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Libs in space : beaming into the future


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Libs in space : beaming into the future Introductory slide:

Libs in Space : Beaming into the Future

A keynote speech to the 97. deutscher Bibliotekartag 3.6.2008

By Michael Cotta-Schönberg, Bertil Dorch and Christian Knudsen (Royal Library /Copenhagen Univ. Libr.);

Frede Mørch (Faculty Library of Life Sciences,

Copenhagen Univ.). Reader: Katja Guldbæk Rasmussen (Royal Library)

1. Beaming away

2. The demise of print 3. After the catastrophe 4. The sum of all knowledge 5. The global web

6. From brain to brain - directly 7. The eternal librarian

8. Go boldly!


1. Beaming away

Why, dear colleagues, should we be concerned with the future?

Well, let me offer you this reflection on time itself.

The past – though it changes all the time in our memory – is fundamentally it is a closed chapter.

The present only lasts an instant, but in that instant it is immutable.

The future, however, is a raging sea of potentialities, the kingdom of the possible, the empire of the mind - as

Winston Churchill once said, the privileged playground for our imagination.

Will we submit to the future as to the whims of fortune?

Will we accept it is our fated destiny?

Or will we change it through creative action?

It is in the fundamental nature of man that we are never satisfied, we are always on the move towards something else, we always want a new thing.

Inventiveness drives us on, we are continously interacting with our future, and those glorious moments of silent


restfulness are interludes in a never-ending journey towards ... what will come.

To interact effectively with our, we need to strive to understand it as much as possible, even if our

understanding may change next week because some new invention or development changes the whole picture.

For more than 100 years people have been giving lectures and writing about the future of librarie.

The usual approach is to extrapolate from present empirical trends to the future.

Instead of a heavy strategy lecture, the organisers of the meeting have asked for a presentation of insights on

library development based on science fiction: literature and movies.

It is all supposed to be entertaining, but with a serious viewpoint.

This presentation has been prepared by a fellowship of four:

 myself and

 the director of the faculty library of life sciences, Frede Mørch, of the University of Copenhagen


 our astrophysicist and specialist on Open Acces, Bertil Dorch, whom we shall interview a little later

 and finally our Engineer in Residence and specialist on chemistry, Christian Knudsen

The text selections will be read to you on screen by Katja Guldbæk who is a web-specialist at the Royal Library as well as a jazz singer, and who will be the golden voice of our future …

Before beaming ahead, we shall step into the past for a moment – to remind ourselves where we come from.

To know your direction, you have to know your origins, so that we shall better understand our present course.

Film clip 1: The Name of the Rose (3:42)

You will all have guessed, of course, that this film clip is from the Name of the Rose.

It illustrates vividly the nature of the analog book.

In this case the books were handwritten, not printed, but basically they provided users with the same type of reading experience as printed books, and they were the foundation


But more importantly, it shows the joy and love of books which has permeated our culture for five centuries…

… and the fascination with libraries as treasure houses of knowledge, which we probably all here recognise since we were infected with the same virus.

So, this is where we come from. We know where we are.

Where are we going to?

First, it might be useful to focus for a moment on the

question: does Sci Fi really provide interesting insights into the future – of anything?

Director Morch will now interview our astrophysicist, doctor Dorch, who is in Copenhagen. Doctor Dorch has a brilliant mind and a deep knowledge of the subject, but – in total confidence – he may appear a little strange or alien even, and I sometimes wonder where he is truly from.

Visual/audio clip with astrophysicist Bertil Dorch

So, dear colleagues, you do not really have to believe in Science Fiction to be able to learn from it.

Man’s imagination is not there to lead him astray, but to lead him on.


Let us now plunge into the nebula of our future.

2. The demise of print

There once was a university library on the planet of Mars:

Film clip 2: Futurama (0:54)

The collections of the university library reduced to two cd’s! This film was evidently made, when CDs were still hot stuff! But it does point to the future of the library without printed books.

As you all know, there is a lot of moaning concerning the printed book.

We do not to see why.

The printed book has a glorious future ahead as

 a collector’s item,

 as the preferred reading device of people with quaint habits,


In the future, all books and periodicals will be stored

digitally, but users can decide for themselves which usage format they prefer.

So if they want books which look like printed books, they shall have them, of course, through print-on-demand or whatever.

For culture has a way of keeping the older forms alongside the new ones.

Theatre did not disappear when it was replaced by film as the preferred medium of entertainment. Nor did cinemas disappear when television took over.

