Number 70 • July/August 2009
ISSN 1944-7639 (online version)
The Perfect Storm
by G. Sayeed Choudhury
G. Sayeed Choudhury is assocate dean for library digital programs and Hodson Director of the Digital Research and Curation Center at the Sheridan Libraries of Johns Hopkins University. He is also a CLIR Senior Presidential Fellow.
DURING MY GRADUATE studies, I developed simulation models of natural disasters. For this reason, I remain interested in the annual predictions regarding the hurricane season. While forecasters anticipate a season of average hurricane intensity this year, the climate for universities and libraries is anything but average. In fact, the convergence of environmental forces—such as the rise in social networking, the emergence of new media, and the proliferation of data—and the current economic crisis is a recipe for the perfect storm.
In the eye of this perfect storm may be the declining cost of coordinating increasingly distributed collaboration, a phenomenon that raises basic questions about the value of institutions. Clay Shirky’s prescient talk1 in 2005 at TED addressed coordination costs, which he defined as “all of the financial or institutional difficulties in arranging group output.” He argues that the traditional means for dealing with coordination costs has been to create an institution that offers a framework for organizing individuals’ activities and output.
But this traditional approach is giving way to new alternatives. Shirky pointed to Flickr as one of the earliest examples of a new type of coordination—one in which a loosely coupled, shared infrastructure generates useful results even in the absence of planned, institutional frameworks. No institution hires and organizes people to upload their photos and tag them via Flickr, yet it offers an abundance of content and metadata. Shirky added that Flickr is well suited to capture the “long tail” of contributions in a manner that institutions, restricted by their customary business practices, are not.
In higher education, my favorite example of coordination costs relates to identity management and collaboration tools. Universities have authentication and authorization systems to identify who you are and what you can use; they also have office software or course management systems to support collaboration. How many passwords do you use within your university system? How easy is it to collaborate with people outside your university? Yet within and without our universities, many faculty, students, and staff collaborate daily using Google’s suite of tools. This trend will almost certainly grow once Google Wave is launched later this year. With its impressive integration of services and novel method for identity management, Google Wave may become a tsunami that washes away the office software suite—and perhaps even the course management system.
Today’s students, faculty, and researchers clearly have choices beyond those our institutions offer, and if they identify tools with lower coordination costs, they will be unlikely to choose tools with higher costs for the sake of institutional benefit alone. In his talk, Shirky wisely observed that collaboration is now effectively embedded into a distributed infrastructure that exists independent of the traditional institutional context.
This reality is challenging roles that have long been central to universities and libraries, particularly because some of the external service providers are competitors to traditional higher education. Until recently, one could have argued that there has been an uneasy equilibrium between the traditional custodians of information, such as libraries or universities, and newcomers, such as Google and the University of Phoenix. However, a video from Kaplan University2 suggests that this balance is no longer stable. The comments on YouTube3 associated with this video offer evidence that a debate is taking place regarding tradition versus innovation. The tagline of this video—”It’s time a university adapted to you, rather than you adapting to it”—resonates with the idea that traditional means of enabling coordination are being upended.
Whether this video is an earnest attempt to challenge higher education or merely a slick piece of marketing remains to be seen, but it does remind us that higher education faces unprecedented competition for providing information services. Years ago, when my only options for information were my local library and a network of connected libraries, it made sense for Association of Research Libraries (ARL) to rank its members’ importance on the basis of the scope and depth of their collections and services. But given the current multitude of choices for collections and services, shouldn’t ARL libraries expand their baseline for comparison? And shouldn’t these comparisons include infrastructure, both in terms of local capabilities and of seamless connectedness to global services? Flickr is an example of a service that is available through a variety of channels, including the Web and mobile devices. Through these channels, users can upload, view, annotate, and organize photos on Flickr anytime, any place. Shouldn’t it be equally easy to populate our institutional repositories? Any other arrangement fails to recognize the positive feedback loop between services and infrastructure.
Speaking at the January 2009 Educause Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference, I used the introduction of the automobile to illustrate the feedback loop between infrastructure and transformation.4 I noted that countries made varying choices regarding the place that this new means of transportation would hold within society. Countries that developed infrastructure and practices specifically for automobiles gained a competitive advantage. Henry Ford, I noted, did not invent the automobile, but he had the vision to extend its reach and impact throughout society. One of Ford’s quotes is highly relevant in our current climate: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”
Libraries spend a great deal of effort reaching out to customers, but perhaps we do not focus enough attention on our visionary customers. Too often we fail to examine trends beyond our own institutional context; we are reluctant to embrace risk taking when developing services or infrastructure. The choices that universities and libraries make regarding infrastructure in the next few years will have profound implications for the future. For example, it is quite probable that students and faculty will evaluate universities and libraries on the basis of their ability to preserve data and to make it available. As economies become more knowledge based, these implications are not confined to higher education.
The current economic crisis has amplified the effects of environmental forces on universities and libraries. While the past few years may have seemed highly active, perhaps they will prove to be the calm before the storm.
2 “Your Time” at http://talent.kaplan.edu/campaign.aspx
IMLS Awards CLIR $713,000 for Project to Develop Leadership Capacity
THE INSTITUTE FOR Museum and Library Services (IMLS) has awarded CLIR $713,000 for a project to develop the leadership capacity of librarians at many of the nation’s less affluent liberal arts colleges.
