A Future for Libraries and Scholarship: SSP 2011 Closing Plenary Session

David Smith, Moderator (L), and John Palfrey

The closing plenary was presented by John Palfrey, Professor, Harvard Law School, a faculty director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and a co-author of Born Digital. Palfrey is also Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School, so he focused much of his presentation on 4 broad issues currently affecting libraries and librarians. He noted that although there is a common cause between scholars, teachers, publishers, and librarians, we all face perils in separate ways.  Why do we still need libraries, publishers, etc.?  What is our role in learning space?

1. Changing patterns of learning

Youth and media are both born digital, which is not difficult to observe.

Kids have great digital skills, and there are different practices in information access.  But it is not just kids who are learning in different way–everyone has a smart phone, Blackberry, etc. , and they are widely used.  By 2012, we will be more likely to access the web on a mobile device than a PC, which will not be a distraction, but interaction and multitasking.  Even now, many of us do a variety of things while we learn.

The media we are interacting with are digital, whether they are images (Flickr), audio/video (YouTube), or print (Google).  Only when reading a monograph, do students customarily use printed materials, and the reasons they give are Bed, Bath, and Beach.  In these circumstances, they prefer print by an 80/20 margin.


Credibility.  There is a lot of misinformation on the web, as well as other hidden influences.  Almost all students will look for information first on Google, and then on Wikipedia.  Some cut and paste information from the Web into their papers; others don’t trust anything online.  Almost none of them go to the history or discussion pages of Wikipedia to determine the quality of the information, but most of them will go to the bottom of the Wikipedia page and click on the source links.

Overload.  There is too much information.  A major challenge is how to make more use of time when we are connected.

2.  Innovative teaching

How do we harness what is great about the digital era?  What will connected learning look like?  Being in the mode of a creator is very important.  The creators of today’s information are also creators of the code for such services as Facebook, Google, etc.  They were students when they started creating their services.

3.  Changing patterns of research and publishing

Open access is a major innovation in digital scholarship.  How do we make more of our libraries (Harvard has 73 of them)?  It is not about budget cutting.  How do we learn from our peers?  What can we do to support digital scholarship? Harvard Law School has committed to open access in faculty publications,

Harvard Law School Faculty Policy on Open Access

and is facilitating open access for student publications as well.

Open Access to Student Writings

A  fund to pay the fees if necessary has been created .

How is our work related to mass digitization projects?  Harvard participates in the Google book scanning project and has launched a Digital Public Library of America project.  The challenge is whether we can create a free library on the scale of a large academic library and still be consistent with copyright, etc.?  This will be a useful project for the many people that are involved in text mining of these huge databases.

4.  Changing Roles for libraries and librarians

Even the richest schools do not have increasing library budgets. The best case today is that they will be flat.  We are asked to get more materials from more places.  How do we make a future for ourselves?  We are not doing enough to connect our users to all types of content, especially digital materials.  How do we think about space in a way that connects the physical and digital?  Only 1% of the employees of the Harvard Library are devoted to managing the library’s website, even though half of the library’s traffic comes through it.

How do we architect classrooms for the digital age?  We need to think about how the information architecture relates to the physical architecture.  How do we think about sharing our collections differently?  No great library can go it alone in today’s environment of non-growing budgets.  We must be more precise with our acquisition policies and determine what we have that no other library does and which we therefore have an obligation to collect.

Should we be in the business of creating better and different interfaces for people to access repositories?  We need to be aggressively in the business of creating more content online.  People are worried about losing the idea of serendipity, so we need to present information in ways that would enhance serendipity.  We can create interfaces that will allow people to interact with information in ways that they cannot physically.  Circulation data can be used to see which materials are most popular and can influence how they are “arranged” on a digital shelf, which will help people access information better.

We need to pay attention to new technologies and be in the business of adopting and shaping them.  They may well be disruptive.


Look at where the problems lie and turn the challenges into opportunities.  Opportunities lie in the areas of information creation, participation, and empowering individuals.  We need to get in the business of realizing that we have a role to play in recreating our institutions.  We are in a digital-plus era which is having a profound transition in every field.  It comes back to our mission as teachers, librarians, and publishers, which are the same, even though we are all being disrupted in different ways.

Here are Palfrey’s final conclusions.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor

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