Sabbatical Plan, Fall Term 2002

Hugh Blackmer

Since my arrival at Washington & Lee in 1992 I have been working at the intersection of information access, classroom teaching, and electronic media development. The decade has seen a startling growth in resources available to end users and on desktops, and every constituency has been challenged to adapt and innovate and adapt again. Librarians have integrated online text and data resources, instructors have incorporated computers into classroom settings, media services personnel have explored and developed innovative uses for the florescence of multimedia software, and computing services have coped bravely with hardware evolution, burgeoning network environments, and bandwidth challenges.

Each of these realms has its own epic tale, replete with leaps and setbacks, but for the most part the sagas of progress have taken place in isolation: with some interesting and important exceptions, campuses have defined and solved problems with local personnel and resources. Even within consortia whose mandate is to foster collaboration among institutions, sharing and exchange is the exception. We at Washington & Lee know little about how our partners within the Associated Colleges of the South are coping with the problems we face, and still less about the activities of our peers in other liberal arts consortia in which we have interests (Oberlin Group, CLAC).

Professional meetings, listservs, industry conferences, and personal networks all have important parts to play in developing effective extramural collaboration, but to a distressing extent librarians talk with librarians, and computer and media specialists are similarly specialized. Even on small campuses it is routine to hear communication identified as the most exasperating and perpetual problem.

I have been fortunate in my years at Washington & Lee to be able to participate in multiple constitutencies, as an information specialist, a classroom teacher, a producer and consumer of electronic media, and an experimenter with hardware and software. In recent years I have also had the opportunity to be involved in conceptualizing and planning an interdisciplinary initiative (the Global Stewardship Program), and it is this experience that provides the impetus for the proposed sabbatical.

As a reference librarian I deal with the information needs of many disciplines, though my primary responsibilities are in the sciences. I have been especially interested in the proliferation of kinds of information that fall within the mandate of libraries, and I have chosen to be active in local development of several of them: the Web as a communication tool, electronic bibliography, relational databases, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Recent developments at Washington & Lee have facilitated a coalescence of these formerly separate realms, in work I have been doing with Skip Williams and John Blackburn (see ACS Fluency Initiative funding request for a current summary).

We share with other liberal arts institutions a number of problems in information access, pedagogical evolution, and support for the internationalization of teaching and learning. We should be in better communication with peer institutions, to facilitate resource sharing, exchange, and other forms of collaboration. There are few opportunities for visits and exchanges between campuses by librarians and support staff. Our innovative work should be better known, and other institutions are doing things that we should know about.

The states of the northeast contain a broad collection of liberal arts institutions which have interests, programs and problems akin to those we face. I propose to visit the following Oberlin Group campuses for about 3 days each during the Fall term (some may be dropped from the itinerary if they have no relevant programs, and others could be added):

Amherst College (has a Science Library)
Bates College (Science Reference librarian, no separate Science Library)
Bowdoin College (has a Science Library)
Clark University (has a Science Library and Map Library)
Colby College (has a Science Library)
Middlebury College (has a Science Library)
Mount Holyoke College (has a Science Librarian)
Smith College (has a Science Library)
Vassar College (has a Science Librarian)
Wellesley College (has a Science Library)
Wesleyan University (has a Science Library)
Williams College (has a Science Library)
The Academic Software Evaluation Project at Connecticut College provides a preliminary tally of software resources at 13 New England liberal arts colleges. There is at present no analogous summary of GIS activity at the institutions listed above.

I also intend to visit other institutions with important innovative programs in some of the areas of interest including:

Dartmouth College (Epidemiology and GIS, Science Library integration)
Harvard University (Map Library)
Brandeis University (GIS support in libraries)
School for International Training, Brattleboro VT (Global Stewardship)

During these visits I will talk with teaching faculty, librarians, support staff, and administrators who are dealing with problems similar to those we face; observe information services in action; make presentations on W&L's activities and innovations; and establish the basis for future collaborations. Broadly, I am concerned with how students and faculty and librarians use information: how they find what they are looking for, and what they do with what they find. I anticipate several specific areas of inquiry:

  1. How are libraries handling the integration of electronic resources into
  2. Are there developments in the overall picture of library services at peer institutions that would be useful to us as we plan renovation and reorganization in Leyburn?
  3. What are the local histories of and prospects for relations among library, computing, media services, and teaching faculty? What collaborations and resource linkages have developed?
  4. What are the contexts, initiatives, and infrastructural supports for internationalization of curriculum and campus life? How are information needs being addressed in this new dimension of liberal arts curricula?
  5. How and by whom is GIS being developed and incorporated?

The primary purpose of the visits and explorations sketched above is to establish ties that may foster future collaborations with projects and programs at peer institutions. At the end of the sabbatical I will produce a report on the current state and apparent frontiers of information access in liberal arts colleges, to help us understand our own opportunities and directions in what promises to be an eventful decade, and I anticipate publications and conference presentations on GIS in liberal arts settings. Observing other settings will also help me develop a personal agenda for the next 6 years, during which I expect (in the most general terms) to continue to build and promulgate electronic tools to support teaching and learning in the liberal arts.

I am exploring (with George Carras) possible external sources of funds to cover travel expenses, but in the absence of such funding I wish to request reimbursement according to the following schedule:

Mileage from base in St. George ME: estimate 4000 miles, to a maximum of $1200
Motels for many of the site visits: 3 nights each, $80/night, to a maximum of $2400
Meals: taking hosts out to lunch, to a maximum of $600
Total: $4200