Dialog:Toolshed

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Toolshed

V 1 — Hey! Why call it a toolshed? What's out there is way-too-much for a toolshed! Look at one university's list of digital research guides, about 250 by my count! You need something really big, an Amazon warehouse, to hold just a part of it all. I help a professor with his library and saw a book in it, Too Much to Know, and said to myself, "Yeah, that's the problem!" And you know what? I looked more closely at the subtitle—Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age.[1] And the historian who wrote it starts the "modern age" around 1500. A toolshed isn't right.

R 2 — You'd be right ... if we were organizing tools so that everyone can thoroughly research whatever topic they want. But that's not exactly what we want to make possible.

V 3 — What do you mean? As I see it, when there is too much to know that forces people to specialize, to cut what each is going to know down to a size they can handle, and then they go off and do a lot of research, with the result that there's even more to know. It's like with traffic—too many cars, more highways; more highways, more cars.... Too much to know, more specialization; then more research, and on and on we go—you know!

R 4 — Well, if someone wants to advance their specialty, there are better resources than A Place to Study.

V 5 — Get real, man! I'm a junior and just finished the general education part of my collegiate education at a very selective institution. Tuition is very high, the faculty is all bucking to get ahead on specialized credentials and the students, insofar as they work at all, are also trying to slot themselves on one or another specialized track, and neither the academic libraries nor the scholarly publishers excel at packaging the resources for liberal learning so that anyone with the whim for it can take them all up at negligible cost.

R 6 — But research isn't every....

V 7 — No, don't tell me about what all the local libraries are doing, or the bookstores that are fast disappearing into the Amazonian maw. We have a good library where I grew up and they have a certain amount of good stuff, but their resources are spread thin keeping up with their users' tastes, driven by a marketplace that rewards ever-changing celebrity and novelty. Is that what you mean by "liberal learning?" Liberal learning is in trouble, caught between rampant specialization and commercial kow-towing to celebrity and novelty.

R 8 — OK. You point to a serious problem. Some exceptional local libraries exist here and there, but all the forces hollowing out liberal learning are real and powerful. Certainly if we want to be snarky about popular culture we can build a depressing case that it is disappearing fast—the people commodifying culture use their profits to push its commodification further while quality efforts pull back defensively, becoming more and more the esoteric holding of one or another over-privileged enclave.

V 9 — Now you're showing some realism. When your friend was talking about sprezzatura, saying the Internet could challenge the old elitism of liberal learning by making the resources for it accessible to all, I didn't speak up, but it struck me as way too optimistic.

R 10 — Yeah. I don't deny the problems. I've tried to cultivate liberal learning for 60 years now, and the prospects have become worse than when I began—students concentrate more on preparing for the marketplace, assessment of cultural worth becomes monetized, public discourse crasser and more fragmented, all the well-known laments. But we need to be careful not to make realism into a self-confirming prophecy. There is an important difference between prediction and possibility. Only a fool would now predict a flourishing of liberal learning. But if we care about something it's wise to act on its possibility, even if the predictions look bad. Are you going to do what you do not care about just because people predict it is more likely than what you do care about? That won't be good for your sense of fulfillment.

V 11 — You have a point there. We're agreed about the predictions—they look bad for liberal learning. But tell me more about the possibility. You know how a consumerist flak will say that celebrity culture is giving people exactly what they want. What makes you think liberal learning will interest anyone outside the small enclave already dedicated to it?

R 12 — Well people's inner taste and preferences interact with the options they find around them and for large numbers of people resources of liberal learning are very scarce and hard to activate in their surroundings. But to judge what's possible with interactive processes, we should start with a judgment about the primary ground of the interaction. Our cultural traditions mull every possible aspect of that judgment, but lets leave that aside and try to formulate for ourselves an approximation of the primary ground. You can, if you like, then use that as a point of reference in assessing all the arguments.

V 13 — Sounds good. It's always helpful to have a preliminary position, something to to test with and to be tested by, the case for other positions.

