TechnologyThe near and far future of libraries
As archives become digital and machines become smarter, what function will libraries serve ten years and ten thousand years from now? Hopes&Fears asks the experts.
Recently, Google Vice President and “father of the Internet” Vint Cerf warned that we might be headed for a “digital Dark Age”, a massive loss of information with obsolete file types and hardware. That’s an especially dire prophecy in an era when digitization is rapidly eclipsing print media, artificial intelligence is perfecting search queries, and drastic upheavals are quietly underfoot at the world’s historic libraries. All this leads to the question of what happens if we lose our traditional libraries? What is the future for libraries and archiving? (If you ask SIRI, she’ll tell you “Here’s what I found on the web…”)
Unsurprisingly, these worries have been swirling around since the birth of the modern internet. One of the earliest uses of the term “digital Dark Age” was recorded at the 1998 Time and Bits conference, hosted by the Long Now Foundation, a nineteen-year-old organization dedicated to archival projects on a 10,000 year timeline. The Rosetta Disk, for example, is one of its attempts to create a permanent archive: it’s a wafer of nickel containing all the world’s languages in raised microscopic text. “We aren’t creating the Rosetta Disk specifically with an apocalypse in mind, or for a society that's undergoing major upheaval,” Long Now Director Laura Welcher told Hopes&Fears, “but over the span of millennia, I think you have to expect that to happen occasionally.”
Let us now turn to the human experts for answers.
Satinder Singh (Baveja),
Professor & Director
of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory University of Michigan
I do think artificial agents that can converse might be here within the next decade. In my group, we are seeking to build systems that, through dialogue, can answers questions that undergraduates can ask about courses, advising, and that sort of thing. Such systems will get better and better.
The funny thing is, we all think that you need a person to help determine or recommend something for [your tastes]– there's a book by Jaron Lanier, called "You Are Not a Gadget". In the book, he writes something to the following effect: you might think the kind of book you want to read, the poetry you like, or the person you want to date is such a personal thing, such a human thing. But if you go to Amazon.com, by mining certain kinds of data, the site actually makes a pretty damn good recommendation about the books you'd want to read. Even in such human domains as who you want to date or what you want to read– for the vast majority of users current systems probably give us as good an answer as any human being would.
The good news is libraries are morphing, are surviving, by becoming places of community, where kids go, come to read books, draw together…there are workshops being held… it's more than just a source of information. People need physical places to read, find like-minded people from the neighborhood. Libraries hold things like writing contests. Those roles have not gone away, librarians are changing what they do, for example they're teaching people how to use technology. The need for a physical place to meet, surrounded by books and information– I guess libraries have always played that role.
Executive director of the Westport Library
We introduced [humanoid robots] Vincent and Nancy to the Westport Library because we believed that robotics would be the next "disruptive" technology which would pervade different disciplines. We had a similar experience introducing 3D-printing to our community. People we serve would be advantaged by having the knowledge. Nancy and Vincent don't perform tasks but are teaching tools to help people learn coding in a way that provides immediate feedback. Their presence is a signal that the public library is on the cutting edge of learning.
Formerly an engineer at the Internet Archive Presently a collaborator on Colloq, Rhizome’s tool to archive artworks and environments on social media
I remain skeptical that artificial intelligence will be able to do all the work of a human curator. I'm sure there are others who think differently, but I believe, perhaps naively, that ultimately a human guidance will still be necessary to direct the any AI. Especially if we're talking about all human knowledge. Without human curation, it is all just meaningless data, really…
Ilya Kreymer, previously an engineer at the Internet Archive and currently a collaborator on the social networking archiving project Colloq and WebRecorder.
As for digital content, archiving technology always needs to adapt and evolve in response to advances in web technologies. As the web becomes more interactive, it becomes difficult to capture highly interactive content, and streaming content such as video/audio. We have solved some of these problems for the moment but when new technology comes along, we may need to start over, as usually there is little concern for preservation when new technologies are introduced.
An even bigger problem, I think, is the centralization of content. In the '90s, people used to have their own home pages, now, most content is placed on social media, where it is under full control of a centralized entity. Usually they'll return your content when you ask, but perhaps one day, maybe they won't... or maybe they'll remove it, or maybe they go out of business, and so on. Internet Archive, although an incredible resource, unfortunately also suffers the downside of being a centralized entity, for some of the same reasons and especially due to the threat of censorship. A censoring regime, or indeed any service provider, can easily block access to "archive.org" (and this has already happened within the last year..  ), and thus all at once blocking access to one of the largest online archives in the world.
Director of Operations at the Long Now Foundation and the Rosetta Project
My background is in linguistics, and my graduate research involved
documenting some of the most endangered languages in the world. I also
worked in a small language archive where we had been given field notes
by people who’d researched languages with few speakers left. In some
cases, archival materials are the only materials that remain for
If you’ve ever had that experience of holding something in your hands that is the only one of its kind, you begin to realize how precious and perishable this information is. I would sometimes travel to archives to examine books and manuscripts that had no copies made of them, and hold these precious manuscripts in my hands–this was all before digitization–and in some cases they were crumbling away.
If you’re making an archival relic for future generations, it’s very
important to have “signposts” directing people to know that it exists,
how to find it, and how to access the information on it. One kind of
signposting we built into the Rosetta Disk is spiral text surrounding
the microscopic archive. The text starts out at eye-readable scale and
gets smaller and smaller, so people know to examine the disk very
closely. The information on the disk is parallel--the same information
repeated for each language--like the Rosetta Stone which enabled the
decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. It also stands as a
record of the variety of human languages at the beginning of the 21st
century--about 7,000 of them currently exist. This diversity of human
language developed through thousands of years of very slow change.
Now, however, due to the development of a few languages that have great
local or even global economic power, we will likely see this number of
languages reduced to only about 500 in total over the next century.
The Long Now Foundation takes the span of human civilization as its
scope: 10,000 years in the past from the dawn of human civilization,
and projecting that 10,000 years into future. The Rosetta Disk is
therefore designed for future human beings with bodies about like
ours, and minds that think and probably have roughly the same capacity
for language that we do today. The Rosetta Disk is a thin metal disk
made out of nickel, about 3 inches in diameter; it contains over
14,000 pages of information, like pages of a book, only microscopic,
and written in raised relief. Nickel as a material isn't going to
degrade or corrode, and it can withstand high temperatures so it can
last a very long time. We aren’t creating the Rosetta Disk
specifically with an apocalypse in mind, or for a society that's
undergoing major upheaval, but over the span of millennia, I think you
have to expect that to happen occasionally. In that case, the Rosetta
Disk is a good long-term backup. You might think of it as a “secret
decoder ring” for information we leave for the future in human