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Archive for March, 2015

With all the talk about bookless libraries, budget cuts and the digital replacing the physical, it was refreshing to see a different emphasis at the ALIA Information Online conference this year. ALIA’s new advocacy campaign for libraries, FAIR (Freedom of Access to Information and Resources) was launched. Tim Sherratt, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and Mitchell Whitelaw spoke about how the digital and the physical can work together provide richer library experiences. There was a notable shift in emphasis from the usual ‘the online replace the physical’ discourse, to the online enhancing and providing another layer of access to physical and digital collections documenting our shared social, cultural and historical memory.

Siva Vaidhyanathan’s keynote address, ‘The human knowledge project’ was a call to action to ‘be bold and brave’ advocates and activists for core library values. As author of The Googlization of Everything And Why We Should Worry (University of California Press, 2011), much of this opening keynote focused on why we should ‘never trust a corporation to do a librarians job’. Vaidhyanathan spoke about how Google, a company with commercial imperative, has shifted it priorities and mission statement to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” through Google Books, to becoming the operating system of our lives. For example, many of Google’s digitisation efforts have been sidelined, leaving archival projects in limbo, or abandoned entirely in 2010, in favour of new ventures like Gmail, Google+ etc.

According to Vaidhyanathan, it is dangerous to accept and view the Googlisation of everything uncritically and unquestioningly. A big ask, I know, for a tool like Google which seems to so easy, powerful, seductive – seems to read our minds, however Google’s monopolisation of the market has undermined efforts to harness technologies to deliver quality information. While it may be good for shopping, its not so good for learning. This begs the question, do we want companies like Facebook, Google etc to become operating systems of our lives? He stressed that we have an ethical imperative to remember that that these systems are not magical, and that they need to be demystified.

Vaidhyanathan also introduced the ‘human knowledge project’. A project which values human dimensions not just virtual. Its actual, physical, and values skills, knowledge and expertise of people. As information professionals, librarians need to act locally think globally and be strong advocates of the core values of librarianship, which are more important now than ever. Who could be more well placed that local librarians who know what each community needs, to be activists for core library values on global scale? For me, this was an invaluable and inspiring reminder for a profession sometimes too often caught up in what’s hot, rather than on what’s important. A call to ‘set the trend, not follow the trend’, and to ‘think historically and globally’.

Similarly, in his talk on ‘On seams and edges — dreams of aggregation, access and discovery in a broken world’, Dr Tim Sherratt from the National Library of Australia, questioned the idea of seamlessness in online discovery services like ‘next-generation catalogues’, ‘web-scale discovery services’ or ‘discovery layers’. Sherratt’s research draws on literature around discovery, and user behaviour data currently available through Trove, to explore the role of technology in both inhibiting and enriching the online experience. He pointed out the alienating and disempowering effects of technological futures, as people are cast as the passive consumers of the latest gadgets. He asked us, the audience to consider, ‘“If its not on Google, does it exist”?.

According to Sherratt, the Googlisation of modern culture has created a ‘culture of search’ and faith that the simplicity of the single search box will just work. Just like ‘When Marconi Switched on the Lights The Sydney Electrical and Radio Exhibition’, Sherratt reminded us that Google’s dominance gives it immense power in presenting to us an image of the world which constrains our options and assumptions. Pursuing ‘seamless discovery’ in the wake of Google means engaging with questions of politics and power.
Trove too is full or problems, possibilities and limitations. We must remember that being an aggregator which pulls together metadata from a variety of different sources, with close to 400 million resources harvested from hundreds of contributors, it’s inevitable that there will be errors. By exposing imperfections, collection gaps and strengths, data visualisation of cultural heritage collections provides an opportunity to educate, and create sites of analysis and activism.

Academic Mitchell Whitelaw spoke about digital collections as spaces of potential, realms of possible meaning, interpretation, reuse, and value both familiar and unknown. He presented a number of projects that attempt to explore collection space, and sample the scope of these possibilities, as well as considering the space between collections. For example, tranScriptorum which “aims to develop innovative, cost-effective solutions for the indexing, search and full transcription of historical handwritten document images, using Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) technology”, the Marginalia machine from the Bloodaxe Archive at the University of Newcastle, UK, which profiles handwritten marginalia, the music genre list of Every noise at once, Internet Archive’s images from books by a map, or on Flickr (derived from a program run over the OCR content), and Succession, which allows people to explore heritage photographs in new ways, and create new content.

Whitelaw, also spoke about the the need to understand, reflect and critique human and computational processes in creating digital culture, and the complementary roles that human interpretation and computational analysis can play. When asked about the importance of controlled vocabularies vs folksonomies, the answer was not a matter of one or the other but both! The librarian and the user, the digital and the physical working together to provide a richer and more meaningful collection space!

References
Bai, Andy. ‘Never trust a corporation to do a librarian’s job’ , 29 January 2015, https://medium.com/message/never-trust-a-corporation-to-do-a-librarys-job-f58db4673351
Sherratt, Tim. ‘On seams and edges — dreams of aggregation, access and discovery in a broken world’, ALIA Information Online Conference , Thursday 2 February 2015, http://information-online.alia.org.au/content/seams-and-edges-dreams-aggregation-access-and-discovery-broken-world
Vaidhyanathan, Siva. ‘The Human Knowledge Project’, ALIA Information Online Conference , Tuesday 2 February 2015, http://information-online.alia.org.au/content/human-knowledge-project
Whitelaw, Mitchell. ‘Collection Space’, ALIA Information Online Conference , Thursday 5th February 2015, http://information-online.alia.org.au/content/collection-space

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