As Washington and Lee begins the search for a new library director, the provost asked each of the librarians if they wanted to present a short talk to the search committee as part of an information session on The 21st Century Library. Each of us had the opportunity to give a short presentation about “your work in the library, or the way your own part of the library functions, or where your part of the library is heading in the future.” Since the majority of my current work as Associate University Librarian is teaching and coordinating the Digital Culture and Information (DCI) minor, I focused on that. Actually, one of the essential functions in my job description is listed as “Collaborates with colleagues on the integration of the library’s research services with the Digital Culture and Information academic program in order to create a comprehensive approach to the library’s engagement with the curriculum of the College and theWilliams School.” I’m sharing in this post, my basic thoughts on what a new director should know about the role of the DCI program in the library.
I want to preface this with a clarification about the library. As a librarian, I don’t think of the library as a building. The library is a concept. The library is an organization that offers a set of services. Among those services are space and collections. But the most important are people and what we do with our time and energy.
As the Associate University Librarian, the focus of my work changes every few years depending upon which library priorities need advancing. For now, my focus is on coordinating the Digital Culture and Information minor (DCI). My particular charge as AUL is to focus on the integration of the DCI minor with the library’s research services in order to create a comprehensive approach to the library’s engagement with the curriculum of the College and the Williams School. As some of you know, the DCI minor grew out of our Mellon DH grant but DCI is not just a digital humanities minor. In fact, out of the six students who have declared the DCI minor, only 2 are humanities majors. The others are accounting, business administration, journalism, and politics.
One of the lessons we learned early on in developing our DH initiative is that we cannot simply take what works at another institution, particularly a larger university, and just try to replicate that here at a small liberal arts college. Even what works at, say, Davidson or Hamilton might not work at Washington and Lee. Just as that’s true for DH, it’s also true for many aspects of the library.
What’s relevant for this discussion is that DCI is based in the academic department that is the library. We are doing something very different at W&L. In a way, one can say that we already are creating the library of the 21st century. I know of no other library that manages an academic program such as a minor. In fact, none of our peer institutions even have a minor like DCI. Since the University Librarian serves as chair of the library faculty, the library director needs to understand how the DCI minor fits into what we do as librarians.
We all live and work in a digital culture. It’s unavoidable. In my courses I ask students how old they will be in the middle of the century, the year 2050. Some of them stumble in doing the math. You see them doing 2050 minus 2019 plus 19. Oh, hey, 50. Others get it very quickly. For our students it always has been the 21st century. I tell them that at 50 that they will still be a functional member of society. They look at me skeptically. But the emphasis is that their generation gets to define the 21st century; they get to create the industries, the technologies and the culture of this century. They will raise children that will live into the 22nd century. What we do, all of us, has an impact long after we are gone and forgotten.
Even though I am very much of a technologist, I’m a librarian. So, today I’m not really going to discuss the digital culture part of DCI but focus on the information aspect. All of us that you will hear from today bring different sets of expertise to our profession. We love to learn. We love to help others learn. Together, as a library faculty, we offer an educational experience that helps students build intellectual connections across disciplines. As librarians we’re not only teaching students how to search for information. We’re helping students develop the mental models for understanding information: how information is structured, how to explore the information landscapes of different disciplines, and how to go about understanding the world of information after college when life is not segmented into academic departments.
Over the last 6 years, the library has solidified its digital expertise. In fact, we now have the digital expertise among librarians that is comparable to that at an R1 institution. (I can state that for fact since I was the associate director of the library at an R1 institution.) And we need to continue to nurture our digital expertise. But what also needs emphasis is the matter in which we as librarians connect with students and faculty. A particular challenge for the library is that we need to rebuild our strength in information and research services. This becomes a critical challenge with the upcoming retirement of our senior reference librarian, who actually is our only full-time reference librarian.
We need to have a lot of conversations about what students and faculty need from the specific skill set and expertise we offer. Those conversations need to happen with our colleagues in Leyburn Library: Academic Technologies and CARPE. And also with our colleagues in the law library. As we look for new leadership, we need to make sure that it comes with an understanding of a small liberal arts college. We have the opportunity to help students in a personalized, handcrafted manner. We need to figure out our path for the next decade and beyond.