Sunday, January 27, 2013

Partners in Crime: The Role of Academic Libraries in Digital Scholarship

Note: this post is a work in progress. The initial text comes from slides of a talk that I gave at the first annual George Washington University Digital Humanities Symposium, on the Mt. Vernon Campus of the George Washington University, on January 26, 2013. I plan to expand upon the themes and issues raised here over time.

Research Libraries are in a moment of disruptive change

The scholarly communication, teaching & learning, and research ecosystems in which libraries and archives are embedded are going through radical transformations, throwing established relationships and dynamics into disarray.

These dislocations have left many librarians and libraries feeling adrift, and have lead senior resource allocators to the conclusion that libraries are no longer relevant in mid-21st century academic endeavors. Both of these positions are, ultimately, unfounded.

Goals vs. Strategies

One way to sidestep both of these traps, libraries, resource allocators, and library partners need to ask a simple question: what are the core roles that libraries have and - arguably - should continue to play?

The answer is straightforward: To connect people with the high-quality information resources that they need to produce new knowledge or to effect change in the world.

That role has not changed, but how libraries perform it is evolving and transforming rapidly.

Librarians, Resource Allocators, and Library Partners all need to keep in mind that goals are not strategies. Goals are what we intend to do; strategies are how we plan to get there. Unfortunately, many stakeholders mistake the strategies that we have been using for arguably hundreds of years as the goals in and of themselves.

The primary strategies of libraries up until the 21st Century had been to create vast local reserves of physical collections to ensure access to information in an era of information scarcity.

Libraries then built up layers of services around that local content, including description, reference, bibliographic instruction, etc.

But we live in an era of information over-abundance. We need to update our strategies to keep up with the changes, and we need to be willing to throw out much cherished and formerly adaptive strategies if they are no longer meeting our needs or getting us closer to our goals.

Collections: Prospecting for Digital Gold

Does this mean that physical collections serve no purpose in supporting 21st century scholarship, especially digital scholarship? Not at all. In fact, the as-yet-undigitized unique content held in libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural heritage organizations are vast, untapped reservoirs of information that could become digital gold for 21st century scholars if they were made available digitally for analysis, use, etc.

Academic Libraries must cultivate the understanding that their unique physical collections are the information ore that digital humanities need to mine.

But our local physical collections are only one source of rich content for digital inquiry.

Project Gutenberg

One of the earliest and most well-known sources of digital humanities / digital scholarship textual resources is Project Gutenberg.

With over 40,000 digitized texts available for download without Digital Rights Management impediments, it is one of the richest source of freely available full-text content.


HathiTrust - a project to preserve, make available, and provide enhanced research opportunities for the corpus of books being scanned from the Big 5 libraries of the Google Books Project - has the potential of providing enormous reservoirs of content for digital humanities to mine.

Millions of public domain ebooks. However, the OCR is not nearly as clean as those from Project Gutenberg.

Internet Archives' Open Library Project

Open Library ( was conceived as an alternative to the Google Books Project.

3.8 million digitized books freely available for use, many with Creative Commons licenses

The open access texts from this corpus are made available through IA's Community Texts Site. Contains more than 186,000 open access texts.

Internet Archive Providing Much More Than Just Text

Community Audio ( - nearly 1.1 million audio recordings available as open access resources

Community Video ( - more than 220,000 video recordings available as open access resources

Data Curation

Successful libraries need to build effective means for curating data with our local, regional, national, and international partners. No one library, consortium, or even industry can do it alone. We need to be part of the international data preservation conversations (see: )

Creation and Management of Robust Digital Collections

Academic libraries must continue robust digitization of materials that bring added value to the academic communities that they support, especially from their Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Book Collections.

Libraries must adopt increasingly sophisticated tools for managing and delivering digital content.

One particularly interesting platform to keep an eye on is the California Digital Library's University of California Curation Center Merritt platform which allows scholars in the UC system a robust suite of resources to manage, curate, and share digital resources.

