Monday, September 24, 2007

A Strategy for Academic Libraries in the First Quarter of the 21st Century

It is rare that I enthuse about the professional literature of librarianship, except for Ranganathan. However, there is an article in the September issue of C&RL that articulates pretty much exactly what I have been thinking about, writing in this blog, and discussing with the librarians and faculty at Rollins. David W. Lewis is the Dean of the University Library at IUPUI and he has outlined an ambitious "strategy for academic libraries in the digital age or at least in its early stages." (p419)

The core of the article are five elements that Lewis contends will maintain "the library as a vibrant enterprise worthy of support from our campuses." (p.420) I will summarize them here, but I hope you go and find the article (the link above will only work for ACRL members, and our online version has not caught up with September yet -- so much for Open Access! However, it is downstairs in the paper periodicals.) It is worth reading.

  1. "Complete the migration from print to electronic collections."
  2. "Retire legacy print collections."
  3. In partnership with other campus units, "redevelop the library as the primary informal learning space on the campus."
  4. Embed library and information tools in teaching, learning, and research.
  5. Refocus collections from "purchasing materials to curating content."
Obviously, how a research university library system like the one that serves IUPUI pursues this strategy will be different than how a library like Olin at Rollins College does so. For instance , "curating content" will be a far more complex proposition at, and be more central to the mission of, IUPUI than Rollins. On the other hand, Rollins has the ability to move more quickly and in a more focused way to migrate from print to digital and to partner with others on campus. I would contend that we have already begun to make substantial progress on (1), a little progress on (2) and (5), and we are at least talking about (3) and (4.) But we have a long way to go. "We" being both the library personnel and the faculty of the College, the stakeholder groups that are most anxious about this transformation. If there is one thing I would highlight for the library personnel at Rollins to think about it is this,

"Library staff will need to recognize that they are unlikely to be doing, ten or even five years hence, the same things they are doing now." (p.430)

By "staff" I think Lewis means all library personnel. If we do truly recognize this, then we have to begin now planning for what we will, and will not, be doing five years hence and preparing ourselves for that future.

Late addition: I sent a copy of this to David Lewis. Here is part of his response, "thanks for the good words. By the way open access does work. There is a final draft version of the paper at:" My rather flip comments above was more a criticism of ACRL than of OA in general. ACRL supports open access in principle, but then doesn't practice it with its own journal. IDeA, the IUPUI Digital Archive, is a good example of the content curating that Lewis advocates.


Anonymous said...

I am interested in Ranganathan - it makes good sense. It was written in the 30s and is still relevant. I know you must move with the times, but what does "Retire legacy print collections mean?
I love the smell and feel of old books and am delighted to have found Amazon so I can buy old books.
The best time is sitting in bed very early in the morning and reading- I am reading "Towards Wisdom" by Sheila Ward, "Blossoms on the Olive Tree" by Janet M. Powers, "Infidel" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and always by my bed is a day book - "The Mystic Vision" where I too love the quote about "finding your bliss" - It's so easy to make excuses for not finding it and staying on safe ground.

Can you help me to find out more about "The Wisdom of Illumination" by Sohrawardi. When did he live and where? He decribes an experience which is very similar to one I had some years ago - yet I'm sure we've led very different lives.

Lovely to be able to read your blog - I know Kate reads it too.
- M.

Jonathan Miller said...

Mum, glad you like Ranganathan. When Lewis uses the phrase "legacy print collections" he is playing off a common phrase from computing "legacy systems." Software systems that were written for specific purposes on mainframe computers. These turned out to be difficult to migrate from old computers to new and often had to be completely rewritten at great expense. One solution to this was to declare a cut off date. Start a new more flexible system and only go back to the legacy system if absolutely necessary. Some (not all) librarians have begun to refer to print as such a legacy system. To be preserved where necessary but not to be used for frequent access.
As for the smell of books. The aesthetics and sensory aspects of libraries and of learning are interesting, but few Provosts are convinced by the argument that we must continue to spend money so that a building smells like decaying cellulose, which is I think is what you are referring to -- the toasty smell of acidic paper . Sorry, I am being facetious, but printed books as a technology of information storage and communication will have to survive on firmer ground than that. Personally, I think they are in no danger. They have a bright future on many very practical grounds -- as well as aesthetics.

