rare-steak-797265At the Nieman Journalism Lab, Maria Popova writes about how the meaning of “rare” is changing in the digital age. The physical possession that is a work of art might be “rare”—but once it has been scanned or photographed, anyone can see it. (This put me in mind of the matter of a rediscovered lost work by Shelley that was purchased by a private collector and not released into the public domain.)

She touches on an issue of motivation, as well: it’s human nature that if something is hard to obtain, it is going to be more attractive—but if it suddenly becomes more readily available to us, we tend to assume that it’s always going to be there and we can get around to looking at it later.

The relationship between ease of access and motivation seems to be inversely proportional because, as the sheer volume of information that becomes available and accessible to us increases, we become increasingly paralyzed to actually access all but the most prominent of it — prominent by way of media coverage, prominent by way of peer recommendation, prominent by way of alignment with our existing interests. This is why information that isn’t rare in technical terms, in terms of being free and open to anyone willing to and knowledgeable about how to access it, may still remain rare in practical terms, accessed by only a handful of motivated scholars.

And she points out the dichotomy between rarity of certain esoteric information and the way Google indexes that information. Google’s algorithm ranks popular stuff at the top—so something not as popular, that few people are interested in, will be harder to find on Google for those people who have an interest. She points to human curators as a possible antidote to this problem. The article features a quote about editors, but it put me in mind of a Neil Gaiman quote I saw recently: “Google can bring back a hundred thousand answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”

The article is too long to summarize completely, but it is certainly interesting to read at full length. And it also might just help explain why, even though Project Gutenberg offers more access to esoteric classic material than most physical libraries ever could, so few people ever seem to take advantage of it.


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