The library of the (near) future: the catalog IS the library

(please note that the project I’m mentioning is no longer available since my laptop was stolen)

Towards a global, localized, physical-virtual distributed peer-based library for all

Most of our readers probably ignore that I used to be a librarian, for the first 12 years of my professional life, a job that I really loved. Back in 1990-1993, I was involved in creating one of the first functioning virtual libraries (for BP Nutrition), for which I got 2 awards and some people in the library profession used to credit me with the invention of the concept, and practice of cybrarian-ship. The irony is that I wanted to do away with books, at least in corporate settings, while I’m now a big fan of them. Rather than do away with books, I’m motivated by solutions that seamlessly integrate the physical world and enabling technologies. So, since knowledge management issues are still somewhat in my mind, I have lately been thinking about what the ideal library should look like.

Here’s my take on: The Catalog IS the library.

1. Combining tags, facets, and flexible hierarchies

New technologies do not do away with the old ones, but recombine the old and the new in different recombinations. That’s what we have to do with hierarchies, facets, and tags.

Hierarchies (trees of knowledge, such as the Dewey Decimal System) are a centralized solution to knowledge organization: there’s one truth, and this is how the world is organized. Facets recognize that there are more than just one way to arrive at the truth: it’s a decentralized solution, that allows you to search for an object (say: a car), from different, BUT, pre-established angles (say: price range, type, year of built, brand name). Finally, tags are the distributed peer to peer solution where any user can freely tag his objects and share them with others. Tags are great, and I love delicious, but also have weaknesses. I find that 80% of the tags used are pretty useful and only mean something particular for that one person using them.

So, in the catalog of the future I imagine: 1) we need free tagging and their sharing, as delicious is doing. BUT: 2) we also need facets. For example, the system could ask for temporal and geographic descriptions of the subject matter. 3) Hierarchies are very useful, to show the inter-relationship of the subject matter. But today: there is no reason there should be only one hierarchy of knowledge. What we need is a system that combines free-tagging, with facets, and with the ability to create flexible outliners, so that each person can create his/her own hierarchy. So for any book, if we’re interested, we can see which place it takes in the ontology of another person, how that person’s mind works and organizes information. Such a hierarchy would also allow for ontological advocacy. For example, in my own pet project, I’ve been compiling a 300-page annotated bibliography of non-fiction books on the past, history, and future of human civilization, trying to distill the key books that one should read for having such an overall viewpoint.

I’ve organized them according to a non-reductionist integral approach which combine the perspective of self (subjective aspect), of technology (objective), of systems (political, economic, etc..: inter-objective), and finally culture, philosophy, religion (inter-subjective). I also use facets since each of these quadrants are organized in a chronological fashion (temporal facet), and geographical fashion.

How, how would this work: you can consult, add, and rate any nonfiction book in the system, adding your own tags, adding the geo-temporal facets, create your own hierarchy. But you can also ask for the integral view, which will automatically call up the meta-hierarchy. This would allow you to compare, say the books about the tribal ˜economy”, with books on the tribal self, or on animistic and shamanic religious forms; or alternative, it would allow you to compare the tribal economy with the later forms of economic life. Once you find a book, you can also see from which other perspective other people have entered it into their own personal hierarchies. In my opinion, such a system would be vastly more valuable than just a traditional hierarchical catalog, but also of a tagging-only system.

Part 2: combining book buying, new and used, with library lending and peer-based exchanges

There is another way that The Catalog is the Library.

As I said, I do not see why the physical and the virtual should be separate. So, any book in this system would automatically be linked to online booksellers such as Amazon; but it would also be linked up to the library lending systems. Finally, this system could serve as a personal library manager for your own books, and allow you to use the pooled resources of the whole user base. In addition, it would be linked to the open source books which are available online on the internet, or the e-books sold by private publishers. So, if you need a book which you do not want to buy, or which is not available through library lending, you would look up: ˜who else has it in my vicinity”, and borrow that book from your peers. In such a way, this online catalog would effectively be merged with the universal library of books, independent of the fact whether they are for sale, in a library, or in the possession of another individual.

2 Comments The library of the (near) future: the catalog IS the library

  1. AvatarNorbert Mayer-Wittmann

    Hi Michel,

    this was brought to my attention by a colleague.

    I think (as you also have much experience WRT databases) you will readily acknowledge that the whole idea of an “isolated text” is rather in flux. But even several years ago I met Susan Sontag and she explained how all texts are interlinked — speaking WRT the traditional notion of literature.

    At any rate, units of information are quite an interesting field that I am currently doing research in.

    I think your idea in “part 2” already exists in several locations. Personally, I am not very interested in paper (or even any kind of non-machine-readable document auch as audio/video, though I do enjoy listening to music while I work ;D). I expect that in the future reading will incorprate more and more computation — such that we will move beyond hypertexts into a world in which the interface allows quite sophisticate navigation — and such a palette of browsers will function much like “translators” of original works. Even presently you can see how people write texts with particular software applications in mind (e.g. Google’s and/or Yahoo’s search algorithms).

    Your part 1 idea (basically combining both tagging and faceted access methods) is very provocative. In fact, I agree with Esther Dyson that market forces are quite efficient at reaching such “optimal states”. She and I also agree in our belief that the various TLDs will eventually come to describe various aspects of the same concept (e.g. CARS.COM would be related to commerce/commercials, CARS.INFO would show information about cars, and perhaps CARS.MD might even have to do with auto repairs).

    😀 nmw

    ps: “In the long run, we’re all dead.” (John Maynard Keynes)

  2. Pingback: Family Man Librarian » Blog Archive » The catalog is the library: a perspective

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