Tag Archives: libraries

When librarians experienced a moral panic about digitization

This post originally appeared behind the firewall of my workplace.
Chip Conley is the singular member of AirBnB leadership who is older than 50. He’s called a “modern elder.” In a Harvard Business Review¬†Conley talks about what his experience in a decades-long career can bring to his much-younger teams. I totally get it. If business cards were still a thing I’d be half-tempted to have¬†Modern Elder on mine. Perhaps printed in Souvenir, a font ubiquitous in the 1970s.

An unexpected benefit of my lengthy career is I can remember reading things that to my younger peers would overlook as mere footnotes — dusty artifacts from before they were born. I was listening to a recent episode of the outstanding podcast 99% Invisible, and an account of a battle in the mid-90s between the author Nicholson Baker and public libraries. I distinctly recall reading his essay in the New Yorker Magazine cited on the podcast. It was so persuasive at the time that I debated its contents with a neighbor of mine at the time, who was a Milwaukee librarian.

The thesis of the piece was that the digitization of library card catalogs was leading to the degradation and destruction of the single most important document a library holds … Namely the reverently annotated and cross-referenced cards in the physical catalog.

You should really listen to 99% Invisible in general, but especially this episode.

TL;DL [too long; didn’t listen]

Baker admits he wasn’t taking into account the internet, and the ability of library systems to use other means to track and curate their collections — including the use of AI.

But I do hope you give it a listen. It includes an account of a clash of cultures within the San Francisco Library System, including a band of rogue librarians returning to their workplace in the dead of night to rescue books they felt were too precious to cull from the shelves, and an education in the acronym libraries use for the protocol of weeding out books, called MUSTY:

M — for Misleading, or factually inaccurate
U — for Ugly
S — for Superseded by a new edition or a much better book
T — for Trivial
Y — for Your-collection-has-no-use-for-this-book

That last letter is of course irrelevant, but any library habitue will understand why the opportunity of using MUSTY for getting rid of old books is too delicious to resist.

Happy listening — and reading!