Friday, August 8, 2008

RBMS Plenary Session 5: If We Build It, Will They Come?

Before the fifth plenary session, there were some words concerning next year's RBMS pre-conference: It'll be a RBMS 50th anniversary conference celebration with a program devoted to nostalgia: "Seas of change: navigating cultural and institutional contexts of special collections." It'll be a critical look at where we have been, where we are, and where we are going, combined with self-examination. RBMS hopes to have new and emerging voices at the pre-conference, including new librarians, those with career changes, and underrepresented librarians.

As in my previous posts, the words following are not to be taken as an exact transcription of the speakers' presentations. There's no guarantee that I captured their words and at times, I was only able to get notes. I take responsibility for any errors.

RBMS Plenary Session 5: If We Build It, Will They Come?
Friday, June 27

Before proceeding with the 2 speakers, the session began with an introductory quote from Albert Manguel's A History of Reading:
It is the reader who grants or recognizes in an object, place or event a certain possible readability; it is the reader who must attribute meaning to a system of signs, and then decipher it. We all read ourselves and the world around us in order to glimpse what and where we are. We read to understand, or to begin to understand. We cannot do but read. Reading, almost as much as breathing, is out essential function...reading is at the beginning of the social contract.

1. Medieval Manuscripts and Digital Approaches - Matthew Fisher, Department of English, UCLA.
Let's take a trip down digital memory lane. In the early history of the web, medieval stuff was more elusive. An example of one page left from early digitization efforts in 1993: A brief description, and an isolated image - that's it.

The idea of a library exhibition is very interesting, but requires lots of time and resources, but presents a disconnect.

Catalogs are by no means are complete; they're not crowd pleasers. Medieval manuscripts are also elusive in catalogs, which often depend on titles, dates, and authors -- exactly those identifying traits that many medieval manuscripts lack. In the British Library catalog not all manuscripts come up when one knows that institution has them (e.g. BL and Piers Ploughman). Also consider the difficulty of locating them in a catalog because earlier English has letters that are not translatable to today's language. (He showed examples.)

Today we have things such as the Digital Scriptorum (a consortium project), an image database of images of medieval manuscripts. In a questionnaire showing user needs, the results showed that people seek specific manuscripts, and are looking for information in the script, although the site is for images. In the digital environment, text = digital text, i.e. that which can be searched. We're accepting the limitation of OCR of early medieval prints (which look like handwriting). The expectations of what can be done limits what scholars can do with them.

But most digital projects involving medieval manuscripts are like tearing leaves from books: the text is struck through and you're left with a catchword (which admittedly can be a fascinating study). But what about scholars whose interest is in alterations of the text? How does one encode such emendations and corrections in the digital environment? It leads to the question: What is the subject: the text, or the corrections?

As a pedagogical resource, these digital images are a godsend. The access they give is also a good thing. Is digital access to selections of a manuscript just a precursor to physical object? If so, why are we engaging in these objects?

The [name of unidentified project] is a catalog of digitized medieval manuscripts, a project of UCLA and Fisher. [See UCLA's Center For Medieval and Rennaissance Studies project page for more projects.]

Who knows what scholar is doing at any time? This is important information to find out, and scholars can't find it out. Just trying to provide access points to medieval manuscripts out there is a problem in itself (official library access points versus the access point needed and desired by the scholarly community). On this [unnamed project] there is no federated search, because Fisher prefers not.

CERL Portal - contains manuscripts and dearly printed material, but has logged in only 2,000 visitors. It requires catalogs to be in an OAI format (to communicate with other websites and portals).

What about research using digital collections? People can do what they want with them, despite what metadata a library provides. There's an issue of imposing limitations on what can be done. Why not have manuscripts in OAI? Why not allow users to provide links, tags, search on their own [user-generated] terms. Why not allow mash-ups, e.g. as the way people use Google maps [i.e. combining Google maps with other applications]. He wants to see mashups of medieval manuscripts. It's a way to foster dialog between patrons and keepers.

2. Strategies for teaching and research - Stephen Davison (Head, UCLA Digital Program):
He spoke about the Digital Library Program at UCLA. Their aims include:
  • creating digital collections
  • looking for synergies with research, teaching, ahd learning
  • digital preservation
  • development of access and use tools standards
  • fostering cooperative projects: campus, statewide, national, international
What are we building within digital projects? Some? All? The "important" parts? Should we digitize complete objects or logical groupings? Should we produce a mirror of a physical collection or some other artificial grouping?

Whatever they may be, digital objects (whether items or fragments) are an important aspect of collection development.

What about the finding aid - should we tie to it, or provide another means of access? Some examples are: OAC (Online Archive of California), and CALISPHERE
(These sites provide different windows for different audiences of a single digital collection.)

Who are the collections for? The saying goes "will they come?" But who are they? (Concerning the Sheet Music Consortium, we've made assumptions of who uses it, but we're not sure; we are trying to design methods to discover who is using it.

There are methods where we can obtain feedback on our digital collections:
  • digitization requests
  • offers of metadata
  • personal communications
  • legal communications
  • statistics
Digitization vs. digital projects. Providing access vs. providing service layers. [The new standard for OAI - protocol for digital exchange).

Currently we offer conventional access to digital files, usually through library catalogs. But we need to start thinking about web 2.0 features - using users to provide more information, more features, e.g. making guides more wiki-like, ability to tag, annotate, recombine, and do mash-ups. This upload of digital content by users will lead to the creation of new knowledge and understanding.

Popular culture is now a big focus of web 2.0 ideas - e.g. Frontera Collection of Mexican-American music (sound recordings).
(Topics related to American Orientalism - i.e. diverse populations in the US - are also popular.)

What about mass digitization of special collections? Some issues:
  • a matter of time and money
  • there should be careful digitization on a grand scale
  • there are parallels to microfilm; but
  • digitization is for broad access; it's not yet considered a mode of preservation
Aspects of digital library services:
  • digitization occurs on demand
  • provides access to details available in the master image not available to unaided eye
  • feature web 2.0 attributes
  • makes metadata harvestable
  • encourages the "resue and exchange" of information
Proactive digitization (UCLA plans)

Digitization can foster scholarly collaborations. Some examples:
There are some digitization issues here. A good example: Cuneiform tablets are not just text, but are three dimensional objects, making their digitization problematic. It's an issue that's being wrestled in the digital worlds of libraries versus museums.

With the Hypercities project (and others), Stephen foresees the growth of cooperative digitization and metadata harvesting among various institutions.

Elements of the virtual research environment:
  • web 2.0 tools
  • collaboration, or not, as needed (small working groups classes, open to public)
  • gathering and sharing of metadata and/or digital objects
  • publishing
In the question and answer period following the talks, Terry Belanger spoke briefly, and reminded all of the hullabaloo that greeted microfilming. In refererence to microfilm's passing, he said: "Digitization is the next thing; it too shall pass." Of course he got a big laugh, but many erupted into applause.

Another person's question was left unanswered: whether the scholarly use of digitized information has the same status as the actual study of objects.

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