CLIR will partner with the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) to strengthen the information management capabilities of librarians in liberal arts colleges. Special attention will be paid to colleges that serve predominantly low-income, minority, and first-generation students, including members of the Appalachian College Association and the United Negro College Fund. The project also emphasizes liberal arts colleges that are not well connected to the mainstream of American librarianship, including institutions that are members of the American International Consortium of Academic Libraries.
The three-year project will have three main elements: (1) strengthening professional development by enabling librarians to attend workshops and leadership institutes; (2) funding the development of workshops addressing the special needs of small liberal arts colleges; and (3) creating opportunities for librarians from less affluent institutions to partner with their peers at better-financed liberal arts colleges.
The award was granted under IMLS’s Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program.
CLIR Receives Grant to Explore Applications for
Digital Humanities Research Derived from
CLIR HAS RECEIVED $28,000 from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to investigate the possible relevance of declassified tools developed by the intelligence community to humanistic scholarship. The project builds on CLIR’s recent work in two areas: identifying analytical tools that can be shared among investigators; and exploring the research potential of very large, heterogeneous digital collections.
The confluence of digital conversion activities and technological advances allows researchers in the humanities to examine questions that require scale and computational power. Intelligence-gathering agencies are a potentially excellent source for tools, resources, and methodologies that have direct bearing on and applicability to contemporary digital humanities research because of the similarity in the methodological challenges that face researchers, namely, the need to deal with diverse source material at a scale that exceeds the capacity of humans.
Blogs, wikis, e-mail, radio and television broadcasts, conference proceedings, folksonomies, and Web sites are just a few of the publicly accessible resources of potential interest to scholars. The analytical tools applied to these sources enable searching for patterns (linguistic and imagistic) against very large data sets, data mining, and semantic analysis, among other functions; the business community has already used some of these tools to navigate heterogeneous information.
The grant will support a literature search and evaluation of tool findability, a meeting to discuss how scholars might use such tools and how access to the tools could advance humanities scholarship, and publication of results.
CLIR Welcomes New Board Members
ON JULY 1, the CLIR Board welcomed new members Paul Courant and Winston Tabb. Both men are distinguished by their significant contributions to the community, including service as trustees of the Digital Library Federation, whose work they will continue to guide as CLIR Board members.
Paul Courant is university librarian and dean of libraries, Harold T. Shapiro Collegiate Professor of Public Policy, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and professor of economics and of information at the University of Michigan. He has also served as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Michigan. Courant has written books and papers covering a range of topics in economics and public policy, including tax policy, state and local economic development, gender differences in pay, housing, radon and public health, relationships between economic growth and environmental policy, and university budgeting systems. He is currently studying the economics of universities, the economics of libraries and archives, and the changes in the system of scholarly communication that derive from new information technologies.
Winston Tabb is Sheridan dean of university libraries and museums, and vice provost for the arts at Johns Hopkins University. Before coming to Hopkins in 2002, Tabb had been at the Library of Congress for 30 years, the last 10 of which he served as associate librarian. He has served the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) variously as chair of the Professional Committee, and member of the Executive Committee, Governing Board, and Professional Board. He currently chairs IFLA’s Copyright and Other Legal Matters Committee and is a member of the IFLA-International Publishers Association Steering Committee. He is also a member of the boards of the Association of Research Libraries, the Johns Hopkins Press, and the National Information Standards Organization (NISO). Mr. Tabb’s chief current research interest is the identification of core intellectual property norms needed to advance the mission of libraries both nationally and across borders.
WELCOME NEW SPONSORS!
CLIR welcomes the following new sponsors:
• Baylor University
• Michigan State University
• Wabash College
Humanists and Social Scientists Receive Library Fellowships
SIX INDIVIDUALS HAVE been awarded Postdoctoral Fellowships in Academic Libraries for 2009–10. The fellows, each of whom recently received a Ph.D. degree in the humanities or social sciences, will spend the upcoming year at an academic research library, where they will develop linkages between disciplinary scholarship, libraries, archives, and evolving digital tools. Three fellows from the previous cohort will spend a second year in their academic libraries.
The fellows began their program in July with a two-week seminar at Bryn Mawr College, where they discussed cutting-edge issues and challenges affecting academic librarianship with leaders in the field. They also traveled to Washington, D.C., for meetings with Library of Congress officials and specialists, among others.
CLIR administers the fellowship program in collaboration with academic institutions as a means of recruiting talent into the library profession. McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, a new fellowship host, is the first Canadian institution to partner with CLIR on this program. Information on the fellowships is available at https://www.clir.org/fellowships/postdoc/.
New fellows for the upcoming academic year are as follows:
Ph.D. English, University of North Carolina
Host: Bryn Mawr College
Ph.D. Critical Studies, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California
Host: Occidental College
Ph.D. History of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University
Host: Lehigh University
Timothy F. Jackson
Ph.D. Editorial Studies, Boston University
Host: University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Ph.D. Biological Anthropology, Skeletal Biology, Tulane University
Host: The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Ph.D. Critical Studies, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California
Host: McMaster University
The following fellows will continue their studies in the coming year:
Gloria E. Chacon
Ph.D. Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz
Host: University of California, Los Angeles
Gabrielle N. O. Dean
Ph.D. English and Textual Studies, University of Washington
Host: The Johns Hopkins University
Ph.D. History of Consciousness, University of California, Santa Cruz
Host: Claremont University Consortium