Joho the Blog » libraries

October 7, 2015

[liveblog] The future of libraries

I’m at a Hubweek event called “Libraries: The Next Generation.” It’s a panel hosted by the Berkman Center with Dan Cohen, the executive director of the DPLA; Andromeda Yelton, a developer who has done work with libraries; and Jeffrey Schnapp of metaLab

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Sue Kriegsman of the Center introduces the session by explaining Berkman’s interest in libraries. “We have libraries lurking in every corner…which is fabulous.” Also, Berkman incubated the DPLA. And it has other projects underway.

Dan Cohen speaks first. He says if he were to give a State of the Union Address about libraries, he’d say: “They are as beloved as ever and stand at the center of communities” here and around the world. He cites a recent Pew survey about perspectives on libraries:“ …libraries have the highest approval rating of all American institutions. But, that’s fragile.” libraries have the highest approval rating of all American institutions. But, he warns, that’s fragile. There are many pressures, and libraries are chronically under-funded, which is hard to understand given how beloved they are.

First among the pressures on libraries: the move from print. E-book adoption hasn’t stalled, although the purchase of e-books from the Big Five publishers compared to print has slowed. But Overdrive is lending lots of ebooks. Amazon has 65% of the ebook market, “a scary number,” Dan says. In the Pew survey a couple of weeks ago, 35% said that libraries ought to spend more on ebooks even at the expense of physical books. But 20% thought the opposite. That makes it hard to be the director of a public library.

If you look at the ebook market, there’s more reading go on at places like the DPLA. (He mentions the StackLife browser they use, that came out of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab that I used to co-direct.) Many of the ebooks are being provided straight to a platform (mainly Amazon) by the authors.

There are lots of jobs public libraries do that are unrelated to books. E.g., the Boston Public Library is heavily used by the homeless population.

The way forward? Dan stresses working together, collaboration. “DPLA is as much a social, collaborative project as it is a technical project.” It is run by a community that has gotten together to run a common platform.

And digital is important. We don’t want to leave it to Jeff Bezos who “wants to drop anything on you that you want, by drone, in an hour.”

Andromeda: She says she’s going to talk about “libraries beyond Thunderdome,” echoing a phrase from Sue Kriegman’s opening comments. “My real concern is with the skills of the people surrounding our crashed Boeing.” Libraries need better skills to evaluate and build the software they need. She gives some exxamples of places where we see a tensions between library values and code.

1. The tension between access and privacy. Physical books leave no traces. With ebooks the reading is generally tracked. Overdrive did a deal so that library patrons who access ebooks get notices from Amazon when their loan period is almost up. Adobe does rights management, with reports coming page by page about what people are reading. “Unencrypted over the Internet,” she adds. “You need a fair bit of technical knowledge to see that this is happening,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be this way.” “It’s the DRM and the technology that have these privacy issues built in.”

She points to the NYPL Library Simplified program that makes it far easier for non-techie users. It includes access to Project Gutenberg. Libraries have an incentive to build open architectures that support privacy. But they need the funding and the technical resources.

She cites the Library Freedom Project that teaches librarians about anti-surveillance technologies. They let library users browse the Internet through TOR, preventing (or at least greatly inhibit) tracking. They set up the first library TOR node in New Hampshire. Homeland Security quickly suggested that they stop. But there was picketing against this, and the library turned it back on. “That makes me happy.”

2. Metadata. She has us do an image search for “beautiful woman” at Google. They’re basically all white. Metadata is sometimes political. She goes through the 200s of the Dewey Decimal system: 90% Christian. “This isn’t representative of human knowledge. It’s representative of what Melvil Dewey thought maps to human knowledge.” Libraries make certain viewpoints more computationally accessible than others.“ Our ability to write new apps is only as good as the metadata under them.” Our ability to write new apps is only as good as the metadata under them. “As we go on to a more computational library world — which is awesome — we’re going to fossilize all these old prejudices. That’s my fear.”

“My hope is that we’ll have the support, conviction and empathy to write software, and to demand software, that makes our libraries better, and more fair.”

Jeffrey: He says his peculiar interest is in how we use space to build libraries as architectures of knowledge. “Libraries are one of our most ancient institutions.” “Libraries have constantly undergone change,” from mausoleums, to cloisters, to warehouses, places of curatorial practice, and civic spaces. “The legacy of that history…has traces of all of those historical identities.” We’ve always faced the question “What is a library?” What are it’s services? How does it serve its customers? Architects and designers have responded to this, assuming a set of social needs, opportunities, fantasies, and the practices by which knowledge is created, refined, shared. “These are all abiding questions.”

Contemporary architects and designers are often excited by library projects because it crystallizes one of the most central questions of the day: “How do you weave together information and space?” We’re often not very good at that. The default for libraries has been: build a black box.

