Book Review of The Network Reshapes the Library

Review info: 

The Network Reshapes the Library
by Lorcan Dempsey
Edited by Kenneth J. Varnum
ISBN 978-0-8389-1997-2

John Kirriemuir provides a review of Lorcan Dempsey's book "The Network Reshapes the Library" which collects together some of the thoughts he has had on libraries, networked information retrieval, publishing and Irish literature.


[Disclosure: As Director of UKOLN, Lorcan Dempsey hired me in 1995 to be the Information Officer and Ariadne web editor.]

This 2014 publication presents a selection of posts from the blog [1] of Lorcan Dempsey [2], the Vice-President of research at OCLC for several years. The posts are presented largely as they were originally made public; the editor notes that:

"Of course, time goes on, and some websites, services, tools, and links are undoubtedly gone. We have made no attempt to update details or refresh the content of posts. The items included here are largely as they appeared in the blog; we have occasionally omitted long quotes from other posts from the blog and made the occasional edit for clarity." 

The book is available in two media; traditional paper [3], and more recently digital versions such as for PDF readers and the Kindle [4]. The free and downloadable PDF version is reviewed here.

The book is divided into nine themed chapters, each containing the selected posts presented in chronological order.

1. Networked resources

The book and this chapter opens with a 2005 post on Amazon, Google and eBay (which are, of course, all successful today). Further replicated posts describe the functionality of these services in more detail, as well as their relevance to informatics and the services needed, and used, by people. The 2010 post on Top Trends is an enjoyable romp through technologies at start of this decade, such as the Nintendo Wii and QR codes. The chapter closes with a still-pertinent 2012 post discussing knowledge organisation (for want of a better phrase), the catalog, and network-level resources.

2. Networked organization

As the title suggests, this chapter complements the previous one, focusing on how those networked resources could, or should, or are, organized to provide what the user, reader, or enquirer needs. As throughout his blog and this book, Dempsey discusses the terminology of information services; a 2004 post here muses on the meaning and implication of logistics as applied to library services. Following this, a 2005 post discusses:

"... recombinance ... to talk about how network flow affects structures."

Another 2005 post brings back memories of those more innocent time and alludes to a more recent xkcd cartoon [5] concerning unifying standards:

"Closely related to the one-stop-shop discussion is the YAP syndrome: the yet another portal syndrome. Put together the aspiration to meet all needs in one place, and the unlikelihood of achieving this aspiration, and you end up with several one-stop-shops. A proliferation of portals."

3. In the flow

This chapter contains Dempsey's 2005 post of the same title, which discusses the demand-side and supply-side aspects of library services. Other posts within reference many information-oriented services that typically lie outside of the library environment, such as Flickr, MySpace, Facebook, Delicious and Scribd. A 2009 post on digital and online identity is included, discussing the identity issues of a former colleague known as Andy Powell (in physical life), Art Fossett (in Second Life), and Andy Powell as Googled (in Wishbone Ash). Elsewhere in this chapter, the 2010 discussion of the phrase "discovery happens elsewhere" is as relevant now as it was then.

4. Resource discovery

I approached this chapter and its historically-loaded title with some trepidation; would it be filled with discourse on centroids and IAFA templates, or how human descriptives of web resources - with the arguable exceptions of The Scout Report and MetaFilter - have been made figuratively and literally redundant by brute force, non-salaried, technology? This proved not to be the case. Discussions within included the discover-locate-request-deliver concept, a detailed 2006 analysis of the future of the catalog, SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and its relevance to librarians, discovery layers and content demand issues, and the relationship between the concepts of 'discovery' and 'discoverability'.

5. Library systems

The library systems chapter opens with a 2005 post discussing how ILS's (Integrated Library Systems) are typically perhaps more fragmented than integrated. The substantive 2007 post, 'The network reconfigures the library systems environment', discusses library interoperability and the movement of discovery to the network layer, while a 2009 post, 'Untangling the library systems environment', contains some observations on library resource management of the time. The chapter concludes with a short 2011 post which examines three senior digital library job descriptions and notes the shifting terminologies and priorities within.

