Five Year Plan, 2004-2009

Hugh Blackmer
Science Librarian
November 2003

Preamble: Personal narrative tracing professional growth in teaching, intellectual activity and achievement, and academic citizenship over previous 5 years

I arrived at Washington & Lee in August 1992 with 18 years of experience teaching anthropology in Nova Scotia, a newly-minted MSLIS, and great enthusiasm for the electronic future of libraries. Eleven years later I look back on many opportunities to develop local implementations of digital tools (most notably in the context of the World Wide Web, for which I was one of the primary enthusiasts, and in Geographic Information Systems) and explore their applications to teaching and learning.

As Science Librarian (since 1996), my primary responsibilities have been support for the work of faculty and students in the seven departments which fall under the sciences. Much of this activity is occasioned by specific questions and conducted on a 1:1 drop-in basis, though I make classroom appearances by invitation and teach Biology 182 every year. In collaboration with others (most notably Cindy Morton and Skip Williams) I have designed and built a wide range of Web resources, and I have assumed primary responsibility for support of Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

In the past five years I have had opportunities to teach a number of courses outside of my library responsibilities, and I am now teaching the equivalent of half the load of a departmental faculty member, in addition to my responsibilities as Science Librarian. In the supporting material for my application for tenure in 1996, I laid out a statement of Goals and Methods of Teaching which is still relevant. In essence, what I seek to teach (and to practise myself) in all my courses is an attitude toward learning which is centered on personal responsibility for organization of information and communication of knowledge.

I am an anthropologist who happens to be a librarian, a social scientist whose interests intersect with the natural sciences and with the humanities, and a teacher whose academic identity is outside the structure of departments and disciplines. In what follows I have the responsibility and the opportunity to explore the possible futures of these multiple identities. From my perspective they are really one thing, not easily separable: regardless of details of venue, I continue to be a teacher, an explorer, a scholar, and a student.

My principal medium for communication with audiences has been the Web, via a continuously elaborating macramé of interlinked pages. For the last six or seven years I have kept track of evolving interests on a Current Work page which traces projects, and links to a growing collection of "log files" that summarize the running series of discoveries and thoughts. This electronic index serves as my own summary and aide memoire for continuing 'intellectual activity and achievement'. Below I will provide links to several of the headings from the Current Work list, to illustrate past and continuing work.

My activities can be contained under several interlinked rubrics:

Perhaps the most intractable and looming problem for education generally, and for liberal arts colleges in particular, is how to build the basis for perspective in the minds of people born in the mid-1980s --how to give them the tools to leap aboard the moving train of History, and/or provide the platform to look down upon the global landscapes of present and past, and/or help them develop the analytical frameworks to process the floods of data available. What one knows is so much constrained by where one sits, by one's personal circumstances, by the tacit models and filters through which the world is perceived. Broadening one's purview, allowing for the possibility of changing 'opinion' on the basis of new information, reconfiguring one's knowledgebase, trying on unfamiliar frameworks --these should be lifelong habits one adopts and practises in undergraduate years.

My frame for this is intellectual engagement and curiosity, and it involves reading and talking and writing and seeking out stimuli across a very broad spectrum of ideas and media. Such participation in one's education is fundamentally active, something that the person does, learns to become conscious of doing, and seeks to be in control of doing: it is not something done to the person.

Reading and writing are not the only ways to realize personal mastery of learning, but they are both essential. The paradox that these central skills cannot really be taught --though they can surely be learned-- is one of the most prominent unacknowledged problems of education: we assume that students "know how" to read, and that they are more or less competent writers. We presume that they will "pick up" any skills they lack by doing assignments, by attending to red marks on papers, by osmosis from others, and by following models. The incentives to learn to "do it right" are managed by grading systems that everybody loathes but few have any workable alternatives to. Most undergraduates do not become "intellectually engaged" in their courses; they survive the lectures and the assignments and the exams, but only a few have their lives changed by what happens in courses. Those few generally make the transition to active engagement because of personal contact with a mentor, and that's what liberal arts institutions seek to foster.

