Monday, November 30, 2009

Legal Research in the Digital Age

From Nathan Kozuskanich, “Originalism in a Digital Age: An Inquiry into the Right to Bear Arms,” Journal of the Early Republic 29:4 (2009): 586, 606:
The digitization of historical documents into comprehensive archives with keyword search capabilities opens up a new avenue for scholars to recover the usage and meaning of key constitutional phrases, like "bear arms." …

Although digital research cannot be a substitute for traditional historical methods, it can give legal scholars access to a wealth of resources that have been relatively unused in constitutional research. Indeed, a historical focus on context and change over time can complement the legal focus on structure and precedent.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

More on The Case for Books

Robert Darnton was on the Diane Rehm show recently, talking about The Case for Books. Darnton’s interest in the history of the book began in the archives. Now, as the director of a great university library, he says he is appalled by the amount of digital archival material that we are losing.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The End of an Era

A report on Harvard’s library systems declares, “Harvard libraries can no longer harbor delusions of being a completely comprehensive collection.” Further:
It recommends that the system—the largest at any university in the world—adopt a twenty-first century approach that focuses on greater collaboration with other institutions of higher learning and shift toward more digital purchases, rather than traditional print resources.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Reason to Keep the Shelves Loaded

Travis Bryant, director of digital products for Keen Communications, a small publisher in Birmingham, Ala., said he had gotten a surprising amount of reading done while waiting in lines. … But Mr. Bryant acknowledged that the iPhone, while convenient, did not serve every reading purpose. “I’ve got a 3-year-old at home, and he really digs books,” Mr. Bryant said. “I remembering [sic] pilfering my parents’ shelves, and if everything is on the iPhone, he’s just not going to have that visual temptation. So we keep the shelves loaded.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Monty Python’s Primary Materials

From “And Now For Something Completely Different” by Scott McLemee:
While brainstorming for their feature films Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian, the group enjoyed reading up on the Arthurian legends and the world of Roman-occupied Palestine. And it shows. The irreverence works because there is, to begin with, a core of reverence for the primary sources [e.g., Le Mort d’Arthur and the Dead Sea Scrolls].

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Archival Panopticon



In “The Virtue of Hitting 'Delete,' Permanently,” a recent episode of Talk of the Nation, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger discusses his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Mayer-Schonberger argues that, in the analog age, we used to make choices about what to remember; forgetting was the default. Now, in the digital age—which gives us a “digital Panopticon”—the default is to remember. But forgetting helps us shed irrelevant information and unwanted details, and it helps us generalize and abstract: “rather than being tethered to an ever-more-detailed past [forgetting] helps us act and evaluate and live in the present.”

See also: “Do digital diaries mess up your brain?.” Digital technologies create opportunities for “greater, moment-by-moment record-keeping,” but:
Being able to compress a lot of experiences and summarize them well is part of the very nature of human intelligence, said Douglas Hofstadter … "It's about finding the essence of things," he said. "It's not about restoring everything. It's about reducing things in complexity until they're manageable and understandable."

Image: Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791

Friday, November 6, 2009

What the Library Was, Is, and Will Be



In “Bookless Libraries?Inside Higher Ed reports on a recent debate about the future of academic library buildings

Richard Luce, director of university libraries at Emory, made the important point that the history of academic libraries “has been marked by evolution”:
They were founded as places where materials were collected and stored. Then they shifted their focus toward connecting clients with resources. Then, with the addition of creature comforts such as coffee shops, they became "experience" centered, effectively rendering student unions obsolete.

“Now, in the fourth generation, we’re really seeing the library as a place to connect, collaborate, learn, and really synthesize all four of those roles together,” said Luce. “How do you do that without bricks and mortar?”

