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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > September 2012

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Vol. 32 No. 7 — September 2012
BUILDING DIGITAL LIBRARIES
Digital Migration Strategies, Old and New
by Terence K. Huwe
Director of Library and Information Resources
Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, University of California–Berkeley


Digital migrations have been going on for quite a while. Lately, the rate of evolution seems to be accelerating once again; with so many ventures and concepts in play, it is getting hard to keep track of it all—a familiar pattern. For that reason it can be refreshing to look back over some recent successes, lessons learned, and other “defining moments” to help us remember how much fun disruptive technologies can be.

I was particularly reminded of the value of recognizing past achievements when I read Steve Coffman’s “The Decline and Fall of the Library Empire” (Searcher, April 2012). Invoking Edward Gibbon’s magisterial account of the “glory that was Rome” and its eventual demise is an obvious and effective tip-off: The author is intentionally seeking to “disrupt” his readers. As I reflected on his well-written account of the ventures we have taken and (seemingly) lost, I found myself compiling my own list of library successes I have witnessed and heard about. If the Visigoths are clamoring at the gate, I wondered, why is it that so many of my colleagues continue to thrive? Well, kudos to Mr. Coffman: Whatever our prospects, his article did gain attention, which is crucial in the era of the “attention economy.”

Anyway, back to digital migration. Here are a few of my favorite stories that draw on local events and news from colleagues. I will attempt to draw a connection between what worked well at the time and what opportunities are currently arising for the profession in the current era of Big Data, ebook proliferation, and mobile users. But I will not invoke Gibbon—at least not for now.

New Value From Old Wineskins

Fourteen years ago, when I became managing editor of my institute’s working paper series, the idea was to “reinvigorate” the series and publish it digitally. Great, I thought: a chance to engage the faculty and discuss the work they care about. In doing so, I raised the idea of scanning the full series to fill out our historical record, which dated back about 25 years (remember, scanning was a new idea at the time). The idea caught on, we did the scanning, and the series is thriving on our local, library-managed website and in eScholarship (www.escholarship.org/uc/iir). This well-known repository provides usage statistics on the “new” way of reading—online and on-the-fly. The series includes authors such as Emmanuel Saez, whose work is the foundation of much of the debate about taxation and the “99 percent.” Naturally, those papers see plenty of traffic, but here’s the big news. George Strauss, emeritus professor and our former director, published a working paper in 1987 titled “The Future of Human Resource Management.” That paper has continually been either the top-ranked paper in download traffic or in the top five. We’re talking about hundreds of downloads each month. You can be sure that he gets a kick out of this, particularly when his younger colleagues are breaking new ground and getting headlines.

What was true then and now is that all of our collections, print or digital or both, continue to gain value in new ways. As we migrate them wholly into the digital sphere, we need to be certain we know where value lies—before we decide to go on a “weeding” binge.

The Data Center-Go-Round

Developing a robust capacity to manage, use, and interpret data under library oversight has been one of the most important trends of the past decade. The urge to build a data center runs deep with researchers—perhaps a bit deeper than the urge to collaborate. Whenever this deeply held desire springs forth, the dialogue that ensues can create marvelous opportunities for user education, funding for new initiatives, and a chance to take leadership roles in the planning process. I have found that even when the “data center cycle” repeats itself, the prospects for good outcomes does not lessen; indeed, they can increase.

Data acquisition provides a great example. One of our research groups acquired and paid for its own license to use a high-value economic data product focusing on jobs and employment. Some urban and regional planning faculty learned that the data were available and asked to “join” in the license. As the dialogue continued, it became clear that the library could make some useful contributions: licensing expertise, comfortable space, and access that can be controlled—and increased. The result was a lively conversation and a new dedicated workstation with the vendor’s standard licensing agreement for public access. Explaining all of the license-driven details was a revelation for some of the researchers, who could instantly recognize that this access arrangement enabled their advanced graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to have a much easier and more rewarding experience.

