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Library Roles in a Digital Age

As is often the case in times of change, organizational structures and the language for describing an organization’s activities do not adequately reflect the transformations under way. Consequently, while the descriptions that follow derive from traditional functions of libraries (collection development, cataloging and access, user services, and place) these descriptions fall short in the contemporary context.

The sections that follow use selected examples to explore the dimensions of change in the classic roles of libraries. Are core functions and expertise being sustained? How have external forces left their mark? The cases include instances where traditional functions have been stretched and build on core activity, as well as instances where innovation reflects a significant break from past activity. The cases also reveal an evolution from models that capitalize on the distributed environment to models that are more open and diffuse.

Collection Development

Libraries have been in the collection business for centuries and are defined largely by the functions of collection development and management, that is, by a continuum of processes to select content appropriate for a particular community, make it accessible, manage it, and preserve it. These discrete functions have been viewed as necessary components of good collection stewardship, and they have obvious definition in a physical context. Libraries bought books (which they then owned), organized them, made them available through library facilities, and took steps to ensure the longevity of the volumes for future use.

To some extent, this full stewardship model is being followed in the digital arena. Libraries acquire and secure ownership of digital content (typically through license), store the content on local servers, and make it accessible to a target community. Libraries attempt, as protocols permit, to ensure long-term access to the digital collection through license conditions and through practices to create backup and redundancy, and to migrate the content over time. In a variation of the model, some libraries host commercial content or centrally manage content of other campus units. In both of these cases, the classic collection stewardship model is sustained largely intact. A defining characteristic of this traditional model is the library’s ability to exercise primary responsibility for and control over the content and future access to that content.


Increasingly, the capabilities of the distributed environment prompt an unbundling of the discrete component functions of traditional collection development and management responsibilities. Models in which the library retains central control over content, its access, and its longevity may no longer be appropriate or sustainable. Consequently, we see instances of libraries providing access to electronic content that they neither own nor manage. The library may also preserve and archive content that is not accessible to users.1

An interesting illustration of this unbundling of collection functions can be found in a model of collection federation. These efforts typically create structures with both decentralized and centralized responsibilities. Federated systems allow distributed content to be brought together and used as an integrated collection. Individual content managers retain ownership and governance over each discrete collection, but the content is made accessible under the principles of the larger federating system. The University of Michigan Library’s Image Services provides a good example. This program offers mechanisms to integrate image content (e.g., photographs, art, or architecture) from independent providers and to represent it in a larger access system. The collection providers retain control, managing the individual image collections in a variety of different local database systems. Differing types of descriptive metadata are used for each collection, but each is converted to a standard encoding (using SGML or XML), and fields are mapped to minimal Dublin Core metadata in the federating system.

Image Services is optimized to provide access, without the overhead of a management system for the image collections themselves. Users can access each collection individually and exploit the full access protocols for each collection or search across all collections or a subset using the mapped, core metadata elements. User tools are also incorporated, allowing image analysis (e.g., pan and zoom) and comparison, subset creation, and presentation options within the federated system. Thus, the functional benefits of federation can be achieved without diminishing the features and specialized functionality of each independent collection.

Federation may seem to be a simple approach to bringing content together; however, the underlying design principles and intellectual effort involved suggest a far more complex role for the library. The difference from the full stewardship model is also significant. Whereas traditional models bring content control to the library and create a central access strategy, the federating model balances distributed content and collection-specific functionality with cross-collection functionality and tools. Figure 1 outlines the distribution of responsibilities that occurs in the federated model of Michigan’s Image Services.

Distributed Collection Manager Responsibilities Library Federation Responsibilities
Collection development and management Content identification and agreements
Metadata development and maintenance Metadata mapping and maintenance
Database development and management Tool assessment and development
Rights management Access system development and maintenance
Collection archiving Rights protection
Content provider relationships

Fig. 1. University of Michigan Image Services Federation

What is entailed in collection federation? First, content providers have to be identified for inclusion and evaluated by the federating agent (in this case, the library). Negotiation and education are often required to secure the participation of content providers. Contractual agreements may be necessary that specify the responsibilities of each party and the conditions for the use of the content. Each collection database structure must be analyzed and understood to map metadata schema. At the federating system level, user assessment and task analysis are needed to inform the design of the search system, and analytic tools must be incorporated. A system architecture needs to be developed to implement the search, display, and tool functions that draw on distributed content. Finally, federation requires ongoing assessment of system functionality and maintenance of the relationships with the content providers.