Data Management

Academic Libraries can play a key role in facilitating the development of data management plans for research faculty applying for federal grants (see: )

Traditional scholarly communication methodologies are generating less than 10% of the world's scholarly information. Big data is where most of the scholarly information is now to be found. We need to embrace big data and our role in curating it.

If we do not, our scholars will not be competitive in the world marketplace.

Web Archiving

Academic libraries need to aggressively identify content for web archiving in support faculty and student research agendas.

We will continue to build this infrastructure in collaboration with our academic partners.

Web archiving is a key service that we can provide.

It can serve multiple clients:

  • Historians
  • Social scientists
  • STEM researchers
  • University officials
  • Public

But Isn't the Internet Archive Already Doing That?

The Internet Archive and its Wayback Machine are casting a wide net. We can provide targeted web-archiving that meets our researcher needs.

Linked Open Data

(Meta-)data has become ubiquitous throughout the Internet. Yet library metadata tends to be locked away in proprietary systems.

To fully realize the potential of our huge stores of data, we need to become key players in the linked data environment.

[INSERT IMAGE OF Bibliotheque Nationale de France website]

LODLAM: Linked Open Data in Libraries, Archives, and Museums

Other Linked Open Data Projects to Keep an Eye On

Virtual International Authority File (VIAF)

SNAC: Social Networks and Archival Context Project, University of Virginia

Linked Open (Bibliographic) Data: It's Not Just About Finding Things

Bibliographic data encodes centuries of specialized knowledge and information about the world and the information objects in it. In the traditional catalog - physical or electronic - these informational units are stored as monadic records.

As libraries, archives, and museums migrate their catalogs to linked open data formats, whole avenues of research will open up. The bibliographic data will itself become the object of digital scholarship.

e.g. linking all instances of a place name together and then being able to locate all works produced over the centuries in a given physical locale.

Web-Scale Information Literacy

Successful research libraries need to teach their users how to find, assess, and interpret information on the web-scale, not just local resources.

Libraries need to arm these users with the skills they will need to be competitive in a world marketplace of ideas ... not just in our local market.

Transformations in Teaching and Learning

Successful academic libraries must participate fully in the explorations of emerging pedagogies. Library participants in those conversations will bring those insights back to their campuses to ensure that they maintain their competitive intelligence.

E.g. Long, Phillip. Key trends in T&L: Aligning what we know about learning with today's learners. CNI Spring meeting, 4 April 2012.

Exploring and Teaching New Academic Methologies and Technologies

Libraries must be aggressive adopters of emerging educational technologies and key players in providing instruction in the use of those technologies to students, faculty, and staff at the communities they support.

Examples: data visualization, GIS mapping, big data, digital scholarship

Libraries as Reservoir of Experience Designing Learning Spaces

Learning Spaces Toolkit ( - an IMLS-funded project spearheaded by the North Carolina State University Libraries.

Technology as a Service

Successful academic libraries will build robust digital reformatting and editing capabilities to serve users increasingly-sophisticated needs.

But creating digital surrogates is not enough. Libraries must build value-added services on top of the digital content.

e.g. digital content manipulation, textual analysis, digital humanities/digital scholarship support

High End Desktop Computers and Software

  • High-end Microcomputers
  • High-end Software Not on Most Student's Laptops
  • High speed data connectivity to share the product of the work on these machines

Examples of Library-supported Digital Scholarship Initiatives

MITH: Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities ( - embedded in the University of Maryland Libraries

Duke University Libraries Digital Collections ( - embedded in the Duke University Libraries

IATH: Institute for Advanced Technologies in the Humanities ( - University of Virginia Library is a key partner


  • Grant Writing Research Services
  • Research Technology Training
  • Text Encoding
  • Data Visualization
  • Data Management
  • Access to Information Resources
  • Advanced Research Reference
  • Metadata Creation and Resource Discovery
  • Digital Transformation Services
  • Open Access Publishing Support
  • GIS


Successful academic libraries have and will continue to be a key partner in the development and growth of digital scholarship in academic institutions around the world.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Academic Libraries: Shooting the Messenger of Professional Change

Recently, Jeff Trzeciak, University Librarian at McMaster University, gave a talk entitled "Transforming Traditional Organizations: McMaster 2006-present" at Pennsylvania State University as part of a series of invited lectures by the Penn State University Libraries.   To say that his talk set off a firestorm amongst many in academic libraries would be putting it mildly.  The blogosphere erupted into denunciations, refutations, attacks on Trzeciak's management style, and not a few ad hominem attacks.