The above doesn't mean to imply that courses are unimportant locales for teaching-and-learning, or even that traditional pedagogical methods are inappropriate or inadequate. Rather, it suggests that venue and activities should be the focus of critical attention by teachers and learners.

Much of my teaching seeks to integrate and develop computer resources, and requires that students participate actively as Web authors. Students (and their teachers too) need to do things to get to be good at them. To become astute and 'critical' users of the electronic media that WILL surround them all their lives, they must actively engage, and practise the constructive and increasingly informed criticism, AND learn to manage digital resources, AND learn to use communications media as responsible producers and consumers.

Courses: In recent years I have taught courses in several areas in addition to those that are directly a part of my library responsibilities (hyperlinks connect to course Web pages).

Library and library-related courses: Biology 182: Use and Understanding of Biological Literature and East Asian Studies 190: Information Ecology and the New Bibliography

East Asian Studies: Anthropology 230: Anthropology of East Asia

Global Stewardship and International Education: 2001 Human Geography planning and course syllabus for a University Scholars course, and the 2003 Global Stewardship Institute

Computers and computing in Liberal Arts: a University Scholars course The Machine and the Garden: History and Prospects of Humanity Computing (2000), and two Spring Term offerings with Tom Whaley: Digital Libraries (2001), and Landscapes of Computer Science (2002)


In the last five years I have been involved with several programs, as planner, teacher, and consultant or committee member: University Scholars, East Asian Studies, Global Stewardship, Environmental Studies, the Watson Fellowship Committee, the Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues, and the R.E. Lee Summer Research program.

In addition to the courses listed above, my appointment to the Dean's Advisory Group on International Education in 1999 led me to write a series of proposals and other documents. With the support of Environmental Studies, I traveled to Brazil in 2002, made a presentation at CETEM, and later made another at the 2002 consortium meeting at Fairfield University. I have served as an interviewer for University Scholars for the last five years, and Greg Cooper has asked me to offer Human Geography in Winter 2004, and to develop courses in Moving Frontiers of Science and Ethnomusicology. I worked extensively with two of our Watson Scholars as they developed their proposals, and have consulted with many Watson applicants. In 2002 and 2003 I supervised R.E. Lee projects in digital library development.

Digital Resources:

(Quoting from my sabbatical log, 14 Sept 2002:)
One of my central concerns is the emergent interlinkage of ...classroom, library, technology... but this really isn't the eloquent way to put it, because 'technology' is so much less clear: we think we know what a classroom is, what its parameters are, and ditto a library. But the point is that both are evolving very rapidly, and it's better to rephrase the question to: how does the digital/electronic world change teaching and learning?

I've been at work on GIS pretty much continuously through the last 5 years, as summarized in these texts.

The overall problem is to change

A generation ago this was a geographical problem and predominantly a challenge to the discipline of Geography. It is now a necessity for interdisciplinary work that involves nearly every traditional discipline.

With local resources we can build small-scale prototypes and work at basic procedures (see work at, in collaboration with Skip Williams). Scaling up to ACS- or NITLE-wide production of spatial data libraries and servers requires resources (time, skills, hardware, software) that we can't find from internal sources and donated skills. IF the integration of spatial information and digital libraries and teaching-and-learning is to develop in the liberal arts context, and grow to serve and influence the very substantial community of potential users, the project becomes pretty big. How can it be built? It would have to interlink RDB technologies, ESRI (and other vendors), the Semantic Web; it would also mobilize the energies of Digital Asset Management at multiple campuses.


The great advantage of being a librarian is that you are expected to know everything, or at least to know how to find out. Nobody is going to tell you that you shouldn't be trying to do so many things, or be interested in a broad spectrum of subjects that refuse to be confined within disciplinary boundaries. For a librarian, Omnia Disce (Hugh of St-Victor's dictum: "omnia disce, videbus postea nihil esse superfluum" [Learn everything, you will see later that nothing is superfluous]) is an admirable motto and personal objective.

