Found History

by Tom Scheinfeldt

Nobody cares about the library: How digital technology makes the library invisible (and visible) to scholars

| 17 Comments

There is a scene from the first season of the television spy drama, Chuck, that takes place in a library. In the scene, our hero and unlikely spy, Chuck, has returned to his alma mater, Stanford, to find a book his former roommate, Bryce, has hidden in the stacks as a clue. All Chuck has to go on is a call number scribbled on a scrap of paper.

When he arrives in the stacks, he finds the book is missing and assumes the bad guys have beat him to it. Suddenly, however, Chuck remembers back to his undergraduate days of playing tag in the stacks with Bryce with plastic dart guns. Bryce had lost his weapon and Chuck had cornered him. Just then, Bryce reached beneath a shelf where he had hidden an extra gun, and finished Chuck off. Remembering this scene, Chuck reaches beneath the shelf where the book should have been shelved and finds that this time around Bryce has stashed a computer disk.

I like this clip because it illustrates how I think most people—scholars, students, geeks like Chuck—use the library. I don’t mean as the setting for covert intelligence operations or even undergraduate dart gun games. Rather, I think it shows that patrons take what the library offers and then use those offerings in ways librarians never intended. Chuck and his team (and the bad guys) enter the library thinking they are looking for a book with a given call number only to realize that Bryce has repurposed the Library of Congress Classification system to hide his disk. It reinforces the point when, at the end of the scene, the writers play a joke at the expense of a hapless librarian, who, while the action is unfolding, is trying to nail Chuck for some unpaid late fees. When the librarian catches up with Chuck, and Chuck’s partner Sarah shouts “Run!” she is not, as the librarian thinks, worried about late fees but about the bad guys with guns standing behind him. Chuck and his friends don’t care about the library. They use the library’s resources and tools in their own ways, to their own ends, and the concerns of the librarians are a distant second to the concerns that really motivate them.

In some ways, this disconnect between librarians (and their needs, ways of working, and ways of thinking) and patrons (and their needs and ways of working) is only exacerbated by digital technology. In the age of Google Books, JSTOR, Wikipedia, and ever expanding digital archives, librarians may rightly worry about becoming invisible to scholars, students, and other patrons—that “nobody cares about the library.” Indeed, many faculty and students may wonder just what goes on in that big building across the quad. Digital technology has reconfigured the relationship between librarians and researchers. In many cases, this relationship has grown more distant, causing considerable consternation about the future of libraries. Yet, while it is certainly true that digital technology has made libraries and librarians invisible to scholars in some ways, it is also true, that in some areas, digital technology has made librarians increasingly visible, increasingly important.

To try to understand the new invisibility/visibility of the library in the digital age let’s consider a few examples on both sides.

The invisible library

Does it matter that Chuck couldn’t care less about call numbers and late fees or about controlled vocabularies, metadata schemas, circulation policies, or theories collections stewardship? I’m here to argue that it doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that these things don’t matter or that the library should be anything but central to the university experience. But to play that central role doesn’t mean the library has to be uppermost in everyone’s mind. In the digital age, in most cases, the library is doing its job best when it is invisible to its patrons.

What do I mean by that? Let me offer three instances where the library should strive for invisibility, three examples of “good” invisibility:

Search: We tend to evaluate the success of our web pages with metrics like numbers of page views, time spent per page, and bounce rate. But with search the metrics are reversed: We don’t want people looking at lots of pages or spending a lot of time on our websites. We want the library web infrastructure to be essentially invisible, or at least to be visible for only a very short period of time. What we really want with search is to allow patrons to get in and get out as quickly as possible with just what they were looking for.

APIs and 3rd party mashups: In fact, we may not want people visiting library websites at all. What would be even better would be to provide direct computational access to collections databases so people could take the data directly and use it in their own applications elsewhere. Providing rich APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) would make the library even more invisible. People wouldn’t even come to our websites to access content, but they would get from us what they need where they need it.

Social media: Another way in which we may want to discourage people from coming to library websites is by actively placing content on other websites. To the extent that a small or medium-sized library wants to reach general audiences, it has a better chance of doing so in places where that audience already is. Flickr Commons is one good example of this third brand of invisibility. Commentors on Flickr Commons may never travel back to the originating library’s website, but they may have had a richer interaction with that library’s content because of it.

