Containers without context

The band Radiohead has announced that they will no longer release full-length studio albums, but will instead release their music in downloadable singles.

I remember when iTunes first started selling individual songs, folks were concerned that it would signal the end of the concept of an album, and people would be buying and listening to songs without any sense of their context within a full album.

This mirrors concerns that have been raised over the advent of e-journals, as scholars could now discover and read individual journal articles outside of the context of the journal issue.

Of course, in most cases neither albums nor journal issues actually have much substantive context anyway. Sure, there are some great concept albums (Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and Green Day’s American Idiot come to mind), but my sense is that most albums are collections of songs that have nothing more in common than that they were all produced within a certain time period.

The same is true for most journal issues. Again, there are certainly exceptions for theme-based journal issues; and journal editors often try to create coherent categories for the articles in a given issue. But the truth is that the vast majority of journal issues consist of articles whose only commonality is that they were published in the same issue. Most journal issues are containers without context, and the same can be said of albums or CDs.

Some folks might be concerned for the loss of some forms of serendipity that one gets from finding a song on an album that you like, even though you purchased the album just to get some other song; or from browsing the other articles in a journal issue you picked up just for one particular article. Personally, I find the serendipity of finding songs through online systems like iTunes Genius to be more satisfying; and browsing by subject or citation linking to be a more fruitful way of finding related scholarly works.

Books, of course, are another story … and perhaps best left for another post.

(Thanks to Constance Malpas from OCLC-RLG Programs for a great dinner conversation that got me thinking about the idea of journals as containers, just in time to put the Radiohead announcement into context).

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3 Responses to “Containers without context”

  1. 1 allan August 20, 2009 at 11:33 pm

    I’ve been working with students on the various Law journals we have, and I have been struck by how they work so hard to create this one big publication that is often a collection of unrelated articles. This is partly a constraint of the publishing system (via Lexis-Nexis and WestLaw) but still interesting.

    What’s really great is that you also feel that American Idiot is best enjoyed as a full album, in sequence. Not everyone really caught onto that…


  1. 1 Pink Floyd FTW « Feral Librarian Trackback on March 12, 2010 at 2:46 pm

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