Architectures for Collaboration: Roles and Expectations for Digital Libraries

The new issue of the Educause Review contains an article that is right on point for our joint planning meeting between staff from IT and the Swem Library next week. Peter Brantley, executive director of the Digital Library Federation, acknowledges that libraries–and librarians–have been in the leadership of the digital revolution. In an 2003 Review article, Ed Ayers also highlights the role of libraries:

The real heroes of the digital revolution in higher education are librarians; they are the people who have seen the farthest, done the most, accepted the hardest challenges, and demonstrated most clearly the benefits of digital information. In the process, they have turned their own field upside down and have revolutionized their own professional training. It is a testimony to their success that we take their achievement for granted.

In his article, Brantley focuses on the areas where libraries haven’t addressed major problems–or at least where they have failed to address them quickly or well enough. Librarians, he asserts, need to do more to understand and support student learning, to engage in key campus and national debates, and to collaborate more broadly with IT organizations and other providers of digital information. Some of these failures are substantial, such as the failure to develop clear strategies around large-scale digitalization efforts like the Google Book Search.

The bulk of the article is organized around a series of mantras, most of which are valuable primarily as discussion starters for institutions trying to make sense of the impact of new technologies on teaching and learning in their own contexts:

  • Libraries Must Know Where They Are.
  • Libraries Must Be Tools of Change.
  • Libraries Must Be Designed to Get Better through Use.
  • Libraries Must Be Available Everywhere.
  • Libraries Must Study the Art of War.

Information Technology, Information Discovery

One of the most important components in this “architecture of collaboration” is effective sharing of expertise, experience and ideas between the library and the Campus IT organization. As he notes, these collaborations have not always been successful, often focusing on very specific problems like providing storage for data repositories or “haggling over who manages software implementations.” What’s more important than the solution of individual problems is the development of a shared, communal technology paradigm that bridges the differences between organizational cultures.

Frustrations in building collaborations between IT groups and libraries often come about because there has been a dearth of collaboration in the past and because the communities historically come from very different cultures. The two groups are trained with different sets of expectations. Stereotypically, librarians focus more on the long haul, more on thoroughness, more on well-described and studied approaches to data and systems development. IT organizations, again stereotypically, focus more on trying to get something delivered as quickly as possible while achieving reasonable success in order to move on to the next task. I think we’re seeing a meld of those values—as we should.

While the cultural problems are substantial, there are other issues that keep institutions from achieving the vision that Brantley lays out. In the current fiscal environment, neither organization has much access to new money for innovation. Pressures for critical institutional requirements for expanded security measures, requirements for business continuity, disaster recovery, bandwidth upgrades and a seemly insatiable need for storage leave IT organizations with very little discretionary money for collaborative initiatives. The amount of operational work and the number of current projects required of both IT and library staff required someone to stop delivering some service or doing something that they currently doing now. That’s no easy task without strong leadership and vision on an institutional level.

One of the key points of the article is that libraries face big-picture problems, but they are not library problems alone. They cut across libraries, publishers, IT communities, search engine providers, content providers of all types, but someone has to take the lead in getting them solved. Framed the following way, it seems as though that “someone” pretty much has to be a library/IT consortium would be required to address the following kinds of institutional needs.

  • Massively distributed information; rich data that is often not very well described
  • The necessity for building new indexing architectures both at the engineering and the discovery levels
  • The necessity for mining and mapping data to build linkages that are interactive and that encourage further building
  • The challenge of providing ubiquitous access to information from a wide variety of places
  • Shifting access points and variable persistence, since content shifts in location and is described with shifting names

Like so many of these Educause think-pieces, this article is much better at raising questions than it is at offering solutions. It certainly does reinforce our believe that time spent building communications and shared community within the IT/library worlds is worth taking on.

The success of libraries is not to be counted by the number of books, either digital or paper, held by libraries or the number of pretty pictures that libraries can put online. Libraries are successful to the extent that they can bridge communities and can leverage the diversity of the quest, the research, and the discovery. Libraries are successful when they offer new services and when they help others discover services provided by others. By building bridges among these various sectors, libraries will be able to define themselves in the next generation. They will become the architects of collaboration.

Very timely.