Libraries are older than institutions of higher education (and printed books). Many colleges, such as Harvard and Yale, started with a library. Over time, academic libraries have accommodated themselves to meet the needs of their parent institutions and they have evolved along with them. The provost of my institution recently gave a presentation on the pre-modern, modern, and postmodern development and nature of our undergraduate curricula. The institution’s library—its stuff, space, services, standards—is a reflection of that mixture of change and continuity. The library’s collections, locations, and functions will continue to evolve along with the institution’s teaching, learning, and research needs. 

Here is Robert Darnton, recently quoted in “Google v. Gutenberg,” on “bookless” libraries:
It’s naïve to think that all information is online. It’s also naïve to think that all information is in books, either,” he said. “I see this vast world of information in many different forms, and the notion that digital is going to encompass it all is just wrong-headed.
Image: Allen Reading Room, Penrose Library, Whitman College, about 15 minutes ago. 

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Stop Being Ashamed of Dead Animals and Other Advice for Natural History Museums



Chronicle of Higher Education contributor William Pannapacker, who recently wrote about the centrality of the library for undergraduate education, turns his attention to natural history museums in “Preserving the Future of Natural-History Museums.” Here are his recommendations (explanations and reading suggestions are available in the article):

  • Do not sacrifice the history of your museum …
  • Regard the museum as a palimpsest …
  • Do not attempt to compete with other forms of entertainment …
  • Stop condescending to children …
  • Show people—in small groups—the museum behind the scenes …
  • Apart from prehistoric human evolution—a branch of the history of primates—avoid anthropology …
  • Stop being ashamed of dead animals …
  • Encourage patrons to build their own natural-history collections …
  • Teach the conflicts …
  • The most important point: The world is full of simulations. Natural-history museums should cultivate the aura of the real: the rare and unique, the beautiful, the exotic, and the grotesque …
Image: Whitman College Natural History Museum, circa 1964. The bison partially pictured on the right had to be deaccessioned at some point, due to the arsenic used in the taxidermy process.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Kindle at the Heart of the University

Here is an interesting article on the Kindle from an academic point of view. The fundamental issue the author highlights is that the Kindle is not designed for readers who require more than a casual interaction with texts. Such readers need to annotate, work with paratextual matter, and preserve long-term access to their personally augmented texts. The risk is that Kindles may alienate readers from their personal libraries “rather than empowering them to immerse themselves in them.”

The author concludes:
A key to making [e-book readers] attractive is developing an ecosystem of scholarly information sources around them: larger libraries of scholarly books, reasonably priced, and with a firm title to ownership. Better connections between the content repositories such as journal websites and our handheld readers, more ways to make annotations and display information. Compatibility of files across readers (something that could be facilitated by adopting Open Access standards) and ways to share marked up documents with our colleagues.
Should we turn to corporations such as Amazon to develop this system, or should we look toward a comparable system that already exists—the academic library? For some initial ideas about  this, see: “As the Book Changes Form, the Library Must Champion Its Own Power Base—Readers.”

For other views of the Kindle, see “School Chooses Kindle; Are Libraries for the History 'Books'?”:

Asher Chase, 16, a junior, says anyone who thinks digital books are the future should read a digital book. He remembers his English class last year being assigned Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol on their laptops.

Taking notes on the text? Forget it. "It was terrible: 'Shade, file, edit, highlight.' We were like, 'Wow, reading books on computers is awful.'"

Monday, November 2, 2009

“The Museum at the Heart of the University”

I could quote more from this article by James Christen Steward, but I’ll limit myself to this:
In the way that great texts live in our libraries, available for revisiting and sustained scholarly investigation, the works of art in our museums offer the possibility of deep critical engagement, close looking, and technical analysis -- made all the deeper when brought together as collections in which dialogues arise through the conversation of objects with each other and with their scholarly interlocutors. Surely a key role of the academy -- the advancement of new knowledge and the challenging of past knowledge -- is that fruit of curatorial, faculty, and student research made possible by the sustained presence of great works of art, whose survival for the future is also thus (and not incidentally) guaranteed.