Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"The Million Books Problem" and Silent Movies

On my commute home last night I listened to an Educause podcast from Scott Kirsner's keynote at NERCOMP 2008 entitled "What Innovators Can Learn From Hollywood".

Since there was a lot of traffic, I had plenty of time to think about what he was saying-- basically how the many technical changes in the movie business have succeeded (when they have succeeded) in the face of stiff resistance from people who were comfortable with the established tools (indeed who were often geniuses in their use).

Advocates of new technologies usually underestimated how long change would take (
Technicolor was introduced in 1917 and took decades to succeed in the market). On the other hand, sometimes even the imagination of technology boosters falls short. When The Jazz Singer" introduced the concept of talking pictures, it was thought of as a niche technology for musicals. Dramas, comedies, and other films worked fine as silent films-- a whole generation of actors and film makers had created an expressive and often beautiful body of work without muddying up the visual with sounds. Why would anyone need to add a soundtrack?

I'd never thought of it before, but the real revolutionary thing was not so much the invention of the capability of making talking pictures as it was that the market quickly decided it only wanted talking films. And in a year or two, that's all that was being produced.

Which leads me to consider the library business today. We're on the verge of an age of pervasive, free access to the digitized contents of the million books being processed by Google, the Open Content Alliance, and others. In this kind of world, how many libraries need to duplicate this access in print? Will electronic access be enough? Will print become the niche market? This "Million Books Problem" is getting a
lot of attention in library circles today.

The key question is will this technology take decades to become the norm, or just a few years? I've been thinking we'd have a comfortable number of years to adapt to changing demands, but what if we don't?

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