Theory Beyond the Codes
“… [O]ne of the things about librarians is that they’re subversive in the nicest possible ways. They’ve been doing the Wikileak thing for centuries, but just didn’t get the credit for it. This is what we try to do all the time; we try to reduce the barriers and open up that information.”
— Michael Ridley
Self-identifying as the University’s Head Geek and Chief Dork, Michael Ridley leads a life of the future by reconfiguring access to the past. As Chief Librarian and Chief Information Office of the University of Guelph, Ridley spends his days integrating digital potentialities and the power of imagination with the cultural and historical resources of the library. Seeing the digital as a liminal space between the age of the alphabet and an era of post-literacy, he is transforming the mission of libraries: gone are the days where libraries primarily focus on developing collections. Today, collections are the raw materials fueling the library as a dissonance engine, an engine enabling collaborative, cross-disciplinary imaginations.
With a critical attitude towards the hegemony of literacy, combined with a prognostication of digitality’s impending demise, Ridley’s position at the University of Guelph facilitates radical reconsiderations of the library’s present and forthcoming roles. He received his M.L.S. from the University of Toronto, his M.A from the University of New Brunswick, and has been a professional librarian since 1979. So far, Michael has served as President of the Canadian Association for Information Science, President of the Ontario Library Association, Board member of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, and Chair of the Ontario Council of Universities. He is presently a board member of the Canadian Research Knowledge Network and of the Canadian University Council of CIOs. He has received an array of awards, and was most recently awarded the Miles Blackwell Award for Outstanding Academic Librarians by the Canadian Association of College and University Libraries. Ridley has published extensively about the intersection of networks, digital systems, and libraries, including “The Online Catalogue and the User,” “Providing Electronic Library Reference Service: Experiences from the Indonesia-Canada Tele-Education Project,” “Computer-Mediated Communications Systems,” and “Community Development in the Digital World.” He has also co-edited volumes one and two of The Public-Access Computer Systems Review. Lately, his work has examined the potentials of post-literacy, which has seen him teach an ongoing undergraduate class on literacy and post-literacy as well as giving presentations and publishing on the topic.
CTheory: I want to start by talking about literacies. As the University of Guelph’s chief librarian, you’ve asserted that literacy is a has-been thing to talk about. Let’s talk about your notion of post-literacy; what do you mean by this term?
Michael Ridley: Obviously, as a librarian, literacy is pretty important, but it does strike me that while the alphabet which is a phenomenal invention, it is just a tool; it’s not the ultimate tool. Inventing the alphabet let us develop other kinds of literacies, but these literacies are built upon the alphabet. I think it was realizing that maybe the alphabet and that kind of textual literacy isn’t the end-state, it’s a place along the way, and it’s a developmental process. As tied as we are to literacy today, people like Ong and others will say that literacy is like a prison; once you’re inside it you can’t get out again because the mind is absolutely shaped by it, which is, I think, absolutely the case. As literate people we have enormous difficulties in thinking what it would mean to be non-literate.
So, the challenge for me was then to ask what it meant to be post-literate. What would happen if something came along that displaced literacy? That was more powerful, more effective, more useful? And so if this could happen — and in my mind it will happen, it’s just not clear what it would be — what would be the impact? What would it be like, and how would people react to it? We’re very, very tied to our literate selves and literacy is an enormously important tool for us, but really, it’s just a tool.
We know what kind of disruption occurred when we moved from primarily oral cultures to primarily written cultures, and we know the suspicion and disbelief and loss that were associated with that. We know that there was this disruption and that there will be a disruption in moving from a literate to a post-literate world. But then the interesting thing, I think, is that it’s not like we’re losing something. Moving into post-literacy isn’t like moving into some kind of Dark Age; this isn’t going backwards and regressing in some way. Computers and the Internet as we know it are extremely literate environments and so they’re not the model for a post-literate world; they’re the model for a hyper-literate world. We need to think of something much different, something beyond this hyper-literacy, and so this is when you get into the wacky stuff.
It’s at this point that we’re not talking about a simple evolution, in a way that the alphabet wasn’t a simple evolution — it was a revolution. So now we’re in the realm of telepathy, in the realm of ideas being part of pharmacology. One of the things that I’ve been talking about recently has been the physiology of information.
CTheory: The physiology of knowledge? Could you elaborate?
MR: Well, it’s the ultimate reductionist thing that takes all the romance out of information. What we know, the ideas and concepts that we have, are chemical sequences of some sort that are comprised of neurotransmitters and synapses and protein sequences, and whatever those bits and pieces are. Everything we know and understand is encoded in this way.
So it really is the encoding system that matters at the end of the day. Digitization, digital representation and the alphabet are just abstracted from the core thing that is physiological. We’re learning more and more about how the brain works and we’re getting closer and closer to understanding how information is encoded. If we can achieve this end, then we can (metaphorically) synthesize ideas; if you want to learn French then you could just take a pill. The pill would ‘grow’ the knowledge inside of you.
