My desire to pursue a Masters in Library and Information Studies grew from my time spent researching traditional folk music and its history in the Great Lakes region. Through that work, I have experienced directly how the growth of digital libraries has opened up revolutionary possibilities for a researcher with access to nothing more than a laptop, an internet connection and a question. When I do research, I draw on an ever-growing store of online digital resources that outdo the imagination of Vannevar Bush with their breadth, ease of access and ability to be searched. This class has confirmed my impression that digital libraries represent a watershed moment for researchers and I am more eager than ever to get involved with the supply side of these exciting developments.
When I commented on the Vannevar Bush piece back in January, I was amazed at how accurate his vision for the future was when he mused about “information pulled from multiple sources and connected by associative trails.” At the time, I was thinking of hyperlinks between websites. Through our readings, discussions and experimentation this semester, I now see Bush’s vision coming true on a much larger scale. Now, when I read that quote, I think about the more abstract “associative trails” of a researcher’s mind and how rich, searchable digital resources allow rapid movement through the process of refining questions and asking new ones. With the double whammy of today’s effective search engines and vast online digital information, our “memex” is turbocharged; ready to propel the researcher down the trail of discovery. Individual texts or entire collections can quickly be assessed for their value to one’s work. Individual collections, federated collections or the “entire internet” (as indexed by Google) can be mined for information on any topic in a manner of seconds.
Beyond my general awe at the possibilities, this class helped me form ideas and opinions about what comes next for digital libraries. As someone passionate about cultural heritage, I was interested to read the guide put out by the National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage (NINCH). The NINCH guide asks us to consider the value and mission of our digital collections and to balance the rush to digitize everything possible with attention to usability, interoperability and preservation. Our readings on the HathiTrust further stressed this goal of creating enriched digital resources with quality metadata, improved accessibility and attention to preservation. I was inspired by these ideas but also attracted to Cory Doctorow’s metadata critique “Metacrap” and the story (posted to the blog by tammygoss) of the poorly organized, metadata-less newspaper collection digitized by a private collector in New York state who, in spite of his site’s faults, has provided an invaluable resource through the wonders of OCR and full-text search. I am left with the opinion that digitization is, even just by itself, an enrichment of an analog resource—as long as that resource is itself valuable. The NINCH guide asked us to assess the objects themselves for “educational, cultural, historical, and aesthetic value” and to me that is an important way to direct our excitement with digital libraries. Assessment of the value of the actual objects themselves should also drive our preservation efforts which, as was stressed many times, cannot be overlooked as an important component of digital libraries.
The unit on user experience brought me back to considering our responsibility as librarians to enhance the accessibility of our collections. I later took note of how critical the accessibility piece has been for winning the right to fair use in cases such as the Author’s Guild v Hathi Trust. Thinking of accessibility in a broad sense is, I think, a good way to assess the importance of metadata and for that I resonated with Peter Morville’s focus on findability. Metadata is critical to findability in visual or audio resources that cannot be full text searched. Subject headings, especially when tied to a controlled vocabulary, also increase findability and are worthwhile when affordable. Morville also echoed the NINCH point that the assessment of your collection’s value and attention to your organization’s mission has to be at the core of any work or expenditure exerted for your collection. When I take my fervent researcher hat off and think of the more general user or a user just looking to explore a collection, I realize the importance of strong graphic design and of web 2.0 community-building features that invite users of all types in to digital libraries and enrich their experiences while there.
The HathiTrust, NINCH and DPLA readings all touched on the importance of avoiding redundancy and working together when building and maintaining digital collections. We can increase the impact of precious digitization funding by establishing networks of communication and cooperation between digital libraries. HathiTrust shows how a network of academic libraries can combine resources to form a rich collection from within their holdings while also leveraging institutional strength to reach outside the member libraries as well. Our discussion of legal issues showed that digital libraries can band together to increase their clout when fighting for digital fair use.
In summary, I find digital libraries extremely exciting and this class has fanned the flames of that excitement. It has also given my aspirations some direction. I hope to work with digital libraries of cultural heritage material that is worth digitizing because of its value and uniqueness. I want to build partnerships between digital collections and awareness of what is out there within the communities that stand to benefit the most from these collections. I am also interested in navigating the various roadblocks (legal, monetary and otherwise) to getting more digital material, especially cultural heritage material, digitized and available online.
In my research this past summer, I made a thrilling discovery by triangulating three digital sources: a rare 1922 songbook digitized by the Harvard Library and available through Google Books, the census document collection at Ancestry.com and a digital library of historical newspapers from northern New York State. Using these three digital resources, I was able to track down and identify audio recordings of 33 songs sung by a Minnesotan man in 1924 that were housed at the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress but basically unidentified. My digital searching, done from the comfort of my house in St. Paul, led me to a unique and culturally valuable analog resource. As far as I can tell, these are among the earliest existing recordings of any Minnesota-based folk singer. For our second assignment in this class, I created a digital library of these recordings which the AFC digitized for me last fall. I have been in touch with the AFC about this project and, when I complete my plan to convert the assignment to a public digital collection, these recordings (and their metadata) will become another potential node on someone else’s quest. This is the kind of work I am passionate about and I am thankful to this class for expanding my skills and understanding of digital libraries.