Critical Reflection on DH Research Colloquium Topic: Destroying and Creating the Libraries of the Future

On October 10th, 2018, as part of the Digital Humanities Research Colloquium organised by Dr James O’Sullivan in UCC, we were treated to a very interesting talk by Elaine Harrington who is the Librarian in the Special Collections at the Boole Library. I was very lucky to visit the Special Collection in my Second Year of my degree, to learn about how the archive is run and the preservation techniques that are used to protect the books in the collection. For this talk, Elaine Harrington spoke about the topic of “Destroying and Creating the Libraries of the Future,” which I found very intriguing to listen to coming from a Digital Humanities viewpoint, and this is why I chose to do my assignment on it.

The talk was inspired by the recent fire in the National Museum of Brazil which was a devastating loss in terms of artefacts that were lost. Obliviously this is not the first time that a Library or Museum has been destroyed either in our lifetime or in world history. Harrington herself likened libraries to the mythical creature Phoenixes, which are most recognisable from the Harry Potter franchise in the form of Fawkes the pet of Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore. As described by Dumbledore, “Phoenixes burst into flame when it is time for them to die and are reborn from the ashes.” (Rowling 2015) As a lifelong Harry Potter fan, I took great inspiration from this comparison of the legendary Phoenix and a Library which, in turn, made me take great interest in this talk in comparison to other Colloquiums that I have attended.

The main takeaway of the colloquium was that Libraries are not built to last forever and can be destroyed due to many reasons. Then they can be rebuilt and adapt to the changing needs of Library Users throughout lifetimes. It would be difficult for us in 2018, a society who depends highly on Computers and IT, and find a way to access the legendary Library of Alexandria which was destroyed many years ago, that was filled with many books and manuscripts that we will never recover due to the sheer damage that was lost. Even though we may never recover the artefacts lost, it is clear that the library made an impact on visitors; so much so that we are talking about the great loss to this day.

Harrington then went on to discuss the notion of Preservation; a topic I am also very interested in and hope to pursue a career in after I finish my education here at UCC and beyond. The big question is of course; Why do we preserve things? Obviously, the most common answer is ‘to keep important artefacts safe forever”, but this can be seen as both a negative and a positive for various reasons. One of the main ways to preserve items is to simply digitise them i.e. photograph the artefacts or even create 3D models of them using 3D printing technology. There are arguments that suggest that digitising artefacts means that we lose the certain charm of the items whether it be a scratch on a piece of pottery or stamps on old books, some of these tiny minute details may not be able to be captured digitally and so the artefact could lose of some its characteristics because of this. The other side of the argument is do we really need to preserve everything that we can as surely not everything has a cultural significance that needs to be recorded for future generations.

I found myself thinking back again to my second year of my degree during my Digital Curation module where I took part in a project, detailing the life of a refugee. Without us helping to tell his family’s story, it could have been forgotten and simply never documented. This project was done online due to the distance between us and Aziz, the man whose story we were trying to preserve. A big question we often had to ask ourselves was simply “Why are we doing it?” Of, course there were many answers to this question, be it because we were tasked to do it as part of an assessment for our module, but also because of the cultural significance of the curation. This was a family who had been forced to leave their home and village behind because of their religion. This is something that is happening all too often today, so we felt like it was vital to tell Aziz’s story in order to better understand what life is like for a family of refugees in 2017.

However, the most effective way of preserving artefacts is by keeping them in specially designed archives like the one in the Special Collections.  Old artefacts like books or manuscripts need to be preserved in a specific way so that they can be preserved in their original state for as long as possible. As outlined by Ms Harrington this can be done in a number of ways, starting with where and how the texts are stored while they are not in use. For example, the location where the texts are kept must be soundly constructed/watertight, have a stable internal climate and be secure. Although these things may sound simple in terms of preservation, they are the foundations for creating a safe space for these documents. There are other techniques used like using appropriate apparatus to examine the documents i.e. Book Snakes, Foam Supports and Weighted Archival Inserts to make sure that the documents are touched as little as possible to keep the decay at bay as much as possible.

