By opening up virtually infinite access to culture, we are creating new concerns

Forging a new approach to sharing knowledge

From BiblioTech, a bookless library in Texas, to the ten million pages digitized annually at France’s national library, to the countless ebooks and MOOCs that are just a couple of clicks away, mass digitization has utterly transformed our relationship to knowledge, giving us instant access to a vast amount of information. But even as we open up virtually infinite access to culture, new concerns are taking shape, such as the risk of missing out on the right book or author. On October 29th, the Parisian campus of emlyon business school hosted a conference on libraries and Ed Tech. The event was an opportunity to reflect on the changing role of libraries, which are turning into centers of digital curation as new tools emerge to share knowledge more fairly.

Libraries are not emptying

Don’t write them off just yet. According to a 2016 study on library traffic, libraries are holding their own. In fact, they attracted four million additional users compared with 2005, a 23% increase. Better yet, young people are at the heart of the trend. The survey found that 40% of French people aged 15 and over visited a library at least once in the last 12 months, up from 35% in 2005 and 25.7% in 1997.

Libraries have adjusted to be digital world-ready. Digitized books, search portals and computers are all standard features in the paper world these days. Just look at France’s national library, the BNF, whose patrons can choose from four million digitized documents, including books, images and maps.

Where does knowledge fit into a digital world?

Getting our bearings in a sea of knowledge

While libraries have made the change, we now need to rethink our relationship to knowledge. At a recent Ed Tech-focused conference held by emlyon business school, philosopher Jean-Gabriel Ganascia made this point: “Today, memory is external. We no longer think of learning things by heart. But digital knowledge is ‘fluid’; it escapes us. We have to be able to structure it and find order in the great digital chaos.” In other words, we need to be able to get our bearings in the sea of knowledge now available to us. We could even go a step further, creating new logical connections through our human approach to hypertext.

Google’s unique prism does not necessarily create openings

We are running risks if we leave the job of structuring our knowledge entirely to recommendation algorithms or Google. Most obvious is the winner-take-all effect, where the most widely read and recommended best-sellers elbow out less well-known but sometimes more relevant books and authors. This is at odds with the essence of what libraries are supposed to do, which is to nurture the curiosity of readers and encourage them to look beyond their existing preconceptions and knowledge. “Google’s unique prism can close students in instead of creating openings”, says Ganascia.

Bernard Belletante, MD of emlyon business school (on the right)

Shining a light on the “losers”

With this in mind, librarians still have a critical role to play, particularly in the university setting. Instead of fading away, replaced by all-knowing algorithms, they, like professors, can help students to identify authors who command a subject but are not necessarily well known.

“Shining a light on the ‘losers’, i.e. less widely-read authors, is a first step”, says Bernard Belletante, Managing Director of emlyon business school. “Butmore globally, the idea is to give human beings back their place so they can ask questions and be part of the information-gathering process.”

View of a learning hub, one of emlyon business school’s new library spaces

Cyberlibris and the augmented librarian

To navigate the vast space of digital knowledge, you need a guide. Cyberlibris, a company that specializes in academic digital libraries, is tackling the issue by addressing the uses of a wide array of readers. An extensive selection of tools is offered by ScholarVox Management, an online platform shared by several hundred business schools, including emlyon business school, in France and throughout the French-speaking world. Readers can see in real time which books other users are reading, with publications grouped into broad themes, such as management or accounting, and identified by a color coding system. Students can also browse reading playlists or build their own virtual library based on recommendations from the community of students, researchers and librarians. “We want to break the content silos perceived by readers and make it easier to find information”, says Eric Briys, founder of Cyberlibris. Illustrating their role as guides, the tools have been given names like “compass” and “beacon”. They basically act as a kind of GPS, or an “augmented librarian”, if you will.

A view of Cyberlibris’ ScholarVox system

Other digital library trials

In Essonne, near Paris, the local authority is offering 60,000 high school students free access to books, graphic novels and course materials through a digital working environment. Students have a range of options: they can borrow up to three books for 45 days, download public domain works or enjoy unlimited online reading. The way that culture is consumed is also driving a shift towards the desanctification of content, as exemplified by the creation of a free digital library in Santiago Airport in Chile. The 21 million travelers who pass through the airport each year can now download from a catalogue of 25,000 works, including 250 books in English. Initiatives like these will pave the way for long virtual walks in the world of knowledge offered by today’s new digital curation venues.