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.

The aftermath.

The past 48hours have been quite something.

You may or may not have noticed the large amount of press coverage about a certain Mr Murdoch, involving opinions on creativity, culture, humanities, digital content and in particular the British Library; that were flying around online today. I don’t think a bunch of overly tired, yet still buzzing digital humanists have been so excited in a confined space with flower pot muffins before. (some coverage can be found here, here, here, here, and here and many many more places)

Why? Well…  We officially launched the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities yesterday evening! Hooray!  James Murdoch, Chairman and CEO of News Corporation, the guest speaker gave a really interesting speech with some strong opinions (you can read the full text of the speech here).

It’s going to be really interesting to hear the alternate view of what James Murdoch spoke about.  There are a lot of strong opinions flying around, particularly with regards to cultural heritage institutions and electronic publishers and digital humanists.  I have yet to get my brain in gear about my thoughts on what James was suggesting.  It will be very interesting to hear the responses from others, particularly those championing freely available digital content .  ucldh are seeing what we can do to facilitate that response. watch this space. If you want to respond do let us know.

For me though, it wasn’t the speech that was the highlight of the launch, for one, I didn’t actually get to see James speak. I was running (well walking quickly whilst trying to maintain an air of decorum –most likely failing) with a clip board and an iphone trying to make sure everything went smoothly. Yes, I can now add, major event planning to my repertoire. No, this isn’t my job. For the past month as well as working on three research projects I have been juggling quite possibly the biggest (I don’t think I have ever seen as much bottles of champagne in my life) event I have ever been a part of. Crazy. Myself and my colleague Simon took up the organisation  of the launch after another colleague had to take leave unexpectantly. I don’t think we really knew what we were letting ourselves in for. I’ve organised conferences before, but nothing like this! We have been so busy, I think I have forgotten what hot tea tastes like as I never had time to drink it. But it all came to a head this week. Its been stressful, but brilliant. Yesterday involved so much running around, phone calls, emails, sticky wotsits, logos and name badges.  During the day, what could go wrong did go wrong. Thank goodness for  iphones – they were our life saver yesterday, also my ability to memorise securities multiple phone numbers (my number memory response is now at all time high). But the event itself was a triumph! (i hope)  we may have been paddling furiously under the water, but on top we had the elegance of a swan! It was the people who came to the event, the people who helped, the people who gave us their time and energy, and most importantly the people who gave their smiles yesterday, that was the highlight for me.  I cannot thank enough all the people who helped on the night, and on the run up. We couldn’t have done it without you!

I have also seen so much more of UCL than I ever thought possible, a special lift in the library and the roof! Oh my the roof is amazing! ( I took some pictures from the roof with a very cool app called Hipstamatic, I will post them as soon as I find the usb cable).  I must also add that none of this would of been possible without the genius of Claire Warwick and Melissa Terras, they are quite simply amazing.

But that was only the first event. Oh yes. Two events, makes Claire a very dazed girl. Today saw the Time Trust and Authority: is web 2.0 the tool for you? event, which I have been working on with Anne and John. I fear I let the side down on this, I was a incoherent mess after all the running around at the launch yesterday. But nevertheless a brilliant day! I learnt some really cool stuff, UCL is really flying the flag for social media content and distribution, with some interesting research projects and technologies already in place.  Utilising social media in an education institution is always frought with difficultly with questions about trust and authority not to mention copyright and ownership of content. Despite this, UCL is doing some brilliant work; creating digital content, encouraging discussions and collaborations and broadening audiences for our research and teaching (possibly a controversial thing after the launch speech).

There is likely to be many more posts about the past 48hours to come. But right now I am going to have a sleep. Drained is not appropriate for this. Drained but happy.