CTheory: Interesting. Katherine Hayles has written about how programmers are the new psychologists insofar as machine code is so deeply embedded in our lives that only coders can help us see our world and diagnose our situatedness. You seem to be taking her notion one step further; where she says that digital coders are the next psychologists, and that to be literate you need to be digitally code savvy, you’re saying that the next step is that the psychologist becomes the biochemist.
MR: I think you’re absolutely right. The new digital is biochemistry, that’s where we’re going. But it’s interesting, because the huge power of the alphabet and digital code, and code generally, is its symbolic value. It isn’t the thing; it’s the representation of the thing. Symbolism gives nuance and plasticity that is really very powerful. We need to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater; when we start talking about biochemistry as the basis of knowledge it’s very clinical and seems not to have all the nuances associated with symbolism. I think we’re wrong to think that way, because we need to recognize that all these nuances are in the biochemistry as well, but our sense of it is that biochemistry is hard cold science — it’s almost machine-like.
I think we need to think about how symbolic meaning is also encoded. These levels of abstraction around the alphabet and code really have been our advantage for a very long time, and I suspect this is so only because we can’t burrow down into that biochemistry, where the stuff composing symbolism in the mind really resides at the end of the day. Is there something that’s deeper than the biochemistry at the end of the day? I don’t know, but biochemistry seems to be the next frontier.
CTheory: This seems to have pretty significant implications for the digital frontier!
MR: I’ve said this to other people, and it seems kind of horrific, but digital is dead in maybe a generation or two. We’ll look back at digital and think of it as something quite quaint and reminisce that it’s nice that our generation did digital when the future generations will be doing something much different and more powerful at a biochemical level.
CTheory: When talking about spoken and written language, its symbolic impressions might function as a kind of texture that slows you down, letting you experience what is being conveyed. It seems like the interfaces to knowledge and ideas that we’re talking about are upsetting this notion of friction, whereby knowledge grows rapidly or arrives through telepathy or is delivered seamlessly across the Internet. Each of these mediums involves increasing the speed of information delivery and reducing frictions of transmission; have you thought about the relation between speed and friction as it pertains to literacy and post-literacy?
MR: Friction’s an interesting way to think about this. For me, literacy is about thinking and imagination and reflection. Reflection is the thing that people say that they can’t do anymore in the contemporary world. They’re inundated with information and it flows to them very quickly and without a boundary or way to manage it. It is overwhelming, and I think that we’re at a place where people don’t necessarily have the skills and techniques to deal with it.
I’m not sure that the answer is to slow things down or to limit its delivery. The question is how to process information flows in a better way. So the fear is that we’re being inundated with information.
If you’ll permit me an aside, in class I often speak to my students about the possibilities of telepathy. The horror story of telepathy is that you start hearing everything…
CTheory: … you start hearing the things that people think about you!
MR: Right, right! Sure, if that’s how telepathy evolved it would be insanity, but you know that that’s not what’s going to happen. We would learn techniques about how to block things and manage it; otherwise it wouldn’t be advantageous to our environment. My point is that one of the things that humans are good at is innovating and adapting to those kinds of information flows to be able to use information effectively.
I guess what I’m saying is that we’re probably in the uncomfortable transitional zone between literacies right now, we’re at a point where we’re not handling things very well, but are on our way towards other realms. As we progress, we’ll develop other ways to be reflective or to have that more thoughtful ways of being. Friction, which slows you down perhaps while also connecting you to elements that comprise learning will continue.
I’m confident that the techniques to learn will continue to develop and adapt as we transition to new kinds of literacies.
CTheory: You’ve used the word ‘we’ regularly, and I want to think about this term in relation to literacy. If “we” are captured within the prison of literacy, is it possible that those who lack or are less captured by it might be the group that offers the way to post-literacy? Or is it the case that even if individuals don’t read they are so captured by the prison of the literate world that they are in a similar position as those who are formally recognized as literate?
MR: Fascinating question about whether non-literate people have an advantage in the transition between literacies. I think that we’re in this transition period between the literate and post-literate world and every other time we’ve gone through a transition the middle ground is complex and controversial and fraught with problems. We’re in that space now; whether it takes a hundred years or 10 minutes to go through, we’re going to have to go through this rough transition. Do you have to be literate to be post-literate? Do people who are not literate possess an advantage?
The advantage would be that they weren’t shaped by literacy, that the warping hasn’t occurred to them and so somehow they have more useful starting points for what follows literacy. I don’t know that I necessarily agree with that, because we rewire ourselves all the time. We know that if you read predominantly from texts you’re wired a certain way, and if you read from a screen you read in a different way because the experience is different. Experience changes who you are, how you think and how you act.
I don’t think there are a good and a bad here but that there are dominant characteristics that define who we are and that these characteristics are in transition. So what’s the argument? It’s that kids don’t read any more and have different attitudes and that this isn’t good. While there is a different experience, perception, and thought pattern it’s not true that they don’t read. They do other things as well, and in doing those other things in sophisticated ways they’re building capabilities and opportunities that I haven’t nurtured the same way.
