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Libraries, museums, and publishers, oh my!

30 Oct 2015

Amy Forrester, University of Tennessee, and Shirra Rockwood, Pratt Institute

We are both mature masters' students working toward degrees in Information Science. For two weeks this past June, we participated with eight other students in a joint study-abroad programme based at King’s College London. One of us is a student at Pratt School of Information and Library Science (New York) and the other is studying at the University of Tennessee School of Information Science (Knoxville). We each elected to take this course, e-Publishing and Digital Scholarship, perhaps as much to grab the opportunity to study in London as to gain some insight into the scholarly e-publishing industry and the relationship of libraries to e-scholarship.

Simply, we studied real-world issues in scholarly communications as a result of its evolution into a digital environment. Through visits to libraries, museums, publishers, and researchers, we explored various types of scholarly output (eg books, journals, data) as well as the different channels of communication (eg commercial, open access, social). While these information organisations have divergent missions, their shared goal is the effective communication of desired information between creator, seeker, and user. Over the course of the programme we encountered common information problems affecting these organisations as a result of technological change. The programme gave us the opportunity to network and learn from the professionals dealing with these difficulties and get acquainted with the innovative ways they are meeting the challenges.

When the Bodleian Library (Oxford University) opened its doors in 1488 it was already obsolete as it had not accounted for new technology . . . printing.

Libraries

Our visits to the National Art Library in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and Oxford’s Bodleian Library illustrated how technology can have an impact on the main mission of these organisations – which is to provide access to their collections. The most relevant collection is only successful if it is used and referenced. To be successful, the library must evolve with changing user habits and expectations and expand its reach, making resources widely and easily available. Ideally, libraries would just embrace digitisation technology and provide all collections in a digital format on a platform that allows effortless discovery and access. However, it isn’t quite that simple. Digitising and circulation require time, money, and technical skills, a common theme in nearly every library or organisation.

The V&A is an example of a wonderful collection of rare and one-of-a-kind books and documents that are mostly only available to users who are able to travel to the library to access the collection. The director of library services communicated the difficulty of running a library on limited resources and the impact that has on a concerted digitisation effort. Consequently, their available digitisation relies on individual need and requests accomplished with an on-site digital scanner. The imperative is that digitisation not only increases access, but also protects physical collections. The conundrum, however, is that without the capacity to properly digitise an enormous collection, it is worse to mishandle books and documents while doing a mediocre digitisation job than to just leave things in place with traditional physical access. All of this results in a very passive approach to embracing technology.

Conversely, the Bodleian Library demonstrates how technology can be adopted to advance the mission of an organisation. Most known for its exemplar collection of medieval manuscripts and rare books, the Bodleian is also a pioneer in storing and organising information, such as introducing movable shelving and the first union catalog. Although faced with the familiar funding constraints, digitisation remains a paramount endeavour. The undertaking is realised through efforts such as creative collaborations with other institutions, partnerships with commercial entities (eg Google), and targeting grant money. Our guide enumerated project after project describing the digital accomplishments of the Bodleian Library from digitising the personal journals of Queen Victoria in partnership with the Royal Archives and the commercial information company ProQuest, to digitising ancient texts in collaboration with the Vatican Library.

Museums

Part of our trip to the British Library included a visit through the Magna Carta exhibition after a meeting with the British Library Lab (BLL) team. The BLL focuses on innovative ways the library can support and inspire the public use of their digital collections. They explained the technology behind some projects, such as text mining methods to pull images out of books and using non invasive spectral techniques to examine and preserve artefacts. This was a clear example of how technology can be used to further engage patrons. Combined with our side trips to the British Museum, these visits made us contemplate how museums could better use technology to provide access to the depth of knowledge available in museum collections that traditionally is only known to the curators. A seminar with Tula Giannini, Dean of Pratt Institute's School of Information and Library Science, clarified how embedding technology into exhibits would excite a techno-centric generation, enhance the experience, and really leverage the museum’s intellectual capital.

Publishers

The effect of technology on modern scholarly publishing has been a surprisingly slow process. This was most notable when we met with those professionals focused on academic journal publishing. Even though electronic journals (e-journals) have taken their place as a publishing format, there has been little progress in transforming an article into much more than an online representation of a print article. Carol Tenopir, Chancellor's Professor, School of Information Science, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, explained to us that this might have more to do with reader behaviour and expectations than technological capability.

Transforming scholarly publishing, we learned, is not just providing online access to material. At Bloomsbury Publishing, the digital team is using technology to reach and engage their community of users (readers) as well as creators (authors). On our visit, they demonstrated Writers & Artists, a website to provide free expert advice and guidance along every stage of the creative process. The site evolved from a print product and illustrates how technology allows them to leverage their expertise (and brand recognition) to not only provide resources to their community, but to interact and support their activities.

Overall . . .

. . . the programme gave us a great view of e-scholarship and e-publishing. The most significant take away, however, is that we, as future information professionals, will be paramount in resolving these issues. Our training is both in the practical aspects of information seeking, storing, and retrieving, as well as the investigative side of the properties and behaviour of information with an emphasis on the use of technologies. While our practice will vary among information environments, embedding our skills will be a critical component to guiding (and in some cases dragging) these organisations into the future.

Bodleian     VA

Amy Forrester is a MSIS candidate at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, School of Information Science with plans to graduate in May 2016 (aforres4@vols.utk.edu).

Shirra Rockwood is a MLIS candidate at Pratt Institute’s School of Information and Library Science with plans to graduate in December 2016 (srockwoo@pratt.edu).

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