Monday, April 3, 2017

Virtual Stacks?

Isn't that a cool picture? I love the digital, technological representation of the library in this picture, books made of tiny pixels, sharp and glowing as the rows lead down the hallway and into the light. In a way, this is quite an apt concept of the library throughout time. As the student wanders through the rows, their knowledge increases and they step into the light of learning. Isn't this all the more accurate with the added bonus of the virtual library?

This week's chapter of A Companion to Digital Literary Studies is Chapter 29, "The Virtual Library" by G. Sayeed Choudbury and David Seaman. Choudbury and Seaman highlight the vast amount of resources that we now have at our disposal, thanks the the internet, so that anyone interested in learning is welcome to learn. Libraries now have access to the digital copies of books that they might have only dreamed of having access to in the past. We have scans of magazines at periodicals at our fingertips that date back long before the internet was a far-off dream. A student in a tiny school in Western, P.A. can have access to a multitude of works that might totally shape their field of interest, or bring them into a new world. Stepping away from academia, children around the world need only find a computer and they can learn anything-- we are no longer bound by the physical.

This also ties in nicely to my readings on digital humanities because the people who make these books available are digital humanists. The books available online were once painstakingly typed, letter by letter, by a person who wanted to catalog them online for future learners. That is an incredibly selfless, and incredibly tedious, task to take on.

So, why do it? Why bother?  

We bother because books are important and the internet is where the future is going. If we want history recorded and accessible, if we want to make the use of the tools we have, it's our responsibility to keep the virtual library in existence as a living, breathing organism.

This chapter was written 9 years ago, and it's interesting to see how much things have changed in 9 years. Choudbury and Seaman speak about the prevalence of online journals, and they have grown even more prevalent as the years have gone on. Now, if a scholar wants a relevant article written, they publish articles, and they certainly make their books available online. Much as we all love (and should preserve) traditional libraries, the traditional building simply cannot hold the vast amount of knowledge that is being produced every day by scholars with the world at their fingertips. 

Freely available collections are another novel idea to the virtual library. Although copyright laws complicate matters, many works have become legally available online. Within a few clicks, anyone, anywhere in the world, can have any information that they need. Even if the book is within copyright and cannot be obtained online, we now have applications like Google Books which allows one to search, locate, and obtain the book in a matter of minutes. 
The library tends to keep up with such developments and is a natural and willing partner with the humanities departments as they explore the possibilities such tools have for data mining and the display of results. Add to these software packages the blogs, wikis, and virtual communities that are being adopted, the digital tools for collaborative scholarship, for innovative ways of interrogating text, and for new teaching possibilities, and it is not difficult to see increasing potential for transformative change in the way that literary scholars research, publish, and teach.
Although I am fully in support of the idea of "the library as laboratory," I have learned that there a specific way in which this should be achieved. In sitting in a session during THATcampDC with a group of librarians, I came to understand that just as the digital world is changing, the perception of the librarians role must change as well. Librarians must be equipped with the skill set and help that they need in order to move the library along with the times. Enough librarians must be hired to help in all aspects of the virtual library, and this requires a restructuring of skills and strength. 

It is no longer acceptable for the humanities to be considered "data poor," but it's up to the humanists to change this perception. As Choudbury and Seaman note, "the humanities are rich with content that is difficult to extract into digital form." This becomes all the more notable if you consider that the humanist's "data" has been uncharted for all of history. We have generations of data to work with and the sooner we start, the better.
As for literary studies, the "traditional" form of publishing — the monograph — influenced the way in which research has been conducted and conveyed. With new avenues for publishing, it is possible, even probable, that humanists will begin to explore new forms of research and dissemination.
The natural flow of life is going digital. Shouldn't we follow in it's path? 

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