R 14 — Great. So let's look at kids as interact with their surroundings. Lets'think especially from infancy through early childhood while their explorations are relatively unmediated, and to the degree we can let's think pretty much independent of class, ethnicity, religion, economic condition, social origin. What do you see them doing?

V 15 — Generally, they seem to reach out to things around them with zest, test things out, explore, ask questions, try new things and practice things they like, invent games, pretend, make pictures and sing songs, emote and express themselves, learn things, day dream. If I were to sum it up, I'd say that kids want to express themselves to others and hope, expect others to respond to what they do or say. It is their way of testing ideas and eliciting information and comment from their surroundings.

R 16 — I like the way you put it! I remember vividly how I once put my baby daughter down on a patch of soft, cool grass. She was just starting to crawl and spotted something bright orange down in the grass. She reached out quickly with surprising dexterity and almost had a small, wiggly salamander in her mouth to see, I think, what this interesting orange thing tasted like—she didn't really eat solids yet, but taste was a good way to know something about things. I agree that wanting to explore things and get to know them is primary for the very, very young. My daughter is now married and has a big family. What happens as the kids mature?

V 17 — Ha! That's us, you big time. The mature live more serious lives. We spend more effort, focused effort, meeting needs, our own and those of others close to us and some distance from us. We narrow what we do and deepen it some with acquired skills. We form routines and habits. We adopt more realistic expectations. Too often we settle into an existence that offers compensating values, but usually at the cost of our acquiescing to to the stunting of many possibilities. The urge to express ourselves to others contracts and our response to others who express themselves to us also narrows.

R 18 — Well put as well. Do you think the expressive narrowing takes place inherently in growing older or does it happen largely through the force of constraining circumstances?

V 19 — Hmm. I'm not sure I get the question fully. Doesn't growing older and maturing bring a lot of constraining circumstances? the two go together.

R 20 — Yes, but it matters how we anchor the interaction. Remember how the other day you were telling me about The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes. I got a copy and it has deeply moved me. DeCarava's photographs and Hughes' character, Sister Mary Bradley, express the rich inner lives of persons who were mute and obscure in their narrowed enclave and make us want, impossibly, to express back to them our recognition that despite the distance of time and condition we come to feel their bonds of sympathy and community with opened eyes.

V 21 — OK. I'm beginning to see where to take a stand. The pictures and text reveal persons in their humanity, persons we would normally pass by, unperceived, or worse, perceived as some stereotype—as a social problem, a dangerous other, a threat to our complacent comfort. I guess you are going to ask why it took the collaboration of two great artists to make apparent the vitality of life in Harlem at that time. It's good to have great artists revealing that, but why does that seem necessary?

R 22 — You're right, that's something I question. The vitality actually pulsates in the lives lived, in all the lives we live, and why is it that each—poverty stricken residents of Harlem in the 1940s and 50s and all of us in more advantaged circumstances, wherever and whenever we live—so rarely manifest the strength of our inner lives to ourselves and to those to whom our inner lives remain invisible? I don't question the art of the few, but the muteness of the many.

V 23 — So you are going to suggest that the toolshed can somehow help make ordinary people, each in their own way, achieve more fulfilling lives through creative self-expression?

R 24 — Well, not without great caution. Poverty is a many-sided predicament and many aspects of that predicament may be more pressing in a material sense than the lack of opportunity for creative self-expression. A place to study won't overcome poverty, but it may be a part of the complex of activity that eventually does. Facebook has proven that a vanity publisher can preempt an astounding amount time and activity. Facebook, Twitter, and other instances of social software work by radically cutting back the affordances of tools for self-expression, putting the residue in easy-to-use packages.

V 25 — So ease of use won't matter for the toolshed?

R 26 — Don't leap to a mistaken conclusion! Good design has become rather ubiquitous. What sets programs apart is their scope and power relative to their controlling purpose. We will construct the toolshed by integrating free resources for supporting personal self-expression that have the maximum scope and power of use. We want to afford all persons free, open, and ongoing use of the tools for creative cultural expression suitable for attaining the highest levels of achievement.

V 27 — Sounds good, but you are going to run into some problems. For one, "suitable for attaining the highest levels of achievement" sounds mighty elitist.

