3/12/2013

iPhone Apps and Library Books

O. Von Corven "The Great Library of Alexandria

Last week I got an iPhone, my first. As you could probably guess, I've spent the past few days both trying to figure the thing out and browsing the insane amounts of everything on offer in the App Store. It turns out there are way more programs, games, and knickknacks of all kinds than I could have cared to imagine. Even when picking out what I thought would be a simple app, like a dictionary, there was more to choose from than I bothered to look at, probably in the hundreds. With this kind of selection it’s difficult not to think that I’ve picked the wrong one. Maybe there was a faster one. A more attractive one. One with more terms, or easier to understand definitions. One with a more complete etymology. One with pictures. One without advertisements. One that translates to the Spanish. One that translates to the Bantu. One that will read the pronunciation in a robot voice. One that will read the pronunciation in a celebrity voice. One that will read the pronunciation as a robot doing an impression of a celebrity voice. Etc. etc.

In the grand scheme of things, deciding what dictionary app to use is a pretty trivial decision. It isn’t something that I walk around regretting or even pondering as I’m in line grabbing a sandwich at Soup’s On. But I have noticed that I do, when I use the app, wonder if maybe I should go back and see if one of the others is more suited to my needs (whatever they are). Maybe it (that perfect-yet-ill-defined dictionary app) would make my life easier and me happier.


This kind of quandary is an unfortunate universal of modern life. There are so many different choices for every decision that it’s inevitable you’ll feel some degree of buyer’s remorse or plain old paralysis during your daily business, even when selecting things that are so insignificant that past generations probably just ignored them. Granted, the amount of dread caused by these small decisions is minuscule. But with so many decisions made daily, these things add up.

At this point in the post you’re probably asking yourself, “What does this have to do with the price of fish?” And you’re absolutely right to ask.

The types of choices listed above don’t stop at the App Store. They exist everywhere, including the library. Much of the thought that built Western Civilization was based on maybe a few hundred books. These were the books that everyone with a decent education had to read and they were all pretty much the same, no matter if you grew up in Boston or NY or London. Everyone read Shakespeare and Homer.  Everyone read Plato and Aristotle. Galileo and Newton. If you happened to live in the 15th Century and needed to know something about the early Kings of England, well then of course you would go directly to History of the Kings of Britain, written by Geoffrey Monmouth. Now it’s not so simple. You may still want to read the book that English intelligentsia read in the renaissance, but you could just as easily get that information from a plethora of other sources. And it’s quite possible that these other, newer sources will be more accurate, refer to the most recent anthropological and archeological discoveries, and will probably be written in a much more scientific and objective fashion. Yet they also might be missing something, like what it was like to live at that early time in those far away parts of the world.

So, how does one navigate this sea of choice when, say, doing a research paper? One answer that no one wants to hear: You could read as widely as you have the time. Though most college students (especially, undergraduate students) don’t have the kind of time required to read ten, 300-page books and compare them to one another.This answer isn't all that helpful.

Another way: You could look online and read reviews for different books on your subject. Even then you are sure to get conflicting opinions which will lead you nowhere.

The easiest and best solution is to speak to a reference librarian. They will be able to help you select among the most appropriate sources related to your topic, and may even be able to help you zero in on what is it you are actually looking for, limiting the vast field of choices into something much more manageable.

Just like the app store, the library can be overwhelming. But there is hope. It sits at a small half-circle desk directly to the left as you walk into the building. Use it. Talk to them. They could make at least your research choices much less the cause of debilitating dread.

As for selecting something from the App store… Sorry, you’re on your own.



           By Adam Shutz

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