Digital technologies are widely available today; many even to the institutions with small budgets, but the context of their implementation needs to be thought out and we need to be entrepreneurial about it
Adam Sofronijević, Deputy Director of the University Library in Belgrade, talks about the future of books, reading and new information technologies.
You have become a Time Mashine ambassador for Serbia. Can you tell us more about that?
— The project is based on the idea that the European nations are most closely connected by a common cultural heritage and that digitizing that cultural heritage is the best way to preserve all of its abundant diversity. The cultural heritage of European nations cultivated by advanced digitalization technologies is the cornerstone of a story that talks about the meaningful future of Europe. Time Mashine brings together Europe’s most respected cultural and scientific institutions to realize a very ambitious project, namely to digitize the cultural heritage of our continent. If this idea were to come true, we would have a cultural time machine that would allow us to see every moment of the past at all points in the European space. The importance of such a vision cannot be emphasized strongly enough, and the opportunity, as well as the obligation, in my opinion, to ensure that the Serbian cultural space is an integral part of this vision is a patriotic task of utmost importance, to which I will be committed as a Time Mashine ambassador for Serbia.
The University Library has a searchable digital library that has more than 600,000 pages, is constantly growing and is a true treasure trove of Serbia’s cultural heritage. How difficult is it to create a digital library?
— It is a complex activity that we have been working on for the past six years through a series of projects with national and EU funding. This year, as part of a project supported by the Ministry of Culture and Media, the searchable digital library of the University Library in Belgrade has grown into a central national point of access for digitized, searchable, machine-readable artifacts of our cultural heritage, which will, from now, be proudly owned, maintained and supplemented by all of the biggest libraries in the country. It will certainly represent an important part of the infrastructure on which we will build Time Mashine for Serbia in the future, as part of Europe’s most important undertaking to digitize cultural heritage.
How long does it take to digitize a single edition?
— It takes several hours and it is carried out in line with the highest global standards. As a result, the edition has searchable and machine-readable digital materials. We are proud of the fact that our region today has a unique digital library or digital infrastructure that enables this. It is important to ensure the searchability of the entire text of the materials that make up the library, which completely changes the paradigm of cultural heritage research. Machine-assisted readability of these materials is also of great importance. This is perhaps the largest set of machine-readable data in the Serbian language and Cyrillic script currently. They are invaluable in safeguarding the cultural identity of our country and our people, given the need for different artificial intelligence-based applications to be trained over datasets coming from Serbia to be tailor-made to our needs and reflect our cultural idiosyncrasies.
You have also created the very first Twitter book. How did this idea come about?
— I managed a Twitter account @1918nadSrbijom from September to December 2018, which was launched by the University Library to mark the anniversary of the end of World War I. Applying the “as if…” concept, were presented varied content on this Twitter account, imagining what would a Twitter feed of a Serbian soldier on the Thessaloniki Front look like. This Twitter campaign has been a great success, so we decided to do a little experiment of publishing a Twitter book, which is, to our knowledge, the first such book in the world. On over 150 pages, we printed tweets published during September in a format and design that makes the paper book look like a tablet and the pages like Twitter posts. Our goal was to raise a whole series of questions related to the essence of the dualism of the printed book paradigm and the electronic content paradigm. In our country, this dualism is primarily used as a flag in the quasi-debate on cultural values, which pushes its essence in the background while its understanding is crucial for shaping the contemporary flows of culture and education in the 21st century.
How much does the IT revolution affect libraries in Serbia?
— Not to the extent that it could and it does affect libraries and culture in some other countries. The problem is not just in the financing, but first and foremost, the ideas. Digital technologies are widely available today; many even to the institutions with small budgets, but the context of their implementation needs to be thought out and we need to be entrepreneurial about it. With this in mind, I think it is exceptionally important to embrace innovative ideas such as Time Mashine. Ideas like this can be the momentum for digital transformation in libraries and beyond – on the Serbian cultural scene. Without the digital transformation of our libraries and other culture institutions, our culture will remain devoid of the opportunities that digital creates. If that happens, libraries and other culture institutions are not going to be able to fulfil their basic function in the long run, which is to decisively determine the directions of the development of the society and the very survival of the nation as a whole, through the possibility of identity determination. This is what we have to change at all costs, and to which I, as a Time Mashine ambassador for Serbia, am trying to make a modest contribution.