Beyond the Barriers

A quest for real-time gold

October 1, 2008

A quest for real-time gold Beeeeeeeeep. Alarm. 4:50. Predawn. Downstairs. Coffee. Eyes . . . opening . . . slowly. Countdown. 2,008 drummers, thousands more dancers, singers, athletes from all around the world, a couple of speeches, a flying gymnast lighting the torch, and the unsettling feeling that it can’t possibly only be 9 o’clock.

This is a story of the indomitable human spirit. Not of the amputee South African marathon swimmer or the Togolese bronze-medal kayaker, but of the thousands of ordinary Americans desperate to see the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing—gasp—as it was happening. On August 8 (or 08.08.08; was there a virgule shortage?), those unlucky enough not to have the Canadian broadcast available (Merci, CBC!) were scrambling on the internet to find a live feed.

This quest, arguably the first event of the Beijing Games, made the front page of the New York Times. It began a cat-and-mouse game between these dedicated fans and NBC, who, as owners of the exclusive U.S. broadcast rights, got YouTube to pull foreign videos and tried to plug other holes in streaming media to prevent early viewing. The network itself planned to provide over 2,200 hours of live streaming coverage, up from two hours at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino.

There’s an “information wants to be free” story here, and a “time-shifting by VCR/TiVo/DVR didn’t kill television” story, and even a “fiddle with your IP address to make the blocking software think you’re in Brazil” story.

For our purposes, this is first of all a “where stuff comes from and how we get it” story. That’s familiar territory: Over the last couple of decades, we’ve dealt with the shift from subscriptions to licensing; consolidation in many important supplier industries; and, conversely, the rise of open access and open source alternatives in several venues and the injection of entirely new realms of forms, genres, and delivery devices, all of which we have to at least attend to in serving our clientele.

Fit to be untied

Which leads to part two, the “institutions figuring it out” story. A woman in Arkansas said in the Times, “In the age of the internet . . . why be tied to a TV? [Networks] no longer have the same viewer monopoly they had 30 years ago—why don’t they see that?” Why indeed?

Quite simply, they can’t. Institutions (TV networks, publishers, governments, libraries) that understand their clientele’s interests and needs and preferences will thrive; others will suffer the consequences of their slow-footedness.

People are often portrayed as fickle, because of their lack of loyalty not only to traditional media like newspapers but also old-new phenomena (remember Netscape?). That’s not fickleness, it’s choice. We embrace what we like and what works for us, and vehicle and format are often less relevant.

People are always ahead of the curve, because they are the curve. They won’t act in the precise unison of the Chinese drummers, but each in their own myriad way reinforces what OCLC told us in ’03: content over containers. Libraries’ agility in recognizing and understanding these trends becomes ever more critical as companies consolidate and formats expand.

Our strongest and irreplaceable advantage lies in our proximity to our communities. Know them; engage them, wherever they are; and be part of the curve.

My typical quadrennial post-partum lull will be even more profound this year; these were the last games that CBC had rights to, so unless I can figure out how to get a subscription to CTV between now and 2010, I’m left to NBC’s tender mercies. I’ll be one of those desperate scroungers—unless, of course, somebody in Vancouver hears my plaintive cries . . . but that’s another story.

JOSEPH JANES is associate professor in the Information School of the University of Washington in Seattle. Send ideas to intlib[at]