Hong Kong Talk

Hong Kong Talk


Hong Kong talk 020509

 2002 by Michael A. Keller

The Academic Library in the New Millennium: the past is prologue

Gordon R. Dickson’s great science fiction novel, The Final Encyclopedia, describes a galactic future with all knowledge resident in a large and heavily defended space station orbiting the Earth. It is staffed by incredibly knowledgeable and adept librarians and archivists, and its leader, the chief librarian, is in effect the most powerful person in the universe, revered and feared by humans and other sentient life forms. With the title of my talk, “The Academic Library in the New Millennium”, and Stanford’s libraries located in the middle of Silicon Valley, you might expect a talk from me to be a lot like Dickson’s amazing tale. Alas, my remarks may disappoint you in their modesty of vision. And symbolic of the thrust of my remarks is the sub-title of my talk “the past is prologue.” I do believe, however, that knowledge is power and that eventually librarians will rule.

It is a great pleasure to be here today with you on this most auspicious occasion at the Hong Kong University, the Region’s oldest and most prestigious institution of higher education and research. There are many metrics applied to assign value to universities, among them the number of faculty employed and students enrolled, courses given, degrees offered and awarded, research projects underway, and of course fiscal ones – budgets, endowments, grants, and gifts. However, none but the growth of a university’s library collection reflects so well for any university the enduring role of ideas, the quest for new knowledge, and the transmission of culture from one generation to its successors. Thus the addition of the second millionth volume to the storehouse of knowledge, to the libraries at the Hong Kong University is an event well worth celebrating.

I am very happy to join this celebration today, because the invitation to speak here was tendered by Anthony Ferguson, your university librarian as well as my friend and colleague. Tony and I have worked together in the library copse of the groves of academe for nearly two decades, he at Columbia and now the Hong Kong University and me at Yale and Stanford. Your university is to be congratulated on its craft and luck in bringing Tony to Hong Kong. His professional library expertise, long honed at Columbia, and his love of China, exemplified by his life-long devotion to Chinese language and culture can finally combine in this wonderful place to your and his own benefit and enjoyment.

It is an honor as well to be on the podium with Anson Chan, one of Hong Kong’s most distinguished and globally known public servants. We will benefit this afternoon, as we have in the past, from her clear-headed views on complex societal issues.

Tony asked me to speak about the future of libraries, a concern of committed and engaged leaders of research and teaching institutions everywhere. Why should there be concern, you should ask. In my view, there are three reasons for concern. First and probably foremost in the imaginations of the educated is whether the Internet and its various ramifications remove the future of libraries. Second and probably foremost in the minds of trustees, chancellors, vice-chancellors, deans, and professors is whether and how to continue to afford research libraries, organizations running at breakneck speed down two, yoked tracks – the traditional and the digital. Third, and absolutely foremost in my mind and Tony’s, are the questions of how to continue and improve library functions for its readers, faculty and students as well as wider communities even while running down those two tracks. I intend to address each of these reasons for concern in the course of this brief talk. I will conclude with some ruminations on academic libraries in the new millennium.

Let me begin with the Internet question first. It is the simplest. To illuminate the concern, I will tell several stories.

Story number one.

In 1994, the first year of wide availability of the Internet via Mosaic, the original browser, the U.S. National Science Foundation began a new funding program devoted to Digital Library Initiatives. I had two different visits from young assistant professors of computer science regarding the new NSF program, dubbed DLI, each informing me that I had better re-direct the libraries at Stanford, because in the aftermath of their projects in the DLI, all libraries, including Stanford’s, would become museums of pulp paper. Their message was that the Internet would replace libraries. In retrospect, it is difficult to credit the motivation for such visits and pronouncements. When the time came for the second round of Digital Library Initiative projects, computer scientists worked very hard to recruit librarians to their projects in order to gain relevance in the real world, for the meaning of the term “libraries” to most computer scientists is vastly different than the meaning to most other folks. And now, there is very active engagement of computer scientists, economists, information scientists, and librarians among people from various other disciplines in digital library projects around the world. And one of the best features of the more diverse research environment is that the funding agencies as well as the researchers themselves have recognized two important aspects of planning for the future: first is that librarians have built and modified “real” libraries continuously to serve better their readers; and second that librarians feel it imperative to adopt and adapt their functions, tools, and methods to add new formats and genres of communication and information to traditional analogs.