We have tended to associate libraries with collections. “If you ask what is a library?, the first answer you get is: a collection.” But libraries have also always been about the making of connections, i.e., how the collections are brought alive. E.g., the Alexandrian Librarywas a performance space. “What does this connection space look like today?” In his book with Matthew Battles, they argue that while we’ve thought of libraries as being a single institution, in fact today there are now many different types of libraries. E.g., the research library as an information space seems to be collapsing; the researchers don’t need reading rooms, etc. But civic libraries are expanding their physical practices.

We need to be talking about many different types of libraries, each with their own services and needs. The Library as an institution is on the wane. We need to proliferate and multiply the libraries to serve their communities and to take advantage of the new tools and services. “We need spaces for learning,” but the stack is just one model.


Dan: Mike O’Malley says that our image of reading is in a salon with a glass of port, but in grad school we’re taught to read a book the way a sous chef guts a fish. A study says that of academic ebooks, 75% of scholars read less than 50 pages of them. [I may have gotten that slightly wrong. Sorry.] Assuming a proliferation of forms, what can we do to address them?

Jeffrey: The presuppositions about how we package knowledge are all up for grabs now. “There’s a vast proliferation of channels. ‘And that’s a design opportunity.’”There’s a vast proliferation of channels. “And that’s a design opportunity.” How can we create audiences that would never have been part of the traditional distribution models? “I’m really excited about getting scholars and creative practitioners involved in short-form knowledge and the spectrum of ways you can intersect” the different ways we use these different forms. “That includes print.” There’s “an extraordinary explosion of innovation around print.”

Andromeda: “Reading is a shorthand. Library is really about transforming people and one another by providing access to information.” Reading is not the only way of doing this. E.g., in maker spaces people learn by using their hands. “How can you support reading as a mode of knowledge construction?” Ten years ago she toured Olin College library, which was just starting. The library had chairs and whiteboards on castors. “This is how engineers think”: they want to be able to configure a space on the fly, and have toys for fidgeting. E.g., her eight year old has to be standing and moving if she’s asked a hard question. “We need to think of reading as something broader than dealing with a text in front of you.”

Jeffrey: The DPLA has a location in the name — America &#8212. The French National Library wants to collect “the French Internet.” But what does that mean? The Net seems to be beyond locality. What role does place play?

Dan: From the beginning we’ve partnered with Europeana. We reused Europeana’s metadata standard, enabling us to share items. E.g., Europeana’s 100th anniversary of the Great War web site was able to seamlessly pull in content from the DPLA via our API, and from other countries. “The DPLA has materials in over 400 languages,” and actively partners with other international libraries.

Dan points to Amy Ryan (the DPLA chairperson, who is in the audience) and points to the construction of glass walls to see into the Boston Public Library. This increases “permeability.” When she was head of the BPL, she lowered the stacks on the second floor so now you can see across the entire floor. Permeability “is a very smart architecture” for both physical and digital spaces.

Jeff: Rendering visible a lot of the invisible stuff that libraries do is “super-rich,” assuming the privacy concerns are addressed.

Andromeda: Is there scope in the DPLA metadata for users to address the inevitable imbalances in the metadata?

Dan: We collect data from 1,600 different sources. We normalize the data, which is essential if you want to enable it for collaboration. Our Metdata Application Profile v. 4 adds a field for annotation. Because we’re only a dozen people, we haven’t created a crowd-sourcing tool, but all our data is CC0 (public domain) so anyone who wants to can create a tool for metadata enhancement. If people do enhance it, though, we’ll have to figure out if we import that data into the DPLA.

Jeffrey: The politics of metadata and taxonomy has a long history. The Enlightenment fantasy is for a universal metadata school. What does the future look like on this issue?

Andromeda: “You can have extremely crowdsourced metadata, but then you’re subject to astroturfing”You can have extremely crowdsourced metadata, but then you’re subject to astroturfing and popularity boosting results for bad reasons. There isn’t a great solution except insofar as you provide frameworks for data that enable many points of view and actively solicit people to express themselves. But I don’t have a solution.

Dan: E.g., at DPLA there are lots of ways entering dates. We don’t want to force a scheme down anyone’s throat. But the tension between crowdsourced and more professional curation is real. The Indianapolis Museum of Art allowed freeform tagging and compared the crowdsourced tags vs. professional. Crowdsourced: “sea” and “orange” were big, which curators generally don’t use.


Q: People structure knowledge differently. My son has ADHD. Or Nepal, where I visited recently.

A: Dan: It’s great that the digital can be reformatted for devices but also for other cultural views. “That’s one of the miraculous things about the digital.” E.g., digital book shelves like StackLife can reorder themselves depending on the query.

