A phrase that’s making me crazy at work is “virtual browsing.” We know we need to have it (our books are going into high-density storage as part of a massive renovation and renewal) but it has become clear over the past few months that we need to figure out what “virtual browsing” actually means. Is it a digital shelf on an iPad? Is it a website? Is it some Minority-Report-style environment? I started digging into the idea with a few of my colleagues and we almost immediately fell down a rabbit-hole of questions like “what should a library website do?” and “what do patrons do on the Web?” and “how do people want to use electronic resources?” By the time we were done with our discussion, we were asking ourselves “what is research?”

So now, at work, we’re trying to redefine research. We’re not looking to recreate a philosophical definition of research, e.g. “a careful or critical inquiry or examination in seeking facts or principles” or “a diligent investigation to ascertain something.” These definitions should not be different just because the world records more, communicates faster, and requires more electrical power.

What should be different? I think the three most important differences are in the methods and procedures that researchers use in their diligent investigations; in the the kinds of knowledge they create; and in how they expect to preserve and access the knowledge that they and other researchers create.

Libraries need to examine those differences because we support those research procedures; we collect that created knowledge; we provide the tools and resources to preserve that knowledge; and we provide and maintain the methods of accessing that knowledge. If our methods, tools, resources, and skills are 20th-century, book-centric, digital-phobic, or inflexible (to name but a few of our potential flaws), then our patrons will reject us for their research needs and turn to corporate archives, to for-profit storage, or to advertising companies masquerading as indexes of human knowledge.

The trouble, I’m discovering, is that libraries are trying to prepare for a future that we already inhabit. We are late in engaging the digital technology and we are late in accommodating our patron’s Internet-influenced temperament. Our lateness has allowed privileged and technophilic people to declare libraries outdated or irrelevant in a world where everything is (assumed to be) on the Internet. As William Gibson said, “The future’s already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.” [http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1067220]

The Library (as an institution and as an ideal) is devoted to collecting, storing, preserving, and making accessible the culture in which it exists and the knowledge created by its constituents. The Library now exists in a ubiquitous digital culture, and knowledge is created in multiple media simultaneously by individuals, organizations, and automated processes. We must engage that culture and collect that knowledge. That’s the hard part. If we do that, figuring out how to enact virtual browsing will be a snap.