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The Evolution of Research

10 December 2010

A multi-media reserach workstation featuring four touch  screen

Digital research tools are changing the possibilities of research. Mass digitisation and text encoding is making historic material more accessible. How will this affect libraries, asks Frank Booty

Sony's RayModeller, a 360o autostereoscopic display operated by gesture control

THERE IS A DEBATE GOING ON hosted by the British Library on the future of research technologies, spaces and content that will change the way we do research in the 21st
century. What purpose does the research library or university library hold today as more and more academic/research resources are available online at the click of a button? Is the library a critical point of assistance and expertise or is it just a wasted building better passed over to teaching and study space? How can the library remain a relevant solution for tomorrow’s researchers?
The debate centres around the exhibition/event Growing Knowledge – the Evolution of Research. The exhibition, open from now at the British Library until 16 July 2011, challenges audiences on how research is changing and ask what they want to experience from the library of the future. For FMs responsible for national collections and corporate research facilities to local libraries, the question is how will the role of library and research facillities change.
The exhibition is intended to open our eyes to the power, value and benefit of collaborative and interactive research and the tools and techniques that we will all have at our disposal. Dr Krotoski explained; “Growing Knowledge brings to life technologies that will pose many interesting questions. Will it make us more confused, bombard us with too much information, or will it speed things up, help us to collaborate, make things easier and enable better and more robust research?”
Matthew Shaw, curator of the exhibition, said, “In terms of the demands of researchers, there’s a push towards more collaborative, informal space, areas for meetings, places to use mobile phones and hold meetings. They also need areas to bring different collection items together and to provide an alternative 'thinking' space to the office or WiFi-enabled coffee shop.”
He continued, “As more resources are available electronically, special materials and those that cannot be disseminated over the web for copyright reasons become even more 'special'. Libraries holding such collections are likely to become more important in relative terms. Similarly, the mass of information available on the internet may make the specialist research and skills of librarians more important. Libraries will also offer working environments more conducive to reflective or communal study and research.”
So, is the library a critical point of assistance and expertise, or is it just a wasted building better passed over to teaching and study space? Shaw commented, “A library is a resource and an activity as much as a space. Librarians offer vital research and information-finding assistance. Libraries also negotiate and provide licensed resources on researchers’ desks, even if the researcher never comes to the building. Physical space provides the opportunity to access digital resources that are limited for a number of reasons, particularly copyright or licensing restrictions. Students and researchers may also need more powerful computing facilities and to compare physical items with digital resources. There are all sorts of tools useful for postgraduates, such as specialist search engines, databases for managing citations and sharing articles of interest, as well as examples of successful online projects, such as Galaxy Zoo or the Jane Austen  Fiction Manuscripts project.”
Visitors to Growing Knowledge will experience an exhibition unique to the British Library. Visitors can select one or more tools to try out, watch video and twitter displays or go back to the exhibition online from another location.
Through the Library’s partnership with Sony Corp, visitors will see a prototype of the RayModeler: 360-degree auto-stereoscopic display. Using gesture control, viewers can view static and moving 3D images and video, offering a glimpse of future collaborative working. Users will also experience an immersive digital environment in peciallydesigned multimedia research workstations through partnerships with technology supplier, HP and furniture provider, Haworth. The large touch-screens in each research pod offer access to interactive demonstrations enabling researchers to experience future digital research tools.
Researchers interested in collaborative work spaces can experience a Microsoft Surface Table containing a digital version of the world’s longest painting, the 19th Century Garibaldi Panorama. This treasure poses challenges for viewing in physical form being 4½ ft (1.4 m) high, painted on both sides and 273 ft (83 m) long. Brown University with support from Microsoft Research have created a virtual version displayed on the Surface Table so researchers can gather around the table, scroll the entire panorama and expand, extract and zoom in on any detail.
A key component of the exhibition will be evaluating the tools and services that will be showcased with research audiences. Working with JISC and the Ciber Research Group, part of UCL, Library users and exhibition visitors will be invited to leave their feedback at the exhibition or online.
This information will be fed into the overall evaluation of the ‘Growing Knowledge’ project, for which a final evaluation report will be delivered in July 2011. Richard Boulderstone, British Library’s Director of e-Strategy and Information Systems, said, "We have been speaking to teams of researchers across the UK and around the world, getting a taste of how research is changing. We’ve met with researchers from archaeologists and performance historians to bio-informaticists, who are using the power of technology and the web to generate more collaborative and intuitive research models.”
Digital research tools are changing the possibilities of research: students and researchers can synthesise, expose and repurpose information in dynamic new ways; mass digitisation and text encoding is making historic material more accessible and online databases are extending the boundaries of research. But there are significant challenges.
How will increasing and complex amounts of data be managed and visualised in the future? What does this mean for libraries, archivists and librarians – formerly the ‘gatekeepers’ of research information? Critically, are researchers taking full advantage of the technologies now available for research purposes? It is very much “watch this space” currently.
Nick Wilson, VP and MD, HP UK and Ireland said, “Physical libraries that have been built over the last 100 years won’t be able to manage the quantity of information humankind will create over the next century. This project is a way to bring our deep IT and engineering knowledge and expertise to help a worldleading research body showcase digital research tools and explore new ways technology can help us make sense of this information explosion.”
Sarah Porter, Head of Innovation, JISC, said, “Part of JISC’s approach to technology for education is to consult with researchers and other library users so that we can channel our energy and investments into areas that are really going to make a difference. When we help with the evaluation of this exhibition we will be looking to understand further the place of digital tools in libraries for the benefit of teachers, students and researchers. It’s an opportunity to explore how innovative technologies can support people finding resources in virtual spaces as well as the physical library.”
Francois Brounais, Regional MD, Haworth said, “Research in the digital world is challenging the way space supports data management and visualisation. We await the results of this exhibition with interest.” As do many other people.
Growing Knowledge is open until 16 July 2011 at the British Library, London

Microsoft's Surface Table for viewing Garidbaldi's Panorama

Digitising Garibaldi's Parnorama

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