One of the things that I found shocking when I was pursuing my Masters in Library Science was the number of truly passionate debates that would break out in my classes. Some of them were kind of funny. For example, things got a little heated when we talked about whether libraries should offer gift shops in the ground floor. If a book is about how to care for animals, how can you make sure both a “cat person” AND a “dog person” would find it? Since the classification system didn’t include codes for every vegetable, how could you tell someone that a book coded as “corn” was actually about carrots?
Some debates were more serious though. One that I remember being particularly interested in was an argument about the preservation of antiquated documents. You see, the process then (I don’t know if the technology has changed) was to scan the books into a digital format. The process, however, often sped up the obliteration of the physical document. What was more important? Having the actual manuscript, crumbling though it may be, or preserving the content via some modern, impersonal digital medium?
I was on the side of keeping the actual manuscript. Many had been hand-illustrated. The covers had been hand-created. The codex had been sewn together by someone sitting in a dark and empty room of some monastery somewhere. Today, publishers create books so that they can withstand the rigor of 1-2 readings. These manuscripts have far outlived today’s life expectancy. Why not let them live a little longer?
As a librarian, my view was somewhat inappropriate. My focus was supposed to be on the content, not on the sentiment of nostalgia.
Now, in my new professional life, I am faced with a somewhat similar debate. We are using Social Media, and depending on how you use it, you can cast a wide net or capture a few quality friends. Sometimes you can do both at the same time. You can stay in touch with people you went to elementary school with. You can reconnect with your first crush and your first arch-enemy in one day. I am torn about all of this.
Of course, back in Library School, I understood the value of preserving the content. I wasn’t against it. It was just a choice of priorities. I’m not against Social Media. I certainly see the value of it. But are we meant to stay in touch with every person in the world? Are we meant to do business with people we may never meet in person? With someone who may never even see our handwriting? Aren’t some relationships meant to crumble? Aren’t some meant to grow tangibly through handshakes and meals?
Is it better to have access to thousands of documents digitally knowing that the physical document was destroyed to create that experience? Is it better to deal with people digitally because some relationship is better than the few you might have in “real life”? Is it better to do business with hundreds of people at the expense of shaking hands with a few?