For a flavor of many of the responses, see the Attempting Elegance blog entry in response to Trzeciak's talk.  In particular, skimming the responses by the readers of that blog is illuminating.  See also the McMaster University Academic Librarians' Association blog.

Luckily, there were some much more nuanced and thoughtful responses to Trzeciak's talk, not least of which was Michael Furlough's post on his "On Furlough" blog and Laika's MedLibLog entry on Trzeciak's talk.  However, on the whole, the tenor of much of the public response to Trzeciak's talk was angry, hostile, and full of intense loathing of the ideas and actions that Trzeciak has espoused.

Yet, watching Trzeciak's presentation, I was struck not by how revolutionary his stance is as much as how much he is putting into practice exactly what dozens of reports from ARL, OCLC Research, and other think tanks have been predicting for more than 10 years.  A closer hearing/reading of his talk shows a very thoughtful approach to grappling with the realities of 21st Century librarianship.

So what did he actually say that set off a firestorm?  Let's look at the most "damning" slides to find out.  Number 56 is the one that seems to have elicited the harshest response.  In this section of the talk, he is focusing on what types of new hires McMaster is likely to make to move the library in the direction it needs to take to meet the challenges facing the library.

Let's break this down a bit. Trzeciak said that McMaster has "likely" reached its maximum number of librarians and that many of the new hires are "unlikely" to be (traditional) librarians.  He did not say that McMaster would no longer hire librarians, but simply that McMaster is not likely to increase the net number of librarian-status staff in the future.  Many other academic libraries reached this same stance years if not decades ago.  A number of top-tier academic libraries have reduced the number of professional librarian positions over the past two decades in favor of creating positions based on the need that must be met, not the status of the person in that position. 

At the last two universities that I have worked at - Stanford University and North Carolina State University, increasingly the job descriptions are written so the most qualified person for the job can be hired - with or without the MLS.  The same holds true for my current institution.  Sometimes the right person with the right skills has an MLS, MLIS, or MIS, sometimes not. 

Trzeciak then goes on to say that McMaster is "unlikely" to hire traditional paraprofessionals.  Having spent much of my academic librarian career at Stanford, where many if not most of the paraprofessionals have Masters or Ph.D. degrees and where para-professionals engage in much higher-level discussions, this stance appears perfectly appropriate to me.  As our user needs change, we need to change the types of positions we create to meet those needs.  A for-profit business cannot last long if it does not track the changing demands of its customers; the same holds true for a non-profit enterprise.  And don't fool yourselves: academic librarianship is a business.  It's just not a for-profit business.

After making these first two points, Trzeciak then goes on to say that new hires are "likely" to come out of the IT and audio-visual communities.  This is so blindingly obvious as an appropriate response to the dramatically different needs of this generation of scholars that it seems self-evident.  We must keep in mind what the core mission of libraries is: to provide value-added access to content.  As that content moved to a digital format and as the value proposition for users shifted to include assistance creating audio-visually rich presentations, academic products, etc., libraries needed to change to support that shift.  The fact that we are only now really talking about it and trying to accommodate this change in academic output has left many libraries playing a desperate game of "catch-up".  In light of that, Trzeciak's comments seem - once again - spot on.

He then goes on to say that new hires are "likely" to be PhDs.  Of all of his comments, this is the one that seems to have produced the most concentrated fire (and ire).  Yet again, my experience at Stanford University - where many of the non-librarian staff have upper-level degrees - has lead me to exactly the same conclusion.  I find myself constantly have to fight to increase the level of academic accomplishment required of successful applicants in the job descriptions I write precisely because I see the need for top-tier scholars to be engaged in selection, description, interpretation of the advanced scholarly content being acquired or sought.  Do I believe all new hires in the profession should be PhDs? No.  But do I understand the need to raise the bar and to attract people with unique intellectual skillsets not taught in the traditional MLS, MLIS, MIS programs, absolutely.

Trzeciak also posits that future hires are "likely" to have skillsets that we haven't even anticipated yet.  In this era where the pace of change is ever-increasing, this too seems to be nearly a self-evident statement.  As a technologically aggressive librarian who came of age when personal computers were everywhere, I am very confident in my technological skills.  Yet, in this age of "ubiquitous computing" (as predicted years ago by Mark Weiser), new technologies evolve and are adopted faster than I or many of my colleagues can keep up with.  As a professor once said to me, she loves working with graduate students because they keep her "on her toes academically" and force her to stay current.  Only by hiring staff with insights and skills in emerging technologies can we stay relevant.

Finally, Trzeciak states that some if not most of these new hires are "likely" to be shared with other units of the university.  In my own institution, we are toying with sharing library staff with PhDs with the academic departments most closely aligned with their academic background: this offers the possibility of expanding the use of our research collections while bringing these staff members' expertise to the classroom. And in the digital arena, there is increasing overlap and cross-fertilization between what we are doing in the library technologically and what the university IT division is doing.  We have already had situations where our staff worked on projects with central IT and vice versa.  In light of these real world examples, moving from collaborating on academic and technological projects to jointly sharing the responsibilities of funding these types of positions and sharing them in a more formal way is not a big leap at all.

All in all, I believe Trzeciak has demonstrated the will to take decisive action - action which appears perfectly appropriate and necessary - to position his university library so that it can be a key partner in the research success of McMaster University.  And because he has dared to speak up about the need to adapt and change to remain relevant and to continue meeting our core mission as librarians of providing value-added access to information resources, he has been pilloried.  While each academic institution is different and the particulars of those institutions will require different local implementations, I believe we all can learn a great deal by watching what is going on at McMaster and other forward-thinking institutions.

If leaders in the academic library profession do not dare to take risks, academic libraries - and the traditionalist librarians who defend the status quo - are doomed to obsolescence in the very short term. The "ostrich" syndrome is not going to keep academic libraries relevant and viable; ultimately, only risk-taking and out-of-the-box thinking will.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Coalition for Networked Information Fall 2010 meeting

I just got back from yet another amazing CNI Fall meeting. I will write more soon, once I have had a chance to digest some of the insights that I got from it. But suffice it to say that CNI is absolutely critical in terms of shaping and surfacing the conversations that are helping position information providers at libraries, university IT offices, and elsewhere to meet the needs of mid-to-late 21st Century scholars.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Dismantling a Culture of Mediocrity

Miriam Pollack, in her October 2008 article "Cruel to be Kind", identifies a number of common patterns amongst librarians as managers that perpetuate ineffective libraries, allow problematic staff with little or no appropriate skills but strong personality disorders to run herd over meek or ineffectual "leaders", and fosters an environment where incompetent individuals rise far above the level of the Peter Principle. She calls on the librarian profession to stop acting like a Ladies' Church Auxiliary (my words, not hers) and instead start acting like a profession that matters.

I heartily support her observations, having all too often seen exactly the dynamics which she identifies in her article. I would go so far as to say that some libraries foster a culture of mediocrity. Having worked for leaders who have fostered such an environment and having on far too many occasions been saddled with fellow managers who felt threatened by competent staff and therefore routinely eliminated strong and effective candidates from the running, promoted incompetent staff over the competent ones, and who routinely choose "nice" candidates over effective candidates, I think that we as a profession - or at least those of us who find ourselves in such a culture of mediocrity - should stand up and demand an end to this mind-set.

Having found myself in just such an environment, I know that the consequences of challenging such a culture of mediocrity are not always pleasant. I have found myself routinely attacked by fellow managers for not "understanding the culture of our environment" and therefore "not fitting in with the [fill in library's name] way". The problem is not that I did not understand the Library X Way, the Library X Way was broken and I felt that it was imperative to point out that the emperor had no clothes on. We owe it not only to ourselves as professionals to demand that our work environments be filled with actualized, creative, competent colleagues, we most especially owe it to our patrons, our faculty, our boards, and the rest of our stakeholders. Doing anything less is conduct unbecoming of a professional librarian.

