Sunday, 20 October 2013

Reconsidering the value and role of libraries in the digital age

The arrival of the digital age is greatly transforming libraries. Going forward, what is the exact role a library should play? What is needed to be able to make efficient use of these vast book repositories? In search of answers, The Asahi Shimbun Globe sat down and spoke with two experts in the field.


More than 500 years have passed since Johannes Gutenberg started the printing revolution. Today, with the advent of digital technology, the dissemination of information is exploding around the globe.

In the world of the Internet, where anyone can be an originator of information, we are already saturated with an abundance of news, facts and figures. The key then is “how to combine and reuse all this accumulated information.” What is required is a method for unearthing and extracting important bits from a large quantity of accumulated information and combining them into new creations. Since ancient times, the basic system of the library, which makes a vast amount of written material easily accessible by searching an index, has served that purpose. Much more than we give it credit for, the library is still a futuristic entity.

However, problems stand in the way of the library being able to fully exhibit its potential. First, a public processing system related to copyrights and intellectual property rights is needed so material for which the owner or copyright holder is unknown can be publicly used. Second, it is necessary to train a new type of librarian who will be responsible for the digital knowledge base. As a profession, we must create an “advanced digital librarian” fully versed in information technology and intellectual property law.

When paper-based books are turned into digital media, they often blend text, video and sound. Books in the next century will probably look nothing like they do today, and the differences between museums, libraries, art museums and archives will become obscure. Information pertaining to the collected works, documents, records and books at each institution will be shared. When that happens, new value will be created via accumulating, storing, retrieving and reusing such information, and a social, institutional structure will be required.

An example of what I mean is the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake Archives that the National Diet Library is endeavoring to create. In the hope of contributing to disaster management and prevention, the archives are focused on gathering all records associated with the earthquake and creating a database that anyone will be able to search. The materials being collected range from official documents to personal websites and include sound and video along with traditional text and still images. If it is realized, the archives will probably serve as a kind of predecessor for the “library of the future.”
The European Union is already building a huge digital library, Europeana, in an attempt to unify European knowledge possessed by libraries, museums and archives across the continent.

In kanji-using cultures such as Japan, China and South Korea, there is also an accumulation of shared historical culture. It would probably be possible to build an East Asian multilingual digital library. First, however, Japan should build a “library of the future” that can serve as a model.

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