Libraries are About Inquiry not Service

Is this our highest aspiration as a profession?

I’ve recently been having conversations with colleagues about the place of Librarians and Libraries in academia. At the Greenhouse Studios we are testing, among other things,  new models of librarianship that put librarians and all collaborators on an equal footing.

In another conversation, I said that I thought librarians had painted themselves into a corner by insisting that their core function was “service”–however that might be defined. I took the position that service was a poor defining characteristic, since if we define our value primarily in the service we provide we define ourselves as servants.

Libraries have always been much more than service centers, and originated as preservers of culture. The first libraries were preservers of culture and knowledge in a time when written knowledge was scarce and not easily reproducible.

Libraries have been evolving for centuries (Wikimedia)

Books were literally chained to the shelves to protect them from theft. With the advent of the printing press and the mass production of books. Librarians became mediators in the search for information when the amount of knowledge became greater than the ability of one person to absorb or know. The mediator role increased as the amount of information increased, librarians created elaborate finding and inventory systems, and Librarians came to be seen by themselves as essential filters between the seemingly overwhelming amount of information available and the essentially clueless researcher.

This idea of librarian as information service provider then is a relatively recent development, and was suited to a time and place where information resources were growing at a pace faster than the technology to make sense of it, requiring a human mediator. But now that, in the words of Chris Bourg of MIT “machines can read all the books,” and suggestion algorithms can work faster and more accurately than a human, hanging the future of librarianship and libraries on the ability of a librarians to create LibGuides seems to me be an evolutionary dead end.  If the era of Librarian as information mediator has come to an end, what is next?

I suggest that we return to the notion of the library as a place of inquiry, with librarians as information professionals who understand how information interoperates, how it interrelates, and how the standards of persistence and discoverability drive and validate scholarship. Libraries are places where inquiry begins, progresses, and ends in scholarship. This is what makes libraries unique and necessary in academia. Without libraries, scholarship and academia are houses built on sand.

Libraries are centers of resources (whether or not you enter them physically), centers of inquiry, centers of the creation of knowledge, and centers of knowledge dissemination.  Service is something that we do to achieve that end, but it is not the end in itself.

Note: A portion of this post forms part of a forthcoming article by Holly Jeffcoat and I in UKSG Insights

Warning: Unintended Use Voids Warranty, and May Result in Injury or Death

Just do as you are told…

Variations on this warning appear on almost any consumer product you can buy nowadays from cups of coffee to chain saws.  This came up in a conversation we were having the other day about innovation.  Innovation is using already existing things with positive results in ways for which they were not intended (I think we should skip the injury and death).  We compared this with invention, which we concluded was creating something new that did not previously exist. The lines between innnovation and invention necessarily blur, and you can split hairs about what is invented in any innovative project, but I think we have the basic idea.  In my work, I tend to try to innovate, especially with technology, since I do not have the skills or creativity in that area to invent anything of value. While I sincerely appreciate the makers who can create new things, I really like to innovate, and work with makers who are interested in extending their inventions in new and different directions.

..or else.

I’ve used an ILS circulation system to manage digitization workflows, since of course an ILS is, by nature an inventory control system, we controlled the location of our inventory by creating pseudo-patrons for each of the locations. Much faster than changing the location field in the bibliographic record. Similarly, we’ve seen in other posts how we have used social media tools to illustrate intellectual connections between archival objects. As the tools get easier to use, and have much less overhead–most tools are browser-based, with little investment in infrastructure–our opportunity for innovation grows.


What Are We Trying To Save?

As our Greenhouse Studios projects move through their iterations and phases, it is beginning to be time to talk about how to document and preserve the intellectual output. Our current thinking is that preservation talk has to start during the “build” phase, but probably not before then, since insisting that any idea be “preservable” kind of makes the tail wag the dog. But, once we start building something, then it is time to figure out how to preserve it.

The question we ask now is what is the “it” we are trying to preserve? For something to be “scholarship” it has to persist. But, in what form? And what has to persist? We could follow the “FRBR” approach and say that the intellectual content of the so-called work is what matters most, and that preserving it in any form is sufficient. This is, I think, a text centric viewpoint and won’t translate to multi-modal expression, where the intellectual content of the work is just as likely to be a set of scripts or moving images as it is text.

