Thursday, October 24, 2013

30th Year Reflections/59: By Example

“The older I get the less I listen to what people say and the more I look at what they do.” — Andrew Carnegie

A few weeks ago I gave graduate students in my preservation management class an assignment. I asked them to watch a presentation given on September 30th at the University of Minnesota by Elliott Shore, Executive Director for the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and James Hilton, Dean of Libraries and Vice Provost for Digital Education Initiatives at the University of Michigan. This joint presentation was made possible by University Librarian Wendy Lougee (who also serves as ARL president), and appeared under the general title “Research Libraries at Scale: Moving from 19th Century Origins to 21st Century Solutions.” While watching this presentation, I asked my students to keep in mind three questions and to write a 1,500 word short paper based on answers to those questions. The questions were these: What did Shore or Hilton say that relates to preservation? Does it make sense? Does what they said give you a roadmap to think about preservation planning in the future? Perhaps not the most profound questions, but intentional all the same. I wanted my students to: a) have a chance to hear two influential professional leaders speak about the future of libraries, and b) pull out and assemble thoughts on a topic not immediately apparent in the theme of the Shore/Hilton presentation, i.e. library preservation programs and planning.

My students handed in their papers last Saturday. Before reading them, I thought of another experiment (akin to my MLA pre- and post-conference experience of the last two posts): commit my own thoughts to paper, post them to the blog, and see how they stand up against my students. This, like my MLA reflections, is a bit risky (for me and my students). But why ask my students to do something if I’m not willing to do it myself? In my piece I spend more time than my students might at the beginning summarizing the Shore/Hilton presentation; I think it is necessary for context. I then wrap up with some observations on preservation. Here, then, are my reflections on the Shore/Hilton presentation as they relate to preservation programs and planning.

* * * * * * *

The long-term preservation of culturally and educationally important materials is a core function of libraries. Shore—in setting the table for Hilton—argued “that how we are acting now (or trying to react to what we are seeing) is deeply and inexorably rooted in a period of human history whose foundations are now crumbling” and whose practices and habits, developed across all cultures of the world, “mark our habit of thought and continue to be present in how we make our decisions.” He further argued that “the library is the central institution that bears the most marks of the thinking of the last century and a half” and that it was his firm belief “that if we understand our habits of mind better, we may be in a better position to make choices among a seemingly infinite number” of possibilities. Preservation, as a core function, bears some of these marks and habits of thought.

Shore assisted us in this historical introspection by noting, in essence, our bad habits, i.e. the things we need to break. He observed: “The penetration of the dynamic, changeable nature of digital, web-based, linked information technologies to universities and to research libraries has shown the fissures and exposed the assumptions in some of the fixed structures into which we have organized ourselves and how we think about our work.” These habits include (but are not limited to) a propensity towards reducing problems to discrete parts and tasks; creating (and continuing)—through classification and sorting activities—information silos; organizing ourselves and our work hierarchically; assuming that items in our care are, by their nature, discrete and finished. By breaking these habits (and perhaps healing our scars in the process), we can move from a discrete, contained, hierarchical, rigid, single profession mode of existence toward something that engages us in a fluid, ubiquitous, diverse, collaborative, and interprofessional reality.

Beyond introspection (to continue a psychoanalytic or religious metaphor), Shore asks us ostensibly to perform a professional confession, i.e. to acknowledge our current state: We have lost control; we need to get beyond our “binary oppositions” of centralization versus decentralization, control versus openness, fixed versus shifting categories; we are jolted by the rapid appearance and aggressive behavior of commercial, social, and personal entities in “our” domain; we are not alone; there is a way out; we need to seek a middle ground.

The confessional ends with the realization that there is a middle ground, but even here questions arise, the principal being: “Where do we differentiate ourselves from one another and where do we work together?” Is it, as Shore seems to say, that this middle ground, this new place of professional identity and activity is in both these areas of difference and collaboration? For examples, he points to aggregators and cultural commons, e.g. the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) and Wikipedia, and quotes Charles Henry’s observation (“Higher Ground”) that the next two decades “could witness an extraordinary fluorescence of activity among universities and colleges focused on repositioning, consolidation, and convergence.” Is this the middle ground of which he speaks? If so, what does this mean for the core function of preservation?

Hilton, in response to (or continuing) Shore’s presentation, framed matters another way, i.e. if Shore’s talk was classical music, then Hilton offered free-wheelin’, pickin’, kinetic bluegrass sprinkled with the blood of a Baptist preacher. His presentation, like a preacher’s sermon, included three major points: the emergent nature of change, irresistible forces, and opportunities/imperatives (aka celestial navigation).

