CARL Highlights

My weekend at the CARL conference was fantastic. I learned so much at each session I attended that I had to take a breather before going over my notes and trying to distill it all into something manageable and useful. Here are a couple of the highlights:

The first session I attended was Lesley Farmer’s talk on Assessment of Information Literacy. Lesley blazed through tons of information on assessment methods and technologies, but what I really appreciated about her talk was the way she kept stepping back to look at the mechanics of assessment with a global perspective. She drew on her experience teaching students in Hong Kong and working with international library groups to illustrate the importance of considering cultural differences throughout the assessment process. In addition to addressing the different backgrounds of the users we’re trying to reach with information literacy instruction, Lesley made a very quick but interesting point that appreciation skills improve learning. She cited studies that have found that when students engage with materials aesthetically they retain information better. So often we focus on the tools for getting the job done and fail to convey the satisfaction that learning and research can offer. How can we foster a real pleasure in learning for our students?

One way to ignite that spark in our students is by catching their imaginations. In Clifford Lynch’s plenary session, he suggested that the reason that the Google digitization project is so important is that it grabs the public’s imagination, awakening a dream of having access to all the world’s knowledge and the ability to interact with it. Now, clearly, the Google project isn’t going to provide all of this in a literal way, but digitization projects are making enormous amounts of information available. How will this massive glut of information affect the ways we understand knowledge and organize information? As much pre-copyright (pre-1923) material becomes publicly available, later materials remain privatized. If accessibility breeds use, what will the difference in materials freely available to the public vs. privatized materials mean for research and scholarship? As digital storage becomes cheaper and gets paired with improved personalization and search software, and computing becomes increasingly ubiquitous, what will knowledge really mean? If we can access any information anywhere at anytime, how will we define mastery of a subject? If factual information is always at our fingertips, how much do we really need to know, and how will we define scholarship? We traditionally conceptualize scholarship as a lone reader individually interacting with a single text or small group of texts, but as researchers face increasingly large bodies of information and scholarly activity relies on computing to process this information, how will our definition of scholarship change? In order to make use of huge amounts of information, we rely on computing to search texts and build connections between them. What is literature if it’s not simply something that we read, but something that we compute on?

Clifford cited the Perseus Digital Library as an example of the new direction scholarship might be heading, highlighting its explicitly collaborative and interactive nature. The value in a collection like the Perseus Project isn’t so much in the texts themselves, but in the enhancements users provide and the interaction around them. In this way, the collection becomes greater than the sum of its holdings. Clearly, there’s a lesson in this for academic libraries: it’s not just our collections that matter, but also the ways our users interact with those collections and with each other. Clifford described large-scale public digital collections as invitations for interaction with a large user base, reminding us that our users often have knowledge to contribute beyond the metadata we might provide. So, how do we tap into this knowledge and allow our users to share it without sacrificing our ability to organize the information?

Social computing seems to be the key here, but when do we absolutely need to have consistent information, and when is it ok to just take it as it comes from users? ISHUSH offers a very eloquent analysis of an analogy comparing user-created content to steak knives in a steak house—it’s scary to put editing or contribution tools in the hands of users, just like it’s frightening to hand a stranger a steak knife, but what good is it to serve someone a steak without a knife to cut it?

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