What does Marshall McLuhan have to do with libraries? His Medium and his Message

The following two statements from library colleagues motivated me to understand more deeply how the Internet and Web are influencing libraries and librarians:

Web pages are still being used as if they are pieces of paper in the same way that TV programs were created as if they were radio programs that people can see. (2005)

The Medium is the message, right? (2012)

Gavin Brown, Web Manager at Enoch Pratt Free Library in 2005 and Tim Senapatiratne, Reference Librarian at Bethel Seminary Library in 2012 respectively, led me to seek out the meaning of the statement the “Medium is the Message” by Marshall McLuhan. The first statement brought the significant societal shift driven by the Internet and the World Wide Web to my attention particularly as it applied to libraries use of the Web. However, it was not until after graduate school, several years as a practicing librarian, and leading our library’s web redesign that the second statement drove me to seek out the true meaning of that famous phrase.

Because I am so deeply involved in transforming analog materials into digital form through digital collections and library services through the Web, I feel the responsibility to understand the impact that these activities, and the medium that they are delivered through, have on people.

In 1964, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, introduced McLuhan’s phrases and concepts that he contributed to our society; ‘global village’, ‘hot and cool media’, and ‘the medium is the message’. In the Preface to the third printing of this book,  he addresses the criticism about his chapter on the “Medium is the Message” by explaining that he doesn’t focus on content and instead explores the greater cultural effect of the medium; “The section on ‘the medium is the message’ can, perhaps, be clarified by pointing out that any technology gradually creates a totally new human environment. Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes” (vi-vii).

With this in mind, moving cultural artifacts and documents to the Web changes their nature, as does providing library services over the Web instead of in person. These are not reasons to cease digitization or service over the Web, but they are important factors to understand when our mission is to serve the best interests of our community.  Knowing the impact of the medium as well as the information content of what we do is a key part of our responsibility as stewards of our intellectual and cultural heritage.

Another significant aspect of this book is how it explores the effect of a broad scope of technologies throughout history starting with the “spoken word” to print to electronic media like radio and television. The chapters on “the Written Word”, “The Printed Word”, and “The Telegraph”, are particularly relevant to our philosophical underpinnings as librarians and as citizens of Western culture. Even though he died in 1980 and never experienced the internet, his chapters are prophetic in how they anticipate the many social and technological manifestations of electronic information including the Web over the Internet.

If one wishes to be a reflective practitioner of librarianship then having some understanding of McLuhan and his media metaphors is a critical task. Eric Schnell from the Ohio State University Libraries, is one example of a librarian who has named his blog after McLuhan’s phrase “The Medium is the Message” and explores “libraries, technology, innovation and trends (with respect to Marshall McLuhan)”.

McLuhan’s metaphors are both rich for exploration and courts much controversy so this will be the first of many posts on this theme.