Organizationally, the service reflects a melding of expertise related to the subject domain, content characteristics, access, service, and technology. One could add to the list skills related to human-computer interaction, interface design, and usability assessment. Technology infrastructure is imperative, as are the “organizational infrastructure,” (i.e., the server and software apparatus) and the “relationship apparatus” reflected in sustaining the federation partnership. Threaded throughout programs of this sort are often issues of intellectual property, licensing, and rights management. The organizational implications are significant. There are obvious investments required to build the technology components. Perhaps more critical than any financial investment, however, is organizational support for the coalescing of expertise within and outside of the library.

An additional implication of the federating model relates to the responsibility for documenting and preserving scholarly resources over time. In the federated model, the library controls neither the content nor the permanence of these resources. To the extent that component collection databases are dynamic and subject to decisions of the distributed collection managers, the library must forgo its traditional archiving role. However, this prompts a new responsibility for the library in influencing and educating individual content providers, the institution, and the community about the requirements for preservation and archiving of resources.

Library as Publisher

As a second example of new paradigms for the library’s role in collection development, we see libraries becoming more engaged in the publishing process, including content presentation, management, and distribution policies and practices. This moves the library closer to the point of creation and distribution in the publishing process and broadens its functions beyond archiving and mediation for published works.

There are several variations on the theme of library-as-publisher. In some instances (e.g., Stanford University’s HighWire Press or Johns Hopkins University’s Project MUSE), the focus has been on providing robust distribution services for established society and university presses. Other enterprises, such as the California Digital Library’s e-Scholarship program, serve more as incubators, providing tools and services to facilitate innovation in publishing, particularly e-print or similar repositories. The content creators and producers are within the University of California system, where they may serve institutional interests as well. Finally, there are examples such as the Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia (EPIC), where the partner organizations exercise direct control over content, pricing, and distribution in a classic publishing model.

Although these three publisher/distributor examples differ in the degree of control over content (e.g., content evaluation and editorial control), they share some features. Each model engages the library directly in the processes of publishing. Consequently, there is an opportunity for libraries to advocate for responsible practices (e.g., on pricing, licensing, or archiving) as well as to develop new relationships with publishers.

The ideologies that inform these new roles in publishing are potentially in keeping with the values of libraries and the emerging interests of institutions and authors relative to intellectual property ownership and conditions of use. In some cases, there are opportunities to respond to institutional interests regarding the retention of copyright and cost-effective processes and products that can be sustained for the future. Less clear is the extent to which these new roles tap the core expertise of libraries and librarians. Libraries usually bring expertise in information dissemination and use, rather than contribute to the editorial or evaluative aspects of publishing. Consequently, it seems more likely that publishing ventures for libraries will be carried out in partnership with other organizations that have these necessary skills. In this context, library involvement in publishing and content distribution plays off of the fundamental experiences libraries have with information acquisition, access, use, and preservation.

Information Access

Organizing and providing access to information is another classic role of libraries. The twin functions of cataloging and classification have allowed published works to be fixed in a framework of knowledge and to be given multiple access points for retrieval-a combination that has supported general inquiry over time. These functions have brought predictability and a cumulative order to vast amounts of material. As protocols for structuring and sharing bibliographic data were developed for automated systems and networks, libraries have been able to share these data and build more flexible access systems. In many respects, bibliographic utilities such as OCLC and RLIN and the model of shared cataloging represent early, primitive models of distributed and open approaches to library functions. As distributed forces prevail, models are emerging that no longer rely on central data and capabilities, but rather harness resources through new, distributed mechanisms.

Traditional access activities have been largely undifferentiating and unintrusive; that is, all materials added to libraries have generally had the same descriptive treatment and the functionality or structure of the works themselves have not been materially altered by these processes. As new types of digital content emerge that are structured, include multimedia, and encompass associative links to other resources, it is unlikely that these classic techniques for access can suffice.

