Thursday, March 1, 2012

"Tron" as metaphor for the digital library

In the Tron films, Kevin Flynn, played by Jeff Bridges, enters a digital world 'inside the computer' by means of quantum teleportation (or 'digitization', as it's actually referred to in the 1982 original). Watching this recently, the demarcation of a digital world and the real world felt curiously familiar to working on a digital library. I wanted to use this post to explore a few other 'gaps' that exist in digital library development, aside from my target concern of that between collections and users, specifically the nature of the gap between digital and analogue worlds.

Behind the conceptualised information we get from our computer screen are a bunch of spinning disks existing in physical space, drawing on physical resources to support them. Ultimately we have a binary machine code making the machines operate - we use programming source code translated to binary to communicate and instruct the computer, and the resulting programs lead to user interaction and often the creation of something fully comprehensible to the human eye and brain. This conceptual level is several steps removed from the physical reality of IT systems, and it can be easy to forget. Similarly, in a space such as a library defined by analogue content, IT systems solutions implemented at the higher, conceptual level may lose touch with the physical reality of the library holdings themselves. Perfectly feasible systems solutions to the problems facing digital libraries can be found in the digital space, but they don't always bear any relation to the real world. This sort of apathy, if you like, seems to be mutual and it's far too easy for one world to forget about the other and remain disconnected.

In fact, this gap is only in the mind. Libraries have two areas that need to be addressed, which may appear paradoxical. The first is the obvious one: digital as 'paradigm shift', with more information on new formats, and where users of digital content have acquired new information gathering habits and expectations. The second is a bit more subtle, but there's nothing 'new' in digital. This observation comes from examining the phenomenon from the vantage point of human history: it's just a repeating pattern. As new technologies develop, paradigm shifts occur. It used to take a little longer, and the last one hundred years or so have seen a quicker turnover, but we should be used to this by now. This was a perspective shared by Thomas Hobbes, quoted here from James Gleick's The Information: "The invention of printing, though ingenious, compared with the invention of letters is no great matter." All the talk of the 'brave new world' of digital is nostaligic hyperbole that only serves to miss the point that it's all just information.

There's one other problem that digital libraries encounter that's worth noting here. Creating a digital library within a traditional library space throws into sharp relief the knowledge silos that exist there. They didn't particularly matter before, every person performed their separate function and it was enough to point in the general direction of a physical resource, because you would probably be able to find it. But the digital library brings together disparate roles, condensing them into a project that requires unprecedented precision, because computers demand it. In response to this, either everyone involved endeavours to develop a holistic understanding of all relevant institutional inter-relationships, or one person or department has to take on this responsibility. The latter introduces an instituional divide: instead of the integrated library that contains digital content and analogue linked together and fully amalgamated, we get two libraries - one digital, one traditional - with the digital element a 'bolt-on' or supplement, which may not be the best outcome for growth and sustainability, adding limited value to library collections as a whole.