Thursday, October 1, 2009

Whither the Academic Library?

An address last week, reported in “Libraries of the Future” at Inside Higher Ed, has gained quite a lot of attention. Here is the lead:
NEW YORK CITY — The university library of the future will be sparsely staffed, highly decentralized, and have a physical plant consisting of little more than special collections and study areas.
For another perspective on the future of the research library, see Anne Kenney’s presentation, “Approaching an Entity Crisis: Reconceiving Research Libraries in a Multi-institutional Context,” available from OCLC’s website. Kenney talks about reducing redundancies and competition, developing uniqueness, and, through radical collaboration, finding global solutions to local needs. Promising areas for collaboration include:

  • Building collective collections prospectively and retrospectively
  • Sharing backroom functions (e.g., technical services)
  • New domains and services (e.g., data curation)
  • The power of many: exercising collective influence
A couple other trends impacting the transformation of libraries:

The buzzwords for the technology that librarians hope will allow users to rediscover their collections are "Web-scale index searching." … You expect a Google search to cast the broadest possible net. The same should apply to a library catalog, the thinking goes. That means a single entry point to the collection. The entire collection: books, articles, digital objects. Heck, why not even herbarium specimens?
This is what libraries are seeking—they haven’t found it yet.

2. On dumping paper journals, see “What to Withdraw? Print Collections Management in the Wake of Digitization”:  
For journal collections that are available digitally, the online version provides for virtually all access needs, leaving print versions to serve a preservation role and therefore be required in far fewer numbers. Based on our analysis of community needs for print original materials, we see at least a medium-term need to maintain some level of access to print originals in the library community, although our analysis suggests in certain scenarios that long-term or perpetual preservation of many print materials may not be necessary. Consequently, certain print journals can be responsibly withdrawn today, and with concerted effort it should be possible to steadily increase the journals subject to withdrawal. On the other hand, we have also reviewed a number of situations, such as image-intensive titles and digitized version that are subject to inadequate digital preservation, in which the community will rely on print copies retained and preserved without system-wide coordination by hundreds of libraries that have long been the backbone of assured preservation and access (24).
Given that these and other trends are changing the definition of the term “library,” I was glad to see the appearance of Ken Price’s article, “Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What's in a Name?,” in the latest issue Digital Humanities Quarterly 3:3 (2009). Price explores how the terms used to describe the productions of digital scholarship “both clarify and obscure.” Consider, for example, the term “archive”:
In the past, an archive has referred to a collection of material objects rather than digital surrogates. This type of archive may be described in finding aids but its materials are rarely edited and annotated as a whole. In a digital environment, archive has gradually come to mean a purposeful collection of surrogates. As we know, meanings change over time, and archive in a digital context has come to suggest something that blends features of editing and archiving. To meld features of both — to have the care of treatment and annotation of an edition and the inclusiveness of an archive — is one of the tendencies of recent work in electronic editing.
The term that Price ends with is arsenal—a metaphor that has been applied to the library.

Update: For an example of radical collaboration, see this announcement about 2CUL (CUL is the acronym of both Columbia University Library and Cornell University Library):

2CUL represents a new, radical form of  collaboration that pairs two leading research libraries in a voluntary, equal  partnership,” said James G. Neal, Vice President for Information Services and  University Librarian at Columbia University. “Columbia University Libraries and Cornell University Library are committed to developing an enduring and  transformative partnership that will enable us to achieve greater efficiencies  and effectiveness and to address new challenges through combined forces.”