Friday, April 9, 2010

up|next: Proposing a new paradigm for museums and libraries

This note continues my thoughts elsewhere in this space on copyright, content, and technology. My few faithful readers will recall that a few years back I wrote a blog article that primarily considered the changing role of museums. In that essay, I concluded that museums (and arguably libraries as well) should:

1. Be an authority:
* seek out authors and remain vigilant about properly attributing all sources;
* keep primary source material alive and digital so that it can be referenced;
* build semantic widgets to accurately and efficiently tag their "good stuff;"
2. Be a filter:
* dedicate resources to portal activity to identify others' "good stuff;" and
3. Be a good citizen:
* participate in discussions to create statutory royalty reservoirs

I believe in collaboration and openness in all that educators and academics do professionally, from wikispaces to promoting and hosting development platforms for multi-use open source software to finances. I think that today's digital environment requires us to think about information/ideas/content more as virtual and intangible things than the ephemeral material forms of expression which may embody them and would therefore propose that we have at least two major points of focus.

The first focus should be on the promotion of reasoned discussion, whether by increasing knowledge through novel, peer-reviewed research; by asserting the credibility and validity of others' data and promulgating same; or by developing and providing trustworthy, safe places (such as this wiki) and means (both through legal constructs like copyright law as well as technologies like OMEKA or Synchrotext) for people to access this information, juxtapose/associate it with other concepts, internalize and/or analyze these, and then exchange views with one another.

The second focus should be on preservation and validation of the primary source material that lies at the foundation of this idea marketplace and renders it epistemologically sound. This preservation would include not only traditional provenance research and conservation of physical objects, but also their ongoing digitization, storage, and migration. I think this work would include (as I believe it already includes) collaboration and consensus on international standards and protocols for not only acceptable metadata/semantic data but also file formats and reproduction/resolution scales.

If we accept these two areas of focus -- one on assuring and creating a fair, safe marketplace for idea gathering and exchange, the other for establishing a reliable repository for the content itself (and I think commercial publishing is headed in that direction) -- then is the distinction between museum and library still meaningful? Independently, I think the strength of any museum or library lies in its expertise and source of authority. Yet collectively I think we will gain the most by sharing development of and responsibility over mastering both the ephemeral and tangible aspects of knowledge that is the basis for our respective existence.

Martin Gomez , City Librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library, has cited OCLC studies showing the public more interested in expedient access to content than authoritative access to content. However, I think libraries and museums are in control of their own respective brands and what they deliver. There's no reason users cannot get both -- an expedient place to access "good" content (irrespective of format or length) that through its services and imprimatur assures this content is accurately sourced and attributed. Further to this vision of a library as community “third space,” I agree that the future of libraries should be envisioned in a manner separate from their current ties to old technology (i.e., printing press and CDs as opposed to print-on-demand, e-books, and MP3s). But what would this look like? I propose a new model for maintaining a single, vast central (largely digital, so really dispersed) repository and converting independent local libraries into branches that can tap into this central core as portals, third spaces, and integral maintainers of our collective knowledge infrastructure.

When source material is digitally generated, stored, searchable, and downloadable, doesn't it make more sense to have a centralized repository (like the Library of Congress) handling digital preservation and distribution protocols serving to/through existing infrastructure of brick & mortar local outlet branches than the arbitrary hodgepodge we have now that favors urbanites over would be rural users? I wonder what it would cost to support/transition to this on a national scale as against the current tax base for public libraries? Funding would need to cover not only upkeep of central + branches + storage + internet connectivity/outlets but also micropayments to creators based on usage (a la ASCAP/BMI/SESAC). I’d love to see someone present objective research findings on this, though my intuition is that revenues would offset costs. What’s required is legislative leadership to make this happen.

Local tax dollars already go to support local branches, as does federal funding for library systems in general (IMLS, NAS funding, LOC, NIH, etc.). Economies of scale and the metadata and the ongoing efforts within the digitization standards community both suggest savings inherent in a centralized knowledge bank (so to speak, it probably wouldn't be centrally stored, just centrally managed and overseen). Copyright protection and the public domain have long been matters of federal (and international) law. I'm starting to think these issues are in reality less a matter of centralized consolidation and control (digital copying is almost impossible to staunch now) than finding the most efficient and effective means of retention and distribution. Write once, serve many.

What's more, changing our cultural paradigm for information development, storage, and retrieval might even benefit those in (presently) underserved areas. Current brick and mortar library branches could continue (and possibly increase) the technology access functions they currently perform (among the other valuable services they provide), and with print-on-demand units, could even make the occasional or rare print material available for those who prefer to carry things out. Policy decisions would have to be made about what materials might be made available (should the library carry movies, for example, or a Netflix subscription?) and the availability of viable competing business models would surely be part of the debate (even with a micropayment royalty structure, would libraries unfairly compete with rental services?) but those are discussions that are already ongoing.

