David Weinberger
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Online libraries are not libraries at all

01 April 2008

An online library is not a library. Online libraries are not only more than libraries (and in some ways less), they are fundamentally different from libraries.

Libraries do something quite unglamorous, yet we have a sweet, romantic attachment to them. Functionally, a library is a warehouse. Yet we don’t get all misty eyed when we recall our times fetching goods from the ol’ warehouse shelves. Libraries have a mystique far beyond their utilitarian value.

In part libraries have this aura of grace because they are so hard to use. Through no fault of their own, the objects they house are poorly bound. Books can be well bound, of course, but books strain against their bonds. Books clamp covers on topics that want to stretch out and touch their neighbors and even to ring up books on shelves long ago and far away. Because books divide themselves up so starkly, yet beckon us to other books, we can lose ourselves in a library, following ideas down fluorescent-lit aisles and up well-worn stairs.

We can spend a happy afternoon there because that’s how long it takes to find stuff. And because the library’s information system is not easy enough for a child to use, we can get a sense of discovery and mastery that is not possible in your typical, well laid out industrial warehouse. So, some of the romance of libraries come from their inefficiency.

Some comes, of course, from the awesomeness of librarians.

So, we don’t just use libraries. We are in love with them. Even if we haven’t visited one in two years, and that was just to use its photocopier, we still are likely to feel our hearts beat in our chest as we think of our local library.

Online libraries will replace the basic function of libraries, but not the rest of what libraries mean to us. That may simply be lost to us, as was the clip-clop of horses on city streets.

But, even as they replace libraries, online libraries won’t be Libraries 2.0, a new and improved version with zippy features, albeit lacking the smell of must and varnish. Online libraries are more unlike libraries than they’re like them.

They are like libraries in that they enable us to find works that we know we want and ones we did not know we want.

Then come the differences.

Libraries provide a few ways to connect books. The books on a shelf are presumably on the same topic. The catalog clusters books in additional ways. The librarians pull books together around a particular theme and feature them at the front of the library. With online libraries, the relationships discovered by users—or "readers" as we also call them—will vastly outpace the work of librarians and professional content experts. Readers will surface relationships through tags, comments, hyperlinks, reviews and all the ways we haven’t invented yet.

Libraries preserve books. Online libraries want books marked up, taken apart, coated in minty chocolate and sucked on between innings at Little League games. (I speak metaphorically, of course.)

Libraries collect. Online libraries disperse. By collecting metadata, online libraries are able to increase their "holdings" precisely by not having to hold anything. It doesn’t matter where the works themselves are. In fact, we hope that standards knit diverse collections together so cleanly that users have no idea where one ends and the other begins.

Online libraries will find their greatest advantage by transgressing the two most basic boundaries of books:

First, books are bound by covers. In online libraries, much of the value will come from seeing that what it says here in this book is illuminated (or contradicted) by what it says there in that book. The links and relationships will quickly accrete. The meaning will come in the connections, not in the contents.

Second, books divide us into authors and readers. Online libraries turn every reader into a commentator who can not only learn from the book but also add to the public understanding of it.

We will see the deep difference between libraries and online libraries as we build a significant online "collection" of books without covers and without walls. The bibliosphere will become an infrastructure of culture and knowledge that will spawn a round of innovation not only in technology but also in education and the nature of knowledge itself.

So, even if the distributed online library we’re building at first seems sort of like a library, it will quickly invent itself into something new, something unpredictable and quite possibly, something that will change us deeply.