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Redefining the role of the library

Ubiquity, Volume 2003 Issue August, August 1- August 31, 2003 | BY Ubiquity staff 

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Full citation in the ACM Digital Library


Chuck Henry on how academic libraries can survive and have purpose in a fluid environment.

Chuck Henry is Vice President and CIO at Rice University, and also University Librarian, in charge of academic technology, university library and digital library initiatives.

UBIQUITY: You hold a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Columbia University. How did you move into the management of information technology and services?

HENRY: The librarian/director of the largest library complex on campus, the humanities and history division, was retiring, and the university administration was looking for candidates who understood the research and teaching methodologies of humanities scholars and who at the same time were accustomed to using the library and conversant with technology. Technology was becoming more prevalent around campus; the networks were growing; and PCs were beginning to proliferate; and it was a period of obvious transition. I was put in charge of the humanities and history division because I was a humanist by training. I was just finishing my doctorate at the time: I had worked extensively with setting up the first LAN in Columbia College and, as a humanities scholar, had spent more hours than I can count inside libraries, and so had a good deal of familiarity with the way they worked.

UBIQUITY: The new role must have been quite a challenge for you at first.

HENRY: I came into the job with understandable trepidation, interest and excitement, and became transfixed by the complexity of the issues -- the convergence of technology, higher education, teaching methodologies, research methodologies and intellectual strategies -- and how they were changing the role of the library

UBIQUITY: What was the largest culture shock as you assumed responsibility for information technology and services?

HENRY: Not culture shock, exactly, but I had a deepening realization of the conservatism, both of higher ed and the library profession. That conservatism is well intentioned. The university as an institution has survived for hundreds of years -- and librarianship in one form or another has survived for thousands of years. One holds on as much as one can to the traditions and the structures that have worked in the past. By stepping into the library at Columbia, I found how deeply entrenched the traditions were and how disruptive technology was likely to be. It was, and is, a new way of thinking and doing business, and not simply an automation of task processes.

UBIQUITY: Do you see any library or scholarly professions or sub-professions withering away, the way that carriage makers withered away a century ago?

HENRY: The ways that we define professors and scholars, and the received understanding of librarians and librarianship, will be recast in such fundamental ways in the coming decades that those professions as we know them will be transformed, and something different will emerge. I see a great opportunity for the next five years for a more rigorous and pragmatic partnership between librarians, IT professionals and scholars. While that may sound obvious, it really has not been done.

UBIQUITY: But why not? Why hasn't it been done?

HENRY: It hasn't been done in part because of the conservatism of the professions and the differences in lexicons, the differences in the way the professional societies comport themselves. The isolated silos of activity of higher education teachers, scholars, librarians and IT that have perpetuated autonomy across these professions need to be at least partially dissolved, and quickly.

UBIQUITY: How can those barriers be dissolved?

HENRY: Through collaboration and through rigorous conversation, experimentation and much deeper understanding of new intellectual strategies -- particularly ones that emerge in academic disciplines across the university. Everyone involved needs to understand what's happening and to be able to define it and defend it in order to construct a library of the 21st Century. From that collaboration, new kinds of professional societies and organizations will emerge.

UBIQUITY: What profound changes do you think have already happened?

HENRY: Let's look at how technology has changed an academic discipline -- history, for example. One of the finest achievements of using technology to enhance and transform disciplinary traditions is Ed Ayers' project, "Valley of the Shadow," a multimedia database that includes digital representations of maps, diaries and newspapers, and also statistical and economic information on two towns, one in the north, one in the south during the years of the American Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley. It is probably the most concerted accumulation of information about two towns on either side of the Mason/Dixon Line ever assembled. If one is going to study the Civil War, this project is indispensable. The technology is changing the way we understand history and changing the way we go about being historians.

UBIQUITY: Can you give an example of how technology has made similar fundamental changes in the scientific disciplines?

