Gutenberg 2.0 | Harvard’s Libraries Deal with Disruptive Change

Gutenberg 2.0 | Harvard Magazine May-Jun 2010.

Harvard’s libraries deal with disruptive change.

by Jonathan Shaw

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Nearly half of Harvard’s collection is housed at the Harvard Depository, a marvel of efficient off-campus storage. Library assistant Carl Wood reshelves books in the 30-foot-high, 200-foot-long stacks.

“Throw it in the charles,” one scientist recently suggested as a fitting end for Widener Library’s collection. The remark was outrageous—especially at an institution whose very name honors a gift of books—but it was pointed. Increasingly, in the scientific disciplines, information ranging from online journals to databases must be recent to be relevant, so Widener’s collection of books, its miles of stacks, can appear museum-like. Likewise, Google’s massive project to digitize all the books in the world will, by some accounts, cause research libraries to fade to irrelevance as mere warehouses for printed material. The skills that librarians have traditionally possessed seem devalued by the power of online search, and less sexy than a Google query launched from a mobile platform. “People want information ‘anytime, anyplace, anywhere,’” says Helen Shenton, the former head of collection care for the British Library who is now deputy director of the Harvard University Library. Users are changing—but so, too, are libraries. The future is clearly digital.

Isaac Kohane, director of the Countway Medical Library, sees librarians returning to a central role in medicine as curators of databases and as teachers of complex bioinformatics search techniques.

Yet if the format of the future is digital, the content remains data. And at its simplest, scholarship in any discipline is about gaining access to information and knowledge, says Peter Bol, Carswell professor of East Asian languages and civilizations. In fields such as botany or comparative zoology, researchers need historical examples of plant and animal life, so they build collections and cooperate with others who also have collections. “We can call that a museum of comparative zoology,” he says, “but it is a form of data collection.” If you study Chinese history, as Bol does, you need access to primary sources and to the record of scholarship on human history over time. You need books. But in physics or chemistry, where the research horizon is constantly advancing, much of the knowledge created in the past has very little relevance to current understanding. In that case, he says, “you want to be riding the crest of the tidal wave of information that is coming in right now. We all want access to information, and in some cases that will involve building collections; in others, it will mean renting access to information resources that will keep us current. In some cases, these services may be provided by a library, in others by a museum or even a website.”

Meanwhile, “Who has the most scientific knowledge of large-scale organization, collection, and access to information? Librarians,” says Bol. A librarian can take a book, put it somewhere, and then guarantee to find it again. “If you’ve got 16 million items,” he points out, “that’s a very big guarantee. We ought to be leveraging that expertise to deal with this new digital environment. That’s a vision of librarians as specialists in organizing and accessing and preserving information in multiple media forms, rather than as curators of collections of books, maps, or posters.”

Librarians as Information Brokers

Bol is particularly interested in the media form known as Google Book Search (GBS). The search-engine giant is systematically scanning books from libraries throughout the world in order to assemble an enormous, Internet-accessible digital library: at 12 million books, its collection is already three-quarters the size of Harvard’s. Soon it will be the largest library the world has ever known. Harvard has provided nearly a million public domain (pre-1923) books for the project; by participating, the University helped with the creation of a new tool (GBS) for locating books that is useful to people both at Harvard and around the world. And participation made the full text content of these books searchable and available to everyone in the United States for free.

GBS appeals to Bol and other scholars because it gives them quick and easy access to books that Harvard does not own (litigation over the non-public-domain works in GBS notwithstanding). For Bol, such a tool might be especially useful: Harvard acquires only 15,000 books from China each year, but he estimates that it ought to be collecting closer to 50,000. So GBS could be a boon to scholarship.

But GBS also raises all kinds of questions. If everything eventually is available at your fingertips, what will be the role of libraries and librarians?

Jonathan Shaw ’89 is managing editor of this magazine.