Chair - Stuart Hamilton
Thank you, Vicki, and thank you in particular for the Titanic metaphor, which I think we all enjoyed and are still thinking about. Our final presenter for this morning’s session, after which I hope we’ll have some time for comments and questions from the floor, is Linda O’Brien. Linda is Vice Principal, Information at the University of Melbourne, with particular responsibilities as both Chief Information Officer and University Librarian. She’s held senior management positions across a number of Australian universities, including Newcastle, Canberra and James Cook, focusing on library and information technology management, and expertise particularly in the effective integration of information technology into business planning to gain strategic advantage for organisational change. Linda will be focusing particularly in her talk on the ways in which information and communication technologies are fundamentally changing the nature of scholarship and what this means for the library of the 21st century. Linda O’Brien.
Speaker - Linda O’Brien
Thank you, and thank you to the speakers that have come before me for setting the scene so well and giving me a chance in what is quite a small amount of time to focus on some of the things I’d most like to focus on.
Information and communication technology has the ability to automate what we do, and not long after automating what we do, we discovered it generated other information that was of value to us, and, finally, discovered that it, in fact, had the potential to transform what we did, and libraries have long embraced technology. I remember, fondly, the punch cards in the back of the books when I was an undergraduate student, which was really the first hallmarks of technology in libraries, automating processes in terms of lending, and then when I did my library qualifications, I learned how to punch cards to create catalogue records, and we discovered that by collecting that data we could provide a source of information through the online catalogue.
More recently, we’ve seen the transformational capabilities of those technologies in presenting information in full text form in a digital way. So, we’ve moved through that transition, and what I think I would like to argue today is that, in fact, we’re on the cusp of another significant change and I’m not quite sure we’ve recognised the significance of that change because that transformational power of technology is now transforming the whole business of scholarship, which goes far beyond the realm of the library, and it’s quite fundamental.
Libraries, and we’ve been reminded today, in the first presentation, of the role of the library in the business of scholarship, and they were long thought of in the modern university as the heart of the university, and I think that’s fundamentally under challenge at the moment, and Vicki’s alluded to some of those challenges also. They’re integrally connected with that process of knowledge creation, synthesis, dissemination that really are the business of the universities and it’s quite difficult, and Margaret said it quite nicely, to pick out the role of libraries from learning, they’re integrally connected, and it’s that connection that potentially is in peril in the environment which we find ourselves at the moment.
I want to talk about it in the context of scholarship because I think it’s important to understand that scholarship is everything from the methods and process of knowledge creation, synthesis and dissemination through to the knowledge itself that results from those processes, and I think it’s important to see it from that perspective. Up until now, we’ve often thought about digital publications and thought about the end point of that knowledge process, and what I’m really keen to do is show how technology is transforming not only that end point but the process itself.
I’m going to talk about, a bit about, e-learning, e-research, and then explain why I think we should think about e-scholarship in the broader sense and why we’re seeing that quite fundamental change. Jane Treadwell, who’s speaking later today, gets most upset with people putting ‘e’ in front of things and she’s certainly challenged me on this on a number of occasions, but I think what it signifies is that it’s about transformational change. It’s the point where the impact of those technologies is so profound that we’re thinking quite differently about the process. Eventually, that will become embedded, and I think, with e-learning, we’re pretty much close to that point. It’s no longer important to put it there, it’s just a given that it’s part of the learning process that those technologies are integral. But what we’re seeing now is e-research on the agenda and, again, Australia’s a little bit late to this discussion and I think it will be critical to our future in terms of where we position ourselves as a knowledge nation.
In the UK, they’ve been talking about e-science for some time. In the US, they usually talk about cyber infrastructure. In Australia, we’ve taken the broader term, which is quite appropriate because it’s relevant to all disciplines and national strategies currently being developed, and I’m pleased to be in a state that sees that this is important, as well, and is thinking about how to position Victoria in e-research. But it’s really about e-scholarship. It’s about tying all these things together in a new way of thinking about the whole process of scholarship, not just scholarly communication. It’s beyond Google. I mean Google is, it’s aspirations in the world are to make the world’s information accessible, and it’s really going beyond that to think about the fundamental business of scholarship.
What I’d like to do is use a few examples from my own university, the University of Melbourne, to illustrate this because I think nothing’s more powerful than seeing it in play in real life and it’s been wonderful for me to be able to work with scholars who are working in these new and emerging ways. The university, under the leadership of the current Vice Chancellor, Glyn Davis, has redefined its vision, still aspiring to be one of the finest universities in the world, but recognising that to do that there is what we are calling ‘the triple helix’ of learning and teaching, of research, of knowledge transfer that have to be intimately linked, hence my use of the word ‘scholarship’, to achieve the university’s outcomes, and what’s very nice in the strategic plan that’s just about to be released is that there’s a real recognition that those three strands have to be linked in a meaningful way and inform each other in terms of being the finest university, and part of that linking is the role of the library and of the technologies that we use to build those relationships.
