|Author:||Thomas M. Izbicki|
|Title:||Librarians on the World Wide Web and the Field of History: Liason and Outreach in the Electronic Environment|
|Publication Info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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Librarians on the World Wide Web and the Field of History: Liason and Outreach in the Electronic Environment
Thomas M. Izbicki
vol. 3, no. 2, August 2000
Liason and Outreach in the Electronic Environment
Liaison ties between faculty and librarians remain crucial in the academic environment. The electronic revolution has created issues of awareness, selection and user instruction that require frequent and candid consultation. Electronic communications can have an importantplace in the liaison process, saving time when a face-to-face meeting is not necessary.
In the academic environment, librarians long have functioned on behalf of the college or university; and liaison ties between faculty and librarians always have been important. In the past, students in need of help could be referred, especially where libraries had subject specialists, to reliable helpers; and instruction could be provided to classes by those same professionals. Most often, however, liaison was focused on collection development. Where faculty controlled all or most of the book ordering, their orders for selected titles still needed to be processed quickly and efficiently. Where librarians had day to day responsibility for ordering, program information had to be obtained to permit adequate profiling of approval plans; and individual titles for direct orders still had be matched to known needs of individual faculty or of larger programs. Moreover, librarians needed to learn early of impending changes in order to anticipate need, instead of reacting at a later date. (All of these factors remain true whether librarians have faculty status, "academic" status or some form of staff appointment.)
All of this was true of the print environment, in which books and journals were supplemented by an occasional order for microfilm. Even the creation of databases accessed through mediated searches made little difference in the liaison environment. Moreover, most contacts had to be handled through verbal or written communication. This frequently meant very slow response to even the most urgent inquiry. Faculty had many other distractions, and librarians had their in-house responsibilities to keep them from visiting academic departments regularly.
01. Electronic Faculty Liaison
The computer revolution has permitted some alteration in these patterns of communication. Electronic mail, whether by individualized message or by way of mailing lists and list serves, has permitted librarians to share information of common interest while eliciting replies about the issues raised or about other concerns. Faculty likewise can communicate about their own interests and the problems encountered by their students without undue difficulty.
Another electronic innovation useful to librarians is the creation of departmental and individual faculty web sites. These permit librarians to determine the present program emphases of departments and the current teaching and research interests of faculty without having to leave their own offices. (Previously a librarian could use university catalogs, although those frequently were full of courses not recently offered, as well as course descriptions and departmental brochures.) One thing, among many, the pages might reveal is use by faculty of innovative technologies. Their electronic Reserves pages also might reveal similar clues to the use of new media in the instructional environment. However, the librarian should be aware that the pages accessed might not be up to date. In person or e-mail communication still is very desirable to help the librarian verify information and, even more urgent, to obtain planning information. Departments do not post their hiring plans and proposed changes in emphases on their web sites. These things must be ascertained by more personal communication in order to meet new needs before they arise as demands for collections or services.
02. End-User Instruction
The electronic revolution, however, has not just improved the available means of communication. The very tools of scholarship have changed, and librarianship has had to change with them. Technology has altered the ways in which librarians do their jobs. The card catalog, with its linear arrangement of cards and limited number of typed tracings, has given way to the more complex possibilities of the online catalog. This has not always been well received, especially where online catalogs were not sufficiently flexible to permit cross-referencing and rapid follow-up on clues discovered. Databases shifted from mediated searching to end-user searching, and these tools migrated to CD-ROM, locally mounted or networked, and, most recently, to the World Wide Web. Free sites moved from GOPHER to the Web in a very short time. Moreover, whole new means of interpretation by librarians, especially the web site tailored to particular needs, have permitted a professional to provide guidance to the researcher that remains available at hours when most staff have gone home. (Web site design also has added another role to the many librarians play, whether the library has subject specialists or lacks the means to make such appointments.)
Most of this will be familiar to information savvy faculty and students. But I would like to connect this, as I did past questions about ordering and assistance, to the liaison function. Without adequate liaison, the librarian, even if a trained practitioner in the particular field, as I am in History, will be operating in a vacuum. The web sites created and the electronic resources linked through them will not be of maximum utility if they are not created with an eye toward the known needs of faculty and students. And these needs too are in flux. Faculty members make use of web sites, electronic reserves, electronic mail and even virtual reality in innovative forms of instruction. The value of these methods is disputed, but they have not evaporated like last year's fad.
03. Electronic Publishing
Moreover, the continuous change in the availability of electronic resources presents the entire academic community with new challenges. Print based companies have gone into the electronic arena, some of them reluctantly; and they are pushing change on the side of supply. For example, the electronic journal already has arrived and flourishes. In its best versions it can provide not just text but annotation, illustrations and any necessary tables or graphs. And it can link to other texts or web sites. My own university's Project Muse pioneered many of these developments. Although the most part of the effort by publishers has gone into Science or Business, the money fields, the Humanities have not been neglected. Individual journals, entire lists of titles or a package, like the older humanities titles provided for us by JSTOR, all can be found in our libraries, many linked through our catalogs and subject pages. Some of these packages also come with their own search mechanisms. In other cases, for example in the latest online version of the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, indexing can be tied to the availability of at least some full text material. WilsonWeb is another example. Although its links to full-text resources are not yet as rich as might be desired, it provides faster access to academic book reviews than anything else I can access from our Information Desk.
These developments have yet to displace print, despite prophecies all of us have heard; but the possibility exists that some publishers might decide that it is in their interest to provide online and only online what otherwise would involve them in continued work with paper, ink, postage and inventory taxes levied on warehoused copies left unsold.
