Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Libraries (page 1 of 2)

Seattle Public Library

I'm just back from three days in Seattle, where I was at a workshop organized by the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. During these workshops, I like to get out and take a walk during lunch: I find it helps my mental state to be able to walk around, get some air, and focus on things that aren't post-its or roadmaps.

Yesterday I meant to go to the waterfront, and the new Seattle Public Library main branch, designed by Rem Koolhaas and OMA. I never made it to the waterfront.


via flickr

SPL is one of the most amazing buildings I've seen in years. I think it's as impressive as the Sydney Opera House, though for different reasons. It's just a shame it's constrained by its site, and is surrounded on all sides by other buildings; at the same time, that downtown location and accessibility is critical to its success as a working library.

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Looking down from the 10th floor, via flickr

The most striking thing about it is the amount of energy the program devoted to, well, books. It's interesting to compare the building to another well-known modern public library closer to home. When it opened a decade ago, the San Francisco Public Library was criticized for being a building that wasn't really very book-friendly. (Not only that, but author Nicholson Baker, whose Vox is one of the most brilliant pieces of erotic writing ever, wrote about a large-scale destruction of portions of the SFPL book collection.) Indeed, SFPL was basically out of space when it opened; and its high-minded schizophrenia about what a library would be in the future resulted in a building that's hard to navigate and make sense of.

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Living Room, via flickr

In contrast, the Seattle Public Library is designed with the assumption that it has to be a space in which physical, printed media and electronic resources coexist, and are used by librarians and patrons alike for the lifetime of the library. As Koolhaas later explained (in the beautifully-produced book about the library), "Our ambition is to redefine the Library as an institution no longer exclusively dedicated to the book, but as an information store where all potent forms of media– new and old– are presented equally and legibly." (11)

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Mixing Chamber (signage by Bruce Mau) via flickr

This is clearest in the fifth floor Mixing Chamber, which is "located at the interface between the Library's physical and virtual collections" (111) (the main entrance is on the third floor, and the stacks start on the sixth). The Mixing Chamber also pulls together reference specialists, with the aim of minimizing the number of steps patrons have to go through to get questions answered or find resources. (Koolhaas architects Joshua Ramus and Dan Wood visited other libraries, and searched for a David Halberstam book or federal document; it usually took them six stops, thanks to the "infernal matrix of materials, technologies, [and] 'specialists'" that define the conventional library.)

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Mixing Chamber, via flickr

As the book puts it, "The Mixing chamber is… a trading floor for information ochestrated to fulfill an essential… need for expert, interdisciplinary help. The Mixing Chamber consolidates the library's cumulative human and technological intelligence: the visitor is surrounded by information sources." (38)

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Living Room, via flickr

Koolhaas and Ramus also make the good point that there's been a tendency with recent libraries to create spaces that are completely generic, that could just as easily be reference departments or conference rooms or stacks. This reflects a lack of faith in the future of libraries, and tends to result in spaces that are uninspiring, and quickly become crowded and confused. In contrast, they've created a combination of spaces, some quite flexible and dynamic (like the main entrance and Living Room), and others with a more fixed program (the stacks, most notably). The result, I think, is a wonderfully varied and interesting building, and one that beautifully captures– and serves– the current hybrid state of libraries.

Textual spaces

If you're in Philadelphia in the next couple months, check out the "Textual Spaces: an Architecture of Reading" exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania:

As we seek to understand the way in which the act of reading is defined by its material constraints, our line of questioning necessarily extends to the spaces in which reading takes place. Where do we read? And how do those places affect our reading? To answer these questions is to move toward an architecture of reading. To place a book within the rooms of a house or public space shifts the significance of historical context from background to foreground. Just as the material constraints involved in the process of printing, binding, and selling books arguably shape the attitudes of readers, so do their physical surroundings add to the shape of their reading experiences.

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The library is still not dead yet

If you're of a certain age, or particularly geeky, you'll recall the "bring out your dead" bit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Libraries, like the unfortunate guy slung over John Cleese's shoulder, are still not dead yet. And they're getting better. The newest data-point: a Pew Internet and American Life Project survey on library use.

