Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Social cataloguing: a discussion on LibraryThing and Goodreads

[This blog post originally appeared as an article in CILIP Cataloguing and Indexing Group's journal, Catalogue & Index no. 171. It is reproduced here by kind permission of the editors.]

Goodreads and LibraryThing are the two most popular social cataloguing sites on the Web: sites that allow users to catalogue their own books using metadata and slick interfaces. In March 2013, Goodreads announced that it would be acquired by Amazon.com. This transaction prompted much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the bibliotwittoblogosphere with users worried about the impact that Amazon.com – a commercial bookseller – would have on Goodreads' previously neutral online community of book-lovers. Following this announcement, the author of this article decided to compare the two sites to see if Amazon.com's acquisition is an indicator of superior quality and to explore the phenomenon of social cataloguing (1).

Assorted facts (2) 

Goodreads: 

Founder(s): Otis Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler 
Launch date: December 2006 
Based in: San Francisco, CA, USA 
No. of staff: 35 
Users: Approx. 17,000,000 
Books: Approx. 550,000,000 
Reviews: Approx. 23,000,000 
Owned by: Majority share: Amazon.com 
Cost: Free (with ads) 
No. of Twitter followers: 647,067 
No. of words in their Wikipedia article: 1682 
No. of capitalised letters in their company's logo name: 0 
No. of concatenated words in the company's name: 2 
Date the author joined Goodreads: 16 March 2013 
No. of books that the author has on Goodreads: 476 
No. of 'friends' that the author has on Goodreads: 30 

LibraryThing: 

Founder(s): Tim Spalding 
Launch date: 29 August 2005 
Based in: Portland, ME, USA 
No. of staff: 9ish 
Users: Approx. 1,650,000 
Books: Approx. 80,000,000 
Owned by: 60% Tim Spalding; 40% divided (somehow) between AbeBooks (owned by Amazon.com) and Bowker (owned by Cambridge Information Group) 
Cost: Free for up to 200 books; $10 for one-year membership; $25 for lifetime membership 
No. of Twitter followers: 8742 (though Tim Spalding has 14,680) 
No. of words in their Wikipedia article: 667 
No. of capitalised letters in their company's logo name: 2 
No. of concatenated words in the company's name: 2 
Date the author joined LibraryThing: 3 September 2010 
No. of books that the author has on LibraryThing: 491 
No. of 'friends' that the author has on LibraryThing: 9 

A short history of social cataloguing 

Software for managing digital collections is commonly used by technologically-connected people (3). iTunes, Winamp, Spotify, Clementine, etc. are programs that organise digital music files. Other software like calibre, iBooks, and the Sony Reader Store organise ebooks and digital text files. Operating systems are built on frameworks of file organisation with a multitude of programs acting as mini-metadata-repositories for digital files of various formats. 

Social cataloguing sites emerged in 2005 around the time that social networking and Web 2.0 started to become a defining technology in our digital lives. Bibliographic cataloguing sites were among the first and are probably the most popular but alongside these there exists a range of cataloguing sites devoted to other information mediums: films, music, scholarly references, recipes, etc. These platforms allow users to store, list, and organise their personal collections in much the same way, on a smaller scale, that library catalogues – from card catalogues to modern OPACs – organise large-scale collections of material. 

Among the first social cataloguing platforms, LibraryThing was launched on 29 August 2005 offering users a space on the Web where they could catalogue books by drawing data from a range of bibliographic data sources. It was followed in 2006 by similar platforms: Goodreads, Shelfari, aNobii, BookArmy, douban, and others whose names are written in the Book of Forgotten Web Enterprises. 

Goodreads and LibraryThing 

Goodreads, despite being younger, is the site with more users and more books in its database. It is bigger and more successful than LibraryThing on most levels which is presumably why it was acquired by Amazon.com. Among social cataloguing sites, LibraryThing is the older, plucky outsider fighting valiantly against the larger, slicker, and younger Goodreads. 

Of the two, Goodreads has the larger focus on the 'social network' aspect of the site. The landing page devotes a lot of screen real estate to friends' updates in a familiar Facebook-like style. The design encourages the user to rate the books he/she has read and to write mini-reviews in the style of Amazon.com. Even when looking at a book's record, friends' ratings and reviews appear near the head of the page. Through these design elements, the user is encouraged to think of him/herself as part of a community of readers comprised of his/her friends and of people across the world reading the same kind of books. 

Goodreads landing page

LibraryThing has the greater focus on metadata. Rather than a page of reviews, LibraryThing's book pages have long sections of metadata fields laid out in MARC-style (4) which users can edit in order to add to the global corpus of metadata surrounding each book. The fields include such varied information as awards, characters, locations, first words, last words, 'blurbers', series, publication dates, etc. LibraryThing pages also make good use of tags to show the categorisation of a book. This kind of classification system is indicative of the digital cataloguing mechanisms employed by both sites: mechanisms that emphasise the difference between physical and digital cataloguing systems. In the physical word, a book has a single place on a single shelf and cannot occupy multiple places at the same time. In a digital realm, items can be in several categories at once: as many as are necessary to show the various facets of the text. Both sites offer users means of organising books into categories and, crucially, means of putting books into multiple categories at the same time. Goodreads provides 'shelves' for organising books: the default shelves are 'Read', 'Currently Reading', and 'Want to Read'. LibraryThing provides 'collections': defaults are 'Your library', 'Read but unowned', and 'Favorites'. Using either shelves or collections, a user can organise books in whatever categories he/she chooses: by genre, by author's country of origin, by how the books made him/her feel, by prevalence of favourite words in the texts, by which room he/she keeps them in, by colour of the covers, etc. No matter how arbitrary or subjective or contradictory the categories are, digital items can be classified with them. This is indicative of the kind of subjective cataloguing that the modern world – and social cataloguing sites – is introducing and is a point to which the author will return. 

LibraryThings book page

The use of the word 'shelves' by Goodreads highlights another interesting distinction between the two sites. In an implicit way, Goodreads tends more towards the use of terminology related to cataloguing print materials and to old paradigms of organisation: 'shelves', 'friends', 'community' are familiar and comforting words associated with cosy, physical libraries and lovely, welcoming bookshops. LibraryThing, by contrast, uses words that actually apply to digital materials and which, while more technically accurate, are less welcoming: 'collections', 'members', 'contacts', etc. In this way, Goodreads tends towards the kind of currently fashionable skeuomorphic design that is the stock and trade of Apple's iOS software: Apple's own ebook management software, iBooks, for example, deliberately mimics the look of a bookcase and physical books with paper pages. It is the author's contention that this clever design philosophy subconsciously affects the user's perception of the two sites such that Goodreads appears comforting and familiar with the homeliness of a wood-panelled personal library in a country house and LibraryThing appears more distant, more clinical, and less friendly due to its decision not to apply physical paradigms to digital material (5). This may be a significant contributing factor in Goodread's relative success: do not underestimate the consumer's desire for comforting familiarity. 

iBooks as an example of skeuomorphic design

Given Amazon.com's famed recommendation engine, it is odd that LibraryThing, rather than Goodreads, produces the better recommendations. LibraryThing generates recommendations for books to read based on the books that a user puts into his/her collection; Goodreads generates recommendations based on the ratings that a user gives to various books. Goodreads therefore requires more data to begin the recommendation process and, as someone who doesn't like the reductionist rating system used by popular online booksellers (6) and therefore is reluctant to use Goodreads’ rating system, the author doesn't care for this method of generating recommendations. LibraryThing manages to generate intelligent recommendations for books to read without manipulating the user into engaging with the 'social network' aspect of it. 

