Lorcan Dempsey, UK Office for Library and Information Networking
This is a pre-print version of: Lorcan Dempsey. Library places and digital information spaces: reflections on emerging
network services. Alexandria, 11(1), 1999. p 51-58. (This is a very slightly amended version of:
Places and spaces. In: Towards the digital library: the British Library's
Initiatives for Access programme. Edited by Leona Carpenter, Simon Shaw and
Andrew Prescott. London: British Library, 1998, p 234-241).
Please quote the printed version in any citation.
Yet there is nothing more provincial or more transient than the up-to-the-minute vision. Never did a people more need the book. Daniel Boorstin
What characterises the new system of communications, based in the digitised, networked integration of multiple communications modes is its inclusiveness and comprehensiveness of all cultural expressions. Because of its existence, all kinds of messages in the new type of society work in a binary mode: presence/absence in the multimedia communication system. Only presence in this integrated system permits communicability and socialisation of the message. All other messages are reduced to individual imagination or to increasingly marginalised face-to-face subcultures. From society's perspective, electronically-based communication (typographic, audiovisual, or computer-mediated) is communication. .... But the price to pay for inclusion in the system is to adapt to its logic, to its language, to its points of entry, to its encoding and decoding. Manuel Castells
People should think not so much of the books that have gone into the National Library but rather of the books that have come out of it. A library, after all, feeds the people that go in there. Seán O'Faoláin
Technology ... expels from movements all hesitation, deliberation, civility ... Not least to blame for the withering of experience is the fact that things, under the law of pure functionality, assume a form that limits contact with them to mere operation, and tolerates no surplus either in freedom of conduct, or in autonomy of things, which would survive as the core of experience, because it is not consumed by the moment of action. Theodore Wiesengrund Adorno
This article explores some issues surrounding the move to the digital information resources, and the interaction between physical information places and digital information spaces. It does not propose a full treatment, and is very much reflects its origin as the afterword to a recently published book on Initiatives for Access, a British Library programme whose intention was "to help the Library come to terms with this technology by offering both library staff and users hands-on experience".
In their overview of the programme, Mike Alexander and Andrew Prescott talked about the consternation on the introduction of electric lighting into the Reading Room of the Museum. William Stanley Jevons wrote "I believe you have simply admitted the Trojan Horse". If electric light was a Trojan Horse, then enemy troops have been pouring from it ever since, and at no time in more numbers than at the present. Today, electric light has been joined by optic fibre and innovation touches not only the environment of the library, but what is at the core of its identity and purpose: the accumulation, preservation and communication of knowledge, imagination and learning.
It may seem glib to suggest that the library should be medium-neutral. It is glib because the book is so much a part of life and thought, because its form and shape make it so well adapted to the reading and living habits of its users, because the curatorial traditions of libraries are so bound up with the book as object. It is glib also because of the truth of what Boorstin asserts in his first sentence above and the shallowness of our alternative visions. We are aware of poorly understood change, and we have few real guides. Much discussion about the future is conducted in terms of high-level summary labels which have little explanatory power. We have little in the way of usable electronic libraries or, indeed, much sense of what shape they will take or how they will mesh with the interests of their users.
Yet, for all our difficulty in taking a long perspective, we know a glass network spans the globe which is putting in place the material base for new ways of working, communicating and learning. This glass network is creating the first global information economy, "an economy with a capacity to work as a unit in real time on a planetary scale". Commercial and research activity is increasingly carried out in global digital spaces, and any organisation that wishes to operate as a significant provider of business intelligence or research resources must be visible in those digital spaces. Not to be there will be to be marginalised. To be marginalised means that potential users are deprived of valuable resources, and that books, journals and other resources are kept from their readers. It means, to pursue O'Faoláin's analogy, that the library fails to nourish and is less than it should be.
As the library continues to organise the assembly places where readers are brought into fruitful contact with resources that inspire and inform, it must become a service organised around physical places and digital information spaces. It must be alert to the various needs of the materials it handles, to the various interests of its current and future users, and to the various wider contexts of change. The British Library provides access to the national intellectual record; it is uniquely placed to show how the intellectual record, deeply and richly organised, can enrich emerging digital spaces and the lives of the people who assemble there.
For most readers the library is a place, a building, and the collection it houses. The quote from Boorstin comes from an essay accompanying a book of photographs, of libraries of all types and sizes, which I acquired at the same time as I began writing this piece. The photographs are by Diane Asseo Griliches and the book seems to come most alive in the pictures of the great reading rooms: the Library of Congress, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, and the Bibliothèque Nationale. (Surprisingly, the electrically-lighted Reading Room of the British Museum is not pictured here).
These put the reader at the centre of a great vault, beyond which it is easy to believe that the world's knowledge is arrayed ready to be called up as if waiting for that one moment of use. They are personal because each reader has a private space, manifest in the pool of light thrown by the desk lamp, and intimate because each reader is in a private relationship with the collection and builds their own world upon it. However, they are also social: they are visibly great knowledge exchanges, each an inclusive `hive-like dome', which support social flow and assembly. And they are monumental in that they seemed to collect for all time and for all places, making them timeless and apart. Libraries are unlike museums or theatres, their role is not spectacular. The private, intimate relationship of the reader to the library collection and the experiences it engenders makes it easier for the library to enter the fabric of people's lives. This is not only true of large national or research libraries - but of all types of libraries. And much of the power of great libraries arises where this relationship is enhanced by places which arbitrate in right measure the personal and the social, the intimate and the monumental.
The catalogue has a special place. Much of the collection is hidden: it exists as potential. Discovery in the catalogue makes it actual. The catalogue acts as a surrogate for the collection, and, for the dedicated library user, searching the catalogue is continuous with the wider accumulation of knowledge. It suggests the size of the collection, the mass that still needs to be prospected. The traces of its creators can be seen in the styles, over time, of the individual entries. Griliches includes a photograph of a card catalogue from Boston Public Library and describes it in personal terms "This solid, well-used wooden veteran has a personal attraction and a kind of lasting beauty that a computer can never have. I wanted to make its portrait before it disappears." A portrait comes from a dialogue with a life: the catalogue has a life that is bound up with the lives of previous users and those that have created it. She includes a caption from Barbara Tuchman: "For me the card catalogue has been a companion all my working life. To leave it is like leaving the house one was brought up in." And so, it is not difficult to understand how for many people, automation of the catalogue represents, in a real way, a "withering of experience" as described by Adorno.
This is especially so as it is seen as a prelude to further change, which not only signals a changing relationship to particular physical places, but the disappearance of the craft, the tacit knowledge, which is a part of their use, and a part of the use of the collections they house. Put this way, developments are part of a larger reordering of experience.
It is interesting to counterpose the quotes from Adorno and Castells. Castells talks proleptically of the digital media's "inclusiveness and comprehensiveness of all cultural expressions". Castells is discussing an environment one of whose characteristics is to be at the end of the trajectory Adorno describes: an `informationalised' society, in which business, cultural and personal activities are mediated by the network, in which technology acts on information to achieve ends. Doors open automatically; chips control household appliances; money is disappearing; shops dispose product lines around their floors based on sales information.
However, it leads to disjointedness at several levels: the transitions between the library as place and the library as digital information space, between the local collections of codices and the widely distributed hypertext scroll, are jerky. The short timescale of Initiatives for Access has coincided with significant change: it was a period which saw the rapid penetration of the Internet and the emergence of the Web. It is difficult to take a long perspective; such a reordering of experience will take time to work through and we cannot now discern the outcomes. We may not yet have a sense of digital reading rooms shaped to the measure of working and learning - their domes, alleys and cells of knowledge - but it is important that this work has begun.
Castells distinguishes between the space of places and the space of flows made possible, but not caused, by the network. In the space of flows, flows of information transform relationships, and allow a general reshaping of organisations, work and behaviour according to a networking logic, a logic based on addition at the edges, decentralisation, horizontal integration around process. He suggests that there is at once a global integration facilitated by the network, but, at the same time, a fragmentation between those connected and those not connected.
One can base a description of the changes facing libraries on a reductive use of this distinction.
Think of repositories of knowledge and the flows between them and their users. Libraries currently organise repositories in the space of places, large stores of physical items, around which patterns and practices of management and use have developed. They still largely manage `atoms', individual physical items which need to be created, packaged, transported, distributed, fetched; items which have mass and have to be massively duplicated. Flows are limited, and constrained by place and time and mass. There is `friction' in the postal and other physical circuits through which the flows move. There is shallow resource sharing: the flow of materials between libraries is marginal to overall activity. There is limited entry into the digital space of flows, which is about `bits', about the `global movement of weightless bits at the speed of light', about, in fact, being digital.
Take a simple example: a project group wishes to discover journal articles and books about Roman Bath. In a well-stocked library, they can scan the shelves. Say they want to do a more thorough `discovery' of material. They can look in the catalogue. They can look in databases on CD-ROM. They might have access to some remote databases over the Internet. But each of these is delivered through a separate interface, they may have to move between machines, they may have to print out or write down results. Once they have discovered a selection of materials, they have to find out where they are. Typically, they will have to return to the catalogue and redo searches for the desired items. Say they are in a library which has an arrangement for reciprocal borrowing with several neighbouring libraries. They will have to redo searches for unfound items in those libraries. They might bring other items to the Interlibrary Loan department, where they may have to write down the details again. Then the ILL staff may repeat some of the operations already carried out by the users, to verify and to locate items. Requests may then be sent to the British Library for materials. Bibliographic details may be rekeyed for transmission.
What happens is that there are a variety of boundaries - between functions, between users and library - which are not interconnected by systems, and across which there are intermittent and inefficient flows. In fact, the flows are achieved by human effort: multiple human visits to different systems and multiple transcriptions which waste time and impose barriers to full use.
Although extensively automated, the library focus, as in other sectors, has tended to be on particular place-based tasks, catalogue and circulation, or of flows within hierarchical non-interconnected circuits, interlibrary loan and cataloguing for example. There is limited flow of data between processes and consequently limited reorganisation of activities. Existing library places are vertically integrated; although they now use networks extensively, the logic of their organisation is place-based: the management of multiple individual physical repositories.
In digital information spaces, there will continue to be repositories of information but the emphasis shifts to the flows between them and between them and their users. These repositories may contain metadata - catalogues and other data which assists in the discovery, use and exploitation of resources - or resources themselves. In this environment, the activities of discovery, locate, request, and deliver, currently carried out in multiple incompatible circuits need to be brought into a common framework of communicating applications. The friction needs to be reduced.
The British Library offers record, document and reference services into the space of flows. Indeed, the Document Supply Centre has been organised around the space of flows of an earlier network system, the mail. Initiatives for Access has begun the process of further integrating scholarly BL resources, so that the user of the future will be able to reach deep into collections of books, maps, sound, and other resources.
What has to be done to make access to the intellectual record within an achieved digital information space if not a complete reality, then something more than the very preliminary and partial experience it now is? We need to manage repositories, flows and control, and we need to bring these together in viable digital environments, supporting hospitable `information landscapes'. Information landscape is a useful term in that it highlights the need to consider a wide range of resources and services within a common frame of reference. A piecemeal approach will fail to deliver the benefits.
§ The management of repositories
We have little experience of managing large scale mixed media digital repositories in open networked environments. Repositories will be based on digital surrogates of existing resources and on material published in digital form. They will contain a variety of resource types with different characteristics and requirements - engineering models, geospatial data, sound, image collections, manuscripts. Resources will have to be identified within one of the emerging naming schemes; support for version control, copyright management, and transparent content negotiation will have to be in place.
Materials will be differently encoded. The paper journal article is atomic - its content is only available to the human reader. It can be converted to bits by being scanned - this will allow it to be exchanged more easily, but its content is still only available to the human reader, it is `atomic' to the program which transfers or displays it. Structure could be added, and applications built which understood more of its content, and exploit the semantic information the tagging conveys. Structure allows applications do smart things with it. It can be indexed and searched on particular tags, selectively output to various media, and is amenable to a wider range of processing, coming more alive within the space of flows.
Increasingly, this structure will be important as items and item fragments are shared and recombined in other resources: in learning environments, as part of users' work environments, in third party supply systems.
Metadata to support discovery, but also preservation, copyright management, client access, and commercial activities will have to be created and managed. Appropriate metadata will have to be exported into resource discovery systems, initially local catalogue repositories, but beyond that into emerging distributed discovery services. Effective disclosure of resources will be key, and integral with effective disclosure will be data to support use, reuse and exploitation. The BL and other large research institutions contain materials managed within practices from various curatorial traditions: archives, maps, books, patents, and so on, which will have to be managed and accessed within a common framework. Most metadata currently exists at the item level: metadata at collection level and other levels of aggregation and granularity will also have to be provided to facilitate effective high level navigation of collections, and for those collection where item-level description is uneconomic or impractical.
The content of repositories will have to continue to be available to human users long after the technical apparatus of its creation and publication have been superseded.
§ The management of flows
Flows consist of resources themselves, but also the service requests and messages that support distributed services. Searches against databases, result sets, item requests and orders; billing, charging or authorisation data; and others: these will flow between applications and repositories. A protocol framework for managing these flows is being put in place. This includes protocols for search and retrieve, for service and document request, for ordering and payment, for authentication and authorisation, for delivery and subsequent collation and reuse.
§ The management of control
Technologies for supporting market mechanisms are immature. Open distributed control in the digital information space is still a research and development challenge, which will require generic business and technical solutions. Clients need to be able to prove who they are when challenged. The usefulness of an information landscape will be severely mitigated without distributed authentication services which mean that the client need only `prove' themselves once. Multiple challenges (passwords) erect fences in the landscape which inhibit use. Authorisation information - what services does the client have access rights to - needs to be exchanged. The integrity and privacy of exchanged data, involving the use of encryption and other services, may be an issue. Together with services for billing, paying and copyright management these will be required to support a market for information products and services; they will provide the controls that allow charged-for resources release their value into information landscapes effectively.
Bringing it all together - the Information landscape
The challenge is significant and intriguing: to present the user with services organised around their information uses and natural ways of working and not around the constraints of location, mechanics of interaction, or medium. In time, it must be possible to search, locate, deliver, collate, and create in productive ways, unconstrained by the clumsy, mechanical apparatuses that currently hinder operations
We are only beginning to imagine what such landscapes might be like in practice and putting in place the infrastructure necessary to support them. The landscape will support navigation of collections and services, it will hide the user from the variety of underlying protocols or mechanisms, it will consolidate and negotiate. It is here that access to place and digital space will be brought together. A reader may request an item to be delivered: the system will decide whether this needs an HTTP get, an ILL request, or a note saying to go to the reference collection. A user wishes to discover whether items are available: the system will present some options for searching, will open up a Z39.50 connection, or a web browser, or whatever is required. And so on ...
The WorldWide Web provides a premonition of what such a landscape might be, but it is shallow. A layer of software, or middleware, which hides underlying difference and which allows the transparent addition of services and resources will provide the basis for the landscape. It will be based on metadata and protocol support, having access to an increasingly deeper semantic understanding of resources themselves. In future, the structure put in place to support the landscape will support the operation of agents, which relieve the user of routine and repetitive tasks, and visualisation techniques, and other access technologies. It will be defined in terms of logical user services (e.g. reference services, current awareness, document requesting, and so on), and, ideally, will be independent of the underlying physical implementation of those services (e.g. CDs, web indexes, catalogues, text repositories, etc).
The importance of a standards-based approach is clear. The BL may create a landscape for its users. But other libraries, large firms, universities and other organisations will similarly be creating landscapes for other, overlapping, constituencies: they will want to easily incorporate BL services alongside others.
The focus of Initiatives for Access has been on the necessary first steps in the construction of a viable digital environment. At the same time, the British Library has been involved in the construction of one of the most significant library `places' the world will have seen, a building in which the main objective is to "create an easy commerce between the lone scholar and the huge building mass required to house the collections, all the fellow (rival?) researchers and the general public ...". It is an enterprise emphatically set against the `withering of experience': the architect, Colin St John Wilson, discusses scale, how to accommodate the demands for personal space with flow, of daylight as a source of ambient light, and closes by describing the "difficult to define `body language' that responds to the invitation to touch (the travertine barrier, the leather handrail, the oak-ribbed carapace of the column) ...". He hopes that the arrival in nearby St Pancras of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link will make the court yard a social assembly place, the clock tower a rendezvous point. St. John Wilson acknowledges the influence of Alvar Aalto - himself a creator of libraries - and endorses Aalto's view that a building should be judged not on the day of its opening but after thirty years of use.
The next thirty years, a generation, will say much about the ability of the British Library to act as a central social and learning place in the heart of a great world city. It will also say much about its ability to organise a social and learning space within the emerging global space of flows.
Boorstin says that "And yet, all this may make us the first generation qualified to grasp so poignantly the wonderful, the uncanny, the mystic simplicity of the book". As librarians, we understand the pressure of these words, that our endeavour must be motivated by a belief that readers and collections will benefit by being brought together in assembly places which are rich in experience. We still have much to learn about the construction of such assembly places.
Lorcan Dempsey directs UKOLN at the University of Bath. UKOLN is funded by the British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee of the Higher Education Funding Councils. He is responsible for the views expressed here.
Daniel J Boorstin. A design for an anytime, do-it-youself, energy-free communication device. In: Library: the drama within. Photographs by Diane Asseo Griliches. Albuquerue: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
 Manuel Castells. The rise of the network society. Oxford: Blackwells, 1996.
 Seán O'Faoláin. Quoted in: Treasures from the National Library of Ireland. : The Boyne Valley Honey Company, 1994.
 Theodore Wiesengrund Adorno. Minima Moralia. Verso: London, 1978.
 Lorcan Dempsey. Initiatives for Access: places and spaces. In: Towards the digital library: the initiatives for access programme. (Leona Carpenter, Simon Shaw, and Andrew Prescott, eds) London: The British Library, 1998. P. 234-241.
 Michael Alexander and Alexander Prescott. The Initiatives for Access Programme: an overview. In: Towards the digital library: the initiatives for access programme. (Leona Carpenter, Simon Shaw, and Andrew Prescott, eds) London: The British Library, 1998. P. 15-27.
 Manuel Castells. The rise of the network society. Oxford: Blackwells, 1996.
 Library: the drama within. Photographs by Diane Asseo Griliches. Albuquerue: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
 Louis MacNeice. The British Museum Reading Room. In: Collected poems. London: Faber and Faber, 1966. P. 160.
 Nicholas Negroponte. Being digital. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995.
 Colin St John Wilson. The British Library, London. In: The architecture of information. London: The British Council, 1996.
 Colin St John Wilson. The other tradition of modern architecture: the uncompleted project. London: Academy Editions, 1995.