For the odd moments I can manage to think of something.

A Dewey Decimal digital destination

Book shelf with virtual tags

What can my shelves tell me?

I read ebooks. I have a Kindle reader on my Android tablet and I read books on an iPod. I listen to volumes of audiobooks at bedtime too. Digital access to books opens them up to be a lively experience; searchable, open for notes, replayable, rewindable, explorable.

I also still want libraries to be a place, rather than just the digital arena I browse when I have a connection to the web. A hallowed place of shushing librarians and quietly studious people.

I am sitting in my own library now, writing this. The four walls of my tiny study are bricked up to the ceiling on three walls with books. They comfort me, they baffle sound when I am recording and they reassure me. In more lucid moments, when I look up from my screen to think, I see the names of writers and the titles of their books and can hear the voices of their stories. It’s a quietly busy place to be in and pushes me to try and communicate as well as those writers I admire.

I was a bookish child. I blame my myopia on the fact that more often than not I could be found with my nose in a book. Librarians were my gatekeepers and child minders. I tore through the children’s libraries and hoped to be allowed into the adult sections were there were books on shelves too high for me to reach.

As a teen, I wrote my school papers in libraries. Surrounded by a fort of reference books, I hunched over scrawled notes and wrote essays. When I could no longer stuff things into my mind, I would peer over my books at other people, wondering where their minds were and if they were reading something more exciting than I was. I also remember being a hungry student, and those silent places being a room of blushes as my stomach growled.

I have a fetish for those rolly ladders. There, I said it. They fill me with a wild delight and excitement that doesn’t seem to fit the object or what they can do. In fact, it’s not really what they can do and how fun they seem to be that gets me – I think it is more about what they represent. To have a sliding ladder – you would need shelves that are really high and wide, in a large room and essentially – with a lot of books.

So if I worship these halls of dusty tomes but I sit in bed reading from a screen or listening to a downloaded volume; what would a library be to me? And when did I stop using the Dewey Decimal system?

Admittedly, the internet provides a lot of the information that I consume. But the library not only holds paper books and computers of course, it’s rather obviously where the librarians are.

To many of us, the librarian is the person who issues overdue fines or can let you know when the latest best-seller might be available and how many copies they have. They also know where everything is. I mean almost literally everything. A librarian is a researcher on nitro. The person who can work out not only what you are looking for but also provide the neighbouring nodes of data you might not have thought of. This does not happen when I am toiling over a laptop at 3am trying to eek out the right quotes and information. It’s like a co-working space in the library with someone you can ask who has researched almost everything under the sun and a lot more.

As someone who follows technological advance closely, looking for ideas and wondering and the habits that emerge, I like to day dream about the visions of the future. One that sticks in my mind is the Librarian in Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”. A virtual assistant, touched with Ai and with access to the world’s digitised knowledge. Present in a virtual 3d space, the librarian had its limitations but also many strengths, including speed.

Human beings are still better at pattern recognition though. Better at making those leaps in memory that a computer is yet unable to manage. Though people who follow advances toward a human-machine singularity are hopeful that our memories will be vastly expanded, the links between memory and creative thought are much harder to replicate. I still need librarians.

Inside a library, carrying an e-reader, I often wish that I could bridge the gap between the digital and the physical. A physical book is nice to read but what if I could search that book using a gadget? A voice recorder with a digital copy of the text would know what pages the keywords are on, and I could still look it up in the book in my hand. Then, when the library closes, I can borrow the digital copy and take it home.

In my mind, a visor or AR screen held in front of a bookshelf would show me reference numbers, links to other resources, a precis of the contents by looking at the spine, a lot like the amazing Tales of Things project. A digital shadow of the room where I would be standing, still able to smell the old book scent and hear the rustle of pages. Still working in a place where I felt complicit with my fellow readers in the search for knowledge or escapism.

To even attempt this amount of work with my own library would take a grant of embarrassing proportions and years of work. To tag each book without damaging it, to work out what sort of data I would want to add to it. Then of course I would like an app for when I am not in my library so that I can look things up elsewhere. Beyond this, maybe I could share my library, my book reviews, notes taken on themes and authors and share them with my friends who are interested in a similar field. Though this naturally asks questions that lead us into the Google-books territory.