To compare the two big social cataloguing sites, Goodreads is slicker, easier to use, and has a nice app for Android and iOS smartphones/tablets (7). With far more people using it, Goodreads has a distinct emphasis on the 'social' in 'social cataloguing' whereas, with its emphasis on metadata and intelligent recommendations, LibraryThing focuses on the 'cataloguing'. Unsurprisingly, considering the demographic of those who are asked to write for this publication [Catalogue & Index journal], the author of this article prefers the 'cataloguing' social cataloguing site to the 'social' social cataloguing site. 

The cataloguing of chaos 

The modern world is more chaotic, more disorganised, and more miscellaneous than ever before. For all our modern technology, information is more disparate and less cohesive than it was in the days before the telegraph. This is partly due to its abundance: in an information society, exabytes of digital information are produced every single day by every single technologically-connected individual. It's also partly due to the failure of traditional classification and organisation schemes and the increasing 'miscellaneousness' of information. 

Perhaps it is as a response to this mess of information that social cataloguing sites like LibraryThing and Goodreads have become such popular means for organising personal collections. In a world that has become so varied and complicated, it is not only professional cataloguers who feel the compulsive need to classify, categorise, and reorder the universe. In a messy world, info-civilians want to catalogue for themselves. 

If one views LibraryThing, Goodreads, and the overall phenomenon of social cataloguing as a new cataloguing paradigm, then there are two implications for traditional cataloguing. The first is that traditional cataloguers lose their authority (8). The user no longer views cataloguers as gatekeepers of knowledge who have privileged information and insight on how books should be arranged. Anyone can catalogue to whatever system they choose with whatever metadata they choose and whatever standards they wish to adopt. The user can classify using their own bespoke systems: there is no Melvil Dewey or S. R. Ranganathan to dictate how books should be arranged and even if there were, why should they be listened to? As community-driven movements, folksonomies, and crowdsourcing have become more popular, traditional knowledge authorities such as universities, scholarly publications, corporations, and libraries are losing their perceived authority. With the technology to allow users to organise books quickly and easily, the public no longer rely on trained cataloguers or complicated OPACs to tell them what books are about or how they should be arranged on a shelf. In a world of custom categories, tags, datasets, and user-driven metadata, MARC, Dewey, LCSH, etc. are less required than ever (9). 

The second implication is that cataloguing is more subjective than ever before. “We have given up on the idea that there is a single, knowable organization of the universe, a Book of Nature that we’ll ever be able to read together or that will settle bar fights like the Guinness Book of Records. No, you organize your data one way, I’ll organize it another...” (10) In the age of the network, as knowledge has become more democratised, the view that there is one classification system for the universe has fallen out of fashion. The epistemological philosophies of the Enlightenment are in decline. We are not one: we are multitude. We are not a body: we are legion. The democracy of the network and the democratisation of cataloguing mean that one system of order is both impossible and undesirable. 

In a postmodern world, every opinion is valid, every person has a voice, and cataloguing is a subjective rather than an objective phenomenon. Following the death of the author, who can say if a given book is optimistic or pessimistic, about life or about death, abominable or transcendent? And why do we have to decide? Technology allows multiple categories, classifications, and catalogues to exist simultaneously no matter how arbitrary, subjective, or contradictory they may be. All opinions can inform the cataloguing of a book. At the start of the 21st century, truth is varied and miscellaneous and cataloguing is, for better or worse, social. 



(1) All opinions expressed are the personal opinions of the author and do not represent those of CILIP, CILIP Cataloguing & Indexing Group, the author's employers, etc. etc. Let's move on.

(2) All facts presented are actual 'facts' as of May 2013 and, to be honest, a lot of them come from Wikipedia. Also, while we're being honest, they're presented in this lazy list format to reduce word count. 

(3) This phrase is a useful shorthand because the author realises that the term 'people' on its own would include vast swathes of the population to whom the sentence is inapplicable i.e. people who are either not located in developed countries or lack a certain level of affluence and/or educational level. Official figures published in May 2013 suggest that 7 million people in the UK have never used the Internet. 

(4) But more accessibly presented than MARC data generally is. This says more about MARC than LibraryThing. 

(5) Since the author regards technical accuracy as more important than almost any other design consideration, the author views LibraryThing's decision as correct and, he realises upon writing, this probably subconsciously contributes to why he prefers LibraryThing to Goodreads. 

(6) And indeed most other websites that include ratings systems. 

(7) The Goodreads app allows a user to use a smartphone/tablet camera as a barcode scanner to automatically add books to a collection. Which is quite cool. 

(8) Authority in the sense of expertise rather than the sense of power. 

(9) Note that this does not imply that MARC, Dewey, et al. are not required at all. The author makes no judgement on this matter.

(10) Weinberger, D., 2011. Too big to know: rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren't the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Rise of the cyborgs: the growth of librarian-IT hybrids

On 2 July 2013, I delivered a presentation at CILIP's Umbrella conference in Manchester under the theme heading 'Beyond Information Matters'. The full paper should be available in the Umbrella Conference Proceedings to be published by Facet Publishing (1). Below are the slides as presented and the script of the presentation. 



1.0. Information and technology 

Technology changes us. Technology makes us more than we are. Technology gives us the ability to change the world around us and surpass our human limitations. Technology allows us to communicate, to discover, to transcend the physical, and to expand our collective mind. Technology has changed the world and will continue to do so. Technology is a fundamental aspect of modern information provision and librarianship. Computers, digital information, and digital data are an intrinsic part of this profession and have altered the way we think about information; the way we define information. The information world has adapted remarkably quickly to technological advances and, in the wake of this, so too have the people involved in information work. A new category of information worker is emerging that, for lack of a better term, I've called the librarian-IT hybrid (2). 

In my career, I've worked in several joint library-IT roles. These roles were either directly funded by both the library and the IT department like my role as Roving IT Support at Manchester Metropolitan University or roles which so heavily involved major IT and coding skills that they can be considered joint roles like my current role working on the Qatar Digitisation Project at the British Library. In this paper, I discuss the emerging role of librarian-IT hybrids, the skills and knowledge that they need to meet the challenges they face, and the implications for the future of librarianship and information management.

According to the old paradigm, libraries, archives, and museums contained information in the same way a cage contains a prisoner: the information was in books, books were in the library, and so, by transference, the information was in the library. In the book The Information, James Gleick argues that around the time of the development of the telegraph, 'information' became separated from the physical objects containing it and our language and thinking adapted accordingly. Information escaped from the cage. 