Culture mostly grows by accretion and diversification, not by replacement and uniformisation.

The point is that printed books will not be stored in

academic libraries. We shall be going completely digital within one generation. That is what I firmly believe.

For a long period, librarians have thought that the traditional library would be safe for centuries at least because of our old collections of print materials.

In 2007 we know that this is not true.

Together with private firms like Google and Microsoft and others, national libraries like The Royal Library in


Copenhagen are busily preparing the complete digitisation of the nations’ literary heritage.

Already, many libraries have access to two digital book collections rendering obsolete their grand collections of printed English books from the 15th to the 18th century.

So, at some point in the not too distant future: we shall not have printed books in our academic libraries!

3. After the catastrophe

But won’t we need to keep the printed book collections for the day when civilisation breaks down, computers crash globally and the net disintegrates?

There are many nightmare scenarios and among them:

 atomic war or accidents;

 terrorist magnetic storms;

 environmental catastrophes.

The Roman poet Horace says somewhere: “Daring to experience all things, mankind rushes even through the forbidden wrong.”


Librarians would of course like to think that having print collections still with us when the system breaks down around us, will ensure the survival of culture.

Let us se if Hollywood shares this view.

The next film clip is from The Day after Tomorrow. The ice on the North Pole has melted and the golf stream

system broken down. North East America is submerged, and a few survivors huddle together in the New York Public Library.

Film clip 3: The Day after Tomorrow (0:57)

It appears in this movie, that the major importance of the post-catastrophe library consists in the heating value of the collection.

The two bright young persons on our authors' team,

Christian and Bertil, have calculated that the energy value of the total book collection of our Royal Library chemically corresponds to the energy used to keep all Danish

refrigerators running for four and a half days, or physically to 5.834 big atomic bombs.

Unfortunately, they were not able to calculate

the intellectual energy represented by the collection ...

there is after all a limit to science!


In our youth, some of us read a book called A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Here too, civilisation has broken down in atomic wars, but because the surviving books were collected in monastic libraries, civilisation was able to restart, develop along the same tracks as before and end again in a new


In a magnificent sentence the author, Walter M. Miller, explains why: “Neither infinite power nor infinite

wisdom could bestow godhood upon men. For that there would have to be infinite love as well.”

In terms of libraries, the lesson appears to be that if

civilisation is destroyed, maybe it would really be better for libraries and books to be destroyed, too, so that

humanity could make a completely fresh beginning and hopefully try something better the next time.

In another such fantasy about a broken down world, some territories have survived as a post-electronic culture – since all electronic devices are zapped by a space-based weapons system circling the world.

In Australia, a system of old print libraries called Libris has survived and – surprise – the continent is to a large extent dominated by the chief librarian, the Highliber.


Katja will now read you a passage from the book, Souls in the Great Machine, by the Australian author Sean


Text clip a: McMullen, Souls in the Great Machine, p. 7

Libris was Rochester’s mayoral library. Its stone beamflash communications tower was over 600 feet high and dominated the skyline of the city.

Unofficially, the Highliber of Libris was second only to the mayor in power, and she controlled a network of libraries and librarians scattered over dozens of mayorates and thousands of miles. In many ways the Highliber was even more powerful than the mayor. There was no dominant religion … so the library system performed many functions of a powerful clergy. The education, communication, and transport of every mayorate in the Southeast alliance was under the discreet but firm

coordination of the Highliber of Rochester.

It comes as no surprise, then, that it is a Highliber who manages to restore a technological civilization, but as in Leibowitz’ book it appears highly doubtful that humanity has learnt the lesson.


At any rate, keeping traditional print libraries as part of the national survival kit in case of global disintegration seems singularly depressing.

Better ways must be found, and not necessarily by librarians.

4. The sum of all knowledge

If it has not already been written, a brilliant theme for a science fiction book would be the necessity for every planetary civilisation to pass through that needle’s eye where we have attained mastery of the forces of nature and of technology but have not yet attained mastery of ourselves.

During that scary period, global destruction looms large on the event horison.

To get through that risky phase, any civilisation will need to master its knowledge resources: knowledge is not

sufficient for the success of a global civilisation, but it is a necessary condition.

It is therefore quite natural that a number of science fiction authors have been concerned with the theme of somehow organising the sum of all knowledge and


Here is a bid from H.G. Wells, who wrote The War of the Worlds and Time Machine.

In 1938 he published a paper entitled World Brain : The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopaedia.

