Getting Used to Technology and Revolutions in the Making
When librarians think about getting used to technology in digital libraries, many tend to think first of the barriers that digital technology may pose for users. For example, many users find the interaction with keyboard and screen both alien and intimidating, while the arcana of searching can send them off to find the cherished, card catalog and its warm wooden drawers. Indeed, the research that Nancy Van House and her team describe this month is about understanding users' needs and incorporating these findings into digital library software development. But developers and researchers also have a learning curve, and require time to become familiar with a new technology and the work that it may enable.
This came to mind during a recent visit to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to see demonstrations of research based on digital imaging technologies (e.g., magnetic resonance imaging [MRI]). These technologies combined with greater computing power have supported the design of a series of research projects on brain function and pathologies that are now yielding completely new medical information. The digital information technologies themselves were not all entirely new; MRI has been around for several years The researchers were clearly medical doctors and scientists with an interest in computing who had become comfortable with the digital technologies, understood their capabilities, and were able to design experiments that used the technologies to create and capture information that begins to answer underlying questions about how humans think.
My own first thought was, now we have to store this information and be able to index, search, and retrieve it -- which is a very active area of research. My second thought was that this three-dimensional example of imaging technology, research, and archiving embodies an important characteristic of digital libraries: that they are both end user and enabling technologies. That is to say, many of us engaged in digital library research as researchers, developers, or observers tend to view the technology as the goal. Yet as the example at the NIH suggests, these technologies, like traditional, analog libraries themselves, exist to enable activities that, at their most exciting, are like none we have yet seen.
Such revolutions in technology are rarely overnight events. Nobel laureate Herbert Simon (economics, 1978) has observed that technological revolutions occur as the result of a break-through that stimulates a myriad of innovations and changes (EDUCOM Bulletin, Spring 1987, p. 2). Sometimes, the immediate pay-off is increased efficiency, as Paul Conway reports in his story about digital preservation at Yale; as staff became more comfortable with the process, efficiencies increased. Still, as the example at the NIH illustrates, part of the cluster of innovation is a learning curve -- or getting used to the technology itself; the researchers begin to see links between the methods information technologies may enable and questions they seek to answer. This is equally true of digital library research. Thus, it is hardly surprising that one of the themes of Judd Knott's and Paul Jones' story this month on the SUNSite at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) is how the managers of the site became more familiar with the potential of the technology and then extended the technology and the content the site offered. And both the UNC SUNSite and the newest SUNSite at the University of California, Berkeley, offer users access to new technologies as a means of stimulating research in and construction of digital libraries.
For those of us who are enchanted with the idea of information and information technologies, creating advanced technology may well be sufficient. But an old architect friend of mine once told me that the most elegant design ultimately failed, if the building it specified could not stand up. So like architected buildings or traditional libraries, perhaps the ultimate test of digital libraries will be the users they serve and the new knowledge they enable.