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16 May 2007 / erikduval

Learning and Libraries

The links between learning and libraries are … interesting.

My university has built a Really Nice new science library: an absolutely spectacular building with state of the art technology and one of the richest collections in the Low Countries. Yet … I never go there. Neither do my colleagues. Nor my students. Why would we? All our material is available on-line. If it isn’t, it kind of doesn’t exist.

On the digital library front, I am co-organizing a workshop on attention metadata at the Joint Conference on Digital Libraries on June 23: this is about leveraging rich usage data, something libraries, digital and analog alike, barely do. (Why don’t they inform me when someone is downloading my papers? Referring to my papers? Why don’t they alert me to papers I will probably want to know about?)

And then, I am part of the program committee for the Workshop on “Cross-Media and Personalized Learning Applications on top of Digital Libraries” that focuses on the link between digital libraries and learning applications. Submission deadline is June 11!

This is an area that is very much in flux: the conservative reflex with many librarians is easy to understand but they really risk “perfecting the irrelevant”, as my friend Wayne Hodgins would say.



Leave a Comment
  1. Erik / May 25 2007 11:38 pm
  2. Matt Finn / Jul 23 2007 3:18 am

    Dear Professor,
    If you haven’t gone to visit your university’s new library, how do you know for certain there is nothting there that might be of interest to you? Have you spoken with the librarians about your concerns and about the services you’re intersted in? How do you know they won’t be happy hear what you have to say?
    It’s kind of like a person whose only chosen form of exercise is running outdoors saying that there is absolutely no use for a new gymnasium on campus. Well, from his perspective, perhaps this may be true (although he might want to consider mixing his running with other complementary fitness activities to avoid injury), but from the perspective of other individuals who may need and value the new gymnasium and the professionals who work there the gym is a boon. For this person, the new building offers much needed equipment, services and advice.
    You and your colleagues may share the idea that what isn’t online “kind of doesn’t exist” while, on the contrary, other professionals you may not be aware of (especially since you are so reticent to venture from your workplace to a place where other professionals can be found, such as a university library) might share an opposing view.
    Please try to share your concerns with the librarians on campus before blasting them for not providing services no-one may have expressed interest in as yet. If you express that interest, perhaps things will change.
    Best regards,

  3. Erik / Jul 24 2007 12:04 am

    Thanks, Matt, for the comments… (BTW, no need to call me “professor”: I feel old enough as it is. Erik is just fine 🙂 )

    Just to respond to your questions: I actually have gone to the library. I just no longer go there. And I do talk to librarians. Often. I even get invited by them so occasionally 😉 Some get angry with me and some see the new developments as an opportunity to redefine what they do and how they provide value. And I travel the world to meet “other professionals” and “meet” many of them here as well, on the web!

    Still, thanks for the comments: hope this channel also counts as a way to “express my interest” – I do understand you have just expressed yours!

    You may also be interested in some of the discussion at At least some of the comments resonate with mine: “Undergraduates entering universities in the United States use the library as a study space, a socializing space, but to a shocking and frightening extent, they do not use library services or library materials. […] We’re losing clientele; students may come in the library to study, to socialize, to hit the newly installed cafe designed to lure them in, but they’re not using library materials, or library services, at anything like the rate they did even ten years ago.”…

  4. Matt Finn / Jul 24 2007 1:22 am

    Dank je wel, Erik!

    I’m glad you have actually taken the time to work with the librarians at your university, and I’m saddened by the fact that they can’t keep pace with what you are asking for. I haven’t read your link yet, but I shall.

    Your comments, however, remind me of those of a friend of mine who does research at New York University. When discussing libraries, he said, “I never use the library, I just use J-Stor.” Well, firstly, I do believe he’s probably missing a lot of information by limiting himself to one online data collection, not to mention by spurning all the data that hasn’t yet been digitized. But my question to him was, who manages your subscription to J-Stor and who makes sure you have end-user access on your desktop? Hmmm….that would be, it turns out, the university library.

    Yes, the library is not a storehouse of books, but a group of professionals who manage a collection of “for-pay” information, be it online or otherwise, based on the needs of a given user population. At NYU, they survey their user base to find out what they need, negotiate the contract and try to make sure the users who need the service are getting it. This work is so transparent that my friend didn’t even realize he was indeed using the library until it was pointed out to him that by using the for-pay version of J-Stor, he was in fact taking advantage of a library service. Full-time professors had been surveyed and my friend is a graduate research assistant, so he wasn’t aware of the process.

    In my case, as a current graduate student in education at Long Island University, I read an article just a couple of weeks ago on educational objectives. The bibliography (the old media version of “links”) mentioned an article that looked interesting to me. It was written in 1971 and only an abstract could be found online (typical of online records from that era) so I tracked it down at my university library in its original form in a small educational publication.

    Not only was the article of interest for my research, but its bibliography also provided links that led me toward some revelatory reading. If I’d stopped cold just because the article hadn’t been available online in full text format, I wouldn’t have known what the article had to say nor would I currently be reading Whitehead, an educational philosopher whose work strikes me as prescient and relevant even today, though the work I’m reading was published in 1929.

    All this makes me wonder: are we entering a sort of new “dark age” where we simply jettison the key learnings of the past merely because they are in a format that requires a small of amount of effort to find or understand? I refer to what I once learned, years ago, in a survey of art history class, where many of the sculptural and architectural techniques which had reached celestial heights in the Greco-Roman age were forgotten, largely because no-one could read Latin or Attic Greek anymore. Architects and sculptors spent the next few centuries re-learning what had been “lost”. The professor showed us visible evidence of this in art and architecture through time.

    I greatly value what technology can do to get us the information we need, but just because something is on paper doesn’t make it useless or non-existent.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond to my comments. I really do appreciate it.

    Best Regards,


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