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.

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