R 28 — Yeah. Let's bite the bullet—A Place to Study will practice an elitist democratization. It is not an objectionable goal that everyone should have ongoing access to such resources. We should object to the way some of us have access to those tools, at least many of them, while most others do not. To work towards universal access, those who enjoy the access need to work to broaden it, not to apologize for it.

V 29 — I agree, but we will face criticism from those who distrust our intentions as disguised efforts to strengthen existing inequalities.

R 30 — True. I think we can meet that by offering up a start that makes a good faith effort to be inclusive and sets up procedures by which users can expand and reshape it according to their personal preferences and to further development of potential resources for incorporation in it. As you originally suggested, the initial toolshed will include many different resources, more on the scale of a large academic library, but it will facilitate open-ended personal use rather than more structured academic research.

V 31 — I'd like to hear more about that difference, but not now. I'm also curious about the initial procedures for managing its ongoing development, but I'm meeting friends for lunch and have to go. I hope the toolshed works—it sounds like something I could use.


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R 32 — I'm not sure what we can do. But DeCarava and Hughes both pursued dreams and faced circumstances that could easily have blocked their artistic development and left them as mute as their subjects. Generally, children avidly explore and acquire skills for creative self-expression. . . . Both of those [research librries and public libraries] suffer from depersonalization. To resist the impersonal through the toolshed, consider how it arises in research and public libraries. An academic library serves researchers and students through many specialist collections of research resources. Impersonal criteria shape the different collections to support the topics, methods, and needs that those in each peer-group share in common. The researchers' divergent personal interests remain tangential or irrelevant.

V 33 — OK. The academic library serves the impersonal, professional interests of its users. What about the public library? Those seem to respond to the personal tastes of their patrons.

R 34 — Yes. Depending on their resources, public libraries offer a sampling of the broadly acceptable materials active in the marketplace, with patrons free to choose and to suggest according to their interests and tastes. Publishers and big producers of movies, games, and music—all the moguls of mass communications—will say that they are giving the public what it wants and only arrogant elitists will contest that. Impersonal criteria shape public libraries as they respond to the expressed personal interests of their patrons as those become commodified in the marketplace through influencers and celebrities, through formulaic repetition, identity norms, . Learning liberally primarily arises through the exercise of personal agency. The agency of every person interlaces with that of other persons, but it's interactive, not the one-way "influence" pushed out by a simulacrum shilling for some corporate organ. . . , but as you noted it is going to be copious, a cornucopia of many different resources, encompassing the resources appropriate to many different persons, different in age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, economic condition, religion, class background, and so on. So the toolshed needs to have great scope to span the interests of all its different users comfortably, fulfillingly for each. Yet it needs to have the feel and function, not of a giant warehouse, but of a familiar toolshed, the resources of which each can use as each sees fit over a sustained time soundly in the course of independent work that each chooses to follow. We build and equip such a toolshed by beginning, purposefully erecting it and by purposefully putting resources in it, continuing to do so as recursively as we can. As we go along, we will see what emerges.

V 35 — Well what were you saying about Gresham's Law not holding on the Internet. That sounds sort of like wishful thinking. If its a law its a law like in physics.

R 36 — But in physics, a law might lead to very different results depending on the conditions pertaining to its operation. Out in space neither you nor I would weigh much even though the law of gravitation would still be in effect.

V 37 — OK, but even if I work in cyberspace, I'm still here on earth and my weight doesn't change.

R 38 — But maybe the conditions that make good money drive out bad do.

V 39 — Oh. I've got to admit that I just sort of know what happens with Gresham's Law, not why, so I can't tell whether you're right or wrong in suggesting that it might not hold in cyberspace.

R 40 — You're not alone. I had to look it up, but I did and I think I'm right that it won't apply in a digital commons, at least not on a whole lot of good stuff.

V 41 — Are you going to explain or leave it to me to figure out myself whether you are right or wrong?

R 42 — How about I explain and then leave it to you to figure whether you agree or not?