This is a digital natives/immigrant thing. An analogy is the debate around information overload. This is huge in the media; people want to turn their BlackBerry off and only check email at certain times. I’m absolutely perplexed by this, because the attitude is “I can’t deal with this stuff so I’ll control it by having rules about how I’ll interact with the media.” This is an obvious digital immigrant thing to say because we think of the media and tools as something to engage with.
You go over to the other side, and think about it like a digital native, and they’d treat it like unplugging themselves from the world. They’ve already figured out how to manage this flow; turning off the cellphone, how crazy can you be?! They don’t talk about protecting themselves from the information flow, which this immigrant group does. I guess the point is that we learn how to cope with all of this — we develop capabilities — that let us engage with this different kind of environment. So the transition into a post-literate environment will be rocky for some, but for others will be absolutely natural. I think this divide in the ‘naturalness’ speaks to reactions people have about post-literacy. Some see it as foreign, unnatural, a loss of capability while those who are members of the early adopter environment will identify with it as being part of who they are and won’t see it as unnatural at all.
This gets back to a traditional discussion of the nature of change, where it is hard to catch up to something and become part of a new environment when your formative experience is with a completely different toolset; others will naturally evolve into the post-literate because it’s normal for them.
Ethics, Imagination, and Intellectual Property
CTheory: So the way that you’ve (broadly) drawn things thus far is that we have the written word, and then we hit computers, and then there’s the next stage. When the digital becomes cohesive, when it closes in on itself, will it have then lost its imaginative potential?
MR: Perhaps. We can think of technologies as metaphors for how we think. In the industrial revolution the mind was a machine and that let us conceptualize how we think and act. Digital computing let us think of the mind as a computer, as more powerful, symbolic, and so forth. But we know that the brain is more than that — as we talked about earlier it’s a biochemical thing. So I think that computers are simply an abstraction of how we think and a means to understand how we think using those technologies. But I think that computers as we know them now will morph into something quite different. We need to track the shift from silicon based computing to molecular computing as the kind of next shift.
I don’t know that we’re going to call molecular computing “computing” given that it will be something technically much different. So the metaphor of computing is going to become sort of the horseless carriage.
CTheory: It sounds almost as though computing might lose its current association with the computer; computing might return to refer to those who compute.
MR: The computers that we have around us today are just going to disappear. That’s going to be the other piece. The capabilities that we invest in our devices will become internalized, and this will massively shift things. Computing will disappear as a visible facet of our daily lives. Computing today is outside of us as a tool, but it will disappear.
CTheory: Do you think it will disappear in the same manner as electricity has for many Western citizens?
CTheory: So computing could shift to being a truly invisible utility that you just access when you need it, sort of like what cloud computing is like today?
MR: Here’s the danger of that. The Internet is going to become so big that pretty soon it’s going to disappear as well. It’ll disappear exactly as the electrical grid did. It’s just so pervasive that we don’t see it anymore; electricity is like the air we breathe. I think that the danger is that we won’t think of computing any more; the less we worry about it as it recesses into the crevices of our lives, the more we cede responsibility to some other group to govern for us. The Internet would just become a tool we use or an environment that we live in and maybe we would be less conscious of what going on in it, what does and doesn’t happen in it, and that’s significant. How much do you think that the electrical grid is ethical?
CTheory: Do you think we’ll talk less about ethics of the Internet? Coal fire and nuclear power electricity plants are deeply politicized; while the Internet might disappear for a while isn’t it more likely that as the externalities of the ‘net become more apparent that it would return and be (re)politicized?
MR: That’s a good question. As you were talking, I was thinking about power and electricity as still respecting political jurisdiction. The Internet is still messing around with that quite a bit; who does set the rules? Is ICANN really an authority; is it a US authority, what does the rest of the world think about it? It seems that the ‘net is in that grey zone around jurisdiction.
Will political jurisdiction eventually start being more of a force for the Internet, or less of a force on the Internet?
The other thing that occurred to me is that we see political movements around things that then shape the technology. So one thing that is going to shape technology is environmental politics; if the direction around environmental advocacy and action start to turn its back on high technology environments then things could change quite dramatically. If we see a return to some previous kind of model or a denial of some of these things …
I don’t know if you have a background in scenario planning, but there is interesting work on long-term scenario planning. Looking 50, 100 years out and trying to decide what might happen.
CTheory: Almost like a futurology at that level of planning…
MR: Yeah, but it’s interesting stuff because you don’t think about what the specifics are but what trends might affect future directions. One of the ones that I’ve seen around universities and research is that there is a fairly significant meltdown in energy and energy availability, which is making things that were once quite global suddenly very local. The local is what you need to deal with because you can’t travel too much — it’s just too expensive. So all of a sudden it’s think local instead of global, and the world shrinks into these little neighborhoods rather and perspectives shift to the local, away from the current global perspectives.
