Let’s start with this little clip. If you’ve seen it already, I’m sorry.
Most simply, a library is a collection of information. More importantly, a library is a structured collection of information. It should be trivial to find a single piece of information. For example, if your music collection was entirely unlabelled, how useful would it be for anything other than random play? Now, I’d like to point out that there is a difference between a library , which most of you would know as a building with books in it, and a collection , which is the actual books themselves. A library is much more than a just a place to house a collection.
If you walk into the Library here at Murdoch, you may notice there’s not many actual books. To your left is a café, to your right is spot for you to sit down and meet your friends and have a chat. Most of the books are on the other side of the building. Why is that? The Library has become a social hub based around learning. It has set up so you can do something you can’t easily do elsewhere on campus – study. Sure, you go to workshops and labs and tutorials for some structured learning, but places for self-guided study are a little trickier (except, of course, for Bush Court when the weather is nice). There are cliches of the shushing librarian. Sure, there are still some parts of the Library that are designated silent study areas, but these days libraries can be pretty noisy.
Now it used to be that libraries only had physical books. Your access to information was limited to whether a particular book was available or not. If somebody else had gotten there first, you were out of luck! With the shift to electronic texts, you can now “borrow” a book at the same time as someone else. Furthermore, you don’t actually need to be in the library itself to do so. Ebooks are all well and good for studying, where you often only need access to a single chapter from a book. Sometimes, you might even only need a single paragraph. You’re not necessarily reading the whole thing cover to cover. I’ve read a few ebooks cover to cover and found the experience… adequate. I’ve read on a few different devices, including a PalmPilot (remember those?), an iPhone, an iPad and a dedicated ebook reader (wave Kobo around). The best reading experience was on the iPad, but it has a large and hungry screen. What’s the best compromise? Printing books on demand! Some libraries have already started experimenting with machines that will print a book out for you when you borrow it. When you’re done with it, you can just pop it into the recycling.
Of course, this would probably be a moot point if this scenario became reality.
Librarians are the people that make libraries possible. They organise the information, apply metadata and make sure that the collection is kept relevant and up-to-date. They are also experts in finding information in the collection. More importantly, they’re experts in teaching you how to find that information. They can help you get the skills that you need to critically evaluate the information you find and determine its veracity. Critical thinking is, well, critical! In some cases, having false information can threaten lives. For example, if you were to Google for “australia vaccination”, the first result is for the Federal Government’s Immunise Australia programme. The second result, unfortunately, is for a bunch of scaremongers that call themselves the “Australian Vaccination Network”. They’ve been ordered by NSW Health Care Complaints Commission to put a disclaimer on their site that they are ANTI-vaccination and are not interested in presenting a balanced view on a critical publish health issue. Someone without skills in critical thinking might be taken in by the misinformation on their site. For example, they claim that there is a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. There has only ever been one scientific study published to support such a claim – back in 1998. Since then, it has not only been retracted by the Lancet – the journal that originally published it, but it has found to be fraudulent. Unfortunately, a wave of anti-immunisation sentiment has resulted in children dying.
Everyone can search Google. Google is good at presenting the results of searches in its index, but is bad at producing the information in any way other than how it was originally produced. People claim that libraries and librarians have been made obsolete with the introduction of powerful search engines. In Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk book Snow Crash, the lead character amusingly named Hiro Protagonist, has a software agent called “The Librarian”. Like a search engine, the Library can search through the sum total of humanity. Unlike a search engine, it can present summaries, although it cannot make deductions or leaps of logic of what it can find. Take a look at this real-world example from Watson, an IBM supercomputer that recently won Jeopardy. Watson was designed to be able to answer natural-language questions. It had access to 200 million pages of structured and unstructured content consuming four terabytes of disk storage, including the full text of Wikipedia. Watson was not connected to the Internet during the game. During this clip, it’s important to remember that Watson is playing against the two all-time champions of Jeopardy. (Source: Wikipedia) In one way, what Watson has accomplished is amazing. Huge processing power combined with a huge database of knowledge allowed it to win. Despite this, it still had problems when faced with particular kinds of questions, especially ones with short clues.
It will take a very long time for computers to have the same abilities that a human brain does. They are excellent at maths and engineering, but they have no imagination. When it comes down to it, it is creativity that sets humans apart from most animals. A raven can use a tool, a beaver can build a dam and ants can make societies united in purposes, but none of these animals could, or even would, build the Eiffel Tower.
Now this is definitely more of a flight of fancy than the previous situations I’ve touched on. Now, I’m a technologist. I think that technology will continue to transform society to something amazing. If we faced some sort of worldwide apocalypse. It doesn’t matter what, but let’s say that it’s pretty major. Governments collapse, infrastructure crumbles and suddenly we’re back to square one. Even if no storage devices were actually wiped, we’d have troubles accessing that information without power. Perth currently relies mostly on a single power plant down in Collie. If that were to go offline, we’d be in a world of trouble. I don’t know about you, but I sure as heck don’t know how to produce enough food to feed myself. I’m a librarian, not a farmer! I could, however, find that information in a library. With a little bit of reading and a little bit of help, I reckon I could probably learn how to grow some food.
Souls in the Great Machine is a book written by Sean McMullen. It is set in post-apocalyptic Australia where electricity has been forbidden by all major religions. Although society is not ruled by librarians, they are incredibly powerful as they are the keepers of all written knowledge. Amusingly, librarians settle disputes by duelling with pistols. I’m not sure if Jan would agree to implementing a duelling policy here at Murdoch. Just as well – I’m sure I’d be a lousy shot.
What will libraries actually be? Technology is currently driving libraries to be very different creatures to how they were 40 years ago. Rather than book towers, they will be community spaces where people come and learn together. Ubiquitous wifi for Internet access and friendly staff on hand to help you find that snippet of information you need. We will still have book towers, but they will be state and national libraries that will contain works of significance. Chances are you won’t even be able to touch the books in those libraries without permission. In essence, they’ll be book vaults, protecting the sum total of codified human knowledge from apocalypse.
Beyond 2020 Flights of fancy
Science fiction can inspire us http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f470nJRaoII