Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bridging the Gap: Digital collections, innovation and the user

I gave a presentation on my MA dissertation with the above working title a couple days ago, and thought it worth re-articulating some of the points I was trying to make here. This title replaces the more contentious 'Should Librarians Still be Running Libraries?' that got me through the initial planning stages. While previously I had considered that my research would explore the relation of digital collections to external stakeholder groups that could empower innovation with digital content (broadly falling under political, economic, social and technological concerns), it's become apparent that more fundamental goals are not being met by the digital resources currently on offer from libraries. These fundamental goals concern engagement with what I consider to be the primary stakeholder in the library environment, which is the user. This is the gap to which my title refers, while 'innovation' is perhaps the most likely means to bridge any gap between 'digital collections' and the 'user'.

Of course it's difficult to say categorically that there is a gap, but certain signs indicate that there might be. Within my presentation I made reference to a pair of competing views on digital libraries identified by Christine Borgman way back in 1999: (1) Researchers view digital libraries as content collected on behalf of user communities (2) Librarians view digital libraries as institutions or services. I would argue that this tension continues to be played out to varying degrees in a number of contexts. When Eric Meyer recently identified the 'gap' between web archives and users, this was describing a situation where significant web archives had been built over the last ten years, involving some impressive technological solutions, yet researchers were not particularly using them. Then, in the realm of digital libraries specifically, all funding was removed from the US National Science Digital Library by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in July. With an NSF annual budget of almost 7 billion dollars, this is not a 'cuts' situation as we face in the UK, but a simple acknowledgement that the project had failed on the grounds of utility and sustainability. Add to that Nick Poole's observation that we disempower users through mediated cultural collections and I think we have something worth exploring.

My methodology for investigating this has gradually emerged from a pilot interview I conducted back in August. Though a one-off, it clearly identified a general lack of strategy, with little integration of digital content within library culture and infrastructure, and no firm identification or understanding of users in a digital context. While I'm still interested in interviewing experts outside of the library domain (and specifically those who have funded or performed user studies), it seems important to establish some initial ground truths that identify the current position of digital collections within libraries and help to shed some light on the nature of any 'gaps' that may exist. To do this I'll be surveying individuals working within UK national and specialist libraries, institutions with which users choose to interact entirely under their own volition. For this reason I'm currently avoiding university libraries, who have a captive audience up to a point. A second part to the survey, which explores strategy, will then include external experts with whom the views of those working within library digital collections can be compared and contrasted.

While this methodology remains somewhat ill-defined and fluid for the time being, a good research output would be able to conclusively reveal any gaps and how to act on them, establish the extent to which advice from experts has been taken up by the library community and what a research library needs to be in terms of digital resources in the future and how we get there. We often talk about Google and understandably so - no other entity has more categorically smashed the library monopoly on information dissemination - but what comes after Google and what are the alternatives? Above all, it feels like a time of great opportunity.

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