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.