The Crawford Files: The Dangers of Uniformity

By Crawford, Walt | American Libraries, October 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Crawford Files: The Dangers of Uniformity


Crawford, Walt, American Libraries


Does your library have the one best dictionary--and that's all? A single encyclopedia? Shakespeare's best play--and that's your only drama? The King James Version of the Bible, to the exclusion of all other religious works and commentary? Do you only collect sound recordings of baroque music, Leonard Bernstein, hip-hop, comedy, or Russian nationalist composers? Or do you have just the single best recording in each genre?

Probably not. Most library collections celebrate diversity and multiplicity. I suspect most of us would question the idea that there is a single "best" in each of these categories and even more the idea that the best is all you need.

So why do so many of us look for single solutions to current problems, single technologies, single media? Why do so many writers, futurists, and speakers tout X as "the future" rather than "a part of the future"?

Answering multiple choices

I've used the slogan "And, not Or" for more than a decade. There's another slogan that goes along with it, one that I believe to be at least partly true in most walks of life: "The answer to most multiple-choice questions is Yes."

That requires some clarification. I'm talking about real-life multiple-choice questions, ones that are often phrased in terms of a single choice: "Is the future for fiction e-books, audiobooks, or print books?" "Should reference work be done over the Internet in real-time chat, via e-mail, at a reference desk, or by walking around to see who needs help?" "Should library databases offer Google-like single boxes, simple fielded search options, or complex Boolean capabilities?" "Will scholarly journals be electronic-only, electronic and print, or print?"

In each of those cases, and in most similar cases, the best answer is Yes. All of those are correct, certainly across the range of libraries.

Monocultures and other dangers

Some computer experts are speaking out on the dangers of monoculture--a situation in which there's only one cultivated crop, one prevailing idea, or one computer system in use. The obvious cases of computer monoculture are Microsoft Windows, Internet Explorer, and Outlook/Outlook Express. Most malicious worms and viruses show up on these platforms. That may be partly because of coding problems, but it's also because those platforms represent 90% to 95% of the entire personal-computing market. PCs represent a monoculture, and that's probably as unhealthy for personal computing as a single-species forest or pasturage is for the environment.

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