Jeff: Yes, these differences can be profound. “Designing for that is a challenge but really exciting.”

Andromeda: This is a why it’s so important to talk with lots of people and to enable them collaborate.

me: Linked data seems to resolve some of these problems with metadata.

Dan: Linked Data provides a common reference for entities. Allows harmonizing data. The DPLA has a slot for such IDs (which are URIs). We’re getting there, but it’s not our immediate priority. [Blogger’s perogative: By having many references for an item linked via “sameAs” relationships can help get past the prejudice that can manifest itself when there’s a single canonical reference link. But mainly I mean that because Linked Data doesn’t have a single record for each item, new relationships can be added relatively easily.]

Q; How do business and industry influence libraries? E.g., Google has images for every place in the world. They have scanned books. “I can see a triangulation happening. Virtual libraries? Virtual spaces?

Andromeda: (1) Virtual tech is written outside of libraries, almost entirely. So it depends on what libraries are able to demand and influence. (2) Commercial tech sets expectations for what users experiences should be like, which libraries may not be able to support. (3) “People say “Why do we need libraries? It’s all online and I can pay for it.” No, it’s not, and no, not everyone can.”People say “Why do we need libraries? It’s all online and I can pay for it.” No, it’s not, and no, not everyone can. Libraries should up their tech game, but there’s an existential threat.

Jeffrey: People use other spaces to connect to knowledge, e.g. coffee houses, which are now being incorporated into libraries. Some people are anxious about that loss of boundary. Being able to eat, drink, and talk is a strong “vision statement” but for some it breaks down the world of contemplative knowledge they want from a library.

Q: The National Science and Technology Library in China last week said they have the right to preserve all electronic resources. How can we do that?

Dan: Libraries have long been sites for preservation. In the 21st century we’re so focused on getting access now now now, we lose sight that we may be buying into commercial systems that may not be able to preserve this. This is the main problem with DRM. Libraries are in the forever business, but we don’t know where Amazon will be. We don’t know if we’ll be able to read today’s books on tomorrow devices. E.g., “I had a subscription to Oyster ebook service, but they just went out of business. There go all my books. ”I had a subscription to Oyster ebook service, but they just went out of business. There go all my books. Open Access advocacy is going to play a critical role. Sure, Google is a $300B business and they’ll stick around, but they drop services. They don’t have a commitment like libraries and nonprofits and universities do to being in the forever business.

Jeff: It’s a huge question. It’s really important to remember that the oldest digital documents we have are 50 yrs old which isn’t even a drop in the bucket. There’s far from universal agreement about the preservation formats. Old web sites, old projects, chunks of knowledge, of mine have disappeared. What does it mean to preserve a virtual world? We need open standards, and practices [missed the word] “Digital stuff is inherently fragile.”

Andromeda: There are some good things going on in this space. The Rapid Response Social Media project is archiving (e.g., #Ferguson). Preserving software is hard: you need the software system, the hardware, etc.

Q: Distintermediation has stripped out too much value. What are your thoughts on the future of curation?

Jeffrey: There’s a high level of anxiety in the librarian community about their future roles. But I think their role comes away as reinforced. It requires new skills, though.

Andromeda: In one pottery class the assignment was to make one pot. In another, it was to make 50 pots. The best pots came out of the latter. When lots of people can author lots of stuff, it’s great. That makes curation all the more critical.

Dan: the DPLA has a Curation Core: librarians helping us organize our ebook collection for kids, which we’re about to launch with President Obama. Also: Given the growth in authorship, yes, a lot of it is Sexy Vampires, but even with that aside, we’ll need librarians to sort through that.

Q: How will Digital Rights Management and copyright issues affect ebooks and libraries? How do you negotiate that or reform that?

Dan: It’s hard to accession a lot of things now. For many ebooks there’s no way to extract them from their DRM and they won’t move into the public domain for well over 100 years. To preserve things like that you have to break the law — some scholars have asked the Library of Congress for exemptions to the DMCA to archive films before they decay.

Q: Lightning round: How do you get people and the culture engaged with public libraries?

Andromeda: Ask yourself: Who’s not here?

Jeffrey: Politicians.

Dan: Evangelism

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August 27, 2015

From the collection of…to your local library

Here’s a sticker I’d like to see inside a book sometime:

Fictitious library sticker

Let’s say you buy a paper version of a current best-selling book. You read it. You want to have it on your shelf, but you know you’re not going to re-read it for a while.

So, why not lend it to your local library? As the owner, you can reclaim it at any time, although maybe your library would prefer you lend it for a known term so that they can count on reducing the number of copies of a bestseller they have to buy. At the end of the loan period, it comes back to you, still warm from the hands of your neighbors .