Some of the more interesting findings:

  • Internet users were more than twice as likely to patronize libraries as non-Internet users, according to the survey.
  • More than two-thirds of library visitors in all age groups said they used computers while at the library.
  • Sixty-five percent of them looked up information on the Internet while 62 percent used computers to check into the library's resources.

As the New York Times (actually an uncredited Reuters writer) reports,

The survey showed 62 percent of Generation Y respondents said they visited a public library in the past year, with a steady decline in usage according to age. Some 57 percent of adults aged 43 to 52 said they visited a library in 2007, followed by 46 percent of adults aged 53 to 61; 42 percent of adults aged 62 to 71; and just 32 percent of adults over 72.

"We were surprised by these findings, particularly in relation to Generation Y," said Lee Rainie, co-author of the study and director of the Pew project. In 1996 a survey by the Benton Foundation found young adults saw libraries becoming less relevant in the future.

"Scroll forward 10 years and their younger brothers and sisters are now the most avid library users," Rainie said.

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Materiality of digital collections

Marlene Manoff, "The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives," portal: Libraries and the Academy 6:3 (2006), 311–325. [available via Muse]

Digital and textual objects are coming under a new kind of scrutiny as scholars are becoming more interested in physical artifacts and their relation to their social and cultural environment. This study of material culture suggests a need to explore the nature of digital materiality, as well as the broader historical context in which electronic objects and collections are created. The following essay analyzes the implications of this work and related research into the ways in which knowledge is shaped by the technologies used to produce and distribute it. Understanding the materiality of digital and textual objects will be crucial for charting the future of libraries….

Early theorists of the electronic environment made much of the ostensible immateriality of digital objects. More recently critics have acknowledged that electronic objects are as dependent upon material instantiation as printed books. We access electronic texts and data with machines made of metal, plastic, and polymers. Networks composed of fiber optic cables, wires, switches, routers, and hubs enable us to acquire and make available our electronic collections. Why does this matter to libraries? As we preside over the explosive growth of digital content, we cannot simply ignore what these material changes mean for our users or ignore what the long term impact will be on the scholarly community. Our evolving collection practices promote new ways of conducting research and limit or constrain others. We must try to understand the implications of our decisions as we allocate our resources and decide what to acquire. If the role of academic and research libraries is to support and facilitate teaching and research, we must understand the nature of the objects we provide to support those activities.

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Libraries as Space 2.0… and early indicators of social IT trends?

One thing I've been very interested in is the survival of academic libraries in the 1990s and 2000s, and the ways they've changed in the last decade. If you read academic library journals from a decade ago, you'd see a lot of pessimism: people were worried that libraries were going to disappear completely, as more publications went online. Of course, that hasn't happened: instead, many libraries have reconfigured themselves, devoting more space to group study, to campus academic functions, or to collaborative work.

If you think about it another way, libraries have followed the same path that the Web has: from thinking of themselves as places that are mainly about information storage, retrieval, and communication, to places that support groups, creative work, and (a particularly intellectual form of) social networking.

in other words, libraries that are self-described "information commons" are not unlike social software. They're libraries 2.0.

But if I'm not mistaken, librarians started talking about information commons around 2001– well before Friendster, LinkedIn, and all the rest of Web 2.0 happened. I wonder what librarians are talking about these days?

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Anthony Grafton on “Future Reading”

To say that Anthony Grafton has a "brilliant essay" in the latest New Yorker is a bit like saying that John Woo has directed an "action-packed movie:" in both cases, the adjective is superfluous, because their work is always like that. Grafton, a professor at Princeton, is unquestionably one of the smartest historians practicing today, and writes mainly on Renaissance and early modern intellectual history.

His New Yorker piece is on digitization and the quest for the universal library, and it nicely shows how a deep knowledge of the history of books and ideas can be used to help understand the future of new media.

Google’s [book scanning and library] projects, together with rival initiatives by Microsoft and Amazon, have elicited millenarian prophecies about the possibilities of digitized knowledge and the end of the book as we know it. Last year, Kevin Kelly, the self-styled “senior maverick” of Wired, predicted, in a piece in the Times, that “all the books in the world” would “become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas.” The user of the electronic library would be able to bring together “all texts—past and present, multilingual—on a particular subject,” and, by doing so, gain “a clearer sense of what we as a civilization, a species, do know and don’t know.” Others have evoked even more utopian prospects, such as a universal archive that will contain not only all books and articles but all documents anywhere—the basis for a total history of the human race.

