The idea of the networked book, as described by Ben Vershbow in a recent Library Journal interview fascinates me.
If we run with Ben's definition of the book as "a structured, sustained intellectual experience, a mover of ideas," we have a really interesting lens to look through in reading Scan This Book! by Kevin Kelly in the New York Times. The idea of the book as a mover immediately implies that books exist within networks; physical books don't stand alone on the shelf as Kelly suggests, but they run along connections between people. The connections Kelly describes as being created by the Read/Write Web aren't new, necessarily, they're just more immediate and visible.
Reading and scholarship have always existed as social, collaborative activities– think of citations, references, archetypes, shared tropes, and homage. As Kelly writes, "A text, a melody, a picture or a story succeeds best if it is connected to as many ideas and other works as possible." He points to fairytales and myths to illustrate the richness gained through retelling and cross pollination. The shift digitization brings isn't that reading and writing become social, it's that reading and writing become conveniently and tangibly social. Books already exist within networks, it's just that our ability to describe and define those networks until now have been inadequate.
Kelly's article focuses on digitization as the path to a universal library. It's a nice vision, but I'm skeptical that we'll ever have a truly universal digital library. No matter how advanced our technological capabilities become, telecom corporations and publishers will never allow everyone truly equal access to these materials. In fact, we can already see big business actively lobbying against equal access to the Internet, and I just don't buy the idea that global economic and information al inequalities are ever going to disappear. It's interesting to note, too, that much of the digitization that will create this universal library is being outsourced to China, where searching is willingly restricted by the very company conducting the largest digitization project. According to Kelly's article, mass digitization projects will "seed the bookless developing world with easily available texts," but how will these texts be available? How will the developing world pay for access to these texts, and what's the real cost behind outsourcing digitization projects to take advantage of cheap labor? If telecoms succeed in instituting tiered Internet service, who will be able to access these texts?
As books become digitized, their value is increasingly based on the network they exist within rather than in their content; what becomes important is not what the book itself is, but what is done by, with, and to the book. Of course, this network doesn't just sprout up around books, it's developed by users, and, to some extent the process relies on the altruism of users for its creation. If net neutrality disappears, and users no longer have unfettered access to a broad array of information, how will these networks survive? Kelly writes, "In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies lose value. They are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection and sharing are." If libraries are to remain relevant within a culture of networks, rather than a culture of copies, we need to work on nourishing communities that enable networks to flourish. Our job as librarians now isn't simply to gather, provide, or protect materials, but to empower people to interact with materials and with each other.
So, how do we build these community connections? I think there are at least two ways we need to approach this.
On one hand, we need to work with collections. If we want our users to be able to really use materials in a way that fosters a rich web of connections, we need to fight against overzealous applications of DRM and copyright and support organizations like Creative Commons that are developing systems that allow consumers and producers (and conducers) to thrive.
The second part of our role in contributing to networked culture is to encourage connections between people. Libraries should be actively engaged in bringing people together and forging ties between them. There's alot of great writing on this topic, but Linda Cook offers one of the most striking approaches for community building I've read lately. In the Spring '06 SyrsiDynix newsletter, Upstream, Linda suggests that libraries engage in activities "designed to strengthen community, not just individuals." Taken at face value, this idea doesn't seem that novel, but I think it signals a really different approach to providing library services. In the past, we've emphasized reaching out to individual library users and offering them reference services, or workshops on research skills, or the ability to check their library accounts online– all individual services. Linda's approach suggests that we work on creating "environments where interaction is encouraged and facilitated." To me, that idea opens up all sorts of questions about how we do outreach and programming and reference. How can we help our communities connect not only with information materials, but with each other?