HENRY: One example is the National Virtual Observatory (NVO) where several telescope observatories are strung together to form a kind of grid computing. The instruments gather information and create online libraries of vast amounts of information about the heavens. The project also includes sophisticated software, some of which is used by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). They analyze gigabytes of data that is constantly streaming in. The NVO reported recently the discovery of a new brown dwarf, a type of star that is extremely hard to identify. The tremendous aggregation of information across the grid of observational instruments, coupled with software, is producing new insights and discoveries. This project would not exist if it weren't for computers. It is completely computational-dependent.

UBIQUITY: Another example?

HENRY: Another good example is proteomics, which focuses on proteins. There's a very quick instant where a protein folds into a particular shape and then that shape determines its function. No one is quite sure why this is so. It cannot be observed so it must be simulated. Proteomics could not exist without massive amounts of storage and computation, and very sophisticated analytical software. These new disciplines were developed in almost a completely virtual way. It's a new world in the sense that there is a lot of simulation and not much observation and experimentation in the way of classical science. That's a major change.

UBIQUITY: What does that mean for a profession whose main purpose is to support the academic mission when the academic mission is itself so fluid?

HENRY: That is the heart of the issue. Very different intellectual strategies will redefine these disciplines and in effect redefine higher education and the skill sets, the questions, and the methods of inquiry that students will be asked to perform in the next 15 years.

UBIQUITY: How are library science programs addressing these issues?

HENRY: Generally, these issues are not being responded to adequately, in my opinion. Over the last 15 years many library schools have closed including the first library school, which was at Columbia University. Many have gone through a curriculum re-evaluation over the last 10 years.

UBIQUITY: What kinds of changes have resulted from the re-evaluations?

HENRY: The University of Michigan, for instance, revamped its curriculum completely and changed the focus of its faculty and research. Instead of just focusing on libraries and librarianship, it brought in cognitive scientists, economists and psychologists to study information from a variety of perspectives, including the way that society and education are affected by new technology. The library school at the University of Texas at Austin dropped Library from its name and is now the School of Information. So while academe is roiled by these changes (many of which are exhilarating and will in large part shape our notion of ourselves and society over the next century), I would say on the whole the library profession has not responded aggressively enough to this. In fact, it has diversified and gone off in other directions, which makes the situation a bit precarious.

UBIQUITY: Do most library school graduates end up working at traditional libraries?

HENRY: As a percentage, fewer library school graduates go into librarianship now than in the past. Many of them go into business and industry. Some go into government because the pay is better and they perceive that it's a more interesting environment in which to work.

UBIQUITY: One of your three titles is Chief Information Officer, a title that became popular in the first half of the 1990s. One part of the rationale for that position was that it would break down the "silos". Do you think it actually has?

HENRY: There are a few examples in higher education of successful integration of the library, information technology and scholarly communities. For the most part, however, I don't think it has worked terribly well. It's not so much the fault of the individual universities or individuals who are holding these positions. I think it largely has to do with the way that the professional societies continue to conduct business. There's not much of an incentive to make these areas of activity more permeable, into something that's more encompassing or at least more collaborative. I do see that as changing. I'm fairly confident that over the next five years we will see much more partnering to address these issues.

UBIQUITY: Let's give you a new title and use an old administrative concept for the purposes of thinking about this. Let's appoint you president of some college or university. In that capacity, what could you do to integrate various disciplines and societies and traditions?

HENRY: I think that someone stepping into the role of a president should first acknowledge that these changes are in fact taking place, and that they are profound, and that it is in the best interest of the institution to begin to address them concertedly. One would need to know in what ways that organization is prohibiting communication and inhibiting the kind of intellectual exchange that needs to take place to address these transformations. A president would also need in a related way to acknowledge how information technology is changing the nature of the institution.

UBIQUITY: Expand that idea.

HENRY: There is greater activity toward patenting and securing intellectual properties by institutions. Local faculty often spearhead institutional investments and startup companies. Other areas are copyright issues, fair use of scholarly information, the preservation of the human and scholarly records and how they are going to be maintained. There have been some attempts at digital libraries around the country. We still have not gotten to the point where we could begin to construct a true national digital library as an academic repository. A good president would recognize that as a goal to which his institution should contribute and begin to work with other presidents to see how funding and expertise could be aggregated towards that goal.