And maybe the people in your community who read your book will sign the form as a way of thanking you.

Yes, this shouldn’t be confined to bestsellers. But that would help with the problem facing public libraries that the demand for recent books falls off sharply as the next bestsellers come along, leaving libraries with 99 more copies of 50 Shades of Gray than they need.

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August 11, 2015

1M copyright free images ready for viewing and tagging

The British Library has posted one million public domain images — images not subject to any copyright restrictions — at Flickr. (They did this at least a year ago, but it’s still worth noting, isn’t it?)

The public can view them, copy them, and reuse them freely in every regard. An article in Quartz by Anne Quito reports:

So far, these images, which range from Restoration-era cartoons to colonial explorers’ early photographs, have been used on rugs, album covers, gift tags, a mapping project, and an art installation at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, among other things.

The Library posted them not only so they could be enjoyed and reused, but so the public would do what the Library is not staffed to do all by itself: add tags. Says Quartz:

to date, the collection has garnered over 267 million views, and over 400,000 tags have been added to images on Flickr by users. Through a “tagathon” with the Wikimedia UK community, the Library discovered over 50,000 maps in the collection, which they are now in the process of fitting into a modern map.

I can’t figure out how to search within a collection at Flickr, but this view at least does some clustering.

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August 2, 2015

[2b2k][liveblog] Wayne Wiegand: Libraries beyond information

Wayne Wiegand is giving the lunchtime talk at the Library History Seminar XIII at Simmons College. He’s talking about his new book Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

He introduces himself as a humanist, which brings with it a curiosity about what it means to be a human in the world. He is flawed, born into a flawed culture. He exercises his curiosity in the field of library history. [He’s also the author of the best biography of Melvil Dewey.]

People love libraries, he says, citing the Pew Internet 2013 survey that showed that almost all institutions except libraries and first responders have fallen in public esteem. His new book traces the history of the public library by listening to people who have used them since the middle of the 19th century, a bottom-up perspective. He did much of his research by searching newspaper archives, finding letters to the editors as well as articles. =People love their libraries for (1) the info they make accessible, (2) the public space, and (3) the stories they circulate that make sense of their world.

Thomas Edison spent as much time as possible in the library. The Wright Brothers came upon an ornithology book that kindled their interest in flight. HS Truman cited the library as influential. Lilly Tomlin, too. Bill Clinton, too, especially loving books about native Americans. Barack Obama, too. “The first place I wanted to be was a library,” he said when he returned from overseas. He was especially interested in Kenya, the home of his father.

For most of its history, library info science discourse has focused on what was “useful knowledge” in the 19th century, “best books” in the 20th century, or what we now call “information.” Because people don’t have to use libraries (unlike, say, courts) users have greatly influenced the shape of libraries.

“To demonstrate library as place, let me introduce you to Ricky,” he says as he starts a video. She is an adult student who does her homework in the library. When she was broke, it was a warm place where she could apply for jobs.” She has difficulty working through her emotions to express how much the library means to her.

Wayne reads a librarian’s account of the very young MLK’s regular attendance at his public library. James Levine learned to play piano there. In 1969 the Gary Indiana held a talent conference; the Jackson brothers didn’t win, but Michael became a local favorite. [Who won???] In another library, a homeless man–Mr. Conrad– came in and set up a chess board. People listened and learned from him.

“To categorize these activities as information gathering fails to appreciate the richness” of the meaning of the library for these places.

Wayne plays another video. Maria is 95 years old. She started using the library when was 12 or 13 after her family had immigrated from Russia. “That library was everything to me.” Her family could not afford to buy books “and there were some many other servicces, it was library library library all the time.” “I have seen many ugly things. You can’t live all the time with the bad.” The library was something beautiful.

Pete Seeger remembered all his life stories he read in the library.

The young Ronald Reagan read a popular Christian novel, declared himself saved, and had himself baptized. He went to his public library twice a week, mainly reading adventure stories.

Oprah Winfrey’s library taught her that there was a better world and that she could be a part of it.

Sonia Sotamayor buried herself in reading in the public library after her father died when she was nine. Nancy Drew was formative: paying attention, finding clues, reaching logical conclusions.

Wayne plays a video of Danny, a young man who learned about music from CDs in the library, and found a movie that “dropped an emotional anchor down so I didn’t feel like I was floundering” in his sexuality.

Public libraries have always played a role in making stories accessible to everyone. Communities insist that libraries stock a set of stories that the community responds to. Stories stimulate imagination, construct community through shared reading, and make manifest moral weightings.

In his book, Wayne gives story, people, and place equal weight. “Stories and libraries as place has been as important, and for many people, more important than information.” We need to look at how these activities product human subjectivity as community-based. We lack a research base to comprehend the many ways libraries are used.

