15 December 2003
A few weeks ago I started writing down some thoughts that have been festering for more than a year, left over from sabbatical visits and reading in Fall 2002. I'm not sure how to make them coherent as a single something-or-other (rumination? analysis? grumble?), or to whom they are or should be addressed, but the process of interviewing University Librarian candidates makes it necessary to turn several pages of early-morning scribblings into a single text.
Addendum 22 July 2004: another clump of thoughts and links seems to be emerging which belongs with this line of disourse, so I'm adding it below. This also is closely related to stuff developed in the "infocommons" log

Addendum 29 September: a summary for Merrily, in the context of a request for a "library technology coordinator" position

The library has an honored but largely mythical place on a campus. Tours play obligatory visits, administrators invoke its intellectual centrality, faculty praise or damn the available resources, and students begin each year with good intentions to study within the walls. Only library staff attend to the consequences of a widening gap between image and reality. In order to regain their centrality, college libraries must define, design, and promulgate the electronic services that their users will need in the next decade, while struggling to continue to provide their traditional services.

Libraries see themselves as rooted in service to their patrons and creative curation of their collections. Libraries develop their collections to support and anticipate the requirements, priorities, and mission of the institutions they serve. As long as information resources were located within library walls, the day-to-day tasks of library personnel were pretty clear: new materials came into the building and followed established pathways to reach the physical locations where patrons could locate them, and specialists were available to mediate access --to create catalog records, consult on finding strategies, and manage circulation.

That well-understood structure remains important, and none of its functions have been lost, but more than a decade of evolution of digital access has added a whole new superstructure of electronic information access to the mission of the 'traditional' library. Some of the traditional models of staffing and responsibility have evolved as libraries have labored to integrate new information media with existing resources, but new demands for staffing and skills arise where the traditional structures and responsibilities can't stretch to fit the emerging challenges.

Libraries are discovering that they need specialists in the full range of digital information media that their users are now engaged with. Libraries recognize that they need to operate outside their walls. Not only must they incorporate external resources like online databases and electronic texts into their offerings, but they must contrive and support new forms of interlinkage with users in classrooms and dormitories and offices and labs. The role of the library is challenged as faculty, students, and staff integrate a much wider palette of information resources into their activities. Just how to execute and manage the necessary transformation of library services and functions is unclear, and local circumstances and histories pressure different adaptations on every campus.

It's easy to forget that the library of 20 years ago (or even ten) was a very different organization and physical environment from what we see today. The cliché of campus centrality was physically and behaviorally much truer: the user had to go to the library to locale and access information materials, which were mostly in print-on-paper form. Most faculty still cherish the image of the library as an intellectual storehouse and a scholarly oasis, and many see enculturation of new cohorts of freshmen to this rosy view as a responsibility of the library.

The student of 20 years ago experienced the library as a locale for study and a place to 'do research'. A small minority of students on any campus absorbed the storehouse/oasis view and became habitués, but for most the library was a place one had to go for some specific purposes, mostly madated by class assignments. The place of the library in undergraduate scholarship was reasonably clear to all, and centered on the information stored in the library. Students would be helped and guided by library personnel if they requested assistance, but most fended for themselves most of the time, perhaps with the aid of printed pathfinders or group 'bibliographic instruction' sessions. Papers were written and bibliographies were formatted and padded according to generally understood procedures. The final act, often enough, was typing the final draft on corrasable bond paper, or with liberal application of WhiteOut.

The scholarly pursuits of reading and writing are qualitatively different activities from what they were 20 years ago. The information univers of today's undergraduate is vastly broader, encompassing cell phones, music and video downloads, instant messaging and e-mail, as well as vast arrays of online text and data. For most purposes it is Google and not the library's resources that is the starting place for research, and the process of creating a paper or project is based in electronic assembly and on-screen refinement.

Professors and librarians often decry the quality and criticize students' judgement of Web resources, but their indictments are based more in prejudice than in personal experience as explores of the Google worlds their students find so comfortable. This points to a growing but largely uninvestigated disconnect between the information world of generations, in which libraries can play an important role.

Libraries have unprecedented challenges right in front of them, and for the most part they seem to be blind to both the dangers and the opportunities. The library must reinvent itself and its services if it is going to connect effectively with the needs and interests of students in the next decade. The skills required to make effective use of information continue to evolve as the floods of data and ocans of online text rise. It is rarely clear where responsibilities for support and skills development lie. The library must collaborate with others concerned with information technologies to bridge the widening gap between professors and students, by developing the means to bring the whole range of information resources into teaching and learning settings.

