Monday, 18 February 2013

The future of librarianship: a LibCampLdn session pitch

On the 2nd of March, I will be pitching a session at Library Camp London

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords…: technology, digital libraries, and the future of librarianship. 

The quantity of digital information now far surpasses the quantity of printed information (1). Technology is now unavoidable in librarianship and new developments in mobile computing, cloud computing, information retrieval, and augmented reality continue to change the way that users interact with information. In this session, we’ll discuss the future of librarianship in an age of abstracted digital information. Will librarians need to become librarian-IT hybrids and what skills does this require? Is librarianship moving from a traditionally humanities-based subject to a science subject? What should a digital library be? When software can replicate the capabilities of the human mind, what role does the human have in information management? 

In January, as I was compiling my music playlist for the month ahead, I stumbled across I Monster’s Daydream in Blue (2) in my digital music collection. I added Daydream in Blue to my January playlist because the track represents an important sea-change in my thinking that has impacted my career and my entire professional life. 

Daydream in Blue was the first MP3 I ever downloaded (3). This file – which, due to copying to different hard drives and different music devices is ontologically distinct from the one I actually downloaded in 2001 – represents to me the unique potential of digitally-encoded information and how digital information overcomes the limitations of information encoded in print format. When I downloaded this file all those years ago, I discovered that digital music was easy to access, it took up no physical space, it could be copied and manipulated in various ways, and, due to this ability to manipulate it, I felt a keener sense of ownership of the music than I felt about the ownership of physical music (4). 

For me, music IS digital. Music lends itself peculiarly well to digital formats. Musical works “are not objects you can pick up or steal of even locate anywhere. They aren’t anywhere, it would seem. They’re not situated in space and time; not, apparently situated in our world.” (5) Music is a more abstract art-form than literature, painting, or cinema. Music floats through the air: it doesn't belong in any physical prison. Though mathematics and computational logic were the first information forms to be transferred to the digital realm, it was the transfer of music to this realm that sparked the digital revolution and changed the thinking of so many people. The Digital Music War of the early Web – and in particular the Battle of Napster – involved fights that were not just about ownership of music and creative copyright but were painful convulsions as an industry’s soul transferred from the analog realm to the digital realm. 

By the digital realm, I mean what Gleick refers to as the ‘infosphere’: “Most of the biosphere cannot see the infosphere; it is invisible, a parallel universe humming with ghostly inhabitants. But they are not ghosts to us - not anymore. We humans, alone among the earth's organic creatures, live in both worlds at once. It is as though, having long coexisted with the unseen, we have begun to develop the needed extrasensory perception.” (6) 

'labyrinthine circuit board lines' by Flickr user: quapan

We’re now at a point where books and most other forms of information are being transferred to the infosphere and, like when music was transferred, we’re seeing convulsions. It is a time of change for information management and librarianship. Information is becoming divorced from its paper moorings. There are young people in the world who are discovering ebooks in the same way that I discovered digital music: people for whom books ARE digital; who see digital formats as the best, most functional way to encode textual information; who have grown up in the presence of a planet-spanning digital network of information. In the same way that ‘Daydream is Blue.mp3’ changed the thinking of a teenage boy in a bedroom in Manchester, digital information changes the way that we think of information and knowledge. "We’ve grown up thinking that this is how knowledge works. But as the digital age is revealing, that’s how knowledge worked when its medium was paper. Transform the medium by which we develop, preserve, and communicate knowledge, and we transform knowledge." (7) 

More than any other profession, LIS is at the heart of this information maelstrom. Our defining commodity – our ‘product’ – is changing (/ has changed) from a physical print-based format to an abstracted digital format. This is a similar but greater shift to when information first became an encoded commodity. The growth of the infosphere changes us and makes us more than human: "Latour and others have rightly identified the domestication of the human mind that took place with pen and paper (Latour 1986). This is because computers, like pen and paper, help to stabilise meaning, by cascading and visualising encoded knowledge that allows it to be continually 'drawn, written, [and] recoded' (Latour 1986:16). Computational techniques could give us greater powers of thinking, larger reach for our imaginations, and, possibly, allow us to reconnect to political notions of equality and redistribution based on the potential of computation to give to each according to their need and to each according to their ability." (8) 

