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Library will be fine under proper custodian

Peter Jeffery | Monday, April 12, 2010

I wouldn’t say that our library’s future “hangs in limbo,” for I believe the University leadership and faculty see the issues with greater clarity than “Future of Library hangs in limbo” (Sarah Mervosh, April 9) implies. Everyone supports Fr. Jenkins’ aim to “become a premier research university” and “make ourselves a strong candidate for membership in the American Association of Universities” — and most of us realize that the Library is the area where the most work needs to be done. That will require a very substantial increase in funding as well as visionary leadership. But while every library director must be an excellent manager of both money and people, the most important credential we should be looking for is proven research experience: As at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Chicago, Stanford, Johns Hopkins and other leading universities, our next University Librarian should have at least one graduate degree in a humanistic or social science field, in addition to any degrees and publications in Library Science. That is necessary to ensure that the coming library upgrades will be managed by someone who knows from experience how researchers use libraries and what a world-class research library looks like.

Librarians differ just as libraries do, but the key priority for us is research. In public libraries the emphasis is on circulation, but research libraries need to balance circulation with its opposite: the preservation of legacy materials. In the same way, research librarians understand that the voracious and legitimate demand for ever more undergraduate study space cannot be allowed to consume the perennial need for researcher access to books, journals, manuscripts, audio-visual materials, microforms, specialized computers and materials located in other libraries around the world. If we try to compete with Barnes & Noble in providing cute coffee bars and comfy couches, we are certain to lose.

Again, everyone wants our library to have the best technology it can get. But we are not a community college, where, as I know from teaching in one, instructional technology must be a higher priority than research. At other colleges where I’ve taught, before coming to Notre Dame, I have seen the destruction that ensues when enthusiasm for technology is permitted to upstage research needs. Privileging delivery over content inevitably degrades content, as in the old techie saying, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Weak content is not ennobled by passing through impressive machinery. The idea that everything will soon be on the Internet is appealing, but even if the technology is almost there, many human factors will prevent it from being fully implemented. Financial: No one can afford the man-hours for scanning, the bandwidth or the server space, which is why some of the best-funded databases have already disappeared. Intellectual property: just ask Google’s lawyers. Linguistic: Only the most important minority of the world’s 8000 ancient and modern languages are fully computer-ready. Cultural: Outside of the U.S., many librarians and archivists frankly do not want their unique material to be freely accessible on the web — they often rank preservation and profit potential above circulation. But any librarian who is truly qualified to build a world-class research library at Notre Dame will understand the limits as well as the promises of new technologies, and will realize that printed and handwritten books, obsolete media technologies and plain old-fashioned shelf space will continue to be indispensable. With technology, the only really intimidating issue is how to pay for it.

Since most Notre Dame professors and administrators already realize what I’ve said here, I don’t think it is accurate to present the library’s future as problematic or riven by controversy. What we need is conceptually simple, even though getting it will require diligent effort by many people: Since how we grow our library will be the most important factor in achieving the President’s goal of becoming an internationally prominent research university, the way forward is to hire the same kind of University Librarian that almost every top-level research university has:  one with graduate-level training in the kind of advanced research that university libraries exist for.


Peter Jeffery

Michale P. Grace Professor of Medieval Studies

April 10