Babel | Reflecting on the Bigger Picture

Looking back, I realize that my general outlook towards digital libraries at the beginning of the semester very closely resembled the narrator’s outlook of his world in Borges’ piece, “The Library of Babel”:   mysterious, inevitable, impenetrable, and bleak.  The problem of sorting through and cataloging an ever-increasing amount of digital materials appeared overwhelming; how could you even begin to try to tackle the problem?  Luckily for me, throughout the semester this seemingly impenetrable topic of digital librarianship was systematically broken down into much less daunting pieces.  The readings, discussion, videos, and hands-on assignments over the last few months have helped outline and illuminate for me the essential components that together make up digital libraries and librarianship. 

I remember at the beginning of the semester my main concern for digital libraries centered on the sheer amount of digital information being created and how to make sure this information was not lost in the shuffle.  Borges’ image of being lost in a “universe” of texts that had morphed into nonsense was overwhelming to me.  However, over the course of the semester my view has shifted.  Yes, making sure information does not get lost in the melee needs to be addressed and focused on, but I feel that there is an equally important battle that warrants more attention: access.  This includes access to digital materials; access to websites; open access to software; access to scholarly works; and access to individuals who know how to help you locate information you may need.

A main component of access is the political / corporate players involved.  For the first time in hundreds of years we are on the brink of a whole new way of publishing and sharing information with a whole new set of rules.  It is an intersection of for-profit companies honing in on the opportunity for collecting licensing fees and groups that promote free and open access to materials.  The results of negotiations and lawsuits between these two parties will deeply impact how current and future generations view and access information.  Will a public library have free e-books they can “loan” patrons, or will costs become too great to manage and corporations will have to sponsor the licensing rights on e-books in exchange for marketing privileges at the library?  It is critical that librarians are involved in the creation of these laws and policies since they will determine the freedom of information sharing and the overall role of libraries in the future. 

As I learned more and more about the struggles involved in getting licenses through publishers and copyright issues, the happier I became that there are organizations that have started making headway on organizing open digital libraries: HathiTrust, Digital Public Library of America [DPLA], Google Books, Project Gutenberg, Internet Archives, etc.   As we discussed in class, even though these organizations may not have the perfect solution(s) yet, the resources and clout that an organization has when tackling the issue of digitizing materials are far more effective than if an individual lone librarian or citizen.  This is especially true for when the issue of copyrights and ownership emerge and the issue is taken to court (like the HathiTrust lawsuit.) 

Another exciting aspect of digital libraries is that they are anything but stagnant.  New materials can constantly be added to collections without fear (hypothetically) of outgrowing a physical space; tags can be added; and as technology advances so too can the options for interacting with a collection’s materials.  Many of the content management sites are also free, which encourages a wider variety of materials to be uploaded.  This semester we used Omeka Press, a free content management system that encourages the user to input metadata from Dublin Core. 

My experience with building a collection in Omeka Press this semester was invaluable.  It showed the ease with which you can create, build, and modify a collection of digital materials without any cost.  This is a wonderful content management solution option that is cost effective yet also will house the items an organization or individual wants to share and/or save for posterity.  Prior to beginning the digitization project for class creating a digital collection seemed like a tall order; however, in practice it was much more intuitive and user-friendly than I would have expected.

This semester gave me sturdy footing regarding the current technologies, policies, and resources surrounding digital libraries; however, I feel that the most important information I’ll take away from this class is that this field is changing.  We are in the very infancy of digital libraries.  The technology or software of choice for digitizing items may change in a few years.  In order to keep abreast of the changes in this field it will be necessary to continue to keep following blogs, magazines, and other websites.  This class has done a great job in walking the line between showing what is happening and also acknowledging that so much surrounding digital librarianship is currently up in the air, and will be determined during our lifetime.  Now more than ever librarians can have a front-row participatory seat in shaping how we manage the new frontier of libraries – let’s not waste it! 

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2 responses to “Babel | Reflecting on the Bigger Picture

  1. I like your interpretation of Borges’ Babel as “bleak” and “mysterious”, and I agree that his depiction of information was overwhelming with its repetitive chaos. Like you, I found the class much more easier to navigate because of its structure of information (i.e. weeks/sections) and the hands-on assignments were valuable learning exercises that added to my list of skills.

  2. Well said! This class definitely broke digital libraries down into understandable parts that has really helped me keep my footing when it comes to digital librarianship.

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