The Post-Digital Library

A few years ago, I began thinking of the future of the library in terms of a post-digital future. By “post-digital” I do not mean a post-apocalyptic library, like the analog libraries reconstructed after the nuclear war in William Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz or after the flu pandemic in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I am thinking of a time not when digital infrastructure collapses but when it is taken for granted—when the qualifier “digital” is no longer necessary.

When I went to library school some twenty years ago, the digital libraries we built were more like digital cabinets of curiosities—selected or small collections of things that could be digitized and publicly shared. Libraries had special departments for this work, and as interesting and as expensive as it was, it was not typically a core function within any library. Libraries were, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, already digital in many ways: online catalogs and research databases, as well as electronic journals and books, were common. But libraries as entities were largely synonymous with their buildings and the people, materials, and functions contained within them. Some of us, though, who used online public catalogs and found through libraries resources on the open web, sensed that libraries were extending beyond their traditional boundaries.

When I became a library director about a decade ago, I became more intentional about thinking about the library as a hybrid entity—our resources, services, and spaces were both non-digital and digital. As libraries like mine pressed into integrating digital technologies into every dimension of our work, we added more digital resources, services, platforms, and expertise to function online as well as offline. As we did this, we emerged as leaders within our institutions in areas such as digital literacy, digital pedagogy, digital scholarship, and digital institutional transformation. 

A few weeks ago, many of our libraries became entirely mediated through digital technologies. We closed our buildings, we suspended the circulation of physical materials locally and throughout our networks, and we moved all of our services online. In all of my communications, I am careful to say that the library building is closed; library resources, services, and staff remain accessible online. 

Fortunately, after many years of investing in digital resources and infrastructure—and in cultivating digital expertise among my faculty and staff—we were ready for this sudden and complete digital shift. We were even able to add new resources and services. But when people ask if the library is open, and we respond that it is online, we know that we are not fully functional. And we lament that.

When I imagine the future form of the library, it is neither purely digital, online, nor purely physical, offline. It is the best of both of these—a blend of digitally networked enhancements to physically situated experiences, adaptable to individual and community needs and preferences. The qualitative difference is like that between the internet, virtual reality, and chatbots and the Internet of Things, mixed reality, and robots.

The present pandemic has revealed the impressive extent to which libraries have become digital. There is of course more work to be done—especially related to improving digital presence and place beyond video conferencing and learning management systems. But now, I am looking forward most to creating what comes next: the post-digital library.

Information Crises

Previously, in what seems like another age, I argued here that four major information revolutions have occurred throughout human history. These four revolutions were associated with the emergence of information abstraction, information agencies, information artifacts, and information automation. At the moment, in the midst of a health pandemic that is also a dangerous infodemic, I have been thinking about the information crises that have come with each of these revolutions.

With the ability to imagine and articulate abstract concepts came the invention of lying. If the Garden of Eden is read as a reflection of the evolutionary emergence of imagining alternative realities, then information abstraction is the foundation for the original sin of doubting (with the help of a malicious agent) God’s intentions for the first humans.

With the establishment of the earliest cities and the information agencies needed for ordering their activities, lying became propaganda—the deformation of information for the rule of the polis. One could read the claims of the founders of Babel as benevolent: Let us build ourselves a city, make a name for ourselves, and live together safely. But who suffered and who benefited from that labor? Whose names were glorified? And what social distinctions or divisions existed and how were these managed? 

The information artifacts that represent the third information revolution communicate a mixture of information, misinformation, and disinformation. Over millennia, we have developed complex historical, literary, and other methodologies in attempts to evaluate information and use it appropriately. Our semantic efforts are ultimately provisional, though, and the artifacts always remain to some extent suspect.

Now, in an age of information automation—including both the automated processing and the automated creation of information—we are overwhelmed with information that may not be information. The development of digital, networked information and communication technologies such as the internet, social media, mobile devices, and artificial agents has made sharing information easy and automatic. These have outpaced our previous strategies for information management, and our current information environment is polluted with disinformation and misinformation. We have created the Antilibrary of Babel.

The COVID-19 crisis heightens the unique features of our information revolution’s crisis: the speed, scope, and sources of communication. Regardless of value, messages are transmitted quickly and broadly without clear contextual information about their creation, credibility, currency, and channels of distribution. 

When we are fully in crisis informatics mode—seeking information to address our uncertainties and anxieties and make sense of what we are experiencing—we are vulnerable to being misinformed. And when there is insufficient or incomplete information, that vulnerability grows. Even more so than before this crisis, as we wait for better information and information management systems, we need to be more attentive and analytical. We need to slow down, be aware of how we’re being affected, and verify and add context. We need to think more and consume and share less.

Library Next: Notes from Academia Next about the Library

Bryan’s Alexander’s recent book Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education (Johns Hopkins, 2019) is an excellent resource for understanding trends in higher eduction and thinking about future scenarios related to these.

Here, I simply would like to note a few of Alexander’s comments about the specific role the library has had–and will continue to have–in shaping the future of higher education:

  • Libraries (themselves a form of information technology) have always evolved with technology, and they have been evolving with digital technologies since the 1960s. Highlighting information literacy and new networked information resources, Alexander claims: “Few professions have been so far-sighted, so collaborative, and so forthright in action” (35).
  • In one of his more positive scenarios, “Open Education Triumphant,” Alexander credits libraries for contributing to the “open paradigm” shift: “Libraries were crucial in the transition to open, as they were early adopters of scholarly material repositories, encouraged faculty to adopt open access publishing mandates, and negotiated with publishers” (166). With an abundance of digital content, libraries create “more multi-media materials of their own” as well as “new practices for research and learning.” The shift away from the role of purchaser enables libraries to “publish new finding aids, teach new classes, and explore the history of information to look for inspiration in how previous ages responses to upsurges in content” (169).
  • In another positive scenario, a “Renaissance … [with] new media layers added to college and university lives,” libraries share and celebrate student work. This is an extension of what libraries had been doing for some time, increasingly playing “a larger role in supportive community creativity, from advising on copyright to providing recording spaces and media technology, and archiving resources” (177f.).

Books about higher education rarely delve beyond surface assumptions about the nature and role of libraries, and those thinking about technological transformation rarely see what libraries have done, are doing, and may do yet. Alexander’s book is helpful and appreciated corrective to limited images of the library.

9.5 Theses about the Library: Or, Why the Library Is the Greatest Information Technology

After writing 9.5 theses about technology, I thought a similar exercise would be helpful for presenting my thoughts about the library.

A number of these theses were included in a keynote presentation I gave a few years ago, which explored the meaning of the library through past memories, future expectations, and present actions. The ninth thesis may be the only controversial one, but I want to argue that it follows from the others.

The theses:

1. Information is fundamental for human existence: we seek it to survive as well as thrive—to eat, to mate, to learn, to create, and to understand ourselves and our role in the universe.

2. With the creation of information artifacts some five millennia ago, information became more materially fixed, more reliably transferable across time and space, and more powerful.

3. Libraries were created to provide immediate and long-term access to information artifacts—especially textual and portable works—that were important within a particular culture. This cultural intention involved the selection, collection, and mediation of fixed expressions of knowledge to and for members of a particular community.

4. The library became the primary institution for sustaining the human information process and an important infrastructure for shaping individual and collective attention and agency.

5. The library forms attention and agency by archiving memories of what we know, inspiring our imagination of what we may hope for, and enabling us to act in the present.

6. We are living through an information revolution that elevates the library’s significant role in cultivating attention and agency, individually as well as globally.

7. Digital technologies add a digital dimension to the library—including new resources, services, and spaces—which the library scales for human use.  

8. New and emerging technologies will continue to enhance libraries’ curation and innovation of the information process, even as autonomous and intelligent systems become more integrated into library operations and infrastructure.

9. Absorbing the best affordances of predecessor and successor information technologies, the library is the greatest information technology ever created. 

9.5. The library is a material and formative information technology for every age.

9.5 Theses about Technology

In 2017, during the quincentennial of Martin Luther’s 95 theses and the Protestant Reformation, I drafted 9.5 theses about our present technological moment.

Since then, during a period which largely seemed to be about making the case for a digital reformation, I continued to refine these theses through discussions with colleagues, teaching, and writing.

Here are my 9.5 theses in their present form. I’d be happy for a disputation with anyone interested in one! You’re welcome to comment here or on any of the linked posts below.

