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On behalf of the Merely Curious

Whenever the issue of ebooks arises, I end up telling people about the first ebook I ever saw. I have doubtless blogged about this before and blathered on about this to most of you, but I’m going to tell you again. It was 1991 or 1992 (or thereabouts) and a teacher showed me a Hypercard version of Jurassic Park.

Up until that point, my Internet experience was entirely text-based, no clicking. Someone had explained hyperlinks to me, but I didn’t really get it. I had been terribly disappointed when I used what must have been something like Lynx to look at the Library of Congress only to find it was the catalog and not the books themselves. I was pretty sure the LoC had some cool stuff and I was hoping it was transcribed on the Internet. Hypercard was kind of cool, but sort of disappointing. I was a kid and while the idea of a clicky, on-your-computer address book or card file seemed nice and all, I didn’t have too much use for it.

Enter Jurassic Park.

Each dinosaur name linked out to information about that dinosaur. This wasn’t information that existed in the original text. Instantly, the power of hyperlinking became clear. Ebooks (not that they were called that then) were going to CHANGE EVERYTHING.

Many years later, when the web was still relatively new (and ebooks had not yet changed much of anything, as far as I could see), I spent several hours on the phone with a friend across my very snowy college campus. We each had Internet access in our rooms and she had called to tell me that she found a picture of Robertson Davies and he looked like what she imagined God to look like when she was small. This was pre-Google and I was a big fan of Dogpile, which made me feel very web-savvy.

We spent the whole evening just searching for stuff and clicking around and sending each other links. Now, that’s known as “wasting your evening online” but then, it was pure discovery. I had no idea what Robertson Davies looked like before that night. Each page we stumbled on was a revelation – there was so much stuff online.

That bar keeps moving, though, so what it takes to spark that sense of wonder changes. In the past two minutes, I’ve seen tweets touting Slate’s Hollywood Career-o-Matic and an app that tracks happiness in order to create maps of people’s emotions. Now we need clever mashups and participatory projects to grab our interest.

And yet…

When the Library of Congress started putting images up on Flickr, it had that wide-eyed, time-sucking effect on many of us. Locally, my state library has been partnering with libraries to digitize local history collections. Again, I’ve watched people start clicking on things and get that dreamy, content look on their face as they lose themselves in these collections.

Thanks, LoC! (click through to see a great series of comments)

I don’t know how our digital future is going to play out. I don’t know how libraries will end up handling ebooks, if ebooks will be the final death knell of the local library’s popular collection, or if we’ll have some kind of digitally-driven renaissance. I’m terribly interested to see what will come out of the DPLA’s beta sprint and I was heartned by Char Booth’s excellent interview about the Hathi Trust.

I was an archives concentrator in library school in part because I liked the idea of offering access to unique collections. The stuff that makes us go slightly slack-jawed when we get to see it. A recurring theme in my archives training was figuring out what lived where. My parents, both social workers, were surprised that the place to go to do research on the early days of social work was Minnesota.  I was surprised that Julia Child’s papers were not at her (and my) alma mater Smith College, but at Radcliffe (I soon learned that the Schlesinger has an incredible culinary collection). Scholars of these areas, naturally, would know this. But the merely curious would not.

The Merely Curious stand to benefit the most from projects like the DPLA and Hathi Trust. They are the public library’s most treasured patrons and best advocates. Nate Hill’s wonderful scenarios for the DPLA take that “where is it” question out of the equation and also tap into one of the lovely effects of the LoC’s work on Flickr – conversation and community.

I am, perhaps, less interested in what these projects will do about the best sellers. Providing e-copies of the latest must read in as many formats as our patrons have devices will (one hopes) simply become good service. Like buying extra copies of a paperback when a book is made into a movie. Just part of our daily routine. But making the weird and wonderful bits and pieces of our collections available online still has the potential to be something special.

Imagine how many of the Merely Curious are out there, not using their library because they don’t realize that in the back corner, there’s a pamphlet file or photo collection or map drawer filled with strange goodies waiting to provide them with that frisson of joy that they get from finding an online trove.

In between typing this little rant, I’ve been clicking around the Hathi Trust. Each click makes me want to know more, in the best possible way. How was this 1920 grade school program for Ann Arbor used? Did they, as one page suggests, separate first grade from kindergarten? Was this typical of education programs at the time? The more I click around, the more questions I have. Some of them I know I can answer with relative ease, others I know will take some more digging. But I like how clicking and curiosity beget themselves. It’s what made me like the library as a kid – flipping through books and the card catalog and indulging my curiosity.

Because I am Merely Curious, I don’t have the funds or time to dig around they way I might want to. I also don’t live in Ann Arbor. When I think back to my initial amazement at the power of the hyperlink, I want more of that. I want links to other resources about elementary education in the 1920s and Ann Arbor in the 1920s and a StoryCorps story from someone who grew up in or taught in Ann Arbor at that time and I would like someone with some expertise in the history of elementary education to write up a nice digest to go along with each of these digital objects. Oh, and then I want all of the architecture of this to be open so that developers can build cool mashups to do things I haven’t thought of yet. I want all of the communities – Ann Arbor, historians, educators, librarians, coders, everyone – to connect to this one digitized book to create not just that context and conversation Nate advocates for so well, but also a trail for the happy searcher to explore, creating and answering questions as she clicks along.

I can’t wait to see what the beta sprinters come up with for DPLA and where the Hathi Trust goes. I hope they build wonderful things for the Merely Curious, not just scholars or even avid readers. I am hopeful that the end result will allow for the Merely Curious to experience that frisson of joy and delight that comes with the discovery of an online rabbit hole we can fall down.



3 comments for “On behalf of the Merely Curious”

  1. Thanks for the shoutout Kate- fwiw the ‘Merely Curious’ bit you are describing is *exactly* why I feel proud to work for public libraries. As an amateur and hobbyist in wayyyyy too many subjects, it rings true to me.

    Posted by Nate | June 13, 2011, 9:37 pm
  2. I still have all those Expanded Books (from Voyager – they were always on the leading edge… some great music titles as well…) The fact that they were on 3-1/2″ floppies likely had something to do with their demise…

    Posted by John Pellino | October 12, 2011, 2:07 pm
  3. I only remember the one – blew my little mind. I talked about it with Steve Thomas on his podcast and he found this conversation between Dan Visel and Bob Stein http://canopycanopycanopy.com/pieces/legacy_piece/133
    The Jurassic Park Voyager book is mentioned on page 8.

    Posted by kate | October 13, 2011, 8:21 am

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