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From a modern perspective, it seems that museums and art galleries have always been the places to see art, and that libraries were always where books were collected. We have become accustomed to the workings of these institutions: a curator or gallery owner chooses what is to be displayed and in what order, and a librarian chooses the contents and organization of a library. We have furthermore become habituated to traveling to see art or to borrow books. But a new generation of digital tools and digital attitudes has rapidly begun to transform issues of audience, access and curation; of authority, selectivity, organization, time; and space. As traditional museums, galleries and libraries have rushed to adapt by putting online collections of traditional works, or by curating "exhibitions" of online art, a new generation has begun to use recently available tools to create their own collections, exhibitions, and typologies of information. From YouTube to Facebook to Wikipedia, the traditional top-down authority of museums and galleries has given way to a collaborative ethic, one in which popularity is valued.

We are a curious animal, perhaps the only one to collect objects for reasons other than survival. Our earliest ancestors collected objects of ritual significance, and we can imagine that the bric-a-brac of everyday existence created meaning for those who collected it. To amass and juxtapose objects may initially have personal motives, but eventually the collector feels the compulsion to show the collection to others. Ironically, when a collection is shared a sense of community is formed between the collector and the viewer. Collections are a means for a society to refine and redefine its notions of culture and history. They are a place for people to cultivate themselves. Throughout time, collections have reflected every imaginable personal whim. Today, almost everyone collects something, whether it is fountain pens or Pokémon cards.

While the urge to collect may be universal in the human species, the form and content of collections have undergone substantial changes throughout history. Libraries and museums of the eighteenth century grew out of the interest of the wealthy and privileged, those who had the power and education and the vanity to amass reflections of their status. These private libraries and museums were routinely off limits to the great unwashed masses, and even when they were not, access was limited to those with the leisure and means to travel to view them. With the spread of the Enlightenment and democracy in the West in the eighteenth century, the great collections of the elite began to become available to the public. Libraries are now an important physical presence in every community from the smallest village to the largest metropolis. They have become synonymous with public institutions. Museums are now popular, a necessary stop for tourists and cultured individuals alike. Appointment to the board of directors of a museum is one of the ultimate status symbols.

Image: Interior of Vatican Library with arched, decorated ceiling
Interior of Vatican Library with arched, decorated ceiling

The move from physical to non-physical collections, from collections of objects to collections of data, means that we must consider a whole new set of working procedures that both create, and are a reflection of a new set of values. Because physical space is integral to memory, recollection is intimately tied to the physical world where we situate meaning in a spatial and temporal order. If historically the physical library uses its tangible architecture as a means to organize its volumes, how do we organize a non-physical library? We need help to manage the information overload that already confronts us in the digital library. We need guidance to find our preferences through great quantities of data, in order to qualify what is most useful to particular needs and situations. While search engines may give us the most popular answer to a question, does this necessarily mean that it is the best one? And while we may be able to access vast information databases, does the immediacy and ease of access devalue what we retrieve?

The deployment of intelligent agents throughout the network, along with imaginative search engines, may further our quest for meaning in the circuit. Hopefully, the electronic library will further democratize the management and distribution of knowledge and, in so doing, transgress boundaries of subject and content heretofore separated by physical and conceptual constraints. The creative interlocutors or knowledge managers of the datasets of today's culture will surely be the heroes of the knowledge revolution because of their abilities to facilitate discovery within the library of cyberspace.