1. Technology has been with us—and defining what it means to be a human—from the beginning. Technology had a significant role in human evolution, enabling us to become human and more human.

2. Technologies are neither inevitable nor neutral. We design and use them, creating affordances that enable and limit our agency. During this time of tech backlashes, we are awakening to the responsibilities of both designers and users.

3. We are living through a unique and transformative moment in history. New digital and networked information and communication technologies, powered by autonomous and intelligent systems, are profoundly and irrevocably changing our lives and world.

4. Attention management is the greatest challenge facing us individually and culturally. We need to upgrade our formative technologies along with our material technologies. This includes cultivating active and receptive forms of attention as well as new practical wisdom and formative practices. Digital withdrawal is not an option.

5. There is a new digital dimension to reality, blending with and enhancing our embodied lives and physical world.

6. Our lives are characterized by a digital device paradigm. We interact with surface layers of technology supported by invisible substructures and surrounding environments of surveillance.

7. New technologies create new asymmetries of power and social inequities—digital divides related to access, literacy, and wisdom.

8. We are digitally naïve. Individually and collectively, we need to reflect on how we are shaping our technologies, how they are shaping us, and close the current ethical gap between our intentions and actions. We need to become digitally literate and digitally wise.

9. There is cause for hope for our technological future. To move beyond naïve optimism, we need greater narratives that look beyond utopian and dystopian visions and are truly apocalyptic.

9.5. Innovation should be balanced with curation, and human creation should be constrained. This is something of a half-thesis, because appropriate balance and limits are ambiguous.

M.M.XVIII
Updated October 2019

Most recent (2020) version available at Digital Wisdom.

Images of the Library

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to hear Tony Ageh, Chief Digital Officer at the New York Public Library, speak at an event hosted by the Seattle Public Library. In addition to sharing what he has learned in his various roles leading the digital transformation of organizations, Tony provided a compelling definition of what a library is as well as a helpful summary of key challenges that characterize our digital age.

When we think of what a library is, the most common images that come to mind are books and buildings. These can be limiting images. Physical books remain important, but they are not the sole source of information. And buildings are finite environments that are dwarfed by the our seemingly infinite information environment.

But these two images are much more meaningful. The book signifies information, and the collection of them by a library manifests the intention to provide equitable access to information. In Tony’s words, this is how a library uniquely alleviates systemic inequality. The building signifies community: the library is a place for the formation of a community. This is a safe and trustworthy place because in it librarians mediate information—cultivating attention and agency—for members of their community.

When these two dominant images of the library—and all that they signify—are brought together, we recall the library’s role in the information process: in selection, mediation, and formation.

Tony identified four major challenges facing the digital transformation of libraries, which he calls “the four agents of the digital apocalypse”:

  1. obsolesce (planned or not), which complicates immediate and long-term access to information;
  2. mass surveillance (a characteristic of the digital device paradigm);
  3. obfuscation or lack of transparency (which is intensified with the inexplicability of the newest AI technologies);
  4. ambivalence—or, more precisely, apathy.

The last challenge, apathy, is perhaps the most important. Apathy—not distraction—is the opposite of attention. As James Williams points out in Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy, the design of many digital technologies interferes with our attention at various levels: functionally (doing what we want to do), existentially (being who we want to be), and epistemologically (determining who we want to be). If we are distracted from doing the tasks we want to do, we are distracted from our goals and values. And if we are distracted from the things we care about, we may lose fundamental capacities such as reflection and intelligence that enable us to define these. Without attention, information can become deformation.

The library has been, is, and will continue to be an institution designed for human attention and agency. It includes material technologies, from print books to digital resources, but it also includes formative technologies or practices shaped by professional and community values.

The Antilibrary of Babel

The Argentine writer (and librarian) Jorge Luis Borges regularly returned to two epic images from antiquity in his work: the Tower of Babel, signifying chaos and fragmentation, and the Library of Alexandria, signifying order and unity. Many references to his short story “The Library of Babel” miss the interplay between these two images in the text, focusing on the concept of the library while missing the more powerful dynamic of the specter of Babel. In Borges’s story, the image of Babel negates the vision of a Library. “The Library of Babel” is not a vision of a universal library but rather of an antilibrary.