The death of libraries has been pronounced too early. In 2012, the US has more libraries than ever. Attendance in 2012 dipped because the hours libraries are open went down that year, but for the decade it was up 28%. [May have gotten the number wrong a bit.] In 2012, libraries circulated 2.2B items, up 28% from 2003. And more. [Too fast to capture.] The prophets of doom have too narrow a view of what libraries do and are. “We have to expand the boundaries of our professional discourse beyond information.”

Libraries fighting against budget cuts too often replicate the stereotypes. “Public libraries no longer are warehouses of book” gives credence to the falsehood that libraries ever were that.

He ends by introducing Dawn Logsdon who is working on a film for 2017 titled Free for All: Inside the Public Library. (She’s been taping people at the conference and assures the audience that whatever doesn’t make into the film will be available online.) She shows a few minutes of a prior documentary of hers: Faubourg Treme.

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June 1, 2015

[misc][liveblog] Alex Wright: The secret history of hypertext

I’m in Oslo for Kunnskapsorganisasjonsdagene, which my dear friend Google Translate tells me is Knowledge Organization Days. I have been in Oslo a few times before — yes, once in winter, which was as cold as Boston but far more usable — and am always re-delighted by it.

Alex Wright is keynoting this morning. The last time I saw him was … in Oslo. So apparently Fate has chosen this city as our Kismet. Also coincidence. Nevertheless, I always enjoy talking with Alex, as we did last night, because he is always thinking about, and doing, interesting things. He’s currently at Etsy , which is a fascinating and inspiring place to work, and is a professor interaction design,. He continues to think about the possibilities for design and organization that led him to write about Paul Otlet who created what Alex has called an “analog search engine”: a catalog of facts expressed in millions of index cards.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Alex begins by telling us that he began as a librarian, working as a cataloguer for six years. He has a library degree. As he works in the Net, he finds himself always drawn back to libraries. The Net’s fascination with the new brings technologists to look into the future rather than to history. Alex asks, “How do we understand the evolution of the Web and the Net in an historical context?” We tend to think of the history of the Net in terms of computer science. But that’s only part of the story.

A big part of the story takes us into the history of libraries, especially in Europe. He begins his history of hypertext with the 16th century Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner who created a “universal bibliography” by writing each entry on a slip of paper. Leibniz used the same technique, writing notes on slips of paper and putting them in an index cabinet he had built to order.

In the 18th century, the French started using playing cards to record information. At the beginning of the 19th, the Jacquard loom used cards to guide weaving patterns, inspiring Charles Babbage to create what many [but not me] consider to be the first computer.

In 1836, Isaac Adams created the steam powered printing press. This, along with economic and social changes, enabled the mass production of books, newspapers, and magazines. “This is when the information explosion truly started.”

To make sense of this, cataloging systems were invented. They were viewed as regimented systems that could bring efficiencies … a very industrial concept, Alex says.

“The mid-19th century was also a period of networking”: telegraph systems, telephones, internationally integrated postal systems. “Goods, people, and ideas were flowing across national borders in a way they never had before.” International journals. International political movements, such as Marxism. International congresses (conferences). People were optimistic about new political structures emerging.

Alex lists tech from the time that spread information: a daily reading of the news over copper wires, pneumatic tubes under cities (he references Molly Wright Steenson‘s great work on this), etc.

Alex now tells us about Paul Otlet, a Belgian who at the age of 15 started designing his own cataloging system. He and a partner, Henri La Fontaine, started creating bibliographies of disciplines, starting with the law. Then they began a project to create a universal bibliography.

Otlet thought libraries were focused on the wrong problem. Getting readers to the right book isn’t enough. People also need access to the information in the books. At the 1900 [?] world’s fair in Paris, Otlet and La Fontaine demonstrated their new system. They wanted to provide a universal language for expressing the connections among topics. It was not a top-down system like Dewey’s.

Within a few years, with a small staff (mainly women) they had 15 million cards in their catalog. You could buy a copy of the catalog. You could send a query by telegraphy, and get a response telegraphed back to you, for a fee.

Otlet saw this in a bigger context. He and La Fontaine created the Union of International Associations, an association of associations, as the governing body for the universal classification system. The various associations would be responsible for their discpline’s information.

Otlet met a Scotsman named Patrick Geddes who worked against specialization and the fracturing of academic disciplines. He created a camera obscura in Edinburgh so that people could see all of the city, from the royal areas and the slums, all at once. He wanted to stitch all this information together in a way that would have a social effect. [I’ve been there as a tourist and had no idea!] He also used visual forms to show the connections between topics.

Geddes created a museum, the Palais Mondial, that was organized like hypertext., bringing together topics in visually rich, engaging displays. The displays are forerunners of today’s tablet-based displays.