An e-learning example first. The University of Melbourne is part of U21, it’s a consortium of universities. Last year, we started a certificate of global issues that’s in partnership with the University of Auckland, Nottingham, Hong Kong and British Columbia, and it allows our undergraduate students from those universities to undertake studies across those universities, learning about global issues of key concern. It’s a certificate they do in parallel with their undergrad degree. This is one of the subjects that Melbourne offers and it’s fairly indicative now of the sort of e-learning that occurs in most universities. It’s quite common, and that’s why I think we’re almost past the time of talking about ‘e’. It’s pretty much embedded in the way we do our business.
But it does mean that these emerging scholars are learning in quite a different way. One of the nice things about this particular module is they all create a homepage, they can put their photograph up, they can talk about themselves. Quite fascinating to see what students identify about themselves and what they enjoy, what they like doing. Some chose not to put a photograph up, that was at their discretion, they put their favourite cartoon character or whoever it might be. But what the students were saying as a result of participating in this learning environment was that it was much richer, they felt much closer to the lecturer because they were engaging with them in a much more personal way, despite the fact that technology was intermediating.
This particular map, here’s a map showing the home of each of the students in the first cohort and you’ll see the international spread. They were all enrolled at Melbourne for the purposes of this subject, but they brought a breadth of international experience in terms of their understanding to the discussion, and what happened through that process was that they ended up creating their own learning materials through collaboration. So, collaboration, I agree with Vicki, I think it’s our salvation, but it’s also now very much part of the scholarly process. They also created a good place to eat in Melbourne, which was quite useful, and it did encourage them actually to engage much more socially, so we were getting a real learning community happening, which is increasingly difficult when you’re in a university with 40,000 students.
But I think where it’s even more exciting is what’s happening in research, and astronomy’s, clearly, in the lead. They use technology to share very expensive resources through telescopes and other things to build the virtual observer tree, and Rachel Webster and David Barnes at Melbourne are part of the Australian Virtual Observatory. They actually have up to 100 researchers working on a piece of research globally distributed, so these people are collaborating from across the globe on a piece of research using very expensive equipment in a virtual way. The amount of data they create is phenomenal, petabytes of data. It’s quite hard to imagine the volume of data that they are creating, but that data is data that’s of value for the long-term. It’s primary research data, but it is of long-term sustainable value, and, in fact, they’ve found, because they’ve been in this business rather longer than others, that some data’s being used as much as six times in ways that they would never have thought when they actually colleted the data for the piece of research they were doing.
So, we’re now seeing primary research data playing a critical role, as it always has, but in terms of being able to be reused and repurposed, and, at the moment, the metadata, the curation of that data is all resting with that disciplined community and they are working collaboratively across the globe to make that happen. Is that sustainable in the long-term, I guess is part of the question, and is, as multi-disciplinary research and other things occur and we start to see some fuzzing of the boundaries, is locking it into disciplined silos the best way in which to make that information available?
What astronomy’s telling us is that research is no longer in the domain of a single researcher. The scholar that’s been through those e-learning environments and has built that community of scholarship is now moving into being a researcher and sharing that research in a way that’s no longer possible. Just as knowledge has increased, so has the complexity of undertaking research and you’re getting more and more specialisation, and so hence the formation of what they’re calling ‘the grid’. Some bits of technology, but some ways of working to share those resources in a virtual way so that those researchers are part of a global team behaving quite differently. It has fundamental implications for our academics, for our scholars because they are now part, not that they weren’t always, but much more obviously part of a global research effort, so a very different environment. Now, you might say, ‘Well, that’s the sciences. The humanities and social sciences are different.’
Another project that’s at Melbourne, Nick Thieberger there is working on this project, is a collaborative project called ‘Paradisec’. It’s regarded as an international leader in terms of what it’s doing with e-research. What this project does is bring together a range of universities across Australia, it’s predominantly been funded out of LIEF grants, ARC grants. It lives on a year-to-year basis, so sustainability is certainly a question, but they’re doing amazing work in ethnography. What they’re doing is taking unique ethnographic recordings from, predominantly, across the Asia Pacific region and digitising them to make them available to the broad international community to support their research in ethnography, but, at the same time, to protect them, to preserve them for the future, and Nick had a delightful story about a box of old tapes that he found in one of the offices in one of the older buildings on campus that were primary recordings of a language now extinct that were undertaken by an ethnographer back in the 1950’s. Of course, the technology they were on, we no longer had equipment that would play that type of tape so that had to be gone through to find what was required to make those accessible and digitise them.
