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The Future of the Law Library (and How to Stop It)

Zittrain Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain, author of the book, "The Future of the Internet -- and How to Stop It," was the keynote speaker yesterday kicking off the annual meeting of the American Association of Law Libraries in Washington, D.C. I was not there to hear his speech, but Georgetown Law Professor Rebecca Tushnet was and she reported on it on her blog, Rebecca Tushnet's 43(B)log.

Just last week, Zittrain caused somewhat of a stir with an op-ed he published in the New York Times, Lost in the Cloud, in which he discusses the dangers of cloud computing and how the law might help minimize them. Based on Tushnet's recounting of his talk, Zittrain also sees danger in the library -- not in the library as we traditionally imagine it, "a fortress, protecting books against people who might mess them up," but in the library as it is more frequently becoming, "a place to go to get on the Internet." (I am quoting Tushnet there, who I assume was paraphrasing Zittrain, not precisely quoting him.)

The danger for libraries is precisely the danger he warned of in his New York Times op-oed. As library archives move more and more into the cloud, the cloud can endanger researchers' access to and use of information. Zittrain spelled out some of these dangers in his op-ed and reiterated them in his AALL speech. A key danger lies in the ownership and control of data in the cloud. The most Orwellian example of this is's recent decision to remotely erase Orwell's "1984" from the Kindles of readers who had purchased the book. Another danger is in the federal government snooping into your online activities, without ever telling you about it.

So how can these dangers be alleviated and the core purpose of the library be protected? As I understand the speech, Zittrain's point is that we need not protect the library, per se, but the librarian. As we put more and more data online, what we risk losing is the librarian's understanding of how to search and make sense of that data. As Tushnet recounts his speech, Zittrain said that the most important help he has gotten from a library has been face-to-face. "That relationship is most at risk when we turn our libraries into pneumatic tubes -- queries go in, answers come out."

The notion of the library as a physical fortress designed to protect books may stand in the way of innovation among librarians, Zittrain seems to suggest. He points to the Internet's noncommercial success stories -- Wikipedia and the Internet Archive -- as models of sharing at its most basic. And he suggests that the future of libraries may lie in a similar distributive approach. Librarians should not be hindered by their sense of stewardship, he says. "The perfect should not be the enemy of the good."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on July 27, 2009 at 02:03 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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