The Web is having a profound impact on the role and function of libraries. This goes way beyond ‘the demise of the book’, which is, quite frankly, a very simplistic way of looking at things. It’s actually more about having a vision for the future and how you realise that vision. For example, one of the problems facing librarians is how to create high quality ‘digital objects’, as they are called. If you think about a book, you might judge its quality in terms of the jacket design or the type of paper used or whether or not you can see guillotine marks on the edge of the pages. You probably wouldn’t think about some of the very obvious quality factors unless they were missing. If you opened a book and, say, the pictures were missing or all the pages were in the wrong order, you’d probably want your money back.
The problem for librarians is that when you are creating things like e-books, you have to think about a different set of ‘quality’ criteria because these digital objects will not be used in the same way that physical books are. They will need to designed so that they can be searched, for example, or delivered as separate pages. For the average library user, accessing information that spans multiple digital sources is increasingly a messy process and for those who are used to search tools such as Google and Yahoo this new and highly fluid environment can be a considerable barrier to accessing information from digital libraries and online collections. What is concerning about this is, unless we are careful, people will increasingly see the search results thrown up by Google, Yahoo etc. as the be-all and end-all of a particular area of interest or subject. There is no doubt that the library and information community recognises this problem.
One of the ways of helping to ease these problems is covered in a technical report just published by JISC Technology and Standards Watch, for which I am the technical editor. The report is by Richard Gartner, the man who brought the Internet into Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, who argues that rectifying this problem requires the acceptance of the importance (and standardization) of what’s called metadata.
Metadata is information about the information contained within the digital object, and can be as simple as a tag which says who the author is, ranging to a complex layer of additional information about digital rights (who’s allowed to access it or how much you might have to pay). There are different ways of approaching this problem – the more sober Digital Library is being usurped a little at the moment by the ‘hipper’ Library 2.0 – but it’s a hot topic, and even though it’s a technical subject, the report should be quite readable for a tech-curious audience.
This is part of an ongoing debate about the future of libraries, and will be one of the key themes of JISC’s annual conference in Birmingham, next week, which I’ll be attending for TechWatch.