The Library in 2012 -- A Metaphor Factory

Today's Metaphor

The library exists to balance for us our two information needs: the need to have access to enough, and the need to be protected from too much. In a very short period of time, the Internet has done much to solve what had been for centuries the more difficult of the two needs -- access to enough. But even when enough information was difficult to find, we needed to be protected from too much information: We needed the information organized for us.

The library of 2002 is still organized around a metaphor now hundreds of years old, a metaphor that is being stretched till it twangs by the growing scale of the library. The metaphor is the library as if it were the personal library of a well-to-do polymath of the late second millennium C.E. The library is a pleasant well-lit room or rooms, with librarian(s) playing the metaphoric role of host -- familiar perhaps not with every page, but able to direct our attention to particular shelves or even particular texts that will reward our attention.

This metaphor makes the library attractive to visit, unlike the warehouse metaphor that could have been used. It also fosters a powerful if unpredictable advantage: serendipitous discoveries of texts that we weren't seeking, but that we find on the shelves we pass. This serendipity is exactly as would be expected in the personal library the metaphor is based on.

Because the library of 2002 is still freighted with books that have weight and volume, only the one metaphor can be used. We don't have the luxury of rearranging the library to suit every visitor. We rely on the librarian, in the role of gracious host, to facilitate our searches.

In order to avoid too much information, we still need to choose a library, just as we would choose which of our rich friends we would visit in 1740, in order to enter a library assembled with interests (and language) that would meet our needs. We need to find a library large enough to have enough resources to meet our need, but every book, every language, every story of the building that exceeds our needs becomes our adversary, making it more difficult to find the information we need, and still more difficult to be confident that we have found the library's best.

Tomorrow's Metaphors

By 2012 the library will be able to move beyond this metaphor -- beyond, in fact, any single metaphor. Libraries will no longer need to compete on the basis of what information is available; essentially they will share all that any library might have. Rather, they will compete on the basis of how attractive and appropriate are the metaphors they offer, to organize our access to information.

All the metaphors that a library might offer will be enabled by virtual reality -- by the ability of computer systems to portray a physical reality that does not really exist anywhere. Whether that virtual reality will be played out on a two-dimensional screen, with mouse and keyboard as navigation tools, or with 3D goggles and tactile glove as navigation tool, or with some other more immersive virtual reality technology, it will be the metaphor that defines the experience. It goes without saying that the technology will be able to present text along with any recorded medium available. Here are some examples of the kinds of metaphors that a library might provide.

A Metaphor: Zoom Atlas

In this metaphor, movement through virtual reality represents movement through space, but space in virtual reality and space in physical reality are mapped in a variable ratio. Moving a step through virtual reality could move the visitor a tiny distance: one step on the way from the wall of a cell towards its nucleus, or an enormous distance: one step on the way from the Solar System's arm of the Milky Way galaxy toward the galaxy's center. Once we have established an understanding of the relative geographies of the "lands" we are visiting, we can also change what our virtual senses perceive there. If we are moving across the continent of Europe at 100 miles per step, the territory we move across can be a virtual surface where every point represents a business based in that locale and the height at that point the profitability of the business. If the surface suddenly got noticeably higher at a political boundary, we would know something about the comparison of the two neighboring economies.

A Metaphor: Travel in Time

In this metaphor, movement through virtual reality represents movement through time, so that in a given "location" in the space you travel through, you are presented with the latest knowledge on your chosen topic up to a particular moment in time. It is as if the library were arranged as a series of rooms, each complete with the aggregate volumes through a particular date. This metaphor is appropriate for researching the state of scientific knowledge from which a particular breakthrough sprang, or the literature that informed Shakespeare's thinking about the late plays compared to the early ones.

A Metaphor: Conversation

In this metaphor, you engage in a virtual conversation with a real individual from the past, or even with a pastiche of individuals, representing, say, the state of medical knowledge in 1890. Your questions would be answered sometimes by appropriate actual quotes, more often by synthesized paragraphs summarizing what the individual(s) knew and wrote. The level of discourse would be responsive to your questions: From a virtual nuclear physicist, "What is a quark?" would elicit a short and simple response. "What specific experiment allowed you to predict the mass of the sub-atomic particles you discussed in your 1962 paper?" would elicit an appropriately longer and more detailed response.

All and any of these metaphors would be within the capabilities of every library in terms of the information available. If 2012 costs of digital storage do not permit all the needed information to reside at every library, then 2012 costs of digital transmission will allow all the needed information to flow to every library at a speed much faster than a human's ability to take the information in. Libraries will differ in their need for certain metaphors and in their ability to conceive and implement new metaphors. The library of an elementary school will offer different metaphors, and probably fewer metaphors, than the library of a medical research corporation. The task of librarian will be seen to have much in common with the tasks of architect, computer programmer, and film director, as libraries design highly portable metaphors that are suggested by the specific needs of an individual visitor at one library, but are applicable to the needs of other visitors at other libraries. This will be the new serendipity. We will not pass an eyecatching book title on the way to a distant shelf, but an insightful librarian will offer a metaphor for our researches that was developed to suit the needs of a 15-year-old student in Germany who was researching a topic completely unrelated to ours.

What (If Anything) is Wrong With This Picture?

The debate over what a library is and is to be is a current discussion topic at Bergen Academies, the county-wide magnet high school of Bergen County, NJ. The Academies are a well-publicized success in their mission. And? But? They do not have a library.

On the one side of the debate is the argument that scarce resources (in dollars and space) should not be allocated to a library:

(1) since each town in the county has its own library (so no Bergen Academies high-schooler is really without a library),

(2) since a county-wide library system can deliver requested books to those town libraries, and (3) since so much research can be done with Internet access.

On the other side of the debate is the "You Can't Be Serious" Argument. Primarily espoused by parents rather than students of the classes of 200x, this argument holds that every serious center of learning has a library -- that in fact having a library is not a common byproduct of being a serious center of learning, but is a defining trait: no library -- not serious.

The library that is being debated is a library in the 2002 metaphor: pleasant book-lined space, pleasant smile-lined librarians, pleasant serendipities of discovery among the shelves. The debate could also be framed as an issue of whether the Academies in their library-less-ness are at a disadvantage for what they lack today, or at an advantage in moving toward 2012. In their reliance on multiple libraries each with its own strengths and in their reliance on the Internet, they are starting to move towards the library as metaphor factory.

Both sides of the debate must acknowledge that every day that the Bergen Academies go without a 2002 library, it becomes less likely they will ever have one. This could mean they will have a 2012 library, or something much like it, long before 2010. It could mean that they will be debating a 2012 library in 2012, just as they are debating a 2002 library in 2002.

Our Metaphoric Host

The library of 2002 and the library of 2012 have little in common. Depending on the virtual reality modalities used, the library of 2012 may look like 2002's computer lab, 2002's astronaut training center, or 2002's dentist office. What the two libraries a decade apart have in common is the librarian and the librarian's role as facilitator. In both libraries, the librarian begins by interviewing the visitor and determining the visitor's needs. Far-sighted librarians of 2002 are reviewing what needs their visitors have in common and what metaphors of information presentation will best serve the largest number of visitors. Whether as gracious hosts of a static and comfortable reading space, or as the technologically skilled operators of the 2012 metaphor factory, the librarian determines the success of our library visit: enough information, but not too much.