Wednesday, March 06, 2013

A grand challenge for libraries

Mars the Mysterious (NASA, 1997)While listening to an episode of Future Tense entitled "The future of interstellar travel", I began to think about a grand challenge for libraries. Then I heard about a tycoon who wants to send a couple on a 501 day flight to Mars (a fly-by) and now I know that we need to take up this challenge that I've envision.

Libraries...we go to them in person and online.  We love their physical space and use libraries as our community centers.  We use a variety of their services, knowing that a service that we don't use today will be there tomorrow.  We also know that new services will appear, so the library we visit today won't be the same in the future.

But what if the library can't change?  What if the library must stay the same for an extended period of time, like 501 days?  What if it needed to stay the same for years during an interstellar flight? would we create a library that had the ability to change or grow remotely?  Would there be a way to update the library - change it - as it is flying through space?  Given the speed of space travel, could those updates be sent in a way that would allow them to be timely? (And during an interstellar flight, what was timely really mean?)

According to  the program overview in FY 1994 Blue Book: High Performance Computing and Communications: Toward a National Information Infrastructure
A grand challenge is a fundamental problem in science or engineering, with broad applications, whose solution would be enabled by the application of high performance computing resources that could become available in the near future.
This grand challenge would require librarians, information scientists, telecommunication experts and specialists on space flight.  The lessons learned could be applied to earth-bound libraries and could re-envision how libraries are connected to each other and to the resources that they use.  It could also impact other industries and how they communicate or share information.  The work could place libraries and librarians front and center in a number of communities because we would need to be involved in creating the solution. 

A grand challenge cannot be solved quickly.  I think this one could take years to figure out, just like the challenge of figuring out how to get humans through space to the next solar system.  And I think if they can figure out how to make interstellar travel happen, we can figure out how to ensure that the library on board is what those humans need on day 1 and on day 1000!

Are you up for this challenge?

03/09/2013:  In doing a bit more research, the definition I used on what a grand challenge is originally came from:

Program Overview in FY 1994 Blue Book: High Performance Computing and Communications: Toward a National Information Infrastructure. (1994) The Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) Program.  Retrieved from

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Saturn is 3 years away at spacecraft speed. But light speed from Earth to Saturn is just under one hour.

Updates could be sent electronically to the library and it would take less than an hour for those updates to arrive at the spacecraft.

For missions outside our solar system there would be a point where we could not update via signal from earth. But we have never even gotten to Saturn or Jupiter or even Mars with people. All of those locations could be easily updated electronically. Once we get to those locations we can worry about what would happen when we go further out.