Naturally this changed librarianship. Any change to information – to our defining commodity – changes the profession. Starting with the telegraph, technology changed librarianship. The quantity of digital information now exceeds the quantity of analog information. All this data – this linked data, this Big Data – is more easily accessible, more easily movable, and requires a gestalt shift in our perceptions of its properties. As for the effect on people, computers and an unparalleled communications network make us collectively more intelligent. We are developing what H. G. Wells called a ‘world brain’. 

It's an exciting time to work in an information field. Digital collections are no longer addendums to print collections: they are integral parts of libraries. Every library – or almost every library – is now a hybrid library mixing print and digital. Access to computers and mobile computing mean that users can access resources 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Users' expectations have also changed. They expect library staff to perform different tasks: connecting to the WiFi on an iPad, setting up an email account, solving problems with the OPAC. 

2.0. Library and IT 

With the increased reliance on technology for storage of information and access to information, there is a corresponding reliance on IT departments. Librarians in a range of sectors regularly work with their IT departments for assistance, for tech support, and for service development. But library staff and IT staff are often separated in different departments of the same overall organisation. Even worse, many libraries actually have strained or antagonistic relationships with their IT support. At a Digital Skills Sharing Event in Canada Water Library on 17 January 2013, teams of public librarians and publishers presented reports of new digital approaches for public libraries. A recurring theme was the difficulty many libraries encountered working with their council IT departments. See the tweets from Mick Fortune on the day for some examples. Tasks as simple as setting up an account on a social media platform were hindered by council restrictions on communication, IT departments unwilling to support new tech, or librarians' lack of understanding of the technology's requirements. 

Librarians and IT staff respect and require one another and yet often have these difficult relationships. I wouldn't like to speculate on why this is – different approaches, different mindsets, the whole Kirk vs. Spock, logic vs. emotion debate, I don't know – but it seems to be there and it's something that I, and those in roles like mine, have to deal with. Librarian-IT hybrids operate in this strange intersection and in the midst of this unusual symbiotic relationship. 

3.0. Technology and change 

What is the librarian-IT hybrid? It used to be that tech skills were restricted to a subset of information professionals: Systems Librarians, E-resource Librarians, Technical Specialists, etc. But now more librarians at all levels in all sectors are using more technology. Information professionals need IT skills in order to provide information effectively and hence to do their jobs. The digital librarian does not necessarily have 'librarian' or 'IT' in his/her title. The roles may be jointly funded by both the library and the IT department or may be more informal. 

In a 2009 study published in College and Research Libraries, Mathews and Pardue performed a content analysis of randomly selected job adverts from ALA's online JobList over a five-month period. 72% of the job ads contained at least one IT skill. They found what they describe as a “significant inter-section between the skill sets of librarians and the skill sets of IT professionals.” Skills in Web development, project management, systems development, and systems applications were in particular demand. They concluded that “As IT continues to pervade how patrons access and utilize library resources, librarians continue to look more like IT professionals.” 

We see further anecdotal evidence of this overlap in the rise of the 'shambrarians'. Not enough research has been done on this strange LIS subculture but it consists of IT and other systems workers embedded within libraries who have not had formal librarianship or information management training. As this rigorously scientific chart from shambrarian, Dave Pattern, shows, they fall within the traditional boundaries of both librarianship and IT and self-identify as shambrarians – a particular breed of librarian-IT hybrid. 

More informally, increasing numbers of information professionals are becoming 'everyday cyborgs' (3). This is a term that's coming into use to mean people whose lives are integrated with and supplemented by the technologies they use everyday and, to some extent, rely upon to function in the world. While it can mean those who supplement themselves with, for examples, prostheses to achieve a base level of physical function, it can also refer to those who use integrating technology to expand their capabilities. I, for one, rarely go anywhere without my smartphone. Consider the development of mobile computing (smartphones, tablets, etc.) and the development of ubiquitous computing like Apple's iWatch or augmented reality products like Google's Project Glass: these developments lead to newer levels of integration with technology, with the Internet, and with our computers. In transhumanist philosophy, humans integrated with technology become “creatures of nature and culture, biology and technology...”

Why shouldn't we as information professionals lead this change? Digital librarians use technology to enhance themselves and their service. They can lead the change. Whether it's a formal thing like the joint library/IT roles that universities have pioneered or informal like shambrarians or 'everyday cyborgs', librarian-IT hybrids are a growing subculture within LIS. They will have the skills and the knowledge to lead information management into the future. 

4.0. Skills and challenges

So moving away from science-fiction and back to reality, what skills do librarian-IT hybrids have and what unique challenges do they face? Informally, I could answer from my own experience but that would only be my perception. To write this paper, I conducted an informal email survey of six individuals (4) who self-identified as doing “a mix of IT and library work” in response to a tweet. They identified a range of skills required of librarian-IT hybrids and outlined some of the challenges they face. 

The first group of skills are traditional library skills. Several respondents mentioned cataloguing skills (“MARC, AACR2/RDA, Dublin Core”) as important for their role. Also mentioned was understanding of library licenses, software licenses, copyright, etc. and understanding of technical library services eg. interlibrary loan. 

The second group of skills are what Jenica Rogers calls “crunchy tech skills”. These range from the ability to troubleshoot users' computer problems to programming skills. Lauren Bradley, based in New York, USA, referred to “Core Technology Competencies... [which include] everything from basic computer skills to Microsoft Office to our ILS.” At one end of the spectrum, librarians can be called upon to help users set up email accounts, configure tablets to connect to WiFi networks, search large-scale databases like Westlaw, or other tech-related everyday tasks to help users. At the more advanced end, Goddard (2003) identifies the following 'high-demand skills' for systems librarians: “networking protocols (TCP/IP, HTTP, telnet, ftp and Z39.50), UNIX and Windows/NT operating systems, hardware troubleshooting, database design and administration, Web design and development, and programming in SQL, PERL, C/C++.” 

Of particular focus – especially for US librarians in the Higher Education sector – are coding skills. Initiatives such as Codecademy, the code4lib community, the Library Code Year Interest Group, and the ALA's ACRL TechConnect blog (Enis, 2013) are enabling and empowering librarians to learn programming skills that help them develop digital services for users. Andromeda Yelton discusses the utility of coding for librarians: “Librarians do a lot of work with data processing and web stuff, frequently involving repeated, predictable, or systematic steps. Edit this whole pile of MARC records to a particular standard. Provide more context in your chat widget. Anything of this nature is amenable to improvement through code, and a lot of the improvements are surprisingly low-hanging fruit — things that could be implemented with a dozen lines of code.” 