It’s primary research data that’s part of our history, part of our record that had been collected for the purposes of undertaking a particular piece of research. Yes, our libraries have the outputs of that research in published works, but the primary data is of long-term sustainable value above and beyond the actual piece of scholarship. But I think what’s really interesting is, I mean they’re taking multiple format material, everything from text through to audio and video where possible, is that what Nick’s doing with his research students, those that are undertaking ethnographic research now, is developing their knowledge and skills in how to digitise and preserve the material they are creating, so they’re now adding to that resource as they undertake their research. So, as scholars, they are building a resource that is beyond their piece of research and scholarship that can be used by others, so we start to see this blurring of the research and learning and teaching in use of a resource that clearly is of broader value, much as libraries have always been, but actively now contributing to growth of that resource, those students.
But as I said, this particular resource is funded on annual grants. What happens when the research grants stop coming? These are particular group of researchers who are very passionate about their research, building an amazing resource that’s, clearly, of international significance. Who is going to take ownership of that? Who is going to be the custodian who’s going to ensure that it’s preserved for the future? And I think that’s an incredible challenge for the library community if we’re to fulfil the role that we have traditionally fulfilled because, at the moment, these things are all happening across our research communities, they’re happening in distributed global environments. The complexity should not be understated of the players. There’s a wonderful picture both Nick and Rachel used to show the collaborating partners. They’re spread across the globe, they’re of many kinds. Organisations like APAC, Advanced Computing in Australia, the networks that underpin them, but then all the scholarly societies and other associations and professional bodies that are all part of this extended network. So, the data, clearly, is of value, it’s an international resource, but it doesn’t clearly fit within anyone’s ambit to say it is our role to sustain this for the future.
Interestingly, and talking with my colleague down at VPAC, Bill Appleby who looks after Advanced Computing in Victoria, he’s doing a lot of work with our research communities on storing primary research data, biosciences, a range of areas, helping them with the metadata tagging, with the structuring of that data to make it accessible to the research community with the curation of that for the purposes of supporting that research. He has no interest in sustaining it beyond the time in which the research is done, yet, clearly, this data has value beyond that piece of research and has value to other researchers.
So, if we think about the role that libraries have traditionally played, it is one about being guardians of the record. We were reminded several times this morning about that. It is that role of protecting wisdom. I love the wisdom word, too, and I’ll take that away from today, and being partners in preserving wisdom for future generations. So, it’s about the here and now, but it’s also about the future and the role that we play in that process, and this fundamental change to the way in which scholarship’s occurring, I think, presents us with some amazing challenges if we were to take this role seriously. The Mirror of the World (exhibition) is a lovely example of the role that libraries play, and if we translate that into the digital environment, what will that look like, what should we be doing? Who will take carriage of these important issues for the future in terms of the sort of data that’s coming out of projects like Paradisec?
Clifford Lynch talks about the role of libraries of the future being one where we shift from acquiring published scholarship to actually managing scholarship in collaboration with scholars, and I think, certainly within the university context, that will be critical, but I think it’s just as true of other libraries. Many people come to the State Library as scholars, whether they’re looking at their genealogy or developing information, writing works, they’re independent scholars and they want to be part of that process. So, we do have to think about what that means as a partner. It comes back to Vicki’s comments, it is about repositioning the profession to think differently about how we can add value in a world that is very different and where scholarship means something quite different in terms of a way in which it’s enacted, the process as well as the output.
I think, to quote from the American Council of Learned Societies who had a look at the use of cyber infrastructure in humanities and social sciences, they say, ‘We can see the possibilities that arise from placing much of the world’s cultural heritage, its historical documentation, its libraries and artistic achievements, its language, beliefs and practices within the reach of nearly every citizen,’ so they see this amazing potential to share the world’s knowledge in quite a different way and to make it accessible. But, at the same time, as Donald Waters says, from the Mellon Foundation, ‘The challenge for us is to be both extraordinarily innovative in this environment, but also extraordinarily conservative.’
We have this interest, intention in that we have to grab the opportunities that are occurring and see how we can use those to be part of that scholarly process to ensure preservation of knowledge for the future and, at the same time, not neglect the traditional roles that we fulfilled in ensuring that it’s here for the long-term, and I think that’s a particular challenge in a digital environment. How do we ensure that things that matter are retained? How do we build the links between primary research, secondary research, output and other artefacts from our museums, from our collections, and from our scholars in new and meaningful ways to ensure that knowledge is retained for future generations?
Transcript from the Libraries & Learning session of the Library of the 21st Century Symposium, State Library of Victoria, Thursday 23 February, 2006.