A Plan for 2002-2003

Hugh Blackmer

January 2002

In the last decade, libraries took a bold leap into cyberspace and so launched themselves into an inexorable evolution in the direction of becoming digital. Libraries will not cease to be mediators of access to the printed word, but they must also assume responsibility for managing a growing range of electronic information. Contributing to this evolution, and helping to implement and manage it at Washington & Lee, is at the core of my responsibilities as a librarian and a scholar, and leads me to propose a two-year program of exploration and development, centered on study of and contribution to the emerging models for digital libraries. At the urging of George Carras I am seeking external funding for the 18 months between July 2002 and December 2003 to carry out several elements of the program, and what follows is an attempt to lay out the background, rationale, and practical details of my plan.

Background and Rationale
My work as a reference librarian centers on information fluency, helping people develop practical means for access to the rapidly-growing landscape of literatures and data. The perspective of a science librarian takes in the activities and requirements of a number of departments whose members’ research involves students directly, in laboratory sections, in advanced courses, and in summer research programs. These departments are linked together in interdisciplinary efforts in the sciences, and to other campus departments in programs such as Environmental Studies. For the last nine years (as science liaison and then as Science Librarian) I have been part of the science departments’ discovery of common interests and needs, sometimes as an observer and often as a guide to new information resources. The library has provided leadership in Web development, electronic access to literature, acquisition and promulgation of electronic index tools, cross-linking of search tools and journals, and introduction and support of citation indexing via ISI’s Web of Science. I have been involved as guest lecturer or instructor in courses in nearly all of the science departments and in several of the Programs in which they participate (University Scholars, Environmental Studies, Global Stewardship), and have also participated in supportive and supervisory roles in several R.E. Lee summer research projects. I have been working with others at Washington & Lee and elsewhere to develop and support Geographic Information Systems (GIS) as a cross-disciplinary tool for laboratory and classroom, and I have been exploring the many uses of database tools in the Web environment.

The next decade of development in information access will center on digital libraries, and offer students and teachers at colleges and universities direct access to vast resources of text, data, and other forms of information, far beyond what we have already experienced. This evolution will require new infrastructure and new ways of thinking and acting as we work to integrate this growing flood into teaching and learning, into classrooms and laboratories, and into collaborations and research programs. Many people in industry and academia are working on elements of this emerging electronic information infrastructure, though no convincing single vision of overall direction has yet emerged.

The National Science Foundation’s Digital Library Initiative has provided support for exploration and development of digital library pilot programs, most tied to large-scale projects with enormous budgets and many participants. There are some exceptions, notably the ALSOS project at Washington & Lee, which make it clear that small-scale efforts have a place in the overall initiative, and that in fact a necessary part of digital library development is to encourage active participation at all levels. ALSOS is built on relatively simple technology (Access database, with ASP and SQL to link to the Web) and demonstrates that it is practical to develop sophisticated applications with student workers and small investments. ALSOS models a solution to a recurrent problem: that faced by the scholar or working group wishing to distribute the results of a local project to international audiences. Digital libraries exist at several levels of control: individuals work on their own collections of digital materials, groups share collections contributed by their members among themselves, and institutions publish and distribute to larger publics.

Small institutions can be active participants in digital library development, and liberal arts colleges are especially suited because they share a number of distinctive characteristics: their faculties are primarily concerned with teaching, much of the instruction is in small classes, students have opportunities for participation in faculty research programs, and students are encouraged to explore the full spectrum of academic disciplines and to take personal responsibility for their own learning. Historically, liberal arts colleges have been the source of much innovation in American higher education, precisely because they were not so constrained by disciplinary boundaries and jealousies, and because the face-to-face environment permitted by their small scale favors self-reliance and fosters a collegial model based on civility and cooperation, which in turn facilitates cross-disciplinary contact and experiment. For all these reasons it is practical and appropriate to undertake innovative development projects with the expectation that what we do will have wide application. We can do many things with existing resources, and we can do more with modest assistance.

Four Facets of the Information Future
Below I have identified four complementary and interlinked challenges, the common thread of which is electronic access to information. Taken together they constitute facets of the problem of designing and building effective and flexible digital libraries and integrating them into the work of individuals, groups, and institutions.

