Friday, December 17, 2004

The Social Life of Paper

Gladwell, Malcolm. "The Social Life of Paper: Looking for Method in the Mess." The New Yorker, March 25 2002, 92.
excerpt: David M. Levy argues that Dewey was the anti-Walt Whitman, and that his vision of regularizing and standardizing life ended up being just as big a component of the American psyche as Whitman's appeal to embrace the world just as it is. That seems absolutely right. The fact is, the thought of all those memos and reports and manuals made Dewey anxious, and that anxiety has never really gone away, even in the face of evidence that paper is no longer something to be anxious about.
What I found particularly interesting was Gladwell's analysis of the role of Melvil Dewey. Much of the angst I hear coming from librarians about the recent announcement by Google about it's agreement with major libraries to digitize their libraries seems to be rooted in a Deweyesque notion that we (society) are about to be immersed in a chaotic sea of information (books, articles, documents, etc.) that libraries (librarians) have managed to control for us through systems of classification, categorization and organization. I think that is missing the point. The public has never really understood our (librarian's) systems of organization. It doesn't resemble the way they think or use information. What they are gaining in something like the digitization project is access to a world of information they would have difficulty accessing in any other way. And, they will be able to access it in a way that makes sense to them. They will be able to do things with the text electronically that they would never have been able to do with it in print. They will continue to print out those documents (or portions of documents) that they need to have in print form. Arguments that this spells the demise of libraries are based on a flawed sense of what our most valuable contribution as librarians is.