Wednesday, November 24, 2010

counter trends in a digital world

I enjoy the continuous churn of the digital world. I like change and evolution in the information landscape and exploring new digital media. I am a huge advocate for the library's role as a guide in that changing landscape.

However, I wonder, as the world goes more digital, is there a counter-trend role for the library? With the world around it changing in favor of digital media, could it be that our printed collections and our expertise in printed media become that much more important?

I'm often intrigued by niche industries that defy a bigger trend by going back and doing something retro, generally in a high quality way. Economies of scale say that goods like beer and coffee can be mass produced cheaply, yet I see hundreds of examples of small scale producers of these products using artisan methods thriving, especially here in the Northwest. There has been a resurgence of vinyl recordings sold recently. You could argue that liberal arts colleges fit this model also.

I do think there are a few print-centric roles that libraries will continue to play as the world shifts more digital. First, the transition to digital is and will be messy and fragmented. We'll continue to maintain materials in print that you can't get digitally anywhere and we may be especially appreciated for doing so. At times when media change fast, we maintain the ability to access and preserve those out-of-favor formats.

In a liberal arts curriculum, print culture will continue to be an important aspect of the humanities. Faculty will want their students to encounter texts in their original form and many will ask their students to study media in their native form from earlier times. Library print collections, especially special collections will be a laboratory for doing so. For example, one of our English professors is working closely with our Special Collections to expose her students to the kind of letterpress printing done by Virgina Woolf's Hogarth Press in the 1920s.

We're fortunate enough to host the Berberis Press out of our special collections, a small press that does poetry broadsides and occasional publications. The Berberis press has done collaborations between poetry and graphic design courses, in which the design students create broadsides for the student poets. We've also begun tapping into EM-space, a Portland based book arts center. This will enable the Berberis press to do some cool letter press printing projects. The book arts is a great way that the library can creatively support arts and literature. It's also a great creative outlet for staff.

Strong connections to the culture of books is key. The University of Puget Sound Library put on a book collecting contest for students to: "encourage undergraduate students at Puget Sound to read for enjoyment and to develop personal libraries throughout their lives, to appreciate the special qualities of printed or illustrated works, and to read, research and preserve the collected works for pleasure and scholarship." I'm reminded of the thriving world of book collecting almost everyday as I receive a beautiful catalog from a rare book dealer intended for my predecessor, Jim Kopp.

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