It’s still: Think Global, Act Local

For the last 5 years, my friend Mary Elings from the Bancroft Library and I have made a trip to upstate New York in the summer to teach a one week intensive 3-credit graduate class for the iSchool at Syracuse University (IST677 – Digitization in libraries, archives and museums). Every year, preparing for and teaching the class invites us to pause and reflect on how much has changed in just 12 months in the field of digitizing collections. While the main pillars in the outline of our from-the-cradle-to-the-grave syllabus remain, what we say about each topic changes considerably from year to year. Not surprisingly, we increasingly feel that we need to both impart current practice, while at the same time emphasizing new thinking in the field which challenges business as usual.

Luckily enough, Mary and I as a tag-team are well poised to take on that challenge. Mary predominantly reflects the local point of view of the professional who has to get things done in the here-and-now, while I predominantly reflect a global point of view of somebody who can afford to think about how things should adapt to the realities of our networked information economy. When we quibble, it isn’t just a disagreement, but an educational moment illustrating the times we live in; when it all comes together, it should read like the old bumper sticker as an exhortation to “Think global, act local,” as Mary pointed out to the students.

What follows is an impressionistic glance at the areas where I see a shift in what we talk about in class – in most instances, these are trends which I think will become more pronounced as we continue to teach the class.

  • Creating digital collections – we used to emphasize high-end digitization using digital camera backs; now we’re starting to talk about the potential advent of mass digitization for rare and unique materials.
  • Describing the collection – five years ago, the biggest wow-factor in this area was showing students that the use of XML allows institutions to repurpose collections in a variety of interfaces and makes content portable; while this still impresses them, we’re now also incorporating ideas about how to better leverage authorities (for example through Terminology Services), and we discuss the role of user contributed content. As in all other areas, we use Shifting Gears [pdf] to point to the balance between what’s commensurate, and what’s overkill.
  • Disclosing the collection – we used to emphasize contributions to LAM community-built aggregations such as statewide digitization programs, licensed resources, subject based aggregations or OAI portals; now we’re starting to spend much more time thinking through the implications of the Flickr Commons or pointers to special collections on Wikipedia – in short, leveraging the infrastructure around us which we (as a community) haven’t built and don’t control. (In revisiting my slides about the community-built aggregations, I realized that a good number of them have had to weather major transitions lately, and some didn’t survive, which indicates that we still don’t know how to sustain those resources.)
  • Using digital collections – we used to emphasize the studies (such as this Wesleyan/NITLE report) which show that faculty by and large don’t teach from licensed or locally built collections; now we are starting to think more about what role the library could play, for example in helping faculty manage their own personal collections.
  • Preserving digital collections – while we still talk quite a bit about the usual suspect acronym soup (OAIS, METS, PREMIS, NISO Z39.87), we’re now also considering issues of the economics of digital preservation (as exemplified by the work of the NSF Blue Ribbon taskforce). We also acknowledge the impact of mass digitization on digital preservation, which leads to a re-thinking along the lines of Oya Rieger’s recommendations in a recent CLIR report, such as Seek Compromise to Balance Preservation and Access Requirements and Reassess Digitization Requirements for Archival Images.
  • In this way, the class acknowledges that established work processes are likely to continue while we explore new ways of serving our audiences. It is a balancing act professionals must manage, whether new to or veterans of the library profession. By bringing these issues to our class, we hope to encourage our students to think of libraries, archives and museums as a field rife with possibilities for those with creative minds!

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