The Rise of the Network Library
Times change, and, as it seems, our time has changed a lot. The Internet can be blamed for many a change, since the constant information stream that is generated through the Internet influences a major part of our everyday lives. Our society is an information society and with that in mind, one can understand the emphasis of recent thinkers on the value of knowledge and the ways of processing it. This post then addresses the issue of information processing and storage in the information age through Manuel Castells work, with the digital library as the key object of analysis.
As stated above, information has become the main object of trade in our society. Therefore, the way information is transported and consumed has become a central theme in our studies. The Internet has become the main means of transporting information and seems central in any study of information processing. More and more people are constantly wired and online, and thus able to access information at any time and place. This has dramatically changed the structures in our society: where one before had to go through some serious physical steps to access certain information sources, now all one has to do is get online. Information was and still is power, but it is far more open and accessible than it used to be.
With this in mind, I want to take a look at the libraries of the future. Obviously, one can look at the library as one of the main sources of knowledge and information, and in my opinion the library still fulfils this role in our society. One has to acknowledge however that less people actually visit the physical library, simply due to the fact that most information is accessible online. It is therefore no strange idea to make an online library, which offers users the option to access information online. The web has become something other than the illusive place where we can get as much information as we want at all times. More than a knowledge database, the Internet has transformed into a place where we can not only extend information, but also extend ourselves. Manuel Castells described this change in the light of network societies. According to Castells by the end of the 20th century we were to have witnessed a revolution – and a networked one at that. Castells saw the rise of networks in every aspect of life as a force to be reckoned with – as something that would change our lives dramatically.
The Rise of the Network Society, the book in which Castells made these statements, was written in 1996. Almost 15 years later one can say he was right; we did indeed witness a serious change in the way things are organized and how we work. Networks are the current form of enterprise, in any kind of business, school or private organization. No wonder then, that many applications have reached networked formats and are no longer purely offline.
Books are no exception to this new network society. Websites like Google Books allow users to browse previously analogical information online and web-based. This changes the concept of the book dramatically; before the introduction of these kinds of applications, one had to either take a trip to the bookstore or online web shop, or go to the library. The introduction of the e-book made things even easier; one could now download an entire book without having to consider copyright limitations – like for instance is the case on Google Books – and read it digitally as well.
In his article ‘Will E-books Change the World?’ Terje Hillesund relates the rise of the e-book technology to that of the network society: every commodity becomes more and more fragmentized and retailed as such, so for books to experience the same development is only logical. Here Castells once again pops up: he claims this new network society changes the way we think and feel and how we perceive the world. Information has become the main commodity, and books are one of the main sources of information. To access books digitally rather than offline makes for a different experience: one now can cut to the chase and consume that part of the book he thinks fits his cause.
Now, I would like to take this thought even further. If we turn out to be capable indeed of converting enough books into digital files with all the benefits of the digital format, the online library would become an enormous digital step forward. With access to enough books, information would be accessible on a faster basis than in a physical library. As Hillesund notes, the technology has a long way to go before e-books have the same quality as physical books, but if we start thinking about useful applications for digital books now, we might take full advantage when the time comes.
Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers inc., 1996.
Hillesund, Terje. ‘Will E-books Change the World?’ First Monday, vol.6 nr. 10 (1 October 2001).