Digital Age’s Deluge of Data Spells New Chapter for Libraries

Posted on: 19 October 2015

by Helen Shenton, Librarian and Archivist at Trinity College Dublin

Some things are pretty clear already. The digital shift is happening and this has led to a shift in how libraries are being used. They are no longer solely a place for silence, rather, often for collaboration.

The boundaries are blurring between your local library and a 24-hour bookstore in Taiwan, a pop-up learning space in Cork, a data visualisation lab in North Carolina and a coffee shop in a start-up space in Manhattan.

Why does it matter? Well, Ireland is a country of libraries and Dublin is a city of libraries. The capital is a Unesco City of Literature and has an extensive collection of unique and distinctive libraries, ranging from Marsh's Library to the Chester Beatty Library, from the Royal Irish Academy's Library to the National Library of Ireland to the Library of Trinity College Dublin.

Furthermore, public libraries are reinventing themselves as new library and cultural centres, such as the Lexicon in Dún Laoghaire and the planned new Dublin City Library in Parnell Square.

Libraries have other, sometimes unexpected, roles. The Library I lead in Trinity College Dublin welcomes 750,000 visitors from all around the world to visit the Book of Kells and the Long Room. At the same time, the digital shift is developing hand-in-hand with a social shift in the use of spaces, library spaces, learning spaces, communal spaces. Libraries are places of serendipitous encounters.

The world of libraries is peppered with paradox. On the one hand, libraries are leaders in the democratisation of content. Making material available and making information accessible is in the very DNA of libraries.

In Finland, municipal and specialised research libraries are open to all. They form part of the national and international information service network, where students and citizens use public and research libraries side by side. As Roderic Vassie put it, "ultimately, the value of collections of historical documents should be viewed as energy rather than money; they have a 'kinetic' value when in use, and a 'potential' value while at rest in the stacks". One of the challenges is to release the latent kinetic value of Dublin's extensive and exceptional collections. Systematic digitisation of our libraries' content will make so much more of our unique material accessible to many more people around the world.

Furthermore, joining up digitised content from different physically disparate collections creates new digital entities. And, it is an interesting paradox that as more and more unique collection material is digitised and available on the web, there is often an increase, rather than a decrease, in interest in the original, physical item. Nobody tires of seeing the original 'Mona Lisa' because they have seen copies. In the virtual world, the physical and experiential become more valued.

On the other hand, a major conundrum for everyone in this democratised digital age, is the exponentially increasing amount of information and data. In 2013, it reached 4.4 zettabytes (a zettabyte has 21 zeroes) and is now forecasts that 40 zettabytes (ZB) of data will be generated worldwide by 2020.

We are deluged with data, but how will future historians have access to our current information in order to study us and understand our era, given this mass of data? If a contemporary historian or a curious citizen or a student wanted to look into the recent Same-Sex Marriage Referendum in Ireland, how would they get a rounded sense of the discussions and debates when so much occurred, not just in the traditional media but also on the internet and social media?

To ensure this virtual world is not lost, we need to be capturing and preserving it. If someone wants to study the events of 9/11 – which in some ways was one of the first major events in the internet age – they can access old websites via the Library of Congress, which developed thematic web and event-based archiving of 9/11, as well as presidential elections and the Iraq War.

In 2007, our own National Library of Ireland on Kildare Street took a snapshot of the .ie domain and, for example, this year, it captured websites around the Same-Sex Referendum for use by that historian or citizen or student.

Amongst others, the Library of Trinity College Dublin will be capturing Irish websites around the events commemorating Easter 1916, in partnership with the Bodleian Library in Oxford, which will capture the sites from the UK web.

Many countries are now systematically capturing snapshots of their entire web output, for example, the UK has been regularly capturing a snapshot of the four million websites of the web domain, as part of enacting legislation.

This is but one of the fascinating challenges for libraries and memory organizations today, as their virtual and physical manifestation morph with changes in society, information, technology and education.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Independent on Friday, October 16, 2015


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