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“Living Digital, The Future of Information and the Role of the Library:” ALCTS Symposium

Boston, MA While ALA Midwinter Conference organizers geared up for their semi-annual meeting at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center,  the Association for Library Collections and Technical Services (ALCTS) members and guests held a one-day symposium ( sponsored by Sun Microsystems to dig into pressing issues facing libraries as they seek to leverage digital access strategies and vast stores of information to sustain and grow their operations into the future. The day consisted of four plenary talks given by Margaret Ashido, project director for the Empire State STEM Education Initiative; Kevin Guthrie, president of ITHAKA; John Palfrey, Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law and Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School and; John P. Wilkin, the Associate University Librarian for Library Information Technology at University of Michigan, and Executive Director of the HathiTrust accompanied by panel discussions and break-out sessions.
The following are overviews of two sessions:
Margaret Ashida is the project director for the Empire State STEM Education Initiative at RPI ( She began the Symposium by offering observations about how STEM education could be more appealing to students in the emerging “Knowledge Economy,” and the need for what she called “T-shaped people” in STEM disciplines who combined emapathy+skills. Ashida, formerly an IBM executive, believes that a “progressive dialog” among all STEM education stakeholders to come up with educational design principles that advance transformation is required to increase the expected small number of 166,000 US STEM grads by 2011.
She believes that the pace of educational change will increase going forward and sees three trends that will impact the way that STEM educators and STEM students will deliver and access knowledge:
1. Lifelong learning–people will be perpetual students from “twinkle to wrinkle,” and will need access to online systems that will allow them to continually learn new subjects and skills
2. Collaborative innovation, rather than individual achievement for the greater good, for organizations and for businesses will be the way societal issues are addressed.
3. Cross-cultural adaptabiliy and empathy coupled with broad thinking with regard to problem solving will characterize successful leaders.

In his presentation Kevin Guthrie, president, Ithaka (, posed the question, “When Books are Bytes What Adds Value?” He began by stating that his perspective was as someone in the community who is not directly associated with a library. Ithaka focuses on acting as a catalyst for transforming scholarship as paper goes digital with three related services Ithaka S+R, JSTOR, and Portico.
Guthrie said, “Originally universities thought they would make money on digitization strategies.” Over time he has seen commerce being drawn into the academy. Scholarly communication is no longer separate from the information marketplace and economic models are in transition.
Guthrie deconstructed the video rental services business model as a comparison. The general trend has seen an existing physical infrastructure–rental stores and warehouses–evolve to a service layer on top of physical infrastructure.
Video rental services eventually jumped delivery fences to become video on demand as technical infrastructure advanced in support of consumer demand. The physical infrastructure became less important. Guthrie sees an emerging model where “physicality collapses.” Netflix provides excellent customer services in spite of having an investment in physical content which is an issue that they have in common with libraries. Could a solution strategy similar to the Netflix model hold true for libraries?
Netflix continues to build and hone customer services. The company culture empowers individuals and their teams. Guthrie sees possibilities for growth and success in facing these kinds of shifts in infrastucture with increased and specialized library services.
For libraries it is no longer about the numbers of volumes in collections and the size of buildings. The movement of content onto the wire has meant that libraries must compete to serve their customers that include faculty members. Libraries have done this with journals that have made a successful transition to digital.
The value of moving books around in libraries is going down as books become bits.  Guthrie reminded the audience, “Books are not specialized to the academy like journals are. Books are influenced by the commercial marketplace.”
What about when everyone has a book reader? Guthrie says that the market advantage will go to scale. This could be facilitated by consolidation of some knowledge organizations such as university presses.
What remains local? There is a tension to be managed between serving your institution versus a broader audience when there is no real technical barrier to serving the entire world. How do you match the constituencies who pay with the constituencies you serve? Universities do not, generally, serve the world because the costs for content development, aquisition and preservation are primarily borne locally.
Guthrie concluded by noting that when scholarship is enabled by high-speed communication and sharing of unbiquitous content then there will be transformation in the knowledge creation process with specialized services leading the way for libraries of the future.
Presentations are available here: Blog posts about the symposium from Jenny Levine, “The Shifted Librarian” are available here: