Reflecting on the Big Picture

Before attending LIS 879, I had suspicion about the effectiveness of distant learning. But this course, conducted by Sarah Roberts, turned my mind upside down. Indeed I have never gained such rich learning experiences in most of my previous graduate courses in computer science. There are many factors that contribute to the success of this online course. In this article, I will also describe my surprises uncovered and my future plan solidified during the semester.

I think the virtual classroom dynamics can be attributed to the instructor’s decision to use as a platform for remote participations, and innovation to let students play the role of discussion leaders. I feel I am totally engaged in a learning community. The instructor and classmates listened to me through the blogs, and I made comments as feedbacks to classmates’ postings. This type of classroom emulation also helps me to accurately express my thoughts because I have opportunities to emend before I “speak.” Besides, resource sharing via blogging further enhances the sense of community. Many links to external sites are helpful and classmates’ personal passions are appreciated by each other. As for discussion lead, I think it is a good way of leadership training in graduate courses. I observe that most of the rotated discussion leaders have been strongly motivated to dig deep in order to come out worthy topics for the class to contemplate.

Well-organized course material and framework are also critical to the success. The readings started from puzzle-like articles by Borges and Bush, followed by the struggling with disparate definitions of digital libraries. Due to the inter-disciplinary nature of digital libraries, undoubtedly there are diverse, sometimes conflicting, perspectives in scopes and approaches. We were given eight articles to dig for amalgamating into our own version of definition. With abstract definitions in mind, it is helpful to learn by example. The instructor used DPLA and HathiTrust for case studies. The choice of DPLA has no better timing than this semester. The mist of how DPLA would be launched provoked enthusiastic discussions and follow-ups. After grasping a bigger picture, we were ready to journey to individual components or elements of digital librarianship. Several survey papers on metadata standards were provided for discussion. Platform tool and digitization were the technical dimensions we focused in this semester. Furthermore, class projects were designed for applying the learned skills to build digital collections, as a way to gain hands-on experiences. For system issues, three units were designed for project management, user experience, and system evaluation. Lastly we came to hot topics of copyright and career, in which personal experiences abound. Looking back, I could hardly believe the course has covered so diversified and exciting aspects, each of which constitutes a specialty area in itself.

For this reflection article I was a little nervous to re-read my first posting, hoping not to find out too many naive writings. Borges’ novel pointed out the problems and issues that general library patrons might be facing. I interpreted the novel as a prophecy of information overloading. As the course was progressing, I realized that the author instead intended to compare infinite information to zero information. Sometimes these two extremes of a spectrum are just two sides of one knife. If users cannot obtain the utilities they desire, libraries mean nothing to them, even though huge repositories reside inside. Many topics discussed in the course indeed surround the central theme of information access but from different angles — contents, interfaces, and users.

For the article by Bush, I think I have more intimate understanding about the author’s concerns and visions. I believe in the lab Bush, as an engineer or a science researcher, was often frustrated with tedious and laborious tasks of data collection and retrieval. He dreamed one day all can be done through automation, so that scientists can spend their energy on creative aspects of thinking. In fact, he himself is an inventor of an automation machine for a different application. Many of his ideas in 1940’s have been fulfilled and are now taken for granted. Relevant to digital libraries, his dream of natural language interfaces, though far from perfect, are gaining recognition. Bush even devised a fictitious machine Memex to illustrate how collected data can be and should be automated for further processing. I believe to great extent Tim Berners-Lee’s semantic web resembles Bush’s ideal, although Bush never heard of Web 3.0. My interpretation over Bush’s article basically has been remained the same since my first reading.

The biggest surprise I found in this course is there seems to be more varieties of metadata schemas than I anticipated. I thought over the past centuries library science had already solved most of the cataloging and metadata issues. For example, MARC should be complete enough to describe existing contents and extensible enough to accommodate newer digital materials. Apparently my intuition was wrong. Learning from classmates who have practical experiences, I became aware of some subtleties missing from my prior understandings. For example, even when MARC was widely adopted by traditional libraries, each institution or group seemed still need to devise its own guideline on how and what practitioners should enter data. Metadata consistency or interoperability has thus been always a challenge. I also had underestimated the hardship in control vocabulary until I worked my own projects.

Another surprise is the high similarity in methodologies between digital library evaluation and marketing research. After some meditation, I am confident that such a “coincidence” is no accidence. End users come to a digital library for information seeking. The services they desire are basically the same in nature as those expected from the commercial world. In fact, information service is the “product” of digital libraries, and the end users are the “consumers.” Just like consumer behavior research in marketing, users’ need and behavior are pivotal to the assessment of digital libraries. Likewise, we can easily map the four marketing elements into the domain of digital libraries. As already pointed out, information service is our product. We deliver the product through usable interfaces and networking infrastructures. There is always a price associated with each service, although in public libraries we do not directly charge the end users. However, the cost and economic analysis on digital libraries requires more efforts to conduct because benefits are more intangible and harder to estimate, and the social cost is tough to model and gauge. Finally, as every product and service needs to be promoted, digital libraries are no exception. The concept of find-ability in Morville’s paper is a good example. Public awareness and relationship are very important in spite of often being underrated by digital libraries. With the high degree of resemblance in marketing functionalities, there is no wonder most research methodologies employed by marketing researchers can be suitable to the evaluation and assessment of digital libraries. The standard qualitative marketing research methods are equally applicable, such as focus group, depth interview, ethnography, longitudinal analysis, and so on. For quantitative methods, questionnaire survey and statistical analysis are also not uncommon in library science researches.

I plan to pursue a PhD degree. My preliminary research direction lies in either digital service or big data analytic. For digital service route, I might apply for iSchool to focus on digital library or semantic modeling. For big data analytic, I would concentrate on quantitative studies and pick up digital libraries and marketing research as my empirical targets because these are two areas where big data are generated and have urgent needs to transform data into knowledge and service.

Overall, LIS 879 is a success under the design and inspiration by Sarah Roberts. The learning environment and dynamics are excellent.


2 responses to “Reflecting on the Big Picture

  1. Thank you, Hsi-Kai, for posting your final thoughts. I appreciate your kind words for the class and for your colleagues. I am interested in your insights regarding this class versus your experiences in computer science. It is my contention that courses like this one are most useful because they can combine the practical skills we worked towards with an opportunity and the necessary background for a more theoretical discussion – about the field, the future, and so on. I am prompted to mention to you and the rest of your classmates that I recently read an opinion piece by the editor of Library Journal (LJ) that distressed me greatly in this regard. I believe that the editor was suggesting that the Master’s education in LIS is of little practical value. This is certainly a matter, in my opinion, of what we measure as “valuable,” collectively. To be sure, if all we are concerned about as a field and as a profession is the obtaining of skills, then perhaps the MLS is unneeded. But what is lost in that kind of a paradigm?

    I encourage all to take a look. You can find the essay here:

  2. It seems that Michael Kelley did not nullify the value of library schools. He just put doubts on master degrees. There could be similar concerns about MBA degrees. Many business schools have noticed the devaluation of their traditional MBA degrees. To meet that challenge, they are offering MBA degrees with specific specialization so that their graduates can be equipped with more well-defined skill sets. The evening MBA programs continue to offer Traditional MBA degrees. My conjecture is master degree in library schools sounds more of a professional degree, similar to traditional MBA degree. To employers, it might be hard to discern the differences between bachelor and master degrees.

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