Wednesday, January 16, 2008

What's Wrong with this Picture?

At AALS, I listened to a law library director at a newly established law school talk about running the library on a "just what they need, just in time" basis. It sounds really nifty, to only order books as faculty request them, buying a single electronic book or print-on-demand title as needed.

Then, I looked at this week's Chronicle of Higher Education, front page article on the awkward struggles of some universities to merge IT and campus libraries, "Strains and Joys Color Mergers Between Libraries and Tech Units," by Andrea Foster.

Both Xavier's library and its information-technology unit were in terrible shape. Xavier had hired four chief information officers in five years, its technology was obsolete, its library and IT staffs didn't talk to each other, and students had to jump through hoops to do online research.

David W. Dodd, the CIO who arrived at Xavier in 2005, said students and faculty members wanted three basic things: "Provide the services I'm looking for, in the manner I want, and get out of my way." They weren't getting any of them.

The solution was to scrap traditional library and technology units in favor of one with librarians and technology experts working side by side, responding to students' needs for immediate, round-the-clock access to electronic data and interactive Web applications.

A $28-million building called the Learning Commons will be erected to house the organization and serve as a center for various educational programs. Users will be able to get technical help, use multimedia software at any one of a bank of computers, view the library's online holdings, and have their reference questions answered.

The library, which will be attached to the new building, is being refashioned as simply a warehouse for books.
About 40% of the books are being stored in an annex, not having circulated for the past 10 years.

The article does note that Mr. Dodd ran into difficulties implementing a similar plan at University of North Carolina, Charlotte, described as a research institution, though Mr. Dodd alloted blame to higher administrators afraid to dismantle the IT/library silos.

I am bothered by both the "just in time" library and this IT/Library merger, demoting the library to a warehouse for books. I wonder what will be the eventual outcome when scholars and students are only exposed to books that they know to request. They will only read the books that are the most popular, either on Amazon purchase lists, or syllabi, or in footnotes that they are following. There will be an increasing "lost literature." Articles available only in print are already sliding into oblivion. Now, books not in the mainstream of our current snapshot of culture will begin to fade into obscurity.

Just consider how literary fashions change. An author's reputation may be stellar in one century, become eclipsed in the next, and then, be resurrected in the third. But this can only happen when scholars and critics can stumble across books, citations and articles that have fallen out of the mainstream. But now, all those temporarily elipsed authors will be stored in annexes, only available if called for.

This may not be such an issue for the hard sciences. But for the humanities, including law, history, social sciences, and literature, the lost literature will slice off huge portions of our collective inheritance. Consider if the monks of the European Middle Ages had not kept copies of the Greek and Roman classics. These became the basis of the Renaissance, resurrected from the dusty libraries. We are placing our current students and faculty into the places of those scholars of the Middle Ages, who simply did not know that these works existed.

That's a huge mistake! Save the Lost Literature!

1 comment:

Marie S. Newman said...

I hope that in the mergers of libraries and IT departments, librarians are able to impart to the IT folks some of our values, i.e., the importance of service. In my experience, this is something that does not come naturally to a lot of techies. The best IT person I ever worked with was pursuing a Ph.D. in Linguistics part time. The reason he was so good wasn't his technical skills, although they were very strong. It was his understanding of how and why people did research. Because he was a consumer of information himself, he didn't need anyone to tell him about customer service. His other great strength was his ability to write lucid documentation and to explain even highly technical matters in a way that was comprehensible to almost anyone.