Libraries: The New Information Empire?

In Tim Wu’s 2010 book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, he presents the history of the world’s major information monopolies starting with the telephone and progressing through radio, film, television, and finally: the Internet. His book is split into sections that detail each information empire, discussing the creation, rise, fight for control, and in many cases, demise of the monopolistic corporations who tried to exert total control over each medium. Although many aspects of each of these mediums have become obsolete or imploded within each conglomerate’s administration, they share many characteristics that are still applicable and descriptive of information empires today.

Because each of these information empires was so revolutionary and the concepts so new, there was always a race for control between companies who sought to monetize, monopolize, and control access to the form. Wu writes, “We sometimes treat the information industries as if they were like any other enterprise, but they are not, for their structure determines who gets heard” (13). We see this demonstrated throughout the text and throughout history with examples ranging from the radio being used as the primary mode of political propaganda, to more current day examples of Google search engine filters and advertisements.

While the trajectory of the Internet empire is still evolving and growing, the trajectory of the other information empires can teach us a lot about what happens when we try to monopolize information and sell it as a corporate product. And while I am not making the argument that libraries are poised to become the next giant information empire in the same vein as radio and television, I am suggesting that the history of each industry does offer positive qualities that the library of 2019 has either started to adopt, or is perfectly situated to begin adopting in order to become an evolved standard of an information empire.

Libraries as a Disruptive Industry

Wu discusses how many of these information empires had inventors at the helm. Oftentimes they had many inventors at the same time, entrenched in patent wars, and ultimately the ones who won the legal battles (most likely meaning the ones with the most money), are the names that we associate with each invention. However, Wu writes, “The inventors we remember are significant not so much as inventors, but as founders of ‘disruptive’ industries, ones that shake up the technological status quo. Through circumstance or luck, they are exactly at the right distance to both to imagine the future and to create an independent industry to exploit it” (19).

We can view libraries today, or the future of Library 2.0 as a disruptive industry. In our case, we can strip away with the corporate ideals and battles; we do not have to worry about relinquishing control of all libraries to the people who founded them in the beginning. Instead, we can take the more important aspect of Wu’s statement – that of encompassing what it means to be a disruptive industry – and incorporate that into the new Library 2.0 ideology. Libraries have the capacity to provide the widest range of services. They are positioned in what Wu describes as the perfect distance between the future of the next new informational and technological development, while also serving as a pillar of informational freedom and access because of their long-standing reputation as an equal services provider.

Libraries as a Cultural Product

“The aim of any cultural product should be an improving one: to inform and to educate as well as to entertain,” (Wu, 113).

Wu writes about these information empires in the context of the industrial cycle of life and death. He says of large industries like these that, “in the natural course of things, the new only rarely supplements the old; it usually destroys it. The old, however, doesn’t, as it were, simply give up but rather tries to forstall death or co-opt its usurper” (Wu, 28). Many libraries are at this point in their lifecycle where they are either met with resistance from employees, or they welcome the new ideas, however much they may change the classical image of the library. As we’ve read over the past few weeks, the reason, “But we’ve always done it this way,” does not suffice if the library wants to survive as a respected institution. We do not have to look at this radical change in library services as co-opting and usurping the old way of doing things. We do however, have to allow for the library to adapt into its new Library 2.0 form in order to become successful in our new information environments.

A way that we can do this is to allow the concept of participatory culture to create the future of library services. Wu continues, “He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for lower standards which he will then satisfy” (39). Rather than library administrators deciding how and what the library will represent to its community, the invitation should be extended to the community itself to decide on in order to create something that probably would not have occurred to the administration.

Wu refers to a phenomena called ‘founder’s myopia’ that discusses the blind spots that those who create or are in charge of a service cannot see for themselves. He writes, “Again and again in the development of technology, full appreciation of an invention’s potential importance falls to others — not necessarily technical geniuses themselves — who develop it in ways that the inventor never dreamed of. The phenomenon is hardly mystical; the inventor, after all, is but one person, with his own blind spots, while there are millions, if not billions, of others with eyes to see new uses that had been right under the inventor’s nose” (45).

Using the community as the primary resource to develop the new Library 2.0 will allow for complete access to ideas and needs that library administration or library employees could not have thought of on their own. This is often why other information empires failed. Instead of accepting the new ideas for uses of these products, the corporations wanted to stunt the growth so that they could remain in control. However, participatory culture allows for libraries to become a cultural product made by the people. This direct access to collaboration and change is what will allow libraries to continue thriving as a cultural product of their communities. 

Library as Signifier

This last point I wanted to make really appealed to my English-major training. Wu writes that, “Unlike almost every other commodity, information becomes more valuable the more it is used. Consider the difference between a word and a pair of shoes. Use each a million times: the shoes are ruined, the word only grows in cachet…The key to capturing the economic potential of such phenomena is turning an image or a brand into a signifier– a symbol of something” (230).

Currently, I would say that the signifier of the library is still the classical image of books, which brings to mind the images of silence, scholarly research, and shushing librarians, however I do think that this is changing. But if the image of Library 2.0 could create a new version of a signifier for the library as a cultural and community symbol, the signified emotions would be collaboration, acceptance, open access, and a helping environment. 

Whereas the previous information empires have risen and fallen, the library has become a mainstay in our culture. While it most definitely has its struggles, the saving grace is that it is more flexible than other information empires have been. It has the opportunity to evolve into an individualized cultural product. It does not need to be regulated by a corporation. Instead, it is regulated by the people who create it, embodying the concepts of participatory culture. Library 2.0 is a new information empire, but one that will be able to accept and embrace change. 

Wu, T. (2010). The master switch: The rise and fall of information empires. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

One response to “Libraries: The New Information Empire?”

  1. Christine Barone says :

    Hi Liz,

    You made many great points in your post, but one that really stuck out to me was “participatory culture allows for libraries to become a cultural product made by the people.”

    I had never considered libraries as a cultural product, but they are! I appreciated your statement that participatory culture allows libraries to become a cultural product made by the people. And, people are the creators and regulators of the library. Yes!

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