From Interactive to Participatory

The emergence of immersive documents, wherein unreality is perceived as reality by the ‘reader’, is a consequence of three converging technologies:

  • networked/mobile computing becoming pervasive
  • multimedia becoming multisensory
  • interactive becoming participatory

Alongside this synthesis, we can identify five tangential areas of interest, in which developments contribute to the facilitation of immersive documents. These are:

  • enabling technologies such as virtual reality, made popular by devices such as Oculus Rift
  • developments in graphic art and design ( see Diagon Alley brought to life for the immersive Harry Potter theme park)
  • new understanding of creative writing techniques underpinned by research into transmedia, literary/narrative theory, scriptwriting and game design
  • the desire by people (readers) to participate, evidenced by activities such as cosplay, interactive gaming, web 2.0, participatory theatre, films, e-books and exhibitions.
  • a small but growing interest from the library and information science community on the implications of ‘immersive’ documents for our profession

The definition of the term ‘reader’ is expanded here to encompass the person or persons experiencing, or participating in, the unreal, immersive document. This may be by engaging with a transmedia story, by joining the audience of an immersive play, or by interfacing with virtual reality technology to enter a virtual world. The activity of ‘reading’ thus becomes participatory, so that the reader perceives the documented world as a reality, and posseses the ability to make choices in the story, and influence the eventual outcome.

The image above shows the cast from immersive theatre play “Venice Preserv’d” in action; drawing the audience into a timeless world filled with contemporary meaning. There are an increasing number of participatory theatre experiences on offer to those willing to suspend reality and join the cast (if only at the superficial level of donning a robe and singing along) but the number of attendees at such events demonstrates the lure of participation. In talking about participation we are obliged to mention the whole spectrum of video games – hardly a new phenomenon, but one which is becoming increasingly sophisticated and to some extent, perhaps merging with immersive, transmedia e-books, so that the boundary between what is a game, and what is participating in a story becomes blurred.

Today’s immersive documents are still reliant on the suspension of disbelief – but technological advances fuelled by the popular desire to participate are moving us towards documents that allow us to perceive an unreal story as reality.

Below is a list of resources supporting the move from interaction (where the computer generated world is separate from the user) to participation (where the experience is more believable). They emphasize the strong desire in many people to escape reality and engage with a scripted world. This listing is in its early stages, and we anticipate that it will develop over time.

Further proof: our lovely #citylis student @MeganWaples, participating in “Venice Preserv’d”.

Venice Preserv'd + Meghan

Immersive Plays/Theatre

The Kindness of Strangers

http://londonist.com/2014/07/the-kindness-of-strangers-an-immersive-tour-in-an-ambulance.php

Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d

http://www.venicepreservd.co.uk/about

Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man – London

http://punchdrunk.com/past-shows/article/the-drowned-man-a-hollywood-fable

Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More – New York

http://punchdrunk.com/current-shows

Immersive Films

What it’s like to shoot a feature film for Oculus Rift

http://www.fastcolabs.com/3031890/what-its-like-to-shoot-a-feature-film-for-oculus-rift

Immersive Books/Texts

The Craftsman

http://www.portalentertainment.co.uk

Immersive Games

Blood and Laurels

http://futureofstorytelling.org/blood-and-laurels-2/

In Ulysses: Proteus

http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/blog/too-lazy-to-read-ulysses-virtual-reality-lit-game-lets-you-play-it

Immersive Exhibitions

David Bowie is

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/david-bowie-is/

Tomorrow

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/tomorrow-elmgreen-dragset/

Diagon Alley Theme Park at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

http://www.fastcodesign.com/3033356/recreating-the-magic-of-harry-potter-in-the-real-world

Cosplay

At Hyper Japan

http://spitalfieldslife.com/2014/07/27/at-hyper-japan

Japanese ‘Cosplay’ craze becoming popular in London

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-28297077

Immersive/Transmedia Writing

Will virtual reality reshape documentary journalism?

http://www.technologyreview.com/news/527931/will-virtual-reality-reshape-documentary-journalism/