Text clip b: Wells, World Brain

The most hopeful line for development of our racial intelligence lies in the direction of creating a new world organ for the collection, indexing,

summarizing and release of knowledge. The phrase

“Permanent World Encylopaedia” conveys the gist of these ideas. As the core of such an institution would be a world synthesis of bibliography and documentation with the indexed archives of the world. A great number of workers would be engaged perpetually in perfecting this index of human knowledge and keeping it up to date.

Concurrently, the resources of micro-photography, as yet only in their infancy, will be creating a

concentrated visual record. By means of the

microfilm, the rarest and most intricate documents and articles can now be studied at first hand,

simultaneously in a score of projection rooms.

Substitute digitisation for microphotography and we have a surprisingly modern vision.


Thirteen years after Wells’ seminal article the concept of a total encyclopedia of all knowledge was taken up by

Asimov in his celebrated Foundation series.

To my mind, that series has not really kept well:

 his future people smoke cigars and cigarettes incessantly,

 they use atomic power for everything,

 and their primary communication device is tube mail.

Seemingly, the computer has not been invented (at least not in the first volume from 1953).

At the beginning of the series, the galactic empire of Trantor is starting to fall apart.

Psychohistorian Harry Sheldon has calculated that 30.000 years of misery await before a new galactic civilisation arises.

However, he has a plan for reducing this period to just 1.000 years.

At a hearing in an imperial board of investigation he is asked how he proposes to do this. He answers as follows:


Text clip c: Asimov, The Foundation (p. 28-29)

By saving the knowledge of the race. The sum of human knowing is beyond any one man; any thousand men. With the destruction of our social fabric, science will be broken into a million pieces.

Individuals will know much of exceedingly tiny facets of what there is to know. They will be

helpless and useless by themselves. But, if we now prepare a giant summary of all knowledge, it will never be lost. Coming generations will build on it, and will not have to rediscover it for themselves.

My thirty thousand men with their wives and

children are devoting themselves to the preparation of an Encyclopedia Galactica. They will not

complete it in their lifetime. But by the time Trantor falls, it will be complete and copies will exist in every major library in the Galaxy.

A very special version of the galactic encyclopedia is the justly famous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It contains information on absolutely everything, for example on a cocktail called the Pan galactic Gargle Blaster, as this somewhat campy clip shows:

Film clip 4: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (0:49)


In a more serious vein, the concept of the sum of all knowledge is brought to its full development in David Brin’s Uplift war-books.

The civilisations of the galaxy have created a number of intergalactic institutes, one of them being the

Intergalactic library.

It contains absolutely every known knowledge resource in the universe.

In itself it is the master library of the universe and selective copies of the library are distributed as planet branch libraries to all civilised planets in the galaxies.

On the planet Garth the old planetary library has been destroyed through sabotage, and a new one has been sent through space to the planet:

Text clip e: Brin, The uplift war

The new Planetary Branch Library was a beauty.

The architecture was quite stunning – a windowless cube whose pastel shades contrasted well with the nearby chalky outcrops.

Most of Port Helena had turned out to watch, a few weeks ago, as a huge freighter cruised lazily out of


large part of the afternoon the sun had been eclipsed while technicians from the Library

Institute set the sanctuary firmly into place in its new home.

The Planetary Branch Library came provided with a

librarian, actually a vege-sentient Kanten with rounded, bulbous foliage, lined with silvery bits which tinkled gently as it moved.

As you can hear, in this advanced galactic culture, the library has easily survived the demise of the printed book and become one of the most important pillars of


Actually, discarding the print medium was a necessary condition for the library’s continued feasibility.

5. The global web

The sum of all knowledge gathered in one world library, or even a galactic library with a copy branch library on every planet, that is a truly magnificent vision and the dream of librarians come true.

We shall become the knowledge hub of the universe.


It is a pity, then, that this dream ended around 1990 with the advent of the Internet, the web and all that.

It is now clear that the sum of all knowledge will not take the form of some centralised system.

Rather it will be a distributed system with millions, or rather billions of components scattered all over the world and comprising an astonishing number of computers and servers.

The task of organising this sum of all knowledge has

already changed character completely, and so has the role of libraries.

Hollywood, that tireless driver of the global cultural imagination, is quite aware that something is happening, and happening very fast.

In Dan Brown’s mega bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, from 2003, there is an episode in London, where our professor and Sophie urgently need to find information on the tomb of a knight templar.

They rush off to the faculty library of religion and theology at King’s College.

There they are ably assisted by a female reference

librarian, Pamela Gettum with a genial and erudite face and thick horn-rimmed glasses.