In that world, the technological infrastructures that we’re building today won’t be important, because what will be important is the people that you can physically get to and speak with. So there is a future world that is on a different trajectory than we’re on now.
CTheory: In some of your presentations you’ve said that we need to think past the information age, that we’re moving into an era of imagination. Can you explain this new era?
MR: The information age is dead, particularly in the world of academic libraries or information more generally. The information age is a nice concept for the past maybe 20 years or so, but it’s a trap going forward, particularly for academic research libraries. If we think that we’re the only one’s invested in the information business then we’re crazy because everybody is in the information business today. Our niche is not information, really, but something beyond that: how do we use that information, how do we morph it and link it up and have it relate and help people understand it.
That is why I say that the age we’re in today is not an information age but an imagination age. We’ve got tons of content and tools, but it’s how we take advantage of it that’s really cool right now. I think that this is where librarians need to think of themselves in the present world.
If I can use libraries as an example, the product of libraries for a long time has been the collection; what libraries have done is gather collections. This, I think, is the wrong approach today. We need to think about collections not as the end-goal but as the raw materials, and these materials are then used to link things together and get people working with complex concepts. There are massive numbers of distributed collections all over the ‘net today, and the really exciting piece isn’t just the collections but the space between the collections — the ideas that link them together, the dependencies between them, and how we manage that glue space or interstitial space is where libraries really need to focus. That’s where the semantic ‘net is going to be, that’s where the ideas start to intersect in really interesting ways. Libraries need to be in this space and less concerned about the collection space.
CTheory: You had talked about the alphabet and ‘traditional’ literacy acting as a prison that threatens to trap us within it. But it seems like the written word is going to cause some real problems for any ‘post’ notion of literacy and libraries. Intellectual property laws and copyright in particular impose financial and legal obligations to fix us within particular boundaries, particular forms of literacy. Won’t IP and copyright laws limit the potentialities of libraries and post-literacy; do they constitute an element of the literate prison?
MR: This is where things get fascinating, because I could see this from both sides. IP and copyright are a continuing challenge and the ways we think of commodifying information has been a big issue for librarians for some time.
We have huge issues with people trying to protect intellectual property in the digital realm, using all kinds of techniques and tools, which are eventually always going to be broken by somebody. I don’t doubt that Technological Protection Measures are less effective than cultural ones; iTunes is flourishing, so people will pay at a certain level and make a lot of money for other people. We see an interest in protecting IP as we should, but also see open access and Creative Commons as ways that people can release their ideas in a more open marketplace. Open access models and creative commons modes of licensing are really gaining hold of people; they see them as ways to enable sharing. Intuitively we know that innovation comes from the open sharing of ideas, so we know the more we put stuff behind various IP walls the more innovation will suffer. We need to find that fine balance between open access and the ability to make money on the production of ideas. We’re kind of in that wonderful transition zone, where some of it works and some of it doesn’t.
I think we’ve had this debate about locking things down and opening them up for quite some time and the means we’ve used to do this has simply changed over the years. Copyright, as you know, started to promote innovation and to let ideas flow freely. We’ve lost our path on that over the years, but even still there’s a desire to open up ideas as much as control them. So there’s a balance here that’s going on, and the tools to create that balance are changing.
CTheory: In this creative world, with a remixed organizational infrastructure, we would likely see a mass blurring of siloed works. Archivists, technical staff, and related groups would need to work together to decode how information interacted with the body and so forth, and then deliver the information. This would necessitate multi-disciplinary understandings of knowledge and cross-disciplinary commitments. It might see the contemporary scientist return to being a kind of renaissance figure.
MR: Well, scientists would certainly be broader. One of the critiques of the 20th century is that science has gotten narrower and narrower along a reductionist path. We went so deep because it was the only way to know about the core pieces of the world; we understand more about the core mechanics of the world than ever before. But the result in going deeper is that we’ve lost the context and broader picture, and this is what I see science as having been trying to recover for the past 5 or 10 years. It’s been reopening itself to other disciplines, and you absolutely see this in a university setting where the hottest and coolest stuff going on emerges from groups bringing humanists and scientists together to look at common problems and issues.
At the University of Guelph there are cases where we are deliberately bringing these groups together to get them to inform one another and they’re more interested in being informed by one another. Bringing together people in this kind of way is incredibly crucial because the kinds of experimentation and discoveries to be made are in those grey zones in between.
Talking about library roles, I think that this is one of the roles that the research library has going forward; not simply stewarding information but providing opportunities for people from different perspectives to come together and actually let them rub shoulders and understand their differences and similarities. I love the metaphor that learning is a contact sport because it’s absolutely what happens. I really understand something when I finally butt up against someone who thinks differently than I do, and that challenging of ideas might be something that libraries going forward could intentionally facilitate.
