Growing Knowledge exhibition: the final frontier of Library research?

Last night saw UCLDH’s first digital excursion of the new term.  We had an afterhours look at the “Growing Knowledge: The evolution of research” exhibition at the British Library.

The exhibition aims to demonstrate the vision for future digital research services at the British Library.  It is fascinating to see that the BL  is trying to deal with some difficult questions about the future of research, and it was very interesting to be in an exhibition that focuses solely on digital resources and technology and the challenges this poses.  Digital research tools are changing the possibilities of research, extending the boundaries and providing new dynamic ways of interacting with information, it is important that museums, libraries and archives look at how digital resources are changing the way people research and interact with information.  This exhibition attempts to do exactly that.

We had a guided tour of some of the features, including a Microsoft Surface Table containing a digital version of the world’s longest painting, the 19th century Garibaldi Panorama.  4½ feet (1.4 metres) high, painted on both sides and 273 feet (83 metres) long, as you can imagine the painting poses huge challenges for viewing and research in its physical form. Using the virtual version, researchers are able to gather around the surface table, scroll the entire panorama and expand, extract and zoom in on detail.

Another interesting exhibit was the Sony RayModeler a 360 autostereoscopic display. It sort of looks part like a hologram part like a brain in a jar, apart from instead of just a brain, it’s a selection of moving 3D images. The RayModeler uses gesture controls, and the display is motion sensitive, so just by holding your hand near the device or by moving around the exhibit, you can control the movement of the image, spinning it left or right to get a better look.  It is reminiscent of the ‘futuristic’ holograms used in StarWars, in essence it is the ultimate geek toy.

The exhibit which I particularly liked was the Tweet-O-Meter.  Which displays real-time tweeting levels in 9 major cities of the world. It measures the amount of tweets from various locations across the world, updating them every second to give a real time view of Tweets per Minute for each location. I really like the digital version.  But its even better to see the physical version.  They look amazing. Designed as huge ammeters.  I particularly like it as they look very similar to the ammeters that I used to deal with every day at Geevor.

What over rides the technology and the exhibits is the space itself.  Its fascinating.  An all white room, filled with technology; you would imagine being quite a difficult to space.  When you are the only person in the gallery it appears quite small and intimidating, but the more people that are in the space the more appealing it becomes.  It evolves into a comfortable work environment.  Everything from the lighting, the seating and the lightshades (which are beautiful) has been carefully thought baout.  I like the way that it experiments with different interfaces, different placements of workspaces and different technology to show how researchers might work with digital resources in the future. It is also completely different to what you would expect to see in the traditional setting of Library Reading Rooms.  This presents questions about whether or not libraries in their current form are becoming redundant to today’s digital researcher.  A question which the British Library itself is asking: Is the physical library a redundant resource for 21st century academics?

It is a very interesting exhibition, and I will definitely be going back to have another look. Even if it is just to covet the light shades that look like beautiful paper jellyfish.  I think they would look very nice in my office and would lead to a more conducive and comfortable working environment.

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