The third group of skills relate to a particular challenge faced by librarian-IT hybrids. Every respondent mentioned challenges related to communication and/or relationship management. As mentioned, the relationships between libraries and their assigned IT departments can often be strained. In my roles spanning two teams, I found it difficult to foster communication between the two groups. “Systems librarians often act as a liaison between the library and the main computing department.” (Goddard, 2003) In order to deal with the communications difficulties of a joint library/IT environment, librarian-IT hybrids need communication skills and people management skills. Goddard (2003) argues that technologically-minded librarians can break down the technical language barrier that divides library and IT departments. Gordon (2003) refers to this as “translating IT-speak to librarians and library-speak to IT staff” and one of the email respondents similarly “refer[s] to myself as a “translator”; I frequently have to translate between library jargon and IT jargon...” Similar bridging of communications barriers comes with learning how to code: “The ability to understand code, even if you don't write it, comes with the ability to talk about it intelligently.” (Enis, 2013) 

The final group of skills are personal skills: skills or personality traits that help one succeed in an environment merging library and IT. These include: research skills and the ability to analytically extract information from sources; curiosity and a willingness to learn; “a strong interest in learning new things” and “an enquiring mind”. The ability to self-teach was identified as a necessary skill in response to a particular challenge. Multiple respondents stated that there was no formal IT training in place for library staff within organisations. Hugh Rundle, a public librarian in Melbourne, Australia, said, “I've learned about networking, CSS and XML at work because I simply need to in order to fix things.” Lauren Bradley said, “I come from a cataloguing/technical services background, so I had to learn all the tech skills on the job.” Rogers identifies the lack of formal training in 'crunchy tech skills' as a challenge for libraries of the future: “our current cohort of librarians ready to move, stretch, and fiddle with interesting projects weren't taught to be software developers...” Even though such skills are valuable and necessary, Rogers says that new librarians are not taught them and it is not being made their job to learn them. “The problem, in re: tech skills, is that we have not, by and large, made it librarians' job to do, learn, and know these things.” 

5.0. Addendum and retraction 

That was the gist of the paper I wrote for the Umbrella Conference Proceedings. And yet, since I wrote that paper, my thoughts have moved on. There's been a massive gap in time – and more importantly for me, in emotional and experiential development – between pitching the session and presenting it. I'm no longer sure that technology is the overwhelmingly positive thing that I've presented it as. Revelations about government surveillance on civilians have left me unsure about the pervasive role of technology in our communications and the role of librarians in managing sensitive information like that handled by Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, or Daniel Ellsberg. Working in the British Library and discovering dysfunctional elements in an institution that I once blindly admired leaves me in doubt that digital information can be neatly corralled and organised even by massive organisations. And both of these are because people are flawed: we are all of us broken and lost and anyone who claims to have any answers is lying or trying to sell you something. Grandiose statements about the future of librarianship sound impressive and prophetic for a moment and will be blogged and tweeted and applauded before being washed away in the tsunami of information now breaching against us. 

The librarian-IT hybrid faces an amplification of the inherent risks of integrating technology into our lives. A recent study from the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul, South Korea, investigated 'digital dementia': the deterioration of cognitive abilities and the lack of development of the right hemisphere of the brain due to smartphone use and particularly their use as a replacement for memory (5). xkcd recently pointed out the erroneous nature of arguments decrying the pace of modern life and the effects of technology so I don't want to make that argument: I would sign up for Google Glass in a second were it commercially available in the UK. But I worry about librarian stress, a hashtag that was doing the rounds on Twitter a few months ago, and, more pressingly, librarian burnout. Is it exacerbated by reliance on technology? On being constantly connected to our peers and to a vast information network? Does this increase the anxiety of young professionals. I don't know. Further research required. 

Things are changing around us. Librarianship is completely changing and that we work in the shadows of the Googles, the Apples, and the Facebooks of the world. The future of librarianship is technology and the skills and challenges I've mentioned are probably those that the next generation of information professionals will face. But I offer no answers about what this means and I make no judgements. We all of us have to make our own. 



(1) And it has footnotes. Only some of which are replicated here.


(2) The term 'librarian-IT hybrid' was chosen purely because it sounds better than such ugly portmanteaus as 'cybrarian', 'Webrarian', or 'digibrarian'. I kind of wish I'd used 'digital librarian' because it's a lot less clumsy-sounding but I submitted the abstract for this paper months before thinking of that term. 


(3) You may prefer, as I do, the more subtle and less science fiction-y concept of Luciano Floridi (2007) in which “[w]e are all becoming connected informational organisms” or 'inforgs' (3a). “This is happening not through some fanciful transformation in our body, but, more seriously and realistically, through the reontologization of our environment and of ourselves.”


(3a) Which raises the question: why is the paper called 'Rise of the cyborgs' and not 'Rise of the inforgs'? I had to come up with the title before writing the paper and hence before I came across Floridi's work. Plus 'cyborg' sounds cooler and I think we can agree that that's more important than philosophical accuracy.

(4) Thanks to: Lauren Bradley, Patrick Berry, James Fox, Elizabeth Psyck, Hugh Rundle, and Julia Stark.  

(5) I'd take this with a pinch of salt because the left brain/right brain thing is actually bullshit.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

BT Digital Archives

Several weeks ago, on the 15 May 2013, several British Library folks involved in Digital Scholarship went to an event hosted by Coventry University about the digitisation of the BT Archive and subsequent creation of a digital library for this material. There were a number of speakers from the various collaborative partners in the project – Coventry University, the BT Archive, and The National Archives.

BT is the world’s oldest communications company with a history stretching back to the start of UK telecommunications in 1846. This history is reflected in their archive somewhere beneath Holborn which contains 2.5 to 3 kilometres of shelving. As well as material about BT’s development as a UK company, the Archive contains a lot of material about the global history of telecommunications and the international development of an information society built on a foundation of telecommunication.

From Flickr user: tarotastic

David Hay, the Head of Archives at BT, gave an introduction to the digitisation project which began in January 2012 and is due to be completed by July 2013. The project digitised approximately 8% of the entire collection with selection criteria focusing on primarily science and technology-related material with a balance between breadth, depth, and “pretty stuff”. Formats include photographs (tens of thousands), research reports, and subject/registry files. Their audience focus was primarily on Higher Education with a secondary audience of the general public. The bid for JISC funding was for 450,000 digital images and ultimately they produced 481,099 over a 10-month period.

Chris Mumby from The National Archives gave a talk on the project workflow: how the items make their way from Holborn to Kew, from conservation to imaging, and from internal OCR to external transcription. As a collaborative project, different aspects of the workflow are handled by different partners and different work-packages:
  • Project Management package – Coventry University
  • Digitisation package – BT Archive and The National Archives
    • Scoping at BT Archive
    • Items transported to TNA at Kew
    • Conservation by TNA staff
    • Imaging by TNA staff
    • Metadata creation on a mixed model
      • OCR text created at TNA
      • Transcription services from an external provider
    • Items transported by to BT Archive
  • Portal creation package – BT Archive and Coventry University
  • Academic package  – Coventry University and BT Archive
The BT Archives project is of a similar scope and size to the project on which I work and so the issues and proposed solutions related to workflow management were familiar to me. The need for consistency was mentioned a lot: David Hay emphasised the need to define language and nomenclature at the start of a project (using glossaries, stylesheets, guidelines, etc.) in order to ensure effective communication between areas; he also discussed the need for consistency in statistics gathering and metrics as well as the need to occasionally be flexible with milestones and timescales. For ensuring consistency in file-naming conventions, TNA found it best to create a folder structure and filenames that reflect BT cataloguing conventions (which meant learning the unique cataloguing conventions and ‘finding number’ constructions of the Archive) and replicate the archive file structures.