In order to adapt, we use new technologies and integrate them into our existing organisations. Libraries have become hybrid libraries containing shelves of printed books and extending beyond their walls with even more expansive digital collections. Library staff are becoming library-IT hybrids: we use computers to do our work; we carry mobile computers to help us with navigation, communication, information access, entertainment, everything; we are at the forefront of the development of ‘everyware’ (9); we use technology and in so doing we become more than human. We are becoming 'everyday cyborgs' and for all its advantages this may lead to a sense of existential angst and uncertainty: 

Dante Cyborg by Flickr user: The PIX-JOCKEY
"We're cyborgs, creatures of nature and culture, biology and technology—-prosthetic gods whose sleek carapace, like Darth Vader's mask or the Borg's body armor, conceals the increasingly obsolete Darwinian holdover shriveling inside. I think McLuhan and Simmel and even Toffler, with his arm-waving about "information overload," "the overstimulated individual," and "bombardment of the senses," are responding to one of the fundamental cultural dynamics of the industrial and post-industrial ages, namely, the psychological effects of the growing chasm between Darwinian evolution, which moves at glacial pace, and the social and cultural changes brought on by technological innovation, changes that seem to be happening at mind-blurring speed. What you're calling future shock is the sensation, at least in technologically advanced societies, that the Cartesian mind/body split is reaching the breaking point; that our Darwinian legacy is just so much drag coefficient in a society that lives more and more of its life on the other side of the screen, in social networks and virtual worlds. Cognitive neuroscience is providing abundant evidence that this divide is real: scientists talk about the "forebrain bottleneck," the evolutionarily determined limits on our ability to multitask that affect, say, our ability to navigate rush-hour traffic while crossing against the light and texting and listening to our iPods or talking on the cellphone while driving." (10) 

In my Library Camp London session, I want to discuss what it means to be an information professional in an age of digital information. What impact does this the infosphere have on the information profession and on the people in the profession? As we further augment ourselves with the technology required to access the corpus of digital information, as we develop new skills (Gleick’s "extrasensory perception") to survive integration with the digital realm, as information management tasks that were traditionally performed by humans become performable by machines and software, do we feel liberation or alienation? Are we becoming cyborgs and should we? Must we be upgraded? What roles are there for humans in information management? 

The central professional question is: what is the future of librarianship? 

The central personal and existential question is: how do we deal with feeling like this: "[We are] dealing with massive, high-entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; [we’re] continually discovering new vistas of personal ignorance and delusion. In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help." (11) 

(1) As of February 2010, the Library of Congress contained approximately 10 terabytes of information in book form and 160 terabytes of information in archived websites (1a)

(1a) Gleick, J., 2011. The information: a history, a theory, a flood. London: Fourth Estate. 

(2) Daydream in Blue is an unremarkable but catchy electronic remix of an existing recording. It enjoyed a brief popularity in 2001. I have never heard anything else by I Monster but I’m aware that it is an English electronic music group whose music is similar to but inferior to The Avalanches’ (2a)

(2a) Interestingly, in contrast to the discussion in the main text above, The Avalanche’s single Frontier Psychiatrist is one of the few CD singles that I own. 

(3) Via means of questionable legality and morality. 

(4) For me, ownership is about ‘control’ rather than ‘holding a physical item’. Which could be a whole other blog post (which could explore why I dislike iOS and Apple devices). But I digress (in what is already a digression)… 

(5) Kivy, P., 2002. Introduction to a philosophy of music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 203. 

(6) Gleick, J., 2011. The information: a history, a theory, a flood. London: Fourth Estate, p. 323. 

(7) Weinberger, D., 2011. Too big to know: rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren't the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books, p. 8. 

(8) Berry, D. M., 2011. The philosophy of software: code and mediation in the digital age. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 22-23. 

(9) Greenfield, A., 2006. Everyware: the dawning age of ubiquitous computing. Boston: New Riders. 

(10) Dery, M., 2013. ““Futureshock” proves that the future really is unevenly distributed.” Published 8 February 2013. Available online at Accessed 17 February 2013. 

