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What will the library of the future look like?


Matthew Fisher, an assistant professor of English at UCLA, knew that libraries all over the world had been digitizing their holdings. But he was frustrated by the difficulty finding what he was looking for -- in particular, Medieval manuscripts. A Google search for "Edward the Confessor" might turn up 20 pages of results before the book, the oldest surviving Anglo-Norman history of the king, appears; it's at Cambridge University, and they've put it online.

Rather than telling Cambridge it was time they hired an SEO expert, Fisher decided to collect links to these works himself. Launched late last year, the Catalogue of Digitized Medieval Manuscripts is functional, if not pretty. But it does link to almost 1,000 manuscripts, including "Topographia Hibernia," above, which seems to be having a 12th to 13th century-style "Law and Order" moment (if you can read the Latin, translations are welcome in the comments). The Medieval manuscripts catalog links to manuscripts by 193 authors in 20 languages collected by 59 libraries and describes them with the information scholars look for.

Of those hundreds of manuscripts, UCLA has 48. Which means that the online catalog has greatly expanded their collection, if virtually. Is this the library of the future? A distributed network of collections of terrestrial libraries, curated by specialists?

It sounds good, but the collection-of-links model is problematic. Creating curated lists of links was vital to the early Internet, when search was spotty; lists of links is where Yahoo got started. But I worked at one of these sites (the Ultimate Band List, ubl.com) where we soon realized that we'd ceded control to the sites we'd linked to -- and they often changed. Sure, bands are flakier than libraries, but libraries can still update their naming protocols, change a frame-based site to one without frames, or move the collection into a new database-driven site. In other words, the Internet addresses of digital collections can easily change.

One other option is a massive, centralized digitized library like the Europeana. It launched in November 2008 with 2 million digitized items on its servers from from 1,000 libraries and museums across Europe. And, when it got 10 million hits an hour, it swiftly crashed. (A test version of the Europeana is now live; be gentle). Centralizing can be good, but it needs substantial infrastructure.

Click around the Catalogue of Digitized Medieval Manuscripts and you'll make your way to centuries-old books, some brilliantly illuminated. Whatever the library of the future might be, it's lovely to look at our literary past.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Comments () | Archives (5)

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Sorry but the truth is that the library of the future will most likely have a CLOSED sign on it. All libraries, be it your small town rural library or the virtual specialized collection, require intensive intellectual input and basically that ain't cheap. We the taxpayers are not willing to pay for it, for example, look at education in the "stimulus" bill (ARRA) .... Everyone says they support education but the truth is they do not, and libraries are the Cinderella of the education family, unfortunately the libraries prince died of ignorance in childhood. With due honor and thanks to the Gates Foundation who have at least tried and have made a difference.

Sorry to read that Mr. Davenport's library of the future has a "closed" sign on it. The onsite and online libraries I visit and use are vibrant, vital, and well supported members of their local and global communities. They are evolving to meet their users' needs, are important centers in their ever-expanding communities, and offer incredible resources. Hope he and others will literally revisit the issue by exploring all that contemporary libraries have to offer. (As for taxpayers being unwilling to support libraries: San Francisco is not unique in having voters who consistently support library services through a variety of means; a 15-year change to the City-County charter was recently renewed for another 15 years so that a set percentage of the City-County general fund goes to support library operations. The current economy certainly is hurting some library systems just as it is affecting many other businesses and services, but this hardly implies a long-term lack of interest on the part of taxpayers when it comes time to support library services.)

Ken, have to respectfully disagree with you. Libraries are not the Cinderella of education. In fact, library funding is completely divorced from education funding in most places and the feds supply very few dollars. It's mostly state and local money. Many communities are very protective of their libraries (see: Philadelphia for a case in point), often much more so than they are toward schools. In the current economic condition, library usage has increased dramatically.

The simple fact of the matter is Ken is ignorant. Down here in Australia we have very exciting and avante guard libraries, and you know what, it's the libraries in the disadvantaged areas that are the most alive.

People still value their libraries (particularly in times of economic downturn when essentials like food, water and electricity are valued over luxuries like books).

Sure libraries may start holding less physical books, although personally I don't believe they will ever really go away, but they will continue to exist. And besides who's going to organise the internet, cause at the moment it's in a real mess!?!

The library of the future is paperless and will reside on the internet, making it accessible to everyone.


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