UBIQUITY: Do you think that the position of CIO is starting to be seen as a training ground for presidents?

HENRY: The information technology/library arena traditionally has not been a source of candidates for university and college presidents. I hope that can be rectified because I think that the real transformer, the catalyst for these changes, is clearly information and information technology. I think someone who is studying these issues is cognizant of the potential disruptions and also the potential opportunities to take advantage of these changes.

UBIQUITY: Can you think of any examples of university presidents who have used their positions to move the initiative ahead?

HENRY: Charles Vest of MIT started the DSpace. He pushed very hard to build a national database of courseware. He put much of the course information taught at MIT online and available to the public, which was an extraordinary undertaking and an admirable contribution to the public good. Larry Faulkner at the University of Texas at Austin announced the UT Digital Knowledge Gateway, which will digitize and make available hundreds of thousands of objects of the cultural heritage of Texas. It's a very large-scale project to digitize documents and impose workable meta-data that will allow access and manipulation of that information. That is also a terrific project.

UBIQUITY: Do you think that the relevant social positions of academic institutions will change because of information technology? For example, is it conceivable that a major new initiative in distance learning could take an institution and push its reputation ahead of others?

HENRY: So far, distance education has a checkered track history, certainly in the United States. I think it's different overseas, so we'll focus on the US. Some of the experiments, such as Fathom, have not been as successful. Fathom was interesting but it never captured an audience. It was conceived, of course, as the combination of an online repository of academic information and a platform from which to take distance learning courses. The market for both of those facets simply wasn't there.

UBIQUITY: Is that just a matter of time? Will the market be there eventually? Just give it another 10 years -- or 20?

HENRY: I'm not sure. A very successful example of distance education, almost virtual education, is the University of Phoenix. It is the largest university in the United States by measure of students and more than twice as large as the next largest American university. Its technology is fairly straightforward, nothing flashy. It also combines physical human instruction, so those students don't just go through their computers or televisions to look at courses and listen to lectures and take tests. Most of the courses also entail meeting occasionally with a professor or an adjunct professor from a local, nearby institution who you can interact with. It's a real hybrid. A lot of the curriculum is focused on practical and applied knowledge, whereas Fathom, for example, looks at the more theoretical and abstract courses in art, history and philosophies.

UBIQUITY: Do you think that the universities 50 years from now will continue to look like they're part of the same tradition that began back in the Middle Ages?

HENRY: Well... yes and no. Consider some of the fundamental aspects that have sustained the concept of the university as an institution for hundreds of years. Probably at the top of that list is the physical presence of a learned group of people teaching often-younger people who are eager to learn. Knowledge acquisition is in large part a social act, and that is something we cannot overlook. Among the fundamental elements of the university is that you don't just learn information, you also learn how to collaborate, you learn techniques and signals and lexicons and body language and other attributes that will mark you as a scholar. In that sense, the universities will continue to be identified in a highly individualistic way depending on the nature and idiosyncrasies of their faculty, their research interests and curriculum, so that will probably remain the same.

UBIQUITY: What will be different?

HENRY: For a quick example, look at what has happened in technology over the past 20 years. We have been brought up on the idea of devices. Here now in 2003 you have a network with PCs attached to it. You have servers, routers, data storage arrays and instrumentation, all connected. We're now seeing an evolution towards the grid concept so instruments can be shared across distances. Digital resources, repositories of information can be more easily shared and remotely accessed by distributed servers in the same way. What that means is that while an institution on the one hand is likely to retain a part of its identity and part of its individuality, over time the network in the virtual environment is moving in the opposite direction. The concept of a local address or the concept of individual machines in individual offices at individual sites may rapidly go away.

UBIQUITY: Parting thoughts?

HENRY: I recently read an article that called this movement the liquifaction of technology, and that's an apt term. It means that this perpetuation of identity will be lost and something very different will emerge -- something that's shared, collaborative, that doesn't belong to you or to me or to Rice or to Stanford, but belongs to everyone and no one perhaps at the same time. This is where a lot of academic information will reside 50 years from now. It will be very interesting to see how an institution navigates through these contradictory impulses.

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