Through the Digital and Physical Gateway

Perspectives from a new librarian

Richard Mendola

For the past seven years, I’ve been serving as the Vice President of Information Technology at Emory. This past summer, I took on the additional role of interim vice provost and director of the Emory Libraries. 

Some might see these as radically different jobs; others might see great convergence in the two disciplines. From my own vantage point, I’ve tried to keep an open mind as I’ve moved from being a customer and spectator of our libraries to an insider. Over the last few months I’ve enjoyed climbing the learning curve of understanding all that goes on in the day-to-day operations of a modern university library. Although only a few months into the role, I thought I would use this as an opportunity to share my observations on what the future of our library may hold and how I believe we can position ourselves for that future in spite of what might seem to be a very resource-constrained environment. 

First, a little more context on my perspectives. I started my academic career as a faculty member in a school of medicine, where I taught, did research, and provided clinical care. In association with those academic pursuits, I also ran a consulting business focused on biostatistics and information technology. Eventually I decided to concentrate on the application of information technology in higher education. Moving between these pursuits left me with a high degree of comfort about change and an appreciation of the many different perspectives that one is likely to encounter in a large, complex university such as Emory. 

Imagining the future while staying grounded in the present

I’m thankful for that background as I consider all the vectors of change in higher education. There is much to be said for constantly imagining the future, as long as you don’t lose sight of present realities—and as long as you don’t become overconfident in your ability to prognosticate. It is hard these days not to get caught up in the optimism associated with the migration to all things digital. In our contemporary academic library this change may be most evident in our move to online journals. Since 2005, the percentage of journals that we provide in electronic form in our health sciences library has gone from under 20 percent to 99 percent. The change is less dramatic when you factor in all of the libraries at Emory, but the trend is clear.

In the rush to imagine all that might be possible in the digital future of libraries, however, it is all too easy to overshadow what still isn’t possible or may not be desirable. Many faculty and students do not prefer to read in a digital form, and some forms of scholarship simply aren’t possible with digital surrogates. If these realities are ignored, conflict is certain. Even if they are appreciated, zero-sum thinking can lead to antagonisms, positioning the spending on digital initiatives as money not spent on enhancing or extending the physical. 

In my view, digitization can be an end in itself, but it can also be a powerful gateway to our holdings and special collections. The Emory libraries contain amazing treasures, yet a relatively small percentage of scholars are able to access our material. Even within Emory, how many students and scholars are aware of the breadth of our holdings? The numbers in both cases may be arguable, but I’m confident we can increase them by doing a better job of highlighting what we have. And there is no doubt in my mind that more digital representations of our holdings can increase usage and the value we provide to the academic community. 

Online learning and open access 

The past year has brought much new activity as Emory seeks to better understand its position in the world of online learning. With the recent announcement of our participation in Coursera, Emory is now dipping its toes into the waters of what is likely to be a transformative shift in how the world thinks about higher education. As we consider what this means for the library, we are presented with a bit of a quandary. At this point, the library has little to offer the hundreds of thousands of students who may sign up for one of our Coursera offerings. Quite simply, our licensing agreements with publishers don’t allow us to offer most of what is in our library to students with no formal affiliation with Emory. Although our faculty will be able to put together courses without this access, there will be limits to what they can do, limits that do not exist with our residential students. 

Fortunately, we do have a project underway that might help in the longer term. OpenEmory is an open access repository of scholarly articles authored by members of the Emory faculty. The broader goal of OpenEmory is to make the scholarship of Emory’s faculty freely accessible everywhere. In the context of massive open online courses, it also provides the potential to utilize the scholarship of our faculty in meaningful ways with a far larger base of students. 

Creating synergies

As we think about ways to fund more digitization and open access, we must consider options beyond simply asking for more budget dollars. There are clear paths to greater efficiencies in our services. For example, a certain amount of collaboration has existed between Emory’s libraries and information technology organization for many years. The Emory Center for Interactive Teaching (ECIT) has been physically located in the library since its inception, and many of the academic technology staff in the Office of Information Technology have had offices in the library for many years. Despite these structures, we still segregate services based on physical location or the entity providing them. For example, why is it that a faculty member or student can’t walk into Cox Hall, the Woodruff Library’s Learning Commons, or Research Commons, the Woodruff Health Sciences Library, or Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching, and access a seamless set of services that cross the library and IT organizations? Shouldn’t a social scientist be able to enter any one of these locations for assistance with a new research project and connect with the multiple academic and administrative resources available? It reminds me of the fractured landscape of IT services that we have been working to bring together over the past seven years. From my new vantage point, that landscape has just become a bit wider, and I’m confident that the challenges ahead can provide great motivation towards building a more seamless set of library and IT services—and a campus infrastructure that engenders learning and discovery in all its forms.