GRL2020 Asia, 2009
Predicting the future is never an easy task. (I say that in spite of the fact that India is home to millions of astrologers and followers of astrology.) Predicting how knowledge exchange will happen in about ten years from now is even more difficult because new technologies keep coming that transform everything we do in unexpected ways.
I firmly believe that the basic tenets of research libraries will continue to remain the same, unchanging like the laws of thermodynamics. (Everything else may change in physics – remember the uncertainties physicists face in defining physical reality: waves or particles, matter or energy, and so on – but not thermodynamics.) Research libraries will continue to be service organizations supporting the knowledge production activities of researchers and gathering and disseminating information. It will continue to play a key role in knowledge discovery. The major developments will pertain to the ways in which advances in new technologies impinge on knowledge acquisition, production and discovery.
Technology is a double-edged sword. In our context, it can facilitate both democratization of knowledge and privatization of knowledge. The Google book digitization project is fast becoming a distinct threat (of monopoly), and among the major institutions only Harvard University has opposed it. Journal publishers, especially in the area of science, technology and medicine and also in other areas of scholarship, are keen not to let go the current ways of doing things although technologies are in place to carry on with cheaper and faster knowledge dissemination. Institutions like ARL, SPARC, PLoS will find, at least for some time, the battle with the large publishing firms an unequal one. This tension between democratization and privatization will become increasingly pronounced in the near future. Unfortunately, public support for initiatives that will lead to greater democratization is rather slow. But then eventually, Ghandi won freedom for India and Mandela got rid of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Movements like Access to Knowledge (Yale Law School and others) and Internet archive (Brewster Khale and others) need to gain greater momentum for the democratization aspect of technology to offset the privatization efforts. But then we also see Elsevier floating free services and Google coming up with Google Knol.
As technology advances, it not merely helps us do things faster but it even transforms the way how we do what we do. Specifically, the ‘tool’ interacts with ‘content’ and advances the content. The more sophisticated the technology (or tool) the greater its capacity to transcend its original role of facilitating (or reducing drudgery). Now, technology of creating structured databases and data mining have led to developments where without actually performing an experiment Don Swanson (Chicago University) could see the connection between migrain and magnesium. Swanson is neither a doctor nor a life scientist. Ron Kostoff of the US Naval Research laboratory advanced such ‘connection finding’ further and called it the Discovery approach.
Increasingly, people will stay put in front of their computers, drawing a whole lot of tools, techniques, data and letting them all interact in the ‘cloud’ and collaborate with distant partners through the ‘cloud’.
Looking from the point of view of a traditional librarian, in some sense, we will be rediscovering what J D Bernal told his audience at the famous Royal Society conference on scientific information over half a century ago: we will no longer look for journals; we will look for individual articles (or more accurately, preprints or postprints). Going one step further we will be looking for specific parts of some work – some data or idea – and we will often pluck it from the cloud.
That brings me to the role of librarians and information officers. As always, they are the intermediaries connecting researchers and knowledge. But as the capacity of the individual researchers and the way they work change, librarians need to change too and acquire new niche roles. It is going to be exciting times in library schools.