Saturday, March 30, 2013

Notes on Losh

In "Reading Room: The Nation-State and Digital Library Initiatives," Elizabeth Losh begins with an argument to rally readers to resist and refuse Google and ends with an admonition against government collection of private data. Taken as a whole, I find the piece distracted and given to wanderlust, but there are enough interesting if not important points that provide ways to think about how the future of collection, archiving and offering might change as a result of the eventual resolution of technological and organizational tensions within the information science field.

Something that I've noticed about some the arguments made by those in the "information wants to be free" camp is that they are less about information than they are about labor. The American Association of Publishers lawsuit against Google, for example and its attendant arguments, is hardly about freedom to access and consume information; instead, it seems to me to be about losing market power. In a sense, it is about royalties, not liberties.

Losh's chapter discusses the interplay between government-funded curatorial enterprises and for-profit businesses. It is clear that Losh is cynical of the advantages that companies -- principally Google, which she addresses in the majority of the first half of the chapter -- bring to arranging, organizing and disseminating information. While I agree that it is dangerous to have corporations enjoy monopolies or oligopolies, Losh spends too much time shouting and not enough time explaining.

Losh asserts that her project addresses two concerns: that "the discourse practices of digital libraries" and "the ways that web portals represent cultural imaginaries (260)." One might expect that the discursive practices that she talks about might include (or lead with) the ways of acquiring materials, but the piece lacks a thoughtful discussion of that process and instead talks about both aspects of the project in terms of how major national libraries work with technological processes and other organizations.

Losh does invite us to consider the differences between physical and digital access points -- especially when discussing all of the points of control and regulations associated with the BNF (261).

She also invokes Benjamin (and, by extension Baudrillard when she describes but does not name the concept of "simulacrum") in a useful if brief discussion of the problems and process of reproduction and copying.

It is curious to note that she is not at all critical of the British Library's relationship with Microsoft, curious especially because of her oppositional tone regarding Google Books. Of course, she may be equally mistrustful in other portions of the book.

My own research into (indeed, reliance upon) corporate records of businesses makes me appreciative of a company offering its materials to a large institution like the Library of Congress better equipped to handle its curation (245). I fail to see how the inclusion of Coca-Cola in any way distorts the agenda of public digital libraries (245). It is preposterous to contend that a corporation so identifiable with American culture as Coca-Cola is undeserving in a collection called American Memory. That it is en vogue to detract from Coca-Cola now because of its unhealthy products has no connection to the importance of the company. Losh glosses over Jim Zwick's decisions to collection information related to world's fairs and expositions, all of which were expressions of a combination of technological innovations, inventions, capitalism or nationalism (248).

In order for the technologies to function, they must be able to integrate with an organizational structure that is necessarily human-made. Her account of Thomas Jefferson's technological solutions to mortal problems shows that, without proper organization and administration, it does not matter how complex or innovative an archival technology is.

She also encourages the reader to think about the potential paradoxes related to the legislation of public access to and private protection of information (240). This point could have been elaborated further, as it gets to the core philosophical questions of information distribution and knowledge management.

Overall, the chapter suffers from a litany of perplexing author-driven decisions on what kinds of materials are relevant or acceptable to archive and who should be allowed to do the archiving.

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