The Writing Platform

http://www.thewritingplatform.com

Marie-Laure Ryan on Narrative Theory

http://users.frii.com/mlryan/narr.htm

Enabling Technologies

Julian McCrea from Portal Entertainment talks about how audience’s facial data can be used in immersive entertainment.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_42uWjizL9A&list=PLwwdjGwnXX8Qrs3Y6gCA6pGotPHsfRpEf&index=29

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On telling immersive stories

Neil Gaiman

I joined a packed house at the Barbican last Friday, to listen to the words and voice of Neil Gaiman [@neilhimself]. The audience sat in rapture for several hours, listening as he read his stories out loud, and I was reminded that storytelling is not only a powerful art, it is a furiously popular one. Gaiman’s darkish genre is not immediately appealing to me, but his performance, billed as ‘A revolutionary new concept of multi-media storytelling’, certainly was.

The multi-media component of the evening comprised a blending of the author’s mellifluous narrative, with projected drawings by the artist Eddie Campbell, and the ethereal acoustics of string quartet FourPlay. This seems rather low key when we are bombarded with announcements of increasingly realistic virtual reality applications all day, but it was effective enough to draw me into the world inhabited by the characters within the story ‘The truth is a cave in the black mountains’.

Good stories have always been immersive. Whilst the grading of a story as good or not is somewhat subjective, the aim of the writer is surely to draw the reader as close as possible to perceiving the tale as reality; to suspend disbelief, if only for a while.

I often refer to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series to illustrate what is meant by ‘immersive’, as many readers easily agree the world depicted in the mind solely by the text persuades the reader that Harry and his chums really exist. Artwork pushes this further, giving the reader something concrete to imagine. Many stories, have achieved this, possibly since the earliest narratives were written down. It is arguable that even earlier, oral documents, stories told by telling or singing, are an effective mechanism by which to deliver the feeling of immersion.

The level of immersion offered by oral documents, or those consisting of text and drawings, is limited, however. The reader takes the role of a passive observer in the fictional world. The cinematic experience, film and video, provides a richer environment from which to fuel our feeling of immersion – but still we are unable to participate in any way.

If we add contemporary interactive technology to multimedia’s sound and vision, we are granted permission to enter the unreal world and perform actions which influence the outcome. With video games for example, we are able to contribute in some way to the world loaded into computer memory.

I have written previously, that the combination of pervasive networked computing, multi-sensory, rather than merely multimedia communication, plus participatory interaction, will eventually allow us to experience unreality as reality – to experience a story, a game, a film or any other scripted device as reality. Our disbelief will be suspended to the extent that we cannot distinguish between reality and the virtual world. Documents will offer us truly immersive experiences.

Immersive documents then, are the containers for a story, experience, fantasy, game, memory or idea, which allow the reader to perceive unreality as reality. As technology progresses, we creep closer and closer to the worlds portrayed in science fiction. The world of the holosuite for example.

It is not however, merely the enabling technologies which carry us along on the quest for ever more believable stories. It is something also of human nature. The desire to suspend reality, the willingness to enter fully into the unreal world is popular. We, as readers or users of immersive documents,  wish to participate in, or interact with the story, often in a way which allows us to  influence the sequence of events or the final outcome. In unreality, we may be offered a level of control unimaginable in real life.

The legacy of immersive documents undoubtedly stems from the pleasure of reading a good book. Before the spread of digital technologies some authors attempted to allow the reader a modicum of interactivity – to choose an ending to the story, either by selecting from pre-written options, or by voting by post. As technology advanced, more realistic interaction has been supported by interactive video or online gaming and by web 2.0 technologies leading to dynamic web pages and applications such as Second Life. In the cultural sector we witness the popularity of immersive exhibitions such as the recent David Bowie is shown at the V & A, immersive theatre, 3D cinema and the astonishing outpouring of content created by cultmedia fans, including simulated worlds and real-life cosplay.

