This week's readings for my Digital Libraries class turned out to be some of my favorites of the term so far. Favorite #1: "The Social Life of Documents," by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, an essay that later became part of The Social Life of Information. Here's the part that caught my interest:
The sociologist Anselm Strauss explored the way new forms of document allowed new forms of community (or as he calls them, "social worlds") to come into existence. His work predates the proliferation of computers and so provides an interesting view of the way other developing technologies (copiers, faxes, and so forth) supported social relations in new ways. In particular, new media allowed small communities (enthusiasts of exotic breeds of birds or antique motorcycles) to form though their members were often few, and those few spread over large distances.
These groups can look surprisingly like modern equivalents of the scholarly communities that formed throughout the world in the Renaissance. These too were held together by common interests and shared communications. The letters circulating among the Fellows of the Royal Society in England formed the prototype for scientific journals, which still bind intellectual communities together. ...
Photocopiers, faxes, and other forms of cheap reproduction have allowed not only scholars, but other groups of people with shared interests to form a "social world" with relative ease and autonomy. Neither capital nor authorization was needed. From political undergrounds connected only by samizdat journals to wind-surfers, DeLorean owners, and beekeepers, people with shared interests use communications technologies (both hi- and lo-tech) to help form themselves into self-created and self-organizing groups. To a significant degree, these are held together by documents circulating among members, keeping each conscious of being a member and aware of what others are up to.
One of the most astounding recent examples has been the spread of "zines" -- cheaply produced newsletters. Needing little more than a typewriter or word processor, a photocopier and stapler, and the Post Office or a fax, zines are often put together at home by one or two people and are "mid-cast" among small groups. The practice began with fans of particular television programs and rock groups. Consequently, these documents were known as "fan-zines" and now just "zines."
The Social Life of Documents, First Monday, v. 1, no. 1, May 6th, 1996
There's much more after that, but I like the idea of a common thread connecting Renaissance humanists, the Royal Society, and Star Trek fanzine authors.
Favorite #2: "The Places of Books in the Age of Electronic Reproduction" by Geoffrey Nunberg, which, despite its having first appeared in 1993, still strikes me as one of the smartest things I've read about the shift from a print world to a digital one, even 15 years later. It's long, but well worth reading. The section that contrasts the "intimate public" where conversation precedes documents, as in 18th-century coffeehouse culture, with the larger type of public defined by shared "participation in the print discourse" ("Other Discourses, Other Publics") seems to anticipate the blogosphere in some very interesting ways.
If the readings are any indication, our class ought to be fun tonight.