Beyond Content & Container

Julie Strange wrote a thought provoking post on her blog a couple of days ago entitled, “The Knowledge Moved”. (It’s a really good post. You should go read it. I’ll wait.) She writes that the mediums of information and literature have changed and yet libraries in general have stuck with the standards; that our services, programs, and general attitude have not changed in the most basic of ways when it reflecting the technological realities of our respective communities. In the most basic of reductions, if libraries had a campaign slogan it should read, “It’s about the knowledge, stupid.”

The content versus container dynamic is nothing new; this ReadWriteWeb article from 2005 talking about a speech from 2004 looks a bit prophetic in the context of 2011. Within the library world, it is a good source of healthy debate and in my view one without an outright winner.  The words matter, the medium matters, and the rest is all contextual; there is value to the weight and look of the Gutenberg Bible itself as well as a PDF of the same book sitting on my iPad. To the reader, it is a subjective measure.

However, I think content and container is not the only dynamic present in the conversation. In fact, what I seek to do in this post is suggest another dynamic that intersects with content and container and influences the debate. Allow me some blog space to describe what I mean.


On the one side, we have content. This end of the spectrum holds that the words matter over the medium. Another way of saying this is that the importance is placed on the information itself rather than what form it possesses (be it book, movie, eBook, and so forth.) The words or music trump the medium, to the content person, because that’s about what is going in our minds and imaginations that is related to our preferences and perceptions of the world.

On the other side, we have container. This end of the spectrum holds that the medium in which the information is expressed is vital because of the context. A book is not the same as an eBook, listening to the vinyl record is different than an mp3 file, and reading Shakespeare is not the same as listening or watching the Royal Shakespeare Company perform the work. To a container person, the expression of the work makes the important difference.

Content versus container represents a constantly shifting dynamic in which works are judged on the merits of each. It is a “chicken or the egg” riddle for librarians going forward as the number of literacies and mediums continues to expand.

And here is what I am proposing to add to this conversation.


On the left, there is access. I define access as the ‘where’ quality in that it relates to where people are when accessing information and literature. The extreme end of access is the idea that people would be able to reach the library anytime anywhere in the manner of their choosing or convenience (akin to a twenty hour hour convenience store). It is an emphasis on the availability of materials that defines the access end of the line.

On the right, there is venue. I define venue as the ‘how’ quality in that it relates to the platform and manner in which information and literature is perceived. It is about the interface whether it is in person, online via chat or email, or over the phone via voice or text. The extreme end of access is a complete focus on the portal or interface which the individual is using. Here, venue is defined by the steps required to in order to complete a search for information, use databases and other online resources, or complete a transaction with a library staff member.

Here is how I see these two dynamics intersecting.


In plotting them on the X and Y axis, I believe that it adds a required layer to the content-container conversation. Specifically, I am proposing that content and container needs to be examined in relation to the qualities of access (where) and venue (how). For example, it is not simply whether words are on paper or an eReader, but the manner in which those words were found matter as well. I’ve plotted some examples within this graph to try to elaborate on my meaning.


By plotting some examples at the extreme ends, I hope this provides some clarity to what I mean. While we can measure each quality independently, I believe that in placing them in this perspective can lend deeper insights into the changes in information mediums and expression. My hope would be that in plotting materials and services on such a graph that it would allow for better pattern recognition of community preferences and ongoing trends as clusters emerged. Perhaps then a better predictive model for information consumption would emerge, giving librarians better prognostication skills as technology and communication continue to evolve. In the end, I would also hope that this would serve to put librarians in proactive position as trend spotters and trend leaders.


I’ve struggled with this idea for awhile. And, for what it’s worth, I hope that my labors are not in vain for you the reader. In reaching back to my science background, I am hoping that it can properly articulate this concept in manner that makes more sense written down than floating around in my head. In writing this out, I look forward to hearing comments as to how this idea could be refined or rejected. (Yes, rejected. Science has that option.) So, please, share your thoughts!

2 thoughts on “Beyond Content & Container

  1. Fundamentally, I like this a lot, as it acknowledges the nuances that the black and white “content vs. container” debate often leaves out. I’d probably tweak it slightly, rotating it 90 degrees counter-clockwise so “Content” is at the bottom, and would label the whole thing, “CONTEXT IS QUEEN!”

  2. Pingback: Beyond Content & Container « Y's Guide: SLMPS

Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s