Future of Libraries

By | May 3, 2007

I will be attending this conference Monday and Tuesday of next week:

For two days in May, three hundred librarians will meet with visionaries from the disciplines of anthropology, architecture, public policy and science to discuss the future of libraries. By looking outside of the library, we seek to explore unique ideas that will make the difference. Imagine merging information, inspiration and imagination to transform the way we look at our future. And then working together to build a solid foundation that will serve as a concrete plan with which to move forward.

The theme of the conference is an evocative one: Imagination to Transformation. Or if I may paraphrase: “live to see it.”

Speakers at the conference include Ray Kurzweil, Mary Catherine Bateson, Bob Treadway, and others. Should be a fascinating couple of days.

Part of the program will also involve an exercise derived from our Seven Questions About the Future. Remember those? We had a lot of great responses back in the day.

I saw a good show on PBS last night about an a villa excavated some time ago in Herculaneum (Pompeii’s upscale neighbor) where a library of more than 1800 ancient manuscripts was found, each one rolled up tight and toasted by Vesuvius. The efforts of scholars over the past couple hundred years to unroll (much less to read) these ancient books have been nothing short of heroic. There was initially hope that a lost tragedy of Sophocles or dialog of Plato might be found among these books; so far no such luck. But as modern chemistry makes it easier to unroll them, and new imaging technology makes it easier (and in many cases, possible) to read some part of them, we are learning quite a bit about the school of Epicurean philosophy to which they apparently belonged.

papyrus.jpg

One of the papyri from Herculaneum

When picturing the library of the future, it’s hard not imagine some kind of Google interface connecting everything ever published to everything else ever published via logical, cognitive, and semantic linking schemes that we can hardly imagine now. But I think the tireless efforts to decipher these burnt manuscripts give us another hint as to the role that libraries will continue to play. Libraries aren’t just collections of books — they are a link with the past. When ancient books such as these are found, it’s as though some piece of the past that was lost has been restored to us.

This is also why the destruction of a great library — such as occurred in Alexandria at some point 1500-1800 years ago — represents such a tremendous loss. It’s as though some part of the past has been blotted out.

Libraries are the original databases and the original time machines. It will be very interesting spending a couple of days getting a handle on where libraries are going — and how in the future they will be even more effective at showing us where we’ve been.

  • http://www.speculist.com Stephen Gordon

    “Epicurean philosophy” – hey that’s something I think I could get into. Seeking enlightenment through wine and good food.

    I’m reminded by this of the imporatance of physical books. Those scrolls survived fire and then the years to bring us this info. Current digital storage hardly lasts a decade.

    Another reason that the destructive scanning of libraries might not be such a good idea.

  • Dave

    writing is the fossil record of consciousness. Go back to the earliest writing and you find the earliest consciousness of homo sapien sapien. At some point we’ll need the ability to do the “matrix upload” of all this info so we can keep going to school without having to spend years doing it which is rapidly becoming ridiculously impractical