Doug Greenberg (2000) has offered a stark characterization of the contrast between traditional library and Internet techniques of access:

If the key to the library’s power is its rigid, counterintuitive arrangement of static information in a comprehensible and hierarchical structure, the key to the Internet’s power is its flexible arrangement of dynamic information that permits the human mind literally to jump from one thing to another and back again with no more than stream of consciousness as a guide. It is anybody’s guess which of these systems is better adapted to human creativity and curiosity.

The challenge for libraries is to sustain the significant capabilities developed through standards-based bibliographic processes while taking advantage of new access strategies that have been created as a result of new media standards and communication protocols.

Libraries have responded to the challenges of content description for new digital media, extrapolating from existing cataloging practices to develop various metadata schema. These schema have recognized the new types of attributes necessary to represent digital objects and services fully, that is, to describe more than just their content and topic. Administrative and structural metadata, for example, add significant value and capture information about provenance, property rights, and methods of creation or capture, as well as information about the object’s structure that can be used by retrieval systems.

Communities and Collaboratories

Metadata developments generally reflect an extension of cataloging practices to new dimensions of content and access. Libraries are seeking to understand how these new access strategies might better serve target user communities. In particular, libraries now analyze how content should be represented to achieve the desired functionality within access systems. Assessing functionality increasingly requires an understanding of how content is used, and by whom. For example, metadata for a collection of plant or animal specimens might incorporate scientific as well as popular names to serve both research investigators and K­12 users. Or a research user may need to map specimen data for geographic analysis, thus requiring the specification and inclusion of spatial references.

As the information environment has become more distributed and more collaborative, how have these forces affected the library’s role in facilitating access? Two interesting examples can be found in the OAI and in the functions of metadata harvesting. Although OAI initially focused on e-print archives and new models of scholarly communication, it now is involved in the development and promotion of “interoperability standards that aim to facilitate the efficient dissemination of content . . . independent of both the type of content offered and the economic mechanisms surrounding that content” (Lagoze et al. 2002).

Metadata harvesting techniques address the inability of the popular network search engines to tap the riches of digital libraries and other content that lives within databases and repositories (the so-called deep Web). Metadata harvesting projects involve both “exposing” metadata associated with digital library collections (using specified protocols) and developing harvesting services that can gather these exposed metadata and create access services appropriate for specific uses or user communities. In the early phase of development, both general and specialized services have been proposed; the latter require attention to domain-specific vocabulary or other characteristics associated with specific formats, uses, or users.

As an example of a specialized service, the University of Virginia’s proposed American Studies Information Community will draw on harvesting protocols to bring together disparate types of information (text, data, media, images) for a community, defined as a group of scholars, students, researchers, librarians, information specialists, and citizens with a common interest in a particular thematic area. The project is being undertaken collaboratively with other institutions and content providers (e.g., Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Virginia Tech University, and the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art). The University of Virginia describes these information communities as “learning and teaching environments in which subject-driven websites are developed around print and digital versions of our collections and the teaching interests of our faculty members . . . Information communities will foster interdisciplinary and collaborative research and publication amongst scholars with common interests.”2

This access model is interesting because it reflects several trends that are also evident in the broader landscape. The new service will take advantage of a distributed collection model and a range of partners. The descriptive techniques will reflect enhanced attributes appropriate to the subject area and the diverse formats in the distribut ed collections. Analytic tools will be incorporated to add value to the content and to stimulate collaboration. Perhaps most significant, the access system is explicitly designed to serve a social role as a catalyst for an interdisciplinary community-a far more intrusive role than is provision of access alone.

A similar model for creating a collaborative environment that mixes content and tools can be found in the construct of a collaboratory, having its genesis in the research community. In many respects, collaboratories are a new incarnation of the “invisible college” of the past, in that they focus on creating a communication environment. Collaboratories have been defined as “tool-oriented computing and communication systems to support scientific collaboration” (National Research Council 1993). An often-cited example of a collaboratory, the Space Physics and Aeronomy Research Collaboratory (SPARC), provides an online knowledge environment for atmospheric scientists worldwide. SPARC incorporates the ability to control remote telescopes and instrumentation, to review and collaboratively analyze observational data of atmospheric events, to create and archive vast amounts of research data, and to use tools to manipulate the data.

