Virtual versus reality – not an easy choice

Reference Reviews

ISSN: 0950-4125

Article publication date: 1 July 2004



O'Beirne, R. (2004), "Virtual versus reality – not an easy choice", Reference Reviews, Vol. 18 No. 5.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Virtual versus reality – not an easy choice

On a recent visit to London for a conference that happened to end earlier than expected, not wishing to endure the Kings Cross roadworks and rush hour, I took the opportunity to explore the British Library. Usually I would visit a bookshop or two in Judd Street. Instead I wandered through the half-deserted halls, libraries and rooms of this national library, taking in the scale of the architecture. Scale seems to be important again in these public buildings; the Tate Modern is simply vast, as is the Royal Armouries in Leeds. Perhaps this is a necessary irony or aesthetic counterpoint to the rise of data compression and nano-technology. The exhibits on display in the John Ritblat Gallery are without doubt the jewels of the collection. Indeed the whole experience, from the illuminated manuscripts of Lindisfarne to the dramatic scribblings in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake notebook, is deeply moving. It was worth the visit yes, and on the train home I wondered how this sense of being close to treasures might be portrayed on the British Library Web site.

Small is beautiful and when it comes to a Web address this is certainly the case for the British Library which has the address – succinct and unforgettable. There is no comparison between the St Pancras building, and the Web site. Yes, it is a well designed and offers much but there is not that sense of awe that the physical presence provides. Yet, to its credit the Web site offers a whole lot more than awe. In one example, and there are possibly others, I was delighted to experience the true benefits of multimedia technology. I am talking of course about the “Turning the page” project. This is essentially the digitisation of texts with a very clever piece of animation that allows the user to turn the page of the manuscript on-screen. It is difficult to explain here but try it for yourself by going to the British Library Web site. The point is that the online virtual experience is coming of age and, if it is to become a reference source in the future, librarians will need to manage it as they do other resources.

In a similar vein, Culture Online develops its content further with a recent announcement from UK Arts Minister Estelle Morris. “Four projects are to be commissioned under a new DCMS project to harness new technologies, enhance cultural experience and reach out to those who do not normally participate in arts and culture”. Perhaps the most exciting of these is the ArtisanCam which offers the opportunity to use the Web to view how artists create their work. This project provides a good example of the use of the much-underrated tool the Webcam. Often we can gain an insight to a distant land or an unfamiliar practice through remote access via a Webcam. Again, with the Crittercam from the National Geographic Web site, one can follow the activities of various creatures, lions, turtles, etc. that have a Webcam attached to their bodies. This is a unique view and one that could provide very interesting information for an enquirer.

In the strict reference paradigm how do issues of dynamic Web site access fit in? Is it sufficient and appropriate to have something akin to an “arts happening” put forward as a reference source? Can a reference source be dynamic in this way? Are such Web sites real? To my friend from California who wants to know about the game of cricket I recommend that he accompanies me to a match and learns from the experience. When he asks questions like what is the highest amount of runs scored in a test match I refer him to Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac.

To answer these questions we should look at the issues from different perspectives most importantly though from the enquirer’s point of view.

Ronan O’BeirneInternet Editor Reference Reviews and Principal Libraries Officer Information, Bradford Libraries, Archives and Information, Bradford, UK

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