In fact, the Internet will not bring us a universal library, much less an encyclopedic record of human experience. None of the firms now engaged in digitization projects claim that it will create anything of the kind. The hype and rhetoric make it hard to grasp what Google and Microsoft and their partner libraries are actually doing. We have clearly reached a new point in the history of text production. On many fronts, traditional periodicals and books are making way for blogs and other electronic formats. But magazines and books still sell a lot of copies. The rush to digitize the written record is one of a number of critical moments in the long saga of our drive to accumulate, store, and retrieve information efficiently. It will result not in the infotopia that the prophets conjure up but in one in a long series of new information ecologies, all of them challenging, in which readers, writers, and producers of text have learned to survive.

Grafton argues that efforts to create universal libraries, and efforts to create personal tools for working with and making sense of ever-larger bodies of information, are as old as the written word itself. Further, as big as the projects that Google, Amazon and Microsoft have undertaken, they're still not likely to create a "universal library" that includes all the kinds of physical media– from early books to letters to architectural models– that make up the world of knowledge. Finally, though, Grafton argues that the future isn't one in which databases replace books and archives, but one in which they coexist:

these streams of [digital] data, rich as they are, will illuminate, rather than eliminate, books and prints and manuscripts that only the library can put in front of you. The narrow path still leads, as it must, to crowded public rooms where the sunlight gleams on varnished tables, and knowledge is embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books….

For now and for the foreseeable future, any serious reader will have to know how to travel down two very different roads simultaneously. No one should avoid the broad, smooth, and open road that leads through the screen. But if you want to know what one of Coleridge’s annotated books or an early “Spider-Man” comic really looks and feels like, or if you just want to read one of those millions of books which are being digitized, you still have to do it the old way, and you will have to for decades to come. At the New York Public Library, the staff loves electronic media. The library has made hundreds of thousands of images from its collections accessible on the Web, but it has done so in the knowledge that its collection comprises fifty-three million items.

In a way, this isn't a new argument: the "books and electronic resources will complement, each other, not compete" vision isn't unique to Grafton, though he does do an especially good job making it. (I suppose you might call the piece unoriginal, but it if is, it's unoriginal the way a Gil Evans Orchestra cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" is unoriginal: Evans didn't write it, but he definitely took it places Jimi never imagined.)

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Face to face in the virtual workplace

A recent article in The Guardian reports that "[a]s the virtual workplace becomes more prevalent, many staff find teamwork difficult to build."

For many freelance employees these days, turning up at the office is a rare occasion. As a freelance journalist, I'm part of a virtual team that communicates through email, or text. Not only do I rarely see my workmates, I can spend weeks not even talking to them. And I am not alone: non-verbal, virtual communication – particularly in white-collar workplaces – is becoming more and more common.

However, this trend is increasingly coming under scrutiny amid signs that more traditional methods – like face-to-face meetings and talking on the telephone – are more effective….

Somewhat ironically, the growth of virtual working over the past decade has highlighted the importance of non-verbal communication. Non-verbal cues – like body language, tone of voice and a simple glance – within a face-to-face conversation represent almost two thirds of the way we understand what is being said. "Non-verbal cues build trust," explains [occupational psychologist Caroline] Shearsmith. "People don't know how to communicate on email, for example, where things like sarcasm and jokes don't come across."

Much of the rest of the article is taken up with a Cisco Systems study that "shows that virtual teams can take up to four times as long to build trust than face-to-face teams."

The "somewhat ironically" bit struck me as notable, because it seems to me that the growth of various kinds of virtual work and virtual spaces have served to highlight the normally hidden values or uses of their physical counterparts– and stimulated innovation in them. Ten years ago, we were talking about the obsolescence of the office and library; but neither one has gone away. This despite the fact that tens of millions of people telecommute, more library patrons use online resources and interlibrary loan, and virtual call centers are giving outsourcing a run for its money.

