Hack the library

This is the text of a talk I gave at a recent MIT Libraries all-staff meeting to introduce the recommendations in the preliminary report from the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of Libraries. A colleague suggested I share the notes more broadly, as she considered it not just a rallying call for the MIT Libraries community, but also a good recap of the core themes in the report. I gave this talk about a week before the report was released. 

I am very excited to have this chance to start sharing with you the results of our nearly yearlong engagement with the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of Libraries.

What this community has done in convening this Task Force, soliciting the input we got, hosting the range of conversations we had, and really listening to our community, is remarkable, and honestly unheard of in my experience of academic libraries.

The very fact that the 30 members of the Task Force, and the literally hundreds of other members of our community spent their time, energy, and brain power developing a vision for the future of research libraries and producing a set of recommendations for MIT to move us toward that future is amazing. We had faculty from all 5 schools (over 20 faculty in total), plus students and staff, thinking about, talking about, and ultimately writing about libraries since October.

Their engagement, and frankly their confidence in us to realize the bold vision they have laid out for us, is a testament to all the work that all of you have done to earn their faith, respect, and enthusiastic support. Everything you all and your colleagues have done made the work of this Task Force possible and is the enabling lifeblood that runs through this report.

I know you all have been waiting for this report for a while now, we have been in a state of transition and a state of preparing and building our capacity to enact a new vision and new strategic priorities for some time; and I want to thank you for your patience and say that I hope you are as certain as I am that it has been worth the wait.

Working with this Task Force to gather input, to really listen to the community, and to try to synthesize and make sense of everything we heard, and everything we collectively know and think and want out of libraries and higher education has pretty much consumed my time and my energy and my soul for the last 10 months. This has been the most intense, hardest, and most important work I have done in my library career to date. 

And this kickoff with you all is perhaps the most important step now that the report is so close to approval and public release. We are the ones, collectively, who are going to make the vision and recommendations in this report a reality. This report confirms that the MIT community expects big things from us; and I for one wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Barry Bonds hitting one into McCovey Cove, by Chris Bourg

To use a baseball analogy, with this Task Force and this report, we are swinging for the fences. But I’m a San Francisco Giants fan, and I had the privilege of watching Barry Bonds in his glory years. I watched him swing for the fences in games where he only got 1 pitch to hit; and still he connected more than any other player in history. If you want to hit a homerun, you have to swing for the fences. (I may have also adlibbed something about this report being “research library on steroids” to complete the analogy-although I still choose to believe Barry never knowingly used steroids.)

For the less baseball obsessed amongst us, I’ll say that this is our moonshot. And really a moonshot is a better analogy, because hitting a home run, as majestic as that is, is a solo act. Getting to the moon though, that’s a team effort.

And like a moonshot, this vision we have in front of us only gets off the ground once you all are invested in it too. And to get there, I know you all need time to think about it, talk about it, ask questions about it.

Certainly your expertise and your experience and your ideas on how we can move these recommendations forward will be crucial. We need to, and will, have conversations about where we start, what we need, and success will look like – in short, medium and long term. We also need to ask questions together, come to a shared understanding, and develop a shared sense of excitement and commitment. The impact of the Task Force and the report will be realized through your engagement.

You have all, I hope, read the Executive Summary by now; and you know even from that, that the Task Force has painted a high-level aspirational, but not vague, future for us. One of the most inspiring sub-texts of the report and the conversations in the forums we held and in the Task Force meetings themselves was the confidence our colleagues throughout the Institute (faculty, staff, students, and alumni) have in us; and their desire to collaborate with us as partners in providing the content, tools, services, expertise, spaces, and technologies needed to do what MIT does best – advance knowledge, educate students, and solve the worlds biggest problems.

I believe this report goes well beyond any other strategic plan or library vision I have seen, in that it recommends that we not just respond to changes in scholarship and teaching, but that we become a platform through which research, teaching, and learning is transformed.

Let me talk a little about the Task Force’s process and the vision and recommendations in the report.

