CLIR Issues Number 73
Number 73 • January/February 2010
ISSN 1944-7639 (online version)
CLIR Issues Now Paperless
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A More Encompassing Good
by Charles Henry
The concept of something that can be shared without diminishing its supply and without necessarily excluding others from using it can be traced to Aristotle. As a term, the common good has gained increasing interest in the past several decades, especially as the nature of distributed, digital technology-based delivery mechanisms becomes understood and appreciated. Much of the information that is tapped from the fiber-optic strands of our high-speed networks is essentially inexhaustible, infinitely reusable, and available indiscriminately to those with Internet accounts. Knowledge as a global common good—articulated by the economist Joseph Stiglitz—is enormously expanded in scope and reach by our modern cyberinfrastructure.
When one turns to higher education in America, universities and colleges describe their graduates as their most salient contribution to society. The well-educated and rounded student is directed to engage in society more broadly and to provide leadership and solutions to complex challenges. In his recent and thoughtful book, The Marketplace of Ideas, Louis Menand describes this relationship succinctly: “The goal of teaching students to think for themselves is not an empty sense of self-satisfaction. The goal is to enable students, after they leave college, to make more enlightened contributions to the common good.”1 This aspiration is echoed by numerous schools across the country. Consider the following examples: “a Hamilton education prepares students to make choices and to accept the responsibilities of citizenship in a democratic world of intellect and diversity” (Hamilton College); “to prepare students, through rigorous academics and co-curricular programs, for ethical and socially responsible leadership in a global community” (Manhattanville College); and “the comprehensive nature of the University of Arizona enables us to provide the sons and daughters of Arizona families with access to a broad-based, high-quality, research-focused education that empowers our graduates to be leaders in solving the most complex issues of society.”
Although these goals and mission statements are laudable, they often mask a paradox. Beneath the flow of students who enter the schools, are taught, and then return to society with an ethical sensibility to improve the world is a static and nearly immovable trove of resources that each institution holds dear and very close to the chest: the library collections, special and rare books and manuscripts, maps, historical objects, and other facets of our cultural heritage. In the analog age, this was understandable and justifiable. Books and rare materials were accessible only physically, and the responsible approach was to collect what one could and to keep the objects physically safe and available. The “good” was often limited to local consumption and thereby not truly common in that it was exclusionary, and the loss of a book or set of journals did diminish the value of the holdings.
In the digital era, however, the contributions of universities can and should become more encompassing. While challenges will continue to arise regarding more recently printed materials, there is a tremendous array of out-of-copyright and rare objects that can be digitized and shared. While one or a few universities can contribute to a national, common good by collaboratively producing data sets of valuable knowledge, a more dynamic and transformational approach is one in which hundreds of universities and colleges coordinate this activity to create a digital environment that is accessible to students, faculty, and citizens agnostically. This coordination will be facilitated by projects such as HathiTrust, Hydra/Blacklight, and Planets, which have the potential to become truly global in scope.2 Such broad collaboration is Stiglitz’s model writ large—a new place for exploration, enlightenment, and self-discovery that could influence education for generations to come.
The vision statement of the University of Michigan captures this possibility: “We create knowledge and share the joy of discovery and we see information technology as a powerful means for broadening access to knowledge and exchanging ideas.” To widely adopt this tenet would be essentially to reconceptualize our academic cyberinfrastructure in terms that would not replace our students as agents of compassionate change, but significantly extend the power of their experience in gaining insight and understanding to the world they have been exhorted to better. To do this, our institutions, like their graduates, must seize new opportunities to serve as leaders and agents of change.
2 Participants in the November 2009 meeting of the Global Digital Library Collaborative (see accompanying article) noted several additional projects at https://clir.wordpress.clir.org/globaldigitallibraries/projects.html.
CLIR and Stanford Inaugurate Global Digital Libraries Collaborative
In November 2009, CLIR and Stanford University Libraries cohosted an international meeting of senior library administrators and senior technologists to discuss opportunities for collaboration in digital library research and development. Sixty-one participants attended, representing 24 institutions in 13 countries.
During the three-day meeting, attendees considered how institutions can best integrate their digital collections with those of others in the global library community and discussed what is needed to realize a truly integrated international library cyberinfrastructure. A summary report of the discussions is available at https://clir.wordpress.clir.org/globaldigitallibraries/.
What Will It Take to Create a Global Digital Library?
“The piece-by-piece maturation of the digital library . . . is neither efficient nor sustainable,” notes the meeting summary. “Coordination and collaboration are no longer merely good ideas, they are essential for the survival of our cultural heritage.” But while creating a coherent, user-centered digital library seems within reach, “the challenges of collaboration on a global scale make it difficult to imagine how such an environment might be built or managed.”