All university campuses struggle with the challenges of adapting to a rapidly-evolving landscape of user demands and must juggle limited resources in a climate of uncertainty. The mushrooming of student activity centers on campuses everywhere (wryly described in a Chronicle article: Forget Classrooms. How Big Is the Atrium in the New Student Center? By Michael J. Lewis [11 July 2003]) is echoed in the library world in a wave of transformations of library space into Information Commons or Learning Commons, which seek to provide the support and equipment that today's students appear to need. Library and IT literatures bristle with reports of Commons built and Commons planned, and professional meetings feature panel discussions (see ALA Midwinter preconference, January 2004)

Added 27 January:

Our organizational structure and internal systems are designed for a model of service that assumes users come to the physical library to interact with print resources. And of course many do --but this (traditional) mode of access to information is increasingly displaced by Web activities, to which we have made (more or less grudging) accomodations.

We know that has to change --that our static Web pages are troublesome to keep in order, that our users have difficulty finding what they think they need via the interfaces we provide for them, and that we're "behind" in development and promulgation of technologies for information access and information management.

We comfort ourselves with the reassurances that (1) our peer institutions are as far behind as we, and that (2) we don't have the skills/expertise/manpower/budget to effect fundamental changes.

We need to ask ourselves what a digital initiative looks like and consists of? What does it demand of those who engage in it?


Some things to incorporate eventually:

Stanford University Librarian Michael Keller's comments on the future of libraries

22 July 2004
I ran across
Supporting the KM Environment—The Roles, Responsibilities, and Rights of Information Professionals By Sue Henczel ...the sort of thing librarians ought to read, perhaps critically. What doesn't apply to more conventional and non-business library environments? As I read through it, I see a lot that's expressed in a business idiom, but is easily recast to fit the circumstances of academic libraries, and perhaps college libraries in particular. I'll go through those in some detail elsewhere.

Another provocative source was a posting by Alex Halavais on Re-theorizing the core class. While the specifics of thinking out loud about a Communications Research graduate course are of only tangential interest at the moment, it occasioned these thoughts:

What students actually DO in a course, or in their own education at large, is (ideally) to husband some interests. It's a matter of focus that one chooses, defines, tends, and consciously elaborates. Each of these activities is an essential component, and needs to be transparent and explicit. The tools to do this are constantly changing, so awareness of that evolution also needs to be built in.

What's in the suite of tools that a productive student/scholar needs to command? What's the KM environment that we [a complex 'we'] need to be supporting? And the answer is: it's a landscape of potentially interlinked apps and services, among which our users choose to suit their needs. WE need to be both flexible and exploratory (even entrepreneurial, maybe evangelical...) in developing and supporting.

Some information organizations --i.e., libraries AND IT AND computing organizations-- do these things, and some do them consciously and well. My sense is that we at W&L aren't being nearly thoughtful enough, or public enough in our thought and exploration processes.

Case in point of the moment: the webnotes tool that I found out about just yesterday, and am following the implications of... but also of course Onfolio...

25 July
Sorting through the piles of papers that need organizing and disposition to storage, I note that there are several streams that intermingle betimes: stuff on digital libraries, stuff on blogging, stuff on personal information management. Some is oriented toward what I do myself, some to applications that someone might make use of with the requisite support, some to theoretical background. At the moment, I've put down 'digital libraries' in the general sense (and the stuff about defining and handling metadata along with it), in favor of the more immediate problems of defining an operational context for the course(s) I'll teach in the coming months, and in favor of working with my own suite of desktop tools. I do feel a need to articulate how all this fits into the likely futures of libraries, in specific and in general, but that's probably fodder for walking and thinking.

26 July
Begun as I walked in this morning, as part of the task of trying to figure out how to better fit libraries into student [and faculty] realities:

An arriving freshman begins a process of engagement with Information that will continue for his or her lifetime, and will span many media and make use of a kaleidoscope of applications. In 2004, many of those media are accessed and linked though the Web, and the most basic tool, for work and pleasure, is the computer. Few freshmen have the perspective to grasp the complexities of interlinkage, or to see themselves as active participants in building the evolving stuructures of data, information, and knowledge that the Web represents ...and in general their courses do little to nurture this perspective.

Professors and librarians --to the degree that they consider the Web as a venue for teaching and learning-- generally focus on skills to be learned: how to use course management software, how to use the library's online catalog, how to choose and search databases (in the words of Information Fluency, "the student will..."). Few see or use the Web as a communications medium themselves: one surfs, one googles, one bemoans the wasteage of bandwidth on frivolities, but with few exceptions the Web isn't seen or presented as a territory to be explored, discovered, incorporated into intellectual life, let alone made the core of that life.

Some students will discover and invent potentials for themselves, and almost in spite of the neglect of Web media by their professors --they will find what animates them, as the previous cohort found Napster five years ago, and they will create new uses for elements of the technologies, and thus challenge the vision and the support capabilities of computing support organizations. Most students aren't particularly prone to innovative activity: they will do as they're told, and will adopt technologies that their peers are using (thus the florescence of cell phones in the last year --and the rash of comments on the effect on civility and the Speaking Tradition).