First, the Task Force had a number of passionate conversations where there was some pretty vigorous disagreement on a range of topics, such as:

  • the relative role of digital versus print collections,
  • the degree to which MIT & the MIT Libraries should push Open Access for all scholarly publications,
  • the degree to which MIT ought to prioritize our obligations to a global community versus our service to the on-campus local community.

These and other topics inspired some heated debates and were the source of some tensions in the Task Force … but ultimately, we found remarkable levels of agreement around a common set of principles and values. That consensus formed the basis for the vision and set of recommendations that ultimately landed in the report. The values that animate the vision of the Task Force are things like the importance of the advancement of knowledge, privacy, openness, service, innovation, and support for diversity in all aspects of our work.

As the executive summary makes clear, the Task Force articulated a vision of a future where access to information is ubiquitous and open. The Task Force and the folks we talked to envision a world where data and knowledge and scholarship flows freely, and where anyone can access it, share it, contribute to it, and exploit it as needed. They want libraries to build and maintain that world, and collaborate with others to build it.

Through all the different opinions and approaches to the future of libraries, the Task Force was united in affirming that at their core, libraries have always been about sharing information, providing community spaces, and preserving knowledge. In the report, the Task Force sketches a vision for what those functions could and should look like in a truly networked, fully digitally enabled world.

This image of the open dome is the key illustration of the new vision of a research library that fully exploits technology to operate as an open global platform.

global-platform

We want the libraries to be that platform in a physical and a networked digital world, and we seek collaborators from within MIT and throughout the world to help us build that platform.

This platform idea, which is both a set of networked repositories of content, metadata, tools and services, and a set of physical spaces, services, and human expertise; is symbolized by the iconic MIT great dome, and it rests on a set of pillars. Those pillars represent community, discovery, stewardship, and research.

The vision and the recommendations are all based on the shared mission and set of values that the Task Force agreed on — MIT’s and librarianship’s values of openness, service, advancing knowledge, innovation, and diversity.

There are recommendations associated with each of the pillars.

Let’s start with Community and Relationships. The Task Force report calls on us to think of our community and our relationships in global terms, and to think of our spaces and our services, especially our educational role, as open and integrated into the full life of our communities.

Recommendation 1: The Task Force asserts that the MIT Libraries must be a global library serving a global university and its audiences. The MIT Libraries should conceive of the communities they serve as concentric circles, from the closely affiliated circle of current students, faculty, and staff to increasingly larger circles of cooperating scholars, MIT alumni, participants in MITx classes, the local Cambridge and Boston community, and the broader global community of scholars.

Recommendation 1 says that we need to think of ourselves as a global library for a global university; and that we should think of our audience in terms of concentric circles – striving to provide as much access as possible to people in all circles.

This recommendation came about in recognition of the way MIT scholars work – both the fact that they frequently work from remote locations all around the globe, and the fact that they collaborate with other scholars, formally and informally, from all over the world. As MIT seeks to take on research questions and grand challenges that are global in nature, MIT faculty need to be able to easily share articles and data and access with colleagues who are not officially part of the MIT community. The Task Force recognizes that all scholarship is better when more people can participate, and opening up access as widely as we can helps move that vision along.

The value of openness also came up in discussions of the library spaces – we heard over and over how much the MIT community appreciated that our libraries, unlike many other private university libraries, are open to the public. Students spoke of the libraries as a “haven” on campus; faculty and staff described our spaces (and their vision for renovated spaces) as intellectual and social gathering spaces. And one department head told me that she credits the library for their best graduate student yield in years, because they held their graduate student reception in the library during preview weekend.

Recommendation 2: The Task Force recommends that the Institute create a new planning group to make specific recommendations regarding the redesign of the MIT Libraries’ physical spaces, reflecting the vision and themes of this report.

Recommendation 2 is about bringing focused and expert attention to developing a vision for library spaces that fits our vision for the library more generally. There is early support by the administration for convening this space planning group; and I think we will be able to make progress there rather quickly.

Recommendation 3: In supporting the research and teaching mission of MIT, the Libraries will provide educational opportunities to equip MIT community members with essential skills and habits for critically and effectively using information. It also will teach them the skills required to responsibly generate new knowledge and to create the platforms, systems, and networks to disseminate it, guided by the values held dear by MIT and by the library profession.

