Director's Watch: Digital transformation
by Joe Lucia
Attempting to make any broad or definitive statements about the “digital transformation's” impact on the cultural and intellectual record is foolhardy at best. However, in the frenzy of the present moment, as Google works with five major research libraries to render their holdings accessible globally, as images from major museums around the world, including the Louvre, the Met, and the National Gallery of Art, become viewable online, and as major historical archives convert their holdings for digital access, it is clear to all who reflect upon the situation that the digital era will re-shape how we think, teach and understand culture and history.
We are entering an era of mass accessibility that will bring an uncountable number of books, artifacts, images, manuscripts and similar items into general view, unconstrained by locality. Though we will lose something through this process in terms of direct contact with tangible objects, we will gain much more in terms of our ability to make previously unforeseen connections and comparisons.
Students of all ages will be allowed into the archive – something that has in the past been largely the privilege of advanced researchers – to make their own readings and interpretations of primary materials. The potential of this new situation for scholarship, in both its formal and its informal guises, is described in Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History.
Libraries of all types are stepping into the fray, making individual and cooperative commitments to furthering and deepening this digital transformation. In the past, libraries have been involved in what could be called speculative investment in physical collections, acquiring materials that may be of use in the future, and not always concerned that these books and other items be used immediately by students or scholars.
In this era of mass digitization, some of that speculative investment is shifting to the development of online collections, both by the reformatting of locally-held physical materials and by collaboration and extension of local collections through new types of partnerships. The result can be, effectively, collections of items that exist in no single physical place but that are collocated in exciting ways online, what a few years back we breathlessly called “virtual libraries."
Here at Villanova University, we took a small step in this collaborative direction a few years ago when we worked in partnership with Lehigh University to put illuminated manuscripts online. A larger scale example of such an initiative is the Million Books Project at Carnegie Mellon University.
In the coming year, we will begin more aggressively to build a digital library collection at Villanova, both from our local holdings and in collaboration with new partners. Soon we will have online a version of our recent exhibit, "Sing a Song," of Villanova Law School Professor Lew Becker’s personal collection of traditional music materials in print.
In addition, we plan to begin working with other institutional partners in the greater Philadelphia region to put materials relating to Catholic social history online. And most exciting, we are seeking out opportunities to identify unique materials and collections in the hands of potential partners within our University community.
This is truly an unprecedented moment, when the cultural and intellectual treasures sitting on private bookshelves or locked up in trunks in attics can be shared and investigated by a new generation of historians and cultural interpreters. At Falvey, we are optimistic about the prospects for new ways of extending the scope of the Library.
I hope that some of you reading this will join us in this epochal endeavor.
Joe Lucia is University librarian and director of Falvey Memorial Library.