What libraries may come are yet untold…


O’Donnell envisions a virtual library that “will be just like the past only better and faster” (1994) because of the technological possibilities of our time. However, he is also careful to point out that the “virtual library” (i.e. a universal one) is a fantasy with a history nearly as old as the book: such a library would be misprized simply due to the overwhelming freshet of data. He cautions that we must “place a remarkable high social value on our links to the past”; in light of the virtual library this challenge is to ensure that what the technology (in this case a virtual library) does is valuable to our society. High on the list of values is how exclusive, not how inclusive is a library. He provides the paradigm of large research libraries realizing (and much surprised) that there is little overlap when they coordinate their acquisitions strategies. Exclusivity is paramount.

Kelly, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach and views the virtual library as the ultimate repository of human knowledge where all created works are public commons because it is “where human creations naturally belong and were originally intended to reside” (2006). His extreme views are that technology will change the library and the book for the intent “to seed the bookless developing world with easily available texts.” This technological determinism reveals the hubris behind his views because if the “bookless” have no codices, how then can they afford an electronic book reader, let alone access the internet, which is the gateway and the backbone to such a library?

Furthermore if this virtual library is to be so inclusive how will it accommodate future changes in file and system formats? Brand suggests emulators may provide a solution (1999); however, emulators have their limits, as anyone who has tried one on a Nexus or iOS tablet can attest. Kelly also fails to see the conflicting approaches of companies like Google, Microsoft and Amazon in scanning old and “orphaned” books in “ways that they think will generate income,” (Grafton, 2007); herein, lies a bigger problem to the universal library he envisions that has nothing to do with the copyright debate: these three commercial outfits do not work together, nor are they prepared to relinquish the books they scan to each other, nor will they reveal the coding they use to digitize the works. This is hardly a universal approach.

And no one has ever discussed kids’ pop-up books or books that smell (Grafton, 2007), and books that have texture or other unique features, like pullout maps, tabs, grooved indices, holograms, decoder glasses, stickers, and physical shapes and sizes that are impossible to digitize inside a rectangular screen! If anything, digitizing, while having affordances of its own, will never be able to do certain things that are possible with a codex, including pressing flowers under the weight of several massive tomes!

Although his views are extreme (Nikon, by the way still makes film cameras), Kelly had one particular idea that has come to pass. Within his vision of a virtual library (and he fails to mentions that it is mainly texts for adults in this virtual library of his) texts will not stand in isolation; rather, they will mesh with each other through metadata, allowing readers to cross-reference ideas, words, and other information in a way that no codex can. Amazon is currently doing this through its X-ray program. However, not all e-books and their readers are coded to handle this type of meta-data, even those found on Amazon! Add to this approach the rapid change in technology, and within five years (O’Donnell, 1998) the metadata may no longer be readable by future devices.

This is precisely what O’Donnell discusses in “The Instability of Text”. According to Wikipedia there are approximately sixty-four (64) different file formats related to text, and every e-book publisher out there uses only a handful of them. This complexity is mind-boggling, and gives more credence to O’Donnell’s vision of the future being like the past, just better and faster. In some ways it is like the automobile; current cars are better (in terms of safety and convenience) and faster than a Model T, yet both still use four tires and an engine!

Grafton appears to have the most balanced approach. Like O’Donnell, Grafton submits to the coming virtual library, but he cautions it will be a mosaic, a “patchwork of interfaces and databases, some open to anyone with a computer and Wi-Fi, others closed to those without access or money” (2007). This also agrees with the exclusivity proposed by O’Donnell. This is what we are presently witnessing in the world of journals, periodicals, and newspapers. Access to cutting edge knowledge is restricted to those who can afford it.

Within this patchwork another problem arises: preservation of knowledge. As a digital culture the internet has a “memory” of about two months (Brand, 1999). Articles not archived, collected, copied, and stored as soon as they are published have little chance of being retrieved from their original source, especially if that source disappears. Of course back in 1999 no one envisioned crawlers and bots and websites like the WayBack Machine or Google Books handling this seemingly overwhelming task to preserve knowledge. However, as great as these solutions are, what are we to do with all this data? Some of it is scholarly, some of it is garbage, and some of it is obsolete. Librarians and libraries will still have a role to play in separating the chaff from the wheat, both in print and online.

Also, it’s been qualitatively proven that reading on a screen is not the same as reading a codex (Rosen 2008); add to that variable our diminishing attention spans and all this knowledge preservation “may recede ever more rapidly from our collective attention” (Grafton, 2007). Our digital culture is nascent, and has not yet formed “the habit of long-term thinking that supports preservation [online]” (Brand, 1999). Given the fractal approach to digitizing and preserving all this information, as well as the different affordances of digital and physical books, then it is doubtful we’ll be able to turn in our lifetime the online freshet of data into a landmark on our civilization as the Library of Alexandria was in the ancient world. Surprisingly museums are still around, even though so many of the artwork they house has been digitized. The library of the future may just be like the ones of the past, only better and faster.

Amazon.com Help: Reading Enhancements . (n.d.). Amazon.com: Online Shopping for Electronics, Apparel, Computers, Books, DVDs & more. Retrieved September 22, 2013, from http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=200729910

Brand, Stewart; Sanders, Terry. Escaping the Digital Dark Age. Library Journal 124. 2 (Feb 1, 1999): 46-48.

Grafton, A. (2007, Nov 5). Future reading: Digitation and its discontents. The New Yorker. Retrieved Sept. 25, 2013 from http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/11/05/071105fa_fact_grafton?currentPage=all

Kelly, K. (2006, May 14). Scan this book! The New York Times. Retrieved Sept. 25, 2013, from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/14/magazine/14publishing.html?pagewanted=all

O’Donnell, James J. Avatars of the Word. From Papyrus to Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998. 44-49.

O’Donnell, James J. The virtual library: An idea whose time has passed. Retrieved Sept. 25, 2013 from http://web.archive.org/web/20070204034556/http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/virtual.html

Rosen, C. (n.d.). The New Atlantis » People of the Screen . The New Atlantis – A Journal of Technology & Society . Retrieved September 22, 2013, from http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/people-of-the-screen

List of file formats – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (n.d.). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved September 27, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_file_formats

photo credit: J.S. Velasquez (flickr). In his vision of the virtual library O’Donnell suggests the future librarian would be a cross between Natty Bumppo and a Jedi Knight. The photo pays homage to this idea.

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