DUCK SOUP: Does Not Compute

I have struggled with my public library's new computerized system for a couple of years now and must admit that my early objections were pretty dumb. It is worse than I thought. My original concerns still obtain, but many of the putative benefits are illusory, too. Back then I railed against the advent of the cyber-catalogue for three reasons. First, a terminal is a single user tool whereas a card file is available to many at once. Second, flipping through cards invites tangential exploration whereas digital clicking only leads you where you were headed to begin with. Third, a computerized system is useless when the computer is down or the power is out. Stacked against these objections were a few potential advantages.The best possibility is that book lists from all of the libraries in the county system are accessible from each. One can browse the full collection and request books from any branch. There is even information about whether a given volume is checked in or out, and when it is due. Isn't that marvelous? No. Because it doesn't work as advertised. Out of six books I have solicited in this manner -- one of which I tried to obtain three times -- I actually received two. That amounts to two hits out of eight tries, or twenty-five percent. In fact, the three time loser actually evaporated and has disappeared from the list completely. Perhaps the book was stolen, or misplaced in the stacks. Whatever the cause, the computer failed. From the other direction, I have seen books at the library, in one case even checked a title out, which have later proved impossible to call up. One tome I attempted to find by title, by using keywords in the title, by the author's full name and author/keyword, only to stumble on it when I used the writer's last name and selected her out of the list of alphabetically similar families. Then I learned the book was checked out and overdue. Subsequent checks at two day intervals for over a week were finally rewarded with the information that the book had been checked out again -- before I even began my search.A friend borrowed a few music CD's last fall and lost the due-date print-out. On the phone, a cyber-librarian insisted she had not checked them out at all. Some days later she turned them in and was told she owed over eight dollars in fines.As to the print-outs themselves, it is completely unconscionable to generate new piles of waste paper -- particularly since the old card-in-the-pocket system worked better for patrons and staff. My point is not to be nit-picky about little flaws. Our lives are full of human errors and mechanical glitches, and to expect the library to be better than real life would be silly. But there is a lesson in this muddle relevant to the function and purpose of both libraries and computers, to what we know and to what we think we know.There is a gloss concerning computers that hides an urgent truth. Powerful processors, vast memories and near instantaneity give the impression that greatness is within our grasp. The internet stretches out to compass the world and lets us peek into vast cupboards and closets chock full of purported knowledge. But it is all illusion until you have the book in your hand.Whether it is a cult fixated on Hale-Bopp, a high school class studying wetland ecology, or a cook looking for new recipes for arugula, data doesn't become information until it works. The difference between a hard copy and a soft one is profound.There is no theoretical reason why digital text should be less reliable than print. But printing is expensive and chancy, there are editors and publishers who must be satisfied. Consequently a great deal of garbage is screened out along the way. Electronic data is cheap and essentially risk free. Whether it comprises due dates at a library or UFOs chasing comets, we must assume the story is unreliable until proven otherwise. Increasingly we are data-rich and information-poor, a condition which invites charlatanism, new age mumbo jumbo and intellectual fraud.

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