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!

Marketing & The Donated Book

Fellow New Jersey librarian and all around stellar librarian Valerie Forrestal posted a brilliant idea on her blog Ridiculously Digitally Ubiquious. Her idea is to take donated popular books, pop in a little note about the library along with contact information including website and social media handles, and drop them off in public places. The idea that people can find them, post their location or a review of them on a blog or the website, and pass them along.

In thinking her idea through, it’s an extremely inexpensive way to market the library with a very catchy local appeal. I can imagine some of the objections that might be raised since material budgets are generally down, but I think it could be done with discarded popular books as well. There are some good viable variations to this idea that I think people might consider as well. The book could be returned to the library for some sort of reward or incentive. It could be part of a library sponsored scavenger hunt. The placement of books in public could be done in conjunction with a library promotion. That’s just a few offshoots and I’m certain there are more out there!

Well done Val!

Open Thread Thursday: Librarian Memes

From the great and glorious Wikipedia:

A meme (/ˈmm/[1]) is an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.[2] While genes transmit biological information, memes are said to transmit ideas and belief information.

As you can guess, the starter topic for this week’s open thread is library memes. I think my current favorite librarian related meme is fashion. Not only is there a mighty powerful fabulous shoe faction (some of whom can be seen here on the “Librarian Shoes” group on Flickr), but there is a whole Tumblr feed called Librarian Wardrobe full of librarians and library staff in their outfits. Both groups are certainly spreading the idea of a new more fashionable look to the profession. Sure, the cardigans and the comfortable shoes are staying, but you don’t have to look like you raided your grandparent’s closet.

What’s your favorite librarian meme?

As always, this is an open thread. Anonymous comments are permitted as well as other topics on your mind.

Is the Academic Publishing Ecosystem Unbalanced?

The world of academic publishing has got to be a case study in scholarly symbiotic relationships waiting to happen. (Or, for the cynical, a study on parasitic relationships.)

On the one hand, you have the faculty who need to get published in order to maintain their steady progress through the tenure process (for those lucky enough to get tenure, but that’s another story). In writing their papers, they need to have access to other scholarly work in order to support/contrast/argue against so as to build upon established and accepted works. The faculty rely on the library to procure these sources, whether through subscription (most likely) or article requests (a different sort of expense from my understanding). The faculty get their sources, write their papers, and get them published in whatever journal they can get accepted to.

On the other hand, you have the journal providers. They have gone out and made the deals necessary to be the owners or distributors for these journals. These providers want to put their subscriptions into the hands of the greatest number of institutions for both basic revenue reasons and the idea of building a scholarly following. (I might just be engaged in wishful thinking, but I would imagine that part of their mindset would be something like this.) The more subscribers they have, the greater chance that their papers will be cited, the more citations means that there will be a greater demand for that journal as time goes by, therefore the more potential future subscriptions could result. Their relationship with the library is crucial to getting the information and data into the hands of the faculty.

Does it sound right so far? Faculty need the journals for both research and publishing for advancement; the journals need people to submit papers, subscribe to their content, and increase the academic reputation of their holdings. Everyone gets something out of it so everyone is happy; it’s a (relatively) balanced scholarly ecosystem.

Unless, like any real ecosystem, you change one of the variables. Like raising subscription prices. Or making exclusive deals. Or restricting or limiting access. Or writing licensing agreements that are not research friendly. There are possibly a few things that I’m missing that my readers will be happy to point out, but you get the drift.

It is hardly a surprise that there is a movement towards open access; it’s a natural reaction towards a change in the scholarly environment. Because when “you have to have it” meets “we can’t afford it” or “it’s unreasonable to get it”, something has to give.

I’m going to be following this closely since it creates a remarkable dilemma. Will it create a slowing effect on the pace of academic research, thus depriving these journals of the quantity and quality of papers they need to continue? Will faculty seek alternatives that defy the traditional scholarly order and looks towards open access or shared research consortiums? How much can either side afford to give in order to continue their respective work?

I look forward to any comments or insights on this one. Because from my vantage point on the outside, it doesn’t look like a healthy environment.


I want to acknowledge these posts since inspired me to write this little ditty:

Meredith Farkas, Faculty inertia and change in scholarly publishing

Barbara Fister, Breaking News: Academic Journals are Really Expensive!

If you don’t subscribe to them in your respective reader, you really should.