One “Next” for Digital Libraries?

For a variety of reasons, I have been thinking recently not only about the digital humanities, as I have written about [here][1] and [here][2] (and [here][3]) for example, but also about digital library services. Perhaps more than any other collection of disciplines, the humanities have as their center the library. The arts and the sciences have a variety of discourses on primary and secondary texts (data and analysis in the sciences, artworks and criticism in the arts), some of which pass through the library and some of which do not. But in the humanities, almost any meaningful stream — and let me use that word here with a promise to treat it better later — passes through the library.

And this is coming from the very person who argued in his presentation to the Project Bamboo crowd that the library was not the beginning and end of my research. And I meant it. But I qualified my provocation by noting that the library is one of my beginnings, paired with equal amounts of time spent in the field (also known more simply as the world), and one of my endings — that is, I don’t see my job as only building a scholarly apparatus but also helping the people with whom I work with things they need or want.

Even given such a qualification, however, I emphasized the central role in my own workflow, and in the larger workflow of the humanities and human sciences, that the library plays. And that role has the potential to change radically and, perhaps, in the process become even more important, more powerful.

### Thinking While Driving ###

As far as I am concerned, podcasts and audio books are the best thing ever to happen to driving, which often includes waiting in traffic. I already spend a fair amount of time in my truck doing fieldwork, but now I spend additional time waiting in line to pick up my daughter from school. Non-musical audio files on my iPhone make me glad for the time behind the wheel. Podcasts like the BBC’s [In Our Time][iot] allow me to fill in parts of my education or in the case of NPR’s [Science Friday][sf] keep up with recent developments in fields not my own.

*In Our Time* is one of my favorites, and it features a rather old-fashioned format: an informed interlocutor, in this case Melvyn Bragg, pulls together a panel of experts and asks them to explain a particular topic to the audience. In the case of IOT, the panel is almost always made up of British academics, which brings me to [familiar territory][ft] (see especially [this][]). Recent topics on *In Our Time* have included:

* The Library at Alexandria
* The Physics of Time
* The Music of the Spheres
* The Great Reform Act

None of these are easy topics, but they are almost always handled well within the 42 minutes that confines the podcast, revealing that the program is really produced with radio in mind.

### Other Podcasts, Other Producers ###

The BBC is not alone in stocking the shelves of the iTunes Store. NPR does as well. And on another aisle in this on-line mega-mart, there is something called [iTunes University][itu]. A lot of universities are already on iTunes, and some are wise enough to make sure their content is on several aisles: Harvard is not only in iTunes U, but it also has several podcasts, one of which, the [Harvard Business Ideacast][hbi] (*iTunes link*), I subscribe to. The HBIs are more like new media (see the link for *familiar territory* above to see what I mean by this) in that they are of variable length, ranging from as little as 7 minutes to as much as half an hour, with the length dependent on the topic and not the medium. Many of the ideas are, of course, from Harvard faculty or from authors recently published in the [Harvard Business Review][hbr], but one of Harvard’s key strengths has always been its ability to promote itself. But other universities have as much talent, they just don’t quite have the machinery in place to promote it, or the culture of doing so.

Let me take my [folklorist/faculty cap][cap] off for a moment, and put on something like a digital librarian’s hat, because it seems to me that this is a really interesting place for digital library programs to come into their own.

When I performed my own survey of digital library programs recently, I chose a few major programs — e.g., Indiana University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Texas at Austin — as well as a few from smaller schools — e.g., Iowa State University. Some were more mature, some less. The more mature programs offered not only on-line repositories of the kinds of materials that libraries traditionally traffic in — texts and images (which also reveals an active digitization program) — but also had begun to imagine themselves as portals through which scholars could communicate.

But we’re digital now, everyone, and we need to start thinking about all the different kinds of media in which we can communicate, and which one best suits the idea or issue at hand. And I think it’s really in the best interest of universities to allow digital librarians to take some of this charge. Scholars and scientists already have a lot on their plate: they will come around, but the threshold for entry needs to be lowered more.

Libraries are already in the access business and are already familiar with the range of users that seek out the kinds of knowledge that universities produce. Indiana University has already outlined in its most recent strategic plan for IT the collection of challenges that universities like itself face as they look to the future. One of those challenges is clearly resolving the problem of scholarly/scientific communication in a way that universities do not face something like a triple tax:

* Universities pay salaries for scholars and scientists with the expectation not only of teaching but also of producing research;
* Universities regularly fund research expenses, be they the ongoing maintenance of library collections or scientific labs;
* Universities subscribe to scholarly/scientific journals, some of which charge steep fees for access.

It seems to me that digital library programs are in a great position to mediate across a range of challenges.

