So instead of just listing books and documents by “title,” “author,” “key words,” “genre,” and other basic fields, libraries are thinking about how to be far more descriptive about individual titles and far more comprehensive about how resources connect to one another. They’re also trying to figure out how to handle huge digital assets like datasets—everything from historic climate records to census data to satellite images to geospatial coordinates from archaeological excavations, and so on. I’ve interviewed several librarians who are seriously thinking about how to make this kind of information accessible to those who need it—these are people who are reshaping institutions like the Library of Congress, and Oxford, and Yale, and Harvard—and they all say that huge datasets will transform the fundamental functions libraries serve.

“A library is not a big box filled with books,” said Catherine Murray-Rust, the dean of libraries at Georgia Tech. “It is not just a study hall. Going back to the notion of a library from the past, it is really a space—and today a physical and virtual space—in which people can appreciate the scholarship of the past while they create the scholarship of the future.”

Georgia Tech is in the midst of a major renovation of its library system, an overhaul that will include removing many of the books from public spaces. (Print materials that are removed will still be retrievable upon request.) As the project has moved forward, Murray-Rust says the team working on the new library system has gotten “more radical in our thinking about what a library should be.”

“The huge issue now is data,” she said. “It’s probably more important than text. We have traditional reading rooms where there actually are a few books. Books are a tremendous visual cue to people about the seriousness of the space. We love the book, as technology, but we also know it is not the only—and in some fields not the best—vessel for content. This is particularly true with data: The book doesn’t work terribly well.”

Murray-Rust calls data “the new frontier” of human knowledge. She and others agree that data is changing entire industries and academic specialties so quickly that key information is bound to be lost before best practices are standardized. This is perhaps inevitable, but it represents more than just a missing piece of knowledge. People often talk about data points as if they’re conjured from thin air, somehow non-existent until they’re part of a larger set. And though it’s true that meaning arises from assembling great constellations of data, the data itself usually begins in the material world.

Among archaeologists, the datasets collected today—and the visualizations made from that data—may be all that exists after great structures have crumbled.

“Having Palmyra real is much more important than having 3-D models of it, obviously,” Levy told me, referring to the ancient city where several historic sites have been destroyed by ISIS in recent months. “But in a world where we have so much intentional destruction of cultural heritage, we’re in a position now to record it in ways that were impossible even a decade ago.”