By Tom Clareson, Lyrasis

Originally published on the techMETRO blog

Digital Dilemmas, a symposium hosted by the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO) on April 16, 2009 at the Baruch College Manhattan Campus, promised attendees to explore the challenges, opportunities, and solutions available in the digital world. With a stellar cast of speakers assembled by Emerging Technologies Manager Jason Kucsma, the session went much further, exploring the best and newest practices in the digital world.

One of the leading figures in the digital world, Clifford Lynch, Director of the Coalition for Networked Information, led off the day’s presentations with a talk focusing on “Scholarship in the Digital Environment and the Implications for Library Strategies.” In this introductory keynote, Lynch “took the blinders off” the audience, making us realize the broader context of digital practice—the communities being served, and the importance of people in building the cyberinfrastructure for digital delivery. He spoke about “marquee” digital infrastructure projects, but said that these sweeping technological changes were being seen in smaller settings as well.

While many of the most-heralded digital projects are in the sciences, Lynch noted that “the Humanities are producing arresting, creative and spectacular digital projects” as well, noting the visualization work that is bringing ancient buildings and cities to life through 3-D approaches.

The cultural heritage community must know a good deal about many subjects in order to develop coherent, cohesive digital projects, Lynch said, but he noted that “the global audience often knows more than we do,” being able to fill in missing information in our databases, metadata, and presentations.

Lynch and all of the speakers noted that researchers and investigators need assistance from cultural heritage curators to think of the digital lifecycle from creation to presentation to maintenance and finally preservation. If librarians and museum professionals can “be there at the start of data creation and maintenance,” it will help us—and our audiences—develop better digital projects and programs with longer lifespans. Lynch noted that, in staffing for digital activity, we should even “consider transitioning more resources to digital practices, even over some traditional activities.” He closed his comments with the suggestion that, just as academic libraries do for faculty and researchers, public libraries can play a leading role in developing digital projects that serve genealogists, the general public, and others.

Evan Owens, Chief Technology Officer for Portico, continued widening the audience’s view of the library’s role in digitization. We are not just working in the technical realm, he noted, but “ensuring the long-term viability of digital projects includes working with the physical, logical, and conceptual layers.” While we are working with all of these elements in our digital collections, we must become more nimble, because “digital content has lifecycles, and they are getting faster,” in terms of the need to create, present, and preserve them. This is particularly a challenge in dealing with continuously-updated content, where we must be vigilant in our version control and long-term maintenance.

Owens asked the group, even if they were just beginning digital projects, to document their current practices so that they can know what standards and methods they were using when certain items were created. He closed his comments by noting that digital practice is going through “maturity and growing pains” because it is such a relatively new area of library practice. In comparing digital preservation to traditional preservation, he said the state of today’s digital materials is as “brittle and fragile” as some of the decaying paper documents we are trying to preserve.

All of the presentations throughout the day engaged the audience to a great degree. In some cases, the questions from and discussion with the audience took the lion’s share of the presenter’s time. Roger Schonfeld, Research Manager at Ithaka, gave a presentation on some results of a survey titled “The Strategic Implications of Faculty Attitudes on the Shift to an Electronic Environment.” He noted changing perceptions held by faculty and researchers on the need for the brick and mortar library versus the need for its services. While areas such as the sciences and economics show a drop in some types of library usage, Schonfeld suggested that we can provide “intellectual value adds” to become part of the solution to these researchers’ need for new methods of information access and sharing.

Patricia Aufderheide, Director of the Center for Social Media at American University, entertained the audience after lunch with her opening video on remix culture. But she was serious in her suggestion that we can learn good practices for fair use and intellectual rights of materials through looking at other communities of practice including documentary filmmakers, film and video studies departments, and media literacy programs. Questions to ask in the creation of new digital works which may utilize ideas from or portions of prior works are how much transformation was done from the original and appropriateness of use of the original material. Noting that the audience felt concerns about copyright issues in their digital practices, Aufderheide suggested that we should address these intellectual property rights issues at the association or community levels such as the American Library Association.

The closing speaker, Dan Cohen, Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, utilized new media throughout his presentation to make a point about “the Everywhere Library.” Starting off by challenging the audience and a virtual audience on Twitter to determine the origin of an artifact which he showed in his presentation, Cohen spoke of new media experiments with Twitter “reference work,” “crowdsourcing” to research information, and spoke of the variety of digital research tools becoming larger, as is the researcher community. In this environment, libraries cannot be islands. Instead, we must combine with other libraries and content providers to offer a wider variety of services and a wider spectrum of methods to access those services.

Cohen also feels that the “abundance” of digital information resources is starting to make some type of scholarship difficult. He introduced Zotero software as a way to help scholars organize and share personal collections. At the end of Cohen’s presentation, the audience’s heads were spinning from the variety of tools and approaches for working with digital collections!

The audience left this excellent symposium with a number of “springboard ideas” to utilize back at their own institutions:

  • Know your primary audience, but new or enthusiastic audiences may also be interested in and able to help you with your digital projects by supplying information and metadata from their realm of knowledge. We also must think of new ways to aid all of these burgeoning researchers.
  • Surveys, focus groups, and outreach efforts are an excellent way to learn more about our audiences and their needs.
  • An important role for cultural heritage professionals is to assist researchers and investigators in handling data sharing and lifecycle issues.
  • We must “look up and look out,” as Evans noted, to see the best practices of other communities—whether these are activities in digital creation, digital preservation, or copyright.
  • While the technology of digitization is important, we need to also pay attention to the social aspects and possibilities of working with worldwide partners in the digital environments.

Finally, to echo one of the audience members during a discussion period, we need to “be a part of the solution” to digital dilemmas by working with our constituents and communities in the digital world.