Recommendation 3 goes beyond usual information literacy roles for librarians, and recognizes that both our expertise and student need is much more complicated than how to search. Students at MIT are more than consumers of information.  As individual creators of knowledge, they need to understand patents, standards, copyright, trademarks, regulations and all the rules of engagement in the global landscape where commerce, academia, and research take place.  In addition to creating new knowledge, students are also actively developing apps, algorithms, platforms and tools that enable dissemination, sharing, and consumption of information by others – it is essential that MIT students critically understand the impact and social consequences of technical choices and design decisions.

This recommendation validates much of what we are already doing, and gives us the support and mandate to do more; and to really do some interesting and innovative things with our instruction program.

The Discovery and Use section of the full report is the most detailed, and not surprisingly, the most technical.

Recommendation 4: In support of the MIT mission and values of openness and service, the MIT Libraries should be a trusted vehicle for disseminating MIT research to the world.

In Recommendation 4, the Task Force is saying they expect us to continue to be the primary trusted dissemination platform for OA articles, but/and also calls on us to expand that to include taking responsibility for openly providing rich, comprehensive, well-described, and well-structured data that will fuel an ever-evolving scholarly ecosystem. In the Task Force discussions with faculty, many scholars talked as much about wanting to discover people and ideas as they did about wanting to discovery articles – even, especially people & research happening right here at MIT. They want the libraries to take responsibility for collecting and providing access to all kinds of research outputs. The Task Force recognizes the importance of having a repository of information about MIT’s research efforts, with carefully curated links to its resources, authors, contributing organizations and topical areas; and they are signaling their support for the libraries leading those efforts.

Recommendation 5: The MIT Libraries will provide comprehensive digital access to content in our collections and/or content needed by MIT’s global community by expanding our capacity to acquire and make available born-digital content, and by embarking on an ambitious project to digitize much of our analog collections.

Recommendation 5 came out of some of the most passionate debates the Task Force had. There were members of the Task Force who do everything online, and who believe that better technology and changing user behaviors and expectations will make the need for print materials go away sooner rather than later. Other members were just as passionate about the need for tangible materials for some kinds of learning and some types of research. But, even those who make heavy use of print resources also need online access to digital resources. Eventually we all agreed that in an ideal world, everything would be available in digital form; and some things would also be available in physical formats.

It took a bit of data to help some members of the Task Force see just how much of the scholarly record is actually not digital, or not digital in accessible, findable formats.

Although I like to refer to Recommendation 5 as our “Digitize Everything” mandate – it is actually considerably more nuanced than that. Yes, it does call for an ambitious digitization project, but/and it also calls for efforts to ensure our digital collections are available in minimal computing environments and in formats optimized for text-mining and other computational analyses.

Recommendation 6: Through interdisciplinary institutional and external partnerships, the Libraries should generate open, interoperable content platforms that explore new ways of producing, using, sharing, and preserving knowledge and that promote revolutionary new methodologies for the discovery and organization of information, people, ideas, and networks.

Recommendation 6 follows from 5. It isn’t enough to just digitize everything – we have to then create and maintain open, interoperable, and networked platforms of content so that we aren’t simply creating new silos of digital content. The content platforms we create have to work with existing digital libraries, and have to be open so that scholars can be creative in how they access, discover, and use the content. Many members of the Task Force were most excited about the prospect of the libraries building and expanding its content platforms so that new kinds of discovery tools could be built – ideally by and for scholars, reflecting scholarly needs and academic values. While many faculty rely on third party tools like Google Scholar, academia.edu, Mendeley and the like; they see the long-term value and benefits of such tools emanating from within academia – where there is a commitment to sustainability and a history of trust.

Recommendation 7: The Task Force recommends that the Institute convene a new Ad Hoc Task Force on Open Access to review the current MIT Faculty Open Access Policy and its implementation with an eye toward revising and expanding current policies and practices, where appropriate, to further the Institute’s mission of disseminating the fruits of its research and scholarship as widely as possible.