The visible library

The experience of the digital humanities shows that the digital can also bring scholars into ever closer and more substantive collaboration with librarians. It is no accident that many if not most successful digital humanities centers are based in univeristy libraries. Much of digital humanities is database driven, but an empty database is a useless database. Librarians have the stuff to fill digital humanists’ databases and the expertise to do so intelligently.

Those library-based digital humanities centers tend to skew towards larger universities. How can librarians at medium-sized or even small universities library help the digital humanities? Our friend Wally Grotophorst, Associate University Librarian for Digital Programs and Systems at Mason, provides some answers in his brief but idea-rich post, What Happens To The Mid-Major Library?. I’ll point to just three of Wally’s suggestions:

Focus on special collections, that is anything people can’t get from shared sources like Google Books, JSTOR, LexisNexis, HathiTrust. Not only do special collections differentiate you from other institutions online, they provide unique opportunities for researchers on campus.

Start supporting data-driven research in addition to the bibliographic-driven kind that has been the traditional bread and butter of libraries. Here I’d suggest tools and training for database creation, social network analysis, and simple text mining.

Start supporting new modes of scholarly communication—financially, technically, and institutionally. Financial support for open access publishing of the sort prescribed by the Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity is one ready model. Hosting, supporting, and publicizing scholarly and student blogs as an alternative or supplement to existing learning management systems (e.g. Blackboard) is another. University Library/University Press collaboration, like the University of Michigan’s MPublishing reorganization, is a third.

Conclusion

In an information landscape increasingly dominated by networked resources, both sides of the librarian-scholar/student relationship must come to terms with a new reality that is in some ways more distant and in others closer than ever before. Librarians must learn to accept invisibility where digital realities demand it. Scholars must come to understand the centrality of library expertise and accept librarians as equal partners as more and more scholarship becomes born digital and the digital humanities goes from being a fringe sub-discipline to a mainstream pursuit. Librarians in turn must expand those services like special collections, support for data-driven research, and access to new modes of publication that play to their strengths and will best serve scholars. We all have to find new ways, better ways to work together.

So, where does that leave Chuck? Despite not caring about our work, Chuck actually remembers the library fondly as a place of play. Now maybe we don’t want people playing dart guns in the stacks. But applied correctly, digital technology allows our users and our staff to play, to be creative, and in their own way to make the most of the library’s rich resources.

Maybe the Chucks of the world do care about the library after all.

[This post is based on a talk I delivered at American University Library’s Digital Futures Forum. Thanks to @bill_mayer for his kind invitation. In memory of my dear friend Bob Griffith, who did too much to come and hear this lousy talk.]

17 Comments

  1. I’d add that insofar as you’ve created infrastructure that people can build upon for their own ends, you’re doing it right — and if you don’t see or feel threatened when they build things, you’re doing it wrong.

  2. Great post. I see it as libraries starting to take on the a service based approach to delivering information to users.

    One thing to keep in mind is that this service based approach to delivering on your community’s information needs requires a totally different kind of metric to gauge success. A well thought out plan on usage analysis needs to be included in this to show that these efforts are still delivering on there purpose : delivering information to users.

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  4. I don’t need to accept invisibility. Such acceptance has made it difficult for the wider world to see the time, effort, and money that libraries spend to do the good that we do. IMHO, librarianship is too modest, too humble, and too service oriented. The profession needs to be more proactive in singing our measurable benefits and contributions. –ELM

  5. @Eric – I don’t disagree. Librarians should advocate for libraries, librarianship, and librarians. My point is simply that continuing to build unhelpfully “sticky” user interfaces is not the right way to get people to notice the more-important-than-ever work and resources of the library. Thanks for reading.

  6. It’s a shame that librarians in popular culture are so often caricatured as having concerns that are different from those of users. Librarians should have users’ needs as their main priority, so if any librarians’ “needs, ways of working, and ways of thinking” are not in line with users’ needs, ways of working, and ways of thinking, those librarians need to adapt or they risk becoming complete anachronisms.

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  10. In fact, we may not want people visiting library websites at all. What would be even better would be to provide direct computational access to collections databases so people could take the data directly and use it in their own applications elsewhere. — Are you not aware that libraries pay a great deal to licence databases and have contracts they must uphold? Economics are alive and real, folks. We can not simply post these databases for all the general public. We have to abide by our licences and provide research for our patron bases.

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