The presentations at the Library of Congress’ Collections As Data conference coalesced into two main themes: 1) digital collections are composed of data that can be acquired, processed and displayed in countless scientific and creative ways and 2) we should always be aware and respectful that data is manipulated by — and derived from — people.
School libraries are no longer simply quiet places for students to study or check out printed materials. Many have transformed themselves into vibrant hubs of school life, boasting makerspaces, computer access, collaborative work areas, quiet zones, and many more ways for students to access information. Students are now using a variety of devices to do schoolwork and access textbooks or other class materials. To help meet their needs, librarians are scrambling to curate effective digital collections accessible through a variety of devices, but it’s a complicated and often expensive task.
“Every outgoing senior class is vastly different from every incoming freshman class,” said New Canaan High School librarian Michelle Luhtala in an edWeb webinar. “When we look at our collections, are we ready for that shift? Every year is a different cohort.”
Shifts in student population and usage patterns, in addition to a quickly changing media landscape, make the school librarian’s job difficult (if the school even has a librarian). While the e-book market is growing, it’s not yet clear how it will play out in schools where educators have diverse needs for books. Some e-books can only be licensed for a limited amount of time to schools, which might be a good thing if schools are constantly changing curriculum, but also means the school doesn’t own the book outright.
“It is still the Wild West,” Luhtala said. “Things are changing before our very eyes. That’s exciting and fascinating, but it requires a lot of attention and knowledge and it can be confusing.” In the past, Luhtala might have ordered seven print copies of a new book, now she’s ordering four print books, two e-books and an audiobook to offer various avenues for students. But it might cost $200 extra for that diversity of formats.
“My administrators have no idea that we don’t pay the same for an ebook as they do on Amazon,” Luhtala said. A book that costs a consumer $39 might cost a school $150, in part because if the school will own the ebook in perpetuity, many more people will read it than one consumer.
And school librarians aren’t just stocking library catalogues, they’re also ordering books for courses and supporting teachers with resources. Increasingly digital access to books is part of classroom instruction. At New Canaan, students read Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeedby Jared Diamond every year at the same time. That’s difficult for Luhtala because that particular e-book title used to only be accessible under a year-long license, even though her students are only using it for a few weeks. That money has to be spent again the following year.
Why do societies fail? With lessons from the Norse of Iron Age Greenland, deforested Easter Island and present-day Montana, Jared Diamond talks about the signs that collapse is near, and how — if we see it in time — we can prevent it.
DIGITAL COLLECTION CHANGES
The many ways schools use titles make it difficult for publishers to figure out pricing. Plus, they’re concerned about losing control over the intellectual property they’ve worked hard to create.
“One of the great moves that we’re seeing is that some publishers are realizing that for the same title they need to offer single user, multi user and limited licensing,” said Randal Heise, co-owner of Mackin Educational Resources. Heise’s company aggregates digital content on a platform that schools use for easy access. His company is a middleman between the needs of educators and the business interests of publishers. They worked with publishers to offer an ebook sale, for example.
“The biggest fear, and the reason the publishers didn’t just jump into the ebook world, is the infrastructure wasn’t there,” Heise said. “They’ve come into this world begrudgingly.” That’s why their recognition how schools use books — and the necessity of various forms of licensing — is a step in the right direction.
Another possible new development that hasn’t fully been fleshed out is the “classroom license,” which would give access to a book for six to nine months, during the school year. “The classroom license is really an exciting possibility,” Heise said, although he acknowledged that right now there are a lot issues with how to keep track of such licenses.
“If you could buy access to material for three months that you could use with your students for four-to-five dollars per student, those are some economies of scale,” Heise said. “I think it’s going to take some time for people to wrap their heads around it on both sides of the industry.”
This shifting landscape might lead educators to disavow digital collections completely and stick to paper books. But Luhtala doesn’t think it’s fair to give students only one way into the library’s collection. Worse, she worries it might turn them off if they can’t access their reading in ways that are most natural to them.
