Advancing Academic Enterprise through the Digital Library (Kirill Fesenko, 2006)
Presentation to the Search Committee for the Head of the Digital Library
UNC, October 9, 2006
I would like to thank you for taking the time to talk with me about this exciting opportunity. I appreciate having the chance to speak on this interesting topic. I am impressed by the thoughtful approach that you have taken towards the creation of award winning digital projects such as Documenting the American South. Also, university wide needs and requirements for the digital library were comprehensively studied and documented in the Digital Library Final Report. Reviewed in light of the changes since 2000, these recommendations will continue to be useful for the development of the future UNC digital library.
In this presentation I would like to focus on two areas which I consider to be very important but often ignored in the current discussions of the metadata standards, digital initiatives, digitization ideas and various digital library hardware/software issues:
(1) digital library integration with paper collections and the online catalog, and
(2) addition of true browse displays to the digital library/OPAC interface.
With respect to the first issue, I will illustrate that the digital library advances the academic enterprise best when it is considered in the context of the larger university library and through its integration with the non-electronic collections and the OPAC. Overlooking the need for integration leads to the fragmentation of one university library into two loosely connected digital and non-electronic collections.
Second, the development of true browse displays is needed to uncover rich relationships and hierarchies between electronic bibliographic records and paper/electronic documents which often remain hidden by the modern predominantly “shoot in the dark” keyword access to library non-electronic and digital collections. True browse displays, on the other side, are computer screens which provide recognition mechanisms for students and researchers through display of available access points and pre-coordinated terms, including subjects and their hierarchies. They serve as maps or charts for the systematic exploration of the collection as a whole and its related parts.
Finally, I will discuss the challenges of building digital library and suggest ideas which, in my opinion, will help UNC to create a stronger framework for digital library development that will support the academic enterprise in most effective ways.
Digital library integration with paper collections and the online catalog
I believe that tight integration of digital and paper libraries will help resolve some mounting problems caused by increased reliance on electronic resources by students, faculty and other patrons. I would like to go briefly over some of the issues.
A large body of research illustrates that increased student reliance on electronic resources, the Internet and computers has certain negative effects on their learning and information seeking habits. Statistics also confirm that non-electronic collections are under utilized by students while online traffic is growing. Quality non-electronic resources and especially paper books are often ignored by library patrons who choose convenience of online access over the quality of available traditional resources. In Library Research Models Thomas Mann suggests that the “Principle of Least Effort” is at work here: “..most researchers (even “serious” scholars) will tend to choose easily available information sources, even if they are objectively of low quality, and, further, will tend to be satisfied with whatever can be found easily in preference to pursuing higher-quality sources whose use would require a greater expenditure of effort... as a general rule of thumb, people tend to choose perceived ease of access over quality of content in selecting an information source or channel.” In another work Mann points out the problem of low resolution of computer monitors making sustained reading of long texts (books) as connected wholes impossible online. This in turn decreases a reader’s ability to concentrate and absorb complex ideas. To do this, one should read monograph length texts in their traditional format. Citation analysis of undergraduate term papers confirms that the number of book citations is dropping since 1996. If this is recognized as a problem for student learning, then the building of the digital library should be considered in the way that does not contribute to the fragmentation of the university library into loosely connected non-electronic and electronic collections.
Information overload is another problem for students and researchers since the explosion of electronic formats, digital technologies and the Internet. Morgan & Reade characterize it in the following way: “To suffocate reality, information overflows and produces “information overload.” What happens in this phenomenon is that one’s capacity for sustained concentration, attentional reserves, and ability to choose becomes exhausted.”
Integration of digital and paper libraries will not, of course, resolve all these concerns, but it will improve access to quality non-electronic collections of the university library through a single digital library/OPAC interface. Such joint DL/OPAC interface should be easy to use and designed with different categories of users in mind.
Addition of true browse displays to the DL/OPAC interface
The lack of true browse displays is another important issue which remains largely underdeveloped both theoretically and practically in the OPACs, digital libraries and various databases. Although the shortcomings of keyword access to electronic collections of bibliographic records and documents are well known, the introduction of true browse displays to information retrieval systems is very slow. This is a peculiar oversight given that there are no major technological road blocks to showing rich relationships between records and allowing readers unrestricted observation and navigation. In fact, linking of relevant records and the display of long, flat, hierarchical lists (author, title, subject, etc.) is where digital technologies are much more efficient compared to paper catalog cards, bibliographies and “big red books.” Yet, these great advantages of new digital technologies are mainly underused. Most OPACs and digital library interfaces are centered on post-coordinate keyword searching which can be compared to keyhole access to the comprehensive university library collections. I should note that Documenting the American South is an excellent example of well developed index access to collections and that’s why I have your resource on my “best practices” watch list for some time now. Still, most university OPACs are underdeveloped when it comes down to true browse displays and unrestricted subject access to non-electronic and digital collections.
