Friday, March 20, 2009

Branches of Branches of The One Big Library

Well it took just over three years, but I can now say with much conviction that I am a believer of One Big Library. (It just goes to show you that I'm not that swift but I am persistent.)

One Big Library is the notion that "there are many different kinds of libraries (public, academic, school, national, medical, special) but really there's just One Big Library with branches all over the world". Unlike the phrase "Library 2.0", the idea of One Big Library (and its credo "help people build their own libraries") lends itself as a means to understand where we are and in what direction we should be heading. As one commenter put it, the phrase is pregnant with possibilities.

One Big Library is a useful directive that has taken my thinking well beyond the obvious mandate of helping our users get the books and articles they need onto their netbooks.

It happened when I was thinking about branch libraries and I thought of my own experiences with them. I attended McGill's Graduate School of Library & Information Science back in the day when they not only had the word Library in their name but when they even had their very own library to support the school. But that was for a few short months until McGill decided to cut costs and integrate the school's library collection into the larger Humanities and Social Sciences Library.

After leaving McGill, I was lucky enough to find employment at the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library. Some time after a short summer contract in its systems department, I worked part time in the library's periodical department. Some of the librarians I worked with spoke wistfully of a time when Reference Library was organized by subject - sciences, humanities, social sciences, business - and each discipline had their own periodical section, book collection, and reference staff who only answered questions in that discipline. But in order to cut costs, most of these specialized sections became absorbed into one collection that was reorganized by format: books in one area and periodicals in another.

Lesson learned? Separate branches mean redundancy in staffing and, frequently duplication in library materials. A library is only a growing organism if its regularly fed. Otherwise, its going to be absorbed by another library.

But this lesson only applies to physical libraries. These constraints largely don't matter in the digital realm.

For example, I work at the Leddy Library which collections for all subjects taught at The University of Windsor, except for Law which is served by its own library. While the physical collection is separated by format (books in the main building, serials in the west building), the digital Leddy Library is additionally organized by subject. Some of these subject pages feature links to indexes, key reference works, important journals in the field, contact information for the librarian subject specialist -- subject pages are starting to resemble a digital branch library for that subject.

Other libraries, such as The University of Rochester, are using an even finer degree of granularity : they are organizing their digital library resources by individual course. One course = one library.

Let's break it down even further. What if we could dynamically present our users with a subset of library resources - books, reference works, articles, journals, bibliographies, literature reviews - for every subject query that they ask of us? Isn't that what we really want a "discovery layer" to do for us? To create an instant library of potential resources for our users?

When I first considered Dan Chudnov's introduction to One Big Library, I had difficulty reconciling it with pre-Internet librarianship. But, three years later, I then realized that the digital realm not only makes One Big Library possible, it makes it inevitable.


charlotte said...

This is very interesting and I was with you most of the way through. I really like the one big library and was thinking of how ILL has changed for instance to make that more of a reality.

I am still trying to wrap my head around discovery layers. Would they be creating subject guides automatically? would we want that? I am assuming that faculty and staff could contribute to them. What kind of library staff and over site would this require? Would we lose some aspect of interdisciplinary studies? What about serendipity?

I am excited by the potential and possibilities of this but have some questions too:)

Mita said...

On reflection, my post would have been much stronger if had I spent more time illustrating the fractal pattern of the digital library branch :

Library => Science branch => Biology branch => Ecology branch => Food web branch => Pond life => ... => the personal library of a researcher investigating the food web of a particular pond

(This reminds me: Dan Chudnov used fractals as a means to express how his brain handles a google search)

But I admit I got distracted by the idea that the results of an the ideal search system should return you a "library of results" ==> something that demonstrates care in the selection of possible research sources and directions.

I'm also trying to wrap my brain around discovery layers. More questions about them is definitely a good thing!