Monday, May 3, 2010

The Future of Libraries

Harvard Magazine has an article on the future of libraries titled Gutenberg 2.0:
“A big misconception is that digital information and analog information are incompatible,” says Darnton, himself an historian of the book. “On the contrary, the whole history of books and communication shows that one medium does not displace another.”
Say what!?! Wait one while I copy and paste that bit of ivy league wisdom to my non-displaced medium of choice: a clay tablet. All-in-all it's not a bad article except that the librarians, convinced of their own self-importance, seem determined to convince others as well:
“Who has the most scientific knowledge of large-scale organization, collection, and access to information? Librarians,” says Bol. A librarian can take a book, put it somewhere, and then guarantee to find it again. “If you’ve got 16 million items,” he points out, “that’s a very big guarantee. We ought to be leveraging that expertise to deal with this new digital environment. That’s a vision of librarians as specialists in organizing and accessing and preserving information in multiple media forms, rather than as curators of collections of books, maps, or posters.”
If the categorization and organization that librarians provide is so great then Yahoo would've beaten Google; however, ontology is overrated. And there's a simple mathematical reason for that: hashing algorithms can execute in constant time. Let me explain what that means by way of an example. Let's say you have a street with a thousand houses on it. Instead of each house having a unique and ordered number, let's give them all unique names like: Bob, Joan, Steve, Kim, etc. A well written hashing algorithm will find George just as quickly as knowing that George is the 583rd house.

But the thing that really irks me about the Harvard Magazine article is the fact that it makes no mention of the real Gutenberg 2.0—the Gutenberg Project. You would think that the people committed to classifying information and proud of their ability to do so would be aware of a project to identify, transcribe, and provide public domain books. Perhaps they think the Gutenberg Project is just a fad, a flash in the pan that will disappear like so many internet start ups before, a blink in the history of human writing:
Project Gutenberg began in 1971 when Michael Hart was given an operator's account with $100,000,000 of computer time in it by the operators of the Xerox Sigma V mainframe at the Materials Research Lab at the University of Illinois.
Then again, maybe "the whole history of books and communication shows that one medium does not displace another" is wishful thinking that librarians have a vested interest in perpetuating.

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