With all the work going on in libraries to digitize materials and also to manage materials that are born digital, someone asked what this means for the traditional role of librarians as collectors on behalf of their patrons.
Someone else pointed out that librarians are beyond being collectors of materials to being curators. OK, but what does curation mean now and going forward into the future?
In many ways, the deeper question is “what is a book” in the digital age?
To provide some context, imagine all the books that have been written are each envisioned as a highway. Reading the traditional printed book of the pre-digital era was like getting on a highway and not getting off until it ends – unless, of course, you just stopped reading it at all.
But when you’re reading a digital book, you might see something interesting from this highway – at any point – and get off for a look. You might return quickly or keep going further and further away from the highway (i.e., the original book you started reading). You might also want to follow a meandering path that someone else charted or “discovered” before you.
So we are practically past the age when the book as a body of written material was siloed between hard covers and stood in isolation from other books. The book is no longer a discrete and fixed product.
Some developments have already begun to recognize this change. For example, there are the “adaptive textbooks” from McGraw Hill Education and Harvard’s H20 Adaptable Digital Textbooks.
Indeed, over the last few years, the Harvard University Library Innovation Lab has been doing some of the most interesting work along these lines anywhere in the world. Its relevant projects and experiments include:
- Highbrow: A Textual Annotation Browser
- Consilience: which “provides an interactive user interface to help users discover different ways of grouping sets of documents, to zoom into each cluster within a selected group, and to zoom in further into individual documents”
- Atlas Viewer: a way to explore geographic materials spatially, rather than one page at a time
- StackLife: which “lets you browse all of the items in Harvard’s 73 libraries and Book Depository as if they were on a single shelf.”
In the new world of digital reading paths, how can the reader not get totally lost and confused? – Or perhaps get lost enough to discover new things for himself/herself. Better yet how can people be helped to discover new things and new connections that no one had discovered before, that we would all benefit from?
How many of the people who have traditionally been trying to help readers – librarians, reviewers, editors, writers and others – are prepared to deal with the fact this is even a question they have to answer?
Perhaps librarians and editors should start thinking of themselves as the equivalent of digital DJs who organize and often mash-up music from a variety of artists. These DJs become star entertainers themselves – way more than mere musical curators. (Librarians should also note that the most successful of these DJs earn millions of dollars. See Forbes’ review “The World’s Highest-Paid DJs”.)
With a new mindset about the role of a librarian and more of the kind of experimentation and technology Harvard has created and the rest of us will be better able to navigate the digital reading highways and byways.
© 2015 Norman Jacknis