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?

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