Eric Lease Morgan - Future of Librarians Interview

Eric Lease Morgan blogs at Tech Essence, LITA and is the creator of the Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts. Still, he considers himself to be a librarian first, and a comupter person second. Could you tell us some more about your background and what you do?

Well, my goal is to discover new ways to use computers to provide better library services. For most of my career I have worked in larger academic libraries where I have developed tools to: 1) automatically collect, organize, index, and disseminate electronic serials 2) create personalized interfaces to library websites and 3) implement various parts of the traditional reference interview.

Presently, I work at the University Libraries of Notre Dame were I lead a small team of people who deal primarily with the website: systems administration, information architecture, usability, graphic design, content maintenance, some technical support, etc.

Now let's pretend for a minute that you were not involved in libraries. How do you personally use the library? How do you search for and access information in general?

I use libraries to browse for pretty books. Really. Walking up and down the aisles is fun. Believe it or not, after I retire I see myself volunteering at a library as a shelver.

My "information needs" are often met by using the Internet. Computer code. Search algorithms. Compare and contrast of technologies. When I get books I usually get them from books stores, new and used. Librarians don't like me in this regard because I write in my books, big time. I call it "adding value" but many people don't see it that way. I do what most other people do. I use Google. I listen to mailing lists. I read blogs and the professional literature.

What is the role of technology in the future of libraries?

The role of technology in the future of libraries is increasingly central and will only increase. I believe libraries are about the collection, acquisition, organization, preservation, and re-dissemination of data, information, and knowledge. As more and more data, information, and knowledge manifests itself digitally the only way to manage it will be through digital means. This entails databases, indexers, search interfaces, HTTP servers, programming, etc. A boom in digital information can only mean a boom for librarianship, as long as you see librarianship being about the things inside books, not necessarily the books themselves. Technology is not the role of libraries; it is a role.

If you had to choose, what would you say is the single most important technology to the evolution of libraries?

XML. It's a simple and elegant way of turning data into information. Through mark-up, similar to MARC, it places facts in context. It transforms 1776 from an integer into a year and the word Twain into an author. XML is the technological root of the "social web". Think blogs and RSS. Think websites and XHTML. Increasingly we see Web Services as the means for computers and applications to communicate with each other which means send a URL, and get back a stream of XML.

XML allows librarians to create archival finding aid using EAD. XML allows librarians to analyze electronic texts using TEI. XML allows librarians to describe library holdings in a format easily read by the larger world using MARCXML or MODS. Librarians can describe entire collections of content using METS. Z39.50 is slowly being supplanted by other search protocols such as OpenSearch and SRU, both rooted in XML.

How is technology changing physical library space?

Again, people's expectations are changing. Cell phones and other wireless technologies are not limiting where people connect with information. Moreover, the ability to save such huge amounts of information on tiny devices such as memory sticks and iPods makes me wonder about the role of library as warehouse of information. How will libraries change when everybody owns the collection?

Library as a place is still very important. It is a location where learning pervades. It is a sort of scholarly cathedral. Here at Notre Dame students use the library to study, and they do it in droves.

For readers unfamiliar with it, could you briefly explain your idea for a "Next Generation" Library catalog?

In a sentence, my idea for a "next generation" library catalog is two-fold: 1) it expands its scope to include more than metadata, and 2) it enhances its interface to include services beyond search and display.

Traditionally speaking, library catalogs are/were specific types of indexes. They were lists authors, titles, and subject terms pointing to the location of books through call numbers. For the most part, the content of the venerable library catalog was limited to the things a library physically owned. As licensed material increasingly became available, the scope of the catalog included content that libraries had access to or had paid for. Unfortunately, this model does not work very well in a globally networked environment. If you assume the use of existing methods, there is more content available than librarians can add and maintain in their catalogs.

At the same time, people's expectations regarding the discovery and use of information has significantly changed. Enter a few words. Get back a relevancy ranked list. Click an item. Get the content. Library catalogs do not work this way. There are many options for completing a form. The results lists are not ranked. After clicking on items you don't get the thing but rather a surrogate record.

