REFLECTIONS ON THE FIRST ANNIVERSARY
I was a little startled to realize that I've been publishing Ex Libris for a year now; my, but time does fly when you're having fun (and also when you're just wandering around aimlessly).
A one-year anniversary is always a good time to think about what you thought you were doing when you started, and what it's become. Publishing an e-zine is a lot like giving birth; though you know roughly what genes and childrearing practices went into this particular baby, he doesn't turn that mix into a miniature YOU, but becomes himself, unique and not entirely predictable. What I wanted to do to begin with was pass on some of the things I learned over 22 years as a librarian, both things I know for sure, and things I think might be true. I wanted to get to toss out ideas about libraries and librarians: about what we do, how we're doing it, why we're doing it, and what possible futures we might need to prepare for. I wanted to pass on my worries, too, about unanticipated consequences of our new technologies.
Along the way I started adding features here and there -- my rules of information, the guru interviews, the favorite sites on ______, and the "In Praise of..." series (added because praise is in such short supply these days -- it's much easier for us to bitch about what's wrong than acknowledge and admire things that are done well).
I discovered that one of the great perks of the business is getting free copies of the books I want to read just by promising to review them. What a racket! Of course I get offers to review all kinds of books I DON'T want to read, but one treat I promised myself when I quit my job was that I would never again read any book that didn't interest me.
The greatest fun of doing this is the people I've gotten to know. It's been a real pleasure meeting some of my online heroes who've taken the time to answer my questions. But it's also wonderful hearing from my readers. There's a kind of intimacy about an online publication that makes people feel comfortable firing off an immediate response, and you all have availed yourself freely. Since writing is the beginning of a conversation, a way of putting an idea into play, it's rewarding to see people picking up on my thoughts and questions.
Of course the primary purpose for Ex Libris was promotional -- since I was no longer going to be running Best Information on the Net, I needed another vehicle to remind people they could hire me to do workshops or speak at conferences. Because this is starting to pay off, the number of deadlines I'm meeting is increasing. If in any given week I can't manage all my deadlines, and have to choose between putting out Neat New Stuff I Found This Week and putting out ExLibris, I'll choose NeatNew, which has a wider audience of regular readers.
But since I've come to love doing this 'zine, I'm going to continue with it as long as I possibly can. Which leads to the question of how you, my readers, might like to see it develop. Are there features you'd like to see more often? Are there subjects you'd like to see covered? And especially, are there things YOU know a lot about that you'd be willing to write about yourself? (You have no idea how nice it is for an editor who's pressed for time to simply cut and paste somebody else's article into the existing format.)
Here's your chance to be a partner in the enterprise, shape it to meet your interests a little more. Drop me a line.
REVIEW: THE TIPPING POINT
Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Little, Brown, 2000
Gladwell has written here the best explanation I've seen of the meme theory: that ideas operate like germs and spread like epidemics. Why, he asks, did Hush Puppies, a nearly moribund shoe brand, suddenly become cool? Why did Paul Revere succeed in not only spreading the news that the British were coming, but arousing men to armed resistance, when another man who also carried the news might as well have stayed home for all the good he did? Gladwell says there are three conditions that matter in the spread of ideas: the law of the few, the stickiness factor, and the power of context.
The few who matter, he says, are connectors, mavens, and salesmen. The connectors are people like Paul Revere, whose acquaintance is so wide and varied that they can spread an idea across many disparate groups that have no contact with each other. I think that's kind of what I do, really, because people come to me from all different directions, some because of BookBytes, some because of Best Info, some because of ExLibris; others come because of columns I've written on wildly varying topics like rock music or Dr. Kevorkian or the value of government.
Another group is the mavens, the people who are well-known both for expert knowledge and enthusiasm -- think of Stephen Jay Gould, for instance, who bubbles over with ideas and knowledge and connections between them, but also with eagerness to tell people about what he's learned. Then there are the salesmen, the born persuaders; think, for instance, about the kids you knew in high school who could wear something odd and different and instantly make it cool and trendy.
That's not enough in itself, though, according to Gladwell; there has to be stickiness as well, something that gives people a reason to register the idea in their minds. One example he gives is a cheesy bit of advertising that told people to look for a gold seal in a record club ad that they could cut out and trade in for free CDs. Looking for the gold seal gave people a reason to pay attention to the ads. He draws other examples from the development and testing of Sesame Street and another children's show, Blue's Clues.
But context matters just as much. Gladwell draws on a lot of classic experiments in social psychology and even biology to explain why some situations nourish the spread of ideas and some do not. How did Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood become a best-seller? By being discovered by small groups of women, who all told their other friends, who spread it in their own small groups. Ideas spread best, it seems, within small groups of less than 150 people, the largest size group within which people can actually know each other and understand the complex relationships among the group members. Other contextual factors that influence the spread of ideas include prevailing beliefs, genetics, and diffusion of responsibility (if enough people are present in a crisis, many people won't act because they believe somebody else will).
He keeps his thesis lively and convincing by drawing his illustrations from all over the place -- studies of smoker behavior, the epidemic of youth suicide in Micronesia, the deliberate keep-it-small management strategy of Gore-Tex, the stabbing of Kitty Genovese while 38 people watched, the way Bernhard Goetz became a folk hero... Gladwell is a born storyteller, and his book reads like a mystery you can't put down. But it can also be read as a manual of useful strategies for spreading our own memes -- better tax support for libraries, for instance -- more effectively.
Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience.
Admiral Hyman Rickover
And the artist is sort of a scout for society; he goes ahead and sees what we cannot yet see for ourselves. We should not shoot our scouts if we do not like what they see; we are going to be living in their present soon enough.
Jon Carroll, "The Art Thing Is Getting Out of Hand" (and if you don't read his San Francisco Chronicle column online, you're missing something special. Check it out, along with his archive at http://www.sfgate.com/columnists/carroll/
You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.