Archive for July, 2011

In the wake of Amy Winehouse’s death, many people (intending wit, I suppose) have said that she should have gone to rehab. They miss the point of the song, and miss it in a characteristically American way. In the United States, we see problems as fixable. But many problems cannot be fixed, they can only be borne. And sometimes they become unbearable.

A toast in gratitude and sadness to the memory of Amy Winehouse.

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[U]nderlying each connection are the core beliefs that the parties about to communicate hold about each other. These colour the whole relationship. If you think a person is incompetent then no matter how much you try to mask that belief it percolates as a subtle energy through the relationship, informing the feeling and nature of how you connect with the person. If you hold a person as creative, resourceful and whole […] then this also impacts on the energy of the relationship.

Anthony Eldridge-Rogers

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(Previous posts: #1, #2, #3)

After 20 years of steady but containable erosion of the library’s customary position as an institution that controlled everything within itself, the final (and ultimately fatal) blow came in the mid-1990’s: The World Wide Web.

As the Web grew from a promising novelty into an ubiquitous part of American life, the traditional structure of the American library made less and less sense:

  • Libraries no longer selected all of the content that patrons came to the library to use, and the content they did select was steadily becoming a smaller part of what patrons were coming there to use.
  • The content that patrons used within the library could change or disappear without librarians knowing or being able to bring it back.
  • The main finding aid for this information was no longer provided by librarians, but by search engines. Attempts to stretch the library catalog to include Internet content had only minor successes.
  • Patrons could use library-provided content without ever setting foot in the library.
  • The case for intellectual freedom became more complicated as libraries had to move from defending the rights of patrons to access materials selected by trained librarians to defending the right of patrons to access any legal material on the Internet.

In short, patrons were more and more going through the library rather than going to the library. The days of the self-contained and self-controlled library are over. What can replace it? And who can make that replacement succeed?

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But he became most furious when he read the poet’s nostalgic invocation immediately corrected for reasons of prudence and opportunism: “Ah with what warm heart would I stay with you . . . with what warm heart! But, little cypress trees, ah let me go . . .” Really and truly scandalous, was his comment. “It’s as if I were to say, ‘Magris, I’m going to Paris; shall I call in on your grandmother?’ – ‘Oh, that would be splendid. Poor old dear, she’ll be so pleased.’ – ‘But, you know, I’m only there for two days, and I’ve a lot to do, and she’s out in the suburbs, I’d have to change trains three times and then take a bus . . .’ – ‘Oh go to hell then, who asked you for anything!'”

He wanted to teach us to despise the soppy mush of feeling, the false generosity that for an instant, and in all good faith, promises the sun, moon and stars, convinced of its own generous impulse, but that for all sorts of sound, valid reasons draws back when it comes to the point.

— Claudio Magris (trans. by Patrick Creagh), Danube (New York : Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989), pgs. 228-29.

I am reminded of something I did about six years ago that I will continue to remember often and continue to feel every bit as sad about every time.

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(Previous posts: #1, #2)

The second crack in the century-long stability of American libraries began to arrive in the 1980s: Online databases.

These databases vastly expanded patron access to periodicals without requiring an equally vast building program. The percentage of library collection budgets spent on these databases has steadily increased during the last 30 years.

They also continued the breakup of the old, stable model of how libraries worked:

  • Databases did not remain as physical items housed within and controlled by the library (remember CD-ROM towers?). To access most databases, patrons no longer even have to go to the library.
  • Databases were not stable. Vendors often added and dropped titles, complicating efforts to maintain the accuracy of the catalog.
  • Libraries did not control database finding aids. Each database had its own interface and thesaurus (and interfaces sometimes changed). Librarians had trouble maintaining mastery of all of them (if they had achieved that mastery to begin with).

Automated card catalogs and online databases were two notable cracks in the old library bottom line: That the library controlled everything within the library. The third and final crack, though, would be the one that finally brought the structure down.

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