The idea of a "next generation" library catalog addresses these changes. If it were up to me the scope of the catalogue would include the full-text of journal articles and books (or at least their metadata pointing to permanent URLs where the full text is located), images, sounds, movies, data sets, computer programs, etc. The search interface would be Google-like. One box. One button. Search results would embody a bit of "smarts". Did you mean? Too many, try this search. Too few, try this one. Limit by format, genre, date, and audience -- a.k.a. faceted browsing. After a bit of interaction the search interface would get to know you like a reference librarian does. It could remember you and your preferences. It could make recommendations. It could send you emails and allow you to blog against it.

My idea of a "next generation" library catalog is not really a catalog at all. Instead, it is more like a tool - a library research helper - supplementing the functionality of librarians in a networked environment.

How would it change the role of librarians?

If a librarian's role is defined by the processes they fulfill, then there is little change. On the other hand, if a librarian's role is defined by tools they use and skills they require, then the role changes significantly.

Now, more than ever, there are opportunities for librarians who are interested in collecting, acquiring, organizing, preserving, and disseminating content to meet the needs of library clientele. There are still the needs to define the scope and allocate resources for collections. There are still the needs to bring those materials locally and organize them in ways useful to patrons. There are still needs to make the content accessible for long periods of time. There are still needs to interact with patrons and help them make the most sense of the content.

On the other hand, if the role of librarians is to look through publisher catalogs, fill out order records, create MARC data, re-bind old books, and provide bibliographic instruction lessons, then the future is limited. Carpenters build houses. Their essential tool is the hammer, but carpenters are not "hammer specialists". They are builders. Similarly, a surgeon knows their scalpel, but they are healers. In my opinion it is a mistake to associate a profession with its tools. Instead, associate professions with the goals they help accomplish.

Do you see something like this being implemented currently?

When it comes to institutions, such as librarianship, change happens slowly. We are seeing some changes, and some of it is not happening in our profession. A number of years ago "human computer interaction" (HCI) was a big topic. Nowadays this has morphed into usability. 20 years ago the "information retrieval" (IR) community was developing free-text indexes and relevancy ranking algorithms. This has changed into the academic "digital library" community represented by the JCDL and ECDL annual conferences. "Bibliographic instructions" has become "information literacy". Search interfaces to some library catalogs are becoming simpler, more browsable, and a bit smarter. Some of them are even visual. Again, change happens slowly, very slowly.

What is the purpose of your book database, The Alex Catalogue of Electronic Text?

Alex is my own library. It is a collection just less than 14,000 "classic" etexts in the area of American and English literature as well as Western philosophy. The vast majority of the texts come from Project Gutenberg, but for a long time the texts came from defunct collections such as Wiretap and Eris Etexts of Virginia Tech.

I use Alex to put into practice some of the things I see available technologically. Presently it supports the full-text, relevancy ranked searching. Depending on other types of search and number of results, it suggests alternative searches, alternative spellings, and synonyms. It has a web interface, but it also supports SRU and OAI.

The really big goal of the Catalogue is to illustrate and demonstrate a concept I call "arscience", a type of thinking that is both analytic and synthetic. It is intuitive as well as systematic. It is art and science both at the same time. Many things can be approached arsciently. I approach my personal making of books this way. I approach my origami this way. I approach my music this way. I approach librarianship in this way.

So what is the biggest challenge to librarians today?

The biggest challenge is the development of additional skills in librarians. There is a need for more computer-related skills. No, everybody does not need to know how to write a computer program, but it does behoove us to learn how to draw entity relationship diagrams.

It behooves us to have a better understanding of indexing technologies (Databases and indexers are two sides of the same information retrieval coin. Databases are great at maintaining content but they are terrible for searching. Indexers are not very good at data maintenance but great at search. The second biggest challenge is learning how to embrace, exploit, and ride the tide of the Internet. Let's not become like the railroad moguls of the 1800s. It is not about trains (books), it is about transportation (data, information, and knowledge).

What is librarians' greatest advantage, despite the increasing ease of access to information by anybody?

Librarians' greatest advantage is the fact that many of the things people are creating now are or were created by librarians in the past. Metadata is a great example. We just called it controlled vocabularies, authority lists, and cataloging. We understand that everybody's information needs are different, yet similar. This is manifesting itself in services against data. We understand the value of long-term access - preservation. We are passionate about these things and have learned how to address these issues in an analog environment.

Thanks you so much for taking the time to share your experiences and insight with us today. You can read more from Eric on the blogs Tech Essence and LITA.



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