(11) Wallace, D. F., 2007. ‘Deciderization 2007 – A Special Report’. In: Wallace, D. F., 2012. Both flesh and not: essays. New York: Little, Brown and Company, pp. 316-317.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Unpacking the draft page: time, space, and computer games

A few weeks ago, I went to a seminar organised by the King’s College Centre for E-research. It was delivered by Elena Pierazzo who is a lecturer and researcher at the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London. 

The focus of the seminar was modern draft manuscripts and how to represent these digitally. These are texts such as notebooks, first drafts of monographs, or other texts which are initially produced by authors for personal reasons. As specific examples, she pointed to the notebooks of Kafka, Proust, da Vinci, Austen, Nietzsche, and many of the manuscripts which are kept in the British Library’s Treasures gallery. 

The difficulty with these texts is that they are quintessentially human and quintessentially print commodities: the layout of the writing is messy, incoherent, and idiosyncratic. They feature ‘exploded notes’, doodles, separate blocks of writing running in various ways in various places on the page. They can be read geographically (traditional left-to-right, up-to-down reading) or chronologically (in terms of how the author put them together followed by revisions, corrections, etc.). Although they are complex and beautiful print commodities, they cannot hold the interest of the average reader for longer than a few seconds. 

Various attempts have been made to represent these draft manuscripts digitally (see the British Library’s Turning the Pages™, for example) but these usually involve either marking-up a print reproduction or mimicking the print version in digital version. Often these are poor representations which focus on structure and syntax rather than layout of the text. Though they are attempts to mimic the print, they essentially look like different objects. 

A page from the Lindisfarne Gospel
The solution of Dr. Pierazzo’s team is to use TEI and gamification to create digital versions which accurately represent the semantic content of the draft manuscript and engage readers to explore that content. TEI (the Text Encoding Initative standard) is the de facto standard for transcription of texts in digital humanities. Pre-2011, TEI focused on transcription based on structure and semantics rather than appearance. This failed on certain texts such as medieval manuscripts in which the layout can be as important as the text’s semantic content (see, for example, the Lindisfarne Gospel). 

At the end of 2011, TEI P5 v2.0.1 was released which offers support for ‘genetic editing’. The new version can transcribe manuscripts based on layout rather than solely on semantics. It can recognise complex writing phenomena such as notes that aren’t part of the main text, metamarks, scribbles under doodles, etc. 

The team was also interested in using aspects of gamification in the design of new digital editions. Gamification involves using the engaging elements of computer games in other areas such as scholarly research. It’s about making activities engaging by setting achievable goals, making activities task-oriented, and enabling the tracing of progress. For example, one throws angry birds at evil pigs in order to achieve a goal, in order to earn points, in order to create achievements towards which one can point. The team was keen to use these principles to engage readers with draft manuscripts. 

To produce a prototype, they took a draft manuscript by Proust. They divided the digital reproduction into distinct blocks of text and then tracked two separate sequences: the writing sequence (in what order Proust wrote the text) and the reading sequence (in what order the text should be read for the reader’s understanding). From 5 days of work and processing using TEI, XML, XSLT, and some JavaScript for the animation, they created the Proust Prototype which is a dynamic, animated way of viewing the manuscript page digitally (which unfortunately doesn’t appear to work in Internet Explorer). All the details and code that was used are available on the website

The Proust Prototype showing some markup.

The limits of this prototype include visualising sequences across separate pages, visualising sequences across separate notebooks, and micro-interactivity with small blocks of text (metamarks, stage directions, comments, etc. which were all encoded in TEI but not intuitively interactive in the prototype). 

Dr. Pierazzo ended by making the point that computers can help us to do something new in this area. Computers and computer technologies have permeated so many areas of scholarly research particularly in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and mathematics: the humanities however, with their particular focus on human interpretation and subjective judgement, have been the last subject area to properly use computers to advance the discipline. Digital humanities represent the exploration of the last frontier for computer interaction in the intellectual domain. If computer technology can be used to analyse something as essentially human as a messy notebook, then there is no limit to their application in academic research.