Alexandria is a Port: The Digital Library in Physical Space

May 9, 2012 – 10:14 am

Remarks made at the Fredric M. Miller Memorial lecture, May 8, 2012, at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Many thanks especially to John Palfrey for his lucid and inspiring remarks about the aims and progress of the Digital Public Library of America. Note that I spoke previously about the National Digital Library of Korea; see that talk for photos of the “dibrary.”

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There is no Frigate like a book
To take us lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of Prancing Poetry
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a human Soul.

–Emily Dickinson, www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19730

Alexandria is a port, the busiest seaport in Egypt. Of course it is: where else could the most famous library of antiquity have been built but in a city with a busy port? That’s almost a contradiction in terms, that phrase "busy port" — the safest, most sheltered waters are those that must inevitably be roiled by everyone’s embarkings and disembarkings. Such places earn the hubbub of a hub precisely through their initial state of calm repose.

And if books and pages are ships and horses in Emily Dickinson’s formulation, then libraries too are busy seaports and coaching inns and highways "without oppress of toll." Libraries and archives and museums, like ports, including airports, are still and primarily places we come to to get somewhere else, to be transported. And this is as true or even more true of digital libraries as it is of physical libraries: on the web, many sites are only as powerful as their ability to get you somewhere else as quickly as possible. Google, notably, does its utmost to get you off Google.com as fast as it can: Google accrues power by giving it away.

I have argued elsewhere — or, rather, elsewhere I have released a small balloon of an idea into the atmosphere — that the DPLA should or at least could be rooted in a physical space, a building. The genesis of that idea did not, in fact, come from my deep love of libraries as places, although that is a love that goes back to my childhood. Standing in a library, for me, is as heady as standing by the ocean, and in both places I always have similar vague impulses to escape to barely imagined islands just across the horizon. But no: the first notion I ever had that a digital library could be a physical library was sparked by nothing less than learning that one exists.

The National Digital Library of Korea (also called the "dibrary"), which opened in 2009, is, in fact, a building. It took seven years to build, at a cost to the Korean government of about $112 million dollars US, and by some accounts it contains over 116 million “pieces of digital content,” which would make it almost eight times as large as the Europeana digital library, which claims 15 million items. That 116 million number, however, is probably based on a definition of “pieces of digital content” that includes (say) database records, and is therefore not measured in the same units as most digital libraries. But reports also testify, more believably, that the dibrary has digitized 380,000 books, and that is a very respectable number.

The National Digital Library of Korea is an eight-story building (five of those stories underground) that seats 550 patrons, and it runs 300 TB of server space. The physical space and the equipment are so advanced as to seem almost fictional. On the main floor there are touch-screen help kiosks. There are 3D monitors that do not require viewers to wear 3D glasses. There is a Global Lounge running PCs in English, Chinese, Japanese, French, and Vietnamese. There are multimedia viewing and creation and editing spaces as well as meeting and café spaces. There is a permanent art installation that “displays customized videos based on a user recognition function.” There is an enormous screen reserved only for 3D text, including “user messages.” There is a Laptop Zone, and there is a “Productivity Computer Cluster” whose desktop computers have large monitors and multiple monitors. There are more touch-screen kiosks, these dedicated to the sole purpose of reading digital newspapers. There are electronic tables with touch-screen surfaces, and on those tables you can see digital surrogates of historic Korean books as they lie open flat before you, seemingly in the table rather than on it. There is a connecting bridge called the Way of Knowledge that connects the National Digital Library of Korea with the National Library of Korea, and projected on the walls of the Way of Knowledge are “motion-sensitive interactive contents.” And, of course, there are are D.to, N.to, and U.to, the dibrary’s adorable mascots.

Regardless of whether the Digital Public Library of America ever realizes itself in a building, it is important, I think, to remember two things. First: library, archive, and museum buildings are no longer the only gateways to culture and ideas — but the new gateways are also physical. To put it in a sound bite, hardware is the new harbor. If nothing else, libraries, archives, and museums can provide everyone, especially "the poorest," access to these new "transportation" devices; the Gates Foundation has already recognized this truth in its support for putting public computers in public libraries. Second: digital libraries do bring people to physical places, especially when those places have unique originals of digitally ubiquitous representations. Putting digital content online, as many of you doubtless know, increases rather than decreases visitors: representation is no subsitute for presence.

I’m pleased that the DPLA seems to be leaning toward being primarily an aggregator of metadata and content for this very reason: the DPLA is likely to drive traffic to libraries, archives, and museums in both the digital and the physical spaces. And the DPLA is also likely to launch more than a few ships, some going exploring, and some returning home.

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