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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > June 2014

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Vol. 34 No. 5 — June 2014
Stretching With the ‘Intellectual Ecology’
by Terence K. Huwe

The intellectual commons—now, the intellectual ecology—offers a coherent storyline for info pros to push their ready-for-prime-time digital services further into new domains of online life.

In the January/February issue of CIL, I focused on a University of California–Berkeley faculty report that called for a renewed commitment and new resources for the university’s library. Each page of the report shows breakthrough thinking on the part of the faculty authors as they imagine a revitalized library. In doing so, they also coined a new moniker that immediately resonated with me. They described the library’s physical spaces as an “intellectual ecology” and argued that serious scholarship and teaching does indeed occur within our halls and collaborative workspaces. This intellectual ecology includes not only the library but the scholarly community as well, extending far into the virtual world. Science, technology, and medicine have led the digital way, but the library increasingly partners with humanists and fine artists who can mash up data with the traditional tools of intellectual inquiry or artistic expression.

As scholars move into the digital mainstream, the library is gaining a new opportunity to be rediscovered as a solution lab for the digital era. How can we take advantage of this moment? Perhaps the best way to prepare is to identify the trends that are driving change. With that in mind, I offer a few potential areas for special attention later, and I conclude with some questions that might guide our ongoing strategic planning.

Discover Expanding Ecological Niches

We are hard at work in building a digital future for the library profession and much of our strategic thinking maps closely to our native strengths. These include proximity to and understanding of user communities, deep knowledge of subject areas, collection development in all media, research support skills, and, not least, the custodianship of the intellectual commons of our learning spaces. Each of these meme streams is dynamic, but for me, learning spaces have lately been the most intriguing zones of ecological growth.

The intellectual commons—now, the intellectual ecology—offers a coherent storyline for info pros to push their ready-for-prime-time digital services further into new domains of online life. We know the obvious ones already: smartphones; social media, including bleeding-edge apps and communities that may eclipse Facebook; and more. These are vital to be sure, but two new zones of intellectual activity—the online classroom and the massive open online course (MOOC)—stand out as promising venues for online library services.

We have seen some success in establishing a beachhead in the online classroom, and this may signal a turning point in the thinking of instructors and administrators. Having gained their attention, we now have a chance to demonstrate the value proposition of embedding online library services in the new learning spaces.

Tools such as LibGuides on the propriety side and Sakai in the open source sphere are just the most well-known of a host of new software available to us. The challenge is to insinuate reference, collections access, and online discussion into the digital platform of the online classroom itself.

The world of MOOCs offers an even more intriguing sandbox for experimentation. Collaborative ventures such as Coursera have gained immense followings, but the community is diffuse and “ownership” of the course offerings can feel amorphous. The course instructor may rule her own learning space, but if that instructor is located at Harvard University or University of California–Los Angeles, how can widely dispersed librarians join forces? Can we reasonably expect the librarians attached to hosting institutions to do all of experimentation and then transfer their newly learned wisdom to the profession at large? Perhaps we can, but the stakes are high. The challenge facing us is to build a profession-wide dialogue to make certain that any collective knowledge about working with MOOCs gets shared as widely as possible.

Designing for (Online) Living

Although the online classroom and MOOCs are well-known new endeavors, there is an equally important zone that we would like to think we have a handle on: mobile computing. Despite the impressive gains we have already achieved in this area, I remain convinced that there is more to do here too. Getting involved in interface design could be a key strategy for reaching further into users’ experience with smart devices. But to generate superior interface design, we need to be in dialogue with our users.

User interface designers—and that should include us—always benefit from developing a test audience of viewers who can react to new mobile designs. Consulting with users often triggers a helpful review of assumptions about what services are needed and which are most effective. It can also trigger an urge to rethink organizational structures so they are more responsive to mobile settings.

As scholars move into the digital mainstream, the library is gaining a new opportunity to be rediscovered as a solution lab for the digital era.

Building such a test audience need not be a difficult task. In my own user community, I use the demographic divide between the “digerati” and the old-school researchers as a useful guide. First, I seek out a few digitally savvy academics with a grasp of new media’s potential. This population also includes graduate and undergraduate students. Second, I reach out to some senior faculty who are at the height of their careers, know what they want and how to find it, and are far less interested in new media.

What I have found during 2014 is that both these groups—the digerati and their more senior colleagues—are much more comfortable with mobile computing. Here’s a local story that adds a bit of color to the new reality. One of my core faculty members recently served as acting director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE) for fall 2013. He is at the top of his field with an international reputation and is very much at home with mobile computing. Early on, he commented that our web profile was excellent but in need of some “curation.” (I thought to myself, “Music to my ears!”) In response, we undertook a number of new digital initiatives this past fall. We launched a metaguide to the web’s scholarly content that spanned program boundaries, improving topical access. We also tested an upgraded HTML-based format for the institute’s electronic newsletter, which I edit. The goal was to make the newsletter more compatible across all platforms, especially smartphones.

Both projects had good outcomes, but they also revealed the limits of design in the face of everyday life. Ultimately, the HTML-based email template we designed for all communication was vetoed in favor of plain text. The real problem was excessive use of clip art by student employees, who enjoyed adding cute little images to lecture announcements and other important news. It turned out that a plain-text-only policy with a style guide for formatting was the best solution, and this has played well since then. Meanwhile, the metaguide is a popular tool. These examples illustrate that if we get involved in interface design in various new media, we reinforce our roles as solution providers and useful collaborators. The second example also reveals the importance of going back to your users and finding out if a simple approach is the best way to go forward.

Building New Expertise

Defining scholarly and learning spaces as an intellectual ecology emphasizes an organic growth process. Life abhors a vacuum, and life-forms move into un­occupied niches that open up. We can see this process at work in the many arenas new media is creating, and the intellectual ecosystem will also move further into the digital sphere. Experimentation will be ubiquitous—and so will the need for effective strategies to advance the library. Many players will vie to fill new niches in the intellectual ecology, and info pros should be leading the way. But how and where to begin? For my part, I always start with a list of questions that can help me define the broad trends, but also inform local projects and innovation. The following questions are essential:

Who are we designing for? I provided one answer to this question previously, but I would add that we should reassess our target “user cohort” at least every 2 years.

What platforms will rise or fall? Will e-portfolios be the foundation of the online classroom or will another emerge? Will MOOCs survive and thrive? Recent data (December 2013) suggest that even though millions of folks may sign up for MOOCs, only a few actually finish the classes. We will need to monitor MOOCs before leaping.

Who are our partners? Clearly, we cannot do everything ourselves. Fortunately, librarianship is, at its core, a “networking” profession. We need to search for collaborators—and then become indispensable to them.

How can we streamline our organizations? The 21st-century library is going to evolve quickly and in unknowable ways—which is part of the fun of working in this field. We should be asking ourselves how we can change our organizations to help us boost productivity and imagination.

What software should we be learning right now? HTML5, JavaScript, PHP, Drupal—been there, done that. In addition to keeping abreast of these languages, we need to add new coding skills, most notably in mobile operating systems and apps—but also in planning for the next big things coming our way.

If the intellectual ecology is to have a coherent future in the digital era, it will only happen if we make digital space as convivial as our current physical sites. We can do it too—provided we work together and learn from each other and our collaborators.

Terence K. Huwe is director of library and information resources at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California–Berkeley. His responsibilities include library administration, reference, and overseeing web services. His email address is
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