Friday, April 29, 2011

The Meaning of Quiet, and the Value of Limits

I thought about responding to Ian's post in the comment field, but, let's be frank, those comments always get short shrift, and I want my thoughts to be front and center. That being said, let me step aside for a moment and laud Ian's post: what a great, thougthful, and nuanced discussion. I could see Ian's anxiety about seeming convoluted, and I think that's the danger of any true thought about today's socio-technical predicament (or opportunity). One can't talk about quiet in today's world without also talking about noise. One can't talk about noise, without talking about who is intruding upon our contemplation, and that means taking on capitalism. It may not seem like a clear, logical argument, but it is.

My work at Seattle Central Community College has really impressed upon me why quiet--and noise--matter in a library environment. Having come from a household where it was never difficult to find a totally silent room to read, write, or think, I always thought that the librarian's insistence on hushed voices was either a character flaw or a mad grasp at power. One can be quiet anywhere, I thought, but it's not everywhere that you can find like-minded thinkers in the same place, so why not let the people chat?

The first time a student came to the desk to beg me to supervise the silent zone, my thinking began to change. The library, for many of the students at SCCC is the only place where there's not a TV on, or a baby crying, or a hundred obligations jockeying for attention.

To be in a place where no one is intruding on your thoughts, what a relief in a world of talking billboards, pop-up advertisements, and ubiquitous product placements. How is a book like a library? We can choose (more easily) to give it limits that are difficult to maintain in many other areas of our lives. While a physical book may have references, allusions, and all sort of connections to other texts, peoples and histories, it is not hyperlinked. I cannot check my email on my paper copy of Jane Eyre (which of course I could if I were reading it on a Kindle). Likewise, a physical library has physical walls, within which certain standards are upheld: resepect for thought, freedom from coercion, help that is offered free of charge. We all need help setting limits for ourselves in a time when most of us complain of information overload and a lack of concentration.

Of course, I am already thinking of a number of counter arguments to my own points: hyperlinking is amazing, and has its roots in the paper book; communications is just as important as quiet contemplation, etc., etc. I still think it's important, though, to respect the impulse to set limits, to sometimes sequester ourselves from a world that constantly drives a hard bargain right in our faces, and, as Ian beautifully put it, to sometimes idle with our thoughts.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Provisional argument about the importance of the book in the library, or How I Haven't Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Kindle

*Note: After writing this, I realize that there are significant gaps in the argument and that these gaps will require leaps of faith on your part. I hope you will take those leaps with me at least in this first reading. Hopefully those gaps won't turn out to be fatal flaws in the argument; hopefully, the gaps will simply need a few bridges built in order to make it a more complete argument.

Studying technology, one quickly comes to understand that technology exhibits a twofold ontology; it is both an object and a set of practices. Scholars sometimes call these two aspects technics and technique, that is, the material and the social. Without dwelling on this too long, I want to highlight this from the beginning.

So, what about books in libraries, and what about the Kindle?

An example like this one, where Newport Beach Library is going to remain open, have reference services and free wifi for patrons, but is going to REMOVE ALL OF ITS BOOKS, presents a significant dilemma for me. To be a Luddite in this culture is ridiculous. Digital technologies are here to stay, and I think that is a good thing overall. So, I'm not a Luddite. Nevertheless, as a librarian (at least by training... my new job does not have librarian in the title), I have to wonder whether this is simply an evolution of the library or, as some suspect openly and unabashedly, that this is the end of libraries. This question will not be answered in this post, barring my invention of a time machine before I'm finished writing.

So, the question arises, do books matter? Or is it just the "information" in books, as many like to say, that people want. So, if you deliver it over a network connection to a computer screen it accomplishes the same task. Information here, of course, is a nebulous entity. Always poorly defined, especially by its most fervent advocates, "information" comes to mean anything meaningful. Really, that's it. For info-whores, the way they talk about it, information is anything meaningful, anything that informs. Here, they might find recourse, however incorrectly, to cognitive science to say that information changes cognitive schema about the world. Bullshit! (I suppose my response could be more nuanced, but I'm moving swiftly here.)

The problem I have with this argument is that I think it completely misses the point. First, the notion of information deployed in these arguments is ill-defined, because what they are trying to make real with words doesn't exist, except in their utopian minds. Second, the question of information in this argument is beside the point. Unfortunately, it seems to be the argument that we -- let's say librarians and anyone who cares about libraries -- are always having. We are focused on the "information" in the book and the "information" over the Internet. The key here is we are arguing with the terms of the info-whores.