To the extent that libraries begin to develop access techniques in response to a community and to support the potential development of collaboratories for these communities, we see them assuming a far more integral role within the scholarly arena. In contrast to the approaches to access created in the past, which were focused on published content and largely independent of the less formal aspects of scholarly communication (as in the invisible colleges), this emergent model has the potential to bridge formal and informal communication structures and to develop these structures working closely with the target community of content creators and users. The role of the library moves from manager of scholarly products to that of participant in the scholarly communication process.

Access and the Semantic Web

A second example of new dimensions of access-an exploration of the emerging Semantic Web-is still in a formative stage.

The creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, is the intellectual force behind the Semantic Web as well. Berners-Lee notes, “the Semantic Web is not a separate Web but an extension of the current one, in which information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in cooperation” (Berners-Lee 2001). The Semantic Web brings together metadata, a language to structure the data, and a road map (or ontology, as known in the artificial intelligence community) that explains relationships between terms. These ingredients for knowledge representation-structured content, rich metadata, and a framework or ontology of relationships-allow software agents in computer systems to make inferences and therefore retrieve more intelligently from the vast body of distributed information on the Internet.

Designing the Semantic Web will require a mix of skills, and librarians have the potential to contribute significantly to this effort. One area in which they may become involved is metadata creation, where librarians’ expertise in descriptive techniques has obvious relevance. The more complex arena of ontologies-defining relationships between entities such as classes and subclasses or properties and subproperties-is one in which librarians have latent experience in areas such as thesaurus development. Primarily the domain of computer scientists, ontologies and their specification could involve the library community in more multidimensional description, defining and specifying the logic of relationships between metadata elements and objects, e.g., “This document is a digital manifestation of a print object.”3

In addition to benefiting from rules for representing content and defining relationships, the Semantic Web will benefit from establishing a means of certifying the authenticity and provenance of the content. Otherwise, the diversity of providers and the scarcity of benchmarks to discern quality will seriously limit the Internet as an information retrieval system. How do we know the origin of what we retrieve, whether the descriptive information matches the object, and whether we can believe and trust the metadata? To move the Web from an unstructured and undifferentiated mass of information to a more useful and scaleable information environment, systems of trust and provenance will be essential.4

Trust in the Semantic Web can be established through context (e.g., content or metadata from a known group or an authoritative source) or through digital signatures to verify authorship. While the Semantic Web is still in an early stage, one can imagine a scenario in which content selected by or associated with a library access service could establish a context in which the integrity of the information could be validated, in the same way that library acquisition of content in physical collections reflects a selection decision. This possibility, coupled with the proposed methods to validate the source (for example, with digital signatures that certify the content in a similar fashion to publisher imprints), could significantly enhance the library’s role in refining retrieval.

Greater intelligence in information systems (for example, through software agents) can make connections between resources, respond to user preferences, and retrieve content on the basis of an array of attributes. If libraries previously were valued for their role in mediating between content and user, what does this new and seamless mediation portend for their future roles? A critical aspect of the library’s future may lie in the notion of trust. In the past, a user would make general inferences about a resource on the basis of the fact that it was “associated with a library and its collection” and through use of descriptive information provided by the library. By continuing its descriptive role and using new virtual mechanisms to convey context for users, the library can continue to be a signifier that the resource or collection has been examined and formally described, and that a decision has been made about inclusion. This context could be created through well-defined collections of content and services, use of metadata to represent content attributes fully, and development of structures that can validate content and its source.

In the examples cited previously, we see instances where the library’s role-in this case, providing access to information-is being reshaped by distributed forces and open models. Here, too, we see the potential for the library’s more active engagement and collaboration. Moving beyond simple, descriptive access, libraries will be challenged to understand and fulfill community requirements for robust retrieval and for providing assurance of the integrity and authenticity of content.

User Services

Library user services have traditionally focused on collections support (i.e., helping users identify, retrieve, and use resources) or educational activities to help patrons use their libraries more effectively. These activities have largely been distinct; for example, reference services respond to individuals with specific questions, and instructional programs target classes with general educational needs. The analysis that follows provides examples of more distributed approaches to user services that reflect the development of complex and integrating systems of support.

