Have you ever wondered where your drinking water comes from when you open the faucet? Or who actually built the mountain pass that you drive on, when travelling from Zurich to Milan? These are just two examples for parts of our physical environment, which are in different ways essential for the functioning of our societies and economy. But it is not just the physical infrastructure, it is also the information infrastructure that enables our daily lives. Especially in education and research, electronic resources, digital tools and novel technologies have profoundly altered the way and the speed at which we acquire and share our knowledge. However, this infrastructure goes vastly unnoticed by most of us.

Digital and physical infrastructures collide in a particularly fascinating way in scientific libraries, as they have historically been the gatekeepers to knowledge. Today – like most other institutions – they are facing the challenges and opportunities of digital transformation in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. That’s why the ETH Library in cooperation with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) founded the ETH Library Lab, an initiative for human-centered innovation in the scientific knowledge sphere. It explores the potential of new technologies, practices and strategies to reshape the information infrastructure and services for tomorrow.


Moving (through) Mountains in the 19th Century

When it comes to recognizing the importance of infrastructure, one historic name that comes to mind is Alfred Escher. The Swiss politician and industrialist would have celebrated this year his 200th birthday. The pivotal moment early on in his career occurred when Escher found out that all European railway connections were supposed to lead around Switzerland. Alarmed by the impending risk of his country being left behind by an industrialized Europe, he made the ambitious plan to create a transalpine connection and digging a tunnel through the 3’000 meters high Saint-Gotthard Massif between Switzerland and Italy.

Entry of the Gotthard Tunnel, 1880-1885 (image: ETH Library image archive)
Entry of the Gotthard Tunnel, 1880-1885 (image: ETH Library image archive)

Since he had trouble finding investors within Switzerland for a project of this size, but did not like the idea of depending on foreign lenders either, Escher established “Schweizerische Kreditanstalt” – the bank nowadays known as Credit Suisse. Besides that, Escher was involved in founding the “Schweizerische Lebensversicherungs- und Rentenanstalt”, today’s life insurance company Swiss Life (established 1867). And finally, he also played a significant role in founding the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH Zurich (established 1855), one of the world’s leading technical universities.

Opened in 1882 and with a length of 15 kilometers, the Gotthard Tunnel was the longest tunnel in the world at its time. Escher’s unmatched influence on the country’s development during the industrial revolution of the 19th century gave him the unofficial title of “cofounder of modern Switzerland.”

A digital tsunami is rolling towards us.

Prof. Dr. Joël Mesot

150 years later we are facing a different situation, which brings its own challenges with it. Climate change, a growing human population, globalization and economic disruption have made our world more complex and interdependent than ever before. After his election as president of ETH Zurich, Joël Mesot used the drastic metaphor of a “digital tsunami” rolling towards us. In fact, new technologies and the ongoing digital transformation are altering the way we work and communicate so profoundly that many refer to the current era as the fourth industrial revolution.

This industrial revolution, however, differs from the previous ones: On one hand due to its speed – change processes on such a large scale never took place as rapidly as today. On the other hand due to its subject matter: while most of the infrastructure in the past two centuries was represented by concrete, physical objects like roads, buildings or mechanical machines, a great deal of today’s infrastructure consists of software, digital systems, facilities for data storage, platforms, integration services and hardware devices. These are creating professional and private information environments that are deeply interwoven with our lives and social spheres. 

Exploring Possible Library Futures

Digital transformation also leads to a fast-changing work environment for scientists, researchers and educators, mainly due to

  • the digitalization and automation of work processes,
  • the transformation of research and teaching methods,
  • a deepening fragmentation of digital tools used within the scientific research cycle
  • and a stronger economisation of the scientific knowledge sphere.

The accelerating progress in science and technology fuels the aforementioned developments which, in turn, contributes to increasingly shorter innovation cycles. Navigating this ongoing process in today’s multi-polar ecosystem is no easy task. Interdisciplinarity and co-creation are gaining importance, and are often needed for innovation to take place. This insight brought two of the leading academic libraries in the German-speaking area together: The ETH Library and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) Library. Being the largest public scientific and technical library in Switzerland, ETH Library not only provides information services and resources to members of ETH Zurich, but also offers their services and resources for the interested public and companies. The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) Library is one of the largest research and educational institutions in Germany.

