The meaning or thoughts associated to a word can differ between individuals. What thought comes to your mind when you think of the word library? Libraries have continually developed and provided relevant and needed services, resources and space to the communities they serve.

In this post Kirsty Lingstadt discusses how libraries are more than just a place of information but also developed into digital learning spaces.

The word library

Browsing through the blog I was fascinated by the article ‘Why the library intimidates me’. I always find it interesting to understand what people think about when they hear the word library. The University of Edinburgh is a research library serving a population of some 40,000 students and over 10,000 staff, including teaching and research staff. The library is a shared space that a wide range of students use and our Main Library, George Square is one of the favourite locations to hang out, study and, at this time of year, revise for exams.

What I also find fascinating is that when we say the word library and ask people what they think of, the image is still that of a very traditional library – a building with books which also provides some spaces where you can read or research. However, the library these days is much, much more than that. We are not only about books, but increasingly about a range of digital resources. The library has over the last decade increasingly been acquiring electronic resources – e-Journals, e-books, most obviously, but also databases and other forms of electronic content.

All of this digital content is available and accessible because the library purchases access to it. However, while it is very much part of the library, it is not physically present there. You will not see these resources highlighted on the shelves, not even through augmented reality. The library has become a curious mix of digital and physical space, and we have yet to really integrate the two in an easy fashion. Only in the catalogue will you see all there is, and even here pockets of digital resources have different access routes.

Looking around the library, while some students have books or more often than not print outs  — highlighted and annotated — the majority of students are working with several electronic devices undertaking a range of activities. No longer are our users interested in just working with a single file or item.

It is interesting to observe that the way we present things online has often mimicked the physical – single images, a book where the pages are viewed one at a time. However, we are now at a point where we are increasingly comfortable with what the digital can do and are therefore rethinking how we interact with digital content. This has been seen by the growth in Digital Humanities and Digital Scholarship. This emerging field covers topics such as 3D modelling to machine learning, text mining to virtual reality (if you’re interested in finding out more a great introductory guide is the recently updated Digital Humanities Library Guide by the Carnegie Mellon University).

The Role

The University of Edinburgh has started exploring the role of the library in all this.

Academics are beginning to be interested in text mining and analysis of the range of datasets that the library can supply. We have provided copies of different types of metadata to analyse the makeup of collections and gain a better understanding of what content we hold, and what that means for us. In addition, we have also started to look at our already digitised content; we, like so many other libraries, have been digitising our collections for a while and providing this content not as separate items but as complete collections is worth exploring. This approach has been recently examined in the report Always Already Computational’ , which pointed us to a series of additional technical tasks that we need to carry out in order to make the content fully accessible. We now have a working pilot scheme which is revealing all sorts of complexities — none of this is as simple as it might seem! — though we are getting ever closer to the machines being able to do more of the heavy labour so that we can focus on the analysis.

So why are we getting involved in this area? Well libraries have a lot to offer as they have the collections and often the knowledge and expertise of what can be done with these collections (see also the recent survey Europe’s Digital Humanities Landscape: A Study From LIBER’s Digital Humanities & Digital Cultural Heritage Working Group’ .) We are also keen to move beyond being just buildings and books, and to engage with the digital, showing how we can be relevant to people today.

Knowledge base

Libraries have always been about knowledge and the sharing of knowledge. We are entering a world where a range of skills in addition to reading are increasingly being required to undertake research. The library is a place where the digital and physical spaces intersect and are complementary, rather than mutually exclusive. As the library evolves, so then does the idea of what makes a library. Digital content, maker-spaces, coding and also increasing access to digital skills are a key part of what the library needs to offer. This means that the library must engage with new routes into knowledge, including looking at collections as data and also developing and working with digital tools to explore content computationally.

We will be back next week with another interesting article from the library world!

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