Monday, June 26, 2006

The Library in 2025

re: the ITWeek article "Future Shock" by Tracy Caldwell
re: EdTech Journal entry "Will Libraries Survive the Digital Revolution" of June 11, "

Representation of the Library at Ninevah;
No, I don't have a clue what libraries will look like in 2025, anymore than I could have predicted, 19 years ago, what I would be doing today. I am not a seer or a forecaster, but I can tell you with some assurance that given the history of thousands of years, man will still find himself in 2025, in need of a way to store data.

Humans have probably kept data for their entire existence of the species. We might not recognize it at first because it might be little more than notches on a stick or slash marks on a rock...but there have probably always been ways to keep up with data. Now, I already hear you saying that libraries store more than just data. Well, perhaps, though I am not totally certain that books are much more than the recording of data. If you look at the history of libraries, most of them were created by wise men or women based on the idea that a record needed to be kept. From the Assyrians through the Rockefellers and Gates, libraries are meant to contain lots of data. In fact, libraries in modern time have yet to completely overcome the data storage space problem. In order for libraries to continue to exist, they must find ways in which to preserve maximum amounts of data in units that take up the least space. If your library is not already looking at digital storage, then it is probably doomed. And what library designer of our day and age would be so foolish to overlook the need for storage space whether that be shelves or digital storage.

Large scale digitization projects are underway at Google, the Million Book Project, MSN, and Yahoo!. With continued improvements in book handling and presentation technologies such as Optical Character Recognition and ebooks, and many alternative depositories and business models, digital libraries are rapidly growing in popularity as demonstrated by Google, Yahoo!, and MSN's efforts. And, just as libraries have ventured into audio and video collections, so have digital libraries such as the Internet Archive.
Wikipedia on Digital Libraries

I think, over the years, that I have had instructors whose vision of knowledge repositories was limited to the university library. And I suspect that I frustrated them by my utilization of search engines and data that exist on the internet. The fact is, that in terms of the sheer amount of information available, the internet wins hands down. No library can possibly hold as much information. Nor can it hold it in such a portable manner. I supposed that we could argue that some of the information on the net is of little value because it may or may not be accurate, but over time, we could have made the same arguments about book type libraries. In fact, there were probably as many misrepresentations in those notches on a stick or slash marks on a stone, or clay tabets, or papyrus scrolls as there are on todays internet. It may look like the the amount of useless information is greater on the net, simply because the database from which is it culled is so much larger itself.

In a report from UC Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems, (2002),
"Print, film, magnetic, and optical storage media produced about 5 exabytes of new information in 2002. Ninety-two percent of the new information was stored on magnetic media, mostly in hard disks."
In this sense, the change in the structure of storage has already started. We are now storing most information in formats other than books. Most of it is now being stored in much larger and more secure containers than in the past. These containment vessels hold greater units than ever before. It would be unusual to find a library with the needed space and electronic software and servers to store all the necessary data that we can access from the net by storing it in separate but interactive nodes.

Since the majority of the information is stored in digital format (the new text or book), we can sense the urge to fine even more effective and efficient methods of retreival. This means that the our early search engines are changing at an increasing rate all the time. They are unflinching in their quest to locate and categorize information. Even in their early days, search engine strategists realized that human capability would pale in light of the mountain range of information that had be sorted. So the first thing they did, was to create robots who could endlessly search for fresh data, photograph it, note it's location and then categorize it. Once that was done, it was a fairly small step to create a way to summon up that photo of the information from the location the robots had posted. No library in the world would even dare to attempt to catelog all of the other books in all of the other libraries in the world. And even with such advanced techniques we are still only cataloging a small portion of the total amount of data that exists and is accessible. It may be that until we actually create an artificial intelligence that exactly mimics human quirks of looking for information, we will never find a search engine that can prowl through all the available information that exists, and show us only the items that relate perfectly to our information inquiries. (Tim Bray has written an awesome explanation of not only the history but also of the future of search engines in his "On Search; the Series"'s well worth the read).

Will libraries survive the digital revolution? If you mean the physical location, then "yes". And in addition, they may look more and more like internet cafes instead of the Library at Alexandria, but yes, a place will exist where one can go and freely or at least cheaply access a huge amount of information. Of course the answer is also "No". If I can search all that information from home and get the same results, then what is the purpose of going to the library? Then on the other hand, there are social and psychological elements of library visitation. And maybe I will comment on that on another day.

If the question of survival of libraries as repositories of data is being asked, then definitely "yes". However, we are already pushing the limit of how much data the feeble human mind can deal with at any given time, so I suspect that the manner in which data is stored is likely to change. In fact, I beleive that we are moving more toward a multimedia type of data than in the past(or one could say that we are going back to early forms that worked well). Visual language in the sense of symbols, or aural meaning in the sense of auditory information, and perhaps other methods of utilizing other human sensing mechanism (touch, smell, and perhaps even taste) will be utilized at greater and greater rates. I also suspect that we will eventually learn to use robot type "workers" to cull through some of that data and make it more "digestable" to human mental processors (we already use Ipod robots to search through all of a days podcasts while we sleep, find those that the robot has been programmed to beleive that we would be interested in, and then download them into a "book" format, that we can listen to, as soon as we wake up, thereby saving us an immense amount of time).

One final note:

The name of this blog, "Rebuilding Indianola" has several meanings. It came to mine originally, when I was thinking about how humans respond to their environments. It reminded me of New Orleans, and the daring willingness to of man to always exist on that narrow ledge between terra firma and the aqua world. Indianola suffered the same fate as New Orleans, but Indianola didn't have the kind of consultants at hand to rebuild. I think the name also directly relates to this post. Virtually every great library that has ever existed has been burned, drowned, plundered, demolished or otherwise somehow destroyed. That has never killed the concept of data repository in the guise of "Library". The library as a concept is much greater than the sum of all the data that it contains. Furthermore, in every case where one was destroyed, another was built to be bigger, stronger, more beautiful and better able to store data than the one that was destroyed. And finally...I have put this post off for a week or so, even though I extensive posted my feelings about libraries on the "...on the road to the Royal Library at Ninevah..." blog
, that was in use in a "Multiliteracy Class" last fall. At that time, I became more familiar with Library, Cybraries and modern Librarians and the way they view the world. I have come to follow many of their blogs fairly closely (See my Bloglines ). Last week, the American Library Association had it's annual convention. This convention was the first convention to be held in New Orleans, since the terrible flood of last year. Who knows....perhaps Indianola will be rebuilt.

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