So, to all the nay-sayers and do-nothings, be warned: the competent professionals out there have your number, and we don't take prisoners.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


This year's Society of American Archivists annual meeting is about to kickoff in San Francisco. The theme this year is "Archival R/Evolution & Identities." As usual, the SAA conference schedule is packed with timely sessions documenting cutting edge projects that are in development, reflecting on cutting edge projects that got started, and looking to future cutting edge projects. Why, might you ask, am I repeating the phrase "cutting edge" so many times? The reason is simple: the archival profession is where it is at in terms of the next great leap forward in library technologies, and has been for a number of years. I will get back to this theme in a minute, but I will make a little detour first.

I do not mean to belittle ALA's contribution to the library profession, but the fact remains that - due to their size and very muddled mission that results from having so many different constituencies to appease - ALA has a harder time of bringing the right sessions, the right people, and the right venues together at its two annual conferences than do other, smaller conferences. As a relative newcomer to the world of ALA, I was overwhelmed by the number of sessions at last years annual conference in Washington, D.C. The sessions that I attended by and large were wonderful, but I had a very difficult time getting to the relevant sessions, since they were spread out over a huge geographic area (in one day alone, I dashed back and forth from one conference hotel to the next no fewer than 6 times), which left very little time to meet colleagues after sessions to compare notes, exchange contact information, and develop possible joint projects. The sessions I attended - all related to digital collections, digital technologies, and evolving IP issues related to them - were attended by people with very similar interests as mine, but we were not easily able to connect. (Those who know me know that I am very gregarious and do not have a hard time connecting with colleagues in most instances).

However, these wonderful sessions had to be squished into a bloated program which resulted in the multiple dislocations that I mentioned above. It would have been much more productive, in my humble opinion, if instead of having all of the various ALA divisions meeting the same week in a monstrously-large conference, that the various tracks be split off into smaller, more focused conferences, not unlike the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section pre-conference. Instead of two huge conferences a year, perhaps the profession would be better served by having four smaller conferences each year, each with a different set of foci. I suspect this would allow people of overlapping interests more opportunity to learn from one another, cross-pollinate ideas, and build the networks appropriate for their disciplines.

Because of this, I have become an increasing fan of the more "boutique" conferences and urge other librarians to start thinking outside the box in terms of conferences, workshops, and training opportunities that might be useful to their personal and career development. For instance, the Society for Scholarly Publishing has a track record of very interesting sessions aimed at the publishers themselves. But by attending said conference, librarians get a chance to see what new developments in the publishing industry are coming down the pike and can prepare to meet those challenges or to embrace new opportunities created by them. Conversely, the publishers are extremely interested in hearing the concerns, needs, and constraints facing us, their clientele. In fact, they have a markedly slashed conference rate for librarians. (Full disclosure: I have to admit that after attending last year, I was invited to be a member of the Program Committee for SSP's next annual conference in Baltimore, Md. Nevertheless, I still feel that I can recommend it in good conscience).

As a long-time member of SAA, which is a relatively small conference at around 1500-1800 participants each year, I have found that it is much easier for people with similar interests to connect and cook up projects together. EAD (Encoded Archival Description) was rapidly disseminated via SAA; EAC (Encoded Archival Context), a quantum leap forward in terms of authority control and the semantic web, is being fostered; the rapid adoption of MODS, METS, and a host of other technologies is taking place because of connections made at SAA. Archivists have had to deal with issues of preservation for the entire history of the profession, so it is no surprise that archivists are typically taking the lead in digital archival preservation initiatives around the country. Similarly, archivists have had to manage complexly hierarchical content for the entire history of the profession too, which has resulted in methodological bags of tricks that can be effectively applied to our ever-increasingly digital world. Many of the concepts behind the management of the various pieces that make up a digital object or digital collection come right from archival theory.