Essentially, what seems to be happening in corporate offices is that spaces for doing what you might call fairly routine knowledge work, administration, and service work are being blown away, but the spaces are being converted to support more unusual or innovative kinds of work. While much of a company's office space might have once been designed to enforce established processes (just as a company's competitive advantage was based on doing familiar things ever more efficiently), today more emphasis is placed on fostering creativity, developing new products, or solving complicated problems.

Likewise, in contemporary library design, sociability is the new black: libraries aren't just places to commune with books and sit quietly, they're places to meet and work with like-minded people. Academic libraries have pursued this vision aggressively, but even public libraries (like the new San Mateo city library) are designed less around providing fixed services than spaces that users can borrow and customize.

In both cases, users and designers of these spaces discovered what the Cisco study confirms: the continuing importance of face-to-face communication– or perhaps more accurately, the difficulty of replicating its subtleties online.

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The social world of subscription libraries

I have no idea how I'd work in a citation to today's New York Times article about subscription libraries. Though the last quote does highlight the way that libraries are social spaces as well as places to storehouses for books:

[There are] 17 membership libraries scattered through the United States, survivors of an era long before that of tax-supported public libraries, said Erika Torri, executive director of the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library in La Jolla, Calif. The La Jolla library offers its 2,300 subscribers a large circulating DVD and video collection in art, foreign film and music, among other attractions. An individual membership costs $40 a year.

Many membership libraries, like the Boston Athenaeum and the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, are housed in elegant historic buildings. The Boston Athenaeum, which has five curators and a major collection of statues and paintings, is the nation's largest, said Richard Wendorf, director and librarian. Some 8,000 people have cards to the library, and a family membership costs $275. The library sponsors 14 discussion groups. "What people find here," Mr. Wendorf said, "are other people who share their interest not just in books, but in discussion."

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From library to learning commons

Librarian Steve Thomas has a short piece placing the recent rise of the "library as place" meme as a defensive move against arguments that "if everything is online, we don't need libraries." The whole post is worth reading, but here are a couple paragraphs:

So now, the mantra in libraries is collaborative learning. We have to provide space for the students to study, and we have to let them study in groups, and talk and make noise. We have to provide facilities for them – not just computers, but coffee and exhibitions. The Information Commons is now the “Learning Commons” – again the emphasis is on the user rather than the provider. It’s not the information that’s important, it’s what the user can do with that information.

If I sound cynical, I don’t mean to be. (I just can’t help myself!) I think the early adopters of the WWW were thinking in the right direction, if perhaps over-enthusiastically. The web has had an extraordinary effect, and made access to information much easier, but the death of the book was a mis-fire. We may see the end of printed textbooks, but there are no indications of books generally being replaced by online access. And the Library as Place concepts are likely to lead to some kind of renaissance for libraries, making them more attractive and interesting spaces, while retaining something of the mystique of being the repository of all knowledge.

And — ironically — it is the web and electronic access which makes this possible. As more and more journals and their back-sets become available online, we can shift many thousands of bulky volumes to off-site stores, freeing up space for study areas. Wireless networking and notebook computers can allow students to access information from all parts of the library, whether online or in print – finally making the Hybrid Library into a reality. In effect, the whole library becomes a “Learning Commons” – a place to learn which is available to all, equally.

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Is scanning as good as reality?

In the latest New Yorker, there's an article about L'affaire Meinertzhagen, the discovery of fabricated and sometimes stolen works in the collections of famed ornithologist and collector Richard Meinertzhagen. This bit caught my eye: one worry that scientists working to uncover the extent of Meinertzhagen's fraud in the British Museum was that their findings

might damage the collection at a time when some scientists were beginning to debate the value of keeping large collections. In the same way that card catalogues in libraries were disposed of once their contents were digitally rendered, so, perhaps, could specimens be removed from museums, once they had been digitally sampled and photographed– freeing up valuable space for revenue-generating attractions like planetariums. "Serious people have seriously suggested that once you digitize the specimens you don't really need them," [Smithsonian ornithologist Pamela] Rasmussen told me, indignantly. "People are asking what collections are good for, why do we need to keep them?"

This is one of the more spectacular examples of the assumption that digital versions of physical objects– particularly scientific specimens or printed works– are just as good as the objects themselves, which is in turn an expression of the cyberspace-era notion that the digital world (or digital records) was superior to the physical world (or physical things).