Evidence of changing user behavior has been documented but is not fully understood. Academic libraries have reported declining in-library attendance and declining use of in-library services such as reference and circulation, although some are experiencing increases in instructional activity (Kyrillidou and Young 2001). Other data indicate a rise in the use of and preference for electronic content (Self and Hiller 2001). Institutional instructional management systems are offering alternative venues for course reserve materials, and the use of traditional course reserve methods has declined. While the profession has yet to analyze fully the relationship among these trends, they suggest increased location-independent use of library and non-library content and heightened interest in acquiring the skills needed to make better use of the myriad systems and services now available on the network. Course-management systems also reflect the increasing desire for services that integrate resources (e.g., syllabi, readings, lecture notes, chat capabilities). These shifts in user behavior and interests prompt the library both to extend traditional services in the networked environment and to consider the broader set of user needs to be addressed in systems of user support.

Virtual Reference Systems

The past decade has seen a rise in reference services to support more virtual inquiry. Whereas, initially, the library mainly served remote users who were affiliated with the institution, it eventually came to serve a more global market. Virtual reference methods began with simple communication exchanges, such as reference via e-mail. They now incorporate tools that allow reference librarians to more fully understand the nuance of the reference interview context (e.g., using video technology to capture nonverbal behaviors) or to provide real-time assistance with electronic resources (e.g., through “chat” functions and through technologies to “capture” the user’s workstation and guide or “co-browse” networked resources).

Many non-library reference services have blossomed on the Internet. These “expert” or “Ask-a” services may match users and experts, offer specific topic strengths, or incorporate natural language technologies to parse the inquiry and provide a more rapid, automated response. A recent survey of such services suggests that these sites are most effective in response to fact-based inquiries, and that the niche for digital reference services in academic libraries may lie in supporting more in-depth and source-dependent questions (Janes, Hill, and Rolfe 2001). Consequently, users may seek answers to simpler questions on the “greater network” and use library services for more complex inquiries. Given the unlikely coordination between commercial and library services, an interesting set of “design” issues arises. Should libraries develop specialized services, assuming that the Internet will fulfill general needs? Will non-library services of the Internet be of sufficient quality and reliability to satisfy users?

While no data exist to capture the changes in complexity of questions posed to virtual reference services, subjective evidence suggests that these questions are becoming more difficult, and that more queries now require combining content, technology, and instructional assistance (Janes 2002). If users are already beginning to differentiate their sources of support, libraries will have no choice but to determine how best to develop services in the context of what is commonly available on the Internet. Directing users to available fact-based reference sites may be one option, particularly during times of the day when libraries cannot provide human-mediated assistance. The bottom line is that when designing services, libraries must take into account the broader service landscape and user behaviors.

The evolution of electronic reference from single to multi-institutional services creates a more complex framework for virtual assistance. In these models, reference services are collaboratively staffed and mechanisms are developed to profile staff and institutional specializations in systematic and structured ways. In addition, the services often incorporate capabilities for real-time discussion and knowledge databases to store the results of reference transactions for future use. The Collaborative Digital Reference Service coordinated by the Library of Congress, for example, is developing an international infrastructure that is designed to manage inquiries submitted by users worldwide and is staffed by librarians worldwide (Kresh 2000). While the model highlights seamless access to global resources, it also harnesses the human capital of library professionals. Expertise is as important as the network of library collections.

As more functional and intelligent systems are being developed for collection access, the development of reference systems has also involved the specification of standards to enable interoperability among sites and to allow more complex functionality. Evolving protocols and metadata will specify the representation, communication, and archiving of user transactions (Lankes 2001, Butler 2001). The emergence of these standards, along with the move from institutional to collaborative models, is creating a more finely articulated system that supports transactions, communication, and management needs for distributed services.

Viewed in the context of the three developmental stages described earlier, virtual reference services are early in the second stage, beginning to test collaborative approaches. Mechanisms for coordination are still relatively primitive, and the descriptive metadata infrastructure needed to support collaboration is nascent. There are reasons for this rate of development. Developing techniques to describe individual or institutional expertise or to capture complex questions will entail significant effort. The organizational and governance issues are equally challenging. Earlier cooperation among institutions for reference services was done largely through hierarchical systems of referral within state or regional cooperatives (where size of collection and staff determined placement in the hierarchical tiers). The “point-to-point” systems now emerging in virtual, cooperative reference represent a far different model of collaboration-one in which the rules of engagement must be newly specified.

