Friday, February 23, 2007

Not the Ninja!

I'm loathe to take the last post, When tags work and when they don't: Amazon and LibraryThing, off the top. It got a *lot* of attention*, and I owe the commenters a follow up.

The Shifted Librarian found this YouTube video "put together by Steven Reed's students at Wilmington High School."

It's a fun video, no question. It's an *amazing* demonstration of what kids can do these days. My highschool had the best Super8 program in Massachusetts, and this level of professionalism would have been way past our capabilities. The book-throwing is great. The editing is quick and professional. The kids get an A. They rock.

But I can't leave it at that. The kids are rock stars, but the message is all wrong—and it's wrong in a very telling way.

The situation is completely false. I don't mean the ninja—they're increasingly common in libraries of all sizes—but the contest and its results.

Type Capital of Russia into Google and you get this:

You don't even need to GO to a page—the answers are in the page titles themselves. Face it, the Web is *great* for this sort of thing. You're not going to "defend" books by claiming they're better for looking up trivial facts. They're not. Breathe deep and repeat after me: They're worse.**

The second false idea is that libraries and the web are rivals, two competing ways to get the same thing (which is mostly factoids). This is all too often how popular culture sees libraries, and it's a disaster. If libraries are just low-tech search engines, they are bad ones. They should be defunded and closed.***

I'm not going to launch into a defense of libraries and books. Of course I love them. I started LibraryThing because I loved them so much. But I don't love them because I hate computers, or because books are better than computers.**** I don't see them as rivals. The web has supplanted a few things that books used to do, but not the important ones. And libraries can do things with computers they are only just starting to explore.

People who love books need to fight against these ideas. They're a trap. They're wrong, and they're very dangerous to the things we love.*****

Yeah, I know, lighten up, Tim!

*Alexa is under the impression LibraryThing's traffic doubled the day the post hit. That's total nonsense and a great proof of Alexa's failings. It makes me wonder how much they rely on new link creation, not traffic.
**Where did guy find the books? Does he have the shelving memorized, or did he consult and OPAC to find Countries of the World?
***And don't tell me it's about not everyone having a computer. If so, libraries should be just computer centers.
****For starters, books are worse at email, worse at social networking, and they are hands-down a lousy way to blunder upon shocking new types of pornography.
*****Can anyone help me find a quote? I think it was from random sci-fi movie or show, taking place in the near future. The quote was something like "Would you have wanted to shut down the internet just to keep the libraries open?" Don't even try to Google it. (And I recommend not going to the library either.)

Update: This ninja movie has a good message.


Blogger Steve said...

Where did that guy find the books? If he's enough of a library geek, he knows where the important reference books are shelved in his muscle memory.

Ask any reference librarian: it sucks when books get shifted in the reference section, because you end up standing in front of a shelf saying "it's blue and it's this big and it always used to be right here!"

2/23/2007 11:41 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Yeah, I know what you mean. I used to have most of the classics library at Michigan so memorized.

But then, I have a slew of URLs in bicycle memory too.. :)

2/24/2007 2:30 AM  
Anonymous sunny said...

> help me find a quote?

Go to, type 'libraries', in the search field, select 'quotes' from the pulldown list ->

/Find?select=Quotes&for=libraries, it's from I, Robot (2004):

Lawrence Robertson: "I suppose your father lost his job to a robot. I don't know, maybe you would have simply banned the Internet to keep the libraries open."

2/24/2007 3:00 AM  
Blogger john said...

Oh, very good. I knew it was something bad.

2/24/2007 3:02 AM  
Blogger K said...

It's true about shelving locations being stored somewhere in the hindbrain. I used to work in a bookshop, where there was obviously no shelving catalogue (just an indication on the computer of what section the books ought to be in, which might be wrong). However, being human, we didn't infallibly know the location of every book in stock.

It used to amaze me how often people would stand around for several minutes waiting for a bookseller to help them find something, rather than just go to the shelves and have a look themselves. I suppose we all have different approaches...


2/24/2007 8:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't this mockumentary quite a dreary statement about US education if three teenagers cannot answer the simple question about Russia's capital without looking it up? And then one is unable to use a computer?

2/25/2007 5:04 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Yeah, I know—capital of RUSSIA?! If you don't know the capital of Russia, you can't possibly have the other information that would make that factoid useful. I mean, what's a capital anyway?

2/25/2007 5:07 PM  

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