Final Thoughts

Thanks to everyone for a fun class. It has been great to have a class with a mix of theory and hands on skills. For those of you not graduating maybe I’ll see you in the metadata class this summer, or digital tools in the fall. What follows is my final paper:

On January 25th I wrote of battling the ever present Internet issue of “too much information.” Both Vannever Bush and Jorge Luis Borges spoke of the importance of organizing information to provide usefulness for those seeking knowledge. Using a fictional library Borges looked at the need to create context though meaningful organization. Bush on the other hand examined the practical need to organize information in order to give users an opportunity to discover what they were searching for. The authors both recognized that without organization information was not as useful as it needs to be.
Today’s digital libraries are the next stage in the evolution of the library and its goal to organize information. They want to provide the information users are seeking and create a way for users to find it and make sense of it. Digital libraries therefor represent a new interpretation of librarian goals. Digital libraries are not arising as a wholly new idea; they are not a distinct change from what came before them. They are simply a form of library. Digital libraries will still need careful planning and collection management, they still require creation of finding aids, patrons will still need information presented in a useful fashion and balances will continue to be struck between desires and actual budget.
A library, whether physical or digital, is created with the focus of increasing public knowledge. In this basic way a digital library is not wholly different, separate from the physical library. The two types of libraries are in fact, intertwined. Much of the history of digital libraries is of placing physical library materials into a digital format in order to increase access and therefor knowledge. There is little doubt about the connection between traditional libraries and their newer digital format. This connection between them creates a mixture of strengths and weaknesses which digital libraries must face as they go forward. The goal will to be to use the strengths and weaknesses to make physical and digital libraries better for their patrons.
Sharing common values with traditional libraries such as organization of information, a focus on user’s needs, ideas of openness and access, are strengths of digital libraries. Following the mission of physical libraries provides a grounding and legitimacy for digital libraries. Obviously the Internet is overflowing with information, much of it of a questionable nature. By being a natural progression of a library into the World Wide Web a digital library becomes a place people trust. Since the Internet does not always inspire trust digital libraries can be a place people turn to for answers and not question corporate motives or truthfulness of the information.
Traditional libraries also give digital libraries a long history to look to for answers when questions arise. Ethical dilemmas do not have to be answered in the vacuum of the Internet but historical precedence can be a guide. Digital librarians can learn from the mistakes and successes of the past to make better decisions about their online presence.
The connection between digital and physical libraries can also be a weakness for digital libraries. There is no question about the digital divide. Librarians are becoming divided by their technical skills, there are battles over budget, concerns about online copyright and users who now expect everything to be accessible virtually. These issues and others require different answers than traditional libraries can provide. New areas of study such as such as online usability have to be created and new boundaries pushed for fair use when using digital documents. Librarians must be trained in new fields becoming programmers, web designers and database developers. New types of metadata will need to be created to match with digital material. And over all of these issues hangs the library budget. Who gets what? What will be the future focus? What investments should be made in new, unproven technology?
If digital libraries cling too tightly to their connection with traditional, physical libraries these changes will be hard to make. Or changes will be made but digital libraries will be forced into a box only designed to fit the physical world. If traditional libraries are fearful of change and do not budget for the new technology online users may never experience the information held by the library. Even basics like metadata schemes and collection development must forge new paths to match the digital environment.
For digital libraries to be successful they must continue to share the mission of all libraries: to organize information in such a way that patrons can turn it into useable knowledge. But how digital libraries achieve that mission must be different than was done in the past. They must fit the format they were born for and meet users on the Internet. Do not try to box in users by offering up a physical library online.
If digital libraries are able to create the right mix they will be able to achieve many new ventures which are not available to physical libraries. One of the biggest advantages to digital libraries is their lack of concern for storage space. There are no overflowing shelves, no limits to metadata. Digital libraries can scale up to huge levels, providing ever more information and knowledge. As long as the technology is created correctly searching the full text of thousands of documents is easy. No need for users to limit themselves to books or journals when videos or images can be saved, stored and cataloged with large amounts of useful metadata. To make this a reality though digital libraries must focus on the long standing library tradition of being user advocates with the goal of access to knowledge. They will have to avoid the weakness of being too much like physical libraries.
Looking back at the first post for this digital library class I stand by what I said. The world is too full of information. Everyone, at least sometimes, feels overwhelmed by the Internet and all it has to offer. Individuals often believe all the answers we need are online but they do not know where they are or who to trust. Traditional libraries have for many years played the role of trusted, unbiased source. There is no reason digital libraries cannot continue to be that place online.

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One response to “Final Thoughts

  1. Thank you for this engaging and thoughtful roundup, a.d.m.n.! It’s been a pleasure to have you in class!

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