Information Ecologies by Nardi and O’Day. The keystone species of the library is the librarian.

Information EcologiesInformation Ecologies is the antidote to polarized thinking and propaganda about technology. Nardi and O’Day reject both the rhetoric of inevitability about technology, as well as mindless resistance to it. They take a larger view, observing that questions and concerns about technology have a long history. The key lesson is that a technology may make sense in one context, and not in another.

The authors compare metaphors of technology. When we look at technology as a tool, we evaluate it by its affordances, its capacity to control things. The metaphor of system tends to get us caught up in questions of efficiency. Technology has sometimes been treated as text, a carrier of meaning. Each perspective offers some insight, and the metaphor of an information ecology offers another, potentially broader metaphor, using both complexity and locality to evaluate technology.

They challenge questionable assumptions about technology. One, technology is not neutral; once we introduce a technology it becomes an end to serve. Two, people are not completely in control of their technology; it has unexpected social costs. Three, most of us do not understand our technology, so it tends to have an agenda of its own. The metaphor of an information ecology prompts us to be sensitive to local complexity, and choose what fits there.

A library is a clear example of an information ecology. A library involves many systems; a changes to one part affects other parts. A library tends to be diverse, offering niches of service that evolve depending on patron needs. A library has keystone species, without which the ecology would collapse. They suggest the keystone species is librarians. Agreed. As I see it, another keystone species is print books. Take those away, and what is left? A server room? A computer lab? A community centre? A video store?

This book provides a much needed theoretical framework for understanding the complexities of technology. It is a refreshing perspective and is highly recommended.

Read Chapter 4 of the book at First Monday