The Ultimate Analog Mashup Toolkit: A Library and Your Brain

It's increasingly clear that I've entered professional middle age. Fair enough, I've been in this business for nearing eleven years. What disturbs me about it, though, is the increasing frequency with which I wish to dismiss new coinages and hype about things that sound suspiciously familiar.

I've been listening to the Library 2.0 Gang 'cast on mashups and couldn't help feeling this same frustration. (Aside from having hoped that T. Scott Plutchak's defenstration of the term "Library 2.0", and also heard on an earlier 'cast in the same series, would have killed it earlier.) Here's the thing: The Library *is* a mashup.

Here's how wikipedia defines mashup:

a website or web application that uses content from more than one source to create a completely new service

s/website or web application/service/ and libraries suddenly count.

You want to see or make crime maps from 1960 in your city? Dig through daily newspaper reports from that era and plot them on a photocopy of a city map from around that year.

You want to pull up dictionary definitions of terms you might not know while reading new stuff? Dictionary's right over there, thanks.

You run across a reference to the Adams presidency and can't remember which was which? Try the encyclopedia, the entry for John will be right before the one for John Quincy. (No, the beer guy wasn't a president, but he was still pretty cool, as you'll find out if you flip through just a few more pages.)

You're reading about a new treatment for a rare disease and want to contact the authors? Look 'em in an AMA directory. You read about a hot new technology and want to learn more about the company, and others in the same sector? Try the Thomas Register.

You don't know where to start looking for materials about an endangered species of fish for your book report? Ask a librarian, that's what they're there for. Oh, and, not only will they tell you where to look, they'll teach you how to use the resources if necesssary and the full text of the stuff you find will be right there for you too. And if it's not they can find it for you at another library and get you a copy.

Right, okay, so, I get the idea that "yeah but web mashups are cool because anybody can do it and the integration and ease of use is what makes it special and ooh the page elements flash over there when i click over here etc. etc." That's right, too, there's no denying it. This new stuff *is* cool.

My point, though, is that the logical integration of diversely layered information from disparate sources into new, hybrid ways of seeing and understanding the world is something we've been doing for thousands of years. The brain itself is the ultimate API. What other way is there to reinterpret John Snow's analysis of Cholera in 1859 than to see it as just another map mashup?

If you choose to see the mashup trend in this light, then it makes perfect sense to understand the need for libraries to "free their data to participate in mashups" as yet another phase in the continuing struggle to drag our amazingly robust, hand-crafted, once-sparkling but now-antiquated-seeming analog information landscapes into today's computing reality. It also becomes easier to envision how mashup culture might mature into frameworks that simply reflect the kinds of knowledge combinations we've always been doing.

To me, what's cool about the library-plus-brain-API model is that when the power goes out, remote APIs become inaccessible, but you can still mash up to your heart's content in a library. Just add a candle or 2.0.