The possibilities here are endless, and immersive stories can move beyond fiction and entertainment to include teaching and learning in realistic, yet safe environments. There is a dark side too, though. The unreal world may be somewhere we prefer to stay. Whilst Neil Gaiman came to end of his excellent dark reading and we all went home, the immersive documents just around the corner may be harder to switch off.

 

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Reinventing the (colour) wheel

colorIf you are a little jaded with the grey skies of London, try a visit to the Making Colour exhibition, showing at the National Gallery this summer.

Deep in basement darkness, we are reminded of how to see colour as the layout focuses on the discovery and development of pigments through the centuries. Each room considers a single colour, looking at how artists have painted according to  available hues; astonishing palettes derived from limited offerings derived from ground up minerals, sea creatures and insects, suspended in either oil or egg yolk. Fascinating representations of textiles – the pile of velvet, the sheen of silk. Understanding how the colour was made enhances our appreciation of the appearance of the delicate skin tones in frescos, (faces under painted in green earth, then overlaid with pinks), the rendering of silver from black and white, and the appearance of gold from yellows. We are given a reminder of how time fades organic pigments, and changes how we see today, a different image to that originally created by the artist; red lake in particular fading from its mix with blue, so that originally vivid purples fade to grey. Modern synthetic paints in tubes subtly transformed artistic licence – allowing the impressionists to create their dreamy mixes with ease.

Making Colour is illustrated with examples from the National Gallery’s fabulous collection – including some of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite works.

Go and be inspired – think about all the different shades of red and how to see the colours in clouds.

harris colour wheel card

 

 

 

 

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Videogames as Cultural Heritage

videogamesAn engaging seminar at the Daiwa Foundation on 3/6/14, allowed games experts and enthusiasts James Newman and Iain Simons to treat us to an entertaining and thought provoking romp through the history of videogames. Their relaxed style kept our attention for around 90 minutes, which still wasn’t really enough time to cover all aspects of the questions ‘are videogames a part of cultural heritage, and if so, should they be preserved?’

The intuitive answer would seem to be ‘yes, of course’, but it is interesting to consider some of the evidence for why. A slide of Super Mario (1985) and Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) instantly transported many of the audience back in time; game imagery has the ability to evoke strong memories of place, music and feelings, perhaps akin to the power of smell. We could then, consider the preservation of out-dated games purely for nostalgia, but historic games also offer us a record of technology at a given point in time, an insight into what was considered a ‘game’ from a socio-cultural perspective, and material from which to predict future trends.

Irrespective of the reasons for preserving the games, there are problems with this. There is no legal deposit in the UK for videogames, and thus no systematic policy or funding (one consideration is that an archiving initiative should come from the industry rather than the state). Games archives require space for the accompanying technological platforms, which demand an increasing amount of conservation to combat the unavoidable decay (bitrot), as plastics become brittle and powdery, and circuit boards return, like all of us, to dust. Rewriting games into the current age so that they function on modern technology is a plausible solution, but not one appreciated by either games lovers or historians, as the authenticity experience of playing the game is lost.

Our speakers were both involved in setting up the National Videogame Archive, within the National Media Museum at Bradford.

A comparison of the videogames industry in the UK with that in Japan. Showed us that serious game playing is very serious in Japan. Here, even the range of literature found in bookstores is wider than that found in the UK. Pictures from a six storey games emporium in Tokyo convinced us that historic games are fantastically popular, although interestingly, the players of archaic games were from the same youngish demographic as those of up-to-the-minute productions. The profitability of this type of venture clearly works out despite the outlay for space and maintenance.

I was left with the thought that games *are* part of our cultural heritage, and something very much worth preserving. From the perspective of library and information science, games can be regarded as documents; they can be studied from a variety of angles, in the same way books can within the context of ‘book history’.

Worth further thought is whether we are preserving the physical game alone, so that future players can have a go in a different time, or whether we are including the preservation of the experience of a player at a given moment. Watching a video clip of expert players in Japan, it was evident that understanding how it feels to play is a compelling quest, likewise we could explore the symbiotic movements of two or more people playing the same game. There is though, the question of how to record the feelings of the players, and what sort of measures we use to interpret any meaning to the record.