  1. Incorporation of Information Technologies into Teaching, in the Classroom and Beyond
    It is difficult to anticipate the effects of the development of digital libraries on teaching and learning. American universities are deeply invested in a model of classroom learning and course organization, and from this perspective it is easy to be tempted into technology-centered models for augmentation, the hardware for which slides quickly into obsolescence. It is also easy to simply accept (with marginal adjustments, such as AV equipment) the medieval model of a classroom as a podium facing ranks of seats as the environment best adapted to teaching and learning. It is challenging to consider how innovations like wireless networking and non-keyboard computing devices may open new pedagogical possibilities, and likewise difficult to imagine what would be required to teach in virtual classroom environments. Some innovations are simply inappropriate to the face-to-face model prized by liberal arts colleges; others might be effective solutions to specific teaching and research situations.

    Courseware packages (Web Course in a Box, Element K, and others) offer suites of presentation and management tools for instructors and drop boxes and threaded discussion utilities for student use, and can serve as a means to augment traditional course structure with electronic features. Electronic teaching aids offer integrated pedagogical environments (Blackboard, etc.), but such packages impose a confining structure on both teacher and learner. They are classroom tools, designed primarily to stimulate and/or support traditional classroom activities, and not to facilitate new environments for communication and collaboration. We must ask more than this of computers in education.

    To some degree this is a matter of venue: I have taught half a dozen different courses (from Human Geography and Anthropology of East Asia to Biological Literature and Digital Libraries) in computer labs, using the opportunity to integrate in-class writing, GIS exercises, Web page creation, and hands-on instruction in finding and managing information. The computer lab is a frustrating environment to teach in because it is (almost always) configured for individual work at separate workstations, and is poorly adapted to class discussion and group activities. A wireless network of laptops might be an effective alternative (as described in a proposal from October 2000, at home.wlu.edu/~blackmerh/tlrg/paspar2.html ).

    Another challenge is incorporation of electronic archives and index tools into teaching in the sciences. JSTOR and PROLA offer keyword access to vast holdings formerly immured in bound journals, and Web of Science and SciFinder Scholar unlock the mysteries of tracing linkages and exploring intellectual history across disciplinary boundaries. There are few precedents to guide librarians and instructors in integrating these resources into teaching and learning, but without such linkage they will be expensive luxuries, of use only to specialists.

  2. Collaborative Tools for Teachers, Learners and Researchers
    The Web opened the possibility of globally-distributed hypertext to anyone with an Internet connection, and the vastnesses of such search engines as Google and AltaVista are one measure of the consequences. The chaos of the Web (“the largest library in the world, only all the books are on the floor…”), the volatility of individual pages (here today, who knows where tomorrow), and the absence of any easy means to determine the reliability of posted information (“on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog…”) obscure the fact that the Web is now a vital communication medium of truly global scope, and for many people serves as the court of first resort in the search for information about almost any subject. Clearly the Web has proved itself as a medium for personal expression, and as a locus for many kinds of commercial and recreational activity. Less clear is the Web’s utility as a virtual meeting place and collaborative environment: most uses are individual transactions or one-to-one communication, and the potential for group work is largely undeveloped, at least in part because of limited visions of Web users’ capabilities.

    The traditional model that librarians have of their patrons (and that many instructors have of their students, and businesses have of their customers) views them as consumers of services. The Web makes it easier for users to locate what they seek, and for suppliers (librarians, teachers, or vendors -or their cybernetic agents) to distribute the results of queries. Transactions can be quite complex, and both library catalogs and the dot-com world make extensive use of active Web pages, which treat a user’s input as a query to a database and return an answer. The pedagogical applications of active Web pages have not been widely explored, but have the potential to harness the notion that students and project collaborators are producers and knowledge creators as well as consumers. Their work can be gathered and shared and edited for wider distribution, and can be archived for posterity. A broad view of the digital library imagines an environment built to facilitate and support the collection, management, and redistribution of contributed information.