Another collaborator, Hendrik Christian Andersen, wanted to create a world city. He went deep into designing it. He and Otlet looked into getting land in Belgium for this. World War I put a crimp in the idea of the world joining in peace. Otlet and Andersen were early supporters of the idea of a League of Nations.

After the War, Otlet became a progressive activist, including for women’s rights. As his real world projects lost momentum, in the 1930s he turned inward, thinking about the future. How could the new technologies of radio, television, telephone, etc., come together? (Alex shows a minute from the documentary, The Man who wanted to Classify the World.”) Otlet imagines a screen and television instead of books. All the books and info are in a separate facility, feeding the screen. “The radiated library and the televised book.” 1934.

So, why has no one ever heard of Otlet? In part because he worked in Belgium in the 1930s. In the 1940s, the Nazis destroyed his work. They replaced his building, destrooying 70 tons of materials, with an exhibit of Nazi art.

Although there are similarities to the Web, how Otlet’s system worked was very different. His system was a much more controlled environment, with a classification system, subject experts, etc. … much more a publishing system than a bottom-up system. Linked Data and the Semantic Web are very Otlet-ish ideas. RDF triples and Otlet’s “auxiliary tables” are very similar.

Alex now talks about post-Otlet hypertext pioneers.

H.G. Wells’ “World Brain” essay from 1938. “The whole human memory can be, and probably in a shoirt time will be, made accessibo every individual.” He foresaw a complete and freely avaiable encyclopedia. He and Otlet met at a conference.

Emanuel Goldberg wanted to encode punchcard-style information on microfilm for rapid searching.

Then there’s Vannevar Bush‘s Memex that would let users create public trails between documents.

And Liklider‘s idea that different types of computers should be able to share infromation. And Engelbart who in 1968’s “Mother of all Demos” had a functioning hypertext system.

Ted Nelson thought computer scientists were focused on data computation rather than seeing computers as tools of connection. He invnted the term “hypertext,” the Xanadu web, and “transclusion” (embedding a doc in another doc). Nelson thought that links always should be two way. Xanadu= “intellectual property” controls built into it.

The Internet is very flat, with no central point of control. It’s self-organizing. Private corporations are much bigger on the Net than Otlet, Engelbart, and Nelson envisioned “Our access to information is very mediated.” We don’t see the classification system. But at sites like Facebook you see transclusion, two-way linking, identity management — needs that Otlet and others identified. The Semantic Web takes an Otlet-like approach to classification, albeit perhaps by algorithms rather than experts. Likewise, the Google “knowledge vaults” project tries to raise the ranking of results that come from expert sources.

It’s good to look back at ideas that were left by the wayside, he concludes, having just decisively demonstrated the truth of that conclusion :)

Q: Henry James?

A: James had something of a crush on Anderson, but when he saw the plan for the World City told him that it was a crazy idea.

[Wonderful talk. Read his book.]


April 30, 2015

A UN museum?

I got to spend yesterday with an awesome group of about twenty people at the United Nations, brainstorming what a UN museum might look like. This was under the auspices of the UN Live project which (I believe) last week was endorsed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Some of the people at the meeting
Some of us

Although it was a free-ranging discussion from many points of view, there seemed to be general implicit agreement about a few points. (What the UN Live group does with this discussion is up to them, of course.)

Security Council
Where we did not meet

First, there was no apparent interest in constructing a museum that takes telling the UN’s story as its focus. Rather, the discussion was entirely about ways in which the values of the UN could be furthered by enabling people to connect with one another around the world.

Second, No one even considered the possibility that it might be only a physical museum. Physical elements were part of many of the ideas, but primarily to enable online services.

Here are some of the ideas that I particularly liked, starting (how rude!) with mine.

I stole it directly from a Knight Foundation proposal by my friend Nate Hill at Chattanooga Public Library. He proposed setting up 4K displays in a few libraries that have gigabit connections, to enable local residents to interact with one another. At the meeting yesterday I suggested (crediting Nate, but probably too fast for anyone to hear me, so I’m clear, right?) that the Museum be distributed via “magic mirrors” – Net-connected video monitors – that connect citizens globally. These would go into libraries and other safe spaces where there can be facilitators. (We’re all local people, so we need help talking globally.) Where possible, there might be two screens so that people can see themselves and the group they’re talking with. (For some reason, I like the idea of the monitors being circular. More like portals.)

These magic mirrors would be a platform for activities to be invented. For example:

  • Kids could play together. Virtual Jenga? Keep a virtual ball afloat? (Assume Kinect-like sensors.) Collaborative virtual jigsaw puzzle of a photo of one of their home towns? Or maybe each group is working collaboratively on one puzzle, but each team’s pieces are part of the image of the other’s team’s home. A simple mirror imitation game where each kid mimics the other’s movements? It’s a platform, so it’d be open to far better ideas than these.

