British Library Explores Research Tech of the Future

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Over the next nine months, the British Library will be using a dedicated exhibition to explore what technological tools will shape the library's future research facilities.

Working with hardware partner Hewlett-Packard and software partner Microsoft, the library is showcasing a range of research tools, including a prototype of Sony's RayModeler 360-degree Autostereoscopic Display that uses gesture control to view static and moving 3D images and video.

At the end of the Growing Knowledge exhibition, the British Library will evaluate the tools and decide which have been most useful for researchers -- a term the library uses to describe anyone using its resources.

Richard Boulderstone, CIO at the British Library, explained: "It's about trying to explore what tools and services we should provide for researchers in future. What is the future of the library? What tools, spaces, technologies should we provide for researchers?"

Clive Izard, head of creative services at the British Library, added: "We are evaluating the way researchers will work in an area that is not hushed and quiet -- where people will be more collaborative physically.

"At the end [of the exhibition] we will produce a report. JISC [independent advisory body providing advice on ICT use to higher education] is going to take the findings and incorporate them into our services."

The exhibition, which is running on a thin client solution, is testing everything from monitor set-up -- from a single touchscreen monitor to four standard monitors -- to audio search software developed by Microsoft.

"We think researchers will need more than one screen to do their work. They have a lot more material to deal with and want to do more comparisons.

"The three-screen setup is already proving very popular because it is on one level and angled in," said Clive Izard, head of creative services at the British Library.

In addition, Izard said that the touch screen was particularly good for handling rich media content - although a mouse and keyboard are still preferred for dealing with a large amount of text.

In terms of software, the library has made 25 out of its catalogue of "hundreds" of digital research tools, available during the exhibition -- enough for visitors to fully explore for 30 to 40 minutes at a time.

These tools, which include map rectification software that reshapes old maps over current maps, and a Jane Austen's Fiction Manuscripts tool that enables users to digitally delve into Austen's handwritten manuscripts, will be alternated with other ones in the British Library's portfolio over the nine months.

For the first time, the British Library has made six months' of live TV and radio broadcasts from 18 channels across the UK, available for research. Using the audio search tool that the library has developed with Microsoft, Izard said the search capability was "about 70 percent accurate." (See also Library of Congress Embraces YouTube, iTunes.")

Researchers can also experiment with a Microsoft Surface Table, on which the British Library is showing an interactive, digital version of the world's longest painting, the 19th century Garibaldi Panorama. A set of dials, developed with (University College London (UCL), also measures Twitter activity across nine capital cities.

"It's looking at how digital technology is making more content available in different ways," Izard said.

Although the British library currently has 100 terabytes of content in total, Boulderstone said that less than one percent of the library's collection is digital.

"It's a storage and a cost issue. Digitizing material is a fairly large cost -- ends up being about a £1 (US$1.60) a page, and we have about five billion pages," he said.

Furthermore, despite having used virtualization, Boulderstone said that none of the content has been put into the cloud -- though he is looking at it.

"It's not just about cost for us. It's very important that the security model works well. We can't afford to have it corrupted or lost," he said.

The British Library uses HP enterprise servers and storage, which includes HP StorageWorks storage blades, and a HP ProLiant G6 server. It also uses security software developed in-house and from Microsoft, as well as digital signature cryptography.

The Growing Knowledge exhibition will run until July 16, 2011.

Earlier this year, the British Library launched an online archive of UK websites, the UK Web Archive, which runs on the IBM BigSheets system. The system is based on the Apache Hadoop Java framework and promises to process large amounts of data "quickly and efficiently".

This story, "British Library Explores Research Tech of the Future" was originally published by Computerworld UK.

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