Pittsburgh, PA At a conference where ideas about the theory and practice of information engineering in digital libraries would be presented, it was appropriate to meet in a city where both physical and theoretical knowledge engineering have played roles. Dr. Bob Reagan opened the Joint Conference on Digital Libraries (JCDL) by offering attendees a sense of this unique city. Reagan has helped to train the Apollo astronauts, and most recently edited Bridges of Pittsburgh. This book presents details of the colorful history surrounding the 446 bridges–more than Venice–that span the confluence of three rivers where Pittsburgh nestles among hills and mountains. This is the place where Andrew Carnegie also founded a library knowledge empire that would spread 2.5 thousand libraries to 5 countries.
In 1940 Frank Lloyd Wright suggested that Pittsburgh should be abandoned because of significant pollution due to steel manufacturing. Currently Pittsburgh has been ranked the #1 Most Livable City in America by Places Rated Almanac, and is rated # 2 in the Most Scenic Places in the US.
Bill Buxton Pinciple Scientist at Microsoft Research, Professor at U Toronto and principle in Buxton Design, and outdoor enthusiast who has written about how Ice climbing and how it relates to life was the keynote speaker on day one.
Buxton wonders what Carnegie would think of the current nature of digital libraries. We have invested so much in traditional libraries–what advances are represented in digital libraries? A sense of place is an inherent part of a bricks and mortar library where the library is one of the most significant public buildings in many towns and cities. Carnegie’s message was that ‘Architecture’ mattered in the quest for and preservation of knowledge. Librarians were also an important part of the Carnegie library equation as ‘Human intermediaries’ who were experts in specific collections or fields. Search mechanisms were library cards that contained history of use, notations, and were themselves historic objects. This context was lost in going digital. Search and browse can map to historic concepts of sense of place and information mediation in Carnegie’s libraries, but in Buxton’s view often fall short.
Scholarly endeavors such as research and writing are associated with libraries. We may not be better informed than at any other point in history because of the erroneous idea that if we build networks they will come. “It takes more than building the ball field,” Buxton stated. “The challenge of how to create use and access is not a technical problem. We must be vigilant in setting up social structures that support digital knowledge the way that Carnegie leveraged architecture, people and hands-on notation in support of scholarship.
There is no design discipline that is as close in nature as architecture is to technical architecture. Buxton feels that in the software industry, “We don’t have any architects–we have structural engineers. If we look at software development from a design perspective would anyone go to the 17th floor of a building designed by software engineers?”
“Our technologies and our information are becoming ’spaceless,’ unlike when knowledge was embedded in ‘place’ as in Carnegie’s time,” He said.
Buxton feels that ubiquitous computing, or transparent computing, begins to bring the notion of a sense of place back to technology. If we meet technology where we live the order of a home or of a building come into play in how we interact with information and what inquiries we make.
As a designer Buxton believes that form follows function. If digital information models are not as complex and diverse as what we now have on paper then it will be impoverished. Newspapers, for example, are separate classes of documents that are different from journals or books. A notion of these idea containers as specific types of communication devices that convey information in the abstract does not work.
There is something missing from the picture. Usability should be a basic right. He compared a review of an art exhibit with a review of a new piece of reading technology. The art review contained no commentary about whether the paintings were viewable or accessible in the gallery. Rather the text was focused on ideas and techniques. The tech review was mostly about whether or not the reader was easy to use. The act of design can be reduced to, ‘Design is choice.’ Buxton feels that our children deserve a technology future that we chose for them, carefully.