It's useful for me to try to summarize how things stand and feel about halfway through this project, and you're a handy sounding board (or at least a convenient target) since you know something of what I thought I was setting out to do and have basic sympathy with at least some of it. I need to do something to diminish a general disquietude, and perhaps on the positive side to refocus my energies in productive directions. So this may go on to greater lengths than is reasonable to expect you to read or consider, but I think it's likely to be a useful exercise for me.
I've made visits of varying lengths to Middlebury, Bowdoin, Wellesley, Williams, Amherst and Smith, I've attended a NELINET conference on Digital Reality, I've sat in on a Mellon-funded GIS workshop, I've been to Simmons to talk with two of the people who transformed me into a librarian, and I've been in and out of a lot of bookstores (always an interesting gauge of what's going on around a campus), and on and off several campuses that aren't directly on my agenda (Harvard, Northeastern, Bentley, several public libraries). I've talked with administrators, librarians, IT directors, worker bees of various persuasions (IT, library, other staff), professors. I've toured physical facilities, absorbed ambiences, eavesdropped on classes, and watched interactions. In short, I've been doing "fieldwork", and I've encountered the sorts of conundrums and conceptual brick walls and challenges to what one thinks one knows that always accompany fieldwork. Part of the disquietude comes from not knowing what it all adds up to, but thinking that I should; part comes from realizing that I've not made the most of ANY of the opportunities to find out about situations and circumstances; and part comes from the absence of a clear sense of why (and for whom) I'm really doing this.
Dropping onto a campus and trying to intuit its zeitgeist is an odd thing to do --and I can't think of too many parallel circumstances outside of fieldwork. There's a focus problem (I'm not looking at the same things at each, not making any sort of controlled comparison), and the usual observer difficulty of interrupting ongoing activities and processes (not knowing what effects the observation has on the observed: is the Cat alive or dead?), and the crapshoot of personal chemistries and accidents of timing (some people are easier to connect with than others, and some moments are righter than others). Add to these a varying sense on my part that I know what I'm doing, or why I'm talking to a particular person, and the fact that my original scheme was vastly too ambitious... classic fieldwork dilemmas.
The institutions themselves have some formal similarities (small liberal arts colleges, with justifiable pretensions to excellence of various sorts), but with each visit it seems clearer that the idea of transportable models ("best practices" that can be conveyed to other settings) is unsustainable: each situation has so many unique facets and is so complex in its fine structure that transplantation is impossible. Part of this is clearly the personalities, part is institutional history... but the upshot seems to me to be that all small liberal arts colleges have "the same problems", but that solutions have to be local. Hardly a blinding flash and a deafening report. It does pose a problem for consortial efforts, ACS-like or CET-like: how CAN one design a collaboration or other sort of integrative activity for entities that have their own ways of doing things, their own ongoing solutions to what they see as their immediate problems? As I write this I realize that the same applies to professors and to students, and perhaps it's the nubbin of my existential difficulties: I spend a lot of mental energies scheming ways to engage others in REFORM along lines that seem obvious to me, and am repeatedly and consistently disappointed when they don't respond as I think they should. So perhaps I shouldn't invest myself so heavily in reform...
To summarize some of what I think I've seen, some of which looks obvious once stated: it seems that most organizations are pretty thoroughly partitioned, and that most people stay within the sectors to which they're assigned. Science librarians tend to their last, and don't seem to venture into non-library realms (I was, naively I now think, hoping to find some like-minded others who are trying to affect how science is taught and learned), and ditto for most other roles. I hadn't noticed or recognized how unique my own situation is, as a librarian with faculty status (not a common situation in the small liberal arts colleges of the northeast...) who has felt free to experiment with various technologies and seek out collaborations across organizational lines. While this gives me a renewed appreciation for my situation at Washington & Lee, it also stymies my inclination toward prescriptive reform: others don't have (and/or don't think they have) the freedom to wander in the Groves of Academe, sampling the fruits and pruning the shrubberies.
I've spent perhaps too much of my time on the question of feasibility of merging 'computing' and 'library' realms, and gotten myself into an all too familiar mindspace of prescription (WE could/should do this... or that...) when the reality is that I am unlikely to have much to say in the matter of whether W&L does or doesn't attempt such a reorganization. I briefly considered the question of whether (and under what conditions) _I_ would undertake to manage such a merger as the activity of the next 5 years, but came to my senses and realized that such a course would separate me from what I really like to do (which is work on whatever I feel like working on).
