Show scholars how to tap the potential of digital research tools

Libraries can aid academics with resource discovery by helping them to use cutting-edge technologies, says Richard Boulderstone

July 1, 2010

The Garibaldi Panorama is one of the most striking treasures held by Brown University in the US. It was originally displayed to large, paying audiences in the 1860s, at the height of Giuseppe Garibaldi's international popularity: 4ft high and 3ft long and painted on both sides, it scrolls through depictions of the life and adventures of the great Italian hero.

Its unusual format means that the physical artefact is not readily accessible to large numbers of researchers - but recent advances in digitisation and display technologies mean that the Panorama has a rich, inspiring future.

Painstakingly scanned in 6ft sections and then stitched together into a seamless whole, a virtual version of the Panorama can now be viewed via a Microsoft Surface "tabletop" viewer. Groups of researchers can scroll, extract and zoom in on details of the painting. Extra information, such as contemporary newspaper reports of Garibaldi's exploits, can be viewed alongside, opening up new possibilities for collaborative research.

The cutting-edge technology used on the Panorama is just one of a wide range of applications that allow people to interact and collaborate, in real time, regardless of previously critical limitations such as distance, space and number of participants.

But while these technologies are widely used for social interaction, there is evidence that many researchers are not yet taking advantage of these tools, despite their potential.

Early findings of a three-year study of Generation Y researchers (Researchers of Tomorrow) by the British Library and Joint Information Systems Committee show that while many respondents use applications such as wikis and blogs for social networking, only a small proportion (10 to 30 per cent) use them for research purposes. The bulk of researchers in the 21- age group simply are not using web 2.0 applications for research. So what can libraries do to support researchers?

Improved resource discovery will certainly be critical. Jisc and Research Libraries UK have just announced their vision of how universities, libraries and archives could make metadata about their collections available online - enabling students and researchers to explore those data in different ways. The ability to repurpose, link and expose information - through, for example, mashups and wikis - is stretching the boundaries of research.

The service, which the British Library chairs, provides online access to 65 government-supported databases around the world. It offers unparalleled access to web content that search engines do not discover - recently added language translation provides on-the-fly conversion into nine languages. Similarly, the mass digitisation of 19th-century newspapers enables new ways of exploring millions of pages of historic sources - multiplying serendipitous connections and highlighting patterns and trends that may otherwise have not been discovered.

The exploration of collaborative research and the ways in which researchers will use and interact with digital research tools are at the heart of the British Library's forthcoming exhibition, Growing Knowledge: The Evolution of Research.

The exhibition will showcase new digital research tools in a specially designed interactive environment. Visitors will be able to judge how these tools can be used and how useful they may be. They will experience live crowd-sourcing, mapping using geospatial technologies, multimedia content provided by the BBC, as well as the Garibaldi Panorama.

They will be able to touch, experience and road-test new concepts and techniques, and will be encouraged to give feedback on their potential benefit to the research community. By evaluating reactions, we will aim to develop a greater understanding of what research communities want from libraries in the future - a key debate that the library hopes to start through this exhibition.

Our efforts to support increased online collaboration and greater access to information have already created innovative research environments. These include: UK PubMed Central, a service development programme led by the British Library and working with the UK's principal biomedical and health research funders to offer researchers free access to millions of peer-reviewed journal articles; and the Research Information Centre, a virtual environment to enable researchers to embed in their everyday work the tools and information they need to work together.

All this represents an opportunity to address the changing needs of today's researchers. At our exhibition you can glimpse some of these opportunities: join the debate and help us to shape the future.

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