If we consider that future documents will embrace immersive, multisensory and participative experiences, then videogames are undoubtedly of concern to those of us within LIS. Serious leisure people, it has to be done.

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Spaces for learning

Raphael Gallery at the V&A

Room 48a: The Raphael Gallery at the V&A

Ludi (@ludiprice) and I attended the preview of Wedding Dresses 1775-2014, currently showing at the V&A. The exhibition is gorgeous, so do go if you can, but what stuck me was not so much the dresses as the feeling whilst we were gazing at them, wandering around in the darkish space, watching all the videos and learning all the time. Why isn’t going to university quite like that? Why are the spaces not so conducive to engaging with material? It could be the cost – I admired the videos playing silently in the recesses of the fabulous domed ceiling about us; Ludi agreed: “.. but we need a dome …”, although I am not sure that cost is everything. The classrooms at City are undergoing an expensive refit – with a theme that reminds me of the barbie doll furniture I used to play with as a child, reinterpreted in 21st century windowless bunkers. What is taught in these rooms and what is learnt? I hope nobody thought to consider these questions, but I have a suspicion that, depressingly, this is a considered, contemporary vision of learning space.

We left the wedding dresses and wandered into the Raphael Gallery (shown above). “The game is,” I explained, “to come here just before closing time, and wait until you are the last person in the room – then for a few moments, in this calm, cathedral like space, all the Raphael paintings here exist just for you…”.

When we ask students to pay £9,000 a year to study face-to-face, we should be confident that we can at least offer a physical space which instills a feeling of timelessness, inspiration, connection with others and above all, a desire to learn.

What spaces say to each of us is subjective, and often personal. But there are spaces which many of us, collectively feel inspired by. Spaces which encourage us to pay attention, to realise that something interesting and important is being communicated. Spaces which objectively promote not just the learning process, but the desire to learn. They are somewhat elusive in today’s educational landscape however.

.. obligatory wedding dress ..

Stunning contemporary dress from Ian Stuart Bride (http://www.ianstuart-bride.com/)

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My name is Lynxi … I am an academic

What is a LIS degree? This question is a favourite concern to me as director of a postgraduate LIS programme (#citylis). Surrounded by rocketing costs for the professional masters, piled on top of hiked-up undergraduate fees and set in the midst of global economic uncertainty, there is the very real question of why anyone would choose to enrol on a face-to-face taught course instead of learning on the job.

Leaving aside for the moment, the choice of which subjects should be presented in the classroom, our slant at #citylis has always been on an academic focus, emphasizing the theoretical principles underlying professional practice.

Unsurprisingly, we face the occasional suggestion that it might be better to teach more about what people actually do in the workplace. This latter approach has always seemed short sighted to me. Skills I used in the workplace 5 years ago are already sliding from dinner party conversation (command line searching anyone?) and I am constantly being reminded that what employers value most are those harder-to-quantify skills, which start with ‘excellent oral and written communication’ and run through to the pinnacle of ‘flexible thinker’.

Whilst it is difficult to find an agreed upon definition of  ‘flexible thinking’, let alone ensure its presence in the curriculum, it is unlikely to emerge from a purely vocational based course. Our belief is that thinking skills develop from academic study. That is to say, if you want to learn to think, practice thinking.

But there is more to a successful career than being able to pronounce on theory. It is important to show how theoretical principles can be used to deliver results in the workplace. Here again, practice is the key, and to this end we augment our research based content with practical examples delivered by leading practitioners. This blended approach has received two welcome validations recently. The first by Andrew Preater (@preater) comes in his concise blog posting Reflections on the LIS Professional Qualification where he writes:

Personally I do not think the LIS masters should be vocational training to provide specific practical knowledge to do library work.

Rather I see the value in masters-level education of providing enough theory and knowledge of general principles that a library worker can bridge the gap between theoretical understanding and practical understanding developed in our professional practice.

