Library is a habitat for knowledge interaction

Libraries no longer have a monopoly on providing access to information. With the ever increasing volume of information resources available freely from the internet the need for a library as the middleman negotiating conditions for access to resources entrenched in paid databases has been in a decline. Not only due to the open access initiatives but also as a consequence of the general trend of putting everything online people have the possibility to bypass library as an information provider and go directly for the resources freely available on the Web.

Likewise, libraries have also lost the monopoly on knowledge organisation. For a long time libraries were the institutions that were entitled and authorized to organize world's knowledge by the means of systematic classifications (such as??Dewey Decimal System), thesauri or subject heading systems (e.g.,??Library of Congress Subject Headings). Now, the situation is much different as people have got a right to organize knowledge themselves using tags in social bookmarking services (such as Delicious) or categories on their blogs (like Wordpress).

Provision of the access to infomation resources and centralized knowledge organisation are two examples of library services that are??losing importance in the current circumstances. The internet enables to dislocate and decentralize many of the functions that were previously available only in the domain of libraries.??It doesn't make sense to duplicate these services in each of the libraries. It's a sub-optimal solution that's dissolving the effort in a multitude of attempts to provide the best service possible instead of combining personal and financial resources to cooperate on one central service. There's also the possibility to yield over providing these services entirely and let the Web find the right solution for them.

Proportionally to the decrease in relative importance of library as a provider of these services its role as??a place??is increasing.??Libraries can be seen as a safe shelter, as an environment saturated with useful affordances. Libraries are designed specifically for the purposes of learning, writing a paper, or some of the many other activities related to information. In this way, library can be seen as??a habitat for knowledge interaction.

What is a habitat for knowledge interaction?

[Habitat] is a bounded chunk of space/time that is designed to accommodate a delimited set of activities. It accommodates the activities by including physical artefacts that can be used in the activities and signs that offer activity-relevant information.

(Source [pdf])

The activities a library habitat can cater for are the interactions with knowledge, regardless whether it's the recorded knowledge or the knowledge that's still in the heads of the authors. Libraries are intentionally filled with artefacts like chairs or books that enrich the space with a set of affordances related to the activities that the habitat is suppossed to host. And it also has boundaries, even they may seem to be vague. Sure, the end of the library space is clearly demarcated by material (walls), functional (valid user card for entry) or symbolic (sign posts) barriers regulating access to the habitat, but it continues more or less seamlessly to the virtual space represented in the library's online presence.

In this way, library's habitat is not bound to a single physical space. It can extend itself and penetrate into other environments. Nevertheless, material part of the habitat is still very important and libraries should focus on providing services and affordances that are bound to a place and designed with the local context in mind; the services that make the library a better place to be in, a better habitat for knowledge interaction.


Library is a social network oriented around knowledge

What is the library of the future? Let me try to reformulate the concept of the library in a vision.

Just as Last.fm is a social network oriented around music or WeRead.com is about reading, library is a social network oriented around knowledge. It is a social organism, so it grows and evolves, just as other organisms do. It is not a machine. It is also an open system in which both its input and output are free. And finally, library is a knowledge technology, it's a way we "know" stuff.

The important collections libraries have are not made of books, but made of people. There are lots of different carriers of knowledge in libraries: books holding knowledge on paper, databases containg knowledge in bits, people having knowledge in heads. People are the most important carriers of knowledge. In them, there's the social and knowledge capital libraries have.

To start social interactions library enables communication in an open, transparent way. Building on top of that, library enables conversation, that is a communication within a set of people known to each other. Library is designed to connect users. It helps to connect expert users within a specific domain. Library provides access to knowledge but also provides access to the holders of knowledge. It offers information services but also enables its users to offer information services to each other.

This is similar to the difference between centralized and peer-to-peer services. Centralized services (such as Napster) have one central source (server, repository) and are therefore highly dependent on it. Peer-to-peer (P2P, such as Skype) model uses multiple distributed sources so the overall function of a system is independent on any of its constituent parts. Library is a peer-to-peer system because it not only offers its own sources and services but also provides a social protocol for users to offer to each other resources they control and services they are able to supply.

Library doesn't organize knowledge but empowers its users to organize it. It enables users to create knowledge in a way so that it can be shared. Public knowledge interactions are recorded and stored for re-use. In this body of recorded knowledge there are explicit links that can be followed. These links make sense because they have meaning. The meaning of link is defined by how it's being used and this meaning is encoded in the link in a structured way. Library enables to link everything and in this way attach a description.

The borders of a library are not clearly defined, so no one can say where it begins and where it ends. But library has a well designed space that it can offer to its users. It provides habitat for knowledge interaction. It's an environment designed for social interactions and knowledge exchange. In this respect, library provides lots of affordances, it's an opportunity-rich environment.

Library provides an intriguing interface for its users. One part of this interface is the interface for the library, the other part is the interface for interacting with other users. Yet, the interface to a library is transparent for its users. Users don't come to realize that they're interacting with a library. Because it's barrier-free it makes the institution in library's core invisible.