The Skeuomorphic Library

So much of the past is embedded in how libraries work in the present.

March 10, 2016

I have students read Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” every spring. Bush was a scientific bureaucrat who helped organize the work of the Manhattan Project. In 1945, just before the fruits of that project were used to destroy two Japanese cities, he published his thoughts about what scientists would do in peacetime, focusing in particular on the problem of managing a proliferation of information. He envisioned a desk-sized machine called the Memex that scientists could use to index, consult, and annotate scientific literature using a variety of developing technologies such as microfilm. On a more visionary note, he predicted computing, voice recognition, artificial intelligence, and hypertext. He didn’t take into account how copyright and the way we fund scientific publishing restricts sharing and reuse, but hey, he couldn’t guess everything right.  

The part of the essay that always grabs me, though, is where he describes the mechanical mean of storing and retrieving information and how it cannot replace the way people actually think – through connections grasped on the fly. “Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing,” he wrote. “The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain.” He imagined that we could improve upon the mechanized indexing of information by allowing scientists to create, record, and share trails of association, given automated access to the record.

In many ways, citations serve as hand-coded trails of association that we create and share, but we persist in presenting them traditionally – in text at the bottom of a page, or in an alphabetical list of references. The links are the opposite of hyper; learning how to read a citation and go from it to a source remains a huge challenge for undergraduates once they realize that fine print is actually good for something other than a kind of plagiarism liability insurance. Yet the web of citations (and the automated linking of citations through Google Scholar and Web of Science) are about as close as we come to Bush’s “trails of association.” Hypertext is closer, but it hasn’t replaced hand-coded references in the worlds of science and scholarship.

We’ve seen so much change in libraries, yet it’s so hard to let go of the old ways.

Remember when we used to explain databases by saying “it’s like the Reader’s Guide, but on the computer”? Maybe you're not old enough. It’s been more than a quarter of a century since students were likely to have actually seen the Reader’s Guide, much less used it. Yet our databases are largely still structured like an old-school printed index, and we expect people to search much as they did when flipping pages of a printed index. We’re now adding a discovery layer of software to make searching collections of databases more like searching Google, though that doesn’t solve the problem of being overwhelmed with an abundance of choices before you’re even sure you know what you’re looking for. There are no trails to follow there.

Library catalogs have been online since the 1980s, but they still use a record format designed to automate the printing of catalog cards. All this is set to change, but deciding what exactly we can let go of when creating new cataloging practices is incredibly hard. Meanwhile, my students are completely unimpressed by the way Google girded their lawyers and digitized the contents of tens of millions of library books. They don’t remember a world when it was impossible to search inside books from the comfort of your desktop. It’s not the amazing “moon shot” it once was.

This week, when looking at our dwindling collection of paper-based periodicals and newspapers, most of them rarely used, my colleagues and I talked about showing students the difference between popular publications like New Scientist and science journals, or between a left-leaning magazine like The Nation and the right-leaning National Review. I had the sudden sense that all of this was a bit like using the Reader’s Guide to explain databases. Many of our students have never read a magazine in print. Most of them get their news and commentary online, and always have.

Likewise, very few of them have ever encountered a scholarly article before that first term writing course in which they are told scholarly articles are the gold standard for sources, whether or not they are understandable. The same instructors often try to guide their students by suggesting which journals they should aim for, but the concept that articles are published in issues and volumes of journals rather than as single documents, to be culled out of a mountain of search results, remains elusive for undergraduates because they've never actually seen a journal in print. The full-text database removed articles from their binders. It takes effort and a sense of tradition to put them back. Curiously, though the articles are online, most of them are laid out exactly as if they were printed on paper.

The library is full of skeuomorphs, design elements that belong to an earlier era, passed along as cultural touchstones for those of us who remember a paper-and-print past, a set of arcane rules and conventions to learn for those who come to an academic library with only the web and their cellphones as their cultural templates. Now I occasionally show students who need to explore 20th century popular culture the Reader’s Guide and describe it as being kind of like a database, or a Google for the past.  Some students are quietly horrified – how does it work? What do all those little numbers mean? Others experience a kind of awe. Look at that fine print! Someone made that, painstakingly putting all those magazine articles into an alphabetical list. Wow.  

I’m still waiting for someone to invent an easier way than Zotero or Pinboard for me to manage my trails of association, to let me tap or click or say a command to save every connection I make as I read. That would be sweet. But I won’t hold my breath. Instead, I’ll finish writing this sentence and save these words by clicking on the image of an object our undergraduates have probably never encountered in real life – a floppy disk.


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