The speakers also emphasised the importance of strict project management and consistency in approach from the very start of the project. David mentioned the importance of thorough scoping at the start. Catt Baum, the Conservation Manager at TNA, said that conservation is often overlooked in digitisation projects: since there’s no point putting an image online from a file that can’t be read, it needs to be built into workflows from the start.

The iconic trimphone. From Flickr user: jovike
Both David Hay and Chris Mumby made points about minimal levels of metadata creation. Transferring data between work-packages and third-party developers creates added levels of complication so they advocated not digitising uncatalogued material and not starting projects in which cataloguing has to be built into the workflow. Their metadata creation focused on OCR of selected categories of material and some enhancing of catalogue records for ‘category B’ engineering reports.

Other speakers gave presentations on the interesting research that was being done with the digitised materials: Hilary Nesi discussed corpus query tools for text mining and linguistic analysis of the correspondence materials in the Archive (and emphasised the importance of defining what a ‘letter’ is early on in the project); Gemma Tombs talked about problem-based learning and using archive materials to construct learning scenarios for undergraduates; Martin Woolley talked about academic projects in design and his case studies of the design of the iconic trimphone and its place in UK design philosophy.


Overall the message from these presentations was that it’s what we do with the content – interesting and useful academic research, defining historical narratives – that is important rather than the physical processes of digitisation. Digitisation is a means of overcoming the constraints and limitations of the physical world and setting content free as digital material. 

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The Labyrinth-City

It was not his city. He had not been born here. His family were not from here. The Victorian tall houses, the excess of graffiti along the train-lines into King's Cross and Euston, the byzantine beauty of the Tube map: they were not his. The regimented maze of Bloomsbury, the curling confusion of Soho, the glimmering heights of the City, the opulence of the Finchleys, the mysterious expanses south-of-the-river: they were not his. The network of the Northern, the modernist subterranean cathedrals of the Jubilee, the contradiction of the Circle, the crowds of the Central, the criss-crossing blue streams of the Piccadilly and the Victoria: they were not his. The city was a mystery, a riddle, a puzzle, a maze. Though it wasn't his, it welcomed him. 

In the North, the city had been a place defined by its opposition to Northern values. London was otherness: by definition, not-home. The place-where-no-one-says-hello, the place-where-no-one-smiles-on-the-Tube, the place-that-dominates-the-news-coverage, the place-where-such-basic-foodstuffs-as-gravy-and-mushy-peas-were-alien. A grim city of Union Jacks hanging sodden in the rain, the view of them blocked by a red bus moving slowly through a morass of traffic. He saw people – friends and family – move down south and become seduced like sailors visiting Circe. One by one they fell to it and returned to the North (briefly) convinced that “It's the only place worth living.” No, he said. Anywhere but there. 

Experience changes us. The North became too quiet. The stillness he had once enjoyed became suffocating and the time that stretched out demanding to be filled was a silent accusation of his own tedium. Only when he was busy did he feel like himself: only when he was over-stretched and exhausted did he feel his personality growing and evolving. Rare weekends away, infrequent trips to conferences and events, were the occasions when he felt himself becoming the person he was born to be. 

Over a summer, he discovered the city to be a place that defies definition. It wasn't the place he had thought it was but no-one he spoke to could quite tell him what it was. City of artists and culture? City of business and finance? City of learning and education? City of hipsters or city of yuppies? City of liberals or city of conservatives? City of happiness or city of sorrow? All of these and more. Layers of city laid on top of one another and shifting based on the perception of the individual. Not one thing or another but all things simultaneously. A puzzle-city. A contradiction-city.

While he was there, the puzzle-city filled his mind and freed him from the questioning and anxiety that usually filled the vacuum of his consciousness. Even from a short time in the city, he was filled with himself. "...a complicated love... it's exhilarating, frustrating, surprising, reaffirming. It's tiring, it's never-ending, it fills your life. That figure I'm chasing out in the distance, out in the grey streets, always slips away." In this city, chasing work, chasing friends, chasing love, he felt himself filling up and at long last achieving his potential. 

From Flickr user: @Doug88888

The energy of the city begs for definition and defies it. Books are written about it, TV shows defined by it, music inspired by its people. Wandering the city's streets, a thousand images and cultural allusions come to mind. Before he even lived here, his idea of the city was suffused through cultural osmosis. The skyline over the river: the opening title music of Sherlock. The Old Bailey: the Fifth of November. Earl's Court: the Marquis de Carabas. Senate House: a boot stamping on a human face. London calling. Not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven. 

He can count the number of native Londoners that he's met here on one hand. Everyone else came here for a different reason. It's a city of people with stories of how and why they ended up here. One glance around a late-night Tube train is enough to know that this is a city that attracts the broken and the lost. People who want to fill themselves with distraction; people who crave the anonymity of a crowded street; people who ran here to hide. Those who weren't lost before quickly become so. 

The city's energy and beauty fed him and made him more than he thought he could be. He achieved. He walked the great halls of learning. He met the people he admired and emulated. He gave out awards and steered an organisation. He discovered that among the broken and the lost of the city, he was not as broken as he thought. He shed his anxiety became socially functional. He worked himself to exhaustion, laughed harder than he'd ever laughed, broke the law, loved and lost, philosophised and danced. 


From Flickr user: Jason M Parrish
No-one he talked to could define the city's mysterious allure. It drew them for different but shared experiences. The name itself has power and substitutes for entire sentences expressing a myriad of perspectives: “London” said looking towards the Palace of Westminster at night while watching trains rush over the bridge to Charing Cross; “London” said handing someone a glass of wine with a roll of the eyes; “London” said huddled under an umbrella amidst the crowds of Covent Garden; “London” said hopeless before a crowded Underground train; “London” said looking at The Shard on the horizon from a hill in North London. 

"Every Londoner must have a story, I was told. But it's not true. Some people retract when they come in contact with this city, like salt on a anemone; they become lesser versions and pine for the country. But more often than not, the word 'London' stirred up great emotion. Asking them about the city, people grinned unabashedly, winced or sighed, or would roll their eyes or reminisce. London meant a new beginning, a hell-hole, a wonderland; too big, too foul; a safety blanket, point of pride, unfortunate problem, temporary mattress location; safety, salvation, life's work. A place to stack empty tins of lager. Stage, Mecca, my water, my oxygen. London as cell, jail and favour. London meant 'not living in England while living in England', it meant 'ignoring what my father said', it meant 'I hope I like the husband I'm going to meet at the airport.' Londoners cling to reserve, but find a reason to ask a question and their reserve is broken. Living history is thrilling, especially in an eloquent city, in a talkative town, in a place where people fought to get here, fought to stay here, fought to get out." (Taylor, C., Londoners

One morning, he stopped stock-still in the Tube station closest to his workplace. He stopped, with the morning crowds bustling around him, and he stared at an image on the wall. He was certain that he hadn't seen it there before and even more certain that he would have remembered. It was an image of a labyrinth. The labyrinth had followed him for years. He was obsessed by mazes and riddles, confusion and madness. When he closed his eyes, he saw the curving circle of a labyrinth. He had devoted his formative years to the exploration of the tortured labyrinth of his own mind. He had seen the same image carved into thousand year-old stone and wondered if the ancients had shared his obsession. For him, the universe was a labyrinth and a puzzle: a mystery waiting to be solved. He feared its Asterion – and occasionally feared that he was Asterion – and yet found the labyrinth comforting. 

From Flickr user: grahamc99

Labyrinths appeared in Underground stations across London that month. Each one a unique black and white circular labyrinth – in the classical sense: a maze with a single path to the centre. Designed by conceptual artist Mark Wallinger to mark the London Underground's 150th anniversary, one is installed at each of the system's 270 stations. The artwork represents the labyrinthine nature of the Underground system – a meandering system that takes commuters on a single route from where they are to where they need to be and back again. It also represents the labyrinth that is London: a city of curling streets, fantastical engineering, dreams and nightmares. 

On seeing a labyrinth, he was transfixed. In this city where he's decided he can escape from himself, he is confronted by a labyrinth – his labyrinth – and realises that he can't escape and nor should he. It's only natural, he realises, that he should move to a city that is a puzzle. The labyrinth hasn't only found him again: it's consumed him. He is in the labyrinth-city and it's where he belongs. 

When Borges called London “a splintered labyrinth”, he was not quite accurate. London is a labyrinth of splintered people. A labyrinth of the broken and the lost. It's here, in a city of confusion and contradiction, that he will discover who he is.

Monday, 18 February 2013

The future of librarianship: a LibCampLdn session pitch

On the 2nd of March, I will be pitching a session at Library Camp London

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords…: technology, digital libraries, and the future of librarianship. 

The quantity of digital information now far surpasses the quantity of printed information (1). Technology is now unavoidable in librarianship and new developments in mobile computing, cloud computing, information retrieval, and augmented reality continue to change the way that users interact with information. In this session, we’ll discuss the future of librarianship in an age of abstracted digital information. Will librarians need to become librarian-IT hybrids and what skills does this require? Is librarianship moving from a traditionally humanities-based subject to a science subject? What should a digital library be? When software can replicate the capabilities of the human mind, what role does the human have in information management? 

In January, as I was compiling my music playlist for the month ahead, I stumbled across I Monster’s Daydream in Blue (2) in my digital music collection. I added Daydream in Blue to my January playlist because the track represents an important sea-change in my thinking that has impacted my career and my entire professional life. 



Daydream in Blue was the first MP3 I ever downloaded (3). This file – which, due to copying to different hard drives and different music devices is ontologically distinct from the one I actually downloaded in 2001 – represents to me the unique potential of digitally-encoded information and how digital information overcomes the limitations of information encoded in print format. When I downloaded this file all those years ago, I discovered that digital music was easy to access, it took up no physical space, it could be copied and manipulated in various ways, and, due to this ability to manipulate it, I felt a keener sense of ownership of the music than I felt about the ownership of physical music (4). 

For me, music IS digital. Music lends itself peculiarly well to digital formats. Musical works “are not objects you can pick up or steal of even locate anywhere. They aren’t anywhere, it would seem. They’re not situated in space and time; not, apparently situated in our world.” (5) Music is a more abstract art-form than literature, painting, or cinema. Music floats through the air: it doesn't belong in any physical prison. Though mathematics and computational logic were the first information forms to be transferred to the digital realm, it was the transfer of music to this realm that sparked the digital revolution and changed the thinking of so many people. The Digital Music War of the early Web – and in particular the Battle of Napster – involved fights that were not just about ownership of music and creative copyright but were painful convulsions as an industry’s soul transferred from the analog realm to the digital realm. 

By the digital realm, I mean what Gleick refers to as the ‘infosphere’: “Most of the biosphere cannot see the infosphere; it is invisible, a parallel universe humming with ghostly inhabitants. But they are not ghosts to us - not anymore. We humans, alone among the earth's organic creatures, live in both worlds at once. It is as though, having long coexisted with the unseen, we have begun to develop the needed extrasensory perception.” (6) 


'labyrinthine circuit board lines' by Flickr user: quapan

We’re now at a point where books and most other forms of information are being transferred to the infosphere and, like when music was transferred, we’re seeing convulsions. It is a time of change for information management and librarianship. Information is becoming divorced from its paper moorings. There are young people in the world who are discovering ebooks in the same way that I discovered digital music: people for whom books ARE digital; who see digital formats as the best, most functional way to encode textual information; who have grown up in the presence of a planet-spanning digital network of information. In the same way that ‘Daydream is Blue.mp3’ changed the thinking of a teenage boy in a bedroom in Manchester, digital information changes the way that we think of information and knowledge. "We’ve grown up thinking that this is how knowledge works. But as the digital age is revealing, that’s how knowledge worked when its medium was paper. Transform the medium by which we develop, preserve, and communicate knowledge, and we transform knowledge." (7) 

More than any other profession, LIS is at the heart of this information maelstrom. Our defining commodity – our ‘product’ – is changing (/ has changed) from a physical print-based format to an abstracted digital format. This is a similar but greater shift to when information first became an encoded commodity. The growth of the infosphere changes us and makes us more than human: "Latour and others have rightly identified the domestication of the human mind that took place with pen and paper (Latour 1986). This is because computers, like pen and paper, help to stabilise meaning, by cascading and visualising encoded knowledge that allows it to be continually 'drawn, written, [and] recoded' (Latour 1986:16). Computational techniques could give us greater powers of thinking, larger reach for our imaginations, and, possibly, allow us to reconnect to political notions of equality and redistribution based on the potential of computation to give to each according to their need and to each according to their ability." (8) 

In order to adapt, we use new technologies and integrate them into our existing organisations. Libraries have become hybrid libraries containing shelves of printed books and extending beyond their walls with even more expansive digital collections. Library staff are becoming library-IT hybrids: we use computers to do our work; we carry mobile computers to help us with navigation, communication, information access, entertainment, everything; we are at the forefront of the development of ‘everyware’ (9); we use technology and in so doing we become more than human. We are becoming 'everyday cyborgs' and for all its advantages this may lead to a sense of existential angst and uncertainty: 

Dante Cyborg by Flickr user: The PIX-JOCKEY
"We're cyborgs, creatures of nature and culture, biology and technology—-prosthetic gods whose sleek carapace, like Darth Vader's mask or the Borg's body armor, conceals the increasingly obsolete Darwinian holdover shriveling inside. I think McLuhan and Simmel and even Toffler, with his arm-waving about "information overload," "the overstimulated individual," and "bombardment of the senses," are responding to one of the fundamental cultural dynamics of the industrial and post-industrial ages, namely, the psychological effects of the growing chasm between Darwinian evolution, which moves at glacial pace, and the social and cultural changes brought on by technological innovation, changes that seem to be happening at mind-blurring speed. What you're calling future shock is the sensation, at least in technologically advanced societies, that the Cartesian mind/body split is reaching the breaking point; that our Darwinian legacy is just so much drag coefficient in a society that lives more and more of its life on the other side of the screen, in social networks and virtual worlds. Cognitive neuroscience is providing abundant evidence that this divide is real: scientists talk about the "forebrain bottleneck," the evolutionarily determined limits on our ability to multitask that affect, say, our ability to navigate rush-hour traffic while crossing against the light and texting and listening to our iPods or talking on the cellphone while driving." (10) 

In my Library Camp London session, I want to discuss what it means to be an information professional in an age of digital information. What impact does this the infosphere have on the information profession and on the people in the profession? As we further augment ourselves with the technology required to access the corpus of digital information, as we develop new skills (Gleick’s "extrasensory perception") to survive integration with the digital realm, as information management tasks that were traditionally performed by humans become performable by machines and software, do we feel liberation or alienation? Are we becoming cyborgs and should we? Must we be upgraded? What roles are there for humans in information management? 

The central professional question is: what is the future of librarianship? 

The central personal and existential question is: how do we deal with feeling like this: "[We are] dealing with massive, high-entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; [we’re] continually discovering new vistas of personal ignorance and delusion. In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help." (11) 



(1) As of February 2010, the Library of Congress contained approximately 10 terabytes of information in book form and 160 terabytes of information in archived websites (1a)

(1a) Gleick, J., 2011. The information: a history, a theory, a flood. London: Fourth Estate. 

(2) Daydream in Blue is an unremarkable but catchy electronic remix of an existing recording. It enjoyed a brief popularity in 2001. I have never heard anything else by I Monster but I’m aware that it is an English electronic music group whose music is similar to but inferior to The Avalanches’ (2a)

(2a) Interestingly, in contrast to the discussion in the main text above, The Avalanche’s single Frontier Psychiatrist is one of the few CD singles that I own. 

(3) Via means of questionable legality and morality. 

(4) For me, ownership is about ‘control’ rather than ‘holding a physical item’. Which could be a whole other blog post (which could explore why I dislike iOS and Apple devices). But I digress (in what is already a digression)… 

(5) Kivy, P., 2002. Introduction to a philosophy of music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 203. 

(6) Gleick, J., 2011. The information: a history, a theory, a flood. London: Fourth Estate, p. 323. 

(7) Weinberger, D., 2011. Too big to know: rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren't the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books, p. 8. 

(8) Berry, D. M., 2011. The philosophy of software: code and mediation in the digital age. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 22-23. 

(9) Greenfield, A., 2006. Everyware: the dawning age of ubiquitous computing. Boston: New Riders. 

(10) Dery, M., 2013. ““Futureshock” proves that the future really is unevenly distributed.” Published 8 February 2013. Available online at http://io9.com/5982864/futureshock-proves-that-the-future-really-is-unevenly-distributed. Accessed 17 February 2013. 

(11) Wallace, D. F., 2007. ‘Deciderization 2007 – A Special Report’. In: Wallace, D. F., 2012. Both flesh and not: essays. New York: Little, Brown and Company, pp. 316-317.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Unpacking the draft page: time, space, and computer games

A few weeks ago, I went to a seminar organised by the King’s College Centre for E-research. It was delivered by Elena Pierazzo who is a lecturer and researcher at the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London. 

The focus of the seminar was modern draft manuscripts and how to represent these digitally. These are texts such as notebooks, first drafts of monographs, or other texts which are initially produced by authors for personal reasons. As specific examples, she pointed to the notebooks of Kafka, Proust, da Vinci, Austen, Nietzsche, and many of the manuscripts which are kept in the British Library’s Treasures gallery. 

The difficulty with these texts is that they are quintessentially human and quintessentially print commodities: the layout of the writing is messy, incoherent, and idiosyncratic. They feature ‘exploded notes’, doodles, separate blocks of writing running in various ways in various places on the page. They can be read geographically (traditional left-to-right, up-to-down reading) or chronologically (in terms of how the author put them together followed by revisions, corrections, etc.). Although they are complex and beautiful print commodities, they cannot hold the interest of the average reader for longer than a few seconds. 

Various attempts have been made to represent these draft manuscripts digitally (see the British Library’s Turning the Pages™, for example) but these usually involve either marking-up a print reproduction or mimicking the print version in digital version. Often these are poor representations which focus on structure and syntax rather than layout of the text. Though they are attempts to mimic the print, they essentially look like different objects. 


A page from the Lindisfarne Gospel
The solution of Dr. Pierazzo’s team is to use TEI and gamification to create digital versions which accurately represent the semantic content of the draft manuscript and engage readers to explore that content. TEI (the Text Encoding Initative standard) is the de facto standard for transcription of texts in digital humanities. Pre-2011, TEI focused on transcription based on structure and semantics rather than appearance. This failed on certain texts such as medieval manuscripts in which the layout can be as important as the text’s semantic content (see, for example, the Lindisfarne Gospel). 

At the end of 2011, TEI P5 v2.0.1 was released which offers support for ‘genetic editing’. The new version can transcribe manuscripts based on layout rather than solely on semantics. It can recognise complex writing phenomena such as notes that aren’t part of the main text, metamarks, scribbles under doodles, etc. 

The team was also interested in using aspects of gamification in the design of new digital editions. Gamification involves using the engaging elements of computer games in other areas such as scholarly research. It’s about making activities engaging by setting achievable goals, making activities task-oriented, and enabling the tracing of progress. For example, one throws angry birds at evil pigs in order to achieve a goal, in order to earn points, in order to create achievements towards which one can point. The team was keen to use these principles to engage readers with draft manuscripts. 

To produce a prototype, they took a draft manuscript by Proust. They divided the digital reproduction into distinct blocks of text and then tracked two separate sequences: the writing sequence (in what order Proust wrote the text) and the reading sequence (in what order the text should be read for the reader’s understanding). From 5 days of work and processing using TEI, XML, XSLT, and some JavaScript for the animation, they created the Proust Prototype which is a dynamic, animated way of viewing the manuscript page digitally (which unfortunately doesn’t appear to work in Internet Explorer). All the details and code that was used are available on the website


The Proust Prototype showing some markup.

























The limits of this prototype include visualising sequences across separate pages, visualising sequences across separate notebooks, and micro-interactivity with small blocks of text (metamarks, stage directions, comments, etc. which were all encoded in TEI but not intuitively interactive in the prototype). 

Dr. Pierazzo ended by making the point that computers can help us to do something new in this area. Computers and computer technologies have permeated so many areas of scholarly research particularly in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and mathematics: the humanities however, with their particular focus on human interpretation and subjective judgement, have been the last subject area to properly use computers to advance the discipline. Digital humanities represent the exploration of the last frontier for computer interaction in the intellectual domain. If computer technology can be used to analyse something as essentially human as a messy notebook, then there is no limit to their application in academic research.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

My first week. Or: How I learned to stop worrying and found the bathroom.

