Back to the Future of Libraries

I am in the process of reading Clive Thompson’s Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World and I have to say that I am, so far, disappointed with the book. I am a fan of Thompson’s technology journalism and I really enjoyed his earlier work, Smarter than you think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, so I thought I would be a good reader and order the book as soon as it came out from my local. And it’s not a bad book. The book does what it says its going to do on the tin: it is a book about the tribe of coders.

The trouble is mine: I am not interested in a measured account of the lives of coders in America. I think the status quo for computing is dismal.

The way that we require people to have to think like a computer in order to make use of computers is many things. It is de-humanizing. It is unnecessary hardship. It feels wrong.

This is why Bret Victor’s Inventing on Principle (2012) presentation was (and remains) so incredible to me. Victor sets out to demonstrate that creators need (computer) tools that provide them with the most direct and immediately responsive connection to their creation as possible:

If we look to the past, we can find alternative futures to computing that might have served us better, if we had only gone down a different path. Here’s Bret Victor’s The Future of Programming 1973 (2013) which you should watch a few minutes of, if just to appreciate his alternative to powerpoint:

Here’s another video that looks to the past to see what other futures had been forsaken that is definitely worth your time. It is of and from Claire Evans – author of Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet – who spoke at XOXO 2018.

At the around the 11 minute mark, Evans sets the scene for the first unveiling of Tim Berner Lee’s World Wide Web, and it’s a great story because when Lee first demonstrated his work at Hypertext ’91, the other attendees were not particularly impressed. Evans explains why.

So why am I telling you all about the history of computing on my library-themed blog? Well, one reason is that our profession has not done a great job of knowing our own (female) history of computing.

Case in point: until this twitter exchange, I had not had the pleasure of knowing Linda Smith or her work:

(There was now deleted post from a librarian blog from 2012 that comes to mind. I’m not entirely sure of the etiquette of quoting deleted posts, so I will paraphrase the post as the following text…)

Despite librarianship being a feminized and predominantly female profession, [author of aforementioned blog post] remarked that she was never introduced to the following women in library school despite their accomplishments: Suzanne Briet, Karen Spärck-Jones, Henriette Avram, and Elaine Svenonius. And if my memory can be trusted, I believe the same was true for myself.

Is there a connection between a more human(e) type of computing that Bret Victor advocates for with the computing innovations from women that Claire Evans wants to learn from and these lesser known women of librarianship and its adjacent in computing? I think there might be.

From the Overlooked series of obituaries from The New York Times for
Karen Spärck-Jones

When most scientists were trying to make people use code to talk to computers, Karen Sparck Jones taught computers to understand human language instead.

In so doing, her technology established the basis of search engines like Google.

A self-taught programmer with a focus on natural language processing, and an advocate for women in the field, Sparck Jones also foreshadowed by decades Silicon Valley’s current reckoning, warning about the risks of technology being led by computer scientists who were not attuned to its social implications

“A lot of the stuff she was working on until five or 10 years ago seemed like mad nonsense, and now we take it for granted,” said John Tait, a longtime friend who works with the British Computer Society.

Overlooked No More: Karen Sparck Jones, Who Established the Basis for Search Engines” by Nellie Bowles, The New York Times, Jan. 2, 2019

I have already given my fair share of future of the library talks already, so I think it is for the best if some one else takes up the challenge of looking to into the work of librarians past to see if we can’t refactor our present into a better future.