The (Social) Reader’s Dilemma: Content + Container = Context

April 3, 2012, 2:38 pm

“Content, not containers!” This has been a library theme for a while now: unbundling the meat from the sandwich. It’s about the text and/or images, not necessary the printed vessel.  As scholarly material migrates to digital platforms, the focus is on the content, not the boundaries of “journals” or “books.”


I could go along with that, for the most part, until yesterday. Here’s what happened.


There has been a lot of talk around the office lately about The Fourth Paradigm. Even our school newspaper is in on this thread, reporting about the emerging “third pillar of science.


Yesterday I downloaded The Fourth Paradigm: Data-Intensive Scientific Discovery, which is a free PDF. Thanks Microsoft. I’m reading it on my iPad via my Kindle app and everything is fine, right? No! It’s not a Kindle book. It doesn’t allow me take notes, share passages, or sync across devices. Those might not sound like big deals, but they are—or they have become to me. My reading experience is linked to functionality, not just to the content.


So here is this free book, free content, that is essentially useless to me—to the way I want to use it—to the way I work with information. The content is free, but it’s the container I’m willing to pay for. It’s the container that makes the content valuable.


Fortunately the Kindle price is just 99 cents, but if it had been $9.99 I probably would have still purchased the book.


And that’s the reader’s dilemma, particularly the research reader. Access is no longer enough. I don’t just want to have the content in a digital format. I need it to live and breed and interact with my other content and with the content of my colleagues. It’s the infrastructure and tools around the content that I am willing to pay for. It’s the platform that will continue to grow and make the content more valuable to me over time. This isn’t about preference, but about performance. It’s about creating context.


I see this as one of the great challenges (or opportunities) for academic libraries over the next decade. The emerging shift is away from access and towards tools. I want to do stuff with my information, not just read it. I have to assume that the barriers to content will drop and instead we’ll be purchasing the Elsevier Platform instead of Elsevier Content.


Take Facebook—it’s not really about storing your photos, but about commenting, liking, and tagging. It’s the functionality, packaged together with other lifestyle curation tools and processes. It’s about using the container to connect with a community via a very personal context.


Researchers want to do things with their data, text, and media besides just store and read it. Our professional conservation has to be about Containers, not just Content. How can we help students and scholars create a personal context across the universe of information? That’s the key to the future.



See also: My Evolving Feelings With E-Books or Content Begets More Content (or: I Want My Content to Be a Social Butterfly)


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