Biblioroll – technology and the future of books and libraries

I love libraries, and not just because I work at one. Libraries kept my brain well fed when I was a kid (as well as providing somewhere to go where a lot of other kids wouldn’t be), and supplied me with dreams, ideas and new experiences. Most libraries today, however, look rather old-fashioned when seen through the eyes of young people raised in a digital age, and are underused by that demographic as a result.

They might not seem so dated were they to have devices like this available, though:

The Biblioroll prototype

That is a pair of prototypes of a device called the Biblioroll, which I spotted in a post at Engadget. The site is in English (despite being from a group in Japan), but a little short on detail – the relevent bit appears as follows:

“It is not just to move through one book, but to read several books in parallel, pick up ideas which could be a cue from each of them, and reconstruct them to come to the answer you search for. To achieve, people use many tools such as a notebook, a pen, or sticky notes and perform physically on a working table. We defined these series of actions as a reading activity and designed a device to support it.”

Indeed…these people have picked up on a crucial point. That point being that one book is never enough for any serious data-mining, and that browsing many books and taking notes from them becomes a real chore (at least physically – I could happily sit and take notes from piles of interesting textbooks for ten hours a day if someone would pay me to do it).

Not only that, but the book interface is looking rather tired, especially to modern kids. They’ve grown up with GUIs, the internet, 50 channels of television – all fast formats that enable (or even encourage) the user to flit from source to source. The Biblioroll would be a far more appealing tool.

Granted, it wouldn’t really fit with libraries as they stand at the moment. But let’s get a bit futurist here, let’s get our ‘library2.0’ going on. I’ve mentioned before that a good way for libraries to stay afloat in a fast-changing world would be to offer ebook versions of text books (hell, why not novels too?) in a variety of formats –

  • Dedicated bookreading terminals in the building
  • Licenced hardcopies of single chapters available for a small fee (with a payment to the copyright holder)
  • Electronic format downloads from a local wifi net

Now, the downloads idea has all sorts of objections, most of which revolve around the intellectual property issues pertaining to unauthorised duplication of copyrighted material. This little gizmo could be the answer to that problem. Picture the scenario:

A student comes to the library to research a topic for a paper or dissertation, which will involve searching, reading, referencing, cross-referencing and quoting a number of textbooks. Presently, it’s a case of finding the books (some of which may be rare, old, or held in stores to prevent damage or decay), thumbing through the index, finding the right sections, scribbling or typing notes and references, comparing them to other books, and compiling all that data into a coherent section of written work to be inserted in the essay or project being completed. In other words, a lot of work, most of which would be ancillary to the actual finding of the data required – like, heavy downer, man.

But what if the library could lend the student a Biblioroll for use in the building, that could connect to the library dataservers via secure wifi? Finding the right parts of the right books would be just like using a normal search engine, taking them straight to the relevent passages or chapters.

Once there, they select the part that has bearing on their work, and use the quotemark function to store the passage (complete with all the data necessary for accurate bibliographies and references) in a workfile, adding notes and comments as they wish.

A list of works containing related data would be available, allowing easy comparison and correlation of other sources at the flick of a finger or stylus. Cross-referencing, comparison, contextual searching, the ability to search internet documents from the same device – all these things would be a simple and natural extension of the device’s functionality.

Once all the data required is found, the student takes the Biblioroll back to the desk where it was issued; then a librarian would dock it, downloading the workfile to be passed to the student’s own USB/bluetooth/wireless device.

Now the student has all the quotes they need, fully referenced, complete with their notes that they took at the time, all in one neat file ready to be pasted into their current project. At no time have they possessed a copyright controlled document on their own hardware, and yet they have acquired data in accordance with ‘fair use’ law in a format that is convenient to them, and using technologies that are not just more in tune with the way they have been gathering information all their lives, but that enable the traditional usage of libraries as a research tool to be performed faster and more efficiently.

The student is happy – she has those obscure quotes pertaining to the viral spread of ribald humour in Victorian-era cotton mills (or, y’know, like, whatever) that she needed. The publishers and copyright holders are happy – their IP has not been infringed, and there are no duplicate copies of entire works floating around to be copied without payment, and the library has already paid up to subscribe to their ebook database. The library is happy – they’ve got people coming in through the door and using the building for the purpose it was designed for, perhaps paying a small fee for the use of a technology that makes their lives easier (and keeping the spirit of libraries as a place of learning alive).

Technology needn’t be the death of public libraries, but until the libraries and the publishers wake up to the fact that books and computing do not have to be two seperate entities, the current decline in usage will continue. Inventions like the Biblioroll, if properly pitched and marketed to the right people and industries, could see libraries reinvigorated and restored to their rightful place as temples of knowledge that are open to all. I long to see it happen.

Leave a Reply