  • Kids could create together. Collaborative drawing? Collaborative crazy machines a la Rube Goldberg?

  • Real-time, video AMAs: “We’re Iranian parents. AUA [ask us anything] at 10am EDT.”

  • Listings for other activities, including those proposed below.

Someone suggested that the UN create pop-up museums by bringing in a shipping container stocked with media tools. (Technically, a plop-down museum, it seems to me.) The local community would be invited to tell its story, perhaps in 100 images (borrowing the British Museum’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects”), or perhaps by providing a StoryCorps-style recording booth. Or send the kids out with video cameras. (There might have to be someone who could help with the media.) The community would be able to tell its story to the world. The world could react and interact. (These containers could contain magic mirrors.)

Another idea: Facilitate local people coming together virtually to share solutions to common problems, building on the multiple and admirable efforts to do this already.

Another idea: One group pointed out that museums typically face backwards in time. So suppose the UN museum instead constructed itself in real time as significant events occurred. E.g., as an earthquake disaster unrolls, the UN Museum would track it live, presenting its consequences intimately to the world, recording it for posterity, and facilitating relief efforts.

There was general agreement, I believe, that all of the UN Museum’s content should be openly available through APIs.

There were many, many more ideas, many of which I find exciting. I don’t know if any of the ideas discussed are going to make it past the cool-way-to-spend-an-afternoon phase, but I am thrilled by the general prospect of a UN Museum that takes as its mission not just the curation of artifacts that tell a story but advancing the UN’s mission by connecting people globally around common concerns, shared interests, and a desire to help and delight one another.

Now go ahead and be cynical and snarky.


February 23, 2015

The library-sized hole in the Internet

Sarah Bartlett of OCLC interviewed me at some length about the future of libraries. You can read it here.

At some point I will write up the topic of my talk at the OCLC’s EMEA Regional Council Meeting in Florence: libraries as community centers…of meaning.


February 8, 2015

Libraries as community centers…of meaning

Well, it’s snowing in Boston and I’m in Florence. Italy. (I’m SO sorry, Ann!) I’m here to keynote an OCLC EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) conference about libraries.

After three major revisions, I believe that on Tuesday I’m going to propose thinking about libraries as community centers. But not the usual sort where local people gather, work, socialize, play, learn … all good things, for sure. In addition, I’m going to suggest that they view themselves as community centers of meaning.

I know it sounds silly, and I’m open to better phrases, but I think it’s not entirely pointless. (The idea arose in a conversation with Robert Fleming, executive director of the Emerson College library. I’m teaching a course at Emerson this semester.)

The idea is simple. It used to be that once a user checked a book out of the library, the library was out of the loop. The user read it at home, talked about it with friends or a Significant Other, maybe spent an evening with a book club discussing it. The library might be slightly in the loop if they enabled users to review or rate books, or if they have an awesome Awesome Box. But even so, the pickings were pretty slim.

Now, of course, users are likely to talk on line about what they’re reading. At least as important, the library has tons of metadata that it can use to gauge how relevant an item is to its community, and even get a glimmer of what makes it relevant. Of course, much of this information is private, but there are ways to use it without violating anyone’s privacy.

If a community can be made more aware of what it’s finding meaningful and relevant, it can learn from itself, push its own boundaries, unearth new ideas, and find ever-better disagreements.

Note that I am not suggesting that libraries curate community meaning. Rather, libraries can provide services to facilitate the development of community meaning, making the community aware of itself. And this is of course an additional opportunity for librarians to contribute their own expertise at contextualizing and expanding our understanding.

Who is currently the custodian of community meaning? No one. Who is in the best position to be that custodian and facilitator? Your local library.


February 2, 2015

Future of libraries, Kenya style

This video will remind you, if you happen to have forgotten, what libraries mean to much of the world:

Internet, mesh, people eager to learn, the same people eager to share. A future for libraries.

You can contribute here.

Comments Off on Future of libraries, Kenya style

November 24, 2014

[siu] Accessing content

Alex Hodgson of ReadCube is leading a panel called “Accessing Content: New Thinking and New Business Models or Accessing Research Literature” at the Shaking It Up conference.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Robert McGrath is from ReadCube, a platform for managing references. You import your pdfs, read them with their enhanced reader, and can annotate them and discover new content. You can click on references in the PDF and go directly to the sources. If you hit a pay wall, they provide a set of options, including a temporary “checkout” of the article for $6. Academic libraries can set up a fund to pay for such access.

