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TL v60n4: David Ratledge
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Tennessee Libraries

Volume 60 Number 4


It's My Opinion! 



David Ratledge


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How You Define it Matters

I come from a strong desktop computing support background. I have seen thousands of examples of technology failures that interfere with accomplishing work. From these experiences I have formed the opinion that technology should be as close to invisible as possible. The moment it announces itself loudly enough to be a distraction from the work at hand is the moment a technology failure has begun.

 Imagine writing a letter. You turn on your computer, open your word processor software, and then begin typing. What are you thinking at this point? Are you paying close attention to the feel of the keyboard keys beneath your fingers? Are you thinking how fast your computer’s processor is or how big the hard drive? Or are you thinking about the person you are writing a letter to and what you want to say to them?

I believe most of you reading this would agree you are thinking about what you are writing and whom you are writing to and not about the technology itself that is making it possible for you to write the letter.

I have noticed a curious thing, however, when thinking about the terminology we use in the library profession. We seem to define things more in terms of the technology that creates them than in terms of what they really are in essence. Consider  “book” versus “eBook.” The only difference between the two is that a book is printed on paper and an eBook is the same content in electronic form. By making this distinction in terminology we are saying that an eBook and a book are not the same thing. If they were the same we would not need two different names to describe them. The only difference between them is the technology used to create them. They both still contain the same ideas and information conveyed by the exact same sequence of words.

Consider a second example such as “virtual library” versus “library.” Just like with “eBook” versus “book,” the only real difference between the two is the technology used to create them. Thus, If you took a traditional print-only library and digitized everything in it and then offered it online as a virtual library, only the packaging would be changed, not the content itself.

Certainly there are practical reasons to justify making such distinctions. People need to understand what form the content they are trying to access is in so they will know where and how to get it. Still, there are deeper implications I find disturbing.

Words and language provide us with the means to describe and communicate about the world around us. The words we use to describe an idea or object are indicative of how we see those things when we are the one describing them, and they communicate to others what it is about those things we consider most important. Does our describing books and libraries in terms of the technology used to create them instead of in terms of what they are or what they do (or some other defining characteristic of their importance and impact) mean we only see and care about books and libraries as technical artifacts? I hope not, but evidence this may be true is present in how we label and communicate about these things.

There is no question in my mind that technology is critical for the success of libraries. This will be the case even more so in the future. But technology alone should not be the defining characteristic of a book or library. Just like writing a letter, the thing of greatest importance is not the tool used to write it but what a letter has to say and the impact it has on the person who reads it.


David Ratledge is Associate Professor and Head, Library Technology Services at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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