6. Data and metadata

Because of the nature of Dempsey's historical roles, and the central role of OCLC, it would have been remiss not to feature posts discussing these two inter-related topics. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to see discussion of concepts including MARC, Dublin Core, and AACR2, but thankfully this does not become an overbearing theme. For example, an especially interesting post from 2007, 'Four sources of metadata about things', outlines the different origins of descriptive metadata in libraries (professional, contributed, programmatically promoted and intentional), while a 2009 post, 'Name authorities, crowd-sourcing, and Máire Mhac an tSaoi' discusses the representation of Gaelic names by data services.

7. Publishing and communication

This was my favourite chapter; partially due to the themes covered, and partially because of the mention of the founding of Ariadne, the publication you are currently reading. Of particular enjoyment was the August 2007 post, 'Communication', which discusses the concept of 'impact', the state of library literature, and the comparative impact of writing in blogs, online publications, and traditional journals where your words are invisible from all readers for a time, and non-paying readers forever. It's interesting to note that nearly all of the issues discussed in that post, and many others within this chapter, are contemporary and contentious nearly a decade later. Perhaps, after multiple decades of services, projects, proposals and experiments, and millions of words by thousands of commentators on the issues of research publishing, quality, impact, online verses print, readability, funding and purpose, there needs to be more of a realization and acceptance that these issues are fundamentally unresolvable.

8. Libraries

The posts here relate not just to libraries, but also museums, galleries and archives, with a theme around the purpose, and the necessity, of these institutions and services pervading the chapter. Within, Dempsey tackles Christopher Caldwell's controversial 2011 Financial Times piece on public library funding, the Information Professional now and in 2050, the definition of the librarian (with, in Dempsey's style, reference to Irish literature), collection development, and the contemporary role of the library.

9. Lorcan's picks

These are posts which are still of interest to their author, but do not fall into any of the eight previous categories. They begin with the first post in the blog and the rationale for its existence. There's a heavier infusion of culture in this chapter, touching on Irish poetry and literature, the so-called 'special relationship' between the US and the UK, Starbucks, Narnia, and perhaps regrettably Mumford & Sons. In a somewhat meta-conclusion, the book closes with a 2011 post discussing preservation and curation.


The style of writing makes this compilation work an easy read, with little technical knowledge demanded of the reader and most of the selected posts being relatively short. There are, thankfully, no long technical tracts on z39.50 or the inapplicability of MARC to the modern world. Instead, it's a pleasant read, perhaps more suited to dipping into when travelling or stuck in an airport rather than a bedtime cover-to-cover read.

Despite the easy readability, there is much of substance in the selected posts. In addition, putting many of the discussions in context, there is frequent reference to the posts of other commentators in the wider library and information science sector.

There are two, albeit minor, criticisms. First, it did feel slightly off to see regularly inserted 'expert comments', extolling the virtues of Dempsey's blog. This seemed strange, like unavoidably coming across five star Amazon reviews for a product inside the product while you are consuming it. I am not sure why these are included, as by its nature the reader is already reading the quoted content and can make up their own mind as to whether they find it enjoyable or useful. Second, the index is a little incomplete; Starbucks, for example, appears more frequently in the text than the index indicates.

However, these slightly irksome distractions aside, I recommend Dempsey's compendium. There is much of interest within and it is striking to observe how many digital library issues from the 2000's remain unresolved, even though we are - nuclear war and sudden climate change notwithstanding - closing in on the 2020's.

If you aren't sure, then you can download the free PDF reviewed here and search, browse, or randomly read a post within. I hope, the survival of humanity willing, there is a follow-up volume in a decade or so.


John Kirriemuir 
Independent researcher


[1] Blog of Lorcan Dempsey.

[2] Lorcan Dempsey.

[3] Book of the blog, in the ALA Store (other shops are available).

[4] Digital versions of the Book of the blog.

[5] xkcd observation on standards.

Date published: 
Sunday, 22 May 2016