Saturday, November 12, 2005

On the future of libraries

I read an article by the DaVinci institute on the future of libraries. Since the point of a library is to make as much information easily available to as many people as possible (and not to act as a book museum), it's actually an article on the future of public information access. Comments follow.
Trend #1 - Communication systems are continually changing the way people access information.

After stating the obvious, the article goes on. "What is the ultimate form of communication, and will we ever get there?" And then it says that books and writing are but technologies (albeit long-lived ones), and every technology has a limited lifespan. This, along with the second trend, which is...
Trend #2 - All technology ends. All technologies commonly used today will be replaced by something new.
...implies that books and writing are on their way out. Back into the chasm of illiteracy, onwards! We live in the age of the sensory overload, the article seems to say, but soon it won't be overload any more; we'll absorb this information as naturally as we breathe.
Don't we do this already? We react to the temperature of the room we're in, the smile of a friend, the motion of the people around us as we thread through a crowd. If we only reacted to the information that came to us in the form of words, we might as well be Perl scripts.
Most people consider only word-based information to be "real." According to McLuhan's classic work Understanding Media, this stems from the recent development of a highly literate society combined with high data transfer rates. Words are digital (chunked) encryptions of the (analog) range of meaning we wish to communicate. They're so portable and effective that we find it difficult to express thought without them. It's almost like a PIC attempting to emulate an analog signal through pulse-width modulation. Societies without high literacy rates or fast communications lines tend to be more aware of nonverbal information present in the world.
Since words work so well, much of the information people consider important is in word form. Currently, the most efficient and searchable way to store words is in text. (Compare a speech transcript with its audio file; which will you more quickly extract information from, and which has a smaller file size?) ) It's not just finding an alternative format for text that's our concern, it's finding an alternative format for words. That's going to take a while.
Trend #3 - We haven’t yet reached the ultimate small particle for storage. But soon.
The problem isn't how we store information so much as how we look at it. There's no sense in having the capability to store millions of terabytes of data if we aren't able to work with it.
Trend #4 - Search Technology will become increasingly more complicated
There's only so much complexity that people will take before someone invents a new way. Within a decade, the amount of information we need to handle will balloon past the capability of our current search paradigm to handle and search technology will become something we haven't even conceptualized yet.
The article argues that librarians will become increasingly more necessary as searches become more complex. But what will the librarians of the future be like?
Trend #5 - Time compression is changing the lifestyle of library patrons
"People today sleep, on average, two hours less per night than 80 years ago, going from 8.9 hours per night to 6.9 hours. 34% of lunches today are eaten on the run. 66% of young people surf the web & watch TV at the same time. Basically, we have more needs faster."
I'm surprised the article doesn't treat this topic in more depth. Instead, it goes on to talk about the impending doom of keyboards. Granted, interfaces will change like mad in the next few decades. But let's step back and talk about life changes first. Our lives are broadening and speeding up. In the old mentality, your worth was determined by the amount of information you had access to (usually through training and memorization). The information you could get to was limited enough that you could reasonably master it. In the new workforce, almost everyone has access to a huge amount of data spanning all sorts of topics. It flattens the old hierarchy based on information access; now your value is measured by what you can do with the data. Instead of rewarding people for knowing things, we reward them for creating. (This makes me unbelievably happy. It's also the reason I think our school system needs an overhaul; we still teach kids how to function in the old world. But that's another writing for another day.)
Why are we so much more rushed and busy than we used to be? We're dealing with incoming data the same way we used to, but now there's much more of it. To use a bad analogy, it's like being a librarian writing due dates on check-out cards. This works great for low-volume flows of patrons with books. After a certain point, your writing speed will get increasingly frantic until it maxes out and you can't physically keep up with the book flow any more. So you buy a date stamp. (And that works great for a while longer, but then it gets to be too much... and you buy a barcode scanner.) Search technology right now is in date stamp phase, but some people are still stuck back in handwriting, and they're scrawling so desperately they're going to get carpal tunnel soon. Something in the way society handles data is going to give, and it's going to give soon, and it's going to give big-time. Whatever it is, I believe it'll simultaneously calm our lives and push them towards breakneck-speed insanity. There'll be a widespread awakening of the world due to knowledge management sometime soon; it'll be on the order of magnitude of the awakening that occured when the internet first started to spread like wildfire about a decade ago.
Trend #6 - Over time we will be transitioning to a verbal society
According to the article, not long from now we'll see "the end of the keyboard era. Dr William Crossman, Founder/Director of the CompSpeak 2050 Institute for the Study of Talking Computers and Oral Cultures... predicts that by 2050 literacy will be dead." You've already heard my argument for why it won't be. That having been said, there will be much more information used in non-literate form.
