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The infinite library

Speed read
  • Pangia, a worldwide open-access digital library could revolutionize how we access knowledge
  • AI-augmented search engines can restore serendipitous discovery to digital research
  • Council on Interdependence needed to bring academic institutions together to make progress

Imagine a 9-year-old girl living in Ankara who’s totally geeked about astronomy. She picks up her phone and asks it how people used to understand the universe before telescopes and computers. She receives drawings, maps, replicas of stone tablets and calendars on bark cloth, and texts in multiple languages that are instantly translated into her own. With every resource she retrieves and every new question she asks, the AI search engine learns from her inquiries.

<strong>Universal knowledge.</strong> The Pangia open-access digital library will include texts, images, historical reproductions (such as this page from the Dresden Codex), video resources, and audio, all translated into multiple languages.Sounds wonderful, right? Such resources may not yet exist, but if Charles Henry gets his way, they will. As president of the Council on Library and Information Resources, Henry envisions a future of worldwide, online, open-source library access.

“You would have a global digital library, consisting of billions of interdisciplinary assets,” says Henry. “The library would be open to the public and would be semantically architected with AI so it learns as you learn, and it learns from your learning.”

Scavenger hunt

Much more than a futurist fantasy, plans for this library are already under way. Named for the ancient supercontinent Pangea, the library Pangia will provide access to the contents of multiple digital libraries but preserve their unique characteristics.

“If this project is successful, it will look like a single library. You’ll be able to access over a billion records, in many languages, as if it were part of your own library,” says Henry.

The Digital Library of the Middle East (DLME) aims to preserve the cultural heritage of the Middle East by bringing together Middle Eastern collections from around the world to create a publicly accessible, inter-operable digital library of cultural material. Courtesy Qatar Digital Library.

Existing digital libraries such as Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America, DigitalNZ, and Tainacan (Brazil), and emerging projects such as the Digital Library of the Middle East and the National Library of India, are representative of the foundation of the Pangia project.

But a worldwide, open-source knowledge environment is going to require a better search engine to guide learners through the vast array of facts and data.

Most people use public internet search engines as their primary way of discovering knowledge. But Henry points out that they are not the ideal tools for research.

We know (even if we don’t think about it) that Google’s search algorithms are weighted in favor of some results against others. The problem is that we’re not sure how—users don’t know what results are promoted or why.

“It’s a very poor way to discover,” says Henry. “When you put in a few keywords and receive results, you don’t know who paid for it or what’s behind it. That’s not the way to do genuine curiosity-based discovery.”

<strong>The thrill of discovery.</strong> AI-augmented search could restore the serendipitous discovery that some users feel was lost when libraries moved online. Courtesy John Michael Thomson/Unsplash.Henry suggests that improvements in AI-augmented searching will help. An example of the kind of semantic-based search he’s talking about is Yewno, originally developed by Stanford University Libraries. Using a mix of computational semantics, graph theory, and machine learning to retrieve documents, Yewno attempts to restore serendipitous discovery to digital research. It enables searching whole concepts rather than specific keywords.

“It allows an enormous amount of information to be contextualized in dozens to hundreds of different ways and shows patterns of reciprocity of meaning, as opposed to, ‘Here’s an article, here’s a hotel, here’s a plane ticket,’” says Henry. “A federated database of billions of records of cultural and scientific value need to be susceptible to a much more interesting kind of methodological query than we have right now.”

Connecting and cooperating

Another essential element required to make this vision a reality is cooperation. A lot of cooperation. But Henry thinks it can be done.

“There seems to be a genuine recognition of the need to work together, and that to continue inside individual project silos is really working against the technology we’re trying to build this project on,” says Henry.

To capitalize on that recognition, Henry brought his message about Pangia to the Internet2 Global Summit 2018 in San Diego on May 6-9.

Internet2 is a member-driven advanced technology community founded by higher education institutions in the US. It creates a forum for research and education organizations to solve tech challenges and develop solutions cooperatively—and successfully operates the largest and fastest coast-to-coast R&E network in the US. 

“The model that my colleagues and I have used is Internet2, but we want an Internet2 for knowledge organization and governance of higher education, not just for networks.”

Henry believes that an International Council on Interdependence for Higher Education (ICI), consisting of academic and research institutions around the world, will have the power to make this federated library—and other knowledge projects—a reality.

<strong>Equalized knowledge.</strong> Universal access to knowledge resources could reduce inequality and bring more equal opportunity to learners around the world. Courtesy Nikhita S/Unsplash.The Council could lead the way in creating a worldwide system for the preservation and access of printed materials that will make the cycle of academic knowledge more cost effective and facilitate greater scholarly productivity.

This kind of open, universal access to knowledge resources also has the potential to erode class barriers and equalize opportunities across the globe.

Says Henry, “If everyone has access to the same material, you feel like you’re part of the larger picture.”

With so much knowledge freely available, who knows what that little girl in Turkey—and millions like her around the world—will one day discover and what contributions they will make to knowledge and human discovery.


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