Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Oh My Curation! It's about the Librarian

I chanced on a very interesting article in Harvard Magazine this week as I was doing research for a presentation I am making next week. Titled Gutenberg 2.0: Harvard's Libraries Deal With Disruptive Change, the article is written by the magazine's managing editor Jonathan Shaw and is one of the more thought provoking articles I have read about the impact(s) of our transition from print to online.

Several themes come out of this article: Firstly, traditional publishing is ill-equipped to manage the huge onslaught of data and information. Specific examples note the medical discipline. Secondly, training for the consumers and students who have access to databases and information is inadequate; moreover, this negatively impacts job effectiveness. Examples, here include medical and legal professions. Thirdly, librarians may retain specific skills that bridge the gap between the generic content where 'everything carries the same weight' and a 'consciously curated and controlled artifact' managed to the benefit of a librarian's constituency. Here is a quote from the article:
"For Libraries and Librarians, the new premium on skills they have long cultivated as curators, preservers, and retrievers of collective knowledge puts them squarely on top of an information geyser in the sciences that could reshape medicine.”
Reshaping medicine is an extreme idea but the author of the article makes a supporting case and cites examples currently underway within the Harvard library community. The entire article is well worth reading but here are a few more quotes:
Internet search explodes the notion of a curated collection in which the quality of the sources has been assured. “What we’re seeing now with Google Scholar and these mass digitization projects, and the Internet generally,” says Hazen, “is, ‘Everything’s out there.’ And everything has equal weight. If I do a search on Google, I can get a scholarly journal. I can get somebody’s blog posting….The notion of collection that’s implicit in ‘the universe is at my fingertips’ is diametrically opposed, really, to the notion of collection as ‘consciously curated and controlled artifact.’” Even the act of reading for research is changed, he points out. Scholars poring through actual newspapers “could see how [an item] was presented on the page, and the prominence it had, and the flow of content throughout a series of articles that might have to do with the same thing—and then differentiate those from the books or other kinds of materials that talked about the same phenomenon. When you get into the Internet world, you tend to get a gazillion facts, mentions, snippets, and references that don’t organize themselves in that same framework of prominence, and typology, and how stuff came to be, and why it was created, and what the intrinsic logic of that category of materials is. How and whether that kind of structuring logic can apply to this wonderful chaos of information is something that we’re all trying to grapple with.”
Medicine has had to cope with this problem [information overload] ever since nineteenth-century general practitioners found they could no longer keep up with the sheer quantity of published medical literature. Specialization eventually allowed doctors to focus only on the journals in their particular area of expertise. Throughout such transitions, libraries played an important role. Doctors, upon completing their rounds, would comb the stacks for records of similar cases that might help with diagnosis and treatment. Today, the amount of new information being generated in the biological sciences is prescribing another momentous shift that may provide a glimpse of the future in other disciplines. For a doctor, learning about a genetic test and then interrogating a database to understand the results could save a life. For libraries and librarians, the new premium on skills they have long cultivated as curators, preservers, and retrievers of collective knowledge puts them squarely on top of an information geyser in the sciences that could reshape medicine.
The article also explores preservation:

Indeed, the HD [Harvard Depository] might one day play a role as the fulcrum for “radical collaboration” with the five other law libraries in the Boston area, says Palfrey. “We’re asking, ‘Could we imagine deciding, as a group of six, that we’re actually going to buy something and put it in the Harvard Depository,’” a central location from which the physical book could be delivered to any institution? “It would cost us a sixth as much.” Other Harvard libraries could explore the same strategy.

That doesn’t mean Harvard’s campus libraries would become less important. Because they are embedded in the residential academic community, they remain integral to University life. Students (and faculty members) are big users of the physical spaces in libraries, though they are using them differently than in the past.
There is a lot more in the article.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Agreed on the quality of the article - thanks for covering it here and bringing your insights to bear.

Personally, I'm not sure how future graduates will manage if they can't go deep into Widener to catch some zzz's. Maybe they'll adapt.