Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Digital Think Drink at the British Library

A few observations on the Digital Think Drink on the future of libraries at the British Library last night.

This took place in the Growing Knowledge exhibition space in the main lobby where a snapshot of various pieces of interactive hardware and online digital initiatives from the cultural heritage domain are presented. It's generally impressive, and it raises a few questions. How much can this achieve as a pure research tool? I suspect that books are not going to just disappear, and in many disciplines research will still require a focused search of the library catalogue and perusal of dusty tomes. The great advantage of the digital tools presented at the BL is that they have the potential to provide an intermediary space between the public and a traditional library setting. These are interfaces that promote browsing, and in many cases do easily provide insights that only the very closest examination of an object might yield.

Rather than simply re-examining current collections, the real potential for digital could be actual collection expansion in a way that could not have been previously imagined. Historical models, for example, have changed, and people are intrigued by personal history and culture in a way that they never were before. From now on, for the most part, this material will lie exclusively in the born-digital domain. Rather than creating museum-style exhibits for libraries, why not use these technologies to present information that could not be presented via any other medium? Perhaps such digital collections could also be linked into the main collection to become part of a whole, rather than investing in hardware that, presented on its own, feels like only a temporary solution that interrogates historical objects using digital tools without acknowledging the dynamic digital society that is creating culture now.

Given the recent furore over tensions between the Internet, the sovereignty of Parliament and the judiciary in the UK, it's interesting to see just how far behind and inadequate the law is regarding the digital domain. People willl probably be aware of the UK Web Archive, an initiative to archive all UK domain websites which currently has to seek permission from each website's creator on an individual basis in order to archive a site. Even once the BL can obtain legal deposit for UK websites, readers will still have to visit the BL building in order to access that archive, just as they do the collection of legal deposit paper publications. My colleague who recently attended a copyright workshop at CILIP noted that if we all kept to the letter of the law, we would have to shut down operations. This is perhaps the best example of where libraries can lead and shape legislation. It sounds like the ethics of a modern comic book superhero, but perhaps you do need to break the law to defend something more important.

Finally, on the future and relevance of libraries, I've noticed that in working for a digital library and studying the topic as I am, probably 90% of my learning is online, or through face-to-face conversation. The other 10% has been made up by formal lectures, and perhaps 1% by published books. I like libraries, I work in one, and yet I would never walk into a traditional library to educate myself on most aspects of my life. I wonder how prevalent that is?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Are digital initiatives just a technicality?

The double meaning here is of course that developing and holding digital collections are often analysed from a mostly technical perspective, and, by extension, their full potential and impact may not be fully appreciated and utilised.

I've come at this project with the attitude that the biggest challenges in digital collections development are probably not technical. How so?

A conference paper that a colleague passed to me the other day gives a nice example. As most people reading this will know, XML is an open standard markup language that provides a technological basis for interoperability across library systems. One reason for focusing so much on technical aspects of digital collections has been an ongoing effort to achieve interoperability - unlike some other sectors, libraries and the cultural heritage sector are essentially non-profit and, importantly, collaborative. It is therefore important that information should be easily searched, accessed and shared.

Interoperability is rightly held as a priority, and XML is a great basis for achieving it, but what is actually happening in practice? The paper I mentioned, by Jerome McDonough, notes an experiment by the Library of Congress in which digital objects were exchanged between institutions in the US. Despite all of these institutions correctly using the same XML-based encoding format, exchanges failed based on what might be described as differing syntax applied to the same grammar, rather like regional dialects that manifest from a common language. McDonough concluded his paper by noting that, while individual institutions may well need local flexibility to best serve their users, and must balance that with a need to share information within the sector, "If libraries are to survive and thrive in this new information society, they must alter their own value structure to prioritize communication with other communities [that do not share libraries' standards practices or values]...."

This example shows that even within the technology itself, there are social factors. This makes sense, since technology is made and used by people. It's also tempting to go a bit further and make the assertion that unless many non-technical factors are accounted for (including, critically, funding), technical concerns would never have the opportunity to exist in the first place. The lessons from McDonough's observations, and the economic, social and political crunch that libraries face now, is that they need a strategy that goes beyond technological concerns, linking digital initiatives to the real business drivers of the organisation, which in turn connect the organisation with new users and new communities.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

New digital roles, new digital models

I'm almost at the point of completing the final proposal for my thesis, so it's time for a new focus. I've re-launched this blog as a research tool: I'll get ideas down, but I hope that others will join in with comments, questions and critique. It seems apt for the project I'm embarking on, so let's see if it works.

My research surrounds a central question of whether the digital world necessitates innovation, or if adaptation will suffice. It's a large topic that I need to whittle down, so my first efforts at that are a plan to examine smaller organisations, such as public libraries, that increasingly face a watershed within a society where knowledge transfer now occurs almost exclusively via digital media.

What do I mean by adaptation and innovation? Adaptation refers to using digital media and collections within a traditional analogue model. These collections are characteristically 'bolted on' to the established analogue collection format as an extra that probably doesn't represent the core goals of the organisation. The value of digital formats are mostly recognised for the levels of accessibility they provide, but not much else.

Innovation looks at digital media and collections in their own right. These actually don't have to be presented as separate to analogue collections, but they certainly present new possibilities, such as using collections in entirely different ways, particularly user creativity, ownership and even funding. Innovation operates outside of the traditional established box. In many respects, the choice of innovation or adaptation (or both) will depend on an organisation's appetite for risk.

Another way to look at this is chronologically. Ten years ago, the idea of huge digital libraries of scanned books seemed incredibly exciting. In 2011, are millions of books made available on screens really the height of a library's achievement? Books on a screen are, after all, still books, and the models haven't changed. The fate of public libraries in the UK suggest that more drastic measures may be required to connect with a new generation of users. We're in a 'second wave' of digital content beyond mass digitisation that acknowledges the importance of born-digital content and a more user-centric approach to collection discovery and engagement.

As additional food for thought, a couple recent blogs by Joseph Esposito and Seth Godin have tackled innovation vs. adaptation and the library digital watershed, respectively, in a pithy manner. These issues raise many questions, and I'll be trying to address as many as I can right here on this blog.