The electronic book has arrived more recently to add further complications. It has yet to make a major impact, but netLibrary or some other provider may someday be able to provide electronic reserves or distance education users with commercial copies of desired texts, whereas these now have to be created in-house with both technical issues and copyright clearance to be taken into account. Even before the electronic monograph was created, some databases were created providing full text access to classic works in a variety of fields. I need only mention here the Past Masters databases produced by InteLex, philosophical resources that have migrated writers like Hume from diskette to CD-ROM to Web in only a decade.
To deal with these resources, providing them to the entire community, librarians have to act on behalf of the institution. We have undertaken, and not just for our own survival as a profession, a broker's role. We have to think about issues of law and access, interface and consortial partnerships. Collection development has seen its boundaries erode, necessarily converging with issues of service and instruction, while maintaining a sharp eye for costs and academic quality in the products offered to us by the publishers.
04. Selection of Electronic Products
All of these issues require that we, faculty and librarians, talk. What is available that meets the needs of faculty and students. If it is commercially created, can we afford to buy or contract for it. Some History-related resources are affordable; but, in my field of interest, medieval studies, there are some very important resources, like the Patrologia Latina Database and Acta Sanctorum, that are quite costly, especially for a small institution or a cashed-strapped state university. Moreover, whatever a humanities faculty member wants may be in budgetary competition with other desired titles; and history or humanities faculty must be willing to lobby effectively for their fair share of the available budgets. The science departments, in particular, are politically powerful; and humanists must be willing to help their librarians, not simply complain about the university's priorities. Book budgets already suffer from the reallocation of scarce funds to support serials with ever-increasing price tags, and the monograph itself can be regarded as a threatened species in whatever publishing form.
Even where money permits purchase, the electronic environment works differently than did the print-dominated environment we once knew. Decisions must be made, preferably in consultation between subject specialist and faculty, on what is the best electronic form in which to obtain a resource, should it be networked, how widely and under what restrictions. Here one voice heard behind the librarian is that of the university's legal advisor, who may have to examine licenses for potential limitations and hidden pitfalls. The librarian also may have to accept narrower limits than faculty or staff might like in order to get the resource at all because of costs, technical difficulties or narrow definition of "site" by the publisher. Moreover, licenses are in need of being revisited, both in the light of changing needs and in that of a copyright law in flux. (That publishers want narrower limits than librarians do on services like Interlibrary Loan will not surprise anyone. Publishers fear that electronic transmission of an article might lead to their losing control of their intellectual property.)
My message should be clear. We, faculty and librarians, need to talk, and frequently, about all the pitfalls on the road to a flexible online environment. The issues that will arise, aside from those already mentioned, include: the definition of a site, especially for widespread university systems or decentralized institutions like my own; security; authentication of distance education users. Librarians must be clear about what law and technology permit us to do, and faculty need to be willing to become engaged in the process of fitting needs to resources. And both of us need to recall we are in the iron triangle of money, law and politics, not just academic politics but the interplay of interests in the legislative process.
All of these things address only the off-the-rack part of library work. In the digital arena, it is possible for us to work with faculty to create tailor-made resources, intended to support faculty teaching and research. My university, for example, is creating a set of digital facsimiles of the manuscripts of a medieval literary classic, The Romance of the Rose. This requires not just faculty input, solicited in two conferences, but hard work by student employees, librarians and systems staff. (My own role includes the checking of transcriptions made by students to accompany facsimiles of manuscript copies in England and North America.) All of this gets added atop the work each of the staff members does day to day. An operation like our Digital Knowledge Center cannot meet all expressed needs, and the Reserves unit does electronic reserves atop still providing print copies of books and articles. Nor can full-time faculty, manufacture the time and expertise to do everything that might benefit faculty and students. Moreover, most of us, whether faculty or professional librarians, have all the expertise in computer design and function that might be needed. Some faculty, and I do not divide this by age cohorts, simply are not expert in technology. Nor are all librarians. (My own time is spent more on administration of the selection process than on anything electronic. I am better at selecting and procuring big-ticket databases packages than at sending attachments to messages.)
So, where are we to go for help? My own situation has been blessed with good coordination between the computer operation and the library. Moreover, the university has gone forward with the creation of a group of positions, those of the Senior Information Technology Specialists, to work with library and departments to improve the digital environment. These SITS, as we call them, have the expertise to go into a faculty office and do a necessary technical upgrade. These can partner with faculty and librarians to provide the technical knowledge necessary not just to upgrade desk-top resources but to help create resources needed for research and instruction. I will give an example. One of our Egyptologists wants us to digitize slides of important tomb sites. Once we secure permission from the publisher, an elusive firm in France, or the successor to its copyrights, then the computing specialist who is my opposite number in dealing with Near Eastern Studies and I can plan the project. The professor can concentrate on her academic role, including that of department chair, while we work to provide the resource. Not being a technical expert myself, I will need to depend on the Technology Specialist for advice and support. The faculty member has identified the need to me, and I am seeking copyright clearance; but both of us need someone who is able to provide the necessary technical expertise.
So the liaison picture has ceased involving only two persons and now involves a third. But none of this will be easy. All three of us will have our own distractions, and so we will have to continue talking. If we do not, none of these fine possibilities will come to fruition. If a journey begins with a single step, the first step in the creation of the resources necessary to support the academic enterprise remains, as it was in the print environment, liaison.
For previous discussions of related issues, see "Faculty Liaison in the Electronic Environment," Against the Grain 8 (Nov. 1996): 32, and the more recent piece by Marcia Pankake, "Faculty Liaison: Librarians and Teachers as Partners," forthcoming.