Director's Watch column
by Joe Lucia
Over the past decade we’ve witnessed a transformation in the
means of production and dissemination of ideas and culture that is historically
unprecedented in its velocity and scope. Rapid migration from a print-centered
information world to a digitally-oriented one has been dazzling and
disorienting. The pace of innovation and commercialization during this
momentous transition results for many of us in a sense that existing
institutions of cultural memory, such as libraries, face the threat of
obsolescence in the new era. Such institutions, however, under the pressure of
a changed environment, can themselves be remarkably adaptive and flexible if
they meet abiding needs or stand for abiding values.
At first glance, libraries appear to be products of the print era, their large physical collections necessary for access to information on paper. But libraries have always been much more than warehouses for books. And though librarians are often “book people,” books have been a means rather than an end.
Key aspects of the continuing relevance of libraries and librarians include
- Knowledge of the structure of information: Librarians possess a uniquely global view of the points of origin of information in a vast array of print and digital publishing networks both popular and scholarly, including the structures of review and validation built into this environment. Librarians also understand the dedicated access channels through which specialized publishing and scholarly information are accessible. This knowledge makes librarians superb research consultants in the digital age.
- Commitment to quality and completeness of information: At a time when instant access to hundreds of Web pages on any given topic is possible by means of universally accessible search engines, concerns about the validity and authenticity of information have become increasingly pressing. In a post-secondary learning and research environment, canonical and authoritative forms of discourse carry the greatest weight, regardless of subject area. Library collections – physical and digital – continue to represent for students and faculty the most direct path to accurate and complete information across the disciplines. In the digital environment, libraries serve as economic agents and aggregators providing reliable sources for their users.
- Commitment to the permanence of the cultural and intellectual record: Digital information is notoriously ephemeral and malleable. Libraries have a longstanding historical commitment to preserve and keep accessible the materials they hold. This mission extends into the digital area, in which the larger library community is working aggressively with computer scientists, professional societies, and many others to develop local and global models for achieving permanence of the digital archive.
- Commitment to effective access: Keyword retrieval of information from Web search engines has made finding material on any given topic seem quite simple. But such methods, as powerful as they can be, are crude and incomplete when comprehensive and reliable information retrieval is critical. Librarians and the library community have developed over many decades a suite of descriptive and analytical methods that simplify managing large, heterogeneous bodies of information. Librarians have already made major contributions to the development of systematic metadata frameworks for describing content on the Web. They continue to work closely with computer scientists and others at applying this knowledge to the development of smarter, more effective and complete retrieval systems, both for Web-based information and for materials in local collections.
- Commitment to the “intellectual commons”: One troubling aspect of the coming of the Web age is the commercial imperative to “monetize” information flows wherever possible. Content owners and copyright holders demonstrate a clear drive to assert broad and deep property rights that reduce access to information (and media) for those who can’t or won’t pay. Culture and the life of the mind, however, are advanced by open access to information and ideas. The intellectual commons – an open and accessible intellectual record – has been one of the engines driving scientific progress over several centuries in the West. Libraries and librarians are among those working most actively to preserve access to this commons in the face of encroaching commercial pressures in the digital era.
- Commitment to resource sharing: Libraries are among the most flexible and generous of institutions in making their materials broadly available to anyone who needs them. This practice is an extension of an overall commitment to open access to information. As a result, a global interlibrary loan system has been developed, accompanied by a sophisticated information retrieval infrastructure that makes it possible for a library user here in Pennsylvania to get hold of a unique item from a library in Colorado or even Australia. In a more local context, in the mid-Atlantic region, a group of more than fifty cooperating academic libraries provide direct borrowing among their institutions to an aggregate collection of over 30 million titles. Such comprehensiveness of access to the unique, obscure and arcane is not at this moment built into the Web environment.
- Commitment to the social context of intellectual endeavor: Even as digital communications extend and expand the reach of individuals in our society, there appears to be a built-in human need for face-to-face contact and interaction, for sites of serendipitous encounter and exchange. Libraries as physical places and as embodiments of the depth and complexity of the intellectual and cultural record, continue to serve as venues for study, reflection and group interaction. Though print collections are somewhat less central than in the past, library facilities provide those who use them with an immediate, intimate and inspiring experience of the connections between people and ideas.
Joe Lucia is University librarian and director of Falvey Memorial Library.