From Area Studies to Globalization: The Challenge of Realignment


We have not yet reached a post-area studies world. Nonetheless, our traditional area centers— many with a long history of funding support from the now-waning U. S. Department of Education Title VI program—are increasingly viewed as the way of the past. Research library assumptions and practices are changing as well. Older models of “comprehensive” collecting are dead; multi- institutional collaboration within North America needs to be expanded or supplemented with broader, systematic global partnerships; most students and many faculty rely primarily on digital resources. While some elements of the decades-old “crisis in foreign acquisitions” still nag, it is time to worry less about the size and scope of our print collections and instead to emphasize digital means of discovery and access. By looking forward rather than to the past, and by capitalizing on new technological capabilities and global relationships, we can construct an innovative and robust network of libraries, scholars, publishers, and vendors that will bring digitally accessible foreign information resources to bear on all areas of research and learning.

The foundations for these transformative measures are strong. Broadening agendas for research and teaching are expanding scholarly (and therefore library) appetites for primary sources, news, and popular culture from all parts of the world. Our universities and societies are grappling with globalization and its cross-cutting issues of practice and public policy. Meanwhile, the worldwide output of scholarship, popular expression, and data continues to explode, with often-problematic marketplace trends further complicating the picture. Our research library collections have always reflected the international geographies of scholarship and print publication. Sustaining similar coverage today requires fresh thinking; a brief gloss on each of these themes will only begin to suggest the scale of change.


Evolving Scholarly Agendas

Traditional area studies scholarship remains vital and robust, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. But the perspectives of professional schools and policymakers in the global arena are increasingly prominent as well, and even in the arts and sciences scholarly attention is turning toward broad transnational issues such as financial flows, commodity chains, religion, energy and water resources, world music, and social justice. These topics, along with others like crime and disease, environmental stress and climate change, and cross-border movements of people and ideas, are international in scope. Many are being addressed by cross-national teams. All require robust access to international information.

The Globalized Academy

The globalization of U. S. universities has become a strategic mandate. Individual faculty members are engaged in broader and more frequent international scholarly collaborations, the components of global knowledge are changing, and digital communications are allowing more wide-ranging exchanges than ever before. University investments in global programs continue to accelerate. For example, new positions of vice provost for global or international affairs are increasingly routine. Early outreach efforts from professional schools to other countries or regions have grown into full- blown globalization programs that encompass many campus centers, departments, and schools, often with interchangeable faculty, students and collaborative research efforts. Partnerships with foreign universities and new overseas campuses are more and more common. As academic programs expand and globalization deepens its roots, the need for knowledge of many different cultures and histories is ever more urgent. Understanding the global is often based on knowledge of the local.

The Student Dimension

The changing student dimension is noteworthy as well. Whereas in the past some subset of students would go abroad for a summer, a semester, or perhaps an academic year, the college experience now often requires not just study abroad but deeper participation in-country in community service, a public health project, or a research program. Many returning students then continue their language learning and enthusiastically seek to build on their understanding of other cultures. Pedagogies based on case studies rather than discipline-specific knowledge further encourage global perspectives. International students in U.S. universities seek to apply what they learn to cases drawn from their home countries. The MOOC phenomenon (“Massive Open On-Line Courses”) attracts global audiences, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands, to new modalities of distance instruction. These international participants again expect a global context for their learning, as well as open access to many resources for their research and scholarship. The continuing globalization of the curriculum will both stimulate and reflect these trends.

The Landscape of Global Information

Publishing output across the globe continues to increase. A great deal of material is still issued exclusively in print format and remains very difficult to acquire. For its part, the digital revolution both propels globalization and embodies its effects. Today’s torrent of electronic expression shares the stage with a sustained flood of new analog materials; both are dwarfed by the tsunami of raw digital data. In the face of this overwhelming supply of information, even our most comprehensive libraries seem ever less significant. New intermediaries from outside the academic realm are shaping access to some market-based materials, even as users have to pick their own way through a growing mass of unmoored information. The environment is packed with challenges and possibilities.

Libraries and Their Collections

Over the years and the decades, area specialists in U. S. research libraries have painstakingly built up our expansive collections country by country, region by region. Particularly for the developing world, these U. S. holdings are often stronger than those in the countries of origin; they should be the pride of our higher education establishment. Area librarians, and the resources they make available, are necessary complements to experts in global topics and themes. The skills of our international and area studies specialists, and the richness and reach of the collections they oversee, are important foundational assets for global universities. Rather than being dismissed as marginalized relics of the past, these units of the research library should look toward a major role on a larger stage.

Nonetheless, the continuing strength of our international print holdings matches less and less well with emerging library approaches to research and learning. As we have noted, digital resources are increasingly central to the landscape of information production. Today’s users then expect readily accessible electronic resources as they conduct their work. New library services, as a general proposition, emphasize digital resources and tools. We need to address these realities in our strategies to sustain, celebrate, and fully utilize our analog holdings of international publications, while also building robust digital access and services for the future.

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