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V 43 — OK. Why does Gresham's Law work in the pre-digital world? It says that "bad money"drives out "good." What's meant by "good money" and "bad money" anyway? Isn't money money?

R 44 — The law comes from back in the day when they minted money from precious metals, gold and silver, really as alloy, a percentage of gold and another percentage of a cheap metal like nickel. Let's say "good money" had 50% gold and 50% nickel and had the face value of the weight of pure gold in it. So the king wants a big new chateau and his mint doesn't have enough coins and gold in his coffers to pay for all the materials and labor with good money. "What to worry," he says. "We'll mint new money with 40% gold and 60% nickel but keep the face value as it has always been with 50-50 coins." Everyone with a little scale can tell the new coins are "bad money" but the King is the King (as even "Republicans" say) and the bad money circulates as if it is good. Now you tell me why the bad money will "drive out" the good, which meant that those who had good 50-50 coins would stash them away and use bad 40-60 ones whenever they could.

V 45 — Well I imagine to get around the King's edict that the face value of good and bad are the same, tradespeople would raises prices rather that lower the face value of the coins and the lucky few who had lots of old 50-50 coins would hold on to them or maybe melt them down to get the gold in them. In theory for every 100 good coins they could get 120 bad coins with the same face value on each coin.

R 46 — Right on, well explained. Now explain to me why something similar would not happen with digitized cultural resources on the Internet.

V 47 — Unfair! You know it's a much more complicated situation. I'm not at all sure it would happen let alone confident I can explain why.

R 48 — Well, we can try to test whether the hording of high quality cultural resources has been happening with digitization and the Internet. Let's see what we can see with our own eyes.

V 49 — OK. But you need to show me! I use a lot of online stuff, but I know my university pays really big bucks for it all. I'm not sure how to make sense of it all.

R 50 — OK. Let's start with something fairly concrete. When I was a graduate student in the mid 1960s, I was interested, among other things, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I'd read Émile fairly carefully, a pretty big, complicated book, and was writing my dissertation, a fairly long one on something quite different. I was having trouble just handling the logistics of working with my manuscript. One evening I got to wondering how Rousseau did it with Émile. There were no Xerox machines around in his time, not even carbon paper or typewriters. What did he send to the printer? Did he have a copy? How did the process work then? I spent an evening thinking it would be neat to find out and write a little article about it. I realized I'd have to find out what library held the manuscript, if any did, probably in Paris or Geneva. What would I have to do to get access, the manuscript must be in some kind of rare book collection, white gloves and all, and I wouldn't really have a strong reason to ask to consult it. I was only a graduate student who spoke miserable French, but I did (smile) read it pretty well, as long as the hand writing was pretty clear. And Paris or Geneva was a long ways away and flights were much more expensive then than now. So, after a short pipe dream my interest in Rousseau's manuscript evaporated and I got back to work on my own.

V 51 — So? I'm not sure what you are driving at. Are you suggesting that one-of-a-kind cultural resources are like the good money in Gresham's Law?

R 52 — Yes—very good money! More precisely the cultural resources are like the gold in the good money and in this case the frequency of access, a high rate of usage, is like the debasement of the coin with a high percentage of nickel in the alloy. Think what would happen if every Tom, Dick, and Harry could check the manuscript out, the one spilling coffee on it, the next slipping out a page to save time taking notes, and the last inserting a strategic "not" to prove his point! The elitist limitation of access to academic resources had its point.

V 53 — Why do you use the past tense? It's still hard to waltz into a rare book room and look at what ever you like.

R 54 — Oh! You should listen to Dylan more. Have your reader click mile this link and then come back here and tell us what she's seen.

V 55 — OK. Bev, please do as he sa.... .... * Hey guys, guess what! It went right to the manuscript of Rousseau's Émile. The whole thing, three volumes digitized, is there, bound in kind of worn red leather, nice paper and pretty clear handwriting. The link goes to the beginning of Livre I, "Tout est bein, sortant des mains de l'auteur des choses:...," all neatly legible, but then as the manuscript says, things decline from there at the hands of Rousseau—he liked to revise with all sorts of scratch outs and insertions.

