Karin Wittenborg - Future of Librarians Interview

Karin Wittenborg has been the University Librarian for the University of Virginia since 1993, at which point her library was just beginning to archive digital collections. Last year, the U. Va. Library partnered up with Google Book Search. But before the U. Va., various other libraries had opened up their stacks to be digitized by Google. Karin, why did Google need U.Va.?

We needed Google more than they needed us. Google will move our digital initiatives forward by leaps and bounds. We can focus our efforts on areas where we can add value to digital information, such as how to use digital texts in scholarship and teaching. We do offer Google some specific collection strengths such as American History, literature, and Buddhism.

I imagine Google Book Search will only speed up the process of creating "libraries without walls" so that more and more people can have access to U.Va.'s collections. But as the library becomes more accessible to people far away, how would you say digitization has affected the physical library spaces at U.Va.? Are we going to see more dramatic changes to U.Va.'s physical library space with the Google Book Search partnership?

Dramatic changes to our spaces were already well underway before the Google partnership. Students study in different ways today - they work in groups and like to be able to reconfigure spaces to meet their needs.

We have been building new spaces, refurbishing old spaces, and tackling the issue of balancing space for resources with space for teaching, research, and learning, all at the same time. For example, the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, our latest facility, opened in 2004. Less than a year later we re-opened the McGregor Room, which had formerly housed special collections and staff. We returned it to its role as a beautiful reading room and it immediately became one of the most popular places to study at the University.

The Google partnership will dramatically increase the number of digital texts we can make available to scholars, but it is not driving changes to our physical spaces. Students and faculty want digital resources, and we want to provide them. The Google partnership really helps with that. But they also want "analog" places to read quietly or learn together. So it's a matter of balancing both realities: collections that are increasingly digital, with physical spaces for study and community.

How is digitization changing the way people use U.Va.'s libraries, and how are the roles of U.Va. librarians changing?

Digital collections are making it possible for faculty and students to use our resources anytime and anywhere, regardless of whether they're in our buildings or not. That said, digital collections are driving more collaboration between our staff and the University's faculty and students. We're all working together to figure out how to use these resources in scholarship.

The library staff devotes more and more time to stewarding those digital resources. Our challenge is not only to build these collections, but also keep them easy to find and easy to use; not only right now, but far into the future. It's not really a change in our role, it's an extension of what we've always done, just with bigger and more varied collections than ever before.

What are the biggest challenges for libraries today?

Being open to change, rapid change. We need to be ready to serve the fast-changing needs and demands of today's - and tomorrow's - students and faculty. The comfortable, predictable routines are gone. The only routine now is change, and if you're going to survive, you need to learn how to thrive in it.

Based on your experience with U.Va.'s progress through the digital age thus far, what can you say about the future of libraries?

I'm excited about it. Libraries are uniquely positioned to help guide the use of digital collections in scholarship. We're in an era where the ability to create content is so great, and the need to understand it and know how to work with it is greater still. We also have the constant challenge of preserving content so scholars can use it effectively long after were gone.

Getting back to digitization, you've said that "Copyright laws designed for a world that was primarily print-based do not work well in the digital environment where a single copy of an electronic book can be available to a worldwide audience."

Still, both authors and publishers are currently suing Google. I understand that Google Book Search's indemnity clauses stop at a certain point. What are you doing - or what have you done - to minimize the risk of copyright lawsuits against the University of Virginia?

We are comfortable with the indemnity provisions in the agreement and more importantly, with both Google's and our own commitment to protect in-copyright materials from public display or dissemination. The legal agreement requires Google and the Library to comply with copyright law, and we are committed to doing just that.

Many see the Library 2.0 movement playing a big role in the future of libraries. As I understand it, Library 2.0 seems to mainly involve Web 2.0 technologies such as blogging, wiki's, rss, and a number of social networking tools. Is U.VA. doing Library 2.0? How so?

Finding out what students and faculty need from us is something we've always been eager to do. And we're used to change - in fact, we seek it out.

We have student and faculty advisory committees to advise us. Since 2006 we've been using blogs, wikis, and RSS feeds as new ways to engage our students and faculty about what resources are available, and what services we can offer or improve.

These tools are exciting. At the same time, there's still a need for human interaction, for face-to-face conversations between library staff and the audiences they serve. I always love to meet people. The part of new web technologies that delights me is that they're about making the web a more social, interactive place for sharing and discussion. In that way, these technologies are about making the web more like a real library.

How do digitization and U.Va.'s partnership with Google Book Search, fit into the Library 2.0 picture?

The partnership with Google vastly increases the amount of digital texts we can offer. We will go from being able to offer tens of thousands of digital texts to hundreds of thousands.

Having those texts discoverable on Google Book Search, along with the hundreds of thousands from other major research libraries will turbo-charge the use of those materials in scholarship. Scholarship means not only teaching, research, and learning, but conversation - online and offline - about those materials and what we can do with them together. I can't imagine anything more 2.0 than that.

Apart from digitization, what would you say is the single most important technology to libraries, now and in the future?

People.

Thanks so much for your time and thoughts, Karin! You can check out the U.Va.'s digital collections page to learn more about the University of Virginia's electronic library resources.

Customize Your Education