When the National Library of Australia and the School of Cybernetics began a collaboration in 2021, the thought experiment was this: If library indexing has informed the structure of search on the internet, how might the library inform new ways of connecting these large caches of information to generate meaning? The processes, structures, networks, and relationships that make a library have a lot to recommend to the way that we might build AI-enabled systems to help generate meaning out of vast datasets.

‘Custodians and Midwives’ is the outcome of this collaboration. Researchers from the School of Cybernetics started with the premise that the Library is a cybernetic system – a system that has produced and been produced by relationships between technological, ecological, and cultural forces. They investigated and evaluated the potential new dynamics that will emerge in this current system if, and when, the National Library of Australia integrates tools and processes enabled by promising artificial intelligence (AI) technology capabilities into their core work processes to “collect, preserve and make accessible” library materials (National Library Act 1960(Cth)).

These current and future dynamics informed a series of blueprints for constructing multiple futures for collecting, preserving, accessing, and generating meaning with collections. In these futures we re-find lost flora, debate colonial voyeurism and Dharug cultural protocols for the spatial web, learn of an avatar of Alfred Deakin called as an expert witness in a constitutional case against the Commonwealth, participate in immersive re-enactments of political protests, and feel the spark of fear for a repeat of the stranger-hugging phenomenon of 2036 when a young woman in Albury-Wodonga suffers a fit of uncontrollable laughter brought on by National Library’s serendipity engine. Along the way, we answer early cybernetician Heinz Von Forester’s question about the library as a cybernetic system: “what are the inner workers of such a system in which you can act the double role of a custodian of books and of a midwife for new ideas and insights?” and recognise that the library, as an idea, a place, and a cybernetic system, has always been an investment in, and a vision about, the future.

Read the full report in pdf here.

To learn more about this project, contact: Alex Zafiroglu

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The Australian National University acknowledges, celebrates and pays our respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people of the Canberra region and to all First Nations Australians on whose traditional lands we meet and work, and whose cultures are among the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

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