The second comes from Diane Pennington, speaking at a Symposium organized by McGill University’s iSchool, (reported in InsideASIS&T Oct/Nov 2013, 40(1) p 16) who argued against divisions in the curriculum between those intent on a vocational career, and those aiming for PhD study.

All of this should be obvious, but the situation often seems a little hopeless to those of us who are constantly called upon to justify the existence of our cross-disciplinary, academic curriculum in terms of immediate job skills and learning outcomes. It is good to stand back and remind ourselves of the bigger picture. In our academic approach, we are laying the foundations of resilience and adaptability that will support a life-long career, rather than just a first position.

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Sensing (#immersive) Spaces at the Royal Academy

sensingspaces immersive

The attractive colours scattered over this construction by architect Diébédo Francis Kéré reminded me of those tiny, coloured sugar balls used to decorate sweets and cakes. A visual feast then, the space was conceived to tempt visitors inside to meet each other as they navigated the narrowing between the two main areas. The multicoloured plastic straws (an industrial echo of real straw used to finish clay buildings in Gando) were provided to entice us to participate in the creation of the space – to leave our own contribution to the installation. There were some fine pieces of straw modelling, and even though I felt a little self-conscious, I wound my purple and pink bendy plastic into a decorative bag to allow a very small part of me to join in the dynamic.

Participation and immersion within architecture and design. Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy until 6th April 2014.

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Unreality – the future of documents

At the start of a rainy February, it seems fitting to write about escaping into the unreal worlds of the mind, and the pleasing indulgence afforded by the inner flights of fancy conjured up by words on a page, a favourite memory, or simply the imagination. But what if we had some means by which these ‘unreal’ experiences could be perceived as real? A way in which we could experience fantasy worlds with the same sensory perception as that which we have when we engage with reality.

Developments in pervasive and multisensory computer technologies are leading us in just that direction, so that in the future, ‘reading’ a good book may deliver an entirely realistic experience, where the ‘reader’ participates in a simulated version of the story, and may be able to influence the final outcome.

These computer generated experiences could well be the next generation of documents, and library and information professionals should consider how they might fit within the information communication chain processes of creation, dissemination, management, indexing and use. It is entirely possible that we will see radical changes in information behaviour as documents become more immersive and pervasive.

Most of us enjoy becoming drawn in to a good story; the more vivid the text the more we enjoy the fantasy. I first came across the phrase ‘immersive text’ in relation to the Harry Potter series of books. Whether or not you are a fan, the popularity of the world of the school for witches and wizards drawn into the mind by JK Rowling’s words is undeniable. On watching the movies, I found myself wishing for a study like Dumbledore’s but I didn’t feel that I wanted to be any of the characters, and when I read about the Harry Potter Studio Tour, I didn’t feel compelled to visit a theatre set Diagon Alley. But it seems a lot of people do. Many fans want to drink in the world of Harry Potter, they want large doses of unreality.

But there is nothing really new here.  We are all ‘fans’ of something, and there are, of course, fictions, films, plays and games that tempt even the most dedicated of us all into unreal fantasy when we engage with them. One of the richest arenas for keen advocates of unrealism is provided by cult-tv and its close relation, cult-fiction. The exact characteristics which identify a television program as ‘cult’ are nebulous, but examples come readily to mind. Star Trek, as long ago as the late ‘60s early 70’s, spawned followers who afforded much time and effort in writing and distributing works of fiction related to the show (fanfiction). Unwilling to leave their engagement with the show alone until next week’s episode, they augmented their experience with fictions, poems, art work, songs and in recent years videos and conferences. As much as they could, they made (and still make) their imaginary world real.

Early cult-tv progams themselves encouraged the concept of unreal reality, by anticipating the technology which would make this happen. In the popular 1970’s children’s series TimeSlip, we see a ‘fantasy room’ which contained a tubular device (rather comical by today’s technological standards) which when placed on the user’s forehead allowed their dreams to be experienced as a reality. (Series 01, Episode 07 pt 2)

Wim Wenders’s film ‘Until the End of the World‘ (1991) depicted a more modern looking headset device, which again, allowed the wearer to experience dreams as a reality.

