Oct 18

Peter Brantley

Peter Brantley

The New Stacks

As the Director of the Digital Library Federation, I worry a lot about the future of university research libraries (notably distinct from public libraries, or even small college libraries -- they might as well be considered different markets). University libraries are slow to change their practices, and yet the tempest that is gutting traditional media enterprise is not bypassing the carefully tended rows of books in our great halls. However, immediate pressures to radically transform are shielded by those same thick walls of granite and limestone, and the opportunity costs of not having re-tooled often remain unseen.

Nonetheless, services previously offered by research libraries are inexorably moving away from the institution and onto the network, often provided by third-party actors with grossly disparate economic motivations than the prior collective of satellite companies that libraries are accustomed to dealing with. The value to an institution such as Harvard or Stanford of a rich warehouse of print books will inexorably decline as those volumes are digitized and their contents made available elsewhere, interwoven with diverse and additive compilations of data that enrich them with locational and temporal awareness. Libraries tend towards a future of purchasing agents for licensed content provided by external aggregators such as Google, or Ingram; warehouses for special collections; and coffee shops and study rooms.

Yet all is not quite so dire, because I believe out of the ashes of the inevitable fire will emerge a new generation of organizations placing the needs and dreams of people first, borne from the richly innovative hearts of libraries and information technology communities that -- if given adequate institutional support -- will reshape research, education, and learning. This revolution is still roiling the seas, and not yet landed upon our shores, but innovative and dynamic units will arise within our leading research institutions, and they will center themselves not on books, papers, or documents: but on data.

What was purely physical is taking flight into suddenly mobile information; analog uplifted into digital that will be mined, interlinked, reformatted, and rejuvenated in a variety of fashions that we must start to imagine. This is not, I think, an era where we need fear the de-romanticizing of the historical cultural product known as the book; rather this is a time when our arts and creativity will combine with in-reach engineering capacities to bring forth new visions of beauty, enabling us to see -- and ultimately transform -- our world in new and powerful ways. These trajectories have their severe cautions - in privacy; in unequal laws that could permit insensitive and prejudicial enforcement; in the commodification of our everyday lives. Yet we must struggle with these issues, and shape them to best advantage, as we re-invent again what it means to read, to discover, and to revel.

One of my colleagues, Winston Tabb, the Librarian at The Johns Hopkins University, has encapsulated the core of this change beautifully:

"Data centers are the new stacks."

That is right. And by this, let us know that we do not refer to our physical, constructed caverns of electronics, racks, fiber, and cooling ducts, but rather, data that constitute within the clouds of our networks, and that permit us to reach out to embrace citizen science, new forms of expression, and foster new forms of creativity. Each encounter with our burgeoning network a new walk among the shelves, and a new fashion of browsing, no longer limited to what merely we see to the left, to the right; now also to further reaches of our imagination.

Our new stacks.

tags: publishing  | comments: 2   | Sphere It

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Comments: 2

  Michael Nielsen [10.20.07 10:49 AM]

A manual trackback, since the regular type doesn't seem to be working.

  Ari Davidow [10.22.07 06:46 AM]

The move to digital versions of books is good in terms of user access and it supports a plethora of neat new applications. But I wish libraries were thinking twice about the move. Those print volumes, with provable provenance, may be what stand between us and information that changes at the preference of governments, large corporations, or hackers.

We know that print isn't the only, or the best way to preserve books--witness how many documents have survived the last 2000 years. But digital formats are even more fragile; worse, they are manipulable.

Even books or documents that aren't changed digitally, can simply become unavailable as priorities change or the companies that hold the digital masters neglect to move them to newer formats. No digital format has anywhere near the longevity of acid-free paper (for that matter, even of paper that isn't acid free!)

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