A few days ago I woke up with the song, "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" stuck in my head. Weird, right? It just came from nowhere. But maybe it reflects some deeper state of mind. (Probably not, but let's go with it for a minute.)
I spent a day recently at a small conference devoted to online culture. On the surface it looked silly and superfluous -- all LOLcats and post-ironic, meta-nostalgic references to Rick Astley. Everyone had a good time with it, and nobody took it too seriously. But underlying that goofy facade were some serious questions about things like copyright reform, using the Internet and social media to further (or hinder) social change (as in the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street), and how we should go about archiving this vast store of information.
These are the questions to which I am most drawn at this stage of my novice librarianship. I mean, how do we archive the Internet? And for that matter, how do we make sense of the knowledge it contains? How might we organize it to make it useful in the future? Librarianship is predicated on the idea of taking information held in relatively tidy packages and organizing it; so how do we extend our skills to the messy, feral information that inhabits the digital world?
I honestly think about that a lot. The problem I have is that at this stage, I still have trouble telling the difference between the questions that have answers that I just haven't seen within my first two months of study, and the questions that are questions for everybody. When I have these questions, should I be patient in the hope that all will become clear with a few more classes, or do I go out and start digging around in the murky swamps of librarianship? I have mostly tried to do the latter, but when the questions are big ones, sometimes it's hard even to know whom I should ask.
Anyway, I went to this conference to see a couple of people specifically: Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive, and Jason Scott of textfiles.com (and also, of late, of the Internet Archive.) These two people, one librarian and one not, are out wayfinders through this wilderness, having begun the work of sorting through these questions. Most of what they've accomplished has been simple preservation -- culling huge quantities of information off of the Internet and storing it away for future use. No cataloging, no organizing beyond the barest essentials, just acquisition and storage. Apparently the entire history of the Internet fits inside a standard shipping container. When asked how the Internet Archive catalogs its collection, Kahle answered, "we don't. We leave that for others." And some 200 institutions have put together roughly 2500 collections from the Archive, though that barely scratches the surface of the information contained therein. One of the biggest challenges the Archive has faced has been dealing with video files -- with no single standard format, it has been a constant battle to keep their video files in an accessible, usable state. When one format becomes obsolete or falls out of use, they update everything to a new format. And this is done only to make sure that in five years people will still be able to view that file, much less 50, or 100, or 500. And certainly that doesn't include really understanding what that material contains.
I think this work is going to be absolutely pivotal in the coming decades; I almost want to say that librarianship could stand or fall on how it tackles these questions. And yet the more I play around with them, the more it seems that nobody currently has a really strong grasp on them. I see some really interesting ideas going around, but if librarians are the ship captains on the sea of information, then the Internet is the ocean which we are only just learning how to sail.
I think about this a lot because this is the sort of thing that I know we won't cover in library school, so if I'm going to work on it, it's up to me to tackle it on my own. I don't know if this is where I'm headed long-term, or whether it's just the shiny thing that currently has my attention. But I do enjoy a big question.