A great irony is that a combination of information technologies has transformed both traditional print publishing and communications among information users around the world. The term “information users” refers to compulsive readers such as myself as much as to those who read recreationally very little, but utilize technical or financial reports to make their living on a daily basis. The fact is that because of desktop publishing, there are more books, journals, and government documents in print form than ever before. And thanks to the Internet, there are more bits of information streaming around as well. For librarians and the institutions and people they serve, this situation is described around Stanford as the “both/and conundrum.” We are certainly in a time of transition with regard to research, teaching, publishing, and communication. The rates of change have never been so swift and the products and discards of change have never been so visible. Yet, it is enormously important for scholars and students, chancellors and deans, citizens and leaders to recognize that the time we are living through is neither wholly as it was nor wholly as it will be. The mistake of the participants in the early phases of the National Science Foundation Digital Library Initiatives was to postulate a precisely binary information environment, first one era, the traditional one, then, in an instant, another era, a digital one. The world is ever more complicated than that and it very much seems that we will live for a long time in a multimedia, multi-format information world, in a way like the multi-cultural one so impressively represented by Hong Kong itself.

The second story.

The pages of the newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area are littered with articles about the demise or, for the lucky ones, the rocky roads of the vast majority of Internet businesses. Two of the most famous and most widely known companies, Yahoo and Google, arose at Stanford and continue to have close links to us. Neither has reported a profit in six consecutive quarters, in part because their revenues are almost entirely derived from advertisers; neither actually sells its services to consumers. Yahoo started as a sort of subject guide to information resources and various sorts of services on the Internet. Some time after it became a business and left Stanford’s network environment, Yahoo began to favor by placement information services that advertised with them. And in so doing, it lost its place as an unbiased cataloger of Internet resources. Now, Yahoo is mainly an index to advertisers associated with it. Google indexes every word and other characteristics in about 40 million web sites world-wide on a continuous basis. Thus one can perform complex searches to reveal content, often quite deep in the indexed sites. However, in both cases, those of Yahoo and Google, there is no indicator of the validity of the information presented at any of the sites. So, without a healthy dose of skepticism, one might accept the propaganda of LePen’s party as readily as that of Chirac’s. Furthermore, neither Google nor Yahoo can index information at sites that have access controls. This means that a sizable majority of peer-reviewed scholarly articles and monographs as well as most of the publications with substantial articles by well-known critics and writers of “verité” in such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, Harpers, The Spectator, The New Yorker, Foreign Affairs, as well as more popular magazines like Le Monde, Der Stern, Time, and Newsweek, are simply not represented in search results from these two well known Internet services and all others attempting to function as they do. The danger is that those who become dependent upon the convenience of searching the Internet might easily forget the striking limitations of the information accessible through the popular search engines.

Something of the same sort could be said of traditional libraries. Indeed, one function of great research libraries, including that of the Hong Kong University, has been to sow deep and often the seeds of doubt in the minds of readers and researchers. That same function applies as well in this new world of libraries with both traditional and digital collections to which to refer patrons. A key problem with Internet search engines is the predilection to present information in preferable locations or manners provided by advertisers. Key assets of research librarians are the drive and ethic to be neutral and informed on the interests of information providers, sources of information and knowledge, and to present validated or authenticated information from various points of view on a subject, regardless of personal inclinations.

To conclude this story, let me say that the ever varying contents of the Internet make the intelligent navigation, selection, filtering, and interpretation by librarians all the more important. And if portions of the Internet continue to disappear, as missing links on Google and Yahoo occasionally demonstrate, it will be due to the careful work of librarians and archivists preserving digital information in ways as yet not entirely known that the most interesting bits of evanescent information on the Web will be retained for posterity.

The third story.

Let me quote a press release arising from the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center on 12 April 2002, just a few weeks ago.

“Last week at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), the BABAR experiment's database stored its 500,000th Gigabyte - a milestone that makes it the largest known database in the world. The BABAR experiment - a collaboration of 600 physicists from nine nations - observes collisions between subatomic particles to understand how the behavior of matter and antimatter shaped our universe. BABAR, also known as the “B Factory,” mass-produces huge quantities of scientific data with industrial efficiency. Up to 500 Gigabytes of data is sent relentlessly to the experiment’s database daily.

