Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Digital Libraries and Archives: Supplantation or Supplementation?

In an article in EDUCAUSE Review, Peter Brantley claims that current library and archival digital initiatives are “for these times … not enough.” Brantley begins by identifying a number of ways in which libraries have failed. Most of these are sins of omission rather than sins of commission—i.e., these are things that libraries have failed to do, such as evolve or innovate in a technologically dynamic environment. “Libraries,” he writes, “need to be focused on engaging the world, empowering people, thinking much more ambitiously, and sometimes taking risks that we think might border on foolish” (32).

Brantley’s focus is—and many of his assertions and recommendations concern—digital manifestations of libraries. But to what extent is a digital library a library? The first entry in the OED for “library” reads: “A place set apart to contain books for reading, study, or reference.” This definition contains four of the main elements of a library: (1) space; (2) standards; (3) stuff; and (4) service. All of these are expandable into the digital domain. But all of these remain hybrid, operating in both the physical world and the digital world. (Pace Brantley, people do go to libraries to find things; libraries are hubs of information that are enriched by library curators; and I hope that my six-year-old daughter will continue to read, or at least have access to, printed books when she is in college.)

Nevertheless, the shift that Brantley articulates is real and the types of actions that he calls for are necessary. Reading them, I was reminded of an innovative librarian from late antiquity, Cassiodorus, with whom James J. O’Donnell closes his book Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace (Harvard, 1998):

Cassiodorus chose a course that succeeded in placing some new wine in some old bottles. He used the instruments, the habits, and the cultural expectations of the old Roman culture in which he had been brought up to do new things, create a new kind of library. He is not a savior of western civilization, nor should any of us expect to be. He was rather a single, responsible individual helping shape to the limits of his ability the institutions and the cultural tools that his world needed. That he accepted and thrived on the disruption of his life and expectations, and that he succeeded is using his past and his expectations so resourcefully to help him shape a future, are lessons we can all take away with us.

Link to “Architectures for Collaboration: Roles and Expectations for Digital Libraries”: