Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Changes in Objects associated with Digitization

Intellectual Production: Day 5

Colin Lankshear's article on Digital Epistemologies was a long read. But I did see a direct connection to my own work experience. As an instructor for a course in Teacher-Librarianship, one of the issues that I deal with all the time is the changing nature of the teacher-librarian's environment and responsibilities.

Many veteran TLs can remember the days of card catalogs and print encyclopedias. Looking up a book meant using the "title" cards or the "author" cards or the "subject" cards. Adding a book to the collection meant creating 3 sets of cards per book. Adding a subject heading was not a simple matter. Books were signed out with date due cards and if the TL wanted to know if a book was "in" or "out", it was a many step process. With the advent of the "electronic card catalog", librarians began to feel the change that digitization would bring. Being a TL is really about information, not books. Being able to access information about the books, any time, any place, and being able to search key subject headings instantaneously revolutionized the job.

Print encyclopedias were the "definitive source" of information. Encyclopedias were expensive to buy, expensive to replace and did not circulate, but they were an essential tool! Students were not allowed to borrow these valuable resources, so information had to be copied laboriously into notebooks to be massaged later into research papers. Today, print is giving way to digital. Many publications are now available on-line for free. (eg Canadian Encyclopedia) or via public library sites where all students need is a library card number. These resources are updated frequently, always available and easy to consult. We are moving quickly from "atoms" to "bits":

In the physical world of atoms, it is customary to think in terms of finiteness and, as a consequence, in terms of concepts like scarcity, control, monopoly, zero-sum games and so on. When information is contained as atoms (e.g., in a book), for one person to have borrowed the library copy means another person cannot access it. This 'reality' and 'logic' impacts on our thought and behavior in all sorts of ways: from the importance of knowing to put books on reserve, to knowing the fastest way to the library after class to get the book before someone else does. When information is contained as bits, all sorts of alternatives arise. These include not having to know the fastest way to the library, how to navigate the Deweyan catalogue system and so on. (Lankshear 2002)

And the changes keep on coming. Playaways, eTexts, audiobooks, the Kindle, on-line databases, Askaway, etc., etc. Some librarians are worried, very worried. Much like the rein maker and the blacksmith at the dawn of the car age, TLs with a narrow vision of the profession see the apocalypse behind each new announcement.

However, for teacher-librarians who have a clear understanding of their role, the digital future is very bright. We will always have books (just as newspapers, radio and TV co-exist). They might be virtual, digital or actual, but they still need to be organized, assessed, recommended, explained, previewed, discussed, reviewed and acquired. As I point out to my Librarianship students, the TL job is about information, and pointing our clientèle in the right direction. It is about narrowing a search and knowing what resources are available. It is about being able to select from a world wide library shelf of materials. Being digital allows librarians to finally do the kinds of things they were trained for!

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