Last weekend I had the pleasure of taking home an Amazon Kindle, a SONY Ebook reader, and an OLPC laptop to play around with. I’m not going to give a longwinded review of any of the three products, there have been enough of those. They all have good points and bad points. I am going to talk a little bit about public libraries and their misplaced desire to adapt these technologies as service or access points within their larger service model.
I had a great conversation the other morning with Linda Braun and Andrea Mercado via Skype. I won’t give away all of the fun stuff that we talked about because the conversation will be made available as a podcast in a few different places once it has been edited. We did talk further about understanding both media-specific cultures and institutional cultures though, and that is directly related to these gadgets that I was playing with. To be clear: when I say media-specific cultures, I am referring to the behavioral patterns and roles that become norms when individuals are interacting with any information medium (a book, a television, a web application, a telecommunications device). When I say institutional culture, I am referring to the behavioral patterns and roles that become norms when individuals are simply doing their jobs. The two might not seem so intertwined, but just as policy should reflect organizational structures, an organization full of people who can’t comprehend media-specific cultural parameters gives rise to a flawed, confused, directionless institution with a negative culture. A simple, low-tech example: email etiquette. Imagine an organization where nobody understands the media-specific rules of what can be said and done in an email message. Everyone would communicate poorly and the place would be in shambles immediately; the workplace culture would go sour. Innovation and creativity would suffer first and then eventually if people didn’t figure out a workaround the whole place would collapse on itself. Media-specific cultures and ecologies determine institutional culture because they are vehicles for communication.
Enter the Kindle. I’ll just pick on it because it is such an easy example of libraries not understanding the media-specific culture and the larger service ecology surrounding a new technology. Quite a few libraries have tried or are trying to figure out a way to use the Kindle as a means of distributing library materials. I beg all of you, (unless you’ve figured out how to hack your Kindles) don’t try to use the Kindle or any other device that was designed and engineered as a service point for a totally different content delivery model (in this case Amazon) at your library! It is like watching an inept carpenter struggle to drive a screw into a board with a hammer. We need to create and select tools, devices, and service points that fit our service delivery models at libraries. If libraries started using Amazon’s Kindle as their content delivery system, we’d be ignoring all of the media-specific culture that is associated with that device. We’d be using hammers on screws. Imagine what happens to your institutional culture when you have patrons asking you questions about accessing library content and you, the librarian, don’t have the knowledge or access to even answer their question and try to solve the problem. Crisis.