“To begin – she tells them - we’ll run a straight Boolean with a few obvious keywords and see what happens.”

Then she plunges into the database of the library and quickly the problem is solved.

So far so good, and librarians will have read this passage with particular joy.

The joy was shortlived, though. When the movie came out in 2006, this episode had been completely changed. Let us see how:

Film clip 5: The Da Vinci Code (2:55)

In the timespan of just three years - from the book to the movie –

 the search in the library’s database was replaced by a search on the internet,

 the role of the OPAC was taken over by the mobile phone, and

 the place of the librarian-consultant was given to an accidental bus-passenger.

Now, we librarians know that the Internet, the Web and Google cannot really – at present – replace libraries even


if a number of our earlier functions have been taken over by these new systems.

But, we do have a long range problem and the public clearly perceives this.

A year ago, a newspaper in Copenhagen carried a headline proclaiming that Google is the librarian of the future.

Some months afterwards the library community in Denmark was shaken by a forecast from the Danish

Institute of Future Studies that librarians as a profession would disappear within 20 years.

Other professional categories, too, would become obsolete – among them the so-called “sausage-men”, that is the men staffing our many burger stands.

It was really quite humiliating, especially since a large part of the public would seemingly rather do away with libraries than with burger stands!

A cogent expression of the general perception of the Internet as a threat to libraries is given in the movie I, Robot from 2004:

Film clip 6: I, robot (0:32)


Of course, no librarian today would dream of abolishing the Internet and the Web.

Quite on the contrary, we have embraced them, critically sometimes, but basically with eagerness and enthusiasm.

But the conflict between the global net and web on the one hand and the traditional library on the other hand is not just a perceived one, a fashion thing which will go away.

It is a real conflict, and the public has perceived quite

correctly that the new global, distributed, digital knowledge structure based on the Internet and the web etc. mean the end of the traditional library, note that I say the traditional library.

6. From brain to brain – directly

To access that global, distributed, digital knowledge system we still need intermediaries like computers, terminals or downloads or paper.

There is something between our own brain and that world brain of information.

Moreover, we assimilate data from that other brain in a process which takes time and intellectual resources.


The more extensive and complicated the data, the more time and brain power is needed for assimilation.

Sci Fi has already leapt ahead and solved this problem for us by conceiving a future where data are assimilated

directly from the external brain into our own brain.

In Matrix there is an example where a critically needed skill is transferred directly and immediately from the machine brain to the brain of the user through an electronic device:

Film clip 7: The Matrix (0:26)

Pretty advanced stuff, and to my mind scary because that fascinating process of learning seems to have been replaced by instant commodityfication of the learning process


But Science Fiction has gone even further, it skips the physical intermediaries, and goes straight forbrain direct cerebral communication between the user and the global information system, web or hub.

The most advanced thinker of the direct transfer of information and data is Peter F. Hamilton.

I refer especially to the last volume of his Night’s Dawn Trilogy called “The Naked God”.


A young girl, Louise, arrives on Earth and goes to a consumer electronics shop called Jude’s Eworld.

There she meets Andy, a young salesman.

Andy, of course, immediately falls in love with Louise and sells her a nanonics set, the Kulu Corporation ANI-5000. It is a neural augmentation software containing “everything needed to survive daily arcology life: datavises, mid-res neuroiconic display, enhanced memory retrieval, and axon block”.

Professional supplements are “physiological monitors, Encyclopaedia Galactica (that concept has really stuck), employment waldoing, SII suit control, weapons

integration, linguistic translation, news informant, starship astrogation, net search – the full monty.”

Andy and Louise then enter a small cubicle – Andy thinks it is really not small enough - and the neural nanonics set is directly implanted in her brain.

Then she goes home and tries the system for the first time:

Text clip 5: The Naked God (pp. 466-467)

The program’s visualization took the form of a three-dimensional spider’s web that filled the

entire universe. Strands were all primary colours,


crossing and recrossing against each other, a weave that stretched away to an infinity where they

blurred into null-grey uniformity. Louise’s mind hung in the center, looking in every direction at once.

Information taxis were flooding back towards her, silent sparkles of light riding the strands down to the centre, condensing around her like a new galaxy.

Texts like this boggle the imagination, and I tend to think that Science Fiction here may-be goes too far to be really interesting.

On the other hand, if you look up the word “may-be” in Google, the system will retrieve - in a split second - more than 1.8 billion occurrences.

So may-be anything IS possible.