Whilst contemporary 3D films allow members of the audience to perceive objects as real visually by donning rather flimsy plastic glasses, a more convincing sensory experience remains elusive – within the realms of science fiction rather than science fact.

Ironically, it is science fiction cult-tv that shows us how this might work, and the holosuite – a concept popularised on Star Trek – The Next Generation is perhaps the most widely known portrayal of unreality tech. The holosuite is a space in which people engage within a computer generated unreality that is indistinguishable from reality. Fans of the show will be able to recall with ease, and in detail, all the best holosuite episodes but to summarise the holosuite could be used for shared experiences of entertainment (taking part in a crime novel or a going to a jazz bar), and also for examining historical incidents, or for training.

This unreality comes with issues however. Most centre around aspects of sensory stimulation – eating and drinking for example. Do you get drunk if you drink holosuite wine, and do you get fat if you eat all the computer generated cakes? But there are deeper issues: if you die in the unreality are you dead in the real world? If you fall in love is it ‘real’? More philosophically though, do characters generated in the holoworld have the right to existence? Once they have been created, do we have the right to turn them off by shutting down the program? One poignant episode considered whether a computer generated hologram had the right to leave the holosuite environment to persue his life elsewhere.

Fast forward to the 21st century and fandoms for newer television shows such as Buffy or BBC’s Sherlock enjoy even greater forays into unreality supported by developments in computing technology and social media. Crucially, the latter makes the distribution of fan-related works easy, and essentially, social media allows fans to find each other and to arrange shared activities such as cosplay, where fans dress -up to ‘become’ characters in their favourite unreality. Unreality is more ‘real’ if it is shared.

Cult-tv then, allows us to understand from one perspective, how far fans will go to make their unreality seem real.

But there is more. The ‘immersive’ adjective has moved beyond its association with traditional texts. Fuelled by the progress in networks and mobile computing platforms, electronic ‘immersive’ texts are emerging, which combine aspects of the traditional printed book, and televisual experiences. These documents reach beyond what most of us understand by the term e-book, in that the story follows the reader into the real world. Boundaries between reality and unreality become blurred.

In this new type of document, exemplified by ‘The Craftsman’ (Portal Entertainment), events unfold in real time, and engage their readers as part of the fiction. Readers receive texts, emails, calendar updates and ‘phone messages from other characters within the plot. The text plays out across a range of devices (transmedia), and can be put down and picked up again when convenient. Although we have the technology, the creative writing techniques to support this sort of fiction are in an early stage, and such immersive fictions are few in number. They are also expensive to produce, and reviews so far are mixed, with some commentators suggesting that action is limited and takes too long to update. These criticisms could be addressed in time, with more initiatives like “The Immersive Writing Lab”.

Yet the rise of ‘immersive’ doesn’t end with texts, electronic or otherwise. In recent months I have encountered ‘immersive-plays’ (Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man), ‘immersive-exhibitions’ (David Bowie is) and ‘immersive-installations’ (Tomorrow )

The unique selling point of each of the above is participation. The viewer is invited to step into the unreality and live as part of the fiction; although each still requires suspension of disbelief on the part of the ‘reader’ or ‘participant’.

So at the time of writing then, none of this is really real. In spite of the popularity of engaging with highly elaborate fantasies, demonstrated by cult fandom, transmedia specialists, theatres and museums, there is room for improvement when it comes to delivering experiences which cannot be distinguished from the real thing.

The emergence of multisensory computing and network technologies does however, bring the promise of applications which offer us a more realistic fantasy than those which play out in our imaginations.