“We really want the kids to have as many avenues as possible to the collection and have the most seamless entry,” Luhtala said. “They should be able to be instructed about all of those options and have the ability to make that choice.”
Many librarians see the digital collection as an inevitability and are working to make publishers aware of their needs. A new advocacy organization called Transform Your School Library has even begun serving as an intermediary between educators and publishers. Heise helped start the organization.
“Tell us what you want,” Heise said. “Tell us where you’re going. Tell us what’s not working for you. The whole industry gets better when we get better. We’re sort of the little engine that could.”
Structuring a database is not an easy task. During this year of work, we have faced many challenges that have required from us great intellectual efforts and reflection. Nevertheless, I have heard from “digital humanists” and programmers that because we have a software developer, we are not making the database, that someone is doing it for us. The underlying argument is that we need knowledge on basic principle of programming such as HTML and CSS to claim authorship in the making-process. Having that programming skills today is helpful. However, that our participation on programming is limited does not mean we are not the main creators of the database. This blog shows some of the main challenges that make us -the historians- crucial for this type of project and it is, in part, an answer to technocratic point of views on the relationship historians and software developers.
First, the concept of the project –databasing baptismal records–, is ours. This project is not something that anyone could have imagined without the proper historical training. You need to know about sources, their internal logic, the institutions that produced them, paleography, and other language skills. It is important to decide the fields that can be extracted from the sources without violating the integrity of the documents. We have to respect historical concepts and to know that their meanings changed over time. We decided how to organize the fields in a coherent and hierarchical way. We need to translate our needs to programmers without historical training. We, historians, are the most important actor. Thus, HTML and CSS play a minor role to conceive the idea. The developing part is crucial, but should not be confused with the first step. This assertion is true for those cases where social scientists rely on programmers to materialize their projects.
We had important elements in our advantage when we started this project. First, the digitized copies of the original documents are available online. The project “Ecclesiastical & Secular Sources for Slaves Societies” (ESSSS) has digitized and posted online the parish records from Colombia, Brazil, Cuba, and Florida. Without this amazing repository, our database would have been impossible. These baptismal records are geographically, linguistically, and temporally diverse but, due to the centralized nature of the Catholic church, they are also homogeneous sources, regardless of language, period, and region. This circumstance makes them the perfect candidate to build a transnational standardized database. It makes also doable to move the data from the digitized documents to an accessible, searchable, malleable, and “cleaner” digital format. It sounds easier than it is though.
Defining the categories or fields that will be in the search tool is definitely challenging. Even when the documents are homogeneous, there is often new information showing up we need to decide if it deserves an individual field or not. Databases must have a limited universe of regular fields to make them functional. We restricted our variables to those that regularly appear in the documents and those which do not show up frequently are included in the field “Miscellaneous.” Deciding the fields is not the only challenge. Naming the fields is another difficult step. Take the example of race and ethnicity. Categories, language, and meanings of race differ over time and by region. For instance, the are sometime equatable categories of race from the Portuguese and from the Spanish-speaking world. Anglo-speaking regions have had different definition of race. In both cases, race categories are subjected to change over time. We do not want to violate the documents, thus, we kept race as it appears in the sources, including the original language. Something similar happens with African ethnic designations in the Americas. Across different regions, African origins are defined in every document as nations. We keep the term “nation” as it appears in the document, although sometimes these categories do not represent and ethnic identity that carried meaning in an African context. These decisions resulted after long discussions and after reading the most important historiography on the topic. There is always a great space for disagreement. The next post will discuss how we structured the fields in a relational diagram.
Higher education is going through a well-documented digital revolution. Colleges and universities are awash in data. Accelerated learning “bootcamps” challenge the supremacy of the establishment. But as it turns out, it just might be higher education’s digital sidekicks that have the potential to unmask — and transform — higher education’s greatest challenge. Read More
Academic libraries today invest in scholarly communication in a variety of ways, pursuing an array of objectives and taking on a variety of roles. The variety of objectives that academic libraries have for scholarly communications is to some degree a reflection of the different levels of engagement and prioritization that their parent universities have on these issues. Continue reading →