Libraries & the Future of Scholarly Communication at #BTPDF2

Let's hope this doesn't become the uniform of academic librarians.

Let’s hope this doesn’t become the uniform of academic librarians. From allposters.com

Last week I attended the Beyond the PDF 2 Meeting, sponsored by FORCE11.  For those unaware of BTPDF2, it’s a spinoff event from the Beyond the PDF meeting, which took place in San Diego a few years back. BTPDF2 was a meeting of the minds for digital scholarship, with representatives from publishing, libraries, academia, software development, and everything in between. The room was full of heavy hitters and passionate advocates, with participant ages ranging from 19 to 70. The energy in the room was palpable, and was amplified by the amazing meeting space in Amsterdam.

There are plenty of ways to find out what happened at BTPDF2 (see a list of links below). In this post, I want to focus on the outcomes relevant to the stakeholders dear to my heart: librarians. Here I provide three observations related to libraries and the BTPDF2 meeting.

1. Missing Librarians

Lukas Koster, who works at the Library of the University of Amsterdam, wrote a terrific blog post about this topic titled Beyond the Library, where he summarized one of my first observations:

…any big changes in the way that scholarly communication is being carried out in the near and far future definitely affects the role of academic libraries… So I was surprised to see that the library representation at the conference was so low compared to researchers, publishers, students and tech/tools people.

There are many explanations possible for the dearth of librarians at BTPDF2; travel costs inevitably rises to the top. But what concerns me is that there wasn’t much action on the Twitter feed from the libraries, and almost every conversation I had wherein librarians were brought up, colleagues would say something to the effect of “Where are the librarians?” They were not only referring to the lack of librarians in Amsterdam; they were also asking the bigger question: Why haven’t libraries stepped up?

2. Librarians as both panacea and scapegoat

In discussions of stakeholder responsibilities and who should be leading the charge, librarians were mentioned repeatedly. They are at the center of the campus (sometimes physically as well as metaphorically), and can therefore facilitate discussions among IT, researchers, publishers, and administrators. The role of librarians has changed, regardless of the opinions of the librarians themselves. Publishers in attendance were among the most vocal in touting the library’s role in the future of scholarly communication: this is the community with which publishers primarily interact, and they clearly believed that it was the library’s responsibility to convey the needs of the researchers and their institutions.

But what about the actual handling of digital objects, creation of metadata, et cetera? During one discussion involving who should take on what responsibility in this space, one attendee said “Libraries are good at storing data. That’s what they do.” I think this would be news to many librarians.

3. Libraries are not promoting themselves

One prominent startup developer made a statement while on stage: while he was a researcher, he (1) never went to the library, (2) didn’t know about the institutional repository available to him, (3) wasn’t aware the library could help him with data, and (4) assumed librarians’ primary role was to “ensure researchers had access to online journals”, which he accessed daily. He then went on to state that libraries should be running themselves more like businesses: determine what services are needed and the most cost-effective way to deliver them.

I wish I could say I disagree with him, or that he does not represent the majority of researchers; I can’t. I would have made those same statements 3 years ago, before I started working with DataONE. Even more upsetting? Some librarians are not willing to swallow this information and rectify the situation. As one example, a senior librarian who shall go unnamed once said to me “No one is coming to me and asking for help with data or any of this stuff. Until they do, I’m going to continue doing what I’ve been doing for years”. Ouch. That’s a short path to irrelevance.

Next week I’ll post a bit more about other outcomes from BTPDF2, but suffice it to say that libraries have some work to do…

BTPDF2 Link Roundup:

Thoughts on Digital Humanities

This week I’m lucky enough to be in Amsterdam for the Beyond the PDF 2 Meeting, sponsored by FORCE11.  I’m sure I will be blogging about this meeting for weeks to come, however something came up today that has me inspired to do a blog post: digital humanities.

For those unaware of BTPDF2, it’s a spinoff event from the Beyond the PDF meeting, which took place in San Diego a few years back. Both events are a meeting of the minds for digital scholarship, with representatives from publishing, libraries, academia, software development, and everything in between. This group has customarily been dominated by bioscience data, and to a lesser extent social science. But this year, digital humanities just keeps cropping up. Next week I will talk about BTPDF2, but this week, I’m using my blog as a reason to educate myself about the digital humanities.

Digital Humanities: What does that mean? Let’s go to Wikipedia:

The digital humanities is an area of research concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. [It] embraces a variety of topics ranging from curating online collections to data mining large cultural data sets. Digital Humanities combines the methodologies from the traditional humanities disciplines (such as history, philosophy, linguistics, literature, art, archaeology, music, and cultural studies), as well as social sciences.

So there ya go – it’s just like it sounds. Humanities + computers. I must admit, I’ve been avoiding DH in my time as a data-centric person. First of all, the field is intimidating to a natural science person like me – it all seems so… human. The unpredictable element of humanity makes me nervous, especially since I thought clams were pretty darn complex back in my grad school days. Despite my biases, I’ve learned more about the wide array of interesting projects that DH encompasses, and have been impressed by the unique challenges associated with DH data collection.

A digital humanities finding: mummies had atherosclerosis. Read more from NPR by clicking on this photo.  Image from Flickr by Brooklyn Museum

A digital humanities finding: mummies had atherosclerosis. Read more from NPR by clicking on this photo. Image from Flickr by Brooklyn Museum

A great example of a DH project was written up in the New York Times back in 2011, which featured the work of DH scholars who use modern spatial tools (GIS, Google Earth) to understand human history, including the Salem Witch Trials, the Battle of Gettysburg, or ancient Greece. I actually posted about one such project back May after meeting a digital humanist at a UCLA Libraries panel- read that entry here. One thing I have noticed about digital humanities projects: they are all GREAT party conversations. Certainly better than those softshell clams.

A great example of a specific branch of digital humanities is digital archaeology – see the tDAR (Digital Archaeological Record website for an introduction. This work sounds like a cross between Indiana Jones and The Matrix, which has led me to wonder whether I’ve seen a movie in the last 15 years.

The point? Digital Humanities are kinda awesome. They have a HUGE diversity of data, and much of the work sits right on the fence between quantitative and qualitative data. It’s an interesting area I’m now embracing as an opportunity for learning about cool stuff. For an overview, check out the Twitter hash tag: short answer is they are having conferences, getting new funding from the NEH, and establishing new academic units (e.g., StanfordUniversity of NebraskaKing’s College London).