One challenge facing architects of global collaboration is the need to rethink the taxonomy of digital library functions and services. Many processes that once seemed to be discrete—such as search and discovery, storage and preservation, or collection development and maintenance—are now interconnected. This has fundamental implications for how libraries plan their collaboration. One participant suggested that it is helpful to view issues as “shared problems,” requiring input from all partners for resolution, rather than as “common problems” that partners address separately before engaging with others. Examples of efforts to create a shared digital library cyberinfrastructure that show global promise include the Blacklight discovery interface, the DuraSpace repository technologies, and the Hydra Project.
Participants discussed the library’s role in research activities. How, from the user’s perspective, do libraries fit into the digital value chain? Rather than striving to meet all the information needs of their local user communities with minimal assistance, perhaps libraries can strive for excellence in their respective areas of strength while building trusted relationships with other libraries to serve the other needs of their constituencies.
Discussions also centered on the balance between specialization and generalization, and centralization and decentralization.
The importance of establishing trust in relationships ran through the discussions. Sharing and distributing risks and responsibilities depends on building the interinstitutional trust needed to reduce duplicate functions such as collection development, off-site storage, digitization, or specialized conservation.
In considering the library’s mission in 5 or 10 years, most participants felt that “the basic mission of libraries will remain intact,” but that the library’s role as a preserver and cultivator of knowledge is becoming more difficult to define. “Library services are expanding in scope from one discrete area of the ‘information lifecycle’ (i.e., the collection of published materials) to encompassing the whole environment in which the consumption and production of knowledge take place, including exchanges between teachers and learners, information objects and users, and scholars with their peers.”
Continuing the Collaborative’s Work
Attendees laid the groundwork for ongoing collaboration by reviewing existing efforts between participants and by inviting partnerships with institutions. The projects, listed in the summary report, are also listed on the Global Digital Libraries Collaborative Web site at https://clir.wordpress.clir.org/globaldigitallibraries/projects.html. The list will be expanded to include other opportunities for libraries seeking collaborative partners.
The collaborative will continue as an informal community for promoting cooperation among libraries, archives, museums, and other guardians of cultural heritage worldwide. CLIR will maintain and update the Web site, with the aim of providing an ongoing forum for exchange about global digital library efforts.
Forthcoming Report Explores Research Library Futures
In April, CLIR will publish a three-report volume that examines key issues in the research library’s transition from an analog to a digital environment for knowledge access, preservation, and reconstitution.
CLIR President Charles Henry introduces the volume with a provocative question: In the digital era, is human understanding itself changing? If so, what does this mean for how we define academic libraries?
In “Can a New Research Library Be All-Digital?” Lisa Spiro and Geneva Henry consider how we might design a library today for a new research university. If a library does not have to accommodate legacy collections, can it be an all-digital library? If so, what conditions must be met?
Most research libraries were created in the analog era. They are our memory institutions and are valued precisely because of their rich legacy collections. Preservation is a critical function of these libraries. But how does a library evaluate collection and preservation strategies at a time when it is called upon to preserve and make available both print volumes and electronic records? How does it make the best economic decisions? This question is addressed by Paul Courant and Matthew “Buzzy” Nielson in their report, “On the Cost of Keeping a Book.”
The third report, “Ghostlier Demarcations: Large-Scale Text Digitization Projects and Their Utility for Contemporary Humanities Scholarship,” reflects scholars’ perspectives on key issues in the transition from an analog to a digital research environment. The report, which is based on commissioned research into the utility of digitized texts now being made available through several large-scale scanning projects, includes an overview of a meeting that CLIR hosted to discuss implications of the research findings.
CLIR sponsors will automatically receive the print report; an electronic version will be available at https://clir.wordpress.clir.org/pubs/abstract/pub147abst.html.
Blue Ribbon Task Force Issues Final Report on Economics of Ensuring Long-Term Access to Digital Information
Addressing one of the most urgent societal challenges of the Information Age—ensuring that valued digital information will be accessible not just today, but in the future—requires solutions that are at least as much economic and social as technical, according to a new report by the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access.
The report, Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-term Access to Digital Information, is the result of a two-year inquiry into the economic challenges of preserving an ever-increasing amount of information in a world gone digital. The full report is available online at http://brtf.sdsc.edu/biblio/BRTF_Final_Report.pdf .
The challenge in preserving valuable digital information—including text, video, images, music, and sensor data generated throughout all areas of our society—is real and growing at an exponential pace. A recent study by the International Data Corporation (IDC) found that a total of 3,892,179,868,480,350,000,000 (that’s roughly 3.9 trillion times a trillion) new digital information bits were created in 2008. In the future, the digital universe is expected to double in size every 18 months, according to the IDC report.
While much has been written on the digital preservation issue as a technical challenge, the Task Force report focuses on the economic aspect—how stewards of valuable digital information can pay for preservation over time. The report provides general principles and actions to support long-term economic sustainability; context-specific recommendations tailored to specific scenarios analyzed in the report; and an agenda for priority actions and next steps, organized according to the type of decision maker best suited to carry that action forward. The report is also intended to serve as a basis for further study on economically sustainable digital preservation.
Value, Incentives, and Roles and Responsibilities
The report focuses on four scenarios, each having increasing amounts of preservation-worthy digital assets in which there is a public interest: scholarly discourse, research data, commercially owned cultural content (such as digital movies and music), and collectively-produced Web content (such as blogs).
The report identifies three necessary conditions for sustainable preservation that are closely aligned with the needs of stakeholders: recognition of the value of data and selecting materials for long-term preservation; provision of incentives for decision makers to preserve data directly or provide preservation services for others; and articulation of the roles and responsibilities among those involved in the preservation process. The report further aligns those conditions with the basic economic principle of supply and demand and warns that without well-articulated demand for access to preserved digital assets, there will be no supply of preservation services.
Task Force Recommendations
The report makes several recommendations for decision makers and stakeholders to consider as they seek economically sustainable preservation practices for digital information. Areas of priority for near-term action include the following:
- develop public-private partnerships, similar to ones formed by the Library of Congress
- ensure that organizations have access to skilled personnel, from domain experts to legal and business specialists
- create and sustain secure chains of stewardship between organizations over the long term
- achieve economies of scale and scope wherever possible
- build capacity to support stewardship in all areas
- lower the costs of preservation overall
- determine the optimal level of technical curation needed to create a flexible strategy for all types of digital material
Public Policy Action
- modify copyright laws to enable digital preservation
- create incentives and requirements for private entities to preserve on behalf of the public (financial incentives, handoff requirements)
- sponsor public-private partnerships
- clarify rights issues associated with Web-based materials
Education and Public Outreach Action
- promote education and training for 21st century digital preservation (domain-specific skills, curatorial best practices, core competencies in relevant science, technology, engineering, and mathematics knowledge)
- raise awareness of the urgency to take timely preservation actions
The report concludes that sustainable preservation strategies are not built all at once, nor are they static.
The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access was launched in late 2007 by the National Science Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in partnership with CLIR, the Library of Congress, the Joint Information Systems Committee of the United Kingdom, and the National Archives and Records Administration. The Task Force was commissioned to explore the economic sustainability challenge of digital preservation and access. An Interim report discussing the economic context for preservation, Sustaining the Digital Investment: Issues and Challenges of Economically Sustainable Digital Preservation, is available at the Task Force’s Web site: http://brtf.sdsc.edu.
The Web site also provides information about the Task Force’s upcoming symposium, “A National Conversation on the Economic Sustainability of Digital Information,” to take place April 1, 2010, in Washington DC. A similar symposium will be held in the United Kingdom on May 6, 2010, at the Wellcome Collection Conference Centre in London. Space is limited so early registration is advised. More information is available at http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/preservation/BRTFUKSymposium.aspx.
CLIR to Collaborate with NEH on Assessment of Digging Into Data Challenge
CLIR has entered into a cooperative agreement with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to provide a strategic assessment of the Digging Into Data Challenge, a grant competition jointly sponsored by NEH, the U.K.’s Joint Information Systems Committee, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The goal of the Challenge is to encourage multidisciplinary collaborations that explore the application of computational techniques to large corpora and to begin to understand the kinds of research that become possible at scale. The Challenge made its first round of eight awards in December 2009.
The assessment will address how well the Challenge met its objectives, what the next steps are, and what could have been done differently. Over the next 18 months, CLIR will organize focus group meetings, interviews, and site visits with grantees, program officers, and experts to inform its assessment. By the end of the project, CLIR will issue two final reports: the first will be a technical summary that addresses project goals, administrative history, methodology, summary of findings, next steps, and recommendations. The second report will be more interpretive and will discuss the findings at a higher level from the perspective of implications, the future of computationally intensive scholarship in the humanities, the context in which this type of research plays out, and the roles of public and private funding agencies and other entities in fostering this research.
CLIR Board Elects New Members
The CLIR Board has elected new members W. Joseph (Joey) King, executive director of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), and Joachim Küpper, dean of humanities at the Free University of Berlin and director of the university’s Dahlem Humanities Center. Their terms will begin April 2010.
Mr. King is concurrently vice president for innovation at Southwestern University. Previously, he was executive director of Rice University’s Connexions, a leading open education system with more than one million unique visitors per month. He serves on the oversight board of Connexions and as chairman of the board of Rice University Press, the first fully digital academic press.
Mr. Küpper is professor of Romance Philology and Comparative Literature at the Free University of Berlin. From 2003-2009, he was a visiting associate professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literature at Johns Hopkins University. Mr. Küpper is general editor of Poetica, and a member of Leopoldina/German National Academy of Sciences.