Characteristics of more diffuse activity will become more tangible as virtual reference systems are more widely adopted and integrated seamlessly into the library organization and the instructional and research systems of the academic community. Within library organizations, the next phase of development is likely to show evidence of greater integration between on-site and virtual services, integration of reference and technology expertise, and more finely specified tiers of service and referral (see, for example, Ferguson 2000).

Reference systems may be included as visible and discrete services in online instructional and research environments, or they may be seamlessly interwoven to allow automatic support. For example, a library reference system could be incorporated into a research collaboratory environment as a separately identifiable resource to be selected when help is needed. Alternatively, mechanisms may be developed within access systems to prompt users to seek reference assistance when they are having problems (e.g., after several unsuccessful searches or inquiries). These prompts could be mediated by librarians or addressed by automated “Help” files tied to the specific problem.

Research on user failure in libraries has documented areas where users frequently experience problems; for example, the library may not own the desired item, users may ineffectively use the catalog or other access services, or a desired item may not be found on the shelf. Often, the user does not interpret these problems as “failures,” and they do not necessarily result in a request for assistance. In the electronic environment, there is an opportunity to build in mechanisms to capture problematic interactions between content and user. This opportunity to provide point-of-problem guidance, along with the ability to collect detailed data on use, may allow the library to be a presence in an area where it previously was unable to provide support. A key challenge will be striking the right balance between proactive and reactive assistance.

While the traditional notion of library services focuses on user-initiated requests within a library facility, the more diffuse constructs bring reference and technical expertise to a wide range of contexts, within both physical libraries and online environments. Query-based services are expanded and enhanced with more context-sensitive or resource-specific support. Ultimately, the library’s presence becomes more pervasive and its services more fully integrated into the processes of learning and research.

Information Literacy

Instruction-helping people use library resources more effectively through directed and structured educational activities-is another core service that libraries have traditionally offered users. (Such support has been geared typically, although not exclusively, to undergraduate students.) In the digital age, putting bounds around “library resources” has become a daunting task. Moreover, the instructional needs of users have changed dramatically as new methods for teaching and learning have emerged.

What has changed in the learning environment? While the answer to this question varies by institution and by discipline, certain trends are evident. In the 1990s, higher education was influenced by two forces that, though unrelated in principle, ultimately became intertwined in reshaping the educational experience. First, technologies emerged that enabled distance-independent, asynchronous venues for instruction. These technologies were adopted not only for use in distance education programs but also for more generalized applications on campus. The second phenomenon was the growing pressure to rethink the academy’s approaches to teaching and learning, particularly with respect to the undergraduate community. These two forces have created a volatile environment, but one that offers tremendous opportunities for libraries.

Several recent reports chronicle the changing philosophies of the instructional experience. In 1998, a National Governors’ Association poll found that the facilitation of life-long learning and the development of more collaborative and applied opportunities for learning were among the governors’ top priorities in higher education. The same year, the Boyer Commission report, Reinventing Undergraduate Education, challenged universities to revitalize undergraduate curricula and to create a baccalaureate experience that draws on and is in tegrated with the institution’s overall programs and mission (Boyer Commission 1998). More recently, the Pew Charitable Trust’s National Survey of Student Engagement (Kuh 2001) and the Kellogg Commission report on the future of state and land-grant universities (Kellogg 2001) described the need for stronger links between discovery and learning through opportunities for student engagement in active learning and in community issues.

These analyses have prompted institutions of higher education to give greater priority to undergraduate education and to rethink the fundamentals of the undergraduate experience. University of Illinois Chancellor Nancy Cantor has described these fundamentals as a trinity of needs, saying that “students must be prepared to embrace technology, to work collaboratively, and to interact with a diverse set of people and ideas” (Cantor 2000).

