Saturday, September 15, 2007

Book Club

Yesterday I had a productive trip to the British Library to interview senior librarians Aly Conteth and Neil Fitzgerald. I had come to the UK to update an article that was published years ago in Literary and Linguistic Computing for the upcoming Virtualpolitik book from MIT Press. Rather than approach the subject from the perspective of uncritical publicizing of new technology in mainstream journalism, as articles like "Behind the scenes: The British Library and digitisation" do, I tried to ask probing questions about the cryptohistory of Britain's digital library efforts that included failures and lessons learned. To their credit, my hosts were very forthright and even allowed me to observe and photograph the digitization process in action. As they point out the Internet makes a "nonsense of national copyright regimes," but in their current joint effort with Microsoft, they are aiming for an ambitious twenty-five million pages or about a hundred thousand items that will be in accord with U.K. copyright rules with the aim of fostering educational use at all levels. They were careful to distinguish themselves from Google Book Search and emphasized their commitment to open standards and more egalitarian partnership models with corporate behemoths. I was, of course, leery of the way that Microsoft is publicizing its new (and flawed) operating system Vista through the initiative, but BL librarians argued that there were many systems involved in the entire process.

We also discussed the often invisible labor policies involved in digitization efforts. As they pointed out, the conversion of "physical to digital" with the imaging machine is only a small part of a process that involves quality assurance, delivery systems, and metadata schemes to create meaningful informational resources. They speculated about best practices for creating a "more robust workflow" around the replication process that would facilitate resource discovery, the connection of electronic resources together, and the importance of benefit for targeted groups to satisfy the requirements of their funding bodies. In particular, the British Library still struggles with a mandate not to digitize using monies from "core funding" that dates back to the beginnings of digitization. The lack of national strategies or frameworks also continues to be an issue.

Conteth had a lot of interesting things to say about the huge Burney Collection of newspapers from 1603-1817. In late October, the library plans to offer U.S. and U.K. readers Internet access through the library portals of institutions of higher education. He pointed out that in archiving newspapers now, it is sometimes more practical to skip the intermediate step of ironing and photographing the print version and merely keep the digital file that represents the text, images, and layout made for production purposes. He also talked about the perils of outsourcing some of the labor of newspaper metadata to India, where even the best English-speaking operators may not recognize common English place names.

Fitzgerald sketched out some of the library's other partnerships. This timeline from the European Library is designed to clarify multiple projects and acronyms. They also discussed the International Dunhuang Project to bring together physically dispersed 100,000 manuscripts, paintings, textiles and artifacts from the Silk Road that can be reunited through the digital interface.

Perhaps some of the library's greatest challenges involve copyright issues, particularly for the BL's substantial sound library. Conteth and Fitzgerald described how anything with potential commercial value, including the soundtrack to an awards show, may not be considered an archivable text or historical record. Jazz oral histories or the recordings of a sound researcher in Uganda may be uncontroversial at the moment, but record companies keep rights to many tracks with their future remix value in mind.

Finally, I asked them for their thoughts on the high-tech sci-fi future of their national library. Apparently plans for a hypothetical outpost have been discussed not very seriously. In contrast, the library is already using social media with its own gadget for iGoogle and pages on Facebook that includes one for entrepreneurial and networking efforts and an online book club on the popular social networking site. Librarians sounded more dubious about having users participate more actively in generating metadata for its digital collections, although the possibility of a non-Wikipedia-type model with an authentication scheme -- perhaps modeled on their use of smartcards at present -- might lead them to reconsider, given the potential value of user-generated content to understaffed libraries. I also learned that the British Library has licensed its sound library of the calls of extinct animals as ring tones for cellular telephones. (I actually heard one of these ring tones on the train before it went under the English channel.)

While I was there I also visited Sacred, an exposition about holy texts from interrelated Judeo-Christian-Islamic faith traditions. In addition to the books in glass cases, the installation also used several computer terminals to facilitate viewer comments, access to background materials in a hypertext catalog, and interaction with the proprietary "Turning the Pages" technology.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home