Invisibility and Ubiquitousness: How Digital Libraries Should Tell Their Story.

Under pressure from the presumed loss of influence, the contemporary academic library is often in the business of staking claims on campus. We see new technology or innovations as opportunities to ingrained ourselves deeper in the future of the institution. Partially, this is a reaction to the change in the world and a move away from books but also a survival strategy in declining budgets. As the Ithaka survey on “Library Leadership for the Digital Age” last spring told us “All libraries are now digital….  Users think libraries are—or at least should be—digital.” As someone who left the print world for the digital, I can say within my own experience this is true.

What I am finding, though, as a new digital librarian, that our work is still ignorable and invisible. The reasons for this might seem contradictory. One, the digital library is not traditional library work and is seen as outside of the realm of the library’s scope. On the other hand, the internet and technology is ubiquitous which makes the behind the scenes work expected and ingrained with very little work assumed, with high levels of integration and low levels of recognition. Ubiquity, while central to our digital lives, is, perhaps, the most difficult thing to overcome. When user expect things to be there, or that the digital world should just exist around them, it is difficult to ask for their patience or their work in helping build the digital world in the library.

Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man
Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man Wikimedia Commons

And yet we need their input and their work to makes ours possible.

This tug and pull, the pressure to remain a stable part of the institution’s traditional academic world, maintaining print collections and special collections materials and being part of the on campus classroom, while being forced to compete with the google and the always on internet is difficult for our libraries to prosper. The ironic thing being: the better we do at our jobs the less visible we are and vice versa.

Take it from this excellent Futurama episode “Godfellas” 2002 where “the God Entity” explains the realities of omnipresence to Bender:

While the trend towards digital helps libraries stay relevant in this age the difficulty remains in how this information is presented. The same Ithaka report from above continues that, “Libraries are also challenged in a dramatic way to deal with the demands of our users as technology allows them to gain access to information directly rather than without any intermediation from us.”

Unfortunately, intermediation is the only way we are visible to some, and often that comes at the expense of our users. Users want the system to be there without having to feel like they are using the system. Because of google, our faculty and student expect that our services to be available always with little thought to the infrastructures that make it possible. Only when the curtain is pulled back is the process unveiled, usually with disastrous consequences.

If the institutional repository, the center of my work, works as it should, where materials are preserved and promoted with little to zero effort given on the part of individual faculty there is no one to complain or question its existence. This requires the input and the collaboration with faculty across the university. Proving that their buy in is difficult when some search engines make visibility so seamless. As a result, I often tout the visibility of the Institutional Repository in search engines like Google Scholar to show that it is “working.” The same thing exists on the technical end, if our online catalog bridges the gap seamlessly between physical location and online direction, then no one chats to complain they can’t find a book. That book, found via the Online Catalog, is retrieved with very little noise aside from the ding of the barcode scanner.

Only when things are visibly broken does our work become a point of either discussion or contention.But how then do we talk about our roles in the larger campus community if our work is largely behind the scenes?

In someways, we are forced to tell our stories to our Deans and Provosts about what we do for the library and the institution. This can be done in a number of ways, and best practices have yet to be fully established. The Digital Library Federation’s Assessment Interest group is focused on how we can assess the work that we do.

We can count the amount of money that we bring in during digitization projects or we can measure the encounters and shares as part of larger schemas of impact for promotion and tenure purposes. There are  great guides to Google Analytics and Altmetrics through the DLF assessment, but this is reactive instead of proactive. And requires us to justify our existence through outside tools and after things have been posted, not to prove why the initial work is necessary.

Just as the traditional library has been praised for its collections used to foster learning and scholarship, the digital library must be used to show its importance to the larger campus. This goes beyond showing the web analytical impact, but by showing the use of the materials by people on campus. As I wrote in my piece on the library as more than a mausoleum, it is the use of materials that will save us from irrelevancy and invisibility.

There is no simple solution, but a first step is often telling our own story apart from the rest of the library. Perhaps we should be making the case in a way that shows the seams that hold the digital library together with the campus is the way to go. We should use opportunities where ubiquity gives our campus partners feelings that we’ll always be there to tell our story and look for partners. Our seams show not where we are stretched to the limit or where we lack; but where our institutional and collaborative partners can build a larger and better digital community.

We will never have ALL the answers to what our community will need tomorrow  In our stories we should acknowledge both our failures and our successes and what we need to prosper in addition to build on our successes. We should show the people behind the curtain that make the easy to use interfaces and search functions work well, and increase the stake that our users play in decisions.  

Digital collections are unique in our library world. Outreach, like social media or regular media, can put objects at the forefront of the infrastructure and makes it all the more likely for our users to think of us when they think about the library, but it is the structure itself that often needs visibility and part of the narrative. Without this narrative, without selling the good that we do behind the scenes, our value is lost in a sea of other sources of information. The resources do not just appear because there is work done to make them available. It is time that we start making that visible.

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