The decade of the 1990s shook the foundations of the world of libraries, and the first decade of the 21st century continues the temblors. I entered the profession just before the Web was created, when the public face of the Internet was in its infancy, and I have been continuously busy with the unfolding implications of the emerging present, and with the possible futures of digital information. I have been evangelist, visionary, pioneer... and I have been wrong about some things, occasionally incompetent, often obstinate, and sometimes before my time and less eloquent than I needed to be to convince others to listen.

I see the place and potential of libraries quite differently from many of my colleagues in departments and in the library, and I've tried to articulate my perspectives in an endless series of memos and Web pages. Sometimes I've reached sympathetic ears; more often my communications and schemes have gone nowhere but into the aether of cyberspace, as google fodder.

An opportunity to identify my candidates for important library priorities in spring 2003 led to a document that still seems relevant more than six months later, and that reflects my own concentration on questions of information management and the integration of a broadened spectrum of library resources into teaching and learning. My 'top five':

  1. Transform the Library so that it is truly integral to teaching and learning, by getting its resources and services more fully linked into courses
  2. Information Ecology: develop and implement more and better usage analysis, centered on but not limited to library resources
  3. Integrating with other Information Services: creating an effective Information Commons by collaboration
  4. Working toward digital library development
  5. GIS and Remote Sensing: building support for spatial data

In my own pursuit of these goals, during the last five years I have been in frequent contact with the developing organization now labeled as the Instructional Technology Group, and John Blackburn and I have collaborated on presentations at EDUCAUSE, at GIS meetings for ACS and at Gettysburg College, and in a series of projects in information management. RE Lee projects under my direction in 2002 and 2003 created prototypes in management and distribution of digital information.

Looking toward eventual development at W&L, I have gathered information and written at length on models for Information Commons, on prospects for digital collections development, and on the necessity of development of relational database support.

Liberal Arts Institutions:

In the last five years I have been involved in many ACS workshops and intercampus projects, including Information Fluency, Environmental Studies, and GIS initiatives, and in this context I have written and spoken at length on issues affecting liberal arts institutions in general. The Fall 2002 sabbatical provided an opportunity to look at W&L issues from a distance, in the context of visits to more than a dozen peer institutions in New England. The linked pages summarize a lot of thinking and specific directions, and many of my activities of the last nine months have been influenced by what I encountered on other campuses. Two excerpts from materials I wrote during and immediately after the sabbatical will suggest the flavor and content of these activities:
Liberal arts colleges are in the very early stages of realizing that they must realign personnel and resources to prepare students for the challenges of an increasingly digital future. The learning that takes place in libraries, classrooms, laboratories, offices and dormitories draws upon a much wider palette of materials than was the case a decade ago, and the technological infrastructure which supports that learning has grown dramatically. Every constituency on a campus has had to learn new skills and balance tradition and innovation, but much of this activity has been reactive: no single blueprint has guided development. The future promises more of the same, unabated: new media, new hardware and software opportunities, new challenges to existing fabric and resources. Because there are so few roadmaps for the terrain ahead, libraries and computing organizations must emphasize flexibility, local resources must be allocated to experimentation, and communication among peer institutions must be fostered.
(From Libraries and Computing on Liberal Arts College Campuses)

