Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Book Museums

Clay TabletLibraries have been called the last vestiges of free public space and indeed the dictionary definition of a library as a repository of books ignores their other important social roles; respite, association, teaching, literacy and so on.

It's going to be interesting to see how libraries operate when the age of the book is at an end. I love books and have collected, in an undirected fashion, sufficient kilos of them to realise their limitations for convenient data delivery. In the digital age, books become art works, and sooner than you expect.

Perhaps provocatively, the Extinction Timeline places libraries at 2019. If you think online books, magazines, newspapers all delivered on large, touch-screen table displays that's not so far fetched. The newly built public library in Seattle doesn't have book shelves in anticipation of the demise of paper and instead has a multi-purpose space with casual piles of books to encourage browsing and discovery much like surfing the web.

In the meantime, Singapore has a wonderful set of main and community libraries designed along traditional lines. And when I say traditional, I'm thinking King Ashurbanipal would instantly recognise a Singapore library as a version of his library of clay tablets in the 7th century BC. There's refinement of the model, though I would argue, little innovation.

Books have RFID tags so checkout is at a computer station; insert your id with barcode, then place each item on the reader. Returning items may be done at any branch via an external (hence 24x7) book drop; a letterbox hole with a slide that scans the books as they drop into a bin. To discourage dropping other things, there's an enormous TV camera lens above the slot, pointing at your head. It's why I always stand to one side when returning books (petty defiance in the face of petty surveillance is always justified).

Their computer systems are so-so. With some effort to navigate the frankly haphazard website, you can create an account and receive e-mail notifications of events and, most usefully, a 7 day count down of items due allowing you to renew online (50c / item) when you realise you won't make it in time. A new trick is an e-mail confirming return:

Dear [redacted]

Thank you for using NLB's e-notification service through email, a free service available to all library members. This daily-based notification confirms the number of items you have returned at the library bookdrop.

You have returned 1 NLB item(s) on 14 Jun 2008.

The details of item(s) returned are as follows:

Returned At: Ang Mo Kio Community Library At 12:10 PM

The above information is correct as at 14 Jun 2008 11:46 PM.If you have returned more items after this, they will be reflected in the next day's notification email. Please also note that the absence of a notification is not a valid reason for waiver of library fines.

You may also check your updated account status at or call our Hotline at 6332-3255

If you have any outstanding library fines, please pay them promptly at your nearest library today and be fines-free!

Thank you.
NLB Administrator

The main reference library has a 6 month trial of Intelligent Bookshelves with RFID readers on each shelf so the system can determine location, and hence presence or absence, of any item. It also supports stock-taking and browsing statistics (books removed briefly count towards their recorded popularity).

It's good stuff in principle although the real challenge is getting the cost down sufficiently for mass deployment. But I can't help feeling it's tackling the wrong problem. I want an all digital library accessible from home & my mobile phone. The vestigial library building becomes an air-conditioned public space for association, art and Internet access.

I have no doubt the technology is well within our reach, but I fear my online idyll is doomed by Mickey Mouse. Disney, Microsoft and the big film studios have successfully lobbied for ever extended copyright protection and defence. Singapore has acceded to these policies and extended protection of copyrighted works to 70 years. The rigourous protection of intellectual property (IP) is a key plank of Singapore's promise to big business; the manifest benefits to society of the creative re-mixing and adapting of ideas into new forms doesn't have the same lobbying power.

So Singaporean libraries are unlikely to turn digital any faster than US mega-corporations permit. Despite possessing vision, ambition and capital resources, they cannot show leadership here.