If we shouldn't be talking about information, then what should we be talking about? As Althea has so eloquently articulated in an earlier post:

I see the library filling myriad roles in students’ lives that would not be filled in its absence. The library is bursting with students, but it is also a place of quiet study and contemplation. The library is a place with big tables and small study rooms where students can tutor each other or work together on projects. The reference desk is a first point of contact for students looking for help—help finding research, help finding the tutoring center, help using a computer or printing out a paper. It is a place, outside of the short minutes in the classroom, where students can think, work, see each other, and get assurance and guidance.

Althea is drawing on the "library as place" argument that has, thankfully, gained some traction in library circles. (Here, we should note that librarians and other "information professionals" are often as guilty as the general public in buying into these rhetorics of information, libraries and digital computing. "Library as place" is a positive direction for the library literature.) Though, I think Althea has taken it further than others do. I'm especially interested in this notion of the library as "a place of quiet study and contemplation."

The library as quiet study space may not seem especially groundbreaking. Indeed, for some it is the quintessential image of a library: a quiet space with hushing librarians maintaining the atmosphere. This image isn't what Althea was trying to evoke (at least that's not how I read it). Or, rather, she didn't mean that a library is only a quiet space. But, let's look closer at these issues of library space and quiet.

First, we have to move outside of the library and find other spaces, other public spaces. What is happening? As far as I can tell, the mall-ification of America continues. That is, commercialization threatens public space at every turn. The commons, not the abstract Creative Commons, but actual common space in parks, libraries, public buildings, etc. is dwindling. With commercialization comes many things: advertising, compulsion to buy, an inability to idle (note: all of these require that one be in the process of buying, or preparing to buy) and, most important for our purpose here, noise.

Noise is an interesting thing. We often think it is just a natural phenomenon that comes with our modern world. But some (I don't know this scholarship well enough) have come to understand that noise is not so politically inert, not so "natural." Noise operates as a political weapon, such that noise (media noise, mechanical noise, other kinds of noise?) drown out the unheard voices of the less powerful. But, it isn't just their voices, I think, that become washed away, but also their thoughts. Thinking requires quiet sometimes. And, depending on one's normal surroundings (home, school, church, etc.), a public library might be the only place for quiet reflection.

And it isn't just the absence of noise. It is also an ability to idle, to dream, to sit back and not participate in a commercial enterprise for a little while, whether buying or selling, to contemplate the whole commercial enterprise itself. All of this thinking and dreaming and not-buying is scary to those who benefit from this most. So, for me, following Althea, I want to say that the library building as a space for quiet and non-commercial behavior is essential. There would be much more to say here, but alas I'm not prepared to write a book in this post.

So, then what of books and Kindle?

Well, here's where I'm not as clear (I'm sure my writing doesn't seem clear to anyone... apologies for that). Returning to our thinking of technology, of technics and technique, I have to wonder whether the book isn't simply the pre-21st century "information container." I have to wonder whether there is something about the use protocols of the book, the techniques of reading a book, and the entire atmosphere that surrounds one's book reading that is a necessary complement to the library. I have to wonder whether books, libraries, quiet space and non-commercialism are not simply phenomena that we find incidentally together in the library, but whether we are finding them there necessarily together, that they are interwoven components to the phenomenology of the library.

I want to understand where the library is going in the "digital age." I think it is going to change drastically. Perhaps the example given above from the Newport Beach library in California is a harbinger of the future of libraries. I don't know.

But I think we need to remain vigilant in our thinking about libraries vis-a-vis the digital. All too often, the library gets swept into a whole discursive structure where information (always implicitly digital information) is boundless and ubiquitous, where the place of our "information access" (here again it is hard to even discuss the topic outside of these terms) is less and less important due to mobile computing. In this discursive structure, the library increasingly figures as a relic of the past, rather than a mainstay of the present and future. If we take these information truths to be self-evident, then we are shooting ourselves in the foot. And by "ourselves" I mean anyone who values public, non-commercial space, where the noise of capitalism and xenophobia that pervades our American soundscape doesn't intrude.

I think we have a role in shaping the future. The "information age" isn't a foregone conclusion in which we wait for our digital paradise to come down in the information rapture. All of this thinking, these terms of the debate, are shaped by the forces that benefit from our thinking that this situation is "natural," that the information age is a natural evolutionary process. Because, Amazon's Kindle and Google's Library are not owned by us, and yet suddenly they constitute our commons. And even if you think that you can sit quietly with your Kindle and read just like with a book, do you not here the murmur of the market if only faintly? You should, because you don't own the book you are reading (and nor does the public, in the case of a library); you are licensing it. You're relationship to that book is mediated by a huge licensing agreement that you've never read. If nothing else, you should here the murmur of that legalese, recounting in careful, convoluted detail, that you have no power.

This is all scrambled in my head, as I imagine it has become scrambled on the page. What I'm trying to get at is the intersection of the various forces that constitute the sociotechnical thing that we call the "library," and it's relationship to noise, commercialism, public commons (both space and ideas), and the making of an ethical society.