Monday, March 15, 2010

Toward a New Alexandria, or, Lisbet Rausing on the future of libraries

Read this article: Toward a New Alexandria: Imagining the future of libraries by Lisbet Rausing in March 12 New Republic.

I hate to be something is a "must read," but I think this is one for all.

First, Lisbet Rausing, the author, is known to us at Yale as the woman behind the grant to support various staff positions via grants including the Arcadia Grant that is supporting our work with non-Latin scripts, our OCLC reclamation project, etc.

Second, she is calling for a broad re-definition of libraries, universities, and governments in their efforts to support access to scholarly research.

Here is her definition of the problem.

"What is the library, when the totality of experience approaches that which can be remembered? What is it when we no longer preserve only those fragments that time, fire, and barbarians have left us? When we are no longer are able to safeguard only remnants of our discourses on thought, memory, and images, but the thoughts, memories, and images themselves—complete? What do we do when we have not only the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, but also Vasari’s blog, wiki, twitter, texts, emails, chatroom, Facebook, radio interviews, TV appearances, and electronic notebooks?"

A secondary problem is the wrong she sees in the narrow scope of what we call access to the scholarly record. It is a "pay to play" world.

"But by and large, the scholarly community has not made available to the public its “core” research material, such as, to choose a few examples, the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Historical Statistics of the United States Online, BMJ Clinical Evidence, Early English Literature Online, ehRAF Collection of Ethnography, Index of Christian Art, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, Index Islamicus, Frantext, Oxford Music Online, ARTstor, and Aluka. Try accessing these databases via Google instead of through your university account. It is a thought-provoking experience. Many make very clear indeed that they are commercially owned and thus debarred to all, except for those able to pay eye-watering fees."

Those problems also present opportunities for libraries and the institutions and societies that support them. Those opportunities can be seized and the potential gains realized. As Rausing puts it,

"In other words, the question for scholars and gatekeepers is not whether change is coming. It is whether they will be among the change-makers. And if not them, then who? Who else will ensure long-term conservation and search abilities that are compatible across the bibliome and over time? Who else will ensure equality of access? Ultimately, this is not a challenge of technology, finances, or ultimately even laws, difficult though they are. It is a challenge of will and imagination."

While we are sensibly quite focused on the immediate budgetary crisis, we can't meet that crisis well unless we keep in mind these are the new challenges we must face, the new opportunities we must take.

Third, she writes well and is a pleasure to read.

My favorite sentence in the article:

"And at least the academic databases have entered the digital realm. Academic monographs, although produced by digitized means, are then, in what is arguably an act of collective academic madness, turned into non-searchable paper products."


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