I respect those who make the argument that museums should not thus be lumped in with libraries, since museums are also content creators and interpreters, not just content repositories/users. I agree that this is an important distinction, but I disagree that it is a meaningfully generalizable one. How should we regard organizations like presidential libraries who maintain in-house experts not just to collect, preserve, and promote access to information but also to cultivate and publish new research? How should we regard small, local, but communally-funded children's museums whose content is limited to manipulation of material objects, a modest library of Seuss and Szieska, and coffee bar cultural events targeting parents of young children? I’d argue that these distinctions are more about individual mission, expertise, and resources than about the authority, credibility, and promulgation of knowledge and culture which I think inherent in the branding of education-driven institutions. Nor am I concerned about the obsolescence of professional training in library sciences or museum studies, as I know from my own experience as a Johns Hopkins instructor that appropriate programs of study can be crafted to fit any professional paradigm. (That is to say, if we build it, they will learn.)

But back to my central point in favor of redefining our paradigm of museums and libraries to better account for what I see as 21st century digital reality. By removing any ongoing independent responsibility to acquire, track, or maintain a (digital) collection, the content itself would be further democratized. This, I think, renders it cost-effective for more local branches or depots to be built in remote or rural locations. I ran these ideas past Rob Billingsley at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (thanks to Facebook), who responded: "Form follows function... Public Libraries have been adapting with Bill Gates Computer Centers, broader reference sources (Internet) to answer visitor questions, loaning books on CDs and DVDs, online training, filling in the digital divides, etc. No reason for them not to continue on that path, but there is a need to go pro-active, not "build it and they will come."

Yes! Library and museum directors, are you listening? Our patrons will adapt and in fact adopt that which makes their access to content easier. For example, we are already seeing different browsing strategies from the shelf-strolling to which many of us have been accustomed. The AI/semantic tagging-enabled suggest functions ("Readers who liked this also liked...") is already much in vogue, and both Google Books and Amazon's "Look Inside!" features allow would-be readers direct experience of the text (to say nothing of music and video streaming).

With mobile smart phone adoption increasing at a global rate and the advent of hybrid technologies like the iPad, Kindle, and Sony Reader (each of which is sort of a weak cell-connected laptop), we are pretty close to this reality. But the legal, funding, and administrative infrastructure would have to be radically overhauled to bring it to light. Are these thoughts about obsolescence and metamorphosis correct or do they show fundamental flaws? If they are apt or a reasonable predictor for one possible and desirable future, might we not try to start imagining and building the framework for this here (on the blogosphere)?

As the previous page cites indicate, this dialogue emerged in the context of an IMLS up|next wiki page in early March, 2010. In the context of this virtual discussion, a member named library4881 who self-identifies as a “Library Director for a very small Community College in eastern Montana” wrote:
Montana has twice the land mass of Wyoming and twice the population. Montana is the 4th largest state in the U.S. with a population of about 1 million; Wyoming has about ½ a million. I bring this up, because we have never had the population to support all that our citizens need. We cannot replicate every library (public, school, academic, special, tribal libraries). The current economic conditions exacerbate the situation. We simply have to share our collections which mean we share our users. …I had used the site in the past for our students to do research and was impressed with the access we had.

Again, I say all of this because I also read in one of these responses that there was no one place to get ‘all’ of the information (I would reference The Long Tail: Why the Future of business Is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson) and we would not be able to freely access lesser know[n] titles, lesser know[n] publications, digitized items from local/state/federal: libraries/museums, historical societies, state and federal documents as well as digitized journal articles. I am looking for a solution that would allow our community and state to have access and be able use the social technology that would give them that access.

I think Library4881's points lie at the root of my arguments for considering the cost-effectiveness of a main central repository/multiple delivery paradigm (elaborated elsewhere on this Wiki) for libraries/museums/archive infrastructure over the present one for all digital and digitizable content. Nor would this be inconsistent with those who would wish to preserve the integrity of the current independent museum/library paradigm, since under my proposed scheme the precise nature of delivery/access, curation, maintenance of physical collections, and moderation or cultivation of third space/community interaction could (and by rights ought to) remain for each independent branch to determine as befits the needs and resources of their respective constituencies.

The likening of information to water is not an original one, but is nonetheless a highly apt analogy. We collect, filter, sanitize, and store water in central reservoirs which we then supply via a network of pipes whose usage can be monitored and (if desired) metered to end users to use as they see fit. Would it not be as efficient to treat information the same way, serving to approved libraries, museums, and archives through MAX and Internet2 pipelines for use and redistribution (etc.)? To consider the viability of such a scheme, we should prepare and then review the ROI from repurposing and supplementing the existing architectures that make it possible for us to treat information as a liquid commodity against the ROI from using the same current and evolving technology to perpetuate and perfect our current ways of doing business.

I am not so na├»ve as to think this a simple matter of reallocating funding and fiat direction. I respect that the complexities of jointly-sharing responsibilities and infrastructure which are now in many cases independently if redundantly maintained, and therefore quantifying the costs and constraints of effecting cooperation (including possible revisions to the existing copyright regime) might in itself be challenging. However, isn’t that what we are asking here? For us to challenge assumptions?

As it happens, half of the research and analysis I suggest (e.g., on the digital preservation/repository side of things) has now been concluded. The National Science Foundation convened a blue ribbon task force to consider the respective costs and benefits of developing a central digital repository. In their recommendations for action, published and discussed earlier this month, they agree that modification of the copyright laws is a good idea. You know you’re onto something when even the NSF is advocating cultural revolution. I have no doubt we will ultimately see this change come to pass, but I see no reason to wait on current trends to shake out a new world informational order. Who will step forward to lead (and not be led by) the coming revolution?