Viewpoint: A sugar cube  

Many years ago I travelled around giving a lecture inspired by IBM’s research on STM (‘scanning tunnelling microscope’), an advanced technique for observing surfaces on an atomic scale. This work led to the inventors, Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohter from the IBM research laboratory in Zürich, being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986. This I consequently argued might make it possible to store a bit (binary digit) on the energy between electrons in an atom. If this were indeed feasible, a crystal no larger than a sugar cube could store an inconceivable amount of data. Not only the National Library in Oslo and Mo i Rana, not just the British Library, Bibliothèque Nationale and the Library of Congress, but everything ever written, without exception.

As you will appreciate, STM is already an old technology. Modern science has even greater surprises, such as the group led by Lene Vestergaard Hau, a Danish researcher with her own laboratory at the Rowland Institute of Science, Harvard University. She has captured light, quite literally imprisoning a light wave within a cloud of super-chilled atoms (a Bose Einstein condensate) where it can be stored for later use. Perhaps we can envisage the prospect of computers working at the speed of light.

This sort of thing may defy belief but nevertheless presents a perspective relevant to libraries, particularly to their future. At the moment the Norwegian National Library is working on an ambitious plan to create the digital library. This plan presents dramatic challenges, not simply because of the sheer volume of material to be converted, but also with regard to establishing satisfactory agreements with intellectual property owners and publishers.

A digital library will change the rules for all literature made available in this way. It will be more difficult for a publisher to issue later editions (on the rare occasions this is required), and authors will have no income from the sale of their works through bookshops. (Remember also that the state remuneration for public lending rights operates on principles quite different from royalty payments.) In fact the digital library will replace the functions of both publishers and bookshops and will therefore be obliged to take over some of the responsibilities they have, or once had.

This, however, will also change the role and justification of libraries themselves. The digital library is accessible on the individual user’s private desk or wherever the personal computer is placed. The user no longer needs to visit the library. The user is no longer restricted by library opening hours.

In fact, this is even more than dramatic. The library becomes extremely efficient, partly because the local ties between user and library are torn apart. The digital library can be stored in a tiny unit, perhaps no larger than a sugar cube carried in the user’s pocket and accessed through a mobile computer whenever he or she chooses. Personally, however, I no longer see the need for the lump of sugar, since the user is always in contact with the Internet and can at any time get in touch with the library, look up whatever is of interest and read it there and then.

This is simply fantastic. Our complete cultural heritage – not only that of Norway but of the whole world – accessible on one’s own screen, even when up in the mountains and on the edge of the mobile network. In this way library services can be available to users no matter how far from home.

But what of the consequences for the libraries? Just think of the library of today, largely a warehouse for printed material. What will the libraries of tomorrow be – those that are not digital. Oslo has plans to build a new main library, the Deichman, how much space should be set aside for storing books? Will one desk drawer be enough?

There are those who believe that books have an intrinsic value as objects and it’s easy enough to find pleasure in beautiful books. Nevertheless the real value lies in the text and the illustrations. There are of course exceptions and de luxe editions will continue to exist, but in the vast majority of cases it is the text and not the binding which counts – and that makes the book itself dispensable.

Some people protest, claiming that nobody wants to read literature from a screen, especially not fiction and definitely not poetry. This may be true, although it can be argued that such scepticism dates from the time when screens were as bulky and as heavy as a crate of margarine. This is a less convincing argument when applied to the thin, flat screens of today.

An interesting story from the Internet is that of, the website which achieved success precisely through the sale of books. However, one of Amazon’s bestsellers last year (2008) was Kindle, a wireless reading device with electronic paper which downloads books directly without any detour via a computer. Kindle has an attractive design, many books can be stored and the quality is comparable to normal paper. An integrated tool is provided to search the text, write notes and look up the meaning of words. Perhaps, however, it’s not really suitable to read in bed or to take on holiday, even though it does weigh less than a pocket book. Personally I think it should be calf-bound with a personal gilt-edged ex libris on the cover.Well, why not?

These are rather diffuse thoughts and some of the points deserve closer examination but the main argument still retains a serious underlying tone. What consequences will these developments have for the public library? We are all aware of the restructuring taking place in what we loosely call ‘the book trade’. Relationships between authors, publishers, book stores and book clubs are undergoing a change, although so far it is not practical – for reasons other than the technical – to publish books initially in electronic form. But what is the situation for libraries, existing as they do to make available to the public books already published? What will be the effect on the use of their buildings, on their cooperation with school libraries, on branch libraries and on the services librarians offer their users?

It would be a paradox if the development of the information society led to libraries and librarians – who should seemingly flourish on a richer flow of information – actually come to regard information technology as a threat. However, it is not difficult to see that as the supply of information increases, there will also be a growing need for guidance and training in searching, using and evaluating. This is the central element in the relationship between user and source.

So what if library collections are digitised, if the books are stored in a safe, cold but inaccessible place, if the shelves are emptied and replaced by broadband connections to central databases? This is not a disaster. On the contrary, it simply means that users will gain access to sources of information which make a special demand on libraries and librarians to play their role. They must ensure that with their experience and professionalism this role assumes a central and vital place, both for users and for the ommunity at large.

Jon Bing
Professor dr juris
The Norwegian Research Center for
Computers and Law (NRCCL)
The Faculty of Law,University of Oslo AT

Translated by Eric Deverill

Professor dr juris The Norwegian Research Center for Computers and Law (NRCCL) The Faculty of Law, University of Oslo