AFTER THE PARADE
Part One: WINNING IS LOSING
Let me begin this morning with the good news: you’ve won. The culture of shared knowledge which is the essence of the message and purpose of the library has now become an established feature of global culture. The light of knowledge shines more brightly than ever before, from two billion smartphone screens.
But the forces mobilized to bring victory lose coherence after the peace has been declared. Demobilization scatters the constituent elements of an army to the four winds, almost as if it never existed.
So what lies ahead for the library? The forces of ignorance beaten back, and its terms met, what then is its raison d’être?
Institutions persist because that is what they do. Build something big enough and those involved will attempt to make a go of it for as long as possible. No one wants to face oblivion, but all good things must come to an end.
And that’s really why we’re here today, in a mixed moment simultaneously triumphal and panegyric. Victory has come, and oblivion awaits. That’s the way every good story ends.
In the style of a Classical panegyric, let me first recapitulate the strange eventful history of the battles which brought us to the edge of extinction. Casting a glance backward, we find meaning in our eventual destiny.
On rare moments that past encapsulates itself in a single event; I was lucky enough to have experience of these in mid-August.
At the last minute, I’d been invited to be a judge at the Young ICT Explorers New South Wales competition.
Two hundred kids gathered at the University of New South Wales, years 4 to 11, singly or in teams, each with an ICT project of their own creation.
Very early in the morning, I met up with my fellow judges, and we struck out in search of some decent coffee to help us through to day. As we got to chatting, it became clear that I was the ‘old man’ on the team. Not entirely surprising. What was more surprising – and perhaps a bit depressing – was that the sum of their ages added up to my own.
They chatted about the kinds of computing they’d had access to when they were the same age as the year 4-6 students we’d been assigned to judge. The older of the two – a sales director at a huge international software firm – rhapsodized about the computers of 1992, as the speedy and powerful Intel 486 became the standard for personal computing. The younger – still a student at the uni – talked about the fast and powerful Pentium III.
I guess you never forget your first CPU.
I stayed silent during this wander down memory lane because I realized that when I was in grade 4, a small or ‘minicomputer’ – such as a DEC PDP-11/45 – easily filled an entire room. A mainframe, such as an IBM S/360, would fill the entire floor of a building.
I remember my first CPU – the Z-80 – because it was almost the very first CPU. I was already fifteen years ago before ‘microcomputing’ – or, as we refer to it today, ‘personal computing’ existed in any form.
I suppose this could be the point where I rattle my Zimmer frame and scream “Get off my lawn!” But I’d rather take this moment to revisit the rocketship ride of the past 35 years. We went from nothing to everything over little more than a billion seconds.
For the first fifteen years, computers weren’t even connected.
Yes, a few brave souls bought modems and dialed into time-sharing systems or logged onto bulletin boards, but for the overwhelming majority of computer users, the personal computer was a stand-alone object.
It’s difficult today for us to imagine the utility of a device that had only a few tens of megabytes of storage and no connectivity.
We shriek with impotent rage when we lose our mobile broadband signal for just a few minutes, so accustomed are we to constant high-quality connectivity. The idea of the computer has become synonymous with the idea of connectivity. To have a computer is to have a device that is connected to billions of others – if not continuously, at least consistently.
Around the time the older of my fellow judges started to use computers, the Internet started to reach mainstream users (mostly filtered through various dial-up services) but it wasn’t until a few years later – the middle of the 1990s – that the World Wide Web exploded, and brought the Internet to every corner of the planet.
When the Web arrived on the scene, people began throwing around the term ‘universal library’, or ‘the return of Alexandria’, swept up in an understanding that, for the first time, the entire race would have access to its collective knowledge. Unsurprisingly, first truly rich media website was the Vatican library. Librarians got it, and got to work.
Eighteen years between the Z-80 and the Web; eighteen years between the Web and the present. We tend to dismiss that first eighteen years as insignificant, precisely because they were disconnected. Connectivity brought us one another, in such numbers that collaborations became possible at scales hitherto unimaginable.
