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Research Librarians Consider the Risks and Rewards of Collaboration

Washington — Big-scale collaborations and digital-era collection strategies took center stage at the Association of Research Libraries’ membership meeting, held here last week. The library directors and others who attended heard about ambitious research and preservation projects like the HathiTrust digital repository and the proposed Digital Public Library of America, plans for which are moving ahead.

They also heard from librarians and scholars about how they operate in a hybrid research environment that’s partly but not entirely digital. The meeting was followed by a forum—organized by the association and by the Coalition for Networked Information—that took up the theme of “21st-Century Collections and the Urgency of Collaborative Action.” Think big but don’t overextend yourselves, and work together whenever you can: Those were the takeaways of the collective sessions.

Charles J. Henry, the president of the Council on Library and Information Resources, gave a recap of the work that’s been done so far toward building the Digital Public Library of America. (On October 21, the National Archives will host a plenary meeting here about the proposed library.) “Library” is a misnomer in this case, according to Mr. Henry. “The DPLA would be much more of a federation of existing objects. It wouldn’t own anything.” Its big contribution, he said, would be to set standards and link resources. “It has to be a project that can respond to the most varied and disparate types of questions,” he said. “The user has to drive this.”

In a presentation about another large-scale effort, the HathiTrust digital repository, Ed Van Gemert, deputy director of libraries at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, talked about the benefits of participating in such a collective endeavor. For instance, his institution has found that it’s almost three times more expensive to store materials locally than it is to store them with HathiTrust, Mr. Van Gemert said. It’s time to move beyond the “pay by the drink” model, he said. “We’re seeing, at every level, more and more collective decisions being made,” he said, describing the overall research-library environment. “We simply can’t afford to do work separately than could be done collectively.”

But ambitious collaboration has its risks, as attendees heard during at a session called “Opening Up Orphan Works.” (Orphan works are those subject to copyright but whose rights holders can’t be identified or found.) That panel included an overview of the legal action recently brought by the Authors Guild and other groups against HathiTrust over the fate of millions of scanned works in the repository. Jonathan Band, a lawyer who specializes in copyright and works closely with the association, described the lawsuit as “peculiar.” But he also said it “may be symptomatic of a bigger change among publishers and authors, who for a long time were reluctant to sue universities and libraries.”

Charles Kurzman, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, gave the audience some insights into what it’s like to do research in the current environment, where many resources are available via a simple Google search—but many are not. Mr. Kurzman specializes in the Middle East; his most recent book is The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists (Oxford University Press). Many of the primary sources he uses are not digitized yet. “In the world I study, there are no e-books,” he said.

Several groups in the Middle East are digitizing a lot of material, Mr. Kurzman added. He mentioned the Biblioteca Alexandrina in Egypt, for instance, and an organization based in Tehran that has been building a database of Iranian periodicals from the last 15 years. That work adds to what’s already available via Google Books, HathiTrust, and other resources.

He pointed out that researchers now also create and share digital resources themselves via social-publishing sites such as Scribd. “It’s a form of librarianship, I suppose, that is outside of copyright control and outside of the institutional apparatus that you all are professionals are making available to us,” he said.

Presentations from several librarians made it clear that they, too, are finding new ways to work. Trevor Owens is an information technology specialist with the National Digital Infrastructure and Information Preservation Program, or NDIIPP, at the Library of Congress. He talked about the need for collection-level tools that allow scholars and curators to see beyond catalog records.

Mr. Owens described Recollection, a free platform built by NDIIPP and a company named Zepheira to give a better “collection-level view” of libraries’ holdings. The platform can be used to build interactive maps, timelines, and other interfaces from descriptive metadata and other information in library catalogs. So, for instance, plain-text place names on a spreadsheet can be turned into points of latitude and longitude and plotted on a map.

At the final session, on “Rebalancing the Investment in Collections,” H. Thomas Hickerson, vice provost and university librarian at the University of Calgary, said libraries had painted themselves into a corner by focusing too much on their collection budgets. Investing in the right skills and partnerships is most critical now, he said. “The comprehensive and well-crafted collection is no longer an end in itself.”

John V. Lombardi, president of the Louisiana State University system, told librarians that they shouldn’t rush to be the first to digitize everything and invest in every new technology. “Everybody underestimates the cost of innovation,” he said. “Instead of rushing in and participating in a game where you don’t have the muscle, you want to stand back” and wait for the right moment.

Ever blunt, Mr. Lombardi used humor to make his point. When people ask him for money, he said, his first question is, What will that project do to make the university more competitive? “If you can’t persuade me that the work you’re doing is going to make us more famous, we’re not going to be interested in investing in you,” he said. “Is that wise and profound and good? No. It’s stupid. But that’s the way it is.”

His concluding comment: “The football team is allowed to run a deficit of $3- to $7-million. And you’re not.”

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