Tuesday, November 09, 2004

The Future of Theological Libraries

I was recently asked about the future of theological libraries, in particular, about the factors that will shape them in the future. The questioner suggested that the changes in scholarly publishing will greatly impact theological libraries. I agree that the future of scholarly publishing and the future of theological education are related and should be considered together, but ultimately, I think both are dependent variables. The independent variable, or the driver of change in both scholarly publishing and theological education is the digital culture in which we live. Even though much of what is published (at least in the field of religion) is published in a print format (at least for now), we live in a culture that is increasingly oriented around information in digital media. One of the impacts of the digital culture is that we consume information differently than we once did. And it isn't simply consumption of information. We perceive knowledge very differently than previous generations have. While information is still valued, perhaps more than ever before, I don't think the general populace recognizes any source of information as having the same authority it once had. We continue to hear our colleagues lamenting about the increasing reliance on "Google" as the information discovery tool of choice. I believe it's popularity is not simply because it is easy and convenient. It is, perhaps even more importantly, because the books held in our libraries aren't recognized to hold the same authority they once did. The information sources found via Google are considered to hold value, if not equal to the books in our collection, at least "good enough."

In addition, as I've said before, we have moved from a scarcity of information to an abundance of information. In the early history of theological libraries in North America, it is clear that libraries' primary collection development challenge was in finding enough books. Some seminaries and theology schools sent librarians and faculty members to Europe (admittedly a somewhat narrow scope) in search of books to add to the library's collection because there simply weren't enough being published in North America. Today my biggest challenge is to find money to buy all (or at least more) of the books and journals that are being published that really ought to be added to the library's collection.

I've previously suggested that James J. O'Donnell is right in suggesting that librarians need to shift from role of training library users to discover information to a role of helping library users filter out the information they need not look at. I think the issue is even more serious than that. I've recently returned from a meeting of the Index Advisory Committee for ATLA (Oct 28-29). During the meeting, I was increasingly aware that the very premise of the index (ATLA RDB) is built on a model for organizing information that isn't scaleable. The models for indexing and cataloging that form the framework for how we construct such information discovery tools is based around the intellectual work of a scholar/authority. That model worked well when the volume of published information to be indexed/catalogued was reasonably stable. Even ignoring those publications that are born and exist only in digital format, the volume of information being published in print format is beyond what we can index/catalogue without increasing the number of indexers/catalogers. Ultimately, the personnel costs force us to accept a new title for indexing only when we are able to eliminate an existing title. Tweaks to the workflow simply function as bandaids. They don't address the real problem that the model of scholar/authority based indexing/cataloging is not sustainable when the volume of information increases.

If this is the case, we need to develop a new model for indexing/cataloging (and perhaps information discovery) that doesn't put the authority/scholar in a situation of becoming a bottleneck. Certainly automated indexing needs to be explored. Those who have looked at it say it isn't ready for "prime-time." I wonder if the issue is that it isn't capable of emulating the same kind of indexing that is generated by human indexers (using authority terms, thesauri, etc.) Certainly, automated indexing seems to be employed by the Internet search engines. But it uses a very different model for organizing information. It doesn't assume to create authorized headings and search terms. And admittedly, we end up with 10,000 hits. If the information discovery session was iterative, however, allowing the search engine to guide one in eliminating the unwanted information, or, more positively, retrieving the desired information, the lack of authorized headings might be less significant.

I've recently been reading in the area of emergence theory. At the root of the theory is the belief that groups of organisms self-organize. Whether they be ants, slime mold, cities, or other groups of people, left to their own devices, they organize in a manner that enables them to communicate and function as a collective organism. I've wondered about information. Does it have some self-organizing ability? If so, what would it look like?

I've also looked at alternate models for the organization of information. The wikipedia model is an interesting one. The wikipedia is being created not by a hierarchical structure of editors and scholars, but a much more egalitarian model of volunteers. I read a recent article written by a scholar who has contributed to traditionally published encyclopedias. As an experiment, he added entries to wikipedia with inaccuracies in them to see if they would be corrected. He was surprised to discover that within days the corrections were made. It would be interesting to do a quality comparison between wikipedia and a more traditionally published encyclopedia.

Well, I've rambled and ended up far away from theological education and theological libraries. Perhaps next time I'll be a little more disciplined.