Saturday, December 16, 2006

Search vs. browse, or downloading vs. broadcasting

HERE'S TO RADIO IN THE 21ST CENTURY: A Librarian's Perspective

I listen to audio all day long. Whether it's the digital files my library creates or its collection of over 1 million recordings in all sorts of formats; WAV and MP3 files, and my ever expanding collection of CDs and iTunes, both my apartment and my workstation (and computers) are filled with them. I could start with John Adams's Chamber Symphony, and in a year, never make it all the way through my classical section to James Conlon's recording of Alexander Zemlinsky's two-act opera Der Traumgörge. The same is true of a number of other genres as well: folk, jazz, musical theatre, soundtracks...everything, well, except contemporary pop or hip-hop. As a music major, I started to collect classical recordings to build a basic music library, sort of an audio encyclopedia. Why would I do that now that I can subscribe for $20.00 a year to Naxos's subscription service where I can stream every piece of classical music they own and license from their online? Sure there are pieces they don't have, and hundreds of unique performances I crave. But as an encyclopedia Naxos does pretty well. (Alexander Street Press has a similar service through their Classical Music Library, Smithsonian Global Sound, and African American Song).

As a librarian and a music cataloger, searching is what I do best. I can write metadata with the best of them; I tag my Gmail with multiple subjects for efficient retrieval; and can devise complex search strings using keyword or Boolean (limiting my searches by date, language, format, etc.) operators. But what do I enjoy most about going into a library, bookstore, or record store? BROWSING. Whether it's finding a book that I've heard of, but have never seen in person before, or impulsively buying the complete set of DVDs from a television series long since canceled, some joys can not be calculated or quantified so easily. Computer searching requires precise logic, but we can let our imaginations wander and take us to unknown lands when we browse. The audio equivalent of browsing is listening to radio.

I no longer think of the standard radio itself as the only (or even the predominant) means to receive programming. Through the web, via satellite radio, and yes, through their AM/FM band on your car's stereo, one can receive opinions you've never thought of, discover music you've never heard before (even re-discover a piece you thought you knew), and hear other people's stories through music and voice. (OK, internet radio is still sort of stuck in search mode, buried beneath the avalanche of Internet content which only a search engine can penetrate). Why do I forsake my own collection to listen to a medium that's constantly changing? I don't often know, but I keep doing it, just like my grandfather did. In a way to tune into radio is like throwing open a window, rather than rummaging through your attic. You may know what you have, but without radio (in all its modern forms), you'll never know what you're missing.


At Sun Dec 17, 12:44:00 AM, Blogger bill said...

I agree wholeheartedly, Thom. There's something about the randomness of radio input that I think the "iGeneration" misses out on. What we suffer from now, in a culture dedicated to personalization and private media experiences, is the chance for discovery of unknowns, and the random commonalities that are discovered when people open their minds (and their mp3 players) to unexpected sources.


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