The first week of a new job is strange. You spend your time performing actions and doing things that will eventually be quotidian and dull; that will eventually fade into the background tedium of life and pass unnoticed as you go about your daily routines. But because it’s the first time, they have the sheen of the new and the exciting glamour of the unexperienced. Getting a London Underground train to work, entering the library’s staff entrance, getting some lunch from the staff restaurant, checking my emails at my desk, finding the bathroom (1), getting the Tube home. Soon all of these things will pick up the patina of the overly familiar but for now, for at least one week, everything feels different. Everything is different to Durham, to what I’m used to, to my life. Amidst all this difference and without the stabilising effect of routine, who am I? 

At 1030 on Monday 10th December 2012, I stood in the staff lobby of the British Library’s St. Pancras site idly chatting to a couple of other new starters and clutching an ominous-looking envelope emblazoned with the words ‘WARNING – DO NOT OPEN’ like the envelope that a spy would receive containing details of his/her mission or that an assassin would carry containing the name of his/her target. The lobby was unfamiliar: though I’d been in it before during the interview process, it still struck me as very different to my previous libraries. More than anything else, it reminds me of the Ministry of Information in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil: from the excess of marble to the bank of four elevators from which people emerge and into which they disappear; from the electronic and futuristic clock-in, clock-out terminals that smack of mechanized bureaucracy to the bizarrely incongruous and Gilliamian statue of Mr. Punch which stands in front of the elevators like a creepy, diminutive sentinel. Amidst all this ‘newness’ – this ‘difference’ – my nervous energy was keeping me on my feet. 

(Not) the British Library's lobby.

Eventually two of us were chosen from the assembled throng to ascend to the 6th Floor. The 6th is the top floor of the building: inaccessible from the public elevators; inaccessible by stairs (2); highly secure due to the delicacy and rarity of the manuscripts and archives being digitised. The Qatar Digitisation Project currently occupies a custom-built office space designed for 42 people. There are 12 staff currently on the project (2 of whom spend most of their time in the conservation lab and digitisation studio respectively). We are spread throughout the room creating an eerie emptiness that somehow makes one feel closer to one’s scattered colleagues. In the quiet of the practically-empty office, someone singing softly to music can be heard on the other side of the room. 

Everything about my first day enforces the notion that this is something different for me. The scale of the British Library is different to any library organisation I’ve worked in. Among a flurry of facts and figures that my manager presents, I hear that the British Library employs approximately 2000 people. On the ‘new starter’ area of the website, Roly Keating, the Chief Executive, describes the British Library as “one of the greatest libraries in the world… operating at the cutting edge of the information revolution… [A] world leading provider of global knowledge in the digital age… look[ing] for the best and the brightest people…” I’ve heard it referred to as ‘the heart of British librarianship’, ‘the Mothership’, ‘the Death Star’ (3). Frankly it’s all a little overwhelming. 

And as my induction continued and I got a broader overview of the project, I was struck by the realisation that this is a different kind of work. As a manager talked through the project and what we’re trying to achieve over the next two years, the ramifications of the word ‘project’ hit me: we are trying to achieve something; there is a definite goal in place. In every other library job, I’ve been continuing an ongoing service: keeping an Army library open; providing continued access to e-resources for Durham University students. In this new job, there is a defined goal and one endpoint with specific deliverables which must be ready by that time. 

It reminds me of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films (4). As a spotty teen, in lieu of partying and kissing girls and whatnot, I watched every documentary on each The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition DVD box-set. I watched that team of amazing film-makers come together and work for years towards a set goal. They found the best people and brought them together to use their skills in an atmosphere crackling with intelligence and creativity. I imagined how close the people on that team would be after struggling for years to create those films. Working together; socialising together; sharing ideas together; having fun together. I wanted to be part of a team like that. I wanted to create something as important as those films (5). 

As I met the project team last week, I was struck by how different we are. It’s like a stereotypical ‘crack team’ of people from different backgrounds. There are archival experts, cataloguing experts, tech experts, Arabic experts, medieval Arabic experts, project managers. And me. Why, I wondered, have I been brought onto this team? What niche do I fill? 

Another team of experts from varying backgrounds. I feel like the character at bottom-left.



On Tuesday 11th December, after my second day at work, I attended a lecture at the British Academy entitled ‘‘All the World’s Knowledge’: Universal Authors’ Rights’ delivered by Professor Jane Ginsburg of the Columbia University School of Law. The first section (6) was on ‘the dream of universal knowledge’ and digital libraries. Professor Ginsburg spoke about the history of the dream from the librarians of Alexandria to Paul Otlet to Vannevar Bush to Google. And I realised I knew all that: I’ve researched those figures and read around the subject; I wrote about digital libraries for my postgraduate dissertation; I’ve written articles about digital libraries. 

Our self-identity – how we define ourselves in our own eyes – can change so slowly, so glacially, that it seems not to change at all. To ourselves, we appear to be the same person from one day to the next. And sometimes it takes a complete change – doing completely different things in a different environment – for us to realise that we’ve gradually and imperceptibly become someone else. Amidst all the confusion and stress and socialising and networking of the past few months, I forgot that I know about digital libraries. Creating a digital library from scratch will be a challenge – even in a team as good as this one – and I’m scared… but maybe we can create something great. 

Everything is different now. But everything suddenly being different can remind you of who you are. 



(1) This was a job for the third day. My staff pass initially wouldn’t allow me access to the highly secure 6th Floor where my desk is so I was afraid to leave the work area to go find the bathroom in case I couldn’t get back in and I’d have to knock forlornly on the door while someone on the other side of the glass tried to remember who I was having only met me once and I’d self-combust in embarrassment and involuntary blushing and the incident would somehow end up in the library’s newsletter. 

(2) Ominously so. We can get down in case of an emergency (2a) but if we feel like exercising of a morning we have to ascend to the 5th Floor and then take the elevator the rest of the way. 

(2a) Likely scenarios were thoroughly and terrifyingly covered in the online induction training. 

(3) The canteen – a sprawling, high school-like canteen based on cashless payment cards and offering amazingly cheap subsidised meals – particularly reminds me of Eddie Izzard’s ‘Death Star canteen bit’. For some reason. 

(4) Why I’m thinking of The Lord of the Rings at this specific point in time is a mystery…

(5) While not that important in the Grand Scheme of Things, those films were important to me then. 

(6) Of three. Without going into too much detail, Professor Ginsburg’s thesis was that the dream of universal knowledge (or at least our current attempt to actualise that dream vis-à-vis large-scale digital libraries such as Google Books (6a) or the Digital Public Library of America) fundamentally conflicts with the dream of universal authors’ rights (ie. the right of every author to be recognised and compensated accordingly for his/her work). Although we desperately need updated copyright and intellectual property law to reflect the abundance of digital commodities, such laws should not be rushed through or ill-judged. For librarians, she also offered a cautionary note about libraries cosying up with commercial partners including Google and Amazon: when libraries do so, isn’t something lost? 

(6a) Also I cannot tell you how excited I was to meet, on my second day at work, someone at the British Library who works directly on the Google Books Digitisation Project: the Project I have studied extensively; the Project I enthused about in my postgraduate dissertation; the Project that aspires to the Total Library.