Nevertheless, our requirement to support persistence is not alleviated just because it is difficult and the part of the Greenhouse Studios that I personally like the best is the part where we figure out how to make what are now thought of as alternative formats and means of expression persist over time.

One project is producing a short documentary film in addition to hosting some events and conversations. The film is essentially the work, and we are also preserving the raw footage, still images, and other associated research documents, very much like preserving the raw data for a scientific research project.

A more difficult problem comes from our VR project. This project seeks to tell a story though virtual reality. There are lots of research artifacts, design research, still photography, a “script” for the story, and much, much, more. The VR experience is being created the Unity ( game engine. We can preserve the bits so to speak, but that seems a bit of a disappointment to us. One idea we have is to record someone’s in-story experience that can be watched on any browser. That would at least give an indication of what the experience was about, similar to watching a recording of a play, or a performance.


When is the Right Time to Talk About Preservation?

Greenhouse Studios Design Process

At the Greenhouse Studios, we are working out the process of creating new forms of scholarship. One important aspect of what defines scholarship from projects is sustainability.   As I like to say, there is no scholarship without persistence. The infrastructure of persistence is well understood in traditional academic publishing, and is less understood in the world digital humanities.

The GS model works through five distinct phases, Understand, Identify, Build, Review, Release, and is based on the idea of flattening traditional academic hierarchies: we do not build things for faculty, we gather together a group of people around a common intellectual question, and go from there.

As archivists, we have traditionally said that it improves the preservation  potential of any digital record for the archivist to be a part of the creation of that record from the beginning.  At the GS we are testing what that actually means in terms of new scholarship. What is the beginning? When is it appropriate to consider preservation?

Originally, we had a sense that it was important to consider preservation at the very beginning, but as we move through the process with our initial cohorts, we are finding that thinking about preservation in the initial, Understand, phase, when conversations are more about “what if” than anything else would limit the imagination of the group.  The second phase, Identify, seemed a more logical place to have a preservation discussion, since this is where the project’s core deliverable would be defined.  However, this too was not the time, as this phase served to define more of the intellectual direction of the project rather than the technology, even though the technology is generally defined in this phase. So the current thinking is that the preservation discussion will happen in the Build phase.

Pushing the preservation discussion further downstream has a number of effects. At the moment we don’t know if these are positive or negative effects. It or course gives the project much more flexibility to be creative if there are no limits on what they can do. It also keeps the preservation discussion on a transactional relationship, outside the bounds of the project.

To use Henry Mintzberg’s terminology, GS projects are organized as ad hocracies—where roles are loosely defined and fluid. Although within the GS projects are considered ad hocracies, the GS exists within a professional bureaucracy, where roles and responsibilities are sharply defined, and the external technostructure of payroll, procurement, and Human Resources processes tend to constrict the freedom of the GS participants.

That discussion is for another day. The question today is whether or not preservation is integral to the development of scholarship or if it is part of the technostructure. By pushing the preservation discussion farther downstream we also push it farther into the technostructure, as preservation becomes an external demand that must be satisfied, rather than a integral part of the creative process.

Do preservation considerations belong within the creative process, or is it the job or archivists to figure out how to preserve whatever creative people ultimately create?   It seems obvious that involving archivists in the early stages of more tradtiionally-based scholarship and the creation of  data management plans and such contribute to preserving research data. But they still stand outside the creative process.  We will ultimately figure this out, but for now, we are watching and waiting.


The Interview as a Candidate Assessment Tool

We’ve luckily been able to do a good bit of hiring over the last year or so, both in the Greenhouse Studios and in the digital repository and the archives.  Of course one of the difficulties of the hiring process is that you typically have to make what amounts to a long-term investment decision based on what turns out to be a relatively small amount of information and in a compressed timeline.  (This reminds me very much of the process of buying a house, where you spend far more money than you have based on walking though a building for 20 minutes.)

