Cooking up the future

I have always enjoyed cooking, but my skills are limited. I can identify ingredients that I like and that I think will work well together, particularly favouring unexpected combinations. I can prepare these ingredients appropriately, but then I will put them into the pot, apply suitable heat and hope. With luck they will blend together to produce a dish with good flavour and texture, but it is always a bit of an experiment. This week I was quite pleased with the flavour of my salmon+prawn+coconut cream+diced potatoes bake, though the texture didn’t come out as I had imagined.
I think that the new British Library exhibition Growing Knowledge is a bit like my cooking method. They have identified some good ingredients (researcher behaviour, cultural change, technology) and prepared them well (getting Aleks Krotoski on board as researcher in residence, plus partners like JISC, Microsoft, HP and the Ciber Research Group). The opening of the exhibition on 14 October signals the beginning of the cooking process – a nine-month long display and conversation. That is quite a slow-cooking conversation and I did wonder whether the temperature is high enough. I hope they do get a good deal of researcher engagement over the next nine months. The exhibition is an interesting assembly of technologies but I think the BL’s ambition is to do more than to just display new toys tools.
At the reception to mark the exhibition’s opening Lynne Brindley, Chief Executive of the BL, reminded us how much research behaviour has changed even in the 12 years since the current BL building opened. The web has moved beyond text to become truly multimedia, and information delivery now follows the Martini model (any time, any place). Mentioning the BL’s recent 2020 vision document, she pointed out that even the best-laid plans are always wrong and she cited the way that BL users now sit and work just about anywhere in the building not just the reading room desks to show how unpredictable things can be. It is important to have a vision to start from though. She stated that the British Library is not content to become a museum of the book, and the Growing Knowledge exhibition is one way for them to think about and debate what the future of this leading research library will be.
Aleks Krotoski also looked back at the recent past, when she was a user of the BL reading rooms in the days before laptops were permitted in them. Back then she said she used the web mainly for information about her favourite band, Pulp, but now the web allows her to access nearly everything she needs for her work. Her own research interest concerns what this change means for the research process, and this is the question that the exhibition is intended to probe. How has our relationship with knowledge changed? What do researchers assume when they use technology? Echoing Lynne Brindley, Aleks stated that the exhibition provides a vision of the future, not necessarily the vision of the future, and it asks whether the researcher of the future has a place within a bricks and mortar library. See Aleks’ blog for more words of wisdom from her.
The final brief speech, and formal opening, was made by Andrew Miller, the chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science & Technology. He said he has had a busy week, not least through being the first male guest blogger on the UK Resource Centre blog. He praised the way that libraries have changed, mentioning how public libraries are changing to try and inspire young people, and he cast an envious eye over some of the technology on show in the exhibition. He noted the high level of anxiety over what the government’s imminent Comprehensive Spending Review would have in store, but he emphasised the need for Libraries, Universities and Research Institutes to link together to support innovative research. As I type that I am not altogether sure what it means in practice, but I like the sound of it and I was pleased to see Andrew Miller, an influential MP, at an event like this so it seems mean to quibble.
The exhibition’s press release spoke about it examining

the way that people interact with never-seen-before tools, thought-provoking content and futuristic design

and providing

clues to how research is changing and what researchers want to experience from the library of the future.

Created to encourage engagement and debate, researchers will be able to physically interact with tools such as Sony’s 360-degree Autostereoscopic Display, a Microsoft Surface Table and HP/Haworth interactive pods as well as view all the content and tools online.

The 360-degree display was probably the most talked-about and spectacular item in the exhibition. It is the first time that it has been seen in Europe, and it has been lent by Sony for only four weeks. You can walk around it to inspect the 3D image, or wave your hands about to make the image rotate. Images included people, objects and molecular models. It is impressive but, it must be said, rather small. I look forward to seeing larger versions.
sony360.jpg
The Microsoft table was also rather nice – a bit like a gigantic iPad laid flat, though I understand that it is not actually a touch-sensitive screen but it relies on a camera to detect where your fingers are on the screen. I can think of several people who would love one of these.
mstable.jpg
The rest of the exhibition was a showcase for various kinds of workstation: one with a touch-screen, one with a 3-screen setup; all with interesting web-based software applications and attractive furniture from Haworth. Many of the applications are linked from the exhibition’s web page listing of research tools I liked the map rectification tool, Jane Austen’s manuscripts(left)_board.html and the polynomial texture mapping tool. There was also a link to something rather interesting called “Nature Network” (it’ll never catch on).
You have until July 2011 to visit the exhibition, but get along there quickly if you want to see that impressive 360-degree display device. I hope the BL can get some lively conversation and researcher engagement going, and that it all reaches a temperature high enough to produce something useful (and edible) at the end.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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