National Library at a 'digital watershed'

Big Data exhibition first to be staged in the refurbished building in Wellington

A Big Data exhibition is being staged in the refurbished National Library in Wellington.

National Librarian Bill Macnaught says he’s keenly looking forward to the public’s reaction to the $65 million upgrade of the building. The most attention-grabbing enhancements are large flat-panel displays in the public areas and the introductory exhibition, entitled “Big Data – Changing Place”.

The Library has been closed since December 2009 for a major refurbishment. An advance audience of media, National Library staff and dignitaries including Prime Minister John Key were the first to see the new layout at a reopening yesterday.

The Big Data exhibition draws on data progressively being opened up by government agencies, including Land Information New Zealand and GNS Science (formerly Geological and Nuclear Sciences) as well as overseas contributors such as NASA.

“This is a new chapter in the National Library’s life” says Macnaught. While the conventional research spaces and stores of physical exhibits and documents will still be there, “we are in the middle of a watershed, where from now on digital is the way we’ll be serving our customers” and linking with other knowledge institutions nationally and internationally, he says.

“This is a new way of sharing knowledge, where the National Library is leading knowledge networks across New Zealand to mash up old knowledge and from it create new knowledge,” Macnaught says.

One aim of the redesigned public interface is to overcome the forbidding appearance of the building, by drawing people in with digital displays, particularly Lifelines, a large horizontal touch-sensitive display surface in the foyer, where visitors can explore photographic material related to their home region or their family. This done by selecting or typing geographical and personal keywords and through what Macnaught calls a “serendipitous approach, casually flicking through the material”.

Prime Minister John Key seated in an audiovisual pod. Behind him (from left) are Digital NZ content manager Fiona Fieldsend, Internal Affairs Minister Chris Tremain, National Librarian Bill Macnaught and and Department of Internal Affairs CEO Colin Macdonald. Photo by Mark Beatty.

Visitors can build a repository of images relevant to them, attach it to their email address and receive a link that enables them to explore the material from their own devices.

Lifelines was developed by Wellington company ClickSuite.

Ambitious plans for remaking the outside of the building were modified when the recession and the command to trim government expenditure hit, but the reduction in external expansion was compensated by extension of upgrades to the internal space, Macnaught says.

A prominent feature of the Big Data exhibition is a three-panel display showing past, present and future Wellington landscapes; the past images (around 1840) have been generated from 3D visualisations of paintings of the time. The present data comes from LINZ. The future screen is derived from the vision of an architectural student. It includes large areas of solar panels stretched across an undulating land surface, so as to make the best use of the sunlight for power generation, and tanks to farm algae as a source of biofuels.

In developing the digital facet of its refurbishment, the National Library has had “fantastic support” from Government Technology Services, the ICT operations side of the Department of Internal Affairs, of which the Library is a part, says Macnaught.

The development had a budget of $65 million and came within that and the planned timescale, he says.

“I’d rather have this for that cost,” one visitor said, gesturing at the remade foyer, “than another few kilometres of motorway.”

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