V 56 — Huh, that's all it took, one click. Cool.... So how did you get permission to set that up?

R 57 — No permission. You just go to gallica.bnf.fr, search for "Rousseau, Jean-Jacques." That gives several hundred results and you put "Émile" in the "Refine box," which then offers 79 books and 5 manuscripts and a few other things. Click on "Manuscripts" et voilà. I went to the first page and saved the URL up at the top of my browser and inserted it into the link above—all in all a couple minutes.

V 58 — So anyone can do that whenever they want?

R 59 — 24/7 with a browser on the Internet. But let's go back to what we were saying about possibilities and predictions and your despair about specialization and commercialization. If Gresham's Law were in effect on the Internet, would your friend be able to do what she just did?

V 60 — Probably not. Access would be all the more difficult that you imagined it in the 60s. I think it was probably a stretch for a while for the librarians to allow the manuscript to be digitized. They would probably be cautious at first. Digitizing the manuscript is probably not as destructive as our Tom, Dick, and Harry would be, but it would involve a little wear and perhaps some tear. But once it's done the manuscript would have a whole new life. The librarians would see that there is no reason to hide and horde it and they'd soon get a kick from sending perfect copies off to anywhere for next to nothing.

R 61 — Once they get over the threshold of resistance, they are ready to digitize a lot of good stuff. And what do you think persuaded the librarians to take the plunge on digitization?

V 62 — Well, in part they would have to realize that it was possible to do without humongous costs or a significant danger of harming the manuscripts. But I suspect the sense of its possibility alone would not have been enough.

R 63 — Yeah, but do you think pressure by specialists, serious Rousseau scholars, would do it? I don't. Rare book rooms have worked well enough in research libraries for many generations. Perhaps with easing access to many manuscripts and good but difficult to get books the range of people who might try to develop scholarly interests might change, but that is a kind of iffy anticipation likely to kick in after the change in their established behavior. What about pressure from the marketplace?

V 64 — Commercial publishers seem ambivalent about digitization. Is it a new market or a threatening destabilizer of established ones? I think marketplace pressures are at most a wash and possibly an impediment to digitization.

R 65 — I agree. For my money, if it weren't for some big corporations (looking at you Disney) wanting to keep perennial favorites under copyright, lots of intellectually interesting material with scant current commercial value would now be freely available. But it is tied up instead in copyright, which really inhibits many worthwhile uses of it.

V 66 — OK. Look, I'll grant that neither the marketplace nor the academic research imperatives will bring forth the toolshed or warehouse of formative resources that you want. Maybe people like Bev and I and you and others who just think it would be worth doing can put it together in the digital commons spontaneously. But you need to be clearer about what you want this toolshed to hold.

R 67 — Right. I've resisted the idea that it should serve academic research imperatives as that is something research universities are doing quite well and I think intellectual resources useful in learning liberally are quite different and they are different also from the goals of a community oriented public library. An academic research library works as a large collective enterprise. The disciplines and vectors of research of collective efforts with much more extensive resources in play than the more personal efforts at the base of learning liberally. To me, learning liberally primarily arises through the exercise of personal agency, although the agency of every person interlaces with that of other persons and organizations of many sorts. I think of the toolshed as something like a high-quality personal library, but as you noted it is going to be copious, a cornucopia of many different resources, encompassing the resources appropriate to many different persons, different in age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, economic condition, religion, class background, and so on. So the toolshed needs to have great scope able to span the interests of all its different users comfortably, fulfillingly for each. Yet it needs to have the feel and function, not of a giant warehouse, but of a familiar toolshed, the resources of which each can use as each sees fit over a sustained time soundly in the course of independent work that each chooses to follow. We build and equip such a toolshed by beginning, purposefully erecting it and by purposefully putting resources in it, continuing to do so as recursively as we can. As we go along, we will see what emerges. -->

      • He asked something like, What happens if we organize in the digital commons the best that's been thought and said for persons — any where, any time — who want to learn, study, think, and educate?***
  • Ann M. Blair, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)