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Magazines > Information Today > April 2004
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Information Today

Vol. 21 No. 4 — April 2004


Meatspace vs. Cyberspace

I just read "Up Front with Barbara Quint" in the February issue and was moved to write. You can take this for what it's worth from someone who attends and speaks at innumerable events every year.

I tried to "attend" Gary Price's and Chris Sherman's lecture at the Library of Congress earlier this year. I have a reliable high-speed connection, but I was dropped every 10 minutes. I was blocked from getting back on, and it was a very lousy transmission the entire time. I couldn't concentrate, and these are two speakers I really enjoy hearing.

And I realized that I just didn't get that much out of the talk. Why?

• You can't see the screen and the speaker at once. Or if you do, you can't read the screen or really see the speaker on a PC monitor. That isn't
going to be solved until everyone has 72-inch plasma monitors.

• There were no handouts. This would be a problem for any virtual conference, as you would probably have to require that all virtual attendees download and print out all handout materials themselves.

• I lost the feeling of interactivity. I couldn't ask a question. The speakers couldn't see me. I couldn't chat afterward with the person sitting next to me. This reminded me of the old analogy of the diminished pleasure of having sex while wearing raincoats.

All this to say that we are multimedia beings. We live in meatspace. And as splendid as it is to be able to bring in videoconferenced speakers or to offer "virtual" access to virtual attendees, I would really hate to see that become the core of a conference. There's far more value in attending a conference than just hearing the speakers. It's those impassioned conversations in the hallways. It's the thoughtful discussions over lunch, dinner, or drinks where I get some of my best inspirations. And it's the give and take of a live audience. I know I'm a far better speaker when I can see and visually interact with my audience, so I can fine-tune my talk as I go along, judging by the reactions of the attendees. I like the chance to talk with vendors and actually do some hands-on experimenting in the exhibit hall that I'd never find time for back in the office.

All of this meatspace interactivity simply cannot be replicated virtually, in my opinion. Yes, some people will post comments on discussion forums or blogs, but it takes 10 times as long to type (and I'm a speed typist) as it does to converse with someone. It's that live interaction that, frankly, brings the full dimension of sharing of thoughts, ideas, and inspiration. It's the difference between broadband communication and a 1,200-baud modem. And I would hate to lose that broadband interaction. It's what makes us richer people; and I say this as a card-carrying introvert.

—Mary Ellen Bates
Bates Information Services, Inc.
Boulder, Colo.

Barbara Quint replies:

I agree with you that the core of major meetings should remain physical conferences, but I still believe that virtual conferencing will—and should—take an increasing role. Technical difficulties can be fixed. PowerPoint presentations can substitute for handouts. Chat and VoIP telephonic exchanges can increase audience interaction.

As for the time it takes to communicate by typing rather than through personal conversation, that still does not prevent all of us from enjoying the benefits of e-mail. How often these days do each of us glance at the phone then over at the computer screen before choosing the most appropriate communication format?

One extra point, however. You're Mary Ellen Bates, world-famous information specialist. People come to conferences to meet you. Well, maybe not just for that. Some people who go to conferences don't have your connections and confidence. But online, "no one knows you're a dog." What I mean is that some people might join in discussions that extended over weeks, form new networks of contacts for cultivation in future private e-mail messaging, get a chance to think up new questions, and phrase new answers without the pressure of immediacy that physical conferences place on attendees.

I believe that the day will come when we regard either/or binary arguments about physical vs. virtual conferencing as unreal as arguing about personal interaction vs. computer-based interchanges. This is the Information Age. OR is Boolean. It no longer means One over Another; it means Both.

The Library as Place

As a science librarian at a liberal arts college, I very much appreciated Richard Poynder's well-written article "The Very Heart of a College" (February 2004). I recognized immediately all of the issues and circumstances described at Swarthmore College. The story is an accurate depiction of transformations taking place across the country.

I want to expound on the closing portion of the essay, which speaks of the library as place. The social function of libraries is a common thread in any discussion of a library's role on campus, yet many observers do not consider how essential that has become in a world of collaborative research. "Collaborate or Die!" is the motto of many research assignments at the college level, certainly in the sciences, and undergraduates collaborate in the library much as graduate students do in the lab of their research adviser.

Good libraries bring people together in an amazing, complex environment that manages to create a sense of welcome while enhancing productivity. Print collections that are skillfully selected, marvelously organized, and close at hand are combined with instruction from reference librarians, assistance from other staff, and the physical facilities of group study rooms and myriad other seating and study options. This is all offered within the infrastructure of electronic resources and sophisticated databases, computer networks, technical support, equipment, and peripherals (not to mention unending reams of paper and countless printer toner cartridges).

There is no other place on campus that attempts to bring together so many services for so many people for so many hours on any given day—and with such dedication to serving both the research and instruction mission of the college.

As we consider the social function of the college library, it is vital to look beyond casual meetings over reserve readings and café au lait to affirm the interrelated nature of collections, staff, facilities, and infrastructure. Library users with all of those elements in one comfortable, inviting building find that learning, teaching, and research all benefit.

—Alison Ricker
Oberlin College Science Center Library
Oberlin, Ohio


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