Using up our words…

I attended the Association of Research Libraries membership meeting last week and stayed on for a forum titled Managing Digital Assets: Strategic Issues for Research Libraries that ARL co-sponsored with CNI, CLIR and DLF (If you are reading this blog I presume these are acronymns you probably know…).

Some phrases that stuck and struck:

“Random acts of digital progress” – Bill Bowen quoting somebody else
“The mess of the digital commons” – Don Waters quoting Jason Epstein probably quoting Roy Rosenzweig
“Lesser privileged” as a way to refer to developing nations – can’t remember who used it
“Curation – what does it mean in this context?” – Brian Schottlaender
“Making progess funeral by funeral” – Jerry McGann

The highlight of the ARL meeting was a valedictory speech by William Bowen, President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. He spoke about Portico (a Mellon initiative to create a long-term archive for e-journals and other digital resources) and other Mellon initiatives. His speech covered the history and trajectory of the Mellon initiatives that have spun off as independent entities – JSTOR, ARTstor, Ithaka, and Portico . For me the most interesting bits of the talk were his high-level concluding observations which he titled “From 36,000 feet”. I’d urge you to take a look at them. These concluding remarks are important observations for our community even without knowing the Mellon context. Read them.

The highlight of the Managing Digital Assets forum was the opening keynote by Don Waters (Program Officer, Scholarly Communications, Mellon Foundation). Don has been honing this talk for quite awhile and it shows in the crispness and the erudition with which he’s making his points. The most recent version of the talk is now on the ARL server.

Some things that struck me in hearing this version of the speech were the decisiveness with which a future for Open Access journal publishing was dismissed, the firmness in his conclusion that scholarly information resources must be aggregated to fulfill their digital potential, and the absolute conviction with which he warned institutions that they will need to get comfortable with “outsourcing” what they used to hold closely. This last point echoed some of Bill Bowen’s comments during the earlier meeting about the need to get past library and institutional thinking to consideration of system-wide issues and solutions. And as Don made his points he also made it clear that the secrecy and nature of the deals struck by the Google5 universities may represent a squandering of the public trust that they built up over many decades.

There were a variety of variously interesting presentations following Don and before Cliff Lynch of CNI did his usual wonderful job of wrapping up. He reflected a bit on the strange use that we are making of the word “curation” and “curate”. He allowed that it is used to mean preservation, the act of readying for preservation as well as the ongoing process of keeping the best set of data based on consensus knowledge. And, of course, we hardly ever use it in its full and original meaning of collecting, organizing and interpreting.

This forum confirmed for me that the LAM community is in danger of using up all its good words. We’ve devalued (or had devalued by others) pretty much all the ones that are useful – library, archive, repository, asset, etc. Substantive interactions on these topics now need to be prefaced by a vocabulary calibration which will then be good only for the duration of that discussion.

More importantly, the call for system-wide action which echoed across the meeting days does not necessarily require new organizations or institutions. There are a number already on the landscape that are, in fact, controlled by the community. With leadership, will, and perhaps a bit of funding, these organizations can effectively discharge some of the requirements for the future that the community is now identifying.

Jim coordinates the OCLC Research office in San Mateo, CA, focuses on relationships with research libraries and work that renovates the library value proposition in the current information environment.

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  1. Yes indeed … although on the new words front, perhaps ‘collaborative sourcing’ chimes with the statements in your last paragraph better than ‘outsourcing’ 😉

    I cannot immediately see DW’s paper on the ARL site?

  2. It’s a better phrase and one that the participants could have used. I will when I have an opportunity.

    And now that the link is fixed you can get at Don’s paper and open the PDF.

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