The Future of Libraries

Hello world!

This is Julie, the NDSR resident at Harvard.  The residency is getting off to a smooth – and busy! – start.  In order to get myself orientated and ready to tackle the project, I’ve been reading up on the ISO 16363 standard, attending meetings, and getting to know people across Harvard.

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One exciting thing about being at Harvard and in Boston: There’s always something cool going on! For example, today I attended a discussion on “Libraries: The Next Generation” with fellow NDSR Resident, Stefanie.  This event was part of HUBWeek, a series of events about the relationship between art, science, and technology.  All week, all over Boston, there have been events and discussions about everything from coping with climate change to the future of privacy. This particular event examined “how libraries are drawing on their past and using technology to create new resources for scholarship and education.” It featured a panel made up of Dan Cohen of the DPLA, Jeffrey Schnapp of Harvard,  and Andromeda Yelton, a freelance  librarian and technologist.

I wanted to attend this discussion because, well, first of all, I care about libraries and their future. And I think the DPLA is really cool. But most of all, I think that digital preservation, libraries, and archives are already inter-connected and will only become more intertwined in the future.

The panel raised and discussed a lot of interesting questions:  What is the role of the library in the digital age? How do libraries best serve their users? How do we make best use of a library’s physical space? How do we protect users’ privacy while still providing access? What skills will librarians need in the future? How can we create metadata that reflects the needs of the people who use the materials, rather than the bias of the people who create the metadata?

I particularly liked one definition of the role of libraries given by Andromeda, who said that libraries are a place where people are transformed through access to knowledge and other people.

The panelists went back and forth, debating these issues and taking questions from the audience. And then…imagine my surprise and delight when the conversation turned to everyone’s favorite topic…digital preservation!

FRED station at UNC Chapel Hill

FRED station at UNC Chapel Hill

One digital preservation issue they discussed: How can libraries deal with the rapid changes in technology? How can we provide continued access to digital materials when the technology we use to access them changes so quickly? For example, Dan mentioned that he had previously used the Oyster e-book service, but Oyster went out of business, and he lost access to all his books.  This also brings up another related issue: The problem of using private services to store your digital objects. What happens if those services stop working or go out of business?

The panelists also discussed how libraries have always been institutions that store collective memory – as one of the panelists said, libraries are “in the long-term” business. But will they be able to continue doing so in the digital age?

The panel also discussed another one of my interests: digital curation.

A man in the audience voiced in concern that, in the digital age, where anyone can write anything online, it may become more difficult to find quality writing and information. And, what if the only voices that come through are the ones that are really popular? As an example he said, “what if there’s a radio station that only plays Taylor Swift?” To which Stefanie and I replied, “Uh, that sounds awesome.”

The panelists pointed out that this increased authorship could actually be a good thing. Sure, it means that there are a lot of terrible zombie novels out there, and you might have to search through a bunch of them to find the one you actually want. But it also means that people who might have been ignored by traditional publishing and media now have a chance to have their voice heard. And, the panelists pointed out, the influx of information means that libraries will only become more important in the future, because libraries can help people sort through this information to find what they actually want and need.

I thought it was interesting that digital preservation and digital curation were being discussed here in terms of how they might serve the general public. That is, it seems that so far, digital preservation has mostly focused on serving academic institutions, as well as museums and archives. I don’t hear many people talking about digital preservation in public libraries, for example. But, as this panel shows, it’s clearly an issue that the public librarians are grappling with and will continue to face, as they try to help their patrons use services like Kindle.  It also seems possible that, in the future, public library patrons will want be asking questions like, “How do I save my tweets?” and “How do I get this file off my old floppy disk?” But so far, I don’t see much discussion the digital preservation community about how digital preservation might be needed in public libraries. But maybe I’m not looking in the right places? Someone tell me if I’m not.

Stacks at the Boston Public Library

Stacks at the Boston Public Library

Finally, a couple themes seemed to run throughout the panel: First, the importance of communicating with the people who will actually use your service, whatever it is. Second, the importance of collaboration among librarians/archivists/information people in order to tackle these tricky problems.

It certainly gave me a lot to think about, and I’m sure I’ll keep mulling over these questions and many others throughout the residency…And if I have any brilliant insights, I’ll be sure to share them here on the blog. And if you, dear readers, have any brilliant insights, be sure to share them in the comments!

My dad reading at one of my favorite libraries, the Summit County Library in Park City, Utah.

My dad reading at one of my favorite libraries, the Summit County Library in Park City, Utah.

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