Library Juice Concentrate by Rory Litwin. “Information” used to mean facts but now refers to electronic bits.

Library Juice ConcentrateInformation has been defined as the reduction of uncertainty. The definition is incomplete, for there is a second indispensable kind of information that increases uncertainty. Rory Litwin’s Library Juice Concentrate is of this second kind. Concentrate is a selection of writings from Litwin’s webzine, Library Juice, published between 1998-2005. It contains 27 essays, interviews and articles, provoking questions and offering alternative views on library issues.

Litwin meditates on the deeper meaning of words that librarians sometimes bandy about too easily. “Neutrality” is often just a defense of the status quo. “Information” used to mean facts but now refers to electronic bits. I found myself wondering how Litwin would analyze “open source”, something I regard as a positive trend in library technology, but a cause for reflection when pitched by library vendors.

I liked the title of the article, “Print Virtue and the Ontology of the Bo-ring.” I can just hear the technophiles chanting, “bo-ring”, to librarians critical of Google’s simple search box, for example. “Don’t make me think” is the mantra of web design. There is nothing wrong starting a search with Google, but there is a problem if searches routinely end there. Unlike print, Google’s results are indexed by popularity, good enough for trivia, but hardly a complete response for more significant questions. Search requires that people think. In the face of the burgeoning web and its diminishing returns, someone might have to start a relevance revolution.

Litwin challenges popular errors about free speech such as “ideas aren’t dangerous”. Well-meaning librarians express this view to discourage censorship. In fact, ideas do make people uncomfortable, and lead to action that disrupts people’s lives. Positive change requires a tolerance for disruptive ideas.

Several other views are represented in this collection, including Mark Rosenzweig writing on humanism and the foundations of librarianship, Barbara Tillett offering a Library of Congress take on subject heading reform, and others. In the “Interview with Jessamyn West”, I was persuaded that a librarian can subscribe to anarchist politics while having no objection to a hierarchical catalogue. Ideological purism, now that’s a dangerous thing. Essays by Neugebauer and Sparanese reveal the interference of US interests through the so-called “independent librarians” of Cuba.

The book closes with an assortment of limericks, quotes and student resources. In a piece on amusing search queries, one patron asked, “When did the information age take place?” I guess that depends on what the person meant by information. Concentrate earns the pun in its title, requiring thoughtful attention by readers and encouraging vigilance on library issues that matter. A worthy read.

Note: Litwin writes at the Library Juice blog, and is the publisher of Library Juice Press and Litwin Books. My book, Slow Reading, is being published by Litwin Books.

2 Replies to “Library Juice Concentrate by Rory Litwin. “Information” used to mean facts but now refers to electronic bits.”

  1. Hm, I’m a bit wary of your using the term ‘popular’ to describe Google’s (admittedly proprietary) page ranking system. I can see why you might describe it as popularity, since it relies on tracking links to pages to determine relevancy. However, this ‘popularity’ also translates to authority in many (most?) cases. But the proof is in the pudding: people use Google because it works, better than the rest.

    Also, dismissing Google as good for ‘trivia’ really doesn’t make sense. It implies that the WWW, and its pages, are answers to trivia questions. Google is just an indexing device, nothing more.

  2. Hi Andrew,

    I stand by the popularity term. Just as you say, Google’s page ranking relies on tracking links to pages. The more links to a page, the higher the rank. The links are created by people who like the page. It is a measure of popular support.

    Popularity is useful for deciding some things. We rely on popularity to elect our politicians. However our system is also designed with another layer of structures and protections — the parliamentary process, the GG — so that popularity does not run the show.

    The term “trivia” was perhaps a poor choice on my part. It understates what can be found on the web. My point was that searching by a simple text box and results ranked by popularity is more suited to simple questions, e.g., what does this error number stand for, what is the definition of this word, who acted in this movie, than for more complex questions, e.g., how to solve relationship problems, assessing global warming, etc. Those kinds of searching would benefit from the more labour intensive indexing provided by librarians.

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