was positive while still raising all the questions we need to ask ourselves, but we need to act. To paraphrase Sherman quoting Alan Kay: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."


Click here for a copy of my notes with a podcast of the Sherman's address.

Click here to see what bloggers are saying about Sherman Young. Sherman's own blog is called "The Book is Dead".

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