Recommendation 7 reflects the high level of interest the Task Force heard from faculty, students, staff, post-docs and others in Open Access. At almost every meeting we had, someone asked “what are you going to do about OA?” or more pointedly “what are you going to do about the publishers?”

The Task Force wisely realized that while the libraries have significant interest in and expertise in facilitating open access to scholarship, MIT’s OA policy is a Faculty policy, and any revisions to it must come from an MIT coalition much broader than the libraries.

On to recommendations in the area of Stewardship & Sustainability. Our responsibility as the long term stewards of scholarship, and especially of the Institute’s memory, is ever more important and we are being called upon to expand and accelerate our leadership in developing sustainable models in digital preservation.

Recommendation 8: Through its archival programs and practices, the MIT Libraries will serve as a durable, trusted repository for research objects produced at MIT and the metadata associated with MIT scholars and scholarship, as a continuation of their mission to serve as the “Institute’s memory” and record of research and learning.

These recommendations reflect the dual ideas that the library has to continue to serve as the Institute’s memory, and that long-term stewardship of records, manuscripts, data, articles, and other kinds of research objects is a real and pressing challenge in a digital age.

Scholars are putting their papers up on personal and department websites, and sharing their data and graphs on commercial sites like Mendeley and Figshare. While these are expedient short-term solutions that work well enough for an individual scholar, the Task Force recognizes that the Institute and academia in general is best served when the libraries are the trusted long-term repository for the scholarly record. Our challenge in accomplishing this recommendation is as much an organizational and a resource one as it is a technical one; but having this kind of a recommendation from the Task Force provides a strong organizational mandate to build on.

Recommendation 9: The MIT Libraries should continue to actively engage with and, in many cases, provide leadership to collaborative global efforts to develop viable models and systems for the long-term stewardship and preservation of digital research.

Recommendation 9 says we can’t do this alone, and provides us with the encouragement to continue to lead where we have the expertise, and to partner and collaborate with promising coalitions that are working on the hard problems of digital stewardship & preservation.

Recommendation 10: The Task Force recommends that MIT establish an Initiative for Research in Information Science and Scholarly Communication, based in the MIT Libraries, to enable bold experimentation and to serve as a hub for best-in-class research on the great challenges in information science and scholarly communication.

Recommendation 10 is where the Task Force signals just how serious they are about this vision.

Much of what we want to accomplish in building and sustaining a library that operates as an open global platform requires significant investment in research, development, and experimentation.

An Initiative for Research in Information Science and Scholarly Communication would accelerate progress on a number of key issues of importance to scholars and practitioners at MIT and across the globe.

An initiative of this kind would leverage several strengths of MIT and the MIT Libraries to achieve significant progress in interdisciplinary, applied research, and experimentation in information science and scholarly communication.  MIT Libraries have a uniquely close relationship with the MIT Press, an existing research program in information science, a donor-funded Digital Sustainability Lab working on solutions to digital content management challenges, and access to scholars and students doing groundbreaking work in relevant fields at MIT.

The Task Force imagines research projects that draw on local and external expertise in, for example, brain and cognitive science, media arts and design, computer science, and business modeling.

I think that the big message from the Task Force report is that Libraries have always been the platform upon which new knowledge and understandings are built; and that even, especially at a place like MIT, libraries remain a central part of the scholarly ecosystem and have a crucial role to play in transforming research and learning in a digital age. There is also a recognition in this report that the work we are being asked to do is hard, and that in many cases the models don’t yet exist. There are gaps in the knowledge needed to advance some of recommendations – so the libraries also have to be a home for research and development.

At its core, this report is an affirmation that libraries and our collections are for use – that is the root of our conception of the library as a global platform. This report and the vision it promotes is an invitation – we are inviting MIT and the world to hack the open global platform that is our library.

We are all are part of that invitation – with this report and starting with this conversation, we are all being invited to invent the future, to build the components (technical, social, educational, political) of a global library, and to simultaneously hack the library in exciting, clever, productive, and creative ways.

Batter up!

 

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