On the Future of Research Libraries at U.T. Austin

Submitted by connolly on Sat, 2006-09-16 17:14. :: | | |

Wow. What a week!

I'm always on the lookout for opportunities to get back to Austin, so I was happy to accept an invitation to this 11 - 12 September symposium, The Research Library in the 21st Century run by University of Texas Libraries:Image: San Jacinto Residence Hall

In today's rapidly changing digital landscape, we are giving serious thought to shaping a strategy for the future of our libraries. Consequently, we are inviting the best minds in the field and representatives from leading institutions to explore the future of the research library and new developments in scholarly communication. While our primary purpose is to inform a strategy for our libraries and collections, we feel that all participants and their institutions will benefit.

I spent the first day getting a feel for this community, where evidently a talk by Clifford Lynch of CNI is a staple. "There is no scholarship without scholarly communication," he said, quoting Courant. He noted that traditionally, publishers disseminate and libraries preserve, but we're shifting to a world where the library helps disseminate and makes decisions on behalf of the whole world about which works to preserve. He said there's a company (I wish I had made a note of the name) that has worked out the price of an endowed web site; at 4% annual return, they figure it at $2500/gigabyte.

James Duderstadt from the University of Michigan told us that the day when the entire contents of the library fits on an iPod (or "a device the size of a football" for other audiences that didn't know about iPods ;-) is not so far off. He said that the University of Michigan started digitizing their 7.8million volumes even before becoming a Google Book Search library partner. They initially estimated it would take 10 years, but the current estimate is 6 years and falling. He said that yes, there are copyright issues and other legal challenges, and he wouldn't be suprised to end up in court over it; he had done that before. Even the sakai project might face litigation. What got the most attention, I think, was when he relayed first-hand experience from the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education; their report is available to those that know where to look, though it is not due for official release until September 26.

He also talked about virtual organizations, i.e. groups of researchers from universities all over, and even the "meta university," with no geographical boundaries at all. That sort of thing fueled my remarks for the Challenges of Access and Preservation panel on the second day. I noted that my job is all about virtual organizations, and if the value of research libraries is connected to recruiting good people, you should keep in mind the fact that "get together and go crazy" events like football games are a big part of building trust and loyalty.

Kevin Guthrie, President of ITHAKA, made a good point that starting new things is usually easier than changing old things, which was exactly what I was thinking when President Powers spoke of "preserving our investment" in libraries in his opening address. U.T. invested $650M in libraries since 1963. That's not counting bricks and mortar; that's special collections, journal subscriptions, etc.

My point that following links is 96% reliable sparked an interesting conversation; it was misunderstood as "96% of web sites are persistent" and then "96% of links persist"; when I clarified that it's 96% of attempts to follow links that succeed, and this is because most attempts to follow links are from one popular resource to another, we had an interesting discussion of ephemera vs. the scholarly record and which parts need what sort of attention and what sort of policies. The main example was that 99% of political websites about the California run-off election went offline right after the election. My main point was: for the scholarly record, HTTP/DNS is as good as it gets for the forseeable future; don't throw up your hands at the 4% and wait for some new technology; apply your expertise of curation and organizational change to the existing technologies.

In fact, I didn't really get beyond URIs and basic web architecture in my remarks. I had prepared some points about the Semantic Web, but I didn't have time for them in my opening statement and they didn't come up much later in the conversation, except when Ann Wolpert, Director of Libraries at MIT, brough up DSPACE a bit.

Betsy Wilson of the University of Washington suggested that collaboration would be the hallmark of the library of the future. I echoed that back in the wrap-up session referring to library science as the "interdisciplinary discipline"; I didn't think I was making that up (and a google search confirms I did not), but it seemed to be new to this audience.

By the end of the event I was pretty much up to speed on the conversation; but on the first day, I felt a little out of place and when I saw the sound engineer getting things ready, I mentioned to him that I had a little experience using and selling that sort of equipment. It turned out that he's George Geranios, sound man for bands like Blue Oyster Cult for about 30 years. We had a great conversation on digital media standards and record companies. I'm glad I sat next to David Seaman of the DLF at lunch; we had a mutual colleague in Michael Sperberg-McQueen. I asked him about IFLA, one of the few acronyms from the conversation that I recognized; he helped me understand that IFLA conferences are relevant, but they're about libraries in general, and the research library community is not the same. And Andrew Dillon got me up to speed on all sorts of things and made the panel I was on fun and pretty relaxed.

Fred Heath made an oblique reference to a New York Times article about moving most of the books out of the U.T. undergraduate library as if everyone knew, but it was news to me. Later in the week I caught up with Ben Kuipers; we didn't have time for my technical agenda of linked data and access limited logic, but we did discover that both of us were a bit concerned with the fragility of civilization as we know it and the value of books over DVDs if there's no reliable electricity.

The speakers comments at the symposium were recorded; there's some chance that edited transcripts will appear in a special issue of a journal. Stay tuned for that. And stay tuned for more breadcrumbs items on talks I gave later in the week where I did get beyond the basic http/DNS/URI layer of Semantic Web Archtiecture.

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