The Coolness Factor

Posted Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - 11:35
Hipness rarely ages gracefully
The e-reader bookmark

Age among librarians used to be fairly easy to determine, but no longer in our era of nips, tucks, Botox, and hair coloring.  You can’t just come out and ask someone his or her age. We all know that in today’s world such a question is not only impolite but possibly even discriminatory.

My suggestion is that if you’re really curious, for whatever reason, about how old a librarian is, the safest and most effective approach is to start talking about obsolete library resources. A good icebreaker might be something like this: “Weren’t phonograph records the biggest pain to process and maintain? No patron ever scratched an LP; it was always the patron who borrowed it immediately before who did the damage.”

If the answer comes back “What’s an LP?” the librarian you’re talking to is not nearly as old as you surmised.

I’ll admit it. I’ve been around the block a few times and my track record proves it; as a librarian I have dealt with an embarrassingly high number and wide diversity of obsolete resources. No, I never had to catalog a clay tablet, scroll, illuminated manuscript, or wax cylinder, but I have cataloged, processed, and lent out LPs, reel-to-reel tapes, eight-tracks, audiocassettes, 16 millimeter films, 8 mm films, Super 8 mm film loops, Betamax tapes, and VHS tapes.

That’s a lot of obsolescence. Why did all these things become obsolete? Basically there were six factors involved: usability, quality of presentation, durability, ease of storage, cost, and coolness.

Reel-to-reel tapes delivered a wonderful sound and were the audio medium of choice by cool people, but they were a pain to thread, splice, and play. LPs had cool album covers, sounded okay, and were easy to play—but they scratched easily. Sixteen millimeter films projected sharply on a big screen but they were a pain to thread, the lamps would fizz out at the film’s climax, they broke easily, and they were very expensive. Eight-tracks were okay to boogie to in the car, but the tapes stretched, the sound was good only at high decibels, and they became very uncool in a very short time. Cassette tapes were compact, easy to use but had an annoying background hiss and a zero coolness factor. VHS tapes were easy to use, gave a good picture, and were reasonably priced, but were superseded in quality and compactness by DVDs and then Blu-ray.

Some obsolete resources made brief comebacks because of the coolness factor. For instance, LPs were popular for a while because of the movie High Fidelity, and vintage 1950s jazz music on reel-to-reel tapes is still coveted by bebop fans. But of the six factors listed above, coolness is also the most fleeting. It never lasts. Remember the Palm pilot?

Which brings us to the old curmudgeon itself, the glue-and-paper book. How does the traditional book hold up against the six endurance factors? No, it’s not nearly as cool as the new and improved e-readers, but it is still easier to use. Cost? It depends on the title, the publisher, and the e-reader. Storability? The e-reader wins hands down. Quality? That depends on one’s taste. The e-reader has the advantage of backlit pages and scalable print. Durability? Glue and paper lasts longer than electrons, especially when they are programmed to dissipate after 26 circulations.

I notice that the ALA Annual Conference is being held in Las Vegas in two years. As a gambling man I’ll bet you right now that you’d be better off staking glue and paper as the reading medium of choice in 2014 than by taking a long shot on the e-reader.

Beyond that, who knows?

WILL MANLEY has furnished provocative commentary on librarianship for over 30 years and in nine books on the lighter side of library science. He blogs at Will Unwound.