D-Lib Magazine
December 1998

ISSN 1082-9873

The Mirage of Continuity

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"...a wealth of historical, cultural, anecdotal and statistical evidence that transformation lies at the nexus between digital information technologies and the most important challenges of higher education."

By John Ober

John Ober is Assistant Director for Education and Communication at the California Digital Library, organizationally housed at the University of California Office of the President, Oakland, California.

The Mirage of Continuity: Reconfiguring Academic Information Resources for the 21st Century
Brian L. Hawkins and Patricia Battin, eds., 301 pages, Index.
Washington, D.C.
Council on Library and Information Resources and the Association of American Universities, 1998, $25.

The digital library, as the epistemological center of the university, is certainly positioned to serve as the catalyst for transforming the university to meet the needs of the 21st century society dominated by electronic technology. (pg. 3)

With that and similar statements about the power of digital libraries as agents of systemic change, Battin and Hawkins set the stage for a collective treatise on "discontinuities" and "transformations" that are inevitable, and inevitably necessary, for higher education. The editors' stage-setting is provocative, describing not only the power of digital libraries but also the "debilitating resistance" and the "growing dysfunctional paralysis" (pg. 3) of institutions incapable of reforming, or lacking the cohesive will to reform, their enterprises to identify and take advantage of technologically-driven change. Any qualms a reader may have about the explicit technological determinism of the editors' opening chapter are likely to dissipate while reading the following eighteen essays. This is not simply due to the reputations of the highly distinguished list of contributors -- which represents a large proportion of contemporary individual and institutional leadership for innovation in academic information resource management -- but also from the collective force of argument. Presented is a wealth of historical, cultural, anecdotal and statistical evidence that transformation lies at the nexus between digital information technologies and the most important challenges of higher education.

The book, which the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) published in partnership with the Association of American Universities, includes essays by the editors -- Hawkins is the new president of EDUCAUSE; Battin served as Vice President for Information Services and University Librarian of Columbia University -- as well as by John Seely Brown, Stanley Chodorow, Paul Duguid, Douglas Greenberg, José-Marie Griffiths, Susan Hockey, Richard N. Katz, Donald Kennedy, Michael E Lesk, Paula Kaufman, Peter Lyman, Deanna B. Marcum, Susan Rosenblatt, Donald J. Waters, and Samuel R. Williamson.

If readers of a publication like D-Lib are looking for entertainment by provocation and the professional insights that arise from addressing questions about the future (Which are the most valid and telling assumptions about the millennial context of higher education? What debilitating habits and structures exist today? What catalytic powers do digital libraries have?) then the book completely succeeds. If, on the other hand, readers expect to find specific and illuminating blueprints and paths identifying the most promising technologies for "reconfiguring information resources" (as the volume's title might suggest) there will be some disappointment.

There are four loosely related sections titled "Defining the Problem," "Integrating Information Resources with Institutional Mission," "Challenges to Implementation," and "Leadership, Staffing and Management." Any subset of the essays -- which are meant to be able to stand alone, thus leading to some unfortunate, but forgivable, redundancy -- within and across sections may have little or a great deal of complementarity. In fact, the two themes that are most thoroughly and deeply discussed in relation to digital libraries are scholarly communication and organizational structure for information resource management. In the former -- occupied by nearly half of the essays, notably those by Chodorow, Lyman, and Kaufman -- deeper than usual analysis is given of the problems and need for radical change in the traditional scholarly communication cycle. Digital libraries, when conceived, for example, as publishers or enablers of new peer review processes, directly contribute to that change.

The essays devoted to organizational structure for information resource management, including those by the editors and by Marcum, are particularly effective in moving the discussion beyond the "to merge or not to merge libraries and information technology departments" discourse. In all of these essays the digital library is seen as a likely focal point for creating transformational, rather than superficial, change. Richard Katz's "Managing Information Resources in the Future" is particularly effective in bridging these diverse themes while also providing concrete scenarios or "strategies" for that change.

For D-Lib readers there is relatively little that is likely to completely surprise or enlighten, especially in technology speculation or divination. But the volume is full of carefully constructed arguments, action rationales, pleas for planning, and prose nuggets that are likely to have an "That's what I was trying to say" effect, or to encourage an oblique, and therefore liberating, approach to thinking about academic professional contexts, especially for information technologists and resource providers. Consider this deft finesse -- by emphasizing process rather than substance -- of the definitional problems inherent in "digital library" in Patricia Battin's chapter titled "Leadership in a Transformational Age":

The "digital library" is an instructive example of several phenomena -- the clash between the new and the old, the need to explore beyond one's own set of ideas, assumptions, and talent pool, and the challenge to reconcile different points of view in the interests of the institutional mission. To the computer scientists at the National Science Foundation (NSF), who created a multi-million-dollar program to encourage research into the concept of "the digital library," the term signifies the technological infrastructure. To librarians who hope to apply for the grants offered by the NSF, the term implies the storage and management of digital information. To college and university administrators seeking to restrain library costs, it means cheap and easy ways to provide access to knowledge resources traditionally held in libraries. And to scholars in the humanities, it means the demise of the book as the primary information medium. The "digital library" is all of this -- and more. The use of the term itself is dangerously misleading because it imprisons us in an image of the past and illustrates, through its familiar connotations of turf and containment, either an inability or an unwillingness to accept the inevitability of unprecedented collaboration, shared expertise and responsibility, and new integrated working relationships. (pg. 276)

Similar perceptive and useful conceptual summaries or syntheses are scattered throughout the volume. They cover not only digital libraries but also scholarly communication, higher education history and leadership, information technology management, and the real challenges of shepherding dramatic change in these interacting domains. These summaries alone are enough to recommend the volume. That they are embedded in well-written essays from leaders in the field makes it that much easier to do so.

Copyright © 1998 John Ober

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