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Digital Libraries: The Bracing Capacity of a Metaphor

Editor’s note: This post continues our series on CLIR Affiliates, which Chuck Henry initiated in his June 22 blog. In coming weeks, we will feature updates on our work with the National Digital Stewardship Alliance and Jisc.

At this month’s IFLA meeting in Wroclaw, Poland, CLIR signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Qatar National Library, an important partnership to advance the Digital Library of the Middle East (DLME) project. The MOU outlined general areas of mutual interest and collaboration. These include:

  • raising awareness and fostering understanding of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region’s cultural heritage and supporting its preservation;
  • developing, enhancing and making available digital cultural heritage content, and sharing best practice in this regard;
  • creating sustainable, long-term information environments for preservation of and access to cultural heritage;
  • responding to destruction of cultural heritage
  • educating a worldwide audience and promoting respect for the historical record
  • activating likeminded populations and raising awareness through outreach (locally, regionally and internationally)
  • developing and supporting partnerships with content-rich institutions; and
  • developing models for international cooperation.

Our partnership reflects key mission-driven principles that imbue all of CLIR’s and DLF’s projects. Two are especially poignant: increasing human capacity to better understand ourselves and our place in the world by means of access to our collective cultural expression; and, relatedly, fostering social justice.

The occasion of the MOU signing caused me to reflect on the remarkable response the DLME has garnered in the past two years. Independent scholars; major universities, archives, libraries, and museums in the Middle East, Europe, and North America; international security organizations; the diplomatic corps of over a dozen MENA countries; consultants specializing in cultural and political issues in the region; families with precious collections of relevance to the cultural history of the Middle East; technology companies: all have articulated support and pledged various means and methods of contribution to the project as it evolves.

One aspect of this reflection focused on the term digital library, which explicitly invites comparison to the traditional library. It is not difficult to envision the reaction to a proposal to build a physical library in the MENA region. The rich mix of political, national, family, and sacral perspectives would render a decision to erect such a structure impossible because it would have to go somewhere; the digital library, understood as a construct that is without a fixed place, that transcends through its virtual construction the complexities of regional and cultural identities, is logically appealing as an alternate “location.” Physically ungrounded yet intellectually anchored by more than 10,000 years of cultural heritage surrogates, the DLME aims to federate these vast resources and make them accessible as a public good. In any conflict zone, the attributes of digital offer a liberating framework for knowledge organization intuitively separate from horrific carnage and destruction, the dust and drain of armies in the night.

The array of services, applications, and resources already pledged to the DLME goes well beyond even the most generous definition of a library. The DLME, if built wisely, will include surrogates of rare manuscripts and books, theater performances in which Palestinian artists teach children their history, items of archeological digs, oral histories of displaced people, crowdsourced metadata supplied by archivists and librarians currently housed in refugee camps, family collections, 3-D reproductions of ancient artifacts, 3-D reproductions of dismantled temples and other architectural wonders that can only be “assembled whole” as digital reconstructions, new curricula based on the DLME content, new security features that would help mitigate looting and resale, and sophisticated pattern recognition and semantic search that accrues individual queries into aspects of the DLME database to guide and enrich future enquiry.

This digital environment will certainly encompass attributes and capabilities of a traditional library, but also of the street, the classroom, camps, families, communities, and cultures, extensive media of expression, the framing dynamic of questions, and myriad elements of the physical word, facilitating new methodologies and new forms of expression. Conceivably it will attract interest from professionals and publics in just about every discipline represented in a contemporary university’s roster. The DLME is collectively designed, dynamic, and will learn.

In respect to such a sweeping habitus, it is worth considering the term digital library as an emerging conceptual metaphor, rather than a lingering academic trope. The earlier rhetorical correspondence has become thoroughly appropriated, significantly expanded, and conceptually enriched to the point of fostering and determining social, behavioral, cultural, and intellectual engagement on a new scale. As such, digital library as exemplified by the DLME has evolved into a complex adaptive system, at least in this transitional phase. If accurate, this new definition has important cognitive implications: complex adaptive systems are used to describe environmental, economic, and technical phenomena, which posits digital library within a much more layered correlation that logically exposes its multifaceted construction, functions, and aspirations.

Metaphors are pairings: if digital library is a new conceptual metaphor, what is it conjuring as an analogy? Perhaps a digital library, transcending its original correlation, is metamorphosing into a vibrant, inclusive system more reflective of the socially grounded interactive workings of our minds. This would help to explain the groundswell of adoption of the DLME: it represents a technology ecology in which we would like to flourish; it is agnostic, it becomes more sophisticated with our questioning, and it is open to the world.

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