Another Response to the Ithaka Report on Historians

I – and what felt like everyone and their mother – have read the Ithaka S & R Report about historians. After reading it, I had some back and forth with librarians and archivists on Twitter as well as a few face to face conversations. The findings were not controversial or surprising to me; I think Sharon Leon put it best when she wrote on her blog that “The report characterizes history as a discipline in transition, and it is-both in human and institutional senses. Historians, graduate students, archivists, and librarians are each in their own way coping with the “problem of abundance” created by the digital turn.” I think that is fair for all parties. Historians are trying to make sense  of how to best utilize a wealth of new digital materials,  and librarians and archivists are trying to make sense of how to make those assets more accessible and what they need to do to provide effective outreach and research support. I am no longer a practicing historian, so I won’t comment on that aspect of the report, but as a librarian who supports historians and as a trained archivist, there are some things I want to say.

  1. Librarians and archivists need to better articulate what types of services they offer. Librarians and archivists have tremendous value far beyond ‘I have access to this cool stuff, come find me.’ Last week, I went to a NISO webinar on Libraries and Start-Up culture. The biggest takeaway for me is that libraries and librarians need to stop thinking about themselves as content collectors, but as agents of content creation and publication. This report is a call to arms to librarians and archivists to move from the model of ‘we have those documents and these books’ to ‘I want to partner with you to publish this open access article’ or ‘Let me circle the wagons so we can create this digital project’ or ‘yeah, I can help you work up a data management plan.’ We understand the research process and we can be really helpful sherpas to our faculty as well as our students. In order to do that, we must shift how we conduct outreach and position ourselves as collaborators as opposed to just support people. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s possible. I live that reality.
  2. Scholarly Communication is changing. This report reinforced to me that librarians are poised to help faculty get from monograph publishing to a new place where digital projects and new types of output reign. Of course, this is easier said than done since the tenure and promotion process is not to the point where DH and alternative forms of publishing reap the same rewards as traditional monograph publication. But as research sherpas, we can help guide the process; librarians can create a new publishing environment, for instance by using collection development money to support open access publishing or creating collaborative creation/hacker/maker spaces in our libraries can push the issue forward.
  3. If we [librarians, archivists] can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be! Cathy Davidson’s blog post frames much of how I think about my work these days. If the work I do can be replaced by a computer, then it should be. It can free me up to do other, new things in my practice to the benefit of my students, colleagues, and faculty. It’s creative destruction, but in 2013, our year of community engagement in libraries, we need to be mindful about how we allocate our valuable human capital in libraries. If we can automate aspects of our work that is better left to computers, then we should. For me, automation frees me up to teach more classes, develop meaningful content for our research education program, provide better service to my school, do technology, and have the headspace to think about what is on the horizon in libraries, archives, and higher education. Not only will this help ensure the survival of academic libraries and librarians, but it also makes us more accountable to our students who pay increasingly steep tuition and fees to attend college in the United States. By leading with the idea that we are going to do more, make decisions to meet our users’ needs then we can be more sure of our success.

Naysayers might suggest that I want to kill off some of the artisanal aspects of librarianship, that my goal is to rise in the ranks to shut the lights off in my colleagues’ offices and usher them out the door. That is not the case. If higher education is going to continue to be meaningful, if we want to see a profession of smart, dedicated librarians in the future, we have to make sure that the work we are doing resonates with the academic curriculums we support. We want to prepare today’s students to earn living wages and hopefully to foster their lifelong learning. My call to my fellow librarians and archivists is not to take everything the Ithaka report suggests and implement it to the letter, but to think of it as a call to action. Let’s make ourselves relevant by working with faculty and researchers to become valuable collaborators in the research process and guides them through a rapidly changing technology environment. Let’s work towards educating our users about data management, open access, and copyright so they can create new types work, as the report advises us to do. Let’s use this opportunity forge a new path for libraries and archives for the twenty-first century. While many people would point to the contrary, I believe our future is bright, if we are courageous enough to carve a new path to get us there.



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