The half million Gigabytes of data in the BABAR database, printed out, would fill one billion books. That’s nearly 60 times the number of books in the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world. “

Some explanation might be helpful. BaBar is data collected from a very large and practically unique particle physics lab sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Essentially BaBar stores data about collisions of particles so that physicists might learn about sub-atomic particles and thus to learn about the make-up of matter. The current size of the database, as expressed in this article is over 500 terabytes or 500 with 12 zeroes following. That’s quite a lot of data. However, none of it is information until someone puts it in context, relates it to other data. And it is not knowledge until someone interprets the information. So, the comparison in size to the number of books in the Library of Congress is one of apples and dragons. Such a comparison may be illustrative in the case of the BaBar database with regard to its size, but it is meaningless with regard to the amount of information and knowledge in the books in the Library of Congress or, for that matter, in any library.

With regard to the important story of the 2 millionth volumes coming to the library of the Hong Kong University, the message of this press release is that content counts, that the story matters. A secondary message can be derived as well. IF the Babar database was printed, it would fill one billion books, and IF all the books in the Library of Congress were encoded into a database, they would fill a database one-sixtieth the size of the BaBar database. That is to say that at some level, the message of the BaBar database and the messages of the books in the Library of Congress are independent of the medium of their delivery. This is not to deride the dictum of Marshall McCluhan, but to point out the diversity of media the modern research library now has to encompass in order to serve its patrons, students, faculty and visiting scholars.

Here are a few important assertions drawn from these three stories.

  1. There are more books and other printed forms being published now than ever before. Stanford believes in this so completely that I have been authorized to build three new libraries, rehabilitate a fourth, acquire an off-campus building for our technical processing staff, and construct a an off-campus storage library on a site ultimately with a 60 year capacity for growth of our physical collections at the present rate of accessions.
  2. There is a wealth of information in digital form, largely accessible via the Internet, with varying degrees of authenticity, a lot of it vulnerable to disappearance more easily than books have been.
  3. There is some, but only some, overlap of information and knowledge between the traditional forms and digital forms of publication.
  4. The basic five functions of libraries remain, regardless of medium or format of delivery. Those functions are selection, provision of intellectual access, interpretation, distribution, and preservation of information and knowledge, remain, regardless of medium or format of delivery. An important corollary is that selection from the chaotic Internet realm will be a most important function provided by librarians. And thus…
  5. Librarians, among others, have significant roles in the validation and authentication of knowledge.

Acting Vice Chancellor Cheng Kai-ming, his successor Professor Tsui Lap-chee, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor Malpas might be anxious for me to reveal to them how the Libraries of the Hong Kong University can continue to face and cope with the growing tide of books, journals, documents, and music as well as the additional flood of digital information. I will take on that issue, but start with the basic question of why great universities continue to demand and to support great libraries. The answer to that question lies in part in what libraries are.

A library is a physical and virtual space where readers are free to confront sources from a panoply of disciplines and cultures, in numerous languages, of all media, and from all periods of the history of the Earth. In the best of circumstances, competing opinions and interpretations are well represented in the physical and virtual collections on momentous and commonplace matters of concern. A library is both a physical and a virtual collection of information resources, knowledge, and wisdom organized and purveyed in reliable and consistent ways in order that readers may discover and retrieve, both serendipitously and systematically, what ideas and reports they need for their own purposes. A library is a safe place for ideas, even outrageous or heretical ones, where ideas and facts can be stored and protected for constant re-use and for the refreshment of the individual and collective intellect. It is a place as well to generate new ideas, surely not the only place, but one which by its aura, by its Gestalt stimulates, encourages, and nurtures the intellect. Beyond the order of its physical and virtual collections, a library is a place where one can learn a heuristic sense of information to navigate the wider chaos of sources and ideas and to apply various measures of validity and relevance in order to judge the utility of ideas harvested from the chaos. Librarians, one class of cultural custodians, select, provide intellectual access to, interpret, distribute, and preserve sources. Virtual and physical libraries are expressions of their work for readers across many generations. A library is also a kind of celebration of the ideas of mankind. A university library is the heart of the university, representing in its forms and functions and especially in its collections, the contrasts between chaos and order, system and serendipity, the known and the unknown as well as the adventures in teaching, learning, and research among these antipodes. Great universities are places where large and small issues are deliberated, sometimes repeatedly over the decades. Professors and students at great universities need and demand libraries as storehouses of the facts, opinions, and ideas that inform and enrich the private and personal as well as the occasionally public intellectual battles.