In recent searches, we have been moving away from the traditional inquisitional interview approach where a panel of people asks questions designed to elicit from the candidate some indication of how they would actually perform on the job. This approach tends to weed out the obviously inferior candidates who are not able to discern what the “right answer” was to a particular quesiton, even if it had nothing to do with their approach to working.   Moving from what is the right answer questions to more hypothetical approaches was only somewhat more valuable since again, a reasonably intelligent candidate could figure out the correct answer to a question that went something like “How would you deal with a colleague who you felt was preventing progress?”  would not be “I’d adopt passive-aggressive tactics to make their lives miserable until they quit.”

In recent searches we adopted a combination of conversational discussions about a certain relevant topic and experiential interviewing techniques.  Experiential interviewing means placing the candidate in a situation similar to the work they would actually do, and seeing how they performed.  For example, consensus building skills and the ability to assess the skills and interests of others was a big part of the work of the Greenhouse Studios coordinator. As part of the interview process, we had the candidates engage with a relatively random set of individuals and come up with a potential GS project that they could all agree on and contribute to. This was essentially simulating exactly what they would be doing as part of the position. We were surprised on more than one occasion when the person who we expected to perform well (or badly) based on our more traditionally structured video interviews performed much differently in the “real word” test.

We’ve continued to use the experiential interview approach for searches going forward and have been pleased with how quickly it shows, at least for our particular application, who has the capacity to collaborate and build a consensus, and who struggles with that.


Out of the Bubble

I was driving to my soccer game yesterday morning and listening to “On Being” on my local PBS station (that’s Boston’s WGBH). This was a show I was not familiar with, but since I had nothing else to do but drive, I listened in to an interview with Lisa Randall, the Harvard theoretical physicist who recently (2015) wrote a book called “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs” which examines the interconnectedness between astronomy, biology, and paleontology.  I had also not heard of her before either.

It was my good fortune to have 30 minutes to spend with no distractions–I was alone in the car–and to have an opportunity to hear most of the conversation between the show’s host Krista Trippet and Professor Randall.  Of all the interesting things I heard during the drive, I’ll relay one comment from Prof. Randall’s book that was quoted in the story: “We often fail to notice things that we are not expecting.”

It was a minor part of a much larger discussion on the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate disciplines, but I think it summarizes what I like to say, that it is important to get out of the bubble of your local community and get a fresh perspective on yourself and your work as often as you can.

There is a lot we can learn from other intellectual or academic disciplines. I’ve been very happy that my current work enables me to talk to people who spend their days considering how to teach and learn Early Modern Irish, or Child Labor and Rights, or 19th century portraiture, or Medieval coronation music, or , … well you get the picture. It certainly makes it easier and more interesting for me to consider how to create and deliver digital libraries and cultural heritage.

People are More Than Their Job Description

RugMark inspected factory workers in Nepal, U Roberto Romano Papers, UConn

As we bring together new teams for the next cohort of projects in the Greenhouse Studios, a central question we ask is why should this or that person be included in a project team. This decision speaks to the core of the Greenhouse Studios mission.  The idea of the Greenhouse Studios is both idealistic and realistic. We feel that we should be able to bring a group of intelligent people together around a common idea (what we call a prompt), and from that collaboration will come a story of some type, in some form, that is both scholarly and interesting. That’s the idealistic part. The realistic part is that to increase the odds of success, it is a good idea to seed the groups with people who have certain skills, knowledge or interests, that will insure that we cover the bases of technology knowledge, subject knowledge, organizational knowledge, for example, needed to produce some output at the end of the process.

To ensure that the process actually progresses, a facilitator is assigned from the GS staff. This facilitator’s role is to keep the process moving, and not to lead the development in any direction.

But the tricky part of team building remains with inviting participants. If we are too idealistic, we put the projects at risk, too prescriptive, and we invalidate the central thesis of Greenhouse Studios.  We try to be guided by a sense that, as one colleague in the Working Group said, “People are more than their job description” and are expected and encouraged to think of themselves as more than an archivist, or web developer, or professor. Team members bring their entire selves to the table, and it makes all the difference when they do.