The Library, Technology, and Privacy
CTheory: I would wager that when many people think of libraries, they imagine the great old Carnegie buildings or maybe their university library. Perhaps they’re also thinking about physical properties like cooling, books, librarians, some computers and study carrels. I expect that the coming library will still have spaces of individual reflection and learning process, but it also sounds like there’s going to be a lot more community.
MR: I think that that’s a really important observation. We’ve got to be careful here that we don’t suggest that libraries will cease being physical spaces because that won’t be the case; humans want to get together and interact but they also interact in lots of other ways. The ability to build communities of interest and sustain and grow and nurture them becomes a core virtue of libraries. This means that ‘the library’ is both a place and an idea. I think of libraries now as an attitude associated with imagination, and the library is the way of bringing coherence to information whether you happen to physically be in one or it’s operating as a conceptual mechanism within your head.
I like your earlier reference to the Enlightenment because maybe what’s happening is that the library as an attitude is the ‘new’ philosophical position, acting as a metaphor to bring all of the information elements together.
CTheory: In operating this new library it sounds like it will need to know what is happening on digital/biological networks to supply assistance, to link people together. When I think of librarians it’s as champions of privacy, whereas IT security demands surveillance and access controls. Is there a tension or conflict to your work, insofar as in your role as the CIO you recognize a need to secure and watch the network, with this surveillance conflicting with privacy protections you defend as chief librarian?
MR: Well, great stuff. As you know, privacy is one of those things that we all respect and want deeply but give it away at a moment’s notice. Oddly enough there is a tension between wanting to have privacy and releasing information for some gain. We do this online all the time.
Where I give up my privacy for personal gain is my choice, and I’ll continue to do that. I think that right now, today, I want to give it up under certain circumstances for a certain period of time, and right now I’m forced to give it up forever. This is a kind of on/off switch problem, where releasing personal information is done in violation of the individual’s desires. I see this as kind of a technology problem and we need to know how to be better at privacy around this.
Libraries see this tension but in order to preserve a high level of privacy they also need to see the information that individuals are looking for to assist them. This comes down to a huge value and benefit of libraries, which is that we’re trusted. Not many agencies and organizations in contemporary culture have the level of trust the libraries possess. It is astonishing that when cities do evaluations of city services, after the firemen it’s libraries that tend to be the second most trusted body. That trust is something we’ve earned over quite literally hundreds of years and we still have it in the digital economy. We have this because we fight for our traditional values and if we can preserve that trust going forward as information and data analysis becomes more pervasive then we’ve got a wonderful role to play in the future. We can be that arbitrator or third-party, the one willing to sometimes stand up against legislation and the police. How we preserve our level of trust is enormously important, because if we lose it who will stand up to replace us in the digital world? Will we rely on government or a corporate agency? Likely not, as we’ll be suspicious of these agencies in the way that we’re not suspicious of libraries.
CTheory: How would you regard privacy? Westin has (broadly) characterized privacy as an expression of controlling personal information, whereas Nissenbaum thinks of privacy as controlling the flow of information and governing the appropriateness of those flows. How might you trace privacy, yourself?
MR: I like the flow metaphor more than the control metaphor because I think that privacy is now going to be something more about our essence or being, it is information about who we are and at a deeper and deeper level. Privacy used to be an external thing — the documents we had, the objects we wanted to preserve — and now its more something that affects us at a deep level. Flow is the interchange between the outside world and us, but I guess I’m thinking more and more that privacy is about our individual selves, being, structures, emotions. Privacy is something that we will use effectively, to release or withhold.
CTheory: So it’s becoming a kind of social capital?
MR: Yeah, though I hate the market based approach to understanding it. We’re getting closer to something when we do refer to it as social capital however; it’s not that privacy is an on/off switch but it is something that we’re more fluid about that we use to our advantage to enable ourselves. Privacy is something that we give up quickly, but we also want to protect it. Essentially, it’s an internal rather than external issue these days: privacy will become about genetic structures and so the most fundamental elements of our selves will be knowable and exchangeable in ways that were impossible in the past. And so I guess the question we need to ask is around the use and ownership of that information. If I have to release my genetic code to an insurance company how do I gain advantage from that while also protecting myself?
CTheory: Are notions of selfhood and privacy changed by all of this?
MR: We still cling to individuality as a product of the Enlightenment, where the individual is paramount. What is the future of this individual in a world of enormous connection? Assuming that we have post-literacies then we would all have the ability to know one another in ways that are very different from how we do today. It’s the Borg; is the Borg the release of the self to realize these wonderful opportunities to understand things at a level we’ve never understood before at the expense of the individual? As we move down this path, is the notion of the individual challenged to the point where it’s less important to all of us? If this is the case, then maybe it’s the case that privacy will die out.
Wikileaks and the Library
CTheory: If in the collective, individuals are drawn into question and privacy seen as a pathology, but librarians are the advocates and trust agents of privacy and sifting, what exactly is the relationship between the library and the more transparent and interconnected bio/digital environment?