Eric Hellman talks about Everyone in the book supply chain wants a percentage. But free e-books break the system because there are no percentages to take. “Even libraries hate free ebooks.” So, how do you give access to Oral Literature in Africain Africa? ran a campaign, raised money, and liberated it. How do you get free textbooks into circulation? Teachers don’t know what’s out there. is creating MARC records for these free books to make it easy for libraries to include the. The novel Zero Sum Game is a great book that the author put it out under a Creative Commons license, but how do you find out that it’s available? Likewise for Barbie: A Computer Engineer, which is a legal derivative of a much worse book. has over 1,000 creative commons licensed books in their collection. One of’s projects: an author pledges to make the book available for free after a revenue target has been met. [Great! A bit like the Library License project from the Harvard Library Innovation Lab. They’re now doing Thanks for Ungluing which aggregates free ebooks and lets you download them for free or pay the author for it. [Plug: John Sundman’s Biodigital is available there. You definitely should pay him for it. It’s worth it.]

Marge Avery, ex of MIT Press and now at MIT Library, says the traditional barriers sto access are price, time, and format. There are projects pushing on each of these. But she mainly wants to talk about format. “What does content want to be?” Academic authors often have research that won’t fit in the book. Univ presses are experimenting with shorter formats (MIT Press Bits), new content (Stanford Briefs), and publishing developing, unifinished content that will become a book (U of Minnesota). Cambridge Univ Press published The History Manifesto, created start to finish in four months and is available as Open Access as well as for a reasonable price; they’ve sold as many copies as free copies have been downloaded, which is great.

William Gunn of Mendeley talks about next-gen search. “Search doesn’t work.” Paul Kedrosky was looking for a dishwasher and all he found was spam. (Dishwashers, and how Google Eats Its Own Tail). Likewise, Jeff Atwood of StackExchange: “Trouble in the House of Google.” And we have the same problems in scholarly work. E.g., Google Scholar includes this as a scholarly work. Instead, we should be favoring push over pull, as at Mendeley. Use behavior analysis, etc. “There’s a lot of room for improvement” in search. He shows a Mendeley search. It auto-suggests keyword terms and then lets you facet.

Jenn Farthing talks about JSTOR’s “Register and Read” program. JSTOR has 150M content accesses per year, 9,000 institutions, 2,000 archival journals, 27,000 books. Register and Read: Free limited access for everyone. Piloted with 76 journals. Up to 3 free reads over a two week period. Now there are about 1,600 journals, and 2M users who have checked out 3.5M articles. (The journals are opted in to the program by their publishers.)


Q: What have you learned in the course of these projects?

ReadCube: UI counts. Tracking onsite behavior is therefore important. Iterate and track.

Marge: It’d be good to have more metrics outside of sales. The circ of the article is what’s really of importance to the scholar.

Mendeley: Even more attention to the social relationships among the contributors and readers.

JSTOR: You can’t search for only content that’s available to you through Read and Register. We’re adding that. started out as a crowdfunding platform for free books. We didn’t realize how broken the supply chain is. Putting a book on a Web site isn’t enough. If we were doing it again, we’d begin with what we’re doing now, Thanks for Ungluing, gathering all the free books we can find.

Q: How to make it easier for beginners?

Unglue .it: The publishing process is designed to prevent people from doing stuff with ebooks. That’s a big barrier to the adoption of ebooks.

ReadCube: Not every reader needs a reference manager, etc.

Q: Even beginning students need articles to interoperate.

Q: When ReadCube negotiates prices with publishers, how does it go?

ReadCube: In our pilots, we haven’t seen any decline in the PDF sales. Also, the cost per download in a site license is a different sort of thing than a $6/day cost. A site license remains the most cost-effective way of acquiring access, so what we’re doing doesn’t compete with those licenses.

Q: The problem with the pay model is that you can’t appraise the value of the article until you’ve paid. Many pay models don’t recognize that barrier.

ReadCube: All the publishers have agreed to first-page previews, often to seeing the diagrams. We also show a blurred out version of the pages that gives you a sense of the structure of the article. It remains a risk, of course.

Q: What’s your advice for large legacy publishers?

ReadCube: There’s a lot of room to explore different ways of brokering access — different potential payers, doing quick pilots, etc.

Mendeley: Make sure your revenue model is in line with your mission, as Geoff said in the opening session.

Marge: Distinguish the content from the container. People will pay for the container for convenience. People will pay for a book in Kindle format, while the content can be left open.

Mendeley: Reading a PDF is of human value, but computing across multiple articles is of emerging value. So we should be getting past the single reader business model.

JSTOR: Single article sales have not gone down because of Read and Register. They’re different users. Traditional publishers should cut their cost basis. They have fancy offices in expensive locations. They need to start thinking about how they can cut the cost of what they do.

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