Looking Ahead to 2003

Hugh Blackmer
end of December 2002
If you are reading this on paper,
please note that it has many embedded hyperlinks
and can only be truly savored by reading online

This is an update to the Plan for 2002-2003 I wrote a year ago, some elements of which found their way into my sabbatical proposal and subsequent documents. My sabbatical log is too big and too rambling to serve as an efficient summary of interests and discoveries, though it contains links to a substantial number of nascent directions and statements of intention and wish-lists (including Digital South, Dean's Memorandum response, thoughts on the TLRC, and Information Commons resources). A blog may prove to be a better medium to track my unfolding interests, though at the moment the Middlebury oook blog seems a bit too remote. I expect to set up a W&L-based blog in the next couple of weeks, once server space can be found for the application [7/i: it's up and working at http://amazon.wlu.edu:5336/newSite].

A sabbatical should refresh and reorient, providing the sabbaticant with opportunities to think about familiar things in new ways, to begin new trains of thought, and to make decisions about personal and professional priorities. My experiences in three months of visiting institutions in New England met these objectives magnificently, and I return to W&L with many ideas for things I might do in the next six years or so. I look forward to opportunities to engage in intramural and extramural collaborations and invent new directions as technologies evolve --in short, to pick up where I left off at the end of July.

I see myself as a creator, a facilitator, an initiator, a provocateur; and I see part of my vocation as contributing to the reform and evolution of liberal education. I happen to be doing this from the platform of the Library, in the position of Science Librarian, but my interests and activities are not defined by or confined to the sciences. My appointment as Science Librarian has been a convenient platform to combine teaching in a number of disciplines, research into emergent information technologies, development of my own skills, and support for the information needs of faculty and students. As an anthropologist, I enjoy a freedom to interest myself in the workings of other disciplines, and to take on the role of generalist in exploring information resources and analytical methods. As a student of technologies, I keep an ear to the rail and an eye on the horizon, and pass along applications and resources to others who can make good use of them. As a librarian, my interests center on the emergence of digital libraries, or perhaps of the digital library. I see this evolution as

Here is how I summarized digital library characteristics last year:
The digital library is distributed: it is accessible anytime and anyplace, and its ubiquity will change teaching and learning. The digital library is also emergent: it is being built by its users, as they contribute and interlink their work, their interests, and their applications. The details must be invented, by combining technological possibilities with the developing imagination of instructors and support staff. Librarians have vital roles to play in development and organization, but the digital library is not the sole province of librarians --indeed, the building of digital libraries requires a range of skills that necessitates collaboration.

We have and must learn to manage effectively a rapidly-growing range of digital assets. Their value is realized when they are used, when they become integral parts of teaching and learning. The great challenge is to build organizations capable of integrating the floods of data and information in many media, and sensitive to the rapidly-changing needs of users of all skill levels. Just how this transformation is to be inspired and executed at W&L and other liberal arts colleges is less than obvious, and to some degree awaits institutional will and some level of reorganization. In the meantime, each of the above points needs the attention of visionaries and prototypers.

The summary of seven interlinked problems described in my request for sabbatical funding still seems entirely relevant after three months of campus visits. My discussions, observations, and reading make it clear that local experimentation and prototyping (a) is essential to develop local solutions to problems common to all campuses, and (b) would benefit greatly from enhanced communication among peer institutions. Quoting from an early-November summary of my observations (Libraries and Computing on Liberal Arts College Campuses):

IF there is burgeoning digital content THEN there is a necessity to teach sagacious and responsible use of it; IF anyone can create and distribute digital content THEN there will be a growing demand for support and development. Whose responsibility is it to create digital content? Many would say it is the faculty, but it is more likely that digitization projects will fall to libraries or IT. Who will build the resource discovery tools, who will provide the teaching and support for digital media, and whose responsibility is it to manage the realized and potential digital assets of an organization? Library and computing personnel are the obvious candidates, but they must collaborate closely with each other and with disciplinary faculty, and all must develop new skills.

Elements of my own agenda for the coming year include the following:

I have identified several meetings and training sessions I would like to attend:

ACS GIS Symposium, Southwestern 28 Feb-3 Mar
ArcGIS Spatial Analyst training, Tyson's Corner 4-6 Mar ($1200)
Customizing ArcIMS using ActiveX, Tyson's Corner 24-26 March ($1350)
?NITLE/CNI Task Force, Washington DC 28-29 April
International Conference on the History of Cartography, Harvard 15-20 June
ESRI Users Conference, San Diego 7-11 July (conference fee as part of our ESRI site license)
Syllabus Annual Education Technology conference, San Jose 27-31 July

The menu of software packages to learn or study and developments to follow is always growing, but the immediate horizon includes these:

Manila, and the world of blogs
wiki and other active-Web collaboration environments
understand .NET environment better
learn Flash, to get animation under control
Javascript (see bookmarklets for an example)
series of ESRI Virtual Campus courses
latent semantic indexing
CiteSeer and Dspace and OCKHAM
XML into practical skills
continue explorations of Linux

In a somewhat grander sense, I want to develop my own participation in dialog on the directions of teaching and learning, both by participation in discussions at W&L and by active engagement with co-conspirators beyond Lexington. At the moment it looks like blog technology (which facilitates the creation of virtual salons and communities of practise) may be the single most important means to this end (continuing, refining, and expanding the logging I've been doing for years, as reflected in my "current work" pages), but the opportunities for face-to-face encounter are also important. I don't know how to manage more travel than I have already been doing, but my sense is that most of it has turned out to be productive, for myself and for W&L.