MR: One role may be that libraries are a kind of mediator into that world allowing people to have anonymity when it’s needed and an ability to protect that anonymity. Currently, for example, libraries will not give up circulation records without a court order. Despite the fact that the police regularly ask for this information, we don’t just give it out until specifically ordered to do so. So this stance lets us do things that other folks can’t get away with. It’s acceptable by the culture that we have this kind of a role.
Could we transpose that into the digital network world? Maybe the library needs to run anonymity circuits. I wonder about this in respect to Wikileaks; is there a library affinity with what they are trying to do. Under the protection of a cultural organization like a library, would their mission be more acceptable than it seems to be today?
I think there is an interesting relationship emerging where the library — as an attitude and not so much as a place — is where we can mediate these openness, privacy, and community conflicts as a trusted player.
CTheory: If the library is to assume the meta-role of providing anonymity and acting as an international trust agent does this mean the library needs to be detached from the university or otherwise recognized in a more autonomous way?
MR: That’s a good question, and it recognizes the library is really a concept. It’s an attitude expressed on a space but also enabled through enhanced and barrier free access to information. This might not just be about open access, but something operating like Wikileaks. So I think that the attitude that is the library — that philosophy — is powerful and morphs in different ways, and could be a powerful piece of what is happening today.
I like to say that one of the things about librarians is that they’re subversive in the nicest possible ways. They’ve been doing the Wikileak thing for centuries, but just didn’t get the credit for it. This is what we try to do all the time; we try to reduce the barriers and open up that information. It’s now possible to do this in different ways. The difference, I guess, is that the library is becoming a bit invisible in all of this, which may be partially a function of information networks.
Guelph is an instance of a library but the idea of a library is morphing into a network spaces in interesting ways. I can argue that Wikileaks is simply a library — it’s a collection of documents, after all — so it’s an example of that culture or idea of openness. As a result it’s as controversial as a library. Libraries have always been challenged about their collections; we have this and that, but not some other things, and books have been banned and there has been rhetoric about permitted and non-permitted texts. Libraries have been agnostic about this; it’s not their jobs to decide what’s good and bad and right and wrong, but to let patrons make these decisions. They can only make those decisions if information is available, and this pushes boundaries of permitted information. This is now done in an era where the reach is broader than before.
Now, because the reach of libraries is global, the attitude of openness and expansiveness of those resources is very different. The philosophy of access and availability and the dialogue associated with it is taking the concept of the library way beyond its institutional boundaries. This is controversial, but in a good way and we’ll see what happens as libraries come up against oppressive regimes. Libraries are often shut down because their essence is counter to control.
CTheory: Is something like Wikileaks then, an instance that fits within the concept of library or does it push the very concept of library itself? Is the only significance that they receive more publicity than libraries today, or is there something more going on?
MR: I think that Wikileaks is much more than publicity; this is a group that is pushing the envelope on what it means to be an open culture, an open society. We may disagree with some of the tactics and outcomes but I don’t think we can disagree with the underlying philosophy, which is the right to know and the right to be protected from retribution about releasing this information.
The analogy that comes up is the Pentagon Papers; it took an entire publishing industry to push out those documents. Times have changed and Wikileaks is now an early example of something we need to learn how to live with, the far greater roles of openness in society. Should some of their stuff have been released? Maybe not. Maybe you’d even argue that there is a legitimate sense of confidentiality with some it. But I think what they are pushing is that this is information the public should be given access to.
I’m not here to defend Wikileaks, but just want to say that as a librarian, as someone who works with information, I’m in favor of Wikileaks as a generally good thing. As an organization, as a way that organization is enabled in a networking environment: welcome to the rest of your life. I think we’re going to see more and more groups like Wikileaks, not just media but organizations. The idea of a command and control organization that filters information up and down, say good-bye to that, wave farewell because it’s gone.
At the end of the day we’re learning to become open organizations, and maybe open countries and worlds. This isn’t a trivial thing, we’ll stumble alone the way, but this seems like an important concept to be put into practice.
CTheory: We’ve talked about the library as providing the basic building blocks for learning. Such resources are essential in composing what’s popularly termed ‘remix culture’. From the perspective of building blocks, remixing seems to fit into the mission of the library that is opening itself up and facilitating intersectionality. At the same time, it seems that the library sits at a point to bridge remixers and more traditional groups who want to control how those cultural building blocks are used. How does the library address how a new generation wants to engage with their culture in a participatory way while being forced to limit or condition how some of these basic resources are provided?
MR: We struggle to manage how these different uses can be kept in alignment in some ways. Let’s use remix as an example: part of the issue of remix is the availability of things, making sure that information is in a form allowing remix. I note this as important because a lot of the materials that libraries acquire are done so in such a way that limits their easy morphing. An example would be books; if we get it as a .pdf file it’s not terribly helpful for remix, but we could buy it as an XML document and then have interesting options that we didn’t have before. So how we acquire things, knowing what the purpose is going to be with it in different contexts is one of the things we need to keep in mind.
