McLuhan, the Medium, the Containers, and Libraries

Before diving in, a bit on where I’m coming from: One of my majors was Communication, and McLuhan was a major topic in several of my classes. Though I don’t find his writing as readable as some others, his ideas resonate with me. A personal area of interest for me is the field of Science, Technology, and Society, which studies how social, political, and cultural values affect scientific and technology innovation and are affected by it. Finally, I became a librarian for a number of reasons, one of which was an activist mindset of preserving this type of cultural institution. Okay, with that squared away:

I, like Claire, often find myself in the position of saying something to the effect of technology is value neutral, it’s how you use it that matters, so I questioned my “True North” described above when I was reminded that’s not a particularly McLuhanist approach to technology. Upon reflection, though, I think I have mostly used that phrase to open the door to conversations about how the technology might be useful in order to backtrack to how to ensure good general practice (in teaching, in productivity, in research, etc) with or without the technology in question. I plan to reflect more on after our seminar this evening.

This reading came at a particularly good point in time for me. Earlier this week I attended Tony’s session on giving effective powerpoint presentations. It was a fun session, as I really like making slide decks and learning tricks and tips to do it even more effectively. In that session we briefly touched on McLuhan, and Tony pointed out that PowerPoint, itself, encourages you to behave in a certain way.
As does an iPhone, access to a tablet computer, a laptop, an offline desktop. And knowledge that your screen at the office is huge compared to the phone sized one in your pocket.

I, of course, think of this in the context of libraries shifting. (And oh, the library readers of this blog know the many ways that the field is shifting and changing, but for the VT Seminar crowd, I could go on for days.) I am excited by that work, and the redefining, and the challenge of not just ensuring libraries remain relevant but are critical to the success of the enterprise. But I digress…

One of those shifts is the move from a focus on container (i.e. The Book) to the content (i.e. The Information). But I have long thought, perhaps due to my other major in Philosophy–which is particularly paper bound, that the container does change how one thinks about and uses the information. That we as a field should think about what that means and be very intentional about our work. And you see evidence of that in most academic libraries. Largely, when books are moved off site and online collections are purchased to replace them, that (in the most general view) is generally focused on STEM fields, leaving humanities and some social sciences with much of their physical collections in the building. I suspect the container at that point changes the work to some degree for STEM research, but perhaps in a more positive direction. In those, the more flexible online, hyperlinked, fast container might be more useful.

In parallel, I think a lot about how new forms of scholarship like those enabled by big data or digital humanities practices might change what can be known. How they in fact change the questions that can be asked.

All of which is very exciting to me. The biggest worry, from my perspective, is what happens if this overshadows the types of questions that could be asked previously, or does it imply a value hierarchy that isn’t necessarily intentional.

Looking forward to this afternoon’s seminar….

3 thoughts on “McLuhan, the Medium, the Containers, and Libraries

  1. Pingback: McLuhan, Value, and the Message | Free Range

  2. Nowadays with the speed of technology I believe things are easy to access by people through the use of internet. As a Library Associate at my local community college here on island I believe that I have learned new ideas and especially new tools for improving our library services from your blog. Reading through your blog have helped me to develop new ideas on ways to improve our community college library services through online. As of now our college library does not have a website and I’m currently working on creating and developing a first ever website for our college.

    I believe that this website will help promote our college library around the world especially in the technological world. Having an online library services will help the students, faculty, staff and the community at large to enjoy learning and studies at their own available. In other words the library will not be limit its time for information which student can only access that specific information from 7:30am – 4:00pm. Having our own community college library website will offer unlimited information and learning resources for library patrons.

    I’m hoping that in the near future I will see changes in our community college library services by offering the learning resources and materials online. I’m happy to see and use the beauty of technology and its tools that is stated in your blog for the benefit of our library and its services to the students, faculty, staff and community.

  3. Throughout the great design of things you get a B- with regard to effort. Where exactly you actually confused everybody was first in your facts. As as the maxim goes, the devil is in the details… And it couldn’t be more correct at this point. Having said that, permit me reveal to you precisely what did deliver the results. Your authoring is pretty engaging and that is possibly the reason why I am taking the effort to opine. I do not make it a regular habit of doing that. 2nd, even though I can see the jumps in reasoning you come up with, I am definitely not sure of exactly how you appear to unite your points which in turn help to make the actual conclusion. For now I will, no doubt yield to your position however wish in the future you actually connect your facts better.

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