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Content or technology: What makes libraries different?

by | Jan 25, 2023 | 1 comment

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by Andreas Degkwitz, Director of the University Library, Humboldt University Berlin1

Academic libraries are striving to survive in the competition of digitization and are doing so on the one hand by strongly technologizing their service portfolio. On the other hand, they focus on Open Access and Open Science with a variety of policies, regulations, guidelines and technologies. This is the competition of openness. How do these developments affect the mission of academic libraries? Libraries often have a long history, many shapes, various structures, various users. But all libraries have a mission to disseminate quality-assured information and knowledge. The academic library is a repository of knowledge and cultural heritage for cultural and research purposes. Libraries are not technology hubs for content and knowledge dissemination or a search engine like GOOGLE that manages and organizes knowledge dissemination as a search engine. Libraries, by the way, have always stood for openness – depending on the time; because an exclusively closed library does not correspond to the understanding of the library as an institution for the use of information and media.

University Library of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. By Huuboa – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15841354

Instead, libraries themselves must actively explain and introduce users to knowledge. That’s why they offer information, media and digital literacy – often only from a technical perspective. In addition, libraries should continue to be knowledge partners and must understand something about knowledge. Knowledge is not a mere consumer good, knowledge competence is not just a question of technology. Libraries are part of research, teaching and study and are part of these areas, where human and machine intelligence is usually required. Libraries have succeeded well in transferring their traditional business processes to digital platforms. The transition to digital formats has also been successful for media. But libraries find themselves competing with IT providers and data centers to expand their mission and modernize technologically. However, the focus on the technologization of libraries marginalizes the quality of content and of printed and licensed holdings and collections, including the quality of content and knowledge delivery. Moreover, digital work environments have their origins in computer or information science, which is based on algorithms and data: Big Data, AI, learning platforms, machine learning, simulations, social networks, TDM, visualization, etc. All of these can be done under the umbrella of libraries – without an immediate affinity for the “library” model. Algorithms will not completely free us from the tasks of aggregating, processing and evaluating content and knowledge. In a kind of pre-processing or pre-processing stage, they may be, but not as a work product or final stage of research results, especially since the algorithms are often unknown. In this respect, the increasing focus of libraries on exclusively technical or automated services threatens the mission and substance of information provision.

Open access is part of the competition for openness. Library publishing also illustrates the reduction to technology in a very special way. For both strengthening and functioning of Open Access, content aspects do not play the role they should. Rather, it is about technology for production, process, and visibility. Instead of improvements in content quality, the focus is primarily on the technical requirements of visibility, reusability, or in other words FAIR principles. Many libraries believe that they can and do perform publishing functions beyond their conventional functions of providing information and knowledge, and that this focus makes them innovative. Some libraries even believe that they are better than publishers with their publishing activities of book and journal production. The majority of libraries do not realize that this means that libraries are dissolving themselves, since the competition for the better technology is in the foreground, which in Open Science is supplemented by a set of compliance rules, guidelines and policies.

Publishers produce and disseminate content in monographs and journals and, in addition, promote reputation of their authors building through marketing. Libraries can assist in identifying topics, reviewers and authors, but more importantly, in providing and disseminating content locally and in teaching information, media, and digital literacy. Both sides can leverage their strengths to enhance or even restore the partnership. At the same time, publishers strengthen the service mission of libraries through the global recognition and visibility of their content published in monographs and journals.

To summarize: Libraries communicate and explain knowledge, they are part of research, teaching and learning, and they have an impact into society. Libraries provide for science communication. This tradition of libraries is a trademark that should not be abandoned. Moreover, in a world increasingly shaped by technology, reliable information and likewise knowledge are in danger of losing importance. That’s why institutions like libraries need to fulfill this role even more than they did before the digital transformation. Technology in libraries is developing in line with their mission to provide information and knowledge, but should not put technology at the center. “Open Science” includes reclaiming the mission of knowledge partnership as well as regaining trust in research and science.

[1] Based on my contribution to the IATUL Fall Seminar in the ETH Library Zurich at 2022-12-14: https://library.ethz.ch/en/news-and-courses/events/iatul-fall-seminar-2022.html     


About the Author: Prof. Dr. Andreas Degkwitz is the Chief Librarian of the Humboldt University of Berlin and Honorary Professor for Information Science of the University for Applied Sciences Potsdam. Chair of the German Library Association/Deutscher Bibliotheksverband (2019 – 2021). From 2004 until September 2011 he was the Chief-Information-Officer of the Brandenburg Technical University of Cottbus. The university combined the central services for information, communication and media (library, computer-services, learning center and administrative data processing) on a common management and integrated the suppliers for these services to the integrated institution Information-, Communication- and Media-Center (ICMC/IKMZ) (http://www.tu-cottbus.de/ikmz). In his former position (1998 – 2003) he was the deputy-director and the head of the computer-department of the library of Potsdam University. There he re-designed the IT-facilities and the electronic services of the library and at the same time he had the responsibility to implement a new library system for acquisition, cataloguing and circulation (OCLC/PICA). Another focus was a research project about the market for scientific information and the future role of its players (authors, editors, publisher, libraries, users etc.) will have in digital times (http://www.epublications.de). From 1991 to 1998 he worked as a junior consultant for library affairs at the German Research Society / Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. The management of programs and projects funded by the German Research Society.

1 Comment

  1. Nancy Herther

    Important issues and a great manifesto for the role of libraries in this evolving change: “Open Science includes reclaiming the mission of knowledge partnership as well as regaining trust in research and science.”

    Reply

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