There isn't a great deal that the library can do to change the information landscape for this year's entering freshmen. It's too late to mount a library (or, more appropriately, library and ITL) -based Electronic Scholarship initiative for the coming year, though it's perhaps the right moment to begin thinking about such an effort for Fall 2005. But the fact is: practically nobody wants this, or cares, or sees it as their responsibility to undertake such an initiative. There's no room in General Education reform, and it's doubtful that the imminent Strategic Planning process will turn in that direction either.

Personally and professionally, I find this frustrating, and especially so because I am myself so involved with the pedagogical implications of the array of Web technologies. I can continue to explore these possibilities in my own courses, as I have been doing all along, and I can probably make a few allies among faculty and students, but I don't expect to be able to influence this institution in the directions I'm sketching in various pages like this one.

I do keep running into resonant passages in the writings of others that seem to be calling for many of the same things. In the very latest C&RL (July 2004) there's one by Ducas and Michaud-Oystryk:

In a key article, Sheila D. Creth [in 1995] stressed the need for librarians to redefine and expand their role in the areas of instruction, information and scholarly process, knowledge management, and organization of networked information resources... In their article, Carla Stoffle, Barbara Allen, and Janet Fore [in 2000] set strategies for meeting the challenges: "To successfully compete, we must leverage our resources, redirect our priorities, collaborate, take risks, and reinvent our organizations. Within our institutions we must move to the beginning of the learning and knowledge creation processes becoming partners with the faculty"...
...so it's in the air, but the analogous transformation via librarians' incorporation into teaching-and-learning seems worlds away on this campus.

The key seems to me to be a reorientation from emphasis on information seeking (surfing, database queries, etc.) to information management --to what to do with what's found, in the very broadest sense(s). I want to emphasize the mental activities of augmenting and reorganizing knowledge structures, which software apps can support and encourage --but it's the maintenance and management of wetware that's the really important lifelong activity. That's so obviously at the heart of liberal/general education that it seems unnecessary to repeat it, but it's rarely-to-never a part of pedagogy, let alone the work of librarians.

Some of the problem has to do with 'cultures' of information use, and the fact is, we haven't investigated the questions of 'information ecology' and actual information use at W&L... nor have we done anything very systematic to explore what other institutions, peers and otherwise, are doing. It's exquisite torture to read about Duke's issuance of iPods to incoming freshpersons, and about the prominence of libraries in Strategic Planning (see Deep Infrastructure Supports Digital Library Services (Paul Conway, Duke University [2004])

Duke University has recognized the strategic importance of the digital library as a change agent... Digital libraries may prove to be tremendous forces for needed change in teaching and learning and, particularly, for the transformation of the roles that traditional libraries play on and off campus. Duke University is embracing digital library services as a strategic mechanism for advancing deep information technology infrastructure on campus.

...The Digital Library @ Duke is a major component of the university’s overall strategic plan. Goal 6 of a key planning document, Building on Excellence, states the principle that “information technology is an integral and indispensable component of education and research in the 21st century.” The library is central to the university’s plan to connect the Duke community to the resources they need anytime and anyplace and to increase support for the use of information technology in teaching and learning environments. The Digital Library @ Duke is intended to support—and eventually help transform—teaching and learning by members of the Duke community.

What it comes down to is: to what do we pay attention? And the uses of computing are certainly not very prominent, despite all the money that's invested in computing services and infrastructure.

A few years ago it was portfolios that seemed a sensible approach to organizing student work (see something of the history via my acadproj pages and home.wlu.edu pages of a number of other W&L faculty who explored the term/medium), but that concentrated more on finished work than on keeping track of the process of development --a context in which I've used log files (see acadproj occurrences and the hundred-odd occurrences of the term on home.wlu.edu, most of them mine or my students'). I do have to confess that just about none of my students have (as far as I know...) kept up the habit of maintaining logs, at least in part because of the comparative hassle and difficulty of making and maintaining Web pages... but blogs may be a more efficient means, since all they require is a Web browser. Anyway, my basic notion is that one proceeds by writing, by making one's process as explicit as possible, by keeping track. It's a form of journaling, and --like any craft-- something that grows as it's practised. And also obviously, anybody can figure journaling out for himself. Perhaps my point is that it should be thought of as intellectually essential to 'keep track', and appropriately supported in courses and with institutional support apparatus (software, etc.). All just too obvious for words...

27 July
A Jon Udell quote:

Here's what I want to see: Storage without explicit organization, but with super-rich metadata for super-fast searches. Allow me to create views made from persistent searches - my "project folder" is simply a collection of resources tied together by a common tag, one of many. And, if I want to form a project hierarchy, make my persistent searches into file objects too. The main thing in all this, though, is that it be woven very deeply within the OS. I don't want a helper app. I want this to replace the standard metaphor completely. (probably quoting Leslie Michael Orchard)