The Future of Research Libraries, part 2

To finish my thoughts about the Duke University Libraries Seminar on the Future of Researc h Libraries and the presentation made by Professor Ian Baucom, I want to turn to the final two issues we discussed – globalization and publishing.  And I want to be very clear that although I refer to Ian’s remarks a lot, these posts are based on my memories of, and conclusions from, what he said; I am solely responsible for anything that seems over-simplified or poorly-reasoned; Ian is much too smart to be blamed for such failings.

Support for the increasingly global mission of universities, including Duke, is a difficult problem for academic libraries.  We are accustomed to thinking in terms of collections tied to a physical location, of course.  In the digital age, we also are beginning to think of a global digital library; lots of the efforts toward public access and open access are directed toward the goal of a global library of digital resources that is accessible to all.  But Ian reminded us that it is wrong to think of this as a clean disjunction.  In between these two options, the physical domestic collection and the entirely digital global one, are the satellite campuses that many schools, including NYU (in Singapore) and Duke (in Kunshan), are beginning to operate.  As Ian told us, the global university really has three foci — the “original” domestic campus, overseas campuses in diverse parts of the world, and the online campus that is truly global.  Universities are stretching out in all of these directions, and libraries will continue to be challenged to provide support for the full spectrum of global education.

One thing I especially liked in Ian’s discussion of global education was his approach to MOOCs.  Throughout his talk, Ian emphasized the difference between offering a bunch of courses and teaching a curriculum; in a sense this is a version of the distinction between information and knowledge.  MOOCs, at this point, are largely collections of classes that individuals can take for personal enrichment and, sometimes, for specific, “one-off” types of credit.  But we have yet to see a workable curriculum based on such open online courses, although that may come eventually.  Until then, the importance of all three parts of the vision Ian outlined for global education remain important; as we expand globally, we cannot leapfrog over those physical centers for education, because they offer what purely online education as yet does not — a way to pursue an organized and intellectually coherent course of study.

The issue of publication arose in the conversation partly from Ian’s emphasis on interdisciplinary study and partly from the discussion of global learning.  I specifically asked Ian about the impact of increasingly interdisciplinary research on the publication of scholarship.  He responded by talking about his own work in environmental humanities.  When he began that collaborative work with climate scientists, he said, there was no obvious outlet for scholarship in this area.  Because it defied the traditional niches of scholarship and because it was developing so quickly, traditional publication outlets were unavailable or inappropriate.  Over time, outlets for this area of scholarship have developed, but, Ian told us, they are mostly directly online and openly accessible.  In short, the needs of rapidly developing interdisciplinary scholarship have caused it to leap over traditional publishing and move directly online.  The journals and online centers for this area of scholarship that have developed are very high quality, Ian said, but he reminded us that libraries have an important role to play in this evolution of publication venues that do not participate in the traditional imprimatur process of impact factor and journal branding.

In regard to the global focus of education, Ian made an interesting point about the “flow” of scholarship.  As we begin the process of of expanding our reach globally, we often think about how to make English-language scholarship more broadly accessible abroad.  But scholarly work is already happening in all of the nations to which we wish to expand; our potential partners are also producing work, and familiarity with that scholarship is likely to be as necessary for successful partnership as their familiarity with American work.  So Ian suggested that there was a huge opportunity for libraries to work on “reversing the flow” and beginning to organize to translate major works of contemporary scholarship from other nations into English.  Presumably this would require very targeted efforts and extensive collaboration.  Indeed, perhaps the best lesson from this suggestion, and from Ian’s entire talk, was that libraries need to have large, even outrageous, ambitions, but also to accept that none of us can realize those ambitions alone — we will need lots of collaborators — and that we must accept small-scale projects as the gateway to large-scale change. As the old union organizing song tells us, many stones can form an arch, but singly none.

Finally, I want to share a reflection I had about how we measure the value of libraries in this age of change and the de-emphasis on physical collections.  For years the ARL focused its metrics of quality on the size of those physical collections of books and journals.  Some years ago, it moved to looking at expenditures, as a way to account for all the resources that libraries were buying that were not physical and thus not amenable to enumeration.  But today, when new and high-quality resources are springing up online that do not offer either a way to be physically counted or a cost that can be tabulated, and especially as libraries themselves begin to “publish” such resources, even expenditures seems an inappropriate metric.  What we really need is a way to count readers, to tabulate the differences we have made in the scholarly lives of faculty, staff and the broader public, whether that impact was accomplished through books that were checked out, journal packages that were purchased, open access resources that we have hosted or digital collections that we scan and curate.  If librarians want to compete to feel good about our continuing role in the fast-changing world of scholarly communications, we should look at the lives we touch, rather than becoming too attached to the formats and costs of the resources through which we touch them.