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Presentation at the Council of Library and Information Resources (CLIR)

Presentation at the Council of Library and Information Resources (CLIR)

Presentation at the Council of Library and Information Resources (CLIR)

Washington, D.C., April 18, 2005


Susanne Woods, Provost

Wheaton College


“How are provosts and academic administrators preparing to meet the demand for digital scholarly information?”

Obviously there is a huge and increasing demand for this digital information.  I want to address some of the major issues particular to the liberal arts college, suggesting at the same time that our colleges and traditions matter in this conversation.  The top 100 colleges represented by the Annapolis Group educate roughly 200,000 students, who go on to graduate and professional schools and positions of leadership at a disproportionate rate.  Just one example: about 18% of students in liberal arts colleges major in science and math, as opposed to 13% in the next most productive group, major research universities, and liberal arts college students go on for graduate work at proportionately higher rates still.

Our colleges are also the most visible representatives of the liberal arts tradition that remains at the core of American higher education in most sectors, and arguably provides a major part of the enormous success American higher education has enjoyed as a global influence.  The tradition we still support is part of the nineteenth-century American response to the need for an educated free people.  If freedom is knowledgeable choice, then the American undergraduate model of a general education followed by a major allows for breadth of knowledge and develops analytical judgment through depth in a discipline.  This is an education ideal for times of rapid change and for meeting social responsibilities in a democracy.

The residential liberal arts college presents a special case for responding to the technological revolution, however, including the demand for increased digital resources.   Although research takes place at liberal arts institutions – much of it very good, some of it cutting edge – the primary mission of our colleges is undergraduate teaching.  This leads to at least three important differences in how I think of library and information resource policy from how I would probably be thinking about it if I were still in academic administration at Brown University.

First, our library and information resource policy must focus principally on resources for teaching and student research, supporting faculty research only secondarily.  I have a budget in the provost’s office that assures my faculty access to research libraries elsewhere, and that budget is a lot smaller than it would be if we tried to provide full access to resources that would respond to all faculty needs from the Wheaton campus.

Second, we tend to be small institutions (we mostly have between 1500 and 2500 students), and so collaborative arrangements are very important to us.  With a few exceptions, liberal arts colleges cannot afford to buy or support such attractive resources as the Alexander Street Press Electronic Databases.  In local consortia, however, we develop a critical mass of faculty and students engaged in major projects, and in regional or national collaborations, as through the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), we garner and contribute to a nation-wide overview of the state of technology for teaching and learning.   As collaboration is essential, so, too, are standardized, transferable criteria for encoding and supporting digitized materials.  We can neither afford, nor would we want to have, homegrown, idiosyncratic materials.

Third, and I think this is the most important issue, our educational power lies in close personal relationships between faculty and students and between students and students.  Because liberal arts colleges are generally small, residential communities of students who are mostly between the ages of 18 and 22, the sense of place and the personal contact within that place are fundamental to our educational processes.  We may therefore look at electronic resources somewhat differently than larger institutions with a student body more heterogeneous in terms of age or educational background.  For us, the advantage of a courseware system such as Blackboard or Web CT is not that it helps us teach more and various students at an acceptable level, but that it helps us teach a relatively few students at a higher level of intensity.  Students with ready access to electronic reserves are more likely to come to class informed and ready to talk.  Students who have responded to each other in a Blackboard discussion before they come to class are more likely to attack the same questions or problems in class at a much higher level of intellectual engagement than without that initial electronic conversation.  The moments of real educational insight, and the developing rigor of their critical thinking, however, continue to come from face to face encounters with the teacher and each other, both inside the classroom and in the social and intellectual world that is the residential college.

As teaching tools become more portable through digitized access, our entire campuses become heightened living-learning communities.  Campus space is both itself, an intensely personal and personally interactive real place, but also a gateway to everywhere.  Perhaps ironically, we have found that the more information has become accessible from anywhere, the more crowded and popular our libraries have become. In this environment, and because liberal arts colleges are small and personal and we know and talk to each other, it becomes possible to find out relatively easily what in the digital environment works and what does not work to create a better education.  We know, for example, that portability will become increasingly important, with wireless campuses and ipod technology replacing computing and even foreign language labs, and our campuses become contained laboratories for an ethnographic study of the use of place in an environment where a digitized universe of information is available almost anywhere.   We can more easily than bigger institutions observe and ask why certain spaces – including the library – become or remain student destinations for intellectual engagement.

Our size and personal contact also makes us more nimble in exploring the effectiveness of new technologies, such as GIS, TEI, or the Google library, for teaching and learning.   When the staff from Brown visited the second of two collaborative Text Encoding Initiative Workshops held at Wheaton, they were surprised and impressed at how the several liberal arts colleges had quickly taken this technology into interesting and useful directions – a history archive project at Wheaton, for example, and a French prosody project at Mt. Holyoke.  Our Brown colleagues noted that it would have taken much longer to get the faculty-student partnerships going at the research university.

The liberal arts colleges, then, have somewhat different strategic issues from research universities in what and how we use digitized information, but we have a common interest in the digital future, and some particular advantages when it comes to judging what may be the most effective future pathways.   We bring specifically:

  • attention to undergraduate teaching and learning in the liberal arts tradition;
  • Emphasis on collaboration, both in access to information and in designing standards for metadata, access, and use;
  • concern for how digitized information enhances personalized education.

We look forward to being part of the conversation along with our sister universities throughout the country.

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