More appropriately, “The Library of Babel” has been described as a prophetic vision of the internet. In the story the universe is equated to an artificial entity, “the Library,” which is infinite, without a center, and contains everything. As the inhabitants attempt to understand their universe, they discover that the Library contains all possible books—books full of meaning, purpose, and justification. Their first impression is joy. But when the import of “everything” is grasped, deep depression follows. Everything means that the faithful catalogue and any true texts are overwhelmed by their negations: “thousands and thousands of false catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of these catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue,” and every possible permutation and distortion of every text.

So “The Library of Babel” could be reimagined as the “Internet of Babel”: “The world, which others call the Internet, is composed of physical stuff connected to an indefinite and seemingly infinite information and communication network …”

Continue reading the “Internet of Babel.”

The Four Information Revolutions

Luciano Floridi claims we are living through the fourth major revolution of the modern era. Like the three before it—Copernicus’s cosmological revolution, Darwin’s biological revolution, and Freud’s cognitive revolution—the information revolution is shedding “new light on who we are and how we are related to the world.”

Looking more broadly at information and human history, and considering the human revolutions that have occurred alongside natural evolution, Floridi’s fourth revolution can also be thought of as the fourth information revolution. The four revolutions are connected with information abstraction, agencies, artifacts, and automation.

I: Information Abstraction

About 100,000 years ago, humans developed the capacity for imaginative language—the ability to communicate more information (as well as misinformation and disinformation) about observed phenomena, others, unobserved phenomena, and imagined things.

Natural and instructional information weren’t new; genetic information is connected with the origin of life and hominins had been instructing each other in the use of lithic technologies for over 2.5 million years. But imaginative language revolutionized how humans functioned as information agents. With their ability to create new information consciously, and with their enhanced communication skills, humans could imagine and create plans, stories, and social systems.

II: Information Agencies

By 10,000 years ago, following the agricultural revolution, the earliest cities were established. The functioning of these cities depended on political, economic, and religious institutions that operated as information agencies—organizations responsible for rules, trade, and cultural narratives that structured and sustained civic life.

Imaginative language had made it possible to unite larger groups around shared beliefs and common practices, and new forms of collective action became possible. Humans migrated, hunted, and foraged for food, materials, and—especially—information. They domesticated animals and plants, cleared forests and fields, and then began creating artificial environments within natural ones. To manage these complex and future-oriented settlements, they created information agencies that aggregated individual agency to create a collective order.

III: Information Artifacts

Some 5,000 years ago, these information agencies developed written communication and information artifacts. To communicate within a large community and over time, political, economic, and cultural information needed to be fixed and independent of a living carrier. 

The creation of information artifacts created the need for information management, and systems such as archives and libraries were established for immediate and long-term access. These early information and communication technologies developed and grew around the world—from manuscript tablets, scrolls, and codices to print, electronic, and digital media—and they fueled discovery from antiquity through the modern scientific revolution and those that followed.

IV: Information Automation

Within the last 100 years, we created intelligent machines and automated information processing. Claude Shannon and Alan Turing provided the conceptual foundations for non-human computers in the 1930s, which were created in the following decades and networked together in the 1970s. Now, with new advances in artificial intelligence, we are only beginning to understand what human agency should look like in a world full of artificial agents.

The chief challenge of the information artifact revolution was information management. The most enduring solution was the technology of the library, which functions as a humane interface to information. Unlike the internet, the library depends on human involvement in the selection and mediation of information and privileges the cultivation of human agency.

The chief challenge of the current information revolution is the role of human attention and agency in an increasingly automated information process. While solutions are still emerging, one can imagine a solution or set of solutions comparable to the library—i.e., a humane interface that aligns intelligent systems with individual and collective intentions.

What Is Information? Some Notes Toward an Answer

Information is a word commonly—but imprecisely—used. The entry for “information” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins with the acknowledgement that the “detailed history of both the term ‘information’ and the various concepts that come with it is complex and for the larger part still has to be written.”

Philosopher of information Luciano Floridi points out that information has been a concept “in the background” for some time—“the Cinderella in the history of philosophy”—but that it is an “impoverished concept” worthy of much more attention:

To paraphrase Molière, Western philosophy has been speaking informationally without knowing it for twenty-five centuries. We have always relied on Cinderella working hard in the house of philosophy. It is time to acknowledge her great services, by designing the philosophy of our time to be properly conceptualized for our time.