According to Michael Bylebyl in his dissertation "The Wisdom of Illumination a study of the prose Stories of Surawandi" (University of Chicago, 1976), "In the twelfth century A.D. there lived an Iranian whose universe was made new in this way [the restoration of the human universe of the soul]. His name was Shahab al-Din al-Suhrawardi." (p.8)Again according to Bylebyl, Suhrawardi is a small town between Zinjan and Hamadan.He was probably born around 1155 A.D. and died in Aleppo around 1193 A.D. He seems to be a Sufi mystic.
BYU has published a critical edition of "The philosophy of illumination" that is available in a number of British libraries and for sale on Amazon.

Hope this helps.

Paul G. said...

I understand what your mom is saying. I always prefer to hold an actual book in my hands. Some of the books that I buy are available in .pdf format, but I would rather have a hard copy in my hands; this was even true when I was a student at Rollins - I would look for books and rarely use the digital resources. There is something about the smell of the paper, the tactile sensation of thumbing through the pages, and the sounds of the spine cracking as I open the book that appeals to me; a computer file isn't tangible, it exists as ones and zeros.
This is going to sound strange coming from one of your computer guys, but as much as I fully advocate the spread of digital resources and the "new ways", my fear is that the "old ways" will be forgotten. I'm young, but old enough to have been raised doing things the old way. I used a card catalog to find books at the library. Research seemed more personal, and I really needed to know what I was doing to find what I was looking for. I compare this to learning to drive a car - if you learn how to drive a manual transmission, you can drive a stick-shift or an automatic. If you only learn to drive an automatic, you're helpless when you're forced into a situation where a stick-shift is all that's available. In law school, most students were content to research in Lexis and Westlaw, and were uninterested in learning how to look things up in the books, thinking that it was unnecessary to have such a skill when the net was a simpler means of getting what they needed. I prefered to be good at both - and when the internet or Lexis was down and those other students didn't know what to do, I did.
That was a long-winded way of saying that as much as I love where libraries are going, I hope that they never forget where they've been; move forward with the latest technology, but make sure that people know what to do should the technology fail.

Jonathan Miller said...

Paul, you make some very good points. As I responded to my Mum, "I think [books] are in no danger. They have a bright future on many very practical grounds -- as well as aesthetics."

I share your concern that we are great users of technology, but we rarely understand how the technolgy works. Never mind the stick shift, have you looked under the hood recently?

Bill said...

Significant changes, I think, almost invariably involve loss. The shift from older aristocratic values to modern democratic social structures has meant the loss of noblesse oblige, much patronage of the arts, and various other social values that did much good. The move from card catalogs to online ones has diminished researchers’ sense of author, title, and subject searching – a useful model – as they habitually perform easier but sloppier keyword searches. Changes like these can be very good, but they still come at a cost. I think it’s best to implement changes, then, with a recognition of what’s being lost and some effort to minimize that loss.

So what are we losing as the print collection is gradually overshadowed by electronic resources? Among other things, I’d say that with a print collection, we can sometimes judge a book by its cover. The format of a book is a marketing choice by the publisher that conveys some sense of the content or the intentions. Inhaling the scent and feeling the texture of the pages, we get a sense of how old the book is without checking the publication date, and we can guess how much it’s been used by others. We might find an interesting note scribbled in a margin. Even if it’s only a coffee stain, we get a sense of community with past readers. Rows of physical books on physical shelves allow a different kind of browsing than any database list of results has yet managed; we take in all those cues from the individual books as artifacts while simultaneously mapping out conceptual relationships with our intuitive sense of space. Physical browsing allows for more serendipity; in electronic searching, we’re more likely to find only what we look for. And, of course, we can read those physical books in the bathtub.

I think other technologies could replicate some of these features of paper books. Virtual reality could use spatial sense to organize information intuitively, though most attempts so far (e.g. Second Life) haven’t been very successful in doing so. Tagging can create a new sense of a community of readers. If the smell of old books is that important, there are ways to replicate that, too. Sooner or later, there will even be electronic books that are comfortable on the eyes, conveniently powered, and safe to read in the bathtub. I’m less certain of paper books’ future than Jonathan is; I think they could be replaced in the not-too-distant future. Electronic reading doesn’t quite match them yet, and there’s a lot of retrospective scanning left to do, but I think the day will come when the electronic reading experience is as good as or better than reading a paper book. Still, it will never be the same.

Paul G. said...

I've also noticed that the library of the future seems to be drifting away from the personal, face to face interaction between faculty, staff, and patron.
Text a Librarian and Live Librarian Chat were on the horizon a few years ago, and are already being widely implemented. I'm really curious to see where the future will take libraries.
Until then, I should brush up on my horsemanship, steam locomotive engineering, and papyrus making.