In order for unreality to work, we need technology that allows us to sense everything in the same way as we do if it is real. This goes beyond seeing and hearing, to include touch, taste and smell. Recent work on this type of multisensory communication so far leaves us with rather clunky, physical devices, which go only part way to evoking a sense of reality. Wearable tech is hardly a lightweight experience and even though some of the demonstrations help us engage with a plausible world, it is still impossible to forget the simulation whilst wearing a headset, gloves and other unappealing apparel.  (see this demo from UCL)

Participants in the holosuite are clearly perceiving the computer generated world as real, via all of their senses, by some, as yet,fictional neurological mechanism (photons?). Whilst we can speculate on how to stimulate areas of our brains without visible means of support, experimental work in this area flags up a few ethical issues to say the least. Nonetheless, work such as that of @AdrianCheok, shows us how much progress has been made in haptics, and the multisensory internet, and suggests that the rendering of unreality as reality may not be so much science fiction as we may think.

In his book, ‘Beyond the Library of the Future’ written in 1997, Bruce Schuman speculates on what will become of the library. He presents several scenarios for the near future, and in one of these he suggests that the library in the year 2022 will curate ‘experiences’ – rather than just physical works. The experiences are envisaged as computer programs which allow a ‘reader’ to engage with a recording of a real experience (memory), so that they perceive it as real for themselves.

If we allow ourselves to extrapolate beyond our current technological boundaries for a moment, there is no reason to suppose that these experiences could not be fictional, an extension of the ‘immersive texts’ suggested by ‘The Craftsman’, or indeed, entirely imaginary.

Whilst it is easy to comprehend the lure of fantasy, allowing us to enjoy something in unreality which we could never experience in real life, such immersive encounters could also support training and development in areas such as emergency response, surgery, piloting a plane or dealing with difficult customers.

Immersive experiences will undoubtedly have an effect on information behaviour. The use of Google Glass and smart watches are already instigating  questions of ‘information etiquette’. There is certainly an interesting future for library and information professions then, in trying to organise not just everything we know, but everything we can imagine. Every unreality.

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Old and New, Happy and Sad: Vilnius University Library

Vilnius New University Library 2013

I was both happy and sad last week to attend the opening of the new University Library in Vilnius.

Known as the National Open Access Scholarly Communication and Information Centre, (Library to its friends), the building was formally opened on February 6th in a packed celebration which featured congratulations from the Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaitė, as well as contributions from Director General, Irena Krivienė and the architect Rolandas Palekas. A choir sang and ballerinas flitted about the foyer, echoing the falling snow outside. The reception, originally planned for the evening, was held after the ceremony in the late morning in order to accommodate the President’s schedule. It would have been rude to refuse, so a joyous time was had by all, even if some of the attendees did have to go back to work afterwards. Wandering around the light, airy spaces, catching up with friends and colleagues whom I don’t see very often, I felt happy and privileged to be invited to join in.

Sad however, that my very wonderful friend and colleague, Audronė Glosienė did not live to see this beautiful library; something which she believed in so passionately, and for which she fought so determinedly.

In spite of economic difficulties, new libraries still catch the imagination to the extent that they attract financial backing. This new library was funded partly by the Republic of Lithuania, and party by the European Regional Development Fund. I have also just heard about the new undergraduate library given the go ahead for Leeds University.

Whilst this is excellent news, it is often easier to write about why not to build a library. Why not close them down and use the building for designer flats? The impertinent question dampening all our enthusiasm is “why do we still need physical library spaces in the (digital) 21st century?”

The reasons for this question will seem trite and obvious to anyone remotely interested in library and information science. The world is digital and wireless. We can access pretty much anything we need from wherever we happen to be. On our smartphones, tablets or laptops. Information comes out of the ether and computing is pervasive. Why would we want to go to a specific place to get something we can accessfrom wherever we happen to be?

Furthermore, there are the costs of maintaining a physical collection to consider. Although somewhat offset by the need to preserve digital files, physical documents require care and conservation. And a physical building needs maintenance, cleaning, heating and light.

So why build a physical library space?

This has been answered before in the concept of the library as a 3rd space. Somewhere that is not your home and family, and not your place of work, but rather a place you choose to inhabit – a 3rd choice of space.

