Wednesday, 20 March 2013

"Curated" means "Professional" when one's speak about supporting the research practices of historians in Libraries?

I very much liked a post in the  H-HISTBIBL listserv, the H-Net Discussion List for the Study and Practice of History Librarianship, an "international network of librarians, archivists, curators, and scholars interested in the practice and study of bibliographic and library services to support historical study and teaching. It is affiliated with the Association for the Bibliography of History [ABH] and the History Section of the American Library Association". I am reading with interest what both list editors: Charles A.D'Aniello, (University at Buffalo, State University of New York) and Dominique R.Daniel, (Oakland University) are sending in the listserv. I really appreciate the way they use email: precise arguments, short summaries of the issue dealt with, a link to further information. This is a good way to say about important questions in the Digital History and Humanities fields not limited to history librarianship. Daniel and D'Aniello emails are often better than blog posts. They offer a kind of mixture between Twitter and a blog itself.

So I would like to discuss here Dominique R. Daniel's  post (19th March 2013) called "Curation for Discoverability: When Buzzwords Go Bad". It applies directly to my job as library information specialist between history academic users and the library structure itself. It says about what I have to do nowadays: benchmarking four different discovery tools platform (Ebsco, OCLC, SerialsSolution and ExLibris) that the library (European University Institute) selected to replace our Innovative-Encore Discovery tool. (We had to hide Encore from being our first access to our library catalog because of the incoherence in retrieving bibliographic information and displaying them in a correct way to our community.) We define discovery tools as being able "to expose users to content and resources beyond our local holdings, offering a single search point for multiple sources, including our library catalogue, our repository and our electronic resources."

I reproduced the image of Daniel's email and quotation of Barbara Fister's post (College librarian who works at the Folke Bernadotte Memorial Library, Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota) called "Curation for Discoverability: When Buzzwords Go Bad". This post was  published in her blog, Library Babel Fish, one of the chapter of the broader American Inside Higher Ed portal, the 7 of March 2013. Fister writes: "...for the undergraduate, providing more results for a search doesn't help them figure out which will actually be valuable. We need to help them learn how to curate for themselves. Providing simpler interfaces for more unsorted stuff doesn't really help with that. Maybe we should work harder on the curation thing and ease up on trying to build the ultimate discovery tool." 

Such a quotation connected with the selection of a discovery tool,  reminds me of a central question that we looked at for more than 15 years together with other historians, archivists, librarians: how to teach to use Internet and web contents or, better, how to critically deal with web contents?  
How to validate web contents is a central question in academic environments and not at all maximizing the number of bites available for meta-searching in discovery tools. We don't want to "discover" things when we want instead to retrieve relevant documentation and information which would possibly help to answer specific research and teaching queries. 

So I asked myself, what should be the best tool used in libraries for validating contents? And looking around, my best bet would still be to use and "curate" the good old OPAC. Of course we are talking about a professionally curated OPAC. But now that discovery tools will allow libraries to add all kind of contents and mix everything, frightened librarians -who's thinking that their profession is endangered because of Google- are looking at discovery tools as the ultimate technology offered by the semantic web. These tools may stand for a technological substitute to services that library staff could offer to their users (also providing support to specific electronic resources) and more as a philosophical and "existential" answer to Google so to keep -as ultimate goal- their "real libraries" alive. But opting in for discovery tools in libraries, library users will need even more protection: they will be exposed to the noise and raw contents resulting from answering generic queries performed within non-similar databases collected altogether within discovery tools. 

"Validation" is exactly the contrary of what will be offered when applying a meta-search to many different contents. This will happen independently of the fact that each database will be previously selected by professional librarians. Database's technical functions and contents are created by single publishers not with the intention to be added to discovery tools but to live their own digital life and to answer -using very specific search features- to relevant search strategies not conceived nor planned for wider digital environments. 

Different is the purpose of creating curated digital libraries like Europeana or what will become in the future, the Digital Public Library of America: interoperability of the best meta-data is all about curated and filtered contents for specific communities of users. These data about data -and the way they describe contents- are the most important issue to deal with when speaking about supporting the liability of web contents from different digital origins. This is not at all what we will achieve with library discovery scrambled techniques and mismatch tools which should support academic research.

The buzzwords "curated/curation/curator" are meaning that we have to use a "professional" approach to information where librarians are still needed to orient users, select and filter web contents? This is exactly what Barbara Fister writes asking for maintaining professional interfaces to specialized information in libraries: "we forget that it takes some subject knowledge and some interpersonal skills to match the needs of a particular community of living, breathing human beings to information resources that they will find worthwhile. We no longer trust our curatorial instincts."

These reflections are dealt with in the December 2012 ITHAKA survey by Roger Schonfeld and Jennifer Rutner, "Research Support Services for History Scholars: A Study of Evolving Research Methods in History" (New York: Ithaka S+R, 2012). This important US report is telling about current support practices whihc are not limited to the USA. It tells what should become the best practices  to facing the digital turn in history and on how best supporting the research practices of historians. (History is the first discipline that the think tank institution ITHAKA S+R connected with JSTOR and with Portico have looked at). The role of Libraries, Archives, History Departments, is benchmarked because of the new practices of Historians –the new craft- within our new digital environment.

Following the survey conclusions, libraries seems to play a limited role today because of the availability of many other digital information sources commented in the February 2013 issue of Perspectives on History the American Historical Association (AHA) magazine (Report Claims History Discipline Failing in Modern Research Practices): “the role of the library for historians is narrowing, and serves primarily as a buyer of databases, a source for interlibrary loans, and a pedagogical tool”. 

Looking for "discovery tools" would be in line with what historians "need" from libraries today? Or should we better look at small, and selective web index like EHPS (European History Primary Sources) or browse through big digital libraries and "curated" data's  in Europeana or the DPLA? Anyway, the fact that libraries would provide their users with the best access to databases seems trendy if we follow the conclusions of this survey. So, here comes also  the automated discovery tool. Also because if we follow the survey, professional librarians are often unable to satisfy precise information/documentation queries within specific area's in  history. In fact, the same survey indicates that users don't anymore trust history librarians professional skills. Because of this mistrust or lack of specialized knowledge would we need automated discovery tools? Or could we legitimately argue that these tools are more about the last game for undergraduates? These tools are the last trench or a last illusion (?) offered –with a lot of money for libraries to spend that could be used for other purposes- to follow new media and new commercial information systems developments in poorly staffed library environment?

The ultimate question seems indeed to understand wetter librarians are still or not able to dominate their field of information to support high level research and teaching activities within digital contexts. But labeling these technological substitutes as "curated" information" just because they add databases to their discovery tool would really simplify their work? 

This would mean being driven by technologies, not at all to control them. We are here far away from what the Digital Humanities are about: the human capacity to develop and manage technical tools that would answer scholarly questions in the digital realm. And what are we controlling if we add database contents and web contents to discovery tools: new curated searching activities, text mining capacities that are related to research and teaching profiles in history? If we continue to look for the polar star, we will still recognize where the North stands. So the same will happen with libraries and librarians' role as intermediary between information and information seekers provided that they would continue to update their professional skills.
At the end, do we really care about being now called "curators"?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your Comments, Suggestion, Information are Welcome !