Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Future of Libraries

This trenchant article, "Toward a New Alexandria," published in The New Republic is a call to arms. The author, Lisbet Rausing, a historian of science, envisions a

[N]ew Library of Alexandria ... an archive that contains all the natural and social sciences of the West--our source-critical, referenced, peer-reviewed data--as well as the cultural and literary heritage of the world's civilizations, and many of the world's most significant archives and specialist collections. Imagine that this library is electronic and in the public domain: sustainable, stable, linked, and searchable through universal semantic catalogue standards. Imagine that it has open source-ware, allowing legacy digital resources and new digital knowledge to be integrated in real time. Imagine that its Second Web capabilities allowed universal researches of the bibliome.

Such an archive is technologically possible, and Rausing points to Google Books and the Internet Archive as examples of "remarkable electronic libraries" that are already under way. However, the scope of even these worthy projects is necessarily limited compared to what Rausig envisions for the new Library of Alexandria.

What besides technology is necessary to create a new Library of Alexandria? It must "be built for the long term, with an unwavering commitment to archival preservation and the public good." It should be "largely governmentally funded." It also "needs to be hosted by one organisation that is reputable, long-standing, nonprofit, and exists in a stable jurisdiction," such as the Library of Congress.

Who or what is standing in the way of such an initiative? Gatekeepers, such as scholars and librarians, who have "traditionally gated and protected knowledge, yet also shared and distributed it in libraries, schools, and universities," are obvious culprits. University libraries do not exist to serve the public, even their own alumni; they exist to serve their faculty and students. They do not make available to the public their "'core' research materials" or other "closed academic databases." Publishers are also obvious culprits standing in the way of a new Library of Alexandria, relying as they do on copyright to lock up valuable materials from the public and charging exorbitant rates to universities to buy back research produced by their own faculty members.

Rausing points to signs of hope, such as the growing number of open-access journals and the increasingly robust repositories of faculty scholarship mounted by many universities. She also challenges libraries to do more, to be "more imaginative." Perhaps we could give alumni lifetime memberships, "develop pay-per-view portals into scholarly resources that are invoiced monthly and electronically? And in doing so could we ... lower prices?" Could libraries "digitize out-of-copyright books on demand and for a small fee ... ? Could university catalogues be turned into blogs ... [by] add[ing] commentaries and hyperlinks? ... Catalogues need to provide reliable URLs, backed by long-term maintenance policies and institutional guarantees. The alternative is to rely on Google's search-engine algorithms, which is to say, on ephemeral beauty contents."

Rausing concludes by pointing to the future:
[Our] children--always on, multi-tasking, mobile--will not engage with a body of scholarship their elders have incomprehensibly surrounded by barbed wire. But they will remain engaged in learning. The question is not whether there will be future scholars. It is how these future scholars will remember and integrate previous scholarship. And in pondering that, which means pondering our own scholarly legacy, it is worth remembering that 'the generational war is the one war whose outcome is certain.'"

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