In January 2002 – probably just about the time that the younger of my fellow judges started to use computers in earnest – I had the honor of speaking at an event honoring the late computing pioneer Douglas Englebart. I spoke about his then-unfulfilled promise for ‘knowledge amplification’, and how we might work toward reaching the goal of using computers to increase human capability. After my talk, two other speakers came up to me and asked, “Have you ever heard of Wikipedia?”
Of course I hadn’t.
Not quite a year old, the Wikipedia of early 2002 had about 14,000 articles – less than a children’s encyclopedia. What it lacked in content it easily made up for in both contributor enthusiasm and potential. Within a few years Wikipedia matured into the definitive online factual resource.
The knowledge of hundreds of thousands of individuals had never been shared before; we didn’t know what was coming with Wikipedia, could not see this new type of knowledge formation until it was upon us, because we had no precedent. Connectivity – Internet and Web – provided a platform for sharing. Wikis transform every website into a library, and every individual into a librarian.
Now we understand that we can connect and share and learn from one another. We are coming to understand that it is actually very difficult to stop sharing and learning from happening, once we are connected.
We now needed a companion platform, that would take this collected, shared store of human knowledge and make it ubiquitously and universally available. As if on cue, along came the smartphone:
Internet-connected, Web-ready, equipped with rich interfaces for sharing. Wikipedia on the desktop is useful, but Wikipedia in the palm of every one of the now-two-billion smartphone users is a fundamental transformation of the human relation to knowledge.
And after the smartphone comes the tablet; even smarter, less centered around voice communication than around reading, writing, and video.
Both the smartphone and and tablet are entirely new. The iPhone is barely six years old (and only five in Australia), the iPad just three and a half. Driven by commercial competition and a user base that has grown increasingly sophisticated, in that brief time their form has evolved from the relatively simple and underpowered first-generation devices into desktop-class computers that sit comfortably in the palm.
The world of the smartphone and tablet, a world of always-on devices that are always connected to a huge and constantly growing wealth of shared knowledge, that’s the world that the year 4 – 6 students I was judging that August day accept as their baseline, the world they’ll remember when, middle-aged, they reflect on the changes they’ve seen. It will never have been different for them. We must keep this firmly in mind.
I think of myself as situated in a relatively privileged position; personal computing arrived when I was almost grown-up. I’ve embraced the novelty associated with each of these transitions.
That said, what happened next I was not prepared for.
There were so many projects submitted by year 4 – 6 students – almost 40! – the pool of judges fanned out across the exhibition hall, each group of judges with their own list of contestants to assess. Our first project was a pretty if somewhat uninspiring iBooks project. As was the second. The third was… well, I can’t actually remember.
Then we got to the fourth table. Two young girls, ages 9 and 10, showing us their tablet. What have you done, we asked?
“We’ve created a project we call Tech School. It’s a tool kids can use to chat with one another, have group discussions, and message teachers or other students with questions.”
At this point I went silent for about fifteen seconds – the other judges asked if I was ok, because I know my face was visibly contorting as I digested the fact that these two young children had dreamed up and partially implemented a social sharing platform for their school. A social sharing platform they designed because, natives in a culture of knowledge sharing, they intrinsically understood why it was needed.
We already know all about digital natives. We’re now well past that. We’re now in the era of sharing natives, a generation who have always understood that the value of connectivity lies in its capability to amplify effectiveness.
This is a lesson that never had to be taught explicitly, because these children see their parents and peers embracing connectivity as the carrier wave of capability. This is the way the new generation sees the world, and – to come back to the matter at hand – this is the unmistakable sign of absolute victory.
I’ll cut to the chase here and tell you that these two girls – Annabelle and Angela – took home first prize that day. They embody the new culture of sharing, the culture that is the behavioral and relational baseline of nearly every ten year old everywhere in Australia.
