Monday, 12 December 2011

Digital Libraries: into the future: food for thought

During November I read and listened to three talks from well known people, that all gave views on digital libraries and the future. The contents were considered to be ‘controversial’ and ‘thought provoking’ by your average librarian. I loved each talk but did not consider them controversial. Quite the opposite, I considered them to be stating the obvious, and clearly explaining the reality of the situation that currently faces libraries. I wish more library managers would grasp the reality, focus on it and do something about it in a timely way. And now is the time. Many libraries, including the National Library of Australia are developing their statements/strategies/visions for the years ahead right now. Each talk was also packed with useful quotes and advice for library managers. The speakers praised Trove and thought it demonstrated part of the way forward, which was good to hear. Here’s a bit of a summary with the links:

Caroline Brazier (British Library). ‘Collect/connect’ A presentation to the Libraries Australia Forum.

Caroline’s presentation focused on the 2020 vision for the British Library, but later over coffee with me she shared some other thoughts.  In times of severe budget constraint innovation should thrive.  Some of the best ideas have always evolved from having no money. You have to RE-THINK the ways you do things, FOCUS on what is the most important thing, and come up with NEW IDEAS on how to do things. The benefit of budget cuts in libraries could be innovation. Innovative services rarely come from having as much budget as you want to play with.  I can identify with this, through the Australian Newspapers and Trove project.  It may surprise you to know that contrary to popular belief we did not have a team of hundreds behind the scenes at the National Library of Australia working on either project, just a sum total of 5 staff.  We had no additional budget to develop, design or support the new services. Our only extra budget was to digitise items. I am sure that if we had of had more money we would not have come up with the idea of public newspaper text correction, we would simply have paid the digitisation contractors more money to manually re-key text.

People in the UK were asked what 2020 might mean for libraries and one person commented that because digital is the way forward the proportion of IT/web staff to other staff needs to shift considerably. I’m not sure what the current proportion is at the British Library but most libraries would have less than 10% of their staff being IT and this needs to change.

My favourite quote from a member of the public was “BL should replicate the Glastonbury Festival feeling and at the same time provide the great scholastic silence”. The BL had trouble understanding what that meant and didn’t think you could do both (assuming the whole thing is physical), but I took it to mean that the users want an online creative, collaborative, feeling with a ‘wow’ factor of digital collections and services doing what they want, combined with a physical reflective space.   This is exactly the sort of thing that my dear friend Paul Reynolds would have said, and in fact did just before he died, in his valedictory lecture to librarians at NLNZ. 

Nathan Torkington (web expert). ‘Where it all went wrong’ A speech delivered to the National and State Librarians of Australasia.

“…libraries are like Microsoft. At one point you had a critical role: you were one of the few places to conduct research. When academics and the public needed to do research into the documentary record, they’d come to you.  As you know that monopoly has been broken. The internet led by Google, is the start and end of most people’s research. It’s good enough to meet their needs, which is great news for the casual researcher but bad news for you. Now they don’t think of you at all.”

“You need to be useful as well as important. Being useful helps you be important… Oh I know you thought about digital a lot. You’ve got digitisation projects. You’re aggregating metadata. But these are bolt-ons. You’ve added digital after the fact. You probably have special digital groups, made up of younger people than the usual library employee. You have some advance R&D guys working on the future while the rest of us just get on with the past”.

“Your new reading room is your patron’s web browser. Are you designing distribution for that? How much did you spend building a new reading room? How much are you spending on digital delivery? The first place users start looking for things is Google. Are you designing discovery for that? Do you know how to be found? If I look at the results of the digitisation projects, I find the shittiest websites on the planet. It’s like a gallery spent all its money buying art and then just stuck the paintings in supermarket bags and leaned them against the wall.”

Nat does not think that Google is the answer, but libraries are:
“The best solution is when both man and machine work together: librarians make sense of indexes, this is what they do. Computers are great at building indexes. Don’t think ‘either-or’, think ‘and’. Libraries need to FOCUS. Success for you is RELEVANCE. Make things that people use. Then when someone asks ‘why do we tip all these millions into this?’ or ‘doesn’t Google do that already?’ your relevance is your answer.”

Peter Macinnis (author). ‘A question of collaboration’ Interview    on ABC Ockham’s Razor

Peter talked about science and technology and his visions for the future, as an author and member of a changing society.
“Why do people happily embrace the prospect of a world without libraries based on the prediction that we don’t need books or libraries anymore because we can get everything we need from the internet? Those who make sweeping assertions like this don’t know what books are, have no sense of what libraries do and absolutely no idea of what the internet is - or offers. Most importantly, these rigid descendants of Wackford Squeers lack the wit to see that INSTITUTIONS EVOLVE.”

He then talked about Wikipedia, Trove and the Australian Newspapers, what he had searched for and found and how he had added his knowledge to the sources by editing, correcting newspaper text, tagging and commenting, and how other users coming after him could use his annotations in context.

 “As the twig bends, so the tree bends. A future built on COLLABORATION relies on people who gain a quiet joy from contributing gems, nuggets and crumbs to future generations, whimsical folk who amuse themselves by committing acts of anonymous scholarship.”

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