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

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.]

An Unexpected Honor

Yesterday I received a letter from Google addressed to Robert T. Gunther at Found History. As founder of the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford, where I did my doctoral work, and a major figure in my dissertation, I am very honored to welcome Dr. Gunther to the Found History staff. Despite having passed away in 1940, it is my hope that Dr. Gunther will make significant contribution to this blog’s coverage of the history of scientific instrumentation.

Briefly Noted: Timetoast; Google Books Settlement; Curators and Wikipedians

Via Mashable, yet another timeline service: Timetoast.

Many readers will have seen this already, but Robert Darton’s February piece in The New York Review of Books is the most readable discussion I have seen of the Google Books settlement.

Fresh + New(er), the Powerhouse Museum’s always interesting blog, describes that museum’s recent open house for local Wikipedians and the common ground they found between expert curators and amateur encyclopedists.

Briefly Noted: Universal Museum APIs; Raw Data Now!; Publish or Perish

Mia Ridge, Lead Web Developer at the Science Museum, London (where I’m a research fellow, incidentally) points to Museums and the machine-processable web, a new wiki “for sharing, discussing, arguing over and hopefully coming to some common agreements on APIs and data schemas for museum collections.”

Following closely on that, Tim Berners-Lee calls for “Raw Data Now!” at the TED Conference, suggesting that linked raw data may be poised to displace more finished works (journal articles, websites) as the main unit of scientific production. Interesting, provocative parallels to the digital humanities.

And not entirely unrelated, Mark Bauerlein considers the problems of “publish or perish” in Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own [.pdf]. Asking “Do any major works or authors lack editors, interpreters, theorists, reviewers, and teachers?” Bauerlein answers “the ‘coverage’ project is complete” and suggests departments turn back to teaching. “We need honest and open public acknowledgment that the scholarly enterprise has lost its rationale,” he concludes, “that central parts of the humanities are in real trouble, and that the surest way to restoration lies in a renewed commitment to the undergraduate student.” I can’t say I always agree with Bauerlein (see, for example, www.dumbestgeneration.com) but he’s invariably worth reading.

Briefly Noted for February 25, 2009

Along with “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” “release early and often” is something of a mantra around CHNM, especially when it comes to software and web application development. For a variety of reasons, not least the invaluable testing and feedback projects get when they actually make it into the wild, CHNM has always been keen to get stuff into users’ hands. Two good statements of likeminded philosophy: Eric Ries’ Lessons Learned: Continuous deployment and continuous learning and Timothy Fitz’s Continuous Deployment.

Lisa Spiro continues her excellent roundup of Digital Humanities in 2008 with a discussion of developments in open access. Readers should also make sure to catch Lisa’s first installment on digital scholarship. Nice to see that CHNM makes an appearance in both.

Drunk History presents “history as it’s never been told before”: by drunks. Check out Volume One, where Arrested Development and Juno’s Michael Cera does a turn as Alexander Hamilton. Thanks, Ken.

New Year's Top Ten Roundup

Last month on the Digital Campus podcast, Mills, Dan, and I offered our take on the top ten stories of 2008 and our predictions for the biggest stories of 2009. As we readily acknowledge, the “top ten” device is a crude one, but it remains a perennial favorite, both among Digital Campus listeners and across the library, museum, and digital humanities blogosphere, as the following roundup of the new year’s “top” lists attests:

I’m sure I’m missing some, and there are tons and tons on the tech industry blogs (e.g. Wired’s Top Technology Breakthroughs of 2008.) Please feel free to add them (yours?) to comments.

Go on. You know you love ’em!

WordCamp Ed

2931907945_7410a7350f_m.jpg Let me join the choruses celebrating WordCamp Ed, which makes its debut in Fairfax on November 22, 2008. Organized by CHNM and the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown (but mainly by our own Dave Lester), WordCamp Ed will bring together teachers of all stripes to talk about educational uses for the WordPress blogging platform. Building on the success of last spring’s THATCamp, the one-day event will feature a morning of pre-planned speakers and a barcamp-style afternoon of smaller discussion sessions. Registration is free at the WordCamp Ed blog. We only have space for about 100, so get your name in early.

[Image credit: Tom Woodward]

Briefly Noted for June 12, 2008

Geek meme: Command line history. For about a month during the spring, geeks everywhere were using

history|awk ‘{a[$2]++} END{for(i in a){printf “%5dt%s n”,a[i],i}}’|sort -rn|head

to post their top ten most used shell commands to the interwebs.

Samuel Pepys on Twitter. Good idea, but doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I have enjoyed the Pepys Diary blog over the years, and I’d like to see it done in 140 characters or less.

A few months ago I recorded an interview with UC Santa Barbara professor, Claudio Fogu for an article he is preparing for History and Theory. Over the course of an hour or so, Claudio and I discussed the September 11 Digital Archive, the history of CHNM, and other topics of possible interest to Found History readers. Claudio has kindly allowed me to post the full audio of the interview. I can’t wait to see the article.

[audio:http://foundhistory.org/audio/fogu_interview.mp3]

Briefly Noted for March 14, 2008

Finally! From our talented Polish colleagues at Historia i Media comes Feeds, a much needed new resource that uses Google Reader to aggregate and filter RSS streams from digital historians around the world. “One Feed to rule them all, One Feed to find them, One Feed to bring them all and in the darkness bind them?”

“NASCAR Women’s History Month”. Outsports Jock Talk says it may not be an oxymoron for long.

Ole-Magnus Saxegard, a student at the University of Technology in Sydney, presents “A History of Evil”, a short animated film examining the changing place of “evil” in the western tradition. Its subject and message are somewhat muddled—Cerberus and Frankenstein are depictions of evil, the guillotine is a tool against/of evil, and early modern witches were both objects and subjects of evil—but “A History of Evil” is hugely compelling and very well crafted. Posted only on January 30, 2008, it has already been viewed 1,101,882 times.