But going alongside that, we’ve talked about IP and copyright, where the ownership of information and commodification of information is intensifying. Alongside that is a push towards open access and broader availability. So as a group moves through our culture that is more accepting of remix, and openness, and intellectual access then we’ll see IP walls diminishing. They’re never going to go away, because there’s an economic advantage to them, but we know that the economics of the network makes certain possibilities viable.
I guess though that everything old is new again, because when you talk about remix culture I think about jazz as an analogue because it has always stolen from the very best people. Miles Davis didn’t come out of nowhere; he came out of a hardcore tradition of jazz that demanded innovating all the way along. He just took it one step further. What’s in jazz, which we could learn a lot from, is that collaborative, sharing, openness where I create something and someone else creates something from my creation. This is a stage where they have a contributory, instead of absolute, sense of ownership. So jazz is a good and interesting analogue that sees intense personal engagement and creativity, but within a broader context of jazz as a form and a way of creating and expressing and benefiting directly with others.
CTheory: Guelph is currently taking part in the living library process, where people can check out human ‘books’ to learn about those ‘books’ experiences. Is this one of the ways that we can see the library trying to substantively realigning and exploring they library’s transformative possibilities?
MR: I should start by ironically telling you that the living library has to be referred to as the human library because the ‘living library’ is copyrighted in the US and they actually sued the organization that was promoting it internationally. So that’s an interesting confluence of IP and openness (laughs). So we don’t call it the living library any more, it’s the human library.
Having said that, bang on about why we do this. We do this program for a few reasons. One is to realize what libraries actually do, which is to bring people together. They do this across time through objects like books and publications, but you read the Republic because you really want to talk to Plato and it happens that the best circuit we have to him is the book. But if you could sit down with Plato and talk to him like he did his students it’d be a pretty great experience.
The human library says that we can do that by consciously replicating the idea of the library but using human figures. This project lets you talk directly to people in safe, protected environments that support asking hard questions. It wouldn’t be possible if you didn’t feel safe in where you were, if you were worried about some implication. So in the human library we actually spend a lot of time with our ‘books’, because the book has to understand that the reader would ask of it hard questions. That was the point. The book had to be prepared to respond appropriately, it couldn’t be offended or defensive, but it had to engage.
For me, it wasn’t just the experience of running the human library; it was as much working with the books for them to realize that as humans we have this responsibility to be open and honest with one another. This isn’t the case just in the living library situation, but everyday! Wouldn’t it be cool if everyday we walked around and had an attitude of being books and were willing to engage and openly work with others in a safe way?
The human library was phenomenal. It causes exactly what we want to see happen; we want people to engage with their biggest fears. One of our readers charged out the Canadian soldier because he was so anti-war, he was so opposed to the Afghan mission. They had a fabulous discussion about the experience of the soldier and being in a war. I don’t know that there was actually a change in beliefs there, but it was a wonderful insight and connect between them.
Others came away crying, others angry; both good things.
The Library as a Dissonance Engine
CTheory: We have the human library, attempts to develop raw resources, and in many of your presentations you have a reference to Paul Saffo who worked for the Institute of the Future. One of the things that Paul has talked about — and that you’ve picked up — is that the future will belong to those who can provide information tools. If librarians aren’t actually providing the tools, they might be providing key infrastructure for tool development. It seems that such accumulations of power might be accompanied by worries around intellectual sovereignty. How exactly does the library navigate being a place within which sense is made of information while simultaneously retaining its trust or neutrality?
MR: A lot of what librarians believe in is empowering individuals and making them stronger and better to be themselves in the future. We play these out all the time. You won’t hear a librarian talking about whether access to information is a good or a bad thing; it’s a given for them, access and openness are key.
I see the library as a kind of coherence system, it’s about providing the tools that can bring about sense and coherence but both of these things happen in someone’s head not in the library, in the tools. At the end of the day the success is whether the library has helped sense to be made and coherence to be enabled. If so, we’ve done our job.
Our job now isn’t collections and stuff but how those things link together, how we enable others to move through that information space in a way that doesn’t overwhelm you, but also in a way that doesn’t just make it easy. I like to think that sometimes what libraries do is make things very, very hard, that we ought to create barriers to understanding because that’s when people really learn more effectively. When you have a conundrum, it’s often the impetus to dive deeper into something and open up other doors. Everything being easy — there’s always been an argument that librarianship is a service profession and so our job is to make things easy — doesn’t mean it’s effective. So sometimes I think that we need to enable environments where you’re confronted with the Other, the opposing perspectives and you have to deal with them. It’s not a consumer culture but an idea culture where there are lots of conflicting ideas, and maybe our job is to make those apparent but help you figure out what pathway to choose between these conflicts.
CTheory: So where Paul Saffo says that the future will belong to those who create sense making tools, the library is providing a set of coherence frameworks that patrons can accept or not, but in aggregate these compose a kind of dissonance engine.
