Challenges in uniformity and uniqueness: Richard Ovenden

Richard Ovenden (Keeper of Special Collections and Associate Director, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford) was the most recent speaker in our Distinguished Speaker Series. [If you follow the link you'll find, in due course, a link to the session itself.]

Richard’s talk yesterday was centered around uniformity and uniqueness. Uniform resources (that is, books and journals, those things that are widely held) now have a shared set of tools for discovery and interaction. Google Books (which started as the G5 and has not expanded to the G23, or G28) first focused on basic logistics but has since shifted to economic issues. Richard wondered if Google will in due course acquire other digital libraries, or digital library resources, in an effort to expand the corpus.

Recent concentration of effort on uniform resources has lead to a new (or renewed) focus on unique resources, which Richard split into local unique (what’s held in the IR, university archives, research data…) and global unique (those materials that have global value, regardless of origin). As he was explaining this, I imagined a Venn diagram where there is an overlapping bit of materials that are both locally and globally unique.

Oxford has engaged in a variety of activities (tagging and markup, text mining) and have developed a range of business models (ranging from fully free to fully subscription access) around their unique materials. They are considering how to move forward in a digital age, with projects around personal digital collections, and how to deal with “hybrid” collections (those collections that are have both paper and digital components, which have an extent statement like “500 boxes of paper and two PCs”).

In an era of increasing digital (and increasing reliance on digital), Richard still sees that real materials still have value and even provide a lure. At Oxford, real materials are used in research training, in master classes. The opportunity to be in the presence of the original can be quite compelling: on relatively short notice, the Bodleian organized an one-day exhibit of the Magna Carta and drew a crowd of 800 (ore had to be turned away). As the Bodleian considers its physical future (the New Bodleian, or the Weston Library) with increased space for teaching, exhibits, and events based around collections that working with materials “in the flesh” is still important.

Returning to uniformity and uniqueness, as the flow of funding shifts from sameness to originality, he hopes we can use the scale we’ve developed with the uniform to develop efficiencies that can be applied to unique materials. It’s our role to maximize the exposure of our collections to scholarship.

What of the implications of Google? Google’s work has not been curated, and we need to be aware of what’s been left out. In light of Google’s efforts, the preservation and exposure of the unique is more important than ever. There are also questions about the future of the uniform. Who bears the costs of keeping physical print collections, for example?

I was struck by Richard’s observations regarding focus on unique materials. This is echoed in the recently issued “Taiga Provocative Statements,” which says (in part):

[In five years,] collection development as we now know it will cease to exist as selection of library materials will be entirely patron-initiated. Ownership of materials will be limited to what is actively used. The only collection development activities involving librarians will be competition over special collections and archives.

Our own Information Context document (written in 2007) is similarly oriented:

Within a generation the library’s information sources and delivery services will be largely virtual. Libraries will continue to provide direct access to physical materials but this will be very much focused on the special demands of their local constituencies. “Comprehensive” research collection building will be done by a very small number of institutions while special collections of the special or unique materials of research will be maintained and featured at many institutions.

[The emphasis in both statements is mine.]

While I don’t disagree with Richard about the continued primacy of the original item, not everyone has a Magna Carta to draw the crowds. It’s also important to make more proletariat (to use a Bill Landis term) collections accessible, and to recognize that the audience for global unique is, in fact, global, and that we can serve both local and global audiences through digitization. Then again, I’m reminded of the presentation by Lisa Berglund at the 2008 RBMS preconferencethat taught me that even “real” pedestrian collections are useful in instruction.

Interesting to note, the announcement about the Weston Library is dated today.

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3 Comments

  1. I was also struck by Richard’s characterization of the Google books corpos as “books of a similar size”. I hadn’t heard of it characterized quite that way before…

  2. Pingback: hangingtogether.org » Blog Archive » “From the library”

  3. Pingback: hangingtogether.org » Blog Archive » Libraries of the future, plurality and multi-scalarity

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