Introduction

As part of a sabbatical project, I have collected some things I’ve written into a lightly-edited, open access, Creative Commons-licensed volume. Some of this material comes from my personal blog, where I’ve been posting thoughts about books, publishing, and how online reading communities function (the actual subject of my sabbatical research). Much of this bouillabaisse comes  my writings at Inside Higher Ed, which is a born-digital news organization that combines sharp education journalism with a slate of bloggers, columnists, and guest commentaries. I’m lucky enough to be one of their bloggers.

In putting this collection together, I should add a caveat about links. They won’t appear in the print/PDF version, and I decided not to try to construct a proper reference list because links can be found on the html version. That said, some of them won’t work because of link rot. Rather than hunt down every broken link, knowing more would break tomorrow, I decided to live with the digital reality of unstable source material. (I warned you this would be lightly edited.)

The title is a little odd, so I thought my inaugural post from June 2010 might help. Here it is, along with my homemade blog header image inspired by . . . well, you’ll see.

library_babel_fish_blog_header

I’d better start by explaining the fish.

I hope in this space to explore the intersections of libraries and technology and the ways academic libraries contribute to teaching and learning, with the occasional shout-out to the open access movement as one of the ways we can sustain scholarship as a collaborative, evolving, and inclusive conversation. You might even find me preaching the gospel of liberation bibliography from time to time.

But first things first. A blog needs a name, and a lot of the good ones are taken.

Casting around, I remembered Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “The Library of Babel,” first published in 1941 in The Garden of Forking Paths. His narrator describes a vast library that has no boundaries and no center. It’s filled with an infinite number of books, many of which are imperfect copies of other books. It’s a feverish library, and a frustrating one. All knowledge is there, somewhere, but whatever you are seeking is always in some other part of the library, tantalizingly close but constantly slipping away. It’s a place that is both exciting (wow! Look at all that stuff!) and massively depressing (wow! Look at all that stuff!) It’s a great metaphor for the yin/yang of research. Abundance is wonderful, except when it isn’t. It also seems to offer proof that Al Gore didn’t invent the Internet; Borges did. Score one for librarians.

Given my mind tends to play hopscotch with ideas, I immediately jumped from the Library of Babel to the Babel Fish from The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The babel fish is small, yellow, leechlike, and one of the oddest things in the universe, able to transform brainwaves into a lingua franca. If you stick one in your ear, you can understand anything said to you, in any language. Though this doesn’t guarantee world peace (removing barriers to communication just gives people more ways to disagree) it seems like a handy accessory for the Library of Babel.

Once fish came into it, I had to invite the Library Society of the World’s Cod of Ethics to be part of this. Though the Cod arose spontaneously out of a typo, it’s an appropriate mascot for the peaceable anarchy that is the Library Society of the World, a seriously playful group of library professionals who network using Internet tools and a healthy sense of humor. This loosely organized collective is a terrific example of how we can do what scholarly societies were created to do, minus the formality, membership dues, publication lag-time, or committees. Cod knows we don’t need any more committees.

So I settled on Library Babel Fish, thinking I might try my hand at translating some of the complexities of academic libraries. Libraries are in a weird state of flux these days. On the one hand, they continue to have their traditional role in preserving culture; on the other, they change constantly. If you thought you finally grasped the fine points of searching a particular database, think again; its interface was probably “improved” in the past week. Feel comfortable finding your way around the website? Must be time for a redesign. To use a library is to wade into a stream of change. It’s never the same twice – yet we look to libraries for continuity, for coherence, for an opportunity to exit the fast lane and coast into a more contemplative state of mind.

However contested its nature, one thing the academic library continues to be is the common ground for its institution. It’s the one place on campus, both in its virtual and traditional forms, where all the disciplines mingle, where ownership is shared, where ideas are meant to collide and quibble and procreate. It’s an organized free-for-all where students and faculty can interact with ideas, drink coffee, check a reference, check Facebook, take a nap, or make a breakthrough.

I hope this collection of thoughts will be little bit like that. With fish.