From Alexandria to the Vatican to Library of Congress and the Australian National Library, the culture of sharing has its origins in the library.
The library exists to house knowledge so that it can be shared.
Our libraries developed in an era – only very recently passed – when knowledge was rare and valuable, before sharing and connectivity. The world simply doesn’t work that way any more, nor do the children of that world.
We got the world of our dreams, a world of nearly infinite knowledge nearly universally available. The price of this victory is an existential crisis of the first order: In the new culture of shared knowledge, what is a library?
Part Two: NO MAPS FOR THESE TERRITORIES
I was recently lucky enough to stumble upon the eBooks at Adelaide collection offered by the University of Adelaide’s library.
The site houses hundreds (perhaps thousands) of titles no longer under copyright, available in a variety of formats that download directly to your device. As I’ve become a big fan of Kindle, I downloaded a number of texts in .mobi format – The Annals and Histories of Tacitus, Hobbes Leviathan, and – because I’d always wanted to read it – The Travels of Marco Polo.
The version of the book I’ve downloaded seems to have been published in the late 19th century or very early 20th century. Following each of Polo’s short chapters, many pages of intensely detailed and occasionally almost ridiculously digressive footnotes attend to the veracity of Polo’s reportage. I quickly became aware that, when put the to test, Marco Polo did a very poor job describing the fabled lands of the East.
We read Polo today because he was first, not because he was accurate. No one in Europe who had been to Cathay had written any accounts of their travels. Everything known about that world was a mixture of fable and wishful thinking.
Even Polo falls into the trap of reporting the tales of ‘Prester John’, an entirely fictitious Christian King of the far East, whose tales had gained great currency in Europe during the 11th and 12th centuries.
Polo can not really be faulted for repeating tales commonly repeated through Medieval Europe. He had no primary references he could use to fact check. In the absence of competing narratives, Polo became the primary reference for Europeans until at least the late-15th century, when Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch traders opened sea routes to the East Indies and China. Much of what Polo reported became accepted as truth simply because Europe operated in a near-perfect vacuum of knowledge.
Even a hundred and ten years ago, when my edition of The Travels of Marco Polo hit the press, some of the facts still had not been settled definitively. The footnotes render a range of possibilities, but in so doing betray the author’s lack of experience. Writing about Quangzho without ever having been there leaves the commentary as ambiguous and unresolved as the body of the text.
As I worked my way through Polo’s chapters, I’d find a phrase or word I didn’t understand, tap to highlight it, then scan the dictionary definition (if one had been found) or perhaps launch off into an exploration of Wikipedia.
In .mobi format, Polo’s words have a depth that no printing press could impart. They are implicitly hypertextual, connected not to a few but to all other relevant resources.
Hyperconnected humanity establishes a new baseline in which every individual has the same fundamental capacity to share – and to benefit from the sharing of others – as any library anywhere in the world.
We are all wired into a culture of knowledge sharing; this has made every one of us an affiliate branch of a global library, and has made every text of whatever consequence an entry point into that library.
The vacuum of knowledge that allowed Polo’s tales to frame the European conception of the Orient for hundreds of years hadn’t really vanished until a few years ago. Today, if you have a question about Quangzho, you can simply Skype someone in China and ask them. Or type the question into Google and read what others have said.
The entire process – downloading a text from a library, reading on a connected device, reaching through that connected device into other resources – has all become one seamless act. We knew this was coming from the time we first used the Web. But expectation is quite different from experience.
For a younger generation, who have no experience outside of that experience, there is no longer any particular library anywhere. Yes, different libraries will continue to house specific collections of physical media, that can be digitized and transmitted anywhere. Connected, all libraries have already become one library.
Just last week the National Library of Australia announced that they’d secured the purchase of a late 17th-century map of Australia. The article was accompanied with a beautiful and reasonably high-resolution image of the map, though I’m sure the National Library will follow that up with a near-gigapixel scan of the image, so researchers and historians everywhere can pour over the map’s smallest detail. As soon as any digitizable resource falls into the open mouth of the library, it is shared and becomes globally accessible.