MR: Yeah, it has to be both; otherwise it’s just pablum. We could give you the particular story but it would be a particular story or stream of information, it wouldn’t be the full or coherent picture. The dissonance engine and coherence framework is a good way of putting it: the library needs to be both. This gets libraries into trouble a lot of the time because we want to have those books that people are offended by, we want to let people get stuff online that others would rather be blocked. It’s not our choice, we just absolutely need to open up those things
We throw wenches into the ideological workings all the time, and that’s a good thing.
The End of the Library
CTheory: On the subject of the end of the library. In many ways we’ve talked about the end of library as just the physical space; it would remain as a mindset and set of principles about information organization and tool provision. We’re inundated with information today; systems to publish, organize, detection, and disseminate information. What characteristics of technology are you looking for as a chief information officer and chief librarian? What is involved in adopting any particular process?
MR: Well, it’s chaotic, to be honest, because libraries are living through the same explosion of technologies that everyone else is and it’s often difficult to decide if we want to adopt and institutionalize any particular tool. Some developments we see as positive, but we also have to adopt developments of things that we see as less than positive. An example: we love open access tools because they feed into our desire to have information more readily available. But we’re also very strongly attached to writers and their ability to help us understand things and recognize that they make their living through writing so our role in helping preserve that intellectual property for them is really important because otherwise we might not have these writers. So we’ve got to be partners in that process.
We have lots of resources that we buy that are incredibly constrained by contracts and IP concerns and yet this information is really important to some of our users. So we agree to be part of that relationship. We collectively, as libraries and information professionals, influence the shaping of those tools; we can promote or encourage certain types of tools that are positive.
An example is the Netscape browser. I saw Marc Andreessen demo that browser when he was a grad student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was working for the high performance-computing group. A bunch of librarians were in town and he decided to demo it for us. For him it was a tool for his researchers to collaborate; they could see the text on the screen and the most important part was that you could annotate in real-time so that everyone could see it. That was the most important part that he was trying to show, something that got built out of the system shortly thereafter and as a result Netscape became primarily an information display tool.
He was surprised by the reaction of this audience of librarians; it was the most amazing information discovery tool we’d seen in decades. But for him it was a collaborative tool for a small group of people who happened to be geographically distributed. It had nothing to do with information delivery. So I’m not saying that the librarians are responsible for Netscape and everything thereafter, but we bring that perspective to the table, we encouraged a kind of direction.
The one thing that librarians don’t do so much anymore that is a little bit concerning to me is we tend not to be tool builders like we were a few generations ago when the tools were a bit different. We’re more tool integrators now. That’s ok, because integration is a possibility now and it was harder to do before, but now we tend to be looking for pieces that we can plug into a larger whole. So we can take this, and plug it into that, and create a series. We’re building tool boxes, where the individual tools are coming from others sources, and maybe that’s our contribution that we’re going to end up with people having a really useful box of tools that we tried and used and now certify in some fashion. It’s the box thing that might now be our contribution.
CTheory: What is the threat to the library? What is it that is the primary challenge facing the library as an institution? What could go wrong at this digital transition point?
MR: The biggest threat to the library is indifference, of an attitude that is the library is no longer seen as valuable, that we no longer think that learning and growing and expanding and dealing with difference is critical. That there is another way of living your life, and it’s not the reflective or examined live. Really, libraries are children of the Enlightenment; we have that ethic behind us that knowing and developing is very important and that our past and ideas are important. If you move into an anti-intellectual age, one that no longer valued ideas and concepts and human freedom, then libraries would disappear because they wouldn’t matter so much any more.
Funding is something we can deal with, technology we can deal with. In my mind, even in a post-literate world — which arguably is the end of libraries because there are no artifacts to capture or steward — it isn’t the end of libraries because the attitude of libraries will continue to exist. We may continue to carry around all knowledge in our heads in some way but the desire to wrestle with ideas and understand difference and understand what is happening is an attitude about reflection and growth that I believe is really what libraries are about. It’s enabled utterly and completely differently in a post-literate world, but it’s a philosophy that resonates.
I think that libraries as we know them will be dramatically different in a post-literate world, but I’m not sure that they’re gone.
N. Katherine Hayles. My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literacy Texts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
Alan Westin. Privacy and Freedom (New York: Atheneum, 1967).
Helen Nissenbaum. Privacy in Context: Technology, Privacy, and the Integrity of Social Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).
Paul Saffo, “It’s the Context, Stupid,” Wired Magazine (March 1994), http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/2.03/context.html (accessed on December 12, 2010).
Michael Ridley, “Beyond Literacy: Are Readings and Writing Doomed?” Pushing the Edge: Explore, Engage, Extend. Proceedings of the Fourteenth National Conference of the Association of College and University Libraries March 12-15, 2009 Seattle, Washington. ed. Dawn M. Mueller. (Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, American Library Association, 2009), 210.
Walter J. Ong. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World (2nd Edition) (New York: Routledge, 2001).