HarperCollins’ recent decision to limit eBooks lending for libraries has played itself out across twitter, traditional news media and library sites as expected. Unfortunately one of the issues no one really addressed is the idea that digital objects might have an actual “lifespan.” Granted, the 26 check-out limit imposed by HarperCollins is artificial, and driven primarily by a desire to maximize profits–i.e., the “right business model.” Nevertheless, the policy should remind us of the fact that digital object do not exist in perpetuity. (Don’t believe me?–try accessing that thesis you wrote using WordPerfect and saved to 5 1/2 diskettes.) The point I am making is that even as we move more material on the web, and become more savvy about our digital material, the issues of interoperability and technological obsolescence remains.
Next week I am attending a BNN Symposium featuring Dr. Greg Crane who will be talking about how the shift to digital space is transforming the humanities, and what role libraries can play in facilitating a new “republic of letters.” Needless to say, I believe that libraries have a fairly significant role here. A good example of how libraries can produce, organize and even facilitate a new cycle of knowledge is The Miscellany Collection at Tisch Library. The website originally grew out of a graduate school project. At the time I was simply trying to create a website that showcased a few XML files using DublinCore/ RDF. It is now being used by Professor Marie-Claire Beaulieu’s Medieval Latin course at Tufts University, and puts her students at the forefront of discovery as they translate the materials. Significantly, their translations will not only enrich our understanding of the material, but will also impact the creation and refinement of the descriptive metadata elements. This is particularly exciting as we know that scholars are starting their research with Google, instead of library catalogs, and the work done by these students will be exposed to a wider academic audience.
The process itself is incredibly collaborative, and points to new roles for librarians. It also highlights that technical services librarians will now need to know metadata best practices along with XML, PHP HTML, CSS and other web-based “languages” if they expect to participate in the digital humanities. I’ll be curious to hear what skills Dr. Crane feels librarians need.