Tag Archives: digital scholarship

Librarianship: As We May Evolve

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Debra Kolah, head of the User Experience (UX) Office at Fondren Library, Rice University in Houston, Texas. She also blogs at the Effervescent Librarian.

A 1947 film located in the online Wayback Archive, The Librarian, urges young people to become librarians, and features a traditional library, and lots of books, and no technology—not even the early technologies of the library world. It stresses you must have two things to be a librarian: a love of books, and a love of people. Ten years later, the classic 1957 film Desk Set, starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, pits a traditional librarian against a suit from IBM. It is his task, as an expert of “electronic brains,” to automate and replace the jobs of the reference librarians at a television studio.

I love these examples of librarianship, not just because they are quaint and outdated, but because, at the time, they spoke truth. A love of books got you far in 1947, and in 1957 there was a fierce battle raging between a group called the documentalists, and traditional humanist librarians. Librarianship is a golden thread that organizes, illuminates, and provides knowledge. Luckily, we are now more open and responsive to innovations in discliplines, and infuse our profession with methodologies and best practices from every disclipline. When we have suffered from information overload, the chemists have helped; even now, when we need to find out what our users are saying, and what they are doing, we rely upon anthropologists, like Nancy Foster. This is a wonderful thing about librarians — we are some of the best people at work arounds, and we look at other fields for answers. Jesse Shera, who once scolded us for being slow to adopt technology, would be proud.

A brief glimpse into the past serves us well. One tale that is interesting is the story of two chemists who entered library school, and then went on to become leaders in the world of organizing scientific information.

• Eugene Garfield received a BS in chemistry in 1949 from Columbia and an M.S. in Library Science in 1954. Garfield created Current Contents which provided journal contents in a simple, regular and comprehensive format. He also spearheaded the indexing of scientific articles by their bibliographies, which creates a system of citations so that the very ideas of science can be traced. In 1960, his firm name became the Institute for Scientific Information, and began publishing an ambitious index entitled, the Science Citation Index, which both the NIH and NSF had declined to publish. The SCI later became the Web of Science.

• The other chemist, Robert Maizell, received his Phd in Library Science from Columbia in 1957. His dissertation was entitled: Information Gathering Patterns and Creativity: A Study of Research Chemists in an Industrial Research Laboratory. He was interested in how chemists found information in their day to day life. Maizell’s solution to information overload was fairly simple: do instruction and teach abstracting. He wanted chemists to do abstracts, and make the literature more accessible. He first published Abstracting Scientific and Technical Literature in 1971. A glowing book review in the Journal of Chemical Education says, “Chapter 14 is an excellent introduction to the use of computers and their corresponding information systems both in future automated abstracting operations and as current support systems for highspeed printing, producing ‘keyword’ indexes and in maintaining and servicing interest profiles for users involved in Selective Dissemination of Information Services.”

Regardless of their methods, the infusion of chemists changed librarianship, and information science, forever.

E-Science, the evolution of scholarly communication in a digital world, depends not only upon the selfless engagement that chemist turned librarians like Robert Maizell offered, but a truly more transnational approach and embrace of semantic web capabilities. We are seeing a revolution in the digital humanities now, where historians are creating data driven databases to organize and make sense of their data, which they freely publish, and make available for others. This is certainly the case for Andrew Torget, who created election data that is now incorporated into Google maps and freely available to the end user. This means that millions around the world used Voting America layers in Google Earth. To do digital librarianship in the future requires looking to the past, and understanding the history of who created some of the great information and storage systems. We will slowly move past solutions created in the Cold War, embrace open technologies, and yes, we will still need to love books, and people. And we need a new recruitment film. Especially one that attracts scientists that are good at data, and want to become librarians.

Envisioning the Academy’s Digital Future

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to attend a fantastic symposium: The Digital University: Power Relations, Publishing, Authority and Community in the 21st Century Academy, held at the CUNY Graduate Center here in New York City. The day was chock full of presentations and conversations on the implications of digital technologies on teaching, learning, research, and scholarship. Academic and research libraries featured prominently in discussions throughout the conference.

The day began with four small workshops each organized around a specific theme relevant to digital scholarship. Deciding which workshop to attend was a tough choice, one that, judging from the Twitter stream (hashtag #du10), many of us were torn over; I chose the Academic Publishing workshop. There was a diverse group of academic publishers, faculty, librarians, and graduate students which made for an interesting and lively conversation.

Not surprisingly, we spent most of our workshop discussing the crisis in scholarly publishing (both journals and monographs). While there’s an enormous amount of money in the academy allocated towards scholarly publishing, it’s primarily spent on scholarly journals published by commercial publishers rather than academic presses (which are under extreme economic pressure) or open access journals. Workshop participants agreed that the entire community of stakeholders must come together to address these issues, including academic administrators, who often seem absent from these discussions. On a positive note, while scholarly publishing has been slow to adapt to digital technologies, many suggested that the current economic situation may begin to speed collaboration and change.

Academic authority was another recurring theme of the conference, and especially the implications of digital scholarship for the tenure and promotion process. Faculty participants in the two afternoon panels discussed their own efforts in pushing for change in “what counts” for tenure, though that may be perceived as risky for junior scholars. Of course the scholarly publishing crisis and academic authority issues are intimately related, and as they evolve will likely continue to influence each other. Many also pointed out that the more open and accessible our scholarship is, the more widely it can be seen and read, which has ethical and moral implications as well, especially for federally-funded research.

It was great to see academic and research libraries so well-represented at this symposium. There was a lot of love for what we do and how important we are to the future of the academy, which for me was a nice counterpoint to the recent Ithaka Faculty Study. I sometimes feel that while librarians talk a lot about open access and related issues, it can be hard to gauge how much they resonate with faculty in other departments. While the symposium attendees were a self-selected group of academics interested in digital technology, it’s heartening to see so many faculty and graduate students who do embrace open access to research and scholarship, and who are interested in pushing these boundaries in their own scholarly work.