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Yes, We Do Need A World Library!

The other day Barrett posed the question Do We Need A World Library? in response to news coverage of the prototype World Digital Library being developed by the Library of Congress, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the National Library of Brazil, the National Library and Archives of Egypt, the National Library of Russia, and the Russian State Library.

Good Points!

Barrett makes some good points, particularly about the problem of information disappearing. The combination of problems — including the natural loss of the physical information objects (particularly rare ones) and the fact that the problem of digital preservation (particularly for the "born-digital" objects that have no physical instantiation) remains largely unsolved — creates a situation in which huge losses of information are almost guaranteed. I was at a meeting last year at which a university was acknowledging that it is losing information every day — it just doesn’t know what or how much.

I also like Barrett’s point about the existence of technologies to help solve some of the information problems we face today.

And I share Barett’s frustration with large scale, top down projects and his implied promotion of smaller scale, innovative projects.

Need for Libraries

But I believe we do need planning and we do need libraries. I don’t think the situations we face call for an either/or approach. We don’t need to choose big libraries OR small libraries; we don’t need to choose small projects OR large projects. We don’t even need to choose "libraries" OR "no-libraries" as a solution to information preservation and access. We can choose a both/and approach that makes best use of a variety of tools and techniques, each suited to a particular problem that it can address best.

I don’t think that we should exclude any possible solutions or worry about big projects like the World Library. I think we should welcome such projects — just as libraries should welcome P2P file sharing, user-generated keyword-tagging, and even private sector projects when they facilitate more access to more information. I believe that it is extremely important that libraries and librarians avoid assuming that everything will take care of itself.

Technology helps us reach our goals; we shouldn’t let it set our goals

Some librarians take this kind of thinking way too far, I think; (see my post, The Googlization of Everything, "Drop the fight"? or Start a Revolution?). They miss the point that even such revered tools as Google work not because of technology but because of human generated metadata. Technology (e.g., Google’s algorithm) provides tools that are only useful if there are raw materials to work with. (Try building a house with hammers and saws and no wood or nails; imagine google if there were no links, i.e., human generated metadata, to which it could apply PageRank.) Technology helps us reach our goals; we shouldn’t let it set our goals.

Rather than "dropping the fight" or saying that we don’t need a world library, I think librarians should be looking for things to do that will complement what others are doing. For example, we should be looking for ways to apply existing (and forthcoming!) technologies to what we do. We shouldn’t give up on authority control (e.g., LCSH) but neither should we overlook the value of user-generated keywords when they provide better, more-precise, more up-to-date access than slow-changing authority records. Rather than hoping that someone (e.g., publishers, distributors, individuals, researchers, volunteers?) will save what needs to be saved, we should be building redundant digital collections and providing selection, organization, preservation, access, and service to those collections. And so forth.

It is commendable that individuals and non-librarians are creating metadata, just as it is commendable than people can design and build their own homes; but that doesn’t mean we want a world with no architects and no carpenters and no plumbers. I might be content to live in a self-built dome, but I can still value a skyscraper designed and built by professionals. To use a different analogy, the open-source programming community values professional programmers and version control and source-code monitoring and so forth to guarantee good reliable code. Professionals (be they programmers, or carpenters, or librarians) bring skills and tools that are valuable. And we should not ignore or deprecate those skills and tools; we (librarians) should celebrate them and make sure we (society) do not lose them.

The Web is a tool, not a Library

But, perhaps more importantly, the web is not a Library and never will be. The web is a tool libraries can use for what they do — just as scholars and readers and publishers and artists can use it for what they do. Libraries are defined by what they do — not how they do it. Libraries should use the best tools available to do what they do. What do libraries do? They fulfill an essential function of society by having as their primary role the selection, acquisition, organization, and preservation of information and the provision of access to and services for that information. Societies need professionals in specialized institutions who take on this role. This won’t happen by accident. Others may from time to time provide one or more of these functions as a secondary role (e.g., Google makes money by selling ads and, as a by-product, indexes web pages). But society needs institutions that fulfill all these functions as their primary activity. The web is a tool libraries can use to do that, but the web is not the library.

When we see some of those functions being performed on the web and it tempts us to say that the web is a library, we need to ask ourselves if we really have everything we want: organization AND access? Access AND preservation? Selection AND service? etc. And we should be particularly careful about relying on commercial services that replace the public function served by public institutions. Will privatization of "organization" (e.g., Google’s book-scanning project) reduce access and fair use and replace copyright with license agreements? Private companies must, by law, make money for their stock-holders; any "public service" they perform is secondary to that. We need institutions whose primary function is public service related to information selection, preservation, and service. What would you call such an institution but a "Library"? Just today I reread an old article that addresses some of these issues and, though it is dated, I still recommend it.

  • Griffiths, Jose Marie (1998). "Why the Web is not a library." In The Mirage of Continuity: Reconfiguring Academic Information Resources for the Twenty-first Century, eds. B. L. Hawkins and P. Battin, pp. 229-246. Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources, 1998.

In it, Griffiths asks, "…why is there an assumed headlong dash into digitizing everything in sight while beating a chaotic retreat from the functions our libraries and librarians have fulfilled for centuries?" She has lots of answers for what libraries are and should be and some of them are still relevant today almost ten years after she wrote this piece. Thinking like this and the planning being done by The Institute For The Future Of The Book and the Digital Library Federation is a good thing that we should, I believe, encourage. (See the really modern library.)

Not a Technological Problem

I also believe that, though we do have lots of wonderful technologies, the problems are not technological, but social, political, and economic. Two recent articles said as much. One was an article about the World Library (Checking Out Tomorrow’s Library, by John Ward Anderson, Washington Post, October 18, 2007, page A21). In it, Paul Saffo, a long-time Silicon Valley technology forecaster, says

The challenges here aren’t technological… the issue is the will to make it happen.

I believe that "the will to make it happen" has to include a societal-scale recognition of the information needs of society, not just a hope that things will work out because technologies make it possible and lots of volunteers might make it happen. We need to think in terms of public access to information, not just commercial, privatized access. And, in a recent editorial (Sue the libraries – they’re letting people get content on the cheap by Andrew Brown, The Guardian, October 18 2007, p2 of the Technology section) Brown, who is an English writer and journalist, said,

This isn’t a technological problem…. The problem, as usual, is a social one: it can only be solved by collective action, and there is no better means of sharing in the information age than old-fashioned, unglamorous libraries, even when you can use them at home.

I think this sums it up pretty nicely. Technology provides us tools to get more information to more people better than we ever have before. But it can also be used to lock-up information and make it harder to get and more expensive. We’ll always need libraries because libraries do something that societies need and that no one else does — not publishers or readers or the private sector.

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