For Libraries, there are some ‘rules’ that is essential when looking at Library Science. They are the Five Laws of Library Science which was conceived by Dr. S.R. Ranganathan in 1924 and were first published in Ranganathan’s book Five Laws of Liberty Science. These laws state; “Books are for use, Every Reader His/Her Book, Every book, its readers, Save the time of the reader and The Library is a growing organism.” (‘Five Laws of Library Science … Detailing the Principles of Operating a Library System | Agricultural Information Management Standards (AIMS)’ n.d.) However, there are some experts believe that these laws could be outdated for a digital world. Ron Aspe wrote an article called “Do the Original 5 Laws of Library Science hold up in a Digital World,” where he states that libraries are no longer the only repositories from knowledge as thanks to the internet, people have access to knowledge at their fingertips. In fact, it goes without saying that the sheer knowledge that is available to us now is vastly superior to what the libraries of the past would have stored. (‘(3) Do the Original 5 Laws of Library Science Hold Up in a Digital World? | LinkedIn’ n.d.)

Getting back to the regeneration/rebirth of libraries; it is also important for to ensure that the library itself is secure in case of natural disasters that could damage the ­­same artefacts that the librarians and archivists are trying to protect with all the requirements. Because of this, Disaster Management is hugely important as it can help librarians develop a plan as to who to protect the artefact from any potential damage. This is why there are a number of Environmental Factors to think about when creating a space with delicate books. Factors like Light, Humidity Levels and Temperature need to be fixed so as to not to encourage ageing in the documents. These factors are catered for under the BS 5454:2000 standard which caters for the preservation, “…not only to archives but also to unique, or ‘archival’, printed books in libraries as
well as record repositories.” (Kitching 2000)

For Cork, the potential risk of flooding is very real as the county has been hit by many high floods over the past number of years. Going forward, it will be important for us to be aware of potential dangers in certain areas in order to utilise potential locations for the libraries of the future. Thanks to climate change, the rate of natural disasters has increased in recent years which will have an effect on libraries. Eira Tansey created a map of archives and libraries which were in the potential path of Hurricane Florence. The project could help Librarians in the salvation of libraries which could have been damaged in natural disasters. (Tansey 2018)

Due to the fact that Libraries are constantly being destroyed for various reasons and then being rebuilt, the lifespan of the library is cyclical; which brings us back to the quote about Phoenixes from Dumbledore, libraries can be built, destroyed and then recreated in various forms. This is the constant cycle of the libraries, but it also shows the adaptability of libraries and how Libraries can evolve into what the current population needs out of it. Today, Library Spaces can be used not just for accessing archives or books but also have a variety of other uses. Taking the Boole Library as an example; it has a wide variety of spaces on offer for students; for example, Creative Space, Exhibition Space, Recording Studio, Quiet Spaces, Socially Conscious Spaces to name a few. As someone who has used the Library a vast about over the course of my degree, it has always been a vital place for me to be productive be it working on assignments, catching up on course readings or even using the printers to ensure that I am prepared for my lectures. One of the more recent ways I use the library is availing of the classes that that place in the Skills Centre where I am also an Ambassador. Because of this role, I am well aware of just how popular the Skills Centre is for students who need some extra help with academic life. Our own Boole Library also uses the Creative Zone to hold industry-driven workshops and even gives students the opportunity to develop business ideas using the Blackstone Launchpad.

Altogether, libraries themselves are like organisms; evolving constantly to adapt to the needs of the people who used it. At the beginning of the Colloquium, Elaine Harrington asked the group what we thought a library was and there was a variety of answers. Similarly, to Digital Humanities there is no one way to define a library because it uses depending on the users. Someone might think of it as a place that holds books or records or someone else might think of it as a quiet space where you can focus on your work without distraction. One thing is certain though, libraries are here to stay, in whatever form required. As David Tennant’s Doctor said; “You want weapons? We’re in a library. Books are the best weapon in the world. This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself!”(‘Doctor Who’ Tooth and Claw (TV Episode 2006) n.d.)



‘Do the Original 5 Laws of Library Science Hold Up in a Digital World? | LinkedIn’. n.d. Accessed 20 November 2018.

‘Doctor Who’ Tooth and Claw (TV Episode 2006). n.d. Accessed 19 November 2018.

‘Five Laws of Library Science … Detailing the Principles of Operating a Library System | Agricultural Information Management Standards (AIMS)’. n.d. Accessed 20 November 2018.

Kitching, Christopher. 2000. ‘BS 5454:2000, the Evolution of a Standard’. Journal of the Society of Archivists 21 (2): 159–67.

Rowling, J. K. 2015. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Pottermore Publishing.

Tansey, ~ Eira. 2018. ‘Tracking Hurricane Florence’. Repo Data (blog). 12 September 2018.