The ability of readers to observe and explore meaningful interconnections and hierarchies of records is certainly important for the advancement of the academic enterprise. Although there are many theories about the nature of human knowledge and learning, I would like to illustrate this point with Mortimer Adler’s perspective of the “four goods of the mind.” Adler distinguished information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom as four goods of the mind which “ascend in a scale of values, information having the least value, wisdom the greatest.” In his 1986 Guidebook to Learning he suggested that people normally acquire information “bit by bit” from the newspapers, magazines, TV and radio shows and that a great deal of information is useless for the mind. Knowledge, which is of higher value than information, is acquired in a different, more organized and systematic way in which “its component parts are related to one another, their sequence and interconnection, has some intelligible rationale.” Another Adler’s useful perspective of the “two intentions of the mind” comes from medieval thought. It suggests that we use our minds in the first intention when we study reality and its different manifestations. The second intention is employed when we use our minds to understand branches of knowledge which in turn are used for the exploration of reality. Adler stresses the importance of the second intention of the mind, understanding of the order of knowledge and relations of its branches to the readers’ success in the movement from information to knowledge to understanding and wisdom. I suggest that the need to support this progression should be recognized and built in in the digital library interfaces and architecture.
I believe that all these points— the Least Effort Rule, low screen resolution, information overload, preservation of meaningful connections between records of human knowledge—have to be carefully considered for the construction of digital library architecture because they are so profoundly important for learning and research needs of your patrons. I would like to stress this point again—there are no technological obstacles to the integration of OPACs with all kinds of digital libraries, development of easy to use and yet powerful interfaces and addition of true browse displays to common keyword searching to show rich relationships between quality electronic and paper resources on one screen.
Challenges of building modern digital library
It is expensive and technologically challenging to build and maintain a university digital library. Library resources are scarce and the range of possibilities provided by quickly changing technologies and standards is enormous. Librarians often find themselves in the situation of having to invest in certain digitization projects, technological solutions and concepts of the digital library at the expense of traditional activities such as the collection of quality non-electronic formats and cataloging.
Blurred visions/definitions of the digital library, absence of commonly agreed digital standards, lack of mutual understanding and cooperation between library and IT staff, university administration, software architects and digital library/automation vendors do not help this situation. This is somewhat reminiscent of the problems with the construction of physical library buildings which were resolved over a century ago:
“One of the joys of modern librarianship—wrote Emerson Greenaway in 1959—is the fact that the battle which raged between librarians, trustees, and architects in the nineteenth century has been resolved into a compatible working relationship which we all enjoy today. No longer do trustees secretly build library buildings, as did Enoch Pratt near the end of the nineteenth century in Baltimore; nor do architects plan buildings without consulting with the librarian, as was the custom in this country. Today all concerned have opportunity to review the building program and plans, a procedure which has now come to be a routine arrangement between architect and librarian. In most cases the librarian is given the opportunity to state his program needs; the architect develops the preliminary plans; and the trustee or building committee reviews the work of each. As a result of such a working procedure and cooperation, great strides and accomplishments have been made in the development of library architecture in this country, especially since 1930.”
This analogy between old challenges of building efficient “brick libraries” may be useful for consideration of the digital library architecture today. Most “Points of Agreement among Librarians as to Library Architecture,” suggested by Charles C.Soule in 1891, can serve as a table of contents for a modern textbook on building digital libraries:
1. A library building should be planned for library work.
2. Every library building should be planned especially for the kind of work to be done and the community to be served.
3. The interior arrangement ought to be planned before the exterior is considered.
4. No convenience of arrangement should be sacrificed for mere architectural effect.
5. The plan should be adapted to probabilities and possibilities of growth and development.
6. Simplicity of decoration is essential in the working rooms and reading rooms.
7. The library should be planned with a view to economical administration.
Skilled digital library architects and interface designer would recognize these points as essential for their work. I would expand this list of “Points of Agreement among Librarians as to Digital Library Architecture” with two more points discussed earlier:
8. Digital library should provide equal access to resources of high educational and research value in all formats through integration with the online catalog.
9. Digital library/OPAC interface should include true browse displays showing rich connections and hierarchies between electronic and non-electronic resources in addition to keyword searching.
By no means do I suggest that these ideas will resolve all challenges of building the university digital library—there are still plenty. This is more of an attempt to initiate a discussion that would move the digital library considerations beyond such practical but secondary issues as technology solutions, standards and digitization ideas into the realm of integrating collections, regardless of format. If the major goals and architectural concept of the university digital library are agreed upon by all stake holders, then the resolution of other practical issues will be less challenging and possibly less expensive too. It will also be easier to communicate requirements for digital library architecture to software engineers/architects, digital library/automation vendors and others in our field.
Digital library research and development ideas for the UNC
I would like to offer several ideas for your consideration that may be useful for the UNC digital library development and research operations.