There are countless examples of institutional responses to the themes highlighted in these analyses. At a general level, there are alternatives to lecture-based and classroom-intense methods. Projects, often group based, are increasingly part of the curriculum. Opportunities for engagement with community and social issues are on the rise. Discovery-based learning models are in evidence. Many institutions have launched initiatives to integrate these developments. For example, the University of Maryland’s Gemstone program fosters multidisciplinary community experiences with active engagement in real-life problems. Teamwork and technology are critical components. The James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence at the University of North Carolina has created a place for collaborative inquiry, teleconferencing with remote sites, and a laboratory for innovation in teaching and learning. The common themes are, as Cantor (2000) details, technology, collaboration, and diversity (in the broadest sense, as reflected in the intellectual diversity of interdisciplinary programs).

How do these changing values and priorities in the educational experience affect the library and its roles in support of teaching and learning? Do traditional approaches of bibliographic instruction still resonate? While information sources and methods for finding information are still a useful component of library instruction, a broader construct of information literacy has emerged as a framework for effective information inquiry. This framework can provide a repertoire of essential skills that support students in new learning contexts.

What skills are necessary for information inquiry in the digital age? Is it possible to separate content skills from the tools that facilitate access? Has the basic function of inquiry changed as new analytic capabilities become available? A number of perspectives have been brought to bear in understanding these new dimensions of learning and associated skills.5 These perspectives generally articulate two dimensions of literacy. One dimension reflects the need for skills to exploit technology to use information effectively. The second dimension is the need for a conceptual understanding of information and knowledge processes. In reality, a marriage of these fluencies is needed. The traditional functions of identifying, finding, and evaluating information are joined with more conceptual notions of inquiry, information analysis, and use. These information skills are now interwoven with technology skills.

Bruce (1997) has posed one of the more interesting integrated frameworks for information literacy. It features a series of maturational levels that begin with a basic capability with technology and move the individual to an increasingly more sophisticated appreciation of information sources, information use and problem solving, and information management. Building an understanding of the characteristics of information is also important to literacy; issues of intellectual property, authenticity, and provenance are critical in a networked environment where the traditional signifiers of quality are absent. Libraries are then challenged to articulate a conceptual framework for instruction that integrates these concepts and skills in support of student learning.

Two different models of information literacy programs illustrate how these practical and conceptual dimensions are integrated. The University of Texas’s Texas Information Literacy Tutorial (TILT) program has developed a set of online modules that teach research skills. While designed to develop technical and information resource skills, TILT also seeks to build an understanding of information issues relating to censorship, privacy, commerce, global communities, and legal and policy constructs. TILT uses discovery-based and interactive approaches to learning. A particularly interesting aspect of TILT is its open source agreement for the underlying software, which will permit collaborative development of future enhancements.6

The University of Washington’s UWired program is a collaborative undertaking of the libraries, campus technology offices, and educational program offices. It targets both faculty and students, and has developed tools and content for these distinct audiences. Like TILT, the program employs active learning techniques in its tutorials and also develops the learner’s technical skills. UWired includes an outreach dimension as well, designing programs carried out within “commons” facilities in libraries, faculty symposia, and workshops; for-credit seminars; ties with freshman curricula; and programs with the community, the school system, and international partners. This program has clearly served as a catalyst for creating partnerships and for extending the library’s reach beyond the campus-based curriculum.

TILT and UWired offer compelling examples of successful collaboration and the use of new pedagogical and technological methods to instruct both students and faculty. Both approaches represent a synthesis of traditional librarian experience and increasing knowledge of instructional design, the architecture of networked information within a discipline, and relevant tools for analysis and access. Diffuse characteristics are notable as the programs reach into the curriculum and are adopted as integral components of the educational experience. The diffusion continues as opportunities are made available to share the development with others and as the capabilities are leveraged in service to the institution’s outreach agenda (e.g., Washington’s international programs).

Organizational Models

As libraries have become more distributed and more collaborative on their campuses, some interesting organizational models have emerged that involve librarians more directly in academic program development. Several of these programs have characteristics that recall the clinical librarian models developed in the last several decades.7 For example, Stanford’s Academic Technology Specialist Program has created discipline-specific appointments that emphasize providing assistance onsite within academic departments (Keller 1997). Combining subject and technology expertise, these professionals are vital links between academic programs and central curatorial or computing staff resources. The University of Michigan’s recently launched Field Librarian program similarly joins subject knowledge, technology, and library expertise. The appointments are developed collaboratively with academic programs, and the field librarians are physically located within the academic department to facilitate their direct engagement in faculty teaching and research.