As a public institution with various stakeholders, scientific libraries serve diverse, and sometimes also diverging needs. For example, a growing community in the scientific knowledge sphere is calling for not only open access to research results, but the general adoption of open science practices along the scientific information cycle, a development that is also challenging the established funding and publishing systems. On the other hand, scientists and researchers – as most professionals around the world – are driven by the direct need to push on their individual careers in highly competitive environments and to protect their intellectual property. Moreover, there is an increasing awareness of the need for data security and protection, calling for legal regulations. In combination, these developments make it difficult to foresee what the library of the future may look like. In fact, there are many different possible scenarios.

Digital transformation might be as impactful, far-reaching and irreversible as a tsunami. However, we are undergoing a human-made change process, which we can – and actually should – help shape in order to create the future we want to live in.

Sunnie J. Groeneveld

The challenge of our time is to develop strategies to use technologies that have just come into existence or do not even exist yet for requirements that are changing equally fast or we do not yet know about. The high complexity and unpredictable outcome requires a more flexible and agile way of working than it is often usual in large institutions. That’s why the ETH and KIT Library co-created a small, widely autonomous innovation unit, which implemented its first steps in April 2018 and reached full functional level in February 2019: the ETH Library Lab. As an initiative for human-centered innovation, the ETH Library Lab aims to identify and develop potential drivers of innovation in the knowledge sphere.

“Digital transformation might be as impactful, far-reaching and irreversible as a tsunami. Unlike the natural catastrophe, however, we are undergoing a human-made change process. That means we can – and actually should – help shape it in order to create the future we want to live in”, says Sunnie J. Groeneveld, entrepreneur and Advisory Board member of the ETH Library Lab.

Sunnie J. Groeneveld, advisory board member of ETH Library Lab (image: Federico Naef)
Sunnie J. Groeneveld, Advisory Board member of ETH Library Lab (image: Federico Naef)

Scientific libraries have precious experience in organizing information and knowledge. Their expertise gives them not only an important creative role, but also comes with the responsibility to function in a way that balances the interest of public institutions, companies and civil initiatives. This balance is critical for the protection of privacy, openness and inclusion. By avoiding a monopolistic distribution of knowledge and encouraging competition, the scientific library promotes innovative potential.

With their sense of and tradition for storing and processing large quantities of information, libraries are at the heart of the digital transformation in science.

Frank Scholze

Frank Scholze, Director of Library Services at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), emphasises the potential of the library for digital transformation. “With their sense of and tradition for storing and processing large quantities of information, libraries are at the heart of the digital transformation in science”, he says. “They can play a pivotal role in helping scientific communities to develop research data management practices which are sustainable and open.”

Frank Scholze, Director of Library Services at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)
Frank Scholze, Director of Library Services at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)

Going New Ways as They Unfold

As Director of ETH Library Dr. Rafael Ball puts it, “in a world with an abundant commercial information industry on the one side, and deception and fraud on the other side, the library of the future is characterised by reliability, independence and neutrality. It will even have to position itself as an instance of truth. It seems obvious that this can only be achieved using modern technologies, creativity and experimentation.”

The library of the future is characterised by reliability, independence and neutrality. It will even have to position itself as an instance of truth. It seems obvious that this can only be achieved using modern technologies, creativity and experimentation.

Dr. Rafael Ball

Relying on human-centered approaches and a framework of project methods building on agility, ETH Library Lab can be compared to an intrapreneurial initiative within a bigger organization or company. It acts to explore possible applications of new technologies such as distributed ledger technologies, big data, artificial intelligence, virtualization, 3D-printing or the internet of things. In order to ensure a high quality as well as user-centered outcome, a diverse pool of contributors is involved, ranging from academia and business to the civil society. The core of ETH Library Lab’s activities is the Innovator Fellowship program providing financial support, infrastructure and network to projects with the potential to help shape the future of scientific information cycles. Innovator Fellows are empowered to bring their idea to prototype level backed by experienced mentors, experts and scientists.

Dr. Rafael Ball, Director of ETH Library
Dr. Rafael Ball, Director of ETH Library

It is needless to say that physical infrastructure remains an important part of our world. For instance, Switzerland just renewed its world record of longest railway tunnel (and added deepest traffic tunnel) in 2016: the Gotthard Base Tunnel with a length of 57 kilometers is the first flat, low-level route through the Alps.

Although it might not literally require carving out tons of rock from a mountain, creating information infrastructure and services that contribute to global knowledge systems in an open and persistent way is one of the biggest challenges to the scientific knowledge sphere and therefore also its libraries today. As many other initiatives, organizations and working groups around the world, ETH Library Lab contributes to this process by building the right networks and providing the resources needed to identify and prove innovative solutions. In this way, we do believe that the combination of human creativity and new technologies is able to move mountains in the knowledge sphere.

by Maximiliane Okonnek

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