Friday, February 29, 2008

Borrowed Time?

From Time
All things are corrupted and decay in time … all the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion, unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of books.
—Richard de Bury, Philobiblon
Time—an appropriate topic for today.

There is a slide-show essay on the Slate site called “Borrowed Time: How Do You Build a Public Library in the Age of Google?” The essay ends with this:
Ross Dawson, a business consultant who tracks different customs, devices, and institutions on what he calls an Extinction Timeline, predicts that libraries will disappear in 2019. He's probably right as far as the function of the library as a civic monument, or as a public repository for books, is concerned. On the other hand, in its mutating role as urban hangout, meeting place, and arbiter of information, the public library seems far from spent. This has less to do with the digital world—or the digital word—than with the age-old need for human contact.

After the new Central Library of the Seattle Public Library opened a few years ago, an interesting article, “Future Bound: The Greatly Exaggerated Demise of an American Institution,” appeared in the journal Books & Culture. The article discussed the building—one reviewer claimed it to be “the most important new library to be built in a generation, and the most exhilarating”—and considered the role of libraries “in the age of and Google.” (The text of the article is available from the author’s website:

To develop some of the points made in the article, I wrote a letter the editor of Books & Culture (the published letter is available here.) My own first visit to the Central Library had prompted me to consider not only the future of libraries but also, more fundamentally, their core functions.

At the advent of the modern library profession, in the inaugural issue of the Library Journal, Melvil Dewey wrote that the modern librarian
must see that his library contains, as far as possible, the best books on the best subjects, regarding carefully the wants of his special community. Then, having the best books, he must create among his people, his pupils, a desire to read these books.
Dewey thought that librarians should be “positive, aggressive characters, standing in the front rank of the educators of their communities, side by side with the preachers and the teachers.” He thought of public libraries as the third “great engine” of education, which, along with churches and schools, provided people with resources to improve their lives. As places, Dewey claimed that libraries figured so prominently in ordinary towns that one asked not whether there was a library but rather where the library was, “as we might ask where is your school-house, or your post-office, or your church?”

Through their collections (of various media), staffs, and buildings, public libraries still function, as well as they can, to meet the educational needs of diverse populations. (The language of “entertainment needs” also has crept into library mission statements, which creates competition for resources.) 

(The Timeline referenced above, by the way, predicts that Goggle will be extinct by 2049. After that, death. Nothing is said about taxes.)

Link to “Borrowed Time”:
Image: Hebrew Clock of the Old Jewish Town Hall in Josefov, Prague.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A New Approach to Institutional Repositories

Yesterday the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of Harvard University adopted a policy that requires faculty members to make their scholarly articles available online in the library’s institutional repository. While most institutional repositories currently depend on faculty opting in, Harvard’s approach allows faculty members to opt out of prescribed participation.

In the Harvard Crimson, Library Director Robert Darnton wrote that this is part of the library’s effort to share Harvard’s intellectual wealth:
Far from reserving its resources for the privileged few, it is digitizing its special collections, opening them to everyone online, and cooperating with Google in the attempt to make books in the public domain actually available to the public, a worldwide public, which extends everywhere that people have access to the Internet. If the FAS votes in favor of the motion on February 12, Harvard will make the latest work of its scholars accessible, just as it is creating accessibility to the store of knowledge that it has accumulated in its libraries since 1638.
In Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet (MIT Press, 2007), Christine Borgman observes that “Content for which an institution chooses to take responsibility is the most likely to be preserved” (95). She also states that “Universities have continuity and are endowed with public trust, so they would seem to be the obvious institutions to maintain access to the scholarly products of their faculty, research staff, and staff” (250).

In addition to expanding access to scholarly communication, institutional repositories hold much promise for preserving the record of scholarship for future scholars, students, and other readers. Further, at a local level, an institutional repository can be used for documenting the activities of an institution by capturing, providing access to, and preserving born-digital objects of enduring value. (The persistence of such objects depends, of course, on a broader infrastructure that supports storage, data integrity, and migration issues.)

Link to the full text of the Harvard FAS motion:

Links to Darnton’s “The Case for Open Access” in the Harvard Crimson:

Image: Detail from DSpace Diagram, available from

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Persistence of Digital Memory

A Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation was recently convened to address a critical challenge of the digital age: finding economic models for preserving digital data.

In the keynote address at a conference on digital preservation that I attended a few months ago in Seattle, Paul Conway claimed that the priorities and practices of cultural heritage institutions have not yet caught up with the digital age. Moreover, another speaker claimed, most institutions that are pursuing digital initiatives have digital projects rather than digital programs.

If we are not in the midst of what will in the future be seen as a digital dark age, we are at least in an age that will be recognized as one of transition.

Image: A digital record of me being over Seattle.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Documenting the Future

Kevin Kelly on the Long Now blog draws attention to entries in Wikipedia for future years, which could function as an archive of predictions.

Link to Kelly’s blog post “Futurepedia”: