Aby Warburg, British Library, British Library Labs, data manipulation, data mining, datasets, disruptive innovation, Flickr, Fun Palaces, information society, James Baker, LAPIS, libraries in society, library OPACs, Matt Finch, public libraries, social media, text analysis, Tumblr, Twitter, user experience, Warburg Institute
The ninth and penultimate LAPIS lecture of term featured guest lectures by Matt Finch, a writer and content producer who has developed immersive play experiences for libraries, and James Baker, a curator of digital research at the British Library. These lectures both centred on the challenges facing libraries—in particular public libraries—today that result from the myriad changes in publishing that we have discussed in previous lectures. In short, the transition to a digitised, automated model of publishing content that can be accessed from (almost) anywhere via the Internet threatens to make the traditional physical library irrelevant, as potential users can simply find the information they seek online from within the comfort of their own homes.
Dr Finch approached this problem from the perspective of re-inventing the public library as a community hub, which encourages users of all ages to explore and learn on their own terms. Examples of this type of activity in which he has been involved include using “comic-book dice” to facilitate storytelling games for children, and staging live-action events such as a staged zombie invasion of the Tullamore Public Library in Australia. At first glance, these projects may appear somewhat frivolous, especially when run in collaboration with initiatives with names such as Fun Palaces, but they achieve measurable positive results in terms of both publicity for the public library service as a whole, and a sustained increase in user-based metrics, without any increase in expenditure. These activities also rely upon the library as a physical entity, thus providing justification for its continuing existence.
Nevertheless, the general public can be hard to convince: for instance, the comments on an article on the opening of a new central public library in Christchurch, New Zealand reveal a sharp divide between those who agree with the ideal of the library as a multi-purpose and multimedia community facility, and those who believe that anything beyond a repository of books and some reading rooms for silent study is a waste of public money. Yet more traditional areas of LIS research also support the first view: for instance, much work has been carried out into the effects of serendipity on information retrieval (or, in everyday terms, how browsing for information can produce interesting and unexpected results deriving from the layout of physical books, whether in a library or bookshop—how often have you gone looking for a particular book, only to emerge with another that happened to catch your eye?), how some libraries such as that attached to the Warburg Institute has tried to maximise this effect with an extremely idiosyncratic in-house classification scheme, and how it is difficult to create the same atmosphere using an online search engine or library OPAC. Furthermore, the role of libraries as valued community centres has been well-documented during social crises, such as in Ferguson last year following the police shooting of Michael Brown, and in the already-mentioned Christchurch following the devastating earthquakes in 2011. The recognised importance of the public library in society is officially enshrined in the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto.
Dr Baker’s lecture focussed on the changing nature of library collections and services in the digital age, and covered some of the same areas that we explored last term in the DITA module, such as text analysis and data mining. He also emphasised the British Library’s role in(and legal responsibility for, under recently-revised British legal deposit law) collecting webpages for the UK Web Archive, and the importance of curating and sharing datasets, such as this one relating to the British Library’s Flickr stream. Yet these responsibilities can also manifest themselves in fun and creative ways as the British Library Labs work on projects to maximise the accessibility of the institution’s digital collections: examples include the Mechanical Curator, an automated Twitter and Tumblr account that sequentially posts images from a digitised corpus of texts, PicaGuess, a crowdsourcing app designed to create metadata for similar images by identifying their defining characteristics, and even an art installation by David Normal at the Burning Man Festival in 2014. These developments all help to foster community engagement with the British Library (which, let us not forget, is also a public library—just a particularly large one) and justify its place in society.
Thus, although the changing face of publishing and technology has challenged the traditional role of the public library, measures undertaken to facilitate community engagement, whether through innovative events, the promotion of resources through social media, and the training of librarians in such skills as how to handle large datasets, are keeping them relevant. The tools and technology used to seek information, and aspects of the information itself, may have changed, but the average user will still be appreciative of a professional to help guide them through the information-seeking process—and if this process can take place in a pleasant, creative environment in the heart of the local community, then that is even better!