7. The eternal librarian

Basically, the task of librarians is twofold: firstly they have to organise knowledge systems, whatever the type, and secondly they have to organise access for users.


These two functions will be necessary in any future, too, also when printed books have disappeared from libraries and with them the libraries themselves.

In this context it may be difficult to retain the title


I notice, though, that certain very advanced information consumers like astrophysicists have now left print and print-libraries behind, but they are still fond of the concept of “library” to designate an organised set of texts.

Any which way, librarians will turn out to be, I think, a long-lived race, though they may not in the end be entirely human. Nobody will probably notice the difference anyway.

Let is see what Star Wars has to say about the library of the Jedi:

Film clip 8: Star Wars (0:58)

There are a couple of interesting things in this sequence:

Firstly: the format of the traditional library has been

retained by the Jedi. Actually Christian from our group has found that the Jedi library is patterned on Trinity College Library in Dublin.


Slide: Jedi Library and Trinity College Library juxtaposed

This probably just goes to show that the Jedi knights are an anachronistic organisation of oldtimers who have not

really understood what happens in the universe but stubbornly believe that FORCE is everything.

Secondly: and most importantly, the librarian is still there.

And not only is she there: she has the audacity to claim that “if an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist!” You only exist, if you have been catalogued by a librarian …

It is certainly not enough to have been imagined by a science fiction author!

A question: is the Jedi librarian truly human or is she a Jedi robot?

I think her way of walking seemed a little robot-like, but Christian from our group thinks she simply has a typical librarians’ gait.

And why was she cranky? Because she was old? Or because the designers had given the robot those traits


In another movie there is no doubt: the librarian is not a human but an avatar of the artificial intelligence, which is the knowledge hub of the world.

We give you two sequences from Time machine. The first one is from the year 2030, that is 22 years from now.

Film clip 9: Time machine (3:21)

The second clip is from the very far future, or more precisely the year 802.701.

Film clip 10: Time machine (1:07)

Worlds will pass, civilisations collapse, mankind may return to the caves - but the librarian will stay on as the battered, yet indefatigable information specialist entrusted with that eternal task of helping users to find information.

8. Go boldly!

There are three basic conclusions from this – admittedly very selective – survey of libraries in Science Fiction.

The first one is:


Print will disappear from academic libraries within a generation.

This is definitely not the shocker it would have been 20 years ago, but that momentous date does keep moving closer, a little too close for comfort, I personally think.

But nonetheless: I am myself, as a library director, today making strategy decisions based on this perception of things.

The second conclusion is that:

Academic libraries will survive the disappearance of the printed book.

Today, it may be safely predicted that their task will be

 to organise the digital knowledge resources of the university, including access

 to provide specialist assistance to scholars and students in information retrieval,

 to be a partner in the dissemination of the research product of the university,

 to teach information competence to students,


 to support teaching through course-customised e- resource collections,

 and to maintain a study environment for students with single and group study places as well as lounge environments and all that.

They will have other roles too, of course, depending on local circumstances and inventiveness.

The third conclusion is that:

The librarian will survive the library.

The job profile and the title will change, but the librarian will survive in future reincarnations – or avatars – as an organiser of knowledge and of access to knowledge, who is necessary for the world in order to cope with that fabulous increase in available information and data to which Google is only a primitive beginning.

For, Google in its present form will not be able to cope:

the renaissance of specialised systems is fast approaching.

You may object that Science Fiction authors have already thought the intelligent world hub, in the sense of the conscious, artificial intelligence which organises

everything, including knowledge resources and knowledge access, so that man is totally free to play and be creative.


In that particular future, there will not be a librarian, unless they make old-fashioned libraries for fun, but anyway it is so far out that I do not really bother.

There are conditions for the survival of librarians.

One of them is a keen sense of basic identity.

Let us hear what the heroine of The Mummy has to say about that:

Film clip 10: The Mummy(0:26)

A touching scene!

However, there is some inconsistency here.

On the one hand, our heroine quite admirably insists on her identity as a librarian.

On the other hand, she quite mysteriously opposes it to being an intrepid explorer or adventurer, whereas that is exactly what she is herself in the movie.

So we should do what she does, not what she says: we should be adventurous explorer-librarians.

In conclusion, I give you the prologue from the first Star


Our continuing mission is:

 To explore strange new worlds.

 To seek out new libraries and new civilizations.

 To boldly go where no librarian has gone before The only baggage we need is

 a sense of identity,

 a sense of basic information values and skills,

 a sense of newness, and …

 a sense of fun!



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