My X is better than your Y…

Oh, dear.

We’re having that argument again, are we?

I suppose it is perennial.  When we are enamored of a thing, we champion it.  If it works for me, it makes me passionate – I want to evangelize.  I have learned (is it learning to have something knocked into you by hard experience?  Yes?  Then I have learned) to temper my passions and try to see other users’ points of views and modify my recommendations to suit their style, history, preference, and myriad other variables.

Sometimes I even see both sides of a debate because different technologies work better for me in different scenarios (imagine!).  I recently bought a Kindle after a great deal of deliberation and debate.  The small form factor and vast memory are really, really useful for traveling light, for instance.  A huge library of classics is available from Amazon for free (I am currently revisiting the first Louisa May Alcott novel I ever read, Eight Cousins, with a mixture of charm, nostalgia, and nausea).  That being said, I don’t intend to repurchase all of my old favorites.  Having all six of Jane Austen’s novels packaged in one slim vessel is fantastic, but only because I didn’t have to pay a dime for them to replace the leatherbound set that was a gift from a lifelong friend.  In the case of non-classics that are not available for free or at a stupendous discount, some old favorites may be reserved on paper to re-read in the bath.  I don’t intend to replace a lot of my craft reference volumes for the Kindle (or even to start purchasing such works in electronic format).  Some things work better on paper.  Some already exist and don’t need to be duplicated.  Some things (doorstop novels, for instance) make me almost tearfully thankful that I don’t have to use two hands to heft them or use pillows or knees to prop them up.

So a Facebook thread of a friend who also recently purchased a Kindle that spawned several “paper books or death!” comments rather wearied me, and reminded me of a comment I put on a friend’s blog when I was still in library school.  An edited version of that comment is reproduced below:

At 40, I am someone who often falls in between the 20-somethings right out of college and the empty-nesters going back to school and career after a long absence. I have to say I’m pretty sick of being the one who steps into the “OMG! Technology is the answer!” and “Oh woe – technology will swamp our precious books!*” arguments by saying, “Ummm. Wait a minute. Just because Cheshire Academy grabbed headlines by replacing their paper collection with a clutch of Kindles doesn’t mean that is necessarily the way things are going to go for every institution. People still know how to write with a pen, even though there are typewriters and computers. Different formats are going to work for different people and institutions and for different reasons.

It’s not very useful to argue about the superiority of print over digital (or vice versa) without looking at specifics such as audience and budget. Rather than having this [utterly pointless] argument over format, why don’t we all agree that the goal is to get useful information into the hands of our patron communities in the way that works best given the resources and restrictions at the institution in question?”

*I swear, if I have to listen to one more person talk about how they love the smell of a book one more time, I will scream. Not because I don’t love the smell of books myself, but because it’s NOT A USEFUL ARGUMENT** when you’re talking about dissemination of information.

**sorry, my lawyer is showing.

Can we just get on with reading and learning and not worry overmuch about whether the medium is paper, screen, or stone tablet?

Wikipedia. Your mom.

“Don’t rely on Wikipedia,” we are often told.  “It is an unreliable resource.”  This is, in varying degrees, true.  The community-based editing that makes Wikipedia vibrant and sometimes more current than traditional news sources also makes it subject to error, bias, and outright fraud and vandalism.  Moreover, from a legal perspective Wikipedia has time and again been rejected as a source of facts subject to judicial notice.*

The problem as I see it is that having decided that Wikipedia is not authoritative, most people decide that it is useless.  This is another example of the “zero sum” arguments that crop up as too-easy answers to areas that deserve a viewing in shades of gray.**  Wikipedia isn’t useless because it needs to be double-checked.  You just have to use it differently than you would a more authoritative resource.  An authoritative case should be Shepardized, and so should Wikipedia entries be bolstered by citable authority.

There is a lot to be commended about many Wikipedia entries – they can give you a fast, clear view on a variety of subjects both trivial and serious.  They can provide you with new vocabulary that might be useful in a full-text search.  And they might give you some additional facts (which, yes, should be double-checked) about a subject which you were previously ignorant of.

So, just as a reporter’s mantra is, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out,” so should a serious researcher’s mantra be, “If you find it on Wikipedia, double-check with an authoritative source.”

After all, we don’t despise our mothers and we needn’t despise Wikipedia.

*See what I did there?  I’m sorry.  I couldn’t resist.

**See also “Wrong Question” and other entries in the “X v. Y” category


If you are interested in seeing how Wikipedia pages develop and evolve, here is a video that describes the process.  It is entertaining and surprisingly current despite having been recorded in 2005.

I promise to move on to another topic soon

But this piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education has some wonderful things to say about the fact that there is both room and need for electronic and paper collections.

I was going to select a pull quote, but couldn’t settle on just one.

(Hat tip to the AALL Twitter feed for the link.)

More on “Wrong Question”

From Lizzie Skurnick:

What iTunes did was to replace the CD as the basic unit of commerce; rather than being forced to buy an entire album to get the song you really wanted, you could buy just the single track. But no one, with the possible exception of students, will want to buy a single chapter of most books.”

That’s two assumptions, both incorrect. (This is why you don’t listen to writers whose publications slap up stories in teeny Times Roman.) 1) That all readers read alike, and 2) that whatever device prevails will accommodate books—not that books will change to accommodate the device.

What does this have to do with the law?  A lot.  General trends are more than likely to affect legal research and writing.  The iTunes model of purchasing specific items is going to reach out to Wexis.  And flexibility is still going to be key.

Wrong question

Quick: are you a cat person or a dog person?  Mac or PC?  Smooth or crunchy?

As far as I am concerned, there is only one answer to any of these questions: that is the wrong question.

These types of questions all share an underlying premise: the world is simple, and can be divided into two camps.  Those camps must then vie for ultimate domination, because one must “win” in this simple, zero-sum world.  And the zero-sum debate of the decade in libraries seems to be Books v. Online.

It’s the wrong question, and yet we get suckered into debating it every time.  Very few institutions, at least in the near term, are going to be like Cushing Academy and suddenly go electronic in a wholesale manner.  And yet, when this happened last year it was hailed or reviled as the inevitable and immediate outcome for all libraries.  I saw people in real and virtual space line up to ride the slippery slope to the bottom of their hopes or fears on this mostly imaginary issue.  A lot of time and emotional energy was expended in passionate defense of paper or eager anticipation of an all-electronic future.  But the choice of format is a complex one based on variables such as availability, licensing, budget, and user preference.

Consider the examples I laid out above.  For me, there is not a single simple answer in the bunch.  I have three cats and a dog and I love them all.  I prefer Macs, but also own a netbook for a slew of reasons.  I can’t stand peanut butter in any form.  Similarly, while I prefer to read paper, I appreciate and understand the ease, immediacy, and potential for conservation of resources that is made possible by online databases and electronic books.  I have read more than one novel on my iPhone’s Kindle application.

While format does matter, it doesn’t necessarily matter the way librarians and other interested parties want it to.  Information conveyed by the pulp of trees does not create a holy relic in and of itself.  Presenting the same information in an electronic form does not make that information any more progressive or relevant.

So, with all apologies to Marshall McLuhan, it is not necessarily media over message.  And every time we automatically take an absolute stand on one side or the other of the so-called “digital divide,” we may be losing the opportunity to have a different conversation about content, situational preference, funding, or any other far more useful topic.  I fear that the ultimate outcome of most zero-sum games is that everyone loses, because we are not looking at messy, gray, glorious reality.

So – what to do when presented with a zero-sum game?  We can allow others to set the grounds for debate for us, or we can help shift and reframe those grounds so they reflect reality.  I believe it is our duty to do the latter.