I have no doubt that there are much smarter bears than I already working on ideas beyond my outlines to create the libraries of the future. For now my visual ideas of libraries seem rather old fashioned in comparison with their digital siblings. But a cross over of these two cultures would give us so many options. Imagine a world where every word ever written was alive. Linked to other communities of words, cities of books around the world were linked, your novel in a virtual place sharing a shelf with books of a similar theme in a hundred different languages.

If ever I finally summoned enough brain to write an entire book. I would like my words to swim in that stream. I’d be broke of course – everyone would be reading free copies. I wrestle with the problem of authors’ rights and people without access to books. People who write well should be able to earn a living and libraries may be one way in which rights may be extended for money. Just not a lot of money.

I’m writing this at a time where many of my online peers extol the virtues of free data and information. There are so many experiments taking place and a data economy is opening up. So how to find that data? Imagine if your local broker, was that man or woman who used to stamp out your books? The physical and virtual role of the library should be a fundamental part of the way we read in the future. But only if we are lucky and make our future that way.

This post was inspired by the lovely Katy Beale and is linked to No Furniture So Charming an event at a festival I would have loved to attend. If you go, let me know how it is!


7 Responses to “A Dewey Decimal digital destination”

  1. Richard Matthias

    I don’t know if you’ve read The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb, but as a book enthusiast I think you’d appreciate the chapter “Umberto Eco’s Anti-library” at least (the whole book is an excellent read IMO).

    It’s funny you should mention the librarian in Snow Crash. I studied AI at university in part because it was a dream to build such a program, one that could read natural language documents and answer questions about them like “identify the characters in the story?”, “in which locations does x meet y?” and a million and one others. How much more useful would that be than a the basic keyword searches employed by all current search engines?

    Sadly, it turns out there’s a very subtle and almost unbridgeable gap between knowlege representation (as in what comes from parsing a document) and the logic required to reason about that knowlege in a way that useful inferences can be made.

    No doubt corporations like Google and Microsoft have people working on programs that can at least produce some useful information from natural language even though they cannot be made to really think like a human researcher. We might see something in our lifetimes 🙂

    As for searchability, AR-guided or otherwise, it looks like copyright law will hold us back more than technology.

    • jemimahknight

      I have started reading Black Swan (looks around cramped home office surrounded by books…) but other things got in the way. I found it to be quite dense, but better to make me work at something. Keeps the cells ticking over.
      I’m also studying Ai at the moment – but my expectations are somewhat lower than the librarian at the moment. The Neurology fascinates me and thus far I am of the school that thinks intelligence will not be an assimilation of human intelligence.
      I’d agree that there is already plenty of work on Ai happening in big business – most of it already working but as with most great technology – it’s invisible.

  2. Mike Perigo

    I related to this post on so many levels. From a childhood love of books and libraries (albeit to the _detriment_ of my school work) to a frustration with the inability to use modern tools on non converted dead wood or audio media. I was even wondering if it was inspired by Katie Birkwood’s talk at Ignite London 4 in Feb. Then I got to the last paragraph and went from ‘YES!!’ to ‘NOooo!’ in the space of two words. Google says that this could be a Katy/Katie + Library coincidence (and that both are on Twitter) but I have to ask if you realised this?

    • jemimahknight

      Hi Mike.

      As another speaker at Ignite Ldn4 I may have been standing at Katie Birkwood’s feet for her brilliant talk. This piece certainly agrees with Katie on how utterly fabulous good librarians are, but in this case it was Katy Beal’s event where I was asked to speak but sadly cannot make it, that kicked off this particular post. I shall have to watch Katie B again on the ignite videos, she’s a brilliant presenter. Thank you for the reminder. To do both proud i should go and watch it in my local libray (with headphones on of course 🙂

      • Mike Perigo

        Wow that was a quick reply. Thanks. I guess this was just another example of the amazing ‘It’s a small world’ coincidences that you cover in your next post ‘Tales of the internet’ 🙂

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