Building on Floridi’s helpful map of the “conceptual labyrinth” of the meaning of information, I would like to present a definition of information as a process. Before doing so, it is important to understand how the meaning of the word has shifted over time and the different ways the word is used today.

Shifts in Meaning

In “Information: Notes Toward a Critical History,” John Durham Peters identifies four significant shifts in the meaning of the word. In its earliest classical Latin form, informatio, information meant the formation of an idea or an item of knowledge—an understanding that extends back at least to Classical Greek philosophy. In post-classical Latin (circa the fifth century), as informare, information took on the additional meaning of instruction or imparting knowledge.

The first significant shift Peters identifies is during the late middle ages, when interpreters of Aristotle used information more broadly to account for the order of the universe: material objects were shaped from within by the forms that in-formed them. In this sense, “information had to do … with the active shaping of the world and with the conferral of form on matter.”

The second shift, associated with British empiricism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was a shift away from metaphysical forms related to the world at large toward the evidence of individual senses. The human mind, informed by sensations from the world, became the site of information. Information, Peters claims,“drifted from cosmos to consciousness … from structure to stuff, from form to substance, from intellectual order to sensory impulses.”

Peters’s third and fourth shifts occur with the emergence of the modern bureaucratic state in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and modern technologies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. First the state, as the aggregator and organizer of quantifiable information, became the comprehensive knower and shaper of reality at a scale that was more like a god’s than a human being’s. Next, with new technologies information became a form of knowledge even more mathematical, efficient, abstracted, and aliened from individuals’ embodied lives. Thus, we are now required to acquire various information and digital literacies to understand how information and information technologies—and the entities that control them—are forming us.

Uses Today

Today, the word information is used in a few different ways. It can be used in a technical or quantitative sense, which is concerned with patterns of difference and the reduction of uncertainty. A second sense is close to the classical Latin informatio, to give form or shape to an idea. The third and most common use is closer to the post-classical Latin informare, to impart meaningful information or knowledge.

Arthur Peacocke brings together these three senses of information and adds a fourth. Information in the technical sense becomes shaped information, which is then conveyed as meaningful information. To complete this process, Peacocke adds the disclosure and reception of information. With this addition, Peacocke takes a step toward reintroducing the notion that information is for formation. He also helps us see information as a process: the selection, shaping, impartation, and reception of information.

Given our knowledge of genetics and information automation, it is worth noting that human agents needn’t be present throughout the whole information process. Information can be generated and transmitted without the presence of a creative, informing, or informed person.

The Human Process

But when we think about the distinctive human process of creating information, we can speak of a process that includes selection, communication, and formation.

This process begins with the discovery and selection of meaningful data. Then, as information agents, we communicate that content through language and information artifacts. If our intentions are realized, our mediated messages impact and form others.

Scholarly Trajectories

I am, primarily, an academic administrator. I enjoy my work very much, but it means that scholarly activities typically fall into the category of “other duties as not assigned.”

My earliest research focused on the history of books and libraries. But as my responsibilities and the digital age progressed, I became more interested in the future of libraries, the increasingly digital dimension of our lives and world, and ethical issues related to new information and communication technologies.

At present, I find my research interests developing in two different—but not entirely unrelated—directions.

One direction concerns the future of libraries: What is the role of this ancient institution in a digital information environment? Or, as McLuhan put the question back in the 1960s, what is the future of this “old figure in a new ground”?

The other direction concerns technology and ethics. Due to my sense of vocation and institutional context—i.e., leading and teaching at a faith-based university—my approach to this topic is theological. While a theological approach to technology is not unrelated to the future of the library, it does result in a divergent scholarly trajectory.

Earlier this year, with a couple of my colleagues, I started blogging at Patheos about technology and theology. The blog is called Digital Wisdom.

I’ve not grasped the art of blogging yet, but I’ve come to the realization that what I’d like post would be of potential interest to two distinct audiences. So I’ve set up this blog on my own site for posts related to library futures. I’ll continue to post more theologically oriented posts about information and technology at Digital Wisdom.