Monday, 21 March 2011

The National Digital Library - a personal quartet

This month I’m honoured to be featured in CILIP Update with an article arguing that the UK needs to develop a National Digital Library. My thanks go to the editor, Elspeth Hyams, for accepting the piece. 

I’ve been fascinated by digital libraries since I entered the field of librarianship. During my Masters degree, I volunteered in a cataloguing role at e-space, Manchester Metropolitan’s online digital repository. I went on to write my dissertation on the subject of developing a supremely large-scale digital library: a concept I referred to as the ‘Memex Digital Library’ but which I discovered already existed as the concept of a National Digital Library – a term I came across after reading Robert Darnton’s New York Review of Books article after dissertation hand-in.

NDL as Total Library

The attraction of the National Digital Library concept is that we now have the technology to create what was previously only an ideal: the Total Library. The Total Library would be a record of all human knowledge: collecting every record of human thought and creativity; establishing the connections between books, articles, and miscellanea; providing every person with the same access to the universal pool of collective thought; a way to turn the Platonic realm of ideas into reality. The Library of Alexandria – though not total even by the standards of the time – has come to embody this ideal. Today our strongest physical contenders are the legal deposit libraries like the British Library or Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. 

But physical libraries are inherently limited in their scope. In 1933, Vannevar Bush wrote:

The library, to which our professor probably turned, was enormous. Long banks of shelves contained tons of books, and yet it was supposed to be a working library and not a museum. He had to pore over cards, thumb pages, and delve by the hour. It was time-wasting and exasperating indeed… The idea that one might have the contents of a thousand volumes located in a couple of cubic feet in a desk, so that by depressing a few keys one could have a given paper instantly projected before him, was regarded as the wildest sort of fancy.

Bush's vision of the Memex

Bush went on to work on this analog precursor to the digital library and is one of several people in the 20th Century to have fallen short of the ideal because of the technical limitations of the time. Bush attempted to create the Memex: a device which would store and, crucially, link together all human records. Through this, he aimed to solve the problem of the “growing mountain of research results” which faces the cross-disciplinary academic researcher. Paul Otlet also strived towards the Total Library with his creation of the Mundaneum: a library/museum which would contain everything with no arbitrary limits on its collections. I studied both Otlet and Bush as part of my dissertation research and in May I will be giving a short presentation on Otlet’s Mundaneum at the CILIP Library and Information History Group Conference in London

Now we actually have the technology for developing a National Digital Library which could come closer than ever to the Total Library ideal. Digital storage, tools for creating connections, widespread access to electronic materials, and usable interfaces are common and given time, money, and resources, it is possible to create a digital repository of every textual artefact in the country. 

NDL as map

The rhizome: an analogue for the web of human knowledge
My dissertation research consisted of two parts: a survey of library folk which showed that people are generally amenable to the idea and a vast majority foresee supremely large-scale digital libraries developing in the next 10-15 years; and a feature analysis which showed that the technology and features required for a NDL are available. I focused particularly on semantic digital libraries, Google Books, and the work of Mimas: their work with Autonomy software to make connections between items and their work on visualising these connections (check out the 3D interactive visualisation feature of UK Institutional Repository Search and imagine it on a larger scale providing a visualisation of every document in the UK: a perfect map of human knowledge; a visualisation of the Platonic Heaven.

NDL as Ark

There’s a metaphor that I’m regularly coming across in my reading: the library as an Ark. Lloyd E. Cotsen, benefactor of Princeton University’s Cotsen Children’s Library refers to the collection as an Ark. In a 1938 pamphlet for the Mundaneum, Otlet wrote: 

And now falls the deluge: wars, crises, revolutions. Men are torn from their great temple as it is itself torn from the soil in which lay its foundations. To save what is essential from it, an ark is necessary, the Navis Mundaneum.

The Ark is a striking but pessimistic metaphor. Although it evokes the completeness – the ‘totalness’ – of ‘two of every living thing’, it also implies protection from danger and isolationism. I’m not fond of it but the metaphor is disturbingly apt: at a time when we actually have the technology for the National Digital Library, the UK is shutting libraries and reducing funding to arts and humanities projects. This is partly why I campaign for public libraries as part of Voices for the Library

As I explain in the Update article, information is in danger of being lost forever. The National Digital Library would be a noble endeavour at any time but especially now when we seemingly need an Ark to duplicate and digitally preserve the artefacts of human knowledge.

NDL as dream

Unlike the scholars of Alexandria, unlike Bush, unlike Otlet, we can make the Total Library: to make our information accessible and usable in fantastic new ways, to protect it from destruction, and to present it for the education of all humanity. The dream of the National Digital Library resonates with me more deeply than any other idea I’ve ever come across: partly for its logical completeness and partly because I believe it would solve the problem I studied in my undergraduate dissertation (that’s another story for another time). For me, the idea represents – in the words of Leonard Cohen – “the course from chaos to art”: from the disorder of the panoply of books to the art of absolute rhizomatic connection. I would love to spend my career conducting further research into digital libraries or to work in digital libraries, cataloguing, or academic collection management. Until I can do that, I will keep arguing and promoting the NDL idea in the hope of reaching someone, somewhere, with the power and the resources to make it happen.

The NDL can provide a map of the labyrinth


@Youmademe_Miss said...

Your argument here and in the related CILIP article for the creation of a National Digital Library is certainly persuasive.

In my current academic research I am forced to ignore certain contributions to the field because my university does not hold electronic access to the relevant journal issues. I have occasionally managed to track down elusive articles by using old log-ins from universities I attended previously, knowing that differences in institutional budgetary priorities might produce an alternative set of resources. The process is not only time-consuming but often fruitless. For this purpose alone, the NDL would be an incredibly useful tool for my work.

Last year the University of Sussex began its scheme to provide electronic copies of its students' doctoral dissertations, in line with increasing practice in the USA and elsewhere. I am amazed at just how recent this custom is. The age-old complaint of PhD alumni is that after pouring three or more years of your life into the creation of a thesis, it sits in the university library where no-one ever reads it. The potential of the electronic format to reach a wider audience should make the digitisation of theses a much more widespread exercise than is currently the case.

On the basis of these two (admittedly rather selfish) points, I am wholly in favour of the concept of the NDL. The current financial situation you describe is certainly a constraint, but given enough people sharing your passion - and perhaps a few diplomats to sort out the copyright issues - this need not be a pipe dream.

Simon Barron said...

Bush's original intention was to help academics with their research: he felt that over-specialisation and the increasing amounts of results were making it harder for researchers to do substantive work and so he sought to use technology to fix this. I've always thought of the NDL as a tool primarily to aid academic research. My dissertation is based around the concept of consilience which involves bringing disciplines together and sharing knowledge. I believe that libraries help to achieve this and that an NDL could bring us as close to consilience as possible and that computer technology can even suggest new avenues for research.

But, like you say, the financial and legal problems are the real concern. Journals and periodicals are often the major expenditure of university libraries. I agree that Open Access to scholarly publications is an important step and that digitisation is making more and more resources available.

For the NDL, dealing with publishers and compensating authors would be a major undertaking. That's why I think our best hope would be publicly-funded institutions like the British Library (although under this Government who knows how much longer we will have publicly-funded institutions).

The technology is available and the need is there. It just takes people who have the resources, the motivation, and the imagination to make it reality.