A Brief Aside …

The quantum theory of archives is validated by events! (Image: Brian Westin from Flickr)

As I continue to work on the next installment of Analyzing the Lifecycle on Practical Terms, I wanted to toss in a quick aside about another idea that I am very keen on: managing data at the “quantum” or smallest practical level. We are in the midst of re-architecting our repository infrastructure with our consultants. In our discussions, we are discovering that the opportunities that exist for us to leverage repository content both within and outside of our repository system have expanded significantly since we first developed the system. This means that since we made good decisions in the beginning about atomizing our data into small (or quantum) units in the repository, our data is ready and able to be leveraged in new ways that go beyond simple search result lists.

It is a nice feeling when decisions are validated by later events.

Analyzing the Lifecycle in Practical Terms: Part I: Definitions

Continuing our research in thinking about all collections objects as sets of data, we are applying some theoretical constructs to the real world, both to understand the nature and needs of data objects, and the capabilities of management, presentation and discovery systems.

Today we start by looking at a set of characteristics of data that will eventually become criteria for determining how and where to manage and deliver our data collections. These characteristics are sometimes inherent in the objects themselves, applied by the holding institution to the objects, or created when the objects are ingested into a repository or other management or presentation system.

Characteristics of Integrity

These characteristics are inherent in the data no matter how the institution is seeking to use or manage them.  They are core to the definition of a preservable digital object, and were defined at the very beginning of the digital library age. See: “Preserving Digital Information” (1996)

  • Content: Stuctured bits
  • Fixity: frozen as discrete objects
  • Reference: having a predictable location
  • Provenance: with a documented chain of custody
  • Context: linked to related objects

If a digital object lacks a particular characteristic of integrity, it is not preservable, but that does not mean that we don’t manage it in some system or another.

Characteristics of the Curation Lifecycle

The digital curation lifecycle models how institutions mange their data over time. Rather than being inherent in the data itself, these characteristics are dependent upon the collection development goals of the institution,  and subject to review and alteration. The characteristics below are related to digital preservation activities. This is exhaustively explained in the “Reference Model for and Open Archival Information System”

  • Review
  • Bitstream maintenance
  • Backup/Disaster recovery
  • Format normalization
  • Format migration
  • Redundancy
  • Audit trail
  • Error checking

Characteristics of Usability

Some of the characteristics of usability are effectively inherent, others are definable by the institution. The characteristics of Intellectual Openness, while not inherent in the data itself, are typically externally determined. The institution does not generally have the ability to alter this characteristic unilaterally. The characteristics of Interoperability and Reusability are inherent in the data when it is acquired, but may be changed by creating derivatives or though normalization, based on level of Intellectual Openness. The ideas of Interoperabilty and Reusability in digital libraries come from: A Framework of Guidance for Building Good Digital Collections, 3rd ed.

  • Intellectual Openness
    • Open
    • Restricted-by license or intellectual property
  • Interoperability-the ability of one standards-based object to be used in another standards based system
  • Reusability-The ability to re-use, alter, or modify the object, or any part of that object to create new information or knowledge. Reusability makes scholarship possible.

Next time we will examine how these characteristics relate to digital objects, and then after that, how those characteristics, along with institutional mission,  help determine the systems and platforms that we could use to manage, preserve,  and make available digital content from our repositories.


Using the Hammer, Having the Nails

Connecticut Historical Society

We all know the old saying that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. I’ve been “nailing” pretty much everything around here with my social network tool, including in one case even a social network visualization. It is all part of experimenting with different tools that can leverage digital content. I’m sure soon we will find another tool that we can leverage for our content and start hammering everything with that. While it is a lot of fun, and we are going to make some more permanent visualizations with this particular tool, this exposes an important idea behind digital repositories. In order to use, reuse, and otherwise “re-present” content, it has to have certain characteristics which I call:  Reusability, Interoperability, and Openness. These characteristics insure that any new lightweight tool that comes out will be able to leverage content in the repository in more or less automated ways.

Open content and metadata that exists in an environment where it can be manipulated, remade, and shared is important. Equally important for scholarship and the historical record is the persistence of that source data in predictable locations no matter where or how it is ultimately used. This “cite-ability” is a foundational principle of history and scholarship, and is the only way we can determine the validity of the content we see.

All the lightweight visualization, presentation, discovery, etc. tools are less useful if we don’t have reliable source material. Or, if we are to follow the opening metaphor, “A hammer is useless if there are no nails.”