It's not just a more verbal society that we will see, but a more tactile and physical one. Computer-human interactions are pretty sad right now. Think about it; all your feedback from this wonderful device is limited to a tiny flat screen and some tinny beeping speakers. All its feedback from you is in the form of keypunches and a little arrow moving across its surface. Now think of having a conversation with another person. You can nod, blink, smile, imitate an accent, roll your eyes, wave your hands in the air. There's an amazing amount of information you're transmitting that the computer never sees. Conversely, there's an amazing amount of information you're able to recieve that the computer can't yet give you. I see this changing as computing power becomes cheaper, smaller, and increasingly embedded in everything.
Trend #7 - The demand for global information is growing exponentially
Trend #8 - The Stage is being set for a new era of Global Systems
Trend #9 – We are transitioning from a product-based economy to an experience based economy
The world is shrinking, there's no doubt about that. Our horizons are broadening. We're no longer thinking as linearly as we once did, and we see things as a facilitator of experiences and not an end in and of themselves ("I don't want a half-inch drill bit; I want a half-inch hole.") I agree on all three counts.
The article says that books "will transition from a product to an experience." We already evaluate books on the basis of the experience they provide, whether we're aware of it or not. Why do people read Nicholas Sparks novels? They like the emotional wistfulness it provides. Why do people read Feynman's lectures? They appreciate the humor and the elegant physics. It's not the dead blocks of vegetable matter we're enamored with, it's the thoughts stored within them.
However, I believe that the capabilities of books (or written material) in terms of providing an experience will broaden as we become more and more aware of them. The invention of hypertext opened up new possibilities for the written word, freeing it from the left-to-right, down-the-line gridlock; any word in a story can now lead to any other word. Media (sound, music, pictures, etc.) can be embedded within text, adding to its meaning.
Look at the writing style of today, with its snappy pose and emotionally-resonating stories, and compare it to the writing style of just a half-century ago. Instead of merely putting down content, our textbooks are trying to find ways to make that content accessible and engaging. In an age where information is cheap, what counts is the way you can present that information to others. Creating reading experiences sells, and authors are becoming more cognizant of this every day.
Trend #10 - Libraries will transition from a center of information to a center of culture
This is where I believe Olin's library is caught right now. It wants to be a center of culture that, by definition, provides help finding information. However, cultural habit is strong enough to dictate that it's still focused on being THE center of information. The library has tried to move towards being an information helper rather than an information provider by outsourcing a lot of the actual content providing that other libraries do. Interlibrary loans and online databases in lieu of buying thousands of volumes for the library shelves are the most striking example; we have a tiny library, but it makes a huge realm of data accessible to us.
The way in which the library organizes its information strongly reflects the school culture. Look at the library website and compare it to the google homepage. Something look familiar? To Olin's internet-savvy, google-using students, something sure does.
Note that the library webpage (and the library itself) doesn't necessarily contain the information you want, but tells you where to find it instead. Most of the content on the webpage is actually provided by external companies; there are links to databases, handbooks, online versions of texts, and the holdings of the other libraries in the consortium. I would estimate that I use interlibrary loan for approximately a fourth of the books I get through Olin's library. In this case, the library is acting as a gateway to more information and not necessarily a keeper of it. In this age, there is enough information to manage that the time of an institution is better spent knowing who has what and how to get it, as opposed to trying to keep it all by itself.
The Olin library explicitly tries to be a center of culture as well. Walk in, and you'll see toys on the shelves. There's a Go board, K'nex, legos, chess, little wind-up toys, samples of strange materials, and other fun tinkering things that engineering students would find fun. There are sketchpads and colored pencils at every table. Feedback post-its are stuck to the support posts, encouraging dialogue. We're allowed to bring food into the library, which turns it into a comfortable hang-out spot. There are team rooms in the back, meaning that groups will come work here for the space and the laid-back atmosphere even if they don't specifically need any of the informational content in the library.
In fact, none of the things I've just mentioned are dependent on the library as a source of content. Olin's library is doing for information centers what Starbucks did for coffee; instead of just serving up the stuff, they created an experience around it that made you want to come back for more. You don't just go to Starbucks for a good expresso; you also go for the laid-back feeling, the "I'm taking a break" mood, the place to hang out (and the free wireless). You don't just go to the library for books; you go there for the playful intellectual buzz, the company of like-minded others... all right, and the free wireless.
The evolving library and dynamic librarian as guides that help you find a good data experience: Probably.

The evolving library as the end-all-be-all revolutionary new technological way to handle data without words: Eh. The biggest difference in libraries in the next century won't be the snazzy teched-up materials we find (or don't find) on their shelves; it'll be in our minds and the way we conceptualize the relationships between libraries, information, and ourselves. The technology and the paradigm shift will support each other.

1 comment:

Matt said...

This is an amazing post. I totally see where you are going with Trend #5. Some of the items in it I have never read but they all make so much sense.