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A Model for Libraries of the Future

With access to some 3,000 e-books, lightning-speed broadband connectivity and interactive spaces, the Penang Digital Library provides effective ways of gaining knowledge.

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As the Digital Age develops, we find ourselves constantly experimenting with new ways to improve what we are already doing: from publishing to manufacturing to entertainment.

Education is no different and Penang is at the forefront of that movement in the country, with the Penang Tech Dome, Penang Science Cafe and Penang Science Fair increasingly gaining traction. On top of that, there is the Penang Digital Library (PDL), touted as the first of its kind in the country. It is the state government’s latest step in bringing technology to bear in the field of education.

Officially launched in October, PDL is an RM2.5mil collaboration between the state government, Keysight Technologies, E&O Group and TIME dotCom. Located in what was once the 4,000 sq ft Puspanita colonial bungalow in Penang Free School, the library is the first paperless library of its kind in the state, providing access to some 3,000 e-books and opening up a new, technologydriven learning experience for Penang students. While Keysight provided the technological expertise, E&O refurbished the venue and Time provided a 100mb broadband connectivity – blisteringly fast by Penang standards.

Like many of those deeply involved in Penang’s manufacturing industry, Keysight president Datuk Gooi Soon Chai sees a crucial need for the state to move up the value chain. “To do this, it will need talent that is highly skilled, with a strong foundation in science and engineering,” says Gooi. “We need to build a community that is conversant in science and technology – a community that embraces learning and innovation as part of its culture.”

And Gooi has high hopes that the library will do just that: appeal to a younger generation of Malaysians who are deeply immersed in technology. “Unlike traditional libraries, PDL will be a vibrant space for people to meet and share their ideas. We hope it will renew an interest in libraries and change the perception that libraries are a thing of the past.”


A Creative Space

A colonial bungalow, once known as the Puspanita building, inside Penang Free School is an interesting choice of location but according to Bharathi Suppiah, deputy general manager of Chief Minister of Penang Incorporated (CMI), what is needed is a library close to learning institutions. “Since PDL is primarily focused on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) development,” she says, “we felt that this location would allow students to fully maximise the digital library.”

The library features a cafe and bakery on the ground floor, and plenty of space for users to not just go through the catalogue but also to get together and discuss ideas. A small amphitheatre in one corner of the first floor can be used for presentations. The library also comes equipped with 10 iPads, as well as multiple LED screens featuring the latest news.

Content is carefully curated by the PDL committee, with about 70% of the contents focusing on STEM-related subjects. “We are specially curating the vast amounts of information available today and pushing the most relevant content to users,” says Gooi. “We needed to create the entire virtual infrastructure for the digital library. This included designing the database powering the library, setting up the servers to connect the entire system, and developing numerous web and mobile applications.”

And all of this came with its own set of challenges, especially from the technical side of things. “There was a lot to cover,” says Jerry Yeoh, Keysight R&D manager and PDL project lead. “For example, we needed applications that would be able to run on both iOS and Android. This included designing in the capabilities to support different screen sizes, various iOS versions, and compatibility tests, librarian systems, networking setup and software security design. We also needed to take into consideration the type of content that would be displayed and how it would be pushed out to users. We wanted a great user-experience, which meant not just getting the right information out there, but also making sure users could easily navigate the applications for the content they were looking for.” Yeoh’s team had to develop these systems in just six months.

The curation process in selecting 3,000 e-books, magazines and journals proved to be a major challenge as well. “It was not an easy process going through the available content and narrowing down the information that would be the most relevant and beneficial,” says Bharathi.

And running a digital library requires a skillset somewhat different from that needed for a traditional library. “The requirements of a digital library are more dynamic, fluid, and of course the staff must be technically proficient to manage the latest technology,” says Bharathi. “Additionally, as technology is constantly changing and at a rapid pace, ongoing training is essential to ensure the services provided are up-to-date.”

According to Gooi, while the library ultimately aims to cater to anyone from any demographic group, the focus is on students, particularly secondary school students and undergraduates, as well as working adults.

The ultimate aim is to encourage STEM education, and Gooi says the PDL is the perfect place to encourage not just learning about the sciences, but also to spark discussions. “Imagine: you are relaxing with a group of friends in the library. You happen to glance at one of the info portals on the wall and news about the latest breakthrough in augmented reality technology catches your eye. You can immediately find out more by downloading the article onto your own device or read it from one of the interactive gadgets available in the library.

“This leads to a discussion among your friends which then evolves into an idea, and the idea firms up into a project. To test the viability of this project you organise a sharing session at the library’s amphitheatre. Someone in the session likes your idea and wants to implement it. The project moves into the next phase: development.”

Books can be accessed at the library or remotely if you have a membership, which is free until the end of the year. The library’s catalogue can be reached through the Readcasa app on smartphones or tablets. There is presently a free trial for three months, after which nominal charges will be required. “We are still finalising an operational module that will enable the digital library to be self-sustainable in the long-term,” says Bharathi. “Additional sponsorship and public contributions are very much welcomed.”

Is PDL the future of learning? Only time will tell. In the meantime, Gooi is optimistic about its prospects. “We believe the library will complement the traditional methods of teaching and bring the learning
experience into the digital era and pave the way for people to access knowledge in a more structured and efficient manner, while spurring deeper interactions and collaborations. Ultimately, we hope that PDL will change the way we think of and use libraries, and help create a community that is conversant in science and technology.”

Jeffrey Hardy Quah is a freelance writer and editor.
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