Two other (interlinked) questions on which I've been working and gathering impressions are digital libraries and GIS. I've seen almost nothing to indicate that college libraries are thinking about the challenge of integrating the flood of non-print media into what they do and how they anticipate their own future as actors in the evolution of higher education. For the most part library attention remains focused on 'traditional' problems (space issues, library instruction [Information Litearcy/Fluency], rising costs of journals), and isn't aimed at the twin problems of (1) integrating information/knowledge management into teaching and learning and (2) dealing with digital forms of information beyond what vendors deliver. Even in the institutions which have merged computing and libraries I have seen no suggestion that this emerging problem is on the screens: there's simply too much to do to keep up with the traditional work, and no niches for the visionaries who might be considering these matters. I see this realm of digital information management as the natural and obvious concern of the intersection of libraries and IT, but reluctantly conclude that (so far as I've seen) that intersection isn't a very active area. GIS is one of the realms in which this _could_ be happening, if libraries were active in managing spatial data and IT organizations were actively developing classroom support for GIS as a teaching tool. As one IT director expressed it to me, it's simply too expensive and too risky to invest in local R&D --there's too much day-to-day work to do, and no budget or mandate for software development.
I've seen GIS as a potential integrator, an information visualization and analysis technology that's applicable to just about every discipline and especially relevant to many interdisciplinary areas --potentially a major leap in teaching and learning. In the ACS Information Fluency context I've gone on and on about the necessity to recognize and support this and other _digital_ forms of information, to see them as integral to evolving knowledge systems (and thus to libraries and classrooms and so on). I'm one of the co-conspirators in an ACS project (we call it The Digital South) that has GIS as the centerpiece --and I'm trying to develop (in another thing I'm writing) an articulation of the outliers of that centerpiece, as part of a proposal for funding and collaboration. Again I seem to be caught up in the "we should..." mode, in advance of any groundswell of demand from professors or anybody else, and again I'm wondering whay and for whom I'm doing this?
GIS makes a good example of the obstacles in effecting change in small liberal arts colleges: the hardware, software and support requirements for effective GIS implementation are expensive, and the demand is nascent at best: it's a gamble for budget managers, and at the moment they are especially disinclined to risk. Success in developing and promulgating GIS requires _dedicated_ support, in the form of a "GIS guy", because of the complexity and power of the software. Getting an allocation of resources to hire a GIS guy is pretty difficult, but it _has_ happened (Smith has one, Williams has part of one).
At this point I showed the above to Betsy, who has been putting up with my grumping about existential dilemmas, and more than an hour and a half later I'm back to it again. She's encouraging me to recognize that a reasonable core issue to center upon is the prospective 'flood' of digital information that libraries are going to have to deal with, and that must somehow be channeled into teaching and learning. GIS is obviously one of the examples, but identifying others and better articulating the nature of the flood is, she says, a necessary part of the visionary task (and she suggests that the prescriptive be minimized as unproductive). She's usually right about such things.
One of the terms I encountered at the Digital Reality thing is "digital asset management" (the acronym is pretty eloquent in re: the problems included). The speaker was Mary Ide, of WGBH's Media Archives and Preservation Center, and she talked about how the enterprise-wide system developed and works at GBH, to manage and distribute footage internally (to program producers) and to external purchasers. Besides being very interesting about a medium that I don't have much contact with (TV), it put into my head the (obvious) point that colleges have and need to manage a vast array of digital (and potentially digitizable) assets, and that such management isn't clearly ANYbody's job. Some of those assets could have much greater value if they could be digitally distributed --think of the wealth of maps tucked away in Special Collections which _could_ be used if they were scanned and saved as MrSID-compressed images (directly useable in GIS), not to speak of various image archives...
So... what should I be considering in the way of emergent digital information that libraries _might_ involve themselves in managing and distributing, and so need to be thinking about? Clearly there are many locally-produced datastreams, image collections, texts, video projects, sound recordings that might fit into this realm, and a broad range of materials that are not local (e-books, e-journals, e-reserves, CD and DVD products, site-licensed materials on servers, etc.) and could be said to be part of the digital flood. I know I'm overlooking some obvious other stuff/media, and I'll bet you can remind me.