A summary of activities and directions

Hugh Blackmer
Science Librarian
19 June 2002

I spend most of my time on electronic access to information in teaching and learning. This description covers a lot of territory (and is not confined to the sciences), and generally includes **R&D and experimentation, **collaboration with others, and **projects great and small (a log of those is available at home.wlu.edu/~blackmerh/current.html). What follows is a summary of my views of why and whither, six weeks before my departure on sabbatical leave for the fall term.

Information management is a substantial part of teaching and learning. Colleges supply their faculty, staff, and students with a broad range of tools to carry out these activities, and computers are now central to many of them. Washington & Lee (like all liberal arts colleges) has a huge investment in hardware, and provides access to all corners of the campus, and links to the world outside. Our library systems distribute full text and database services. We (like other places) explore the uses of computers in classrooms, and expect that students and faculty and staff will use computers in more and more aspects of their work. The conduits are in place, the basic skills are fairly well developed, and there is a level of expectation that transformative events are about to happen. Every electronic innovation opens unforeseen possibilities, generally producing ever greater floods of information and widening the array among which teachers and learners can choose. The next steps must be integrative, and will link the various constituencies, but it is not clear who is responsible for their conceptualization, development, and implementation.

What will happen with electronic information in liberal arts colleges? How will digital media be linked into teaching and learning? The answers will come from experiments that connect teachers, learners, and researchers in classrooms, laboratories, libraries, offices, dormitory rooms, or wherever they are, with information sources on and off campus. In order to plan our own evolution intelligently, we need to know what peer institutions are doing and thinking, and what possibilities for collaboration are on the horizon, including both bilateral cooperation and opportunities for participation in broader initiatives within NITLE and other consortia.

Seven interlinked problems summarize the challenges and opportunities that my sabbatical visits are intended to gather information about:

  1. The proliferation of digital information is changing teaching and learning. Users must navigate among a broadening array of kinds of information, available in multiple media. The much greater volume made readily available by the ubiquitous Web makes it necessary for information seekers to develop evaluative skills and learn to winnow. At the same time, most faculty and students are active creators of digital information, most of which remains in the private domains of disk drives, but the Web offers the possibility of global distribution.
  2. Tools must be built to manage this flood of digital information. Any active creator has the continual need to collect; to store, organize and curate; to manipulate, query, and analyze; and finally to deliver or communicate what has been created. These were once desktop tasks performed on freestanding computers, but networking and Internet access allows many of these activities to be carried out via active Web pages which connect to databases, and thus make the results distributable.
  3. Teachers and learners need to become fluent users of the tools which are transforming the information landscape. Fluency is a process, not an accomplishment, and is developed through practise. New media require new kinds of support, for users at all skill levels.
  4. Libraries have to incorporate digital information into their operations. The image of the library as a center of campus life is carefully nurtured at most colleges, but the traditional venues of reference room, book stacks, study carrels and circulation desk are now partial manifestations of the information services that the library provides, and more and more information transactions take place outside the library’s walls. The nascent digital library is distributed (accessible any time and any place) and is partly built by users, as they contribute and interlink their work. In the next decade the growth of the library’s digital collections will probably come as much from locally-produced contributions as from purchased and licensed resources, as professors and students digitize, create, and archive material, including maps, images, and databases. The library must prepare to manage digital traffic in both directions, developing routines for managing the metadata for this flood, and for supporting access to and use of collections which include a great diversity of media. The library and the sources it provides and mediates will be more closely linked to classrooms, offices, and dormitories than before.

  5. Interdisciplinary programs have special information needs. In liberal arts colleges, it is often interdisciplinary programs, established to pursue teaching and learning in areas that go beyond the tools, perspectives, and mandates of traditional disciplines and departments, that are the leading edge in articulating the demand for new forms of information resources. They are often creators of information, and there are no ready answers for who should be responsible for curation and support and distribution of what they produce.
  6. Extramural collaborations and consortia are becoming more common and more important to the mission and operations of liberal arts colleges. Communication needs and resource-sharing opportunities at a distance pose challenges in libraries and classrooms. Many interdisciplinary programs also have significant off-campus components and are involved in consortial collaborations. Such programs need access to broad ranges of information resources, including such digital resources as imagery, spatial data, sound, and video, which must be organized and made accessible to users who are not specialists.
  7. Liberal arts colleges all have the same basic problems in meeting these demands, but few clear models for how to solve them. Whatever the solutions are, they are likely to come from liberal arts colleges as worked examples, and are likely to be the outcome of collaborations that cross administrative boundaries.

The college library is the prime candidate to manage the flood of new media, which includes imagery and the spatial data necessary for Geographic Information Systems (GIS), external databases, and the information streams that result from research and collaboration activities. College libraries can be at the center of teaching with technology by redefining and enlarging what they do, and by substantially expanding their collections and their connectivity. Most liberal arts college libraries are unprepared (in terms of staffing and technical skills) to take on these responsibilities. The tools required to manage and distribute digital resources need to be researched and developed to suit specific situations, and students and faculty must learn their use. More broadly, college libraries need to develop the vision to plan for new roles that are being forced on them by evolving technologies.

Washington & Lee is suited to a national leadership role in digital library development by a combination of environment and skills. The university’s scale (1600 undergraduates, 160 undergraduate faculty) facilitates personal contact and collaboration, and Strategic Plan initiatives provide broad institutional support for innovation. An increasingly diverse and international student body, interested in new combinations of majors and programs, is raising the profile of off-campus internship and overseas study as a natural part of the four-year experience. Replacement of retiring senior faculty is bringing many new professors to the campus, many of whom have substantial teaching experience and active research programs that require the coordinated support of library and computing staff. New programs and new ideas of disciplinary definition are producing requests for expanded digital resources.

To summarize the background which led to development of the sabbatical proposal: since my arrival at Washington & Lee in 1992 I have worked on a succession of evolving electronic issues, discovering, developing and disseminating new technologies and applications, first as a reference librarian and for the last six years as Science Librarian. My prior experience of 18 years as professor of Anthropology equips me to understand the problems of the classroom teacher. I have worked on digital library issues as a consultant to the ALSOS Project and as instructor in a Computer Science course (Digital Libraries, with Tom Whaley). In the last four years I have explored GIS extensively, including workshops, conference presentations (EDUCAUSE, Associated Colleges of the South Information Fluency Conference, Gettysburg College Instructional Technology Conference, ESRI Educational Conference), fact-finding visits to more than a dozen campuses, a visit to ESRI, participation in Associated Colleges of the South planning and research for GIS development, consultancies at other institutions, and classroom use in courses I taught in Human Geography and Anthropology of East Asia. I am also a consultant to the Environmental Studies Brazil project, and traveled to Brazil in April 2002 to discuss digital library issues with consortium members. Barbara Halbert of ACS has suggested that I might become a “circuit rider” for the consortium after the sabbatical.