For the record, I have a library degree and proudly call myself a librarian. I spent much of my career as a special collections librarian focused on the technical services and donor relations of manuscript collections, and was and am very tied to the archival world. But what I have realized over the years is that archival theory and practice and its practitioners, while often seen as being peripheral to the library profession, have been off cooking up the methodologies, techniques, and technologies that will help keep librarianship a strong, relevant, and vital profession on into the 21st Century. And just as I think that librarians should start taking a look at what is going on in SAA, I think the members of the profession should also start looking at other communities doing creative work on the periphery of our profession to bring those insights and skills back to enrich the bag of tricks of all librarians.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Runaway Disequilibrium, or: Why Marian the Librarian and the Techno Kid need to kiss and make up

You know her on sight: frumpish; hair-style out of another century, much less decade; too much beige in her wardrobe; scolding; haughty; rule-bound. I am speaking of course of Marian the Librarian, the stereotypical schoolmarm/librarian who has been the butt of many jokes. And, like most stereotypes, there are enough people in the library profession - men and women - who fit this bill to warrant the stereotype in the first place.

Contrast that stereotype to an newly-emerging stereotype of the Techno Kids: young librarians/information specialists coming out of the rapidly evolving library/information studies programs around the country. Where Marian totes a copy of the Anglo-American Catologing Rules (2nd ed. revised, of course), they chatter on about metadata. Where Marion drones on about the goal of universal bibliographic control, the Techno Kids yammer on about the semantic web and social networks. They are les enfants terribles of the information age.

Needless to say, the Marians in the profession do not quite see eye-to-eye with the Techno Kids, and vice versa.

Of course, both groups are wrong. And both are right. Both have insights that we can use and that can help guide us through these ever-changing times in our increasingly decentralized yet ever-more pervasive information environment. The trouble is that both groups have a tendency to dismiss the other as irrelevant. The Marians of our profession look down their noses at what they see as under-qualified, bibliographically-weak gadflies. The Techno Kids roll their eyes at their hopelessly out-of-touch elder colleagues.

What we need, of course, is a way to conceptualize a third path, one that lets us draw on the insights that both sets of colleagues bring to the table and enables us to synthesize a healthier, more productive approach. For this, I suggest that we draw on some of the insights that George Soros writes about in his book The Age of Fallibility: the Consequences of the War on Terror. In it, he hypothesizes that open societies are societies that accept that they are fallible, which allows them to strive to be better than they are. This allows them to evolve over time. He calls this state one of near-equilibrium.

In contrast with such healthy societies are at least two contrasting types of societies: ones in which dynamic disequilibrium reigns, and ones where static disequilibrium reign. Dynamic disequilibrium is another way of saying chaos. Static disequilibrium is another way of saying dictatorship that prevents healthy development of society.

If we extend this model to the librarian/information manager profession, we see that the Marians try to impose through force of will a situation of static disequilibrium. They adhere slavishly to rules and regulations that were themselves only strategies to manage information when they were first promulgated, but which have been reified into absolute rules to live by. They have lost sight of the fact that we must always adapt to evolving situations or become obsolete. Like lemmings, they are willing to have our libraries fling themselves over the cliffs rather than take a different route to get to our end goals.

Contrasted to that, the Techno Kids tend to slavishly adopt every new fad just because it is a new fad. They are dismissive of rules and regulations. They scoff at standards. They have no time to learn traditional cataloging or other aspects of the intellectual underpinnings of traditional librarianship. They revel in the now, the new, and the fadish. Unfortunately, this path leads to chaos.

Years ago, I had the pleasure of processing the Allen Ginsberg Papers. Despite his role as a leading figure of the counter-culture in the 1940's, 1950's, and 1960's, I discovered that Allen was a harsh instructor who insisted that his student's master the traditional poetic forms. Ultimately, he argued, you have to be fully conversant in the traditional rules of poetry in order to break them effectively for greater poetic insight. I think the situation above calls for something similar. The Techno Kids need to be fully conversant in the traditional approaches to librarianship before they can effectively break the rules employed by that approach to more effectively manage information in our post-modern world.