On the emergent nature of change, Hilton noted that “our notions of change don’t serve us well.” We think of change as calm waters punctuated by rapids, when in fact it is really rapids all the time, all the way. Viewed this way, change is disruptive, messy, not orderly, planned, or predictable. While Hilton did not adequately define what he meant by emergence (as understood, for example, in systems theory) he did point to it as a strategy for dealing with change. In this sense we have a known starting point and desired direction, but an unknown end point. Part of this strategy involves identifying and adjusting “fundamental conditions” so that “new opportunities will emerge.” It also entails instilling “a discipline of ‘fine-tune as you go’ and refinement based on experience. Hilton likened the process to sailing.

Taking up the sailing theme we might quote Seneca: “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” Hilton might respond that the port is not important, just the direction. (We would hope he wants to hit land at some point, if for no other reason than to reprovision his ship—assuming the natives are friendly and their stores abundant.) We might also amend his earlier image of change (which included pictures of canoes or kayaks on calm water and rapids) to a sailing image that includes the natural forces of massive swells, towering waves, smooth seas, and doldrums. These maritime dynamisms would correspond (by name if not by nature) to the four irresistible forces, i.e. emerging conditions, outlined in his talk: higher education, consumerization/relevance, unbundling, and digital.

Under these conditions—adjusting the tiller—we might expect nearly continuous evaluation or redefinition of the purposes and meaning of education, who participates in education, and how it is financed. We might also expect incessant gusts from port or starboard in the form of commercial blowhards (I mean entities) telling us how they can do it better, cheaper, more efficiently, etc. As an example, Hilton gave us a charming thumbnail portrait of his colleague at Michigan, Paul Courant, and the interaction between Courant and the Elsevier publishing company on the topics of preservation and digitization.

Elsevier: “Look, we were Galileo’s publisher. Trust us. We’re going to be fine.”
Courant: “We have the hubris to be unimpressed with your track record of longevity.”
Courant: “Where did you go to get your backfiles for digitization?”
Courant: “You’re going to go to your board of directors and propose something with a perpetual, binding liability with no revenue stream behind it?”

Hilton’s conclusions, his celestial navigation, led him to five final imperatives: 1) re-orient around durable access, 2) tie our fate to collaboration, 3) harness economies of scale, 4) be Switzerland on steroids (i.e. neutral and highly engaged), and 5) double down on audacity.

Let me return to the three questions I posed to my students as they relate to preservation planning in libraries. If the five major components of preservation planning are environmental control, emergency preparedness, security, storage, and handling/use, then at first blush Shore/Hilton said little in specific terms about this core library function. But in broad terms, and as a roadmap to the future, they gave us plenty to think about.

First, Shore challenged us to examine those habits of thought and work that have become embedded in our professional consciousness. In terms of managerial planning and conservators’ treatments we might question the amount of time, staff, space, and money spent on treating individual items in loco. If we are collaborating, i.e. practicing what Hilton called an “intentional interdependence between organizations,” and working to scale it would seem we would want to invest more of our resources on regional treatment centers to which numerous institutions could send individual items for attention. Something like the Regional Alliance for Preservation might provide a model or a vehicle for this type of work.

This also argues for active, real-time discussions across institutions and among staffs/faculties of what should be sent for treatment to such regional centers, what can be done in-house, or ignored. Such a discussion overlaps Shore’s concern for a middle ground and the question: “Where do we differentiate ourselves from one another and where do we work together?” If we differentiate ourselves, in part, through our special and rare collections, then we are long overdue for a conversation (let alone collaborative work) about physical and digital preservation planning for these materials. This conversation, among regional or consortial curatorial staff, needs to happen sooner rather than later. The Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) have a number of initiatives that address physical and digital preservation: the Shared Print Repository, Hathi Trust Digital Repository, the Google Book Search Project. But almost all of this activity addresses circulating or journal collections, not rare or special materials. It is time for curatorial staffs (and associated faculty) to gather, talk, and act.

Some might argue that digital humanities initiatives or cultural commons projects like the DPLA meet this need. This may be the case on the digital front, but I do not think it adequately addresses Hilton’s call to re-orient around durable access. Here he pointed to “traditional content,” (books and paper) as being less problematic, i.e. put it on the shelf in an environmentally stable, secure, place and we’ll be fine for five hundred years. This may be so, but we do not, at present, have the necessary capacity for such storage. The physical is being shortchanged in favor of the digital. We need to be collaboratively audacious on both fronts.

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