The big challenge, seen on every campus, is how to incorporate into already overburdened organizations the necessity to keep exploring and inventing. Rapidly-growing areas of an enterprise always need more resources, and moving existing people around is rarely an adequate response. Especially in information technologies, we have to recognize that we are working with MORE, that the whole enterprise is expanding. As we add more and more instructional technologies, we have to broaden the skill base of users, increase the overall level of support, and recognize that the necessary support stratifies: new users need help that early adopters have gone beyond, and early adopters develop new levels of sophistication in their support questions. Meanwhile, developers need to keep working on the growing edges of application and possibility. ...The distinctive nature and accelerating scope of changes in information technologies affects every aspect of teaching and learning, reaching far beyond libraries and computing. At the eye of this hurricane are the means to manage and distribute information. The same forces are felt on all campuses: every constituency needs more resources to continue its core activities, and new opportunities for expansion appear at every turn. Decision makers must identify and support the most productive and synergetic of the competing voices. The best advice is to base organizational realignments and resource allocation decisions on continuing analysis of the sources and directions of change. These changes should themselves become the focus of research and discussion on and between campuses, in a conversation broadened to include staff and student perspectives and recognizing that visionaries and pioneers have a central role in exploration of innovations and possibilities.
(From Making room for disruptive and emergent technologies, published in NITLE News)

Propose concrete ways to (1) maintain high quality of teaching, (2) continue intellectual activity and achievement "in the field", and (3) increase academic citizenship

Maintain high quality of teaching: Largely a matter of continuing to seek out and integrate new materials and sources of information into existing courses, and to create new courses when opportunities arise, my plans for 'concrete ways' are based in

Since much of my teaching is concerned with creative uses of Web resources, I have made extensive use of electronic classroom facilities. Parmly 302 has been my primary venue for explorations of integral hands-on use of computers in more than a dozen courses in the last few years, but further progress depends to some degree upon improvements to the physical facilities.

Among the subjects and materials I am actively working on integrating into teaching and learning: globalization, use of archived journals (JSTOR in particular), use of citation indexing (Web of Science and CiteSeer in particular), and the use of geospatial information in decision-making. These are quintessentially interdisciplinary issues, and I am uniquely situated to be able to explore and develop them, in classroom and in library settings.

Continue intellectual activity and achievement in the field: My engagement in the several fields in which I participate has always been driven by curiosity about disciplinary margins and interdigitation. To a considerable degree I am "interrupt driven" --as a librarian, my attention is often redirected by a question posed by a student or a faculty colleague, and frequently the work I do in answering the question feeds into what I do as a teacher.

I continue to seek opportunities to teach, and to explore areas of study that are not represented in departmental offerings (Human Geography is a current instance; possible University Scholars courses in Moving Frontiers of Science and Ethnomusicology are others now in development).

In my work as a librarian, I would like to continue exploration of a broad spectrum of digital library issues, including creation and integration into teaching and learning of locally-created content (via such applications as DSpace and other relational database projects), end-user management of personal information resources, and a workable and flexible geospatial data infrastructure. The principal limitation for this work is the availability of collaborators with whom to explore possibilities and build prototypes. My perception is that W&L (and for that matter ACS) cares very little about such activities, though appointment of the new University Librarian may provide new energy and leadership in this area.

Increase academic citizenship: For a librarian, this involves seeking out opportunities to help colleagues with various information-development issues, and I expect to continue to develop online support materials in response to needs that arise (most recently, I built a guide to materials on migration for this year's Global Stewardship Faculty Development Seminar); for a faculty member, the 'increase' involves a willingness to take on committee responsibilities, engage in collaborations, and share expertise. Such opportunities arise by invitation, and I have rarely declined a request to further divide my time. In the last few years I have been active in these realms both on campus and in ACS activities. In the immediate future, I have been invited to St. Lawrence University to serve as a consultant on development of a campus-wide GIS implementation.

Many of my activities of the last five years have been outside of and in addition to the formal responsibilities of my appointment as Science Librarian, but in keeping with my role as an information specialist and my background as a scholar with interdisciplinary interests and proclivities. I observe with gratitude that much of the freedom and many of the opportunities I have enjoyed were due to the willingness of Barbara Brown and Larry Boetsch to entertain and support my schemes and initiatives. I would like to think that the next five years will allow me as much ambit for creative improvisation and flexible definition of my identity and activities.