Who buys an Encyclopedia? Do you remember the Disney song that taught you how to spell “encyclopedia” sung by Jiminy Cricket? The current print edition of Encyclopedia Britannica has 32 volumes and 65 thousand articles. The English language Wikipedia has 3.29 million articles. Wikipedia is almost always written by people who really know the subject and is monitored by the ugly masses. Like on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” often the best option is to ask the audience. There have even been rescues at sea that have been successful because the searchers have asked the public where the boat was. Somehow the masses are often right. Wikipedia is, of course, just one small corner of the Internet’s Library in the Cloud.
The future of the physical library is short. Except for those few historians who really need to touch the originals, there is more information available on your 2 pound laptop, or even your 5 ounce smart phone, than is in the Library of Congress with its 745 miles of shelves. Unfortunately there are lots of people who do not have access to the Internet. This is recognized as an important problem by the US government. However, the US Rural Electrification Program that was started by Congress in 1936 is still an active program in the US Department of Agriculture, so I would not rely on the government to solve this issue. If we really want to help our students learn the best option is to make sure that they can use a word processor and have access to the Internet. There is no value in sending an elementary child to the school library and its few hundred books to do research. The real world no longer does research that way. Teaching physical library skills is as outdated as teaching script penmanship. School libraries need to be refocused on providing the skills and equipment necessary to access the huge Library in the Cloud that is the Internet, perhaps looking more like the lounge area of a Barnes and Nobel book store than a collection of shelves. Many libraries are making this transition, but many more are stuck in the mid-twentieth century. I urge parents to seriously look at how their children’s schools spend their limited “library” dollars.
The next major push for the Library in the Cloud is translation, enabling anybody anywhere to read anything anytime. This translation requirement ranges from the fairly mundane like allowing a patient in the hospital to communicate with a caregiver when they have no common language, a shameless commerce plug for Med-Communicator Inc. By one estimate, only 5% of the world’s population are native English speakers, with about another 9% that speak English as an additional language. There are millions of documents created each year that aren’t in English. As one small measure, there are 538,000 Wikipedia articles in Russian, and over one million in German. How do we find in all of these books, scientific articles, and even blogs the solutions for green energy, oil spill cleanup, or better medical care at a lower cost?
Figuring out how to merge multiple language conversations together is a challenge. There are companies working on it and you can now carry on discussion groups with some people typing in English and some in Chinese. For example, see the NPR “On the Media” article. This problem will be solved, and in the relatively near future, leading to another huge jump in information availability in the library that is the Cloud.
The last word:
On a personal note, Suzy and I went down to Camp Lejeune in North Caroline to join a couple hundred other people waiting in the rain in the middle of the night for a plane load of Marines to return from Afghanistan. I recommend going to one of these military homecomings even if you don’t have a family member or friend who is returning. These men and women will take a hug and a thank you from anyone, and they all deserve it. While the Marines are quite capable of effectively forcing behavior modification, and did so when required, their main job was to win the hearts and minds of the Afghani people. I’ll relate two examples.
The Marines who are out in the field away from major bases are provided MREs (meals ready to eat) or larger platoon-sized “box lunches” for all meals. While these are OK food, they can become tiring after a few weeks. So the Marines would, while they were on patrol, stop at a local food stall and buy some fresh fruits and vegetables and some live chickens. Every group of Marines has someone who knows how to take a live chicken and turn it into some delicious food. They can do the same thing with goats or sheep, but if they get a bad one it can ruin dinner for 40 soldiers. The Marines paid for this food out of their own money, but food there is really inexpensive. Once you become a customer, the shop keeper is a lot more interested in having you return on your next patrol, so they start telling you about an IED (improvised explosive device) that was “placed last night by some guys from Pakistan” near that old bridge. They aren’t quite ready to tell you it was really the guy two doors down and his brother who planted the IED, but that will come.
In another case, one squad leader had been working for months to gain the trust of a local elder in a particularly dangerous region. Then one day, the elder stopped talking to him. He found out that the elder’s wife and daughter were sick and the local Afghani medical system couldn’t do anything for them. The squad leader brought a Navy corpsman and a member of the Marine FET (Female Engagement Team). Using the FET member to communicate with the wife and daughter, the corpsman was able to quickly cure the elder’s family. The Marine had a real friend who later turned in a Taliban cell. One indication of the state of Afghanistan and the uphill road to bring that country to even the twentieth century is that one Navy Corpsman has more capability than a town’s medical facilities.
Keep your sense of humor.