Net Effects: How Librarians Can Manage the Unintended Consequences of the Internet Edited by Marylaine Block, Information Today, 2003, 380 pages, ISBN 1 57387 161 3
Marylaine Block will be well-known to many readers of Ariadne - perhaps chiefly for her 'Neat New Stuff' and ExLibris bulletins. As its name suggests, 'Neat New Stuff' is a weekly compilation of noteworthy sites Block has discovered in her Web crawling. Her other weekly online publication, ExLibris, is an 'e-zine' containing interesting and provocative articles, reviews and tidbits of information from Block and others. If you were setting out to do this kind of current awareness- and consciousness-raising these days, you'd probably choose to set up a blog with RSS feed. However, Block has been doing this kind of thing since the mid-nineties - well before blogging - and she's stuck to more or less the same formula, because it works well. Marylaine Block is an expert Web searcher and is, herself, a searcher's delight. There's no need for me to provide hyperlinks to her work: simply type 'Marylaine' into any search engine and you'll bring up numerous links (a consequence of her being so well enmeshed in the Web and having such an uncommon first name). In addition to her own extensive online presence, Block is a frequent contributor to other publications, (electronic and print) and a popular speaker on the North American library conference circuit.
Marylaine Block labels herself a 'writer, Internet trainer, "Librarian without walls"' so I was interested to discover that some of her Web-writing was now contained within book covers and shelved on library stacks. Although Block is the editor of Net Effects, a compilation of more than fifty articles by as many different authors, this is very much her work. The articles are carefully selected and arranged to address issues she identifies, are introduced by her and, where necessary, brought up to date. Seven of the articles are written by Block herself, (most of these are from ExLibris). This is no criticism - Block's work is provocative and well-written and, as she says, 'I have only tried to use my own work when I couldn't find anybody other than me proposing a solution'.
Net Effects is structured around problems and solutions. The Internet may be a wonderful thing, Block says, but it has brought about many 'unintended consequences' or negative 'side effects'. Let's run through those covered in this book (my paraphrasing): librarians have lost control over the selection process (Chapter 1); the book is in decline (Chapter 2); library users lack good reference skills (Chapter 3); library staff lack good information technology skills (Chapter 7) or are stuck in their old ways (Chapter 4); the new Internet technologies are too expensive (Chapter 6), they pose accessibility or legal issues (Chapters 5 and 8), and they present a preservation nightmare (Chapter 9). To X-Z-generation librarians these might sound like headlines from library tabloids or the rants of the neo-Luddite fraternity, but, Block argues, they're issues that we should be taking seriously and are being addressed in very creative ways by librarians. This book is neither a catalogue of woes, nor a radical manifesto for change, but rather a showcase of some of the pragmatic solutions that librarians have tried. Net Effects has a consistent pattern: problem stated, various solutions offered, references to further information or readings. The latter are extended further by pages on Block's Web site, which are intended to complement her book (if you want to get a sense of the book's content, look up these pages ).
This book had its genesis in an ExLibris article Block wrote in 2001. This is reproduced in her introduction and can also be found online : 'Planning for Side Effects: The Case for Semi-Luddite Management.' The original Luddites, Block argues, were right about some things. They knew that when the new technologies came along there would be new groups of winners and losers and that they were likely to be among the losers. Block is certainly not advocating that librarians should adopt a Luddite position - most of the librarian-writers in this book are innovators and early adopters - but she is suggesting that we befriend our Luddite colleagues, take them to lunch, listen to what they say, because they'll help us to recognise the unintended side effects of the technologies we are embracing.
What, then, of the solutions offered? As these articles have been collected from other contexts rather than commissioned for the purpose, they do not necessarily address the problems head-on. But they do all, to varying extents, illustrate an approach or a partial solution to the issue Block has identified. Her selection is generally very good. While there is little from the extremes, (revolutionary or reactionary) and nothing much in the way of polemic, (counter-posed solutions), there is much good, practical advice to be had. Don't be put off by the first chapter, which seems to suggest a few solutions that are beyond ordinary means. Want to regain control over library selection?, it asks, then build something like JSTOR, boss your journal vendors around, or band together with other librarians to build a better version of Yahoo! (the Fiat Lux proposal of a couple of years back). As well as containing some very big ideas, Net Effects includes many small solutions that are easy to implement and quite obvious when you think about it. See, for example, Block's article 'Reference as a teachable moment' (pp. 76-79), which reminds us that it's not much more effort to explain to our users how we arrived at the answer we're giving them and it means they take away a lot more from their reference encounter.
While Net Effects contains much of interest and value, the reader cannot expect to find every article of relevance or use. Many of these articles will be of more interest to public librarians; others, to special or academic librarians. As all of the writing is from North America, parts of this book will be of less relevance to British librarians, especially Chapter 8, which covers legal issues such as filtering or the Patriot Act. I read the entire book in preparation for this review. While this proved a worthwhile experience, few other readers are likely to do the same. It is a book to dip into. 'Think of this as an idea book,' Block writes in her introduction, and it seems to me that this is exactly what it is and where its value lies.
As a compilation of previously published work, Net Effects also represents a valuable archive of some very good writing by librarians from the late 90s and the new century. Although its primary intention may be to spark ideas, it additionally forms a useful record of past achievements, detailing, for example, the origins of institutions like JSTOR (Ron Chepesiuk, pp.20-27) and the 'one city, one book' reading programmes that have become popular in recent years (Nancy Pearl, pp.49-50). It documents many key moments and movements in the early history of the Web, such as the debates over journal subscriptions, the open source movement and the establishment of scholarly repositories.
Inevitably, over time, a book like this will become much more of a historical record and much less of a to-do book. When Net Effects was published (September 2003), approximately 40% of the articles were more than two years old. Now (mid-2004), this figure will be nearer 75%. However, had the articles been especially commissioned rather than collected, this book would have been all of one moment and, I suspect, likely to have dated more quickly. When reading Net Effects readers will certainly want to check the publication date (which should probably have been put at the beginning of the articles rather than the end). They may need to do a little research to check on the outcome or progress of the matters discussed. But they should not dismiss the work too quickly as out-dated. While some of the information is very time- and context-specific, a great deal of it is generic and highly transferable.