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10 juillet 2006

Libraries and noise

Classé dans : Livre, Société — Miklos @ 14:59

In a recent article, Suzanne Bohan raises the issue of noise in the new libraries and of its effect on concentration. Actually, the trend in the increase of noise (which, in thermodynamics and information systems is denoted by entropy) is also noticeable in the schoolroom: on top of the “natural” tendency of children and students – and of any crowd, actually – to rowdiness if left to their own devices, the use of laptops for note-taking (or for playing games, emailing or chatting) contributes a wealth of noises, from clicks to rings. Add to this cell phones, and the acoustical ambience has indeed become much noisier in these sheltered places than it used to be.

But there is another kind of noise which libraries and information systems in general have to face: informational noise. It measures the degree of irrelevance of results to a query. Library catalogues strive to zero-noise level, while search engines don’t care too much about noise, as long as there are results: the worst thing for them is silence (no relevant results, regardless of the number of irrelevant ones).

Noise has never been absent, neither from human culture nor from the universe for that matter (the so-called cosmic microwave background). It is an indication of disorder in a system, which may or may not be useful. Architect Mark Schatz, quoted by Suzanne Bohan, obviously thinks the best of it, equating it with openness and energy. Search engines attribute to it the quality of serendipity.

Yet this kind of environmental noise in a library defeats its main purpose, the appropriation of contents by the patrons. Yet the kind of serendipity generated by the proximity of books on a library shelf has nothing to do with that of the answers provided by search engines, as in the former case these books are topically related to their neighbors (as they are arranged by criteria other than purely lexicographic or syntactic, which is what most search engines do as of now).

With the growth in the quantity of physical and informational stimuli reaching us due to the unprecedented developments of communication media, devices and networks, the noise level inevitably increases. Our technical and perceptual filters aren’t adapted to deal with this amount, and this may cause a saturation effect: noise, from very loud music on earphones or in parties, is sometimes used as a means of isolation (from oneself, from the other as an individual). As a consequence, in order to be perceived in the fray, people speak louder in a crowd, and publicity is more pervasive than ever1, thereby retroactively increasing the noise level.

Noise may be useful, however. In certain conditions: when the disorder it denotes is transient, or when the transgression of the rules it signifies does not bring the system too far away from its existing stasis or its stated purposes. In music, dissonance has a function, that of denoting transitions and tensions; when they resolve, a new harmonic state is reached. In organizational and economic systems, innovation creates noise by disorganizing the existing order2. It is adopted when it is integrated “in the system”, which has to adapt.

Libraries have a stated purpose, that of preserving heritage and providing experienced and adequate mediation (tools, people) to allow for the appropriation by their patrons of the common goods that are knowledge and information. The classroom likewise. Turning them into “open and energized” malls won’t achieve this purpose: on the contrary, it may actually defeat this purpose by going too far away. If general organizational trends have heretofore been to grow and expand ad inf. – from local store to mall to chain to multinational and sometimes until implosion – some companies have already started thinking about the virtues of downsizing3. Libraries had better focus on their business while adapting to the changing world. Keep the noise level reasonable, please4.

1  This was superbly described over 50 years ago – much before the Internet – by Ann Warren Griffith in “Captive Audience”, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, vol. 5 n° 2, 1953, and ten years later by J. G. Ballard in “The Subliminal Man”, New Worlds, 1963.

2  The visionary economist Joseph Schumpeter called this cycle creative destruction.

3  This is precisely what Texas Instruments has been doing by “focusing more closely on its core [business]”, as reported in the July 9th issue of the New York Times by Damon Darlin, in Cashing In Its Chips.

4  And have architects agree to work for at least two years in the environment they designed.

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