A contemporary update on this is easy to get – just ask for a show of hands in answer to the question “would you go to a library?” The resounding response is “yes”. But why? Because the library is a place where it is possible to interact with other people. In our increasingly isolated, digital worlds, that small chance of a conversation is too good to miss. Like real-time, face-to-face lectures, the library offers a chance for social interaction. As a student, if your dormitory is grim, the library is probably also the place you go to soak in a clean, warm bright space too. With added network access and friends. Let us not forget that library and information science is about managing recorded information for human communication. It underpins our civilized society. The death of the library, it seems, has been greatly exaggerated.

So much for the new then – what about the old? I was treated to a tour of the fabulous Vilnius Old University Library, which was established as part of Vilnius University in the late 16th century. I first visited this library about a decade ago, and it was a pleasure to see how the recent government-sponsored renovations had turned an undoubtedly gorgeous, historic city focal point into somewhere pleasant and appealing to 21st century students – without losing any of its ancient ambiance.

Vilnius Old University Library

Vilnius Old University Library

Vilnius Old University Library - Renovations

Vilnius Old University Library – Renovations

Finally to mention the current exhibition in the main library hall, “Vetera Reducta” – the past regained. I often mention to my students that the one sure way to obliterate a nation’s identity is to destroy its cultural heritage – starting with the library. Vilnius is no stranger to this process. Yet the extraordinary efforts of Levas Vladimirovas, Director General of Vilnius University Library during the 1950’s, resulted in the recovery of over 18,000 books of Vilnius Public Library, and the old University Library. Amongst these treasures was the first Lithuanian printed book from 1547 “Martynas Mažvydas’ “Catechism”. Still celebrated in today’s digital age, books then, do not entirely die, and the physical object still holds its meaning to us.

Vetera Reducta

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What’s on your mind?

Change. From LIS curricula to company mergers. From changing your password to changing your job. From who do you know to who do you trust.

These were a few of the conversational themes raised over breakfast with Sue Hill, members of her team (@suehillrec) and other IM colleagues yesterday, as we met to consider what’s prominent in the profession today and what might be round the corner.

I am always keen to hear from the world of work, and although there is much to angst about (applying for a job, getting a job, keeping a job) the feeling I came away with was one of realism, leaning towards the optimistic. Information will always need organising won’t it? Those journals will not circulate themselves. And someone has to do all those analytics. But the services we provide are continually on the front line for budget cuts and job losses, and although it’s getting old, we still need to ‘prove’ ourselves. Even when we do, it is sometimes not enough. What can we say to be convincing?

I am not the only person to ponder on the fact that the phrase ‘we are all information specialists now” is kind of true … but has a troubling undertone. Because although every baby born today looks for the Google box before crying, there seems little concern over what it all means. 30 years ago, library and information science was concerned with books, journals and newspaper articles. The avante garde dealt with images. Accurate indexing and ‘truthfulness’ were taken for granted in dealing with search and retrieve. But this is the 21st century, and its main concern is making money.

Is there any place for truth, then? Knowing what is out there to find, who wrote it, and what they really meant; an awareness of who is quietly keeping track of everything you click on, purchase or read. Let’s not forget that Google knows and remembers every time you search for your ex, or anything else burning away at the front of your mind. Do we trust them? Isn’t it creepy that every time I use a social media site I am offered an opportunity for online dating, weight loss schemes and cosmetic surgery. Yeah. All this ‘new’ personal information mining, entirely possible since everything we do is online now, and pouring ourselves into social media is as normal as breathing. As one of us said:

“As we become more free, we become more captive.”

Is trust our trump card then? Is the point not just to understand what is there and how to find it, but to highlight the risks and benefits associated with every shred of information? To tell the truth, and be trusted to do so.

If so, we can argue for information professionals. There is no need to ban Twitter, set up alternative networks, or to come off-grid entirely (some recent national responses to the power and the threat of our information society). We simply need to encourage more people to think about the concepts underlying information dissemination, its organization, storage, preservation, access and use. It is not so much that we are all information specialist now, but that we should be. Information skills are valuable and our civilization depends on them, as it always has.

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