Course Reflection

There is nothing that exists but the Library. In each room of the Library is a Memex. But,

unlike the Memex as described by Vannevar Bush, each Library Memex only indexes a small

subset of all the documents held by the Library. The extent of and quality of information held by

each Memex is seemingly random. The Library is too large and chaotic to be mapped, but

navigation is possible through the use of a Meta-Memex. The Meta-Memex allows the patron to

search the texts of a large number of Memexes. The Meta-Memex can never give a complete

picture of the Library because some Memexes have hidden their content, while some Memexes

are ignored by the Meta-Memex. The men and women of the Library strive to bring order to the

known universe by constructing new Memexs which aggregate the information held by smaller

Memexes. This vision is somewhere between the technocratic efficiency of the Bush Memex and

the anarchy imagined by Borges’ Library of Babel.

 

This artless fusion of Bush and Borges works as a metaphor for the current state of digital

libraries. Subscription databases, digital libraries, and various websites act as the incomplete

Memexes found in each room of the Library. Digital Libraries and the Memex of the Library

serve as index and retrieval tools for a set group of documents. The Meta-Memex described in

the story represents search engines such as Google or Bing. Search engines can direct information seekers to the main page of a digital library or, more likely, an individual document

found within the collection of a digital library. But like the Meta-Memex of my story, search

engines also have limits, an example being that they only index a certain percentage of the

available Internet. The efforts to build a larger Memex with content aggregated from smaller

Memexes is a metaphor for projects such as Hathi Trust and the Digital Public Library of America, which are designed to aggregate either the digital versions of works and/or the metadata held by various information institutions.

 

At the start of the semester I was rather unsure of how to relate the visions of Borges and

Bush to digital libraries, which is why I focused on the question relating to the context

of Bush’s article in the first discussion section. I understood the themes of information vs.

entropy that were reflected in each essay; however, I felt that was an issue more related to the

organization of information in the abstract rather than digital libraries in particular. One of the

problems I had relating the Bush article to digital libraries was interpreting the Memex too

literally. I initially focused on its role as an information retrieval tool for scientific journal

literature, which explains why my initial reaction to the Memex was, “Oh a paleofuturistic

version of Web of Science, how quaint.” Now I interpret the Memex as any attempt to create a

larger, better organized, and more retrievable collection of information. This broader

interpretation of the Memex is much more relevant to librarianship today than the specific

problem of scientific journal literature and it explains the value of aggregation projects such as

DPLA and Hathi Trust.

 

Something that surprised me during this course is how much “real world” experience I

have in digital libraries. A number of the discussion questions during class related to our ]

particular experiences with a particular issue, such as planning a project or copyright laws. For

a number of weeks I was able to respond to the discussion questions using my experiences at

Wendt Library, the UW Digital Collections Center, and the USGS Publications Warehouse.

Before this class I thought that because I do not have professional level web development

or programming skills, a career in digital librarianship was not realistic. In reflecting on my

experiences, I have realized that I have already made decisions and performed tasks similar to those taken by professional digital librarians. I think this discovery has boosted my confidence

in my ability to meaningfully contribute to the field of digital librarianship.

 

Another aspect of the class I found surprising involves the major differences between the

free Omeka.net account and ContentDM. This semester I am participating in a practicum at the

Wisconsin Historical Society where I am working to digitize a number of Civil War pamphlets.

My responsibilities include scanning; building structural, descriptive, and subject metadata; and

constructing a complex digital object using the content management system ContentDM. A

minor difference between the two systems is that tab delimited text files are used for batch

uploads of metadata while Omeka used comma separated value files for batch uploads. Because

my descriptive metadata often involved the use of commas, I found the comma separated value

sheets rather frustrating. In retrospect, I think I should have “batch” uploaded after completion of

every item to adapt to the quote system used by comma separated value sheets. A major

difference between the two CMS programs is that the default CSV plug in for Omeka.net only

seems to pertain to item level metadata, while ContentDM allows for batch uploading of page

and item level metadata. I assume that a server installation of Omeka allows for greater

customization, so that the CSV uploading feature could be modified so that metadata could be

associated with individual files. Another major difference between the two Content Management

Systems is that ContentDM has the ability to associate metadata with image files to create a

complex digital object, while Omeka requires a manual association of image files with item

metadata. Finally, the free Omeka.net account has a woefully inadequate amount of available

storage space (only 500 MBs) and the system is painfully slow at uploading images. There are

some aspects of Omeka I enjoyed, the user interface is straight forward and it was very easy to

edit the order of files for my items, which were compound objects. For small collections of non-

compound objects from organizations with limited resources and technical abilities, I think the

free cloud version of Omeka.net is suitable. I am still very curious about creating my own LAMP

stack and downloading the Omeka.org version of Omeka.

 

An aspect of digital librarianship that I am excited about for the future is how metadata

standards and best practices will evolve over time. I think an interesting frontier in the field of

digital librarianship is the creation of relational metadata that can not be properly categorized as subject metadata. For example, The Bridge is Hart Crane’s romantic response to what he

believed was the cynicism of T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland. Traditional subject metadata, which is

based on the idea of a limited number of access points, would likely ignore this relationship.

Because digital librarianship is not bound by the physical limits of traditional colocation, any

meaningful relationship between works can be expressed in a digital item’s metadata and no

relation needs to be prioritized.

 

Although I am graduating from SLIS in a short time, I plan to be a life long learner in

regards to digital libraries, even if I work in an information position that does not directly relate

to digital librarianship. I am passionate about digital libraries because I believe they are one of

the most powerful tools librarians have to promote access to materials. My practicum at WHS has been one of the most fulfilling experiences I have had at SLIS.

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