Oh the Places We Can and Will Go! Digital Librarianship from Vannevar Bush to Today

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In looking back over my first post on the Bush and Borge’s readings the central though I keep coming back to is that even with the many issues and challenges that digital librarianship and librarianship in general may face today, I think that the future is very bright with potentially endless possibilities.  Please do not mistake this as a rose colored vision.  There are good reasons to have worries about the future of our profession and field of study.

We have entered a time of austerity with dwindling government support, a threat made even more real with the sequester cut made to the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA), the single largest government funding source for public, school and academic libraries, this past March.  Increasing difficulties in digital rights management and copyright also pose a challenge, especially to digital librarianship. While technology, such as Web 2.0 developments, have enabled digital libraries to emerge, the rapid evolution of those technologies also pose challenges to digital libraries to keep pace in order to stay relevant and perhaps even usable.   The future of libraries in general, and digital libraries specifically, must include finding ways to be able to compete in a mass media world, all with a limited budget and limited resources, leaving librarians to maybe feel like they are stuck a bit between a rock and a hard place, and very little wiggle room. 

To get back to my first blog post, I spent a lot of time thinking about Bush’s views about the future, his optimism and excitement, is palpable, even in between his scientific and detailed analysis.  This sense of hopefulness about where technology and science would undoubtedly take us should not be terribly surprising given the national mood at the time.  The United States had just emerged from World War II as the victor and was in its beginnings of its new role as global super power.  The nation’s soldiers are home, the economy is booming, and the science used for war was now bringing society into the modern age.  The possibilities were endless; one only had to think of it.  Bush was certainly a product of this environment, and as such saw the power of science and its application towards new technologies as the answer to his vexing problem of living in a world with too much information.

Dr. Bush’s hopes on what technological advances would mean for information management were indeed well placed, as the digital revolution exceeded even his own analog predictions.  His beloved memex machine was realized today in our world in a way that surpassed, from the iPad to the smartphone, these machines have nearly become an extension to our own bodies, making more information than one can digest in a lifetime all the more accessible to us. Which, as I stated in Week 1, seems to lend itself to the argument that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  It seems that rather than solving Bush and his contemporaries’ struggle to manage the flood of information, data, and research brought on by the stimulus of government war-time investment, technology actually made the problem worse.  

After fifteen weeks of delving into the world of digital librarianship, looking at the challenges, exploring what has been accomplished thus far and where we might go, I think that I walk away from the semester with a less cynical view than the one I expressed in Week 1.  The more things change, the more amazed I am at the endless possibilities for exploring the wealth of culture, science, and human history.  In just over a half century, we have made these incredible leaps, pushing our society into a new age that has and will continue to impact every aspect of our lives, how we communicate, how we learn, how we experience the world.  Today, with the click of a button, I can go to the Library of Congress and listen to some of the earliest recordings ever made, or explore historical map of New York City from 1742 overlaid on the modern rendering of the via the New York Public Library’s Digital Library, or even read (if I could read Arabic), Afghan writings from the 1800s through the Afghanistan Digital Library through New York University, all from my laptop or tablet.

Bush looked ahead and saw the potential for increased computing power, more portable hardware, more efficient communication ability, and perhaps most important, innovations that would make these technologies affordable for individual use.  Standing on the precipice of the modern world, Bush’s forward thinking enabled him to see a world where barriers to information would be torn down, where information access would be greatly democratized, where he wondered at the possibility of where we might go.

Today we stand on a new precipice, becoming fully immersed in a digital world, the advances in Web technologies, mobile devices, and ever growing internet access across the globe offer the same potential as Bush foresaw a half century ago, and oh the places we can go!  Today we now see ourselves not just managing more information, but actually interacting with the materials, creating new content, and finding new ways to explore these products of human existence. 

Crowd-sourcing projects have people from around the world adding to digital collections, such as the NYPL’s historical menu transcribing project, transcribing Civil War diaries, and correct OCR errors in Japanese texts.  While libraries may have initially seen crowdsourcing as a means to work around tight budgets in their efforts to get content online, the reality is that today’s patrons expect access and the ability to interact with digital materials.  Interaction between patron and digital materials can only increase, though exactly how far and in what ways are unknown.  Just as Bush was unable to fully envision where the technological advances made in the decades that preceded his essay would take us, I think that the only sure thing in looking towards the future is that with new technologies and new, creative ways of viewing librarianship, the possibilities are endless.

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One response to “Oh the Places We Can and Will Go! Digital Librarianship from Vannevar Bush to Today

  1. Terrific post and great resources! The National Archives is also relying on crowdsourcing to make machine-readable and searchable the 1940 census data! What a good idea for a paper or research project…

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