As you are all well aware, this essential function of the library in the 21st century opens the legal hellmouth of copyright. My own views on copyright are both well known and fairly radical.
I hew to the observation that the greatest threat to the artist isn’t piracy but obscurity. Almost all of my works – including this one – are published under Creative Commons licenses precisely because I know that my own value – as a thinker and speaker – increases as my work is more widely shared. That’s true for me and true for others to the degree that sharing doesn’t confound their business models.
In a culture of shared knowledge, the library becomes a generator of value because sharing creates value for all parties. Not as directly and transactionally as we have been accustomed to with copyright, but no less tangibly.
Whether or not copyright persists, whether or not libraries continue to honor it – or honor it in the breach – an infuriating paradox confronts the culture of shared knowledge: the paradox of choice. In Polo’s day we had no choice at all but to take his word for it. A hundred years ago we had numerous reports from the field. Thirty years ago we could go into any library and find thousands of books and articles about the Orient.
As the Web grew, it went through similar stages. In 1993 and 1994, any resource was definitive because it lacked competition. By 1997 or 1998 there were multiple, complementary resources on many topics. By the end of the last millennium, the Web was rich with information that was easily accessible and apprehensible.
But of course, the more useful the Web became, the more people used it, and as more people used it, that created increased demand for more content, which led to more people using it, and more content, and so on, in a virtuous cycle that led us past a ‘just big enough’ Goldilocks moment in the culture of shared knowledge and headlong into a world of knowledge hyperabundance.
In almost any subject area, save the most obscure and particular, there’s too much out there for any human to be expected to absorb or even scan.
The Web is an informational firehose whose pressure is only going to increase as (to give just one example) tens of millions of Indian students jump online with their government subsidized $29 Aakash tablets over the next few years.
There’s too much good stuff, and there’s more where that came from. Because there’s too much there there, we tend to trust ourselves to Google. What choice do we have, really? How else can we deal with such factual overload?
You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? There is in fact an institution that has been working in an environment of informational hyperabudnance for many years, and has developed techniques to filter signal from the noise.
That’d be you folks.
Neuroscientists are starting to prove an intuition Aldous Huxley articulated in The Doors of Perception some sixty years ago – that the brain acts as a ‘reducing valve’, filtering the overwhelming totality of perception into a mere dribble of experience. This keeps us sane, but, as Huxley notes, it also keeps us chained with Blake’s ‘mind forg’d manacles’. Still, sanity is a good thing.
Libraries and librarians have a role to play, both in the present and on into the foreseeable future, acting as filters. Librarians stand between the totality of the culture of shared knowledge – which clearly has the capacity to induce madness (Don’t believe me? Go read a YouTube comment thread.) – and the individual or organization in search of the truth.
That’s a role now mostly ceded to Google and its algorithms, but there’s no proof that an algorithm is a better filter than a human being.
Furthermore, Google colours our perceptions with its own commercial imperatives. We can filter socially, but that tends to reinforce our cognitive biases, increasing the strength of the manacles which imprison us within our expectations and prejudices. We need an outside force, an irritant that can, like a grain of sand shoved into an oyster, eventually lead to pearls of wisdom.
I don’t know exactly what this new thing looks like, except that, superficially, it looks exactly like the help desk. But this help desk is global, connected and ubiquitous. It is the knowledge-filter-as-a-service, and it will be offered by someone. My suggestion is that you’re in the best position to provide this service, that it is part of the new, post-victory configuration of the library.
That said, it’s been predicted that as much as 50% of the existing white collar workforce will be automated out of existence over the next 30 years. Will librarians be among them?
Will improvements in natural language processing and artificial intelligence (such as it is) lead to a disembodied machinic consciousness more comprehensively knowing than any librarian?