Here is what was true then and now. Licensing skills are important, physical space still matters, data still need interpretation, collaboration doesn’t always come easily, and open access is still a good sell.

From Digitization to ‘Publishing’

I’ve written before about how the library I oversee created a digital collection of 100 years of labor history, by scanning the publications of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. This collection continues to be a crown jewel in our library’s overall digitization strategy. In thinking about where we are today and where we were in 2006 when I began that process, I see many similarities but also much higher levels of expertise in the profession. In particular, it is very exciting to witness the “aha!” moment that leading bloggers and public librarians have had in recent months: The library can be a publisher too. Not only a publisher, as in moving content to the web and managing websites, but perhaps even a full-scale publisher of “library editions,” ebooks, and more. I have been speaking about the potential of this role—the library as publisher—since 2009, based on our local experience at UC–Berkeley.

In Mr. Coffman’s “Gibbon-esque” story of our decline, he failed to mention this new opportunity for libraries, which I believe is real and has genuine prospects for revitalizing the profession. In 2009, I spoke at the Long Island Library Resources Council on this topic, and again in 2011 at Internet Librarian International. Now, in 2012, I am reading everywhere about the incisive, daring, and innovative ideas that are emerging primarily from the public library sphere.

Just before leaving for the 2012 Computers in Libraries conference, I read “Micropublishing: Helping Your Community Tell Its Stories” by Walt Crawford (see ONLINE, Jan./Feb. 2012, p. 39) and also Nate Hill’s blog post “A Two-Part Plan to Make Your Library A Local Publisher” on the Public Library Association’s blog (see http://plablog.org/2012/02). These two authors suggest that we can go further than merely involving patrons in publishing—we can empower them to publish in the same manner as Amazon and Xlibris do. Both Crawford and Hill advocate for turning the computer lab into a publishing workshop space, among other things. My reaction was, “Wow. This is it. This is our moment.”

What was true in 2006 and what is still true is that when we think outside of the “scanning box,” we can see a whole new terrain of opportunity, both for the profession and for our patrons.

‘Steal This Idea!’

The library as publisher concept is also benefiting from the new forms of dialogue we now engage in, such as lightning talks and “Steal this idea!” confabs that promote solid, action-oriented idea sharing. This approach is a terrific addition to the lecture hall venues we know and love, because it encourages experimentation and supports the process of trial and error—or perhaps better said, “learning by failure.” The digital world and the currents that drive it are fluid, and fortune favors the bold. We’ve learned to grab ideas and run with them.

Therefore, it was no surprise when Jamie LaRue, chair of the American Library Association’s Digital Content Working Group, polled the membership of the Web4Lib listserv for examples of library as publisher projects in advance of this year’s annual conference. A serious discussion of best practices and new ideas in this strategic area legitimates and promotes the concept. The initiative benefits from the existence of similar university-based ventures, which are legion. The fact that public librarians are leading the charge at the moment is especially gratifying, because their job is to know the pulse of their communities.

So what was true in 2006 and what is true now is that the library can act as a publisher. This “feels” like a new meme, but it’s been around for a while. It’s new enough for critics to overlook, even Mr. Coffman, who employs a fun and provocative critical style. It’s also new enough to represent the new frontier, the road we may yet take, and the future we may yet attain.

New Digital Lives for Our Legacies

The popular social debate about information and society has a tendency to favor the idea that all the new technologies will be new learning vehicles—the internet, social media, ebooks, and more. While I love these new tools, and I believe this profession is showing some mettle in embracing them, I can’t help but notice that the “old stuff” we continue to work with seems to have a lot of value. With that in mind, I would summarize the state of digital migration as follows. We have done a fantastic job of putting the library on the map as the “solution lab,” so far. Adventure lies ahead; to seize the moment, we would do well to regard our collections as sources of value, our native skills as a sound basis for innovation, and our patrons as our allies in the creative process of building a digital future that everyone can take part in.


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 thuwe@library.Berkeley.edu.
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