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One can argue that nothing significant is lost in electronic versions of The Iliad or today's New York Times, or that the gains– in increased accessibility, portability, reduced storage and circulation costs, etc.– outweigh the losses. And as Geoffrey Nunberg pointed out,

In modern industrial societies, the vast majority of books bear no cultural burden at all: they are parts catalogues, census reports, Department of Agriculture pamphlets, tide tables, tax codes, repair manuals, telephone directories, airline schedules – documents whose appearance as books rather than in some other form has mostly to do with the practical requirements of display and diffusion and the limits of available technologies… Who would have any reservations about putting texts like these into electronic form, if it will make the world a roomier and greener place?

The argument gets fuzzier with things that at first glance look like mass-production items, but might have hidden complexity: Nicholson Baker made the case for old newspapers and card catalogs in his book Double Fold, arguing that the handwritten notations in library cards contained information that didn't get captured in OCLC records downloaded to a college's electronic catalog. (Electronic card catalogs aren't PDFs of the old cards, but rather are digital records with completely different histories.)

When you get to even more complex artifacts like bird skins, it's worth asking whether the digital version of a physical object can ever capture everything significant about it, given that what constitutes "significance" can change over time, or vary depending on what you're interested in. Indeed, the case of the Meinertzhagen bird skins offers a good example of how things you don't normally look at became critically important. Irish ornithologist Alan Knox, whose work established that some of Meinertzhagen's skins were problematic, based his argument

on the fact that skin collectors have characteristic styles of "making" a skin. Some slice off a small piece of the skull, in order to scoop out the brains, whereas others cut off the whole back of the skull, while still others take the brains out through the palate. Some birds are made with a full belly, others with a flat belly. The kind of thread, cotton, and internal supports used in making the skin can also differ from maker to maker. Based on an analysis of several preparers' styles, Knox concluded that at least two redpoll skins which Meinertzhagen claimed to have shot… were probably stolen from a series of birds in the Natural History Museum.

Under most circumstances, an ornithologist wouldn't be particularly concerned with figuring out the personal styles of bird skin preparers: they'd be far more interested in the birds themselves, their plumage, beak design, average wingspan, what have you (I'm not an ornithologist, so I'm just guessing about the specifics). Only if you had concerns about the authenticity of the specimens would you pay lots of attention to the methods by which the skins had been prepared, and reconstruct the signatures of different naturalists. But it seems unlikely that that information would be have been created when scanning a specimen: the Zoological Museum of Amsterdam, for example, has some terrific high-resolution 3D QuickTimes of their bird skins, but they don't show details that illustrate how the birds were prepared.

Can a digital version of an object really be as good as the original? Perhaps if you could collect information about every molecule in the object, it would be as good; but a lot of high-resolution pictures don't add up to the thing itself, and don't capture everything you might want to know about it.

Even recognizing all the great things you can do with electronic records, I think we're now at the point where we can recognize that they're not the same– and in important respects are never the same– as the objects they represent. Or so I thought, until I ran across the Web site of AFSCME Local 2910, the Library of Congress Professional Guild. They have a page devoted to the future of cataloging, with some alarming-sounding stuff about how cataloging is under attack. One of their publications is a critique of a recent report on "The Changing Nature of the Catalog and Its Integration with Other Discovery Tools," by Cornell librarian Karen Calhoun:

According to the Calhoun report, library operations that are not digital, that do not result in resources that are remotely accessible, that involve professional human judgement or expertise, or that require conceptual categorization and standardization rather than relevance ranking of keywords, do not fit into its proposed “leadership” strategy. This strategy itself, however, is based on an inappropriate business model – and a misrepresentation of that business model to begin with. The Calhoun report draws unjustified conclusions about the digital age, inflates wishful thinking, fails to make critical distinctions, and disregards (as well as mischaracterizes) an alternative “niche” strategy for research libraries, to promote scholarship (rather than increase “market position”). Its recommendations to eliminate Library of Congress Subject Headings, and to use “fast turnaround” time as the “gold standard” in cataloging, are particularly unjustified, and would have serious negative consequences for the capacity of research libraries to promote scholarly research.

Apparently I was wrong.

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