There’s every reason to expect that Google has already taken similar techniques and applied them to search. Driven by commercial forces, the search engine will become more like the librarian. What does a human librarian at this globally accessible help desk offer offer that a Google AI can not? A friendly face? A helping hand? Reassurance?
Perhaps this future is not a set of either/or choices, but both-and possibilities.
Could librarians embrace their digital doppelgangers, partnering with them, letting the machines handle the straightforward queries while they handle the problems too hairy for any machine intelligence on the foreseeable horizon? People are excellent problem-solvers, and it seems best to let partner in that relationship play to their strengths.
In that framework, Google is not a competitor but a natural ally. Relieving much of the burden and creating the space needed for the truly creative work of filtering the unimaginable richness of the culture of shared knowledge.
I suspect we could endlessly permute the possibilities of libraries in the aftermath of victory, an afterlife that contains traces of libraries as we have known them, but radically reconfigured, recontextualized, and redeployed. We’ve gone well past the end of the known, and off the map.
As frightening as that sounds, it also represents a liberation. None of the constraints of the past need now bind us. We are free to reinvent the library. Which is really what today is all about.
Part Three: OVERSHARE
But before we do that, we need to come back to Earth – literally. Let’s talk about place. Libraries have always been about place. The word ‘Alexandria’ is sufficient proof of that.
We ‘go to the library’ because we seek knowledge, or in pursuit of an environment free from the distractions which ever-more-doggedly assault us every moment of our waking lives. Connected culture carries with it an unprecedented cognitive burden dividing our attention into units so small we find it difficult to accomplish any task requiring more than a few minute’s focus.
(I wrote much of this talk on a flights to and from New Zealand last week, treasuring the blessed disconnectedness that comes from international travel. It’s one of the few disconnected spaces we have left open to us, and even so I had to resist the lure of the in-flight WiFi.)
In search of knowledge, we go to the library and browse the stacks, or open our laptops and connect to the free WiFi, opening ourselves in a way we do not elsewhere in our lives. The library moment is not the same moment we find in the classroom, or in the home; it’s unique, and this points toward one reason libraries will continue to persist even after their entire collections have been virtualized: we need this space.
In a culture of shared knowledge, we need this space more than we ever have before. Librarians are the custodians of this space – and the idea of this space. For all that we might chafe to hear the now-forbidden ‘Shhh!’, we secretly glory in the constraint it defines, because it gives us permission to ignore the world and focus on the life of the mind.
Unexpectedly in this profoundly secular age, librarians embody the archetype of modern Vestal Virgins, tending the flame of knowledge from within their temple-like libraries. We come to the space to share in the communion of ideas – even if we do it by ourselves.
Yet we need not act alone. More and more the community library is the meeting place where people come together to share common interests and pursue common goals. In this the library is both microcosm and reflection of connected culture, with its endless opportunities for community formation. People still need to come together in the flesh, to ‘breath together’, conspire, around common aims.
When that space also brings all of the capability amplification associated with the culture of shared knowledge, it is more than the sum of its physical components, or human participants. The library has the potential to be one of the great energizing forces within our communities, precisely because it is the boundary where the virtual meets the real.
My own work on the culture of knowledge sharing has uncovered four processes that empower communities: First, they connect; then, they share; next, they learn from one another; finally, that learning is put into practice. All human communities have always done this, but now we do it globally and at the speed of light. This is the way communities solve problems in the 21st century, not really different from the ways of the past, but, in the culture of shared knowledge almost infinitely more potent.
We’re here today to devise a future for the library, an interesting but very difficult problem to solve. The only way we can hope to solve it is through collaboration.
In this room today are many of the brightest and most experienced librarians in Australia. That is an impressive reservoir of talent – if it can be shared. If we can not share what we know – starting today, here, and now – this project of reinvention will be very much harder to complete.
Alone, no one knows enough to transform this institution into the form which victory forces upon it. Together, we stand a chance.
Today is an opportunity both to begin to share from your experience and to build the networks of sharing that you will need to draw upon as you take these ideas forward into implementation.