The role of the area studies task force was to think prospectively about how the nature of research in area studies will change, and about how that change will affect what libraries should collect and in what formats. The goal is to anticipate the problems that our successors will face and to craft solutions, such as efficient and coordinated acquisitions policies. Members of the group were invited to ponder whether technology affects their areas of scholarship, and if so, how. If technology allows greater access to scarce resources, how do we decide who, specifically, takes responsibility for the preservation of networked resources? And what are the models for governance of those resources?
The group first addressed the issue of whether or not the introduction of digital technologies into area studies scholarship had a beneficial or a deleterious effect. One strongly held view was that the immediate effects were very damaging, since area studies traditionally exists at the margin of resources allocation within libraries. Because funds are being invested in digital projects-few of which involve materials in the vernacular languages of the world-areas studies are being neglected and marginalized. One task force member observed that much of the current demand for digital projects is vendor-driven, not mission-driven, and vendors see no profit in the low financial returns associated with area studies. A case in point is JSTOR, an electronic journal publishing project that was initially funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which does not include areas studies journals due to their low subscription numbers. In terms of digital reformatting projects, works in non-Roman alphabets have suffered because of the insufficient quality of scanning resolution for these alphabets. Furthermore, the cascading confusion of standards in the networked environment, hard enough to cope with for English-language sources, creates utter chaos in non-Roman alphabet languages.
In the classroom, this marginalization of area studies is compounded by students’ perception that if a resource does not exist in electronic form, it either is not important or does not exist at all. Both non-Western and underdeveloped nations are being “dumped” or are “falling off the table.” The apparent globalization of the markets does not help with the creation and dissemination of regional resources. In fact, it actually hurts, to the extent that it rewards activities and encourages knowledge creation solely for their commercial value. This results in serious gaps in the documentation of local and regional phenomena, not to mention alternative or dissident approaches, gaps that cannot be filled and will persist as holes in the fabric of recorded information. Perspectives that have been created by, and that are sympathetic to, the expansion of the global economy are already well documented in the Western literature of libraries. But where are the voices, for example, of those opposed to the hydroelectric dams under construction in China?
There was some disagreement with the original contention that investment in digital projects adversely affects funding for area-studies acquisitions. On the one hand, a subscription to JSTOR could take $40,000 out of the serials budget, including that for foreign serials; since this cost increase was generally not compensated, other subscriptions had to be cut. On the other hand, members of the task force maintained that digital technology is still a very small proportion of any library budget (3 percent at Berkeley, for example). Some libraries have seen a reduction in the staff of selectors. Others have had the experience of finding useful foreign Internet sites which turn out to be ephemeral, and once the site has disappeared, there is literally no record of the information that was once available. Is anyone archiving these electronic resources?
The practical issues of coordinating collection development, specifically of digital reformatting, brought up old frustrations with the cooperative collecting of print materials, though the consensus was that the system, however ad hoc in its execution, nevertheless works rather well. Ultimately, we shall probably default to letting those libraries with a history of committed collecting continue to do so, building strength on strength. These same libraries would then also become responsible for preservation and resource-sharing (document delivery and interlibrary loan).
A.1. Distance learning
Several members mentioned areas of success abroad that need further scrutiny to see whether they offer lessons for us. Examples worthy of study include the distance-learning models of the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, and the distributed collecting done by the Germans.
Widening access to area studies experts and resources through distance learning was viewed by some as realistic and salubrious, and even as an efficient way to gain new audiences for obscure subjects such as medieval Catalonian literature or the thought of St. Augustine. Others regarded it as one more threat to the profession because, when teachers are considered a resource that can be networked, small colleges may believe they have a legitimate excuse to dismiss faculty members and library staff, who are already under-supported. There was general consensus that, while most teachers now had or felt obliged to have Web sites, very few of them know how to develop good sites or have the time to maintain and update them.
A.2. Intranet and Internet presence
Universities should assist area studies teachers and librarians in developing an Internet presence that is content-driven and easily kept current.
Internet-based materials may ease the seemingly intractable problem Western libraries have in acquiring or otherwise gaining access to foreign materials. Some members of the task force imagined the possibility of forming partnerships with libraries and archives abroad that would selectively digitize materials and make them available electronically. Others cautioned that past experience with analogous microfilming projects had not been uniformly positive. The idea of having partner libraries and archives abroad do the selecting and microfilming of materials was well regarded in the abstract, but those at the table with experience of foreign cooperative filming programs agreed that a large output of film was not usually the result. More often, the programs justified the considerable time, expense, and frustration they incurred because they introduced or built up a basic preservation infrastructure in countries that lacked them. The notion of building significant bodies of resources filmed abroad is a chimera. Increasing the acquisition of print materials from these nations usually results in a much greater burden on the preservation and collections management staff, because the paper is notoriously acidic, the bindings weak, and the print quality often quite substandard.
A.3. Funding levels
Area studies can be reestablished by shoring up a few major programs across the country. Private funding for digitization should be sought, if this can be done without pandering to commercial interests.
The discussion of resources inevitably led to speculation about how to find funding at levels appropriate to support area studies staff and collections. Money that had flowed into most universities during the Cold War has dried up and well-trained and highly qualified specialists are underemployed or have been forced to leave their fields altogether. The trend is not likely to be reversed dramatically, but suggestions were made about shoring up area studies in general. For example, students in certain social science disciplines, such as economics, should be encouraged to add an area studies focus to their training.
A.4. Faculty involvement
ACLS should work with scholarly societies to help members understand the intellectual and fiscal choices that must be made by libraries regarding their collections.
The discussion of the role that faculty members might play in responding to some of the group’s concerns began with a recommendation that they participate in decisions about what to consign to secondary storage. It was noted that, while many libraries have been successful in getting direction from faculty members about high-volume material, decisions about the selection of mid-level and lower-level use materials were usually forced back on to the library staff. Involving faculty in the weeding process-a process absolutely essential to the maintenance of a well-preserved and easily accessible resource base-was even harder than involving them in selection for offsite storage, in the group’s experience.
A.5. Resource guide
A resource guide to area studies should be mounted on a Web site in order to facilitate resource sharing.
To guide libraries in their decisions about area studies collections, one of the strong institutions in area studies should take responsibility for an online resource guide.
ACLS-CLIR Possible Program Initiatives
- Given the presence of a global network, promote global participation in making scholarly resources available; identify and stimulate the growth of programs involving non-North American collaboration for the development and distribution of digital information resources.
- Identify the state of network infrastructures in a few key countries (including the major industrialized countries and a sampling of developing countries); update continuously; publish the results of the survey assessment, with hyperlinks to appropriate Web pages.