Library as Place

The library has a continued role as place. In the past, this function has been characterized as a location for individuals and information to interact-a place for users to tap collections or for library staff to bring users and information together. The physicality of libraries and their collections is an often-cited value. The ability to browse and experience the gestalt of an array of resources has been a time-honored technique for inquiry, and the physical experience of books, maps, or manuscripts is important for many. Library facilities also serve a social function, providing a common ground for users to interact or a neutral site for individuals from different disciplines to come together.

The changes in library roles discussed thus far have obvious consequences for library facilities. Once the physical centerpiece of a campus with large, central collections, library resources are now more distributed and library users more nomadic. The challenge is twofold: reconceiving library buildings to reflect changing user behavior and needs, and developing the library’s network presence as a virtual place of comparable value.

Libraries face a paradox with respect to facilities and their use. Data from the Association of Research Libraries and individual institutional analyses show a decline in building traffic. Yet some campuses report increased interest in 24-hour availability of library facilities. The University of Washington’s ongoing survey of users reflects these trends, with the most recent responses indicating decreased facility use by faculty and graduate students, and a modest increase in use reported by undergraduates (Self and Hiller 2001). Washington has a 24-hour undergraduate library facility and well-established computer facilities within libraries, which the survey data indicate are heavily used.

While most libraries have incorporated computing capabilities, the characteristics of new computer facilities are noteworthy. A recently launched service of the Coalition for Networked Information and Dartmouth College Library, Collaborative Facilities, compiles and disseminates information about new types of campus facilities that are being developed within libraries, many of which receive collaborative support from campus organizations. Several of the projects focus on creating new types of instructional services and integrating digital media and computer resources. These new uses of facilities are consistent with the changes in the curriculum and research methods noted earlier. While still serving as a place for collections, library facilities increasingly serve as environments for learning and collaboration.

As geography loses its primacy as a basis for organizing libraries and as the phenomenal growth of digital content continues, libraries are challenged to identify ways to make their virtual roles visible and tangible to their campus communities. Too often, users do not know where responsibility lies for networked content and services; information and services are simply there, and presumably free. Is there a new sense of place in a digital context?

As described, there are emergent roles for libraries in a digital context that are extrapolations of existing functions. Here, the challenge may be to ensure awareness of these now-virtual services and the library’s responsibility for them. A more complex undertaking is establishing roles that do not easily build on existing library functions. While marketing is no less an issue, a fundamental hurdle is the demonstration of library expertise through sufficient investment to make visible its role in innovation.

While the nature of library facilities will change, the notion of library as place remains important in both physical and virtual contexts. Increasingly, this sense of place serves strategically to further the development of new roles.


1 The Report of the Task Force on Archiving Digital Information (1996) suggested there might be instances where “fail-safe” archives could be created, i.e., where organizations take responsibility for archiving content at risk of loss. While access to the archive is the goal, it is possible that legal constraints might prohibit making the content immediately available.

2 The University of Virginia’s Information Communities are described at

3 See Weinstein and Alloway 1997 for a discussion of ontologies in digital libraries.

4 See Lynch 2001 for further exploration of this topic.

5 The Association of College and Research Libraries’ information literacy standards focus on locating, evaluating, and using information effectively. The National Academy of Sciences Commission on Information Technology Fluency (National Academy of Sciences 1999) advocates a focus on practical skills and basic concepts, as well as on higher-order intellectual capabilities that “foster abstract thinking about information and its manipulation.” John Sealy Brown has suggested a new framework for literacy that includes the abilities to navigate complex information environments, engage in discovery-based learning, exercise judgment in differentiating the utility of information, and learn by action (Brown 2000).

6 Within a year of TILT’s release in 2001, some 60 institutions had licensed this software.

7 Clinical librarian programs were initiated in the 1970s as an interface between practitioner and the medical literature (Smith undated). The programs typically bring the librarian into the practitioner environment—e.g., in physician rounds—and provide both research literature in response to presenting cases as well as real-time instruction.

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