### The Particular Case of IU ##

Indiana University’s efforts are near and deer to me at the moment, having enjoyed a two-week fellowship with [EVIADA](http://eviada.org/) and had a chance to glimpse some of the things happening at the [Institute for Digital Arts and Humanities][idah]. So I decided to explore what presence had on iTunes University. For those who haven’t visited iTunes U before, click on the link in the left-hand column of the iTunes Store and you will see something like this:

dls-itunes

On today’s front page, the Cassiopeia Project (an effort to make science education videos available to anyone who wants them), Duke University, and Yale University are featured across the top. Still featured, but now in the main content window are a range of programs from Carnegie Mellon, the Library of Congress, and New Mexico State among others — the range of providers here is interesting and makes me curious about how this block and the one above it get filled. I.e., what’s the selection process, because this doesn’t feel entirely random to me. More importantly, just like SEO, are players gaming the system at all?

I ask this question, because as we’ll see in a minute in this case study, iTunes U feels more like Google than it does Yahoo when it comes to finding content. That is, the thing that Yahoo did so well — but lost sight of because it became obsessed with beating Google at search — was to organize content. It was admittedly hierarchical, which meant users had to have a certain willingness, and wisdom, to move up and down the structures. The wisdom came from the fact that you could trace your steps to find the information again. This strikes me as somewhat different from the way most of us interact with Google, which really becomes a matter of trying to remember the string with which you searched last time in order to find again that thing you found. (That sentence was meant to mimic the feeling of doing that repeatedly when you can’t quite remember what it was you previously typed.)

So let’s go searching for IU:

dls-search

The first time I tried this, all the results were for the Indiana Marching One Hundred. That didn’t seem quite right, so I tried again a little while later — again, this all goes to the somewhat unpredictable nature of iTunes in this area. Here are my later results:

dls-searchresults

This is better. In the iTunes U block we have three listings: (1) Music Clips for Podcasting, (2) Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, and (3) WTIU/WFIU’s “See It or Skip It.” There are two podcasts: (1)the School of Music again and (2) the Pashto Language Learning Podcasts. There are two albums and, of course, a basketball application. Clicking on the “Show All” link in the upper-right of the iTunes U box gets you the following:

dls-iuall

It’s an interesting mix, and I can’t tell at all how much the variety is planned or unplanned. Sometimes with iTunes, you simply have to poke around, which I did until I spotted something interesting in the bread crumbs of the navigation bar:

dls-itunesnavbar

Home > iTunes U > **Arts & Humanities** > Indiana University’s Jacob School of Music Presents…. Where does that “Arts and Humanities” link take us?

dls-iuah

Under Arts and Humanities are the Music School again as well as those sound clips for podcasting and the “See It or Skip It” program. The new content is a “backstage pass” from the IU Auditorium and a series of talks posted by the IU Foundation. Elsewhere, there are a series of mini-lectures posted by the Alumni Association.

All of this leads me to wonder if there is a plan or some central organization body that is keeping an eye on how all of this unfolds with an eye to the university’s overall vision and goals. Is this an opening for a digital library program? It certainly seems to me that the functionality and features are parallel in many ways.

### Getting There from Here ###

No matter the current state of affairs, it’s clear that not only is iTunes University a viable platform, it also points to the fact that digital library programs will need eventually to include the full portfolio of media within their scope. If we — remember, I’m wearing my librarian hat now — wish to be not only repositories but also portals and communications platforms, we are going to have to push the envelope ourselves. If we are going to spotlight our faculty’s work, then we may have to set up audio and video facilities and learn how to prompt faculty to show their work off at its best advantage. We already do this, in some capacity, when we work with faculty to deposit their materials in archives, or, now, when we work with faculty on digitizing materials or setting up on-line collections or publications.

That is, successful digital library programs are already well on their way to doing these things. It’s just one small step … okay, it’s a series of small steps not only to helping maintain, and expand, our university’s reputation but also realizing the true democratic potential of information technology. We can reach more people in more ways. Everybody wins.

[1]: http://johnlaudun.org/20090814-road-to-digital/
[2]: http://johnlaudun.org/20090808-the-cult-of-the-author-in-the-new-economy/
[3]: http://johnlaudun.org/20090729-the-difference-digital-makes/
[iot]: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/
[sf]: http://sciencefriday.com/
[ft]: http://johnlaudun.org/?s=platform
[this]: http://johnlaudun.org/20080420-in-the-era-of-the-meta-platform-content-is-king/
[itu]: http://www.apple.com/education/mobile-learning/
[hbi]: http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=152022135
[hbr]: http://hbr.harvardbusiness.org/
[cap]: http://johnlaudun.org/20090825-why-i-wear-a-cap/
[idah]: http://www.indiana.edu/~idah/

Leave a Reply