Multigrain Discussion: Is the Traditional Research Library Dead or Morphing into a New Model?

As many of you will remember, the recent Charleston Conference ended with a Hyde Park Corner Debate between Rick Anderson and Derek Law over the proposition that the traditional research library is dead. After a feisty debate,  Rick prevailed when the audience vote to support his argument that traditional research libraries are in their death throes.  However after thinking about it, one wonders if the more valid observation is that the traditional research library is not dead but that it is morphing or shape shifting.  Instead of writing obituaries, perhaps the discussion should center around a transition in tune with the 21st century that maintains the traditional values of offering personal service, providing quality content, and preserving and archiving resources for future research.

Three recent posts support this notion of morphing + traditional values.  A post in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Digital Scholarship in the Liberal Arts Tradition  by Adrianne Wadewitz of Occidental College recounts the forming of a Center for Digital Learning (or Digital Scholarship) that is grounded in the traditional library value of personal service.  In her post, Ms. Wadewitz notes that “as Occidental strives to reshape itself for the digital future, the Center for Digital Learning + Research was integrated with the library into an Academic Commons, a place conceived of less as a traditional library space and more as a dynamic, communal space that lives both offline and online and where the lived experience of scholarship and intellectualism takes place.”   The Center for Digital Learning + Research serves faculty by running things like Digital Scholarship Institutes and iPad Faculty Learning Communities.  But perhaps even more to the point, Occidental has moved “Beyond an emphasis on faculty and their teaching, …Occidental’s digital scholarship center has furthered the liberal arts tradition of facilitating undergraduate research. For example, this summer a group of students – OxyCorps – worked with the special collections librarian and expert in documentary film to create an archive of alumni interviews which they then organized, transcribed and cataloged. They learned to produce viewable videos, to preserve digital files, and to create a searchable video archive…”

Another post that supports this “morphing + traditional values” concept is a press release from Amherst College entitled Amherst College to launch first open-access, digital academic press devoted to the liberal arts.     The press release announces that Amherst “is launching a new digital publishing venture that will offer peer-reviewed books written by leading scholars in the humanities and the social sciences that are then carefully edited and made available for free online.”  Admittedly, there is nothing particularly noteworthy about this – except that the new press is the brain child of Amherst College Librarian Bryn Geffert and that the press will be part of the library’s operation and funded from the library budget along with existing endowments.  As the Amherst College Press notes on its website “In addition to the library’s traditional role of collecting knowledge, it will begin producing knowledge and facilitating the free, electronic distribution of high-quality literature and scholarship.”

The final post completing the trilogy reports on a project at Simon Fraser University. “Research data repository Comingdescribes how “SFU Library and IT Services are developing a new Research Data Repository that should make it easier for researchers to accommodate requests for their raw data.”  All three campus libraries will be involved in the project which is scheduled as a two year pilot.   New data-curation and digital preservation specialist librarian, Alex Garnett says that the repository collection “is not just for scientific data” but will draw on a variety of disciplines.  Although the collection will depend on collaboration with IT and require the latest technology, it is also in full harmony with the core library values of preservation and archiving for future use.  Of course there are numerous examples of libraries digitizing their special collection resources.  But this project stands out from the crowd because it pushes the envelop to include the preservation of data sets being produced by today’s researchers.

But getting back to our original question.  Is it time for obituaries?  Is the traditional research library a molding wreak? Or does a “morphing + traditional values” construct hold up?  Is it the more likely outcome?

And while we have cited the examples above, are there others at your library that support this “morphing + traditional values” framework?

Tell us what you think  and contribute to the discussion!

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