Thoughts on VuStuff II
I spent the better part of Wednesday at VuStuff II, a small regional gathering hosted by Villanova University’s Falvey Memorial Library, which focused on the intersection of technology and scholarly communication in libraries. The attendees were an interesting mix of people from academic and special libraries, and included library directors, archivists, systems librarians, special collections librarians, reference librarians, technical services librarians, and more. In the group discussion session, some of us regretted the lack of representation from public libraries. It sounded like it is now on the agenda to do outreach to that sector next year.
I’ve been impressed with what’s going on at Villanova for awhile now. Not only are they doing some of the most interesting, cutting-edge work that I’ve seen in terms of presenting digital content from their special collections, but the culture of their library work environment is very different (and I might judge it as “better”) than what I know of in other libraries and work settings. This is an outsider’s view, based on perceptions gleaned from what people who work there have told me and things that I’ve read. The following are some of the things I find particularly intriguing and feel might serve as a good model for other places to consider: 1) Falvey library staff are given time to explore special projects based on their own interests. By doing this, the library is taking a risk – some work hours may indeed be “wasted,” but new products and new services may be born. A lot of workplaces harp on the need for employees to be “creative,” “collaborative,” and “innovative,” but very few actually provide the time and space to support their staff in doing this. 2) Falvey funds technology. Money for digital projects and technology-based services is written into the budget. Many workplaces expect staff to “make do” with no financial support or else fund projects on an ad hoc basis. Falvey models the fact that superior technology-based projects require dedicated, on-going funding. 3) Falvey diversifies the responsibility for technology. There is no one staff position that is responsible for technology initiatives; rather, various aspects of technology are integrated into the job descriptions of numerous library staff members. This means that if a library staff position is cut or a staff member leaves, technology initiatives don’t evaporate along with that change. 4) Falvey supports open access. The VuFind product they’ve developed for use as a flexible library resource portal is available for free through a GPL open source license. The digital library content they present is available freely to anyone (with a few exceptions for some materials with outside restrictions). Instead of partnering with commercial interests to market a product, Falvey keeps to the ideal of libraries providing information and resources free-of-charge.
I think that Joe Lucia, Villanova’s university librarian and the director of Falvey Memorial Library, deserves a lot of credit for his leadership in these areas. I missed his opening remarks at the conference, but found his questions and comments throughout the sessions to be interesting and thought-provoking. He seems to be looking further forward than many library directors, asking questions like “What does it mean for libraries if the ILS as we know it is dead in the next five to eight years?” “What does it mean if 80% of the content of our book collections is available electronically?” A word to the wise is that the two books he specifically mentioned were Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything and R. David Lankes’ The Atlas of New Librarianship.
The presentations at the conference were informative and sometimes inspiring. Amy Baker of the University of Pittsburgh described the preservation of archival mining maps project that her institution has been involved in, spurred by a mining accident in western Pennsylvania. Working in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Department of Environment Protection, this project is a good example of a university/government partnership that provides publicly available information in order to help protect people and property. It reminded me that while librarians and archivists rarely see our work as possibly having life-or-death consequences – sometimes it does.
Eric Lease Morgan of the University of Notre Dame demonstrated the Catholic Research Resources Alliance website (the “Catholic Portal”) and explained how it uses the VuFind product to draw together metadata from various formats and sources into one seamless product. I was particularly interested in its ability to perform full text searches and construct KWIC word concordances. I’m not sure how well known or well utilized this site is, but I think it holds a great deal of potential for researchers in literature, history, religious studies, and other fields to mine text data for a variety of purposes.
Eric Zino of the LYRASIS library network explained the Mass Digitization Collaborative, undertaken to help libraries digitize selected resources in a cost effective way. Unique items of historical value have been the major focus, although participating libraries are free to choose any materials they wish to include (provided copyright restrictions are met). Digitized materials are made publicly available via the Internet Archive, and can also be hosted locally. This project underscored the benefits of libraries working together to cut costs, minimize staff time spent on projects, produce consistent products, and share content more broadly.
I missed the final presentation of the conference, which was Rob Behary of Duquesne University speaking on his library’s project to digitize the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper. His presentation highlighted some of the benefits of moving from microfilm to digital content. Most librarians will agree that efforts like this, to preserve smaller regional publications with a unique focus or viewpoint, are an important service that libraries should be involved in.
All in all, this was an interesting day with plenty of time for networking built in. I enjoyed reconnecting with former colleagues and students, and meeting some new people as well. It was particularly rewarding to be with a group of people who were interested in moving library services forward into the 21st century, while still retaining the traditional library value of open access to information. I suspect that organizers may be seeking larger quarters for future VuStuff gatherings as its reputation continues to grow.