The Marians' dogmatism is unhealthy, but the Techno Kids disregard and irreverance when it comes to traditional librarianship is equally unproductive. The two need to kiss and make up and take a third path together, where the insights from the past and the insights from the present can lead us to a more holistic and effective understanding and management of our complex information milieu.

To be relevant, we need to be able to talk intelligently about traditional cataloging and metadata capture. We need to be able to understand how the semantic web may not only replace the concept of universal bibliographic control but move beyond it into an arena of universal access to information. I firmly believe that we need to synthesize both sets of insights in order to survive as a profession.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Information Past, Present, and Future; or, Don't Garden Your Library to Death

I just finished reading The future of the past by Alexander Stille (New York: Picador, 2002) which proved to not only be a fascinating look at the "past" and how human cultures define the concept, but also how massive technological and societal change shapes not only what we can communicate about the past but also how we can even conceive of it.

More to the point for this blog, Stille subtly explores the nature of libraries, archives, and other cultural storage and transmission traditions (oral tradition, anyone?) in post-modern, internet-era societies, the need of libraries to increasingly be entrepreneurial to stay afloat, the way in which the ability to record sound and images is eroding literacy world-wide, etc. The whole book is a wonderful and thought-provoking read, but several chapters are particularly relevant for contemporary librarians:

  • Chapter Seven: War of Words: Oral poetry, writing, and tape cassettes in Somalia
  • Chapter Nine: The return of the vanished library (all about the building of the Bibliotecha Alexandrina .. the reincarnation of the old Library of Alexandria)
  • Chapter Ten: the Vatican Library Mystery
  • Chapter Eleven: Are we losing our memory? or The Museum of obsolete technology
  • Conclusion: Writing and the creation of the past

I would definitely recommend this book to thoughtful people everywhere, especially anyone interested in the cultural construction of reality (a shout out to all my fellow anthropologists and philosophers out there), the power dynamics of access to information, the way in which our society destroys the underpinnings of cultures at the very moment that it tries to document those cultures.

OK, you might say, that's all very well and good. But how does it affect me as a librarian/archivist/information professional? Well, first, I would say, read the book, THEN we will talk.

But, if you are not inclined to read the book, let me indulge in a bit of personal narrative by way of explanation: as a freshly-minted Masters of Arts in Anthropology, I found myself working as the Reference Specialist in the Special Collections Department at Stanford University. This was at the moment when Stanford was beginning a major campaign to build its rare and unique collections but was still perceived as having a slightly quaint, nice, "regional" special collections repository.

A young academic, herself a freshly-minted Ph.D. in History, came in to do research on the African American experience in the San Francisco Bay Area region. Lo and behold, I discovered that we had next to nothing in the department's holding to support her research. And then it struck me: what is preserved to document a topics shapes what can be asked about the topic and what can be answered about the topic. To put it in very real human terms, since we had nothing to document the African American experience, the African American voice was essentially silenced in that archive at that time. The collection had lots of material documenting the history of rich, dead, white guys but nothing - or next to nothing - documenting working class folk, Black folk, Hispanic folk, etc.

(Important disclaimer: Stanford's major campaign to build collections mentioned above was particularly focused on documenting many formerly neglected social, cultural, and political groups that make up the tapestry of U.S. society. Its holdings now include some of the richest sets of collections documenting the Hispanic experience in the United States and extensive collections documenting African American, Jewish, and Asian communities throughout the U.S. If the same researcher had come to the desk a mere five years later, her experience would have been completely different.)

I learned an important lesson that day: What we select, collect, and preserve fundamentally shapes what we can know about ourselves as a people, as a society, and as a civilization. As librarians and archivists, we know that we have to continuously evaluate our collections to keep them relevant and like a good gardener, weed out the damaged branches, the unhealthy shoots, etc. That being said, we need to make sure that we do not throw the baby out with the bath-water. We also need to be sure not to throw our cultural heritage out the door with the outdated copies of ready reference materials. If we cut too deeply in our holdings in order to make them more "relevant", we risk cutting ourselves off from our past. The moral of the story: don't prune your library to the point where you kill it.