Blog Post

Learning, Libraries, and the Days of Future Past: Thomas Frey's 'Liquid Network For Ideas'

In a recent symposium on the future of libraries co-sponsored by ALA, futurist Thomas Frey proposed that the future role for libraries may be to formulate and nuture "a liquid network for ideas." I won't attempt to describe Frey's interesting vision in detail because readers can find his own description at:

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Reading Frey's blog about the future, my first reaction was to think of the past: specifically, of a 1978 symposium of librarians held in North Carolina's Research Triangle, when a futurist even more famous than Thomas Frey, by the name of Isaac Asimov, gave a talk about his own vision on this same topic. Asimov's remarkable speech (titled "Of Past and Future Libraries") is today almost totally forgotten. Even the N.C. State Library has reportedly lost its taped recording. But I was then just out of graduate school in my first library job, and was so keenly intrigued by Asimov's topic that I smuggled in a small cassette recorder. I have since converted that cassette to a digital sound file, which is apparently now the only existing copy of Asimov's 1978 speech! In my next blog in this HASTAC series, I will discuss Asimov's vision, to be titled "Isaac Asimov's Library of the Future: Four Decades Later." (No, 1978 was not quite 4 decades ago, but Asimov stated that his talk was based on an unpublished essay he had written 3 years prior to his Research Triangle speech).

Today, in this blog post, I would like to share some thoughts about how Frey's 2014 vision of the "liquid network for ideas" could relate to the evolutionary development of current systems for knowledge creation, digital curation, and web-scale learning being deployed by academic libraries and the colleges and universities that act as their hosting institutions. In point of fact, I have been thinking and writing about this evolutionary process for some twenty years. 2015 will be the 20th anniversary of the Apple Library of Tomorrow Grant I received in 1995, a grant I used to create what one reviewer called "a pioneering digital humanities project," titled The Charleston Multimedia Project (CMP). Although hampered by the primitive development tools available in 1995, the CMP attracted international attention: for instance, it was featured in the book GREAT AMERICAN WEBSITES published by McGraw-Hill; it was profiled in the "Libraries of the Future" column in Computers in Libraries. But that was only the beginning.

This past January, the Association of College & Research Libraries' (ACRL)  digital humanities group (dh+lib) invited me to post a 3 part blog describing how my mid-1990's work on CMP propelled me to the Universty of Noth Carolina--Charlotte and there, to develop UNCC's Information Commons. For anyone interested, that blog (introduced by Sarah Potvin of Texas A&M) can be found at:

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My key point is that the CMP and UNCC's IC were related projects, even if the evolutionary interconnections may not seem overtly clear. And the nature of those "hidden" interconnections foreshadows the developmental processes that could move Frey's "liquid network for ideas" from a cool abstract idea to a tangible reality that could also play a key part in redefining the role of acaemic libraries in student learning. I will briefly note 3 source publications where I have explored this in greater detail:

1) In 2001, the Indian Assn. of Library & Information Science (then based in Kerala) invited me to do an article for their journal on "the future of the online catalog." In my article ("Digital Libraries & Dialogic Classrooms") I proposed extending and enhancing the online catalog into what I called a "discovery system." I am not sure whether my 2001 article was the first to use that term, but "discovery systems" are today common in libraries. But none are yet as sophisticated as what my article proposed, because it was (and is) my view that a library discovery system can and should be meshed with what today are often called "adaptive learning sysems." The details of that meshing are too complex to discribe here; for more, IJLIS has kindly given me permission to scan my 2001 article to a cloud archive, linked at:

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2) In my 2006 book, THE INFORMATION COMMONS HANDBOOK (Neal-Schuman, NY & London), I advocate for library-based Information Commons and Learning Commons to create a sort of shared extranet (Chapt. 10) over which meshed discovery systems and adaptive learning sytems could intercommunicate, with interfaces for student-faculty-librarian collabration and interaction. Elsewhere in the IC HANDBOOK, I propose that such interfaces might best be realized in physical library IC / LC spaces via interactive display walls. At that time, in 2006, the RENCI Display Wall was the only specific example available for discussion in my book, but today we are seeing exciting new developments, such as the ThinkHub app from T1Visions. A short but impressive YouTube demo of the T1Visions display wall and ThinkHub app can be seen at:

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3) The third and last piece of the puzzle I will mention today relates to software for visualizing the dynamic structure of knowledge. This is again its own exciting and fast-developing subfield, but only some strands of knowledge visualization relate at this time to Frey's notion of a "liquid network for ideas." I would simply again point to yet another interconnected project I spearheaded in 2002-03, the "Scholastica Project," when my library at Belmont Abbey College became the first library to successfully field test and do focus group assessments of what was then called VisualNet software. For details, the interested reader can find my D-LIB article at:

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To summarize, if Thomas Frey's "liquid network for ideas" is to ever become a tangible reality, the concept must be translated from Frey's abstract "top-down" perspective as a futurist, to a real-world "bottom-up" perspective that builds upon the evolutionary potential of the existing sociotechnical systems and processes in today's libraries, and in the colleges, universities, and other institutions that host them. 

--Donald Beagle



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