  3. Interlinkage of Consortial Partners
    Liberal arts colleges have much to hope for in joining consortia, including the potential for cross-listed courses, improved bargaining power with software vendors and database suppliers, and possibilities for sharing the cost of access to electronic resources. The day-to-day problems and challenges of classroom and laboratory are sufficiently similar from one campus to another that instructors and support staff from different institutions find much to discuss, and can benefit from pooling technology skills. The weak point in the effectiveness of consortia is communication: people at different campuses rarely visit back and forth, so they really know very little about the specific circumstances of their opposite numbers. E-mail and occasional meetings at symposia are not sufficient to create or sustain effective collaborations, and the warmth and shared vision of conferences and workshops fade quickly unless they are sustained by joint work on common problems. Shared resources and common development efforts create a much stronger basis for collaborations among faculty, which can provide complementarity and inspire curricular innovation.

    The need for GIS support provides an opportunity for development of joint resources in a digital library context, but also exemplifies this communication problem. The complexity and power of GIS software requires that an instructor commit considerable time to learning to use the applications, and to the task of teaching basic skills to students -seemingly, one has to teach GIS before one can teach with GIS. It should be possible to build a library of online tutorials to handle many of the questions that arise, and to address many pedagogical uses of spatial data via interactive maps distributed by an Internet Map Server shared by members of a consortium.

    Managing the spatial data that go into GIS projects and the maps that are produced adds another layer of complexity. Most liberal arts colleges are not yet ready to dedicate resources to full-time support for GIS, and few libraries have personnel with the skills to manage spatial data. Some means of centralizing and sharing resources, and of distributing expertise, would make it feasible to extend the power of GIS to the many departments that would make use of computer mapping if they could.

    It is certainly feasible to serve spatial information over the Web, either as spatial data to be used locally with GIS software, or as interactive maps, as described above. It is also possible to extend the functionality of Map Servers to provide spatial input to other applications, such as library catalogs and data analysis software (see ims1.wlu.edu for several prototypes). It is now practical to build a virtual spatial librarian service which could serve the specific needs of distant campuses, and thus provide a basis for collaborations using a common set of data. For example, I imagine a Digital Atlas of the South, with maps and data contributed by (and distributed over) a dozen or more institutions.

  4. Information Needs of Interdisciplinary Programs
    Among the elements of the current wave of innovation in liberal arts colleges are interdisciplinary programs which broaden the curriculum by encouraging multiple perspectives on important issues -poverty, the environment, questions of race and gender, globalization, dynamical systems, and health (among others). Each such program must establish its own information infrastructure to support teaching and learning, and traditionally this has involved library acquisition (books and journals) and access to relevant literature indexes to support instruction and research. In the context of the emerging model of the digital library, this information infrastructure takes on new dimensions, and requires access to a wider palette of resources, including imagery, spatial data, sound, and video.

    Interdisciplinary programs are also creators of information, and there are no ready answers for who should be responsible for curation and support and distribution of what they produce. Sometimes the case seems clear: the library is certainly a primary candidate for manager of the spatial data necessary for GIS, for mediation of relations with external databases, and for coordination of the information streams that result from research and collaboration activities. Most liberal arts college libraries are unprepared at the moment (in terms of staffing and technical skills) to take on these responsibilities, but I suggest that an active role in supporting the instructional and research activities of interdisciplinary programs is a continuation of the evolution we have already seen, and that active engagement would spread quickly to disciplinary activities as well, as departments find themselves more and more engaged in linkage with extramural resources and institutions.

The Projects
As Science Librarian I have enjoyed unlimited opportunity to develop interdisciplinary contacts and to explore novel solutions to problems I encountered. My long series of collaborative projects and experiments with technologies is likely to continue, and in six months I will probably be doing things I cannot imagine right now. The plans laid out below begin with activities and projects I have described in more detail in

Many of these activities are collaborations with Skip Williams, John Blackburn, Jim Kahn and other people at Washington and Lee, and some will involve work with people at other institutions. My role is primarily conceptual and communicative: others with the requisite skills will write code and build databases. Travel plays a substantial part, because digital library development cannot be an isolated activity: I need to know how colleagues at other institutions are thinking about and approaching solutions, others should know what we are working on, and it is important to explore what consortial and other collaborations can do to support one another.

A chronological sketch (inevitably provisional):

The specific projects (with some descriptive text drawn from existing proposals), each of which interconnects with sabbatical visits and planned development efforts, are these:

  1. GIS: prototyping and developing spatial data libraries
       (see R.E. Lee Proposal for February 2000 version)
    We seek to build a spatial information infrastructure that (1) end users can navigate easily, (2) librarians can use and maintain without special skills, (3) faculty can draw upon to augment and distribute course material, (4) institutions can build upon for outreach to surrounding communities, (5) will support the work of GIS support staff as institutions add them, and (6) will stimulate collaborations among ACS partners. The elements include: Development of software will take place in collaboration with Skip Williams, using the skills of student programmers. We also anticipate interest from potential collaborators at other ACS institutions.

  2. Environmental Studies: a Web-based collaborative environment
       (see R.E. Lee Proposal for February 2000 version)
    We seek to build a Web-based collaborative environment, a general model for a Web service which can be adapted to the specific needs of consortial projects (linking institutions), working groups, and courses (at a single institution, or among several campuses). At the heart of the collaborative environment is a digital library which grows as users contribute items and pointers to resources. The library consists of materials in many formats and media, which could be housed on a single server or might be located in many places. Each item has associated metadata to enhance retrievability.

    The user experiences the collaborative environment as an array of Web pages with entry, upload, search, display and editing capabilities. Behind this user interface, the Web service is built upon active server pages which connect to relational databases. The service provides links to data, texts, maps, images and other forms of information and may also be connected to specific software applications for display and analysis of data. The service also provides the means for individuals to manage their own personal digital libraries, and to contribute materials to the group’s collection.

    The emphasis is on active use of and contribution to a pool of shared resources. The individual and group libraries are working environments, not accessible to the outside world, but the potential for wider linkage is anticipated as well. After a process of editing and vetting, resources from individual libraries can be uplinked to the group, and elements of the group’s digital library can likewise be contributed to public collections via Dublin Core records in larger digital libraries and/or public Web sites maintained by the group.

    Development of software will take place in collaboration with Skip Williams, using the skills of student programmers.

  3. Electronic Classrooms: experiments in pedagogy
    I expect to continue to teach Anthropology of East Asia (home.wlu.edu/~blackmerh/eas/anth230.html for this year's iteration) in a lab environment, but for the Fall 2003 iteration I will redesign the course to incorporate materials and methods discovered during the sabbatical. I also expect to be involved in Global Stewardship courses, particularly in the development of GIS resources. Experiments and solutions observed on campuses I visit during the sabbatical will probably suggest directions I have not yet imagined. I am less interested in the technology of electronic pedagogy than in the techniques and the means to augment and deliver and expanded array of resources.

  4. Digital Archives: linking the past to the future
    Sabbatical visits will address the question of how peer institutions are making curricular use of JSTOR, PROLA, Web of Science, SciFinder Scholar and other gateways to literatures. I intend to develop a General Education course in Moving Frontiers of Science to explore these possibilities. This project area also connects with improvements to the library's capabilities to manage electronic access to current periodicals, begun with the 2002 serials review, and will eventually involve development of utilities for SQL access to Annie's database.

  5. Other Opportunities
    The basic technology of relational databases and active Web pages is fairly simple, and lends itself to the creation of modular programs. Much of the code written for specific purposes will be reusable, and Skip and I expect that many projects and opportunities will present themselves as faculty come to us with problems to solve. Much of the development can be done by student programmers, in consultation with the Computer Science department, and it is likely that they will prove to be important innovators. We expect that the practical work done on these projects will contribute to improved senior projects as well as to student resumes.

Seeking Funds
I confess limitations of vision and perspective when it comes to enumerating and quantifying resources to carry out the plan as sketched. I can identify several activities for which request for external funding seems to be appropriate, but I need help in developing appropriate budgets:

  1. Travel and related expenses, including my sabbatical visits and followup trips; and (for both Skip and myself) journeys to ACS campuses, return visits to some of the sabbatical campuses, and perhaps travel to Brazil and/or ESRI; perhaps also conference travel in 2003

  2. Hourly wages for student programmers who work on prototypes and subsequent development

  3. Software licenses for some products we would use (charting software? components for apps we develop? non-ESRI GIS software [ERDAS, BlueMarble]?)

  4. Collaboration funds: Bringing eloquent folks to W&L, to talk on some of these issues (consultant services? analogy to "help PIs develop long-term...")