Last thoughts on Memex.


A photo of my Memex while working on this blog.  Only thing missing is my cat Anna, my smartphone, and the flat screen playing ST:TNG.

I really enjoyed taking this course.  The readings were challenging and fun!  One of the first readings really shook up the foundations of my education, How to Read for Grad School.  I really wish that I had found this article eons ago but I was perplexed – how would I go about ‘skimming’ articles  and books when they are digital?  This proved to be extremely challenging this semester.

For one class I took, the readings were a mix of digital journal articles and full books.  As the journal articles are shorter, I was relatively comfortable with skimming the headings, reading the abstracts, discussions, and conclusions, aided by the headings. I thought I could extend the same reading strategy to digital books as well using the table of contents.  Alas, this did not work out as well as expected.  The book chapters lacked headings and were difficult to navigate without these visual clues.

Digital items are at the most two pages of text on the screen and most frequently just one page.  If I was reading on either of my Kindles, it was more like a couple of paragraphs per screen which did not facilitate skimming.  I had a lot better luck with using the Kindle app on my computer where more text fit on the screen and I could create an outline from the table of contents.  However, I still ended up reading almost every word of the book and probably would have benefited from having a hard copy of the text.

What does this have to do with digital libraries you might rightfully ask?  Quite a bit actually.  The end result of all digital libraries should be users and usability of the digital information.  If the format restricts my ability to organize and synthesize the digital information then the fact that it is available is of little use.  It can have all the metadata, organization, and optimal structure that digital best practices require of us but if a user cannot work effectively with the information within digital libraries, it is a moot point.

Nowadays, almost everything that is digital can claim to be usable, friendly, full of features to enhance the digital experience.  One area that is not so trumpeted is how academic readers interact with digital libraries, not from the viewpoint of meta-skills but rather from a user’s micro-skills.  These micro-skills are something that a patron would employ to extract meaning and understanding from the supplied digital information.  Highlighting, note-taking, and the creation of outlines are all examples of micro-skills or strategies.  By the way, I have no idea if there really is a technical term created for micro-skills or if it is already being researched by academics.  This is just something I have been mulling over since we started this class.

Are digital micro-skills something that the digital librarian should even be concerned about?  For example, we are constantly trying to perfect ways in which patrons find books, but we don’t really worry if they can synthesize the information that is contained in the text.  That is for course instructors, right?  But then again, librarians are very concerned with literacy and of course literacy requires the synthesis of written information.  So which side do digital librarians fall under? Perhaps we should be actively engaged in understanding how patrons synthesize digital written information.

Which, believe it or not, leads me to our first week’s readings, Borges and Bush.  The Memex is just a sophisticated tool that allows users to synthesize information and even Bush acknowledges that:

“Much needs to occur, however, between the collection of data and observations, the extraction of parallel material from the existing record, and the final insertion of new material into the general body of the common record. For mature thought there is no mechanical substitute. But creative thought and essentially repetitive thought are very different things. For the latter there are, and may be, powerful mechanical aids.”

Bush is saying that machines can help with repetitive thought but that of course, it is of limited help with creative thought.  But what is the synthesis of information but the application of creative thought to information?  Have we all along been trying to fit creative processes into machines that should really be merely aids for repetitive tasks?

I think the next wave of digital librarianship should undertake the understanding and addressing patrons’ digital information micro-skills.   As librarians we are rightfully concerned with literacy and the ability of patrons to effectively use our resources.   Usability and UX should go well beyond “can they find this?” or “how can we help patrons find this” to “Now that they have found it, what are they going to do with it?”.  This will require librarians to develop new skills, new understanding of their patrons, and perhaps most importantly, knowing how they can help patrons understand these micro-skills and how they can be applied to learning.  Yes, it is a shift from what patrons (and librarians!) think a librarian should be but rather what they can be – a connection or interface between technology and patrons.

Another blogger summed it up best while posting on LIS879’s blog: “…this is where I feel my role is applicable: I have enough [technological skills] to act more as a bridge (or sometimes voice of reason) between the IT side and the user”.  Librarians, digital or otherwise, are the bridge that connects technology and patrons.  We are the powerful, non-mechanical aids that Bush failed to discuss in his article.

We are Memex, only better.


One response to “Last thoughts on Memex.

  1. “A photo of my Memex while working on this blog. Only thing missing is my cat Anna, my smartphone, and the